Whispers

Tuesday, March 24, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

County Judge Eckhardt staying put for now

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt confirmed Monday that, despite her official resignation, she will not be stepping down anytime soon. During a press call about the shelter-in-place order that will be officially announced today, Eckhardt said she could not have foreseen the events that have transpired since she stepped down March 10 to run for the Texas Senate. She explained that she had spoken with her presumptive replacement, former/current County Judge Sam Biscoe. “He very graciously said, I will hold off on swearing in so you can continue in as a holdover during this crisis,” said Eckhardt. More on this topic is expected at today’s meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court. As a result of the organizational reshuffling that has taken place in recent weeks to accommodate increasingly stringent regulations on public activity, Gov. Greg Abbott has postponed the special election for state Sen. Kirk Watson’s seat. The election is currently scheduled for July 14.


Tuesday, March 24, 2020 by Tai Moses

HD 136 initiative provides emergency food aid

The offices of District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan and Texas state Rep. John Bucy are partnering with Hill Country Community Ministries on an initiative to provide assistance to seniors over 60 and disabled people of any age in House District 136 “who are homebound or otherwise have urgent food access needs in light of the coronavirus pandemic.” The HD 136 Neighbor to Neighbor Seniors Food & Wellness Program is now seeking volunteers to help with outreach, food packaging or delivery, or to donate supplies. Find out more about volunteering here. Sign up for emergency food assistance here.


Tuesday, March 24, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Travis County Commissioners Court will take place virtually

Even in the shadow of a shelter-in-place order and encouragement from municipal government to work from home, the Travis County Commissioners Court will still hold its session on March 24. As usual, the meeting will be aired on public access channel 17 but this week, all participants will be virtual with the exception of County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who will preside over the meeting in the Commissioners Courtroom on Lavaca Street. The Texas Open Meetings Act requires the presiding officer of the governmental body to be physically present at a meeting held by videoconference call. There will also be a live online stream to access the meeting. Though the meeting will begin at 9 a.m., commissioners will not take general public comment. All public comments at the March 24 meeting must pertain to an item on the agenda, Travis County Public Information Officer Hector Nieto told the Austin Monitor. General citizen communication, he said, is an optional agenda item. Citizens who would like to sign up for an agenda item will need to do so by dialing in on the phone and waiting in the telephonic queue. To speak on an agenda item, individuals should call (866) 393-8749 and enter the following meeting ID: 149-100-895. “As we continue to adjust our daily lives for COVID-19, it is imperative we also adjust your local government,” said Nieto in a release. He told the Monitor, “We will continue to do it this way until further notice.”


Tuesday, March 24, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Some residential inspections to use live video

In response to dangers posed by COVID-19 to those participating in inspections, Development Services Director Denise Lucas temporarily suspended inspections of occupied residential properties last week. According to a memo from Lucas, the suspension allows her staff to evaluate how they can modify their services while observing social distancing. Beginning this week, Lucas wrote, “We will begin performing inspections of occupied residential facilities, together with our customers, using live video connections (such as FaceTime/Skype/Teams). We are hopeful that this option serves the needs of all our customers, given the prevalence of video-capable mobile devices.” Inspectors will reach out to affected customers to begin scheduling inspections if customers are willing to use remote options. The new regimen will apply primarily to equipment replacements, including heaters, HVAC units, interior remodeling and additions to residences. The change will not apply to unoccupied structures or commercial structures, she wrote. For the latest on DSD’s efforts to keep working during a time of crisis, check out the department website.


Tuesday, March 24, 2020 by Tai Moses

NHCD operations go remote

The Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department joins other city departments this week in modifying its practices in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. NHCD staff will be now be working remotely at least until Monday, March 30. Despite the closure of its physical office, department business will proceed as usual. According to a city press release, “Clients are encouraged to continue to engage NHCD staff by phone or electronically; materials or documentation that cannot be submitted electronically should be sent via regular postal mail (Street Jones Building, 1000 East 11th Street), as staff are not in the office to receive documents in person.” Contact the department at (512) 974-3100 or email NHCD@austintexas.gov for more information.


Monday, March 23, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Abbott postpones runoffs to July 14

On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott postponed Democratic and Republican primary runoff elections from May 26 to July 14 in response to the emergency created by the COVID-19 outbreak. His decision followed the filing of a lawsuit by the Texas Democratic Party seeking to force the governor to allow all voters to participate in voting by mailing in their ballots. Under Texas law under normal conditions, only people over 65 and those with disabilities are allowed to cast their votes by mail. Republican runoffs include the race between Jennifer Fleck and Justin Berry, who are seeking their party’s nomination to run against House District 47 State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, a Democrat. On the Democratic side, local races of interest include the contest between Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore and her challenger, José Garza, and the race between Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Assistant County Attorney Laurie Eiserloh to become Travis County Attorney. Statewide, Democrats will choose between MJ Hager and Royce West to take on Republican Sen. John Cornyn.


Monday, March 23, 2020 by Tai Moses

Answer ADRN’s ‘coronavirus challenge’

Got any extra hand sanitizer? How about that tub of antibacterial soap that’s been sitting on the shelf? Austin Disaster Relief Network has issued a “coronavirus challenge” in an effort to get some desperately needed medical supplies into the right hands. Please consider donating “your extra supplies of personal protection goods to the medical and emergency community, to give back to them in their time of need.” Drop off your extra supplies at the back dock of ADRN Headquarters/HOPE Family Thrift Store now through Saturday, March 28, from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ADRN is looking for the following items:

  • Hand sanitizer (of all sizes)
  • Antibacterial Soap
  • N95 masks
  • Surgical masks
  • Industrial masks (N-95 or Dust)
  • Disinfectant wipes
  • Latex-free gloves
  • Eye protection goggles/glasses (NEW)
  • Face shields (NEW)
  • Protective gowns (water resistant)
  • Disposable food-grade gloves
  • Thermometers (NEW only), old style or new style, especially non-contact version

Monday, March 23, 2020 by Tai Moses

Small businesses may apply for federal disaster loans

Veronica Briseño, director of the city’s Economic Development Department, announced in a news conference Saturday that small businesses, nonprofits, homeowners and renters in Austin and Travis County suffering financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic may now apply for Disaster Assistance Loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Small businesses and private nonprofits are eligible for loans of up to $2 million to pay “fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that cannot be paid because of the disaster’s impact.” City Manager Spencer Cronk said in a news release that city staff “worked closely with county and state administrators, as well as our elected officials, to secure this resource for our community. We are excited that local small businesses and nonprofits have another source of relief from the economic impacts of this pandemic, and we are continuing to evaluate other sources of support to respond to the needs of our local businesses and their employees.” City Council is also considering an additional emergency program providing loans of up $35,000 in “gap financing” for businesses in the city waiting for their SBA loans. “We recognize that our small businesses are hurting at this time and we realize that’s there’s more solutions that need to come,” Briseño said. Find applications and information about SBA eligibility requirements at disasterloan.sba.gov.

 

 

 

 


Monday, March 23, 2020 by Tai Moses

First city/county COVID-19 testing site opens

On Saturday, the city and county opened their first COVID-19 testing site, one of 11 such sites, thanks to a public-private partnership between Austin Public Health and St. David’s, Ascension Seton, UT Health Austin (Dell Medical School) and Baylor Scott & White. According to a report on KUT.org, “The city says there is a big gap between the number of tests available and the number of people seeking a test, so sites will prioritize individuals who are sent by referral and have an appointment. Priority will be given to individuals with specific symptoms and risk factors such as travel, close contact with confirmed cases, or underlying health conditions.” KXAN reported that 50 tests were conducted the first day at the site, whose location has not been disclosed in order to protect the privacy of patients.


Monday, March 23, 2020 by Tai Moses

Casar releases bilingual resource guide

Council Member Greg Casar and his staff have compiled a comprehensive, coronavirus-related resource guide for the public that includes information and resources about health care, social distancing guidelines, emergency orders, testing, food banks and groceries, housing, utilities, employment and much more. Casar’s office will be updating the document regularly to keep it as accurate, so it should be considered a living document. Read the resource guide in English here, and in Spanish here.


Friday, March 20, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Moody Foundation pledges $1M to local COVID-19 efforts

The Moody Foundation announced Thursday it has made an initial $1 million commitment to Austin-area relief efforts. According to a press release from the foundation, those funds will go to AGE of Central Texas; Catholic Charities: Angels of Hope; Central Texas Food Bank; El Buen Samaritano; Foundation Communities; Hope Food Pantry Austin; LifeWorks Street Outreach; Meals on Wheels Central Texas; Mobile Loaves & Fishes; SAFE Alliance; Salvation Army Shelter; Sunrise Community Church; and Trinity Center. “We knew we had to do whatever we could to help our local community get back on its feet,” said trustee Elizabeth Moody. “We’re hoping this gift will provide a helping hand for our friends during this difficult time.”

 

 


Friday, March 20, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin Transportation to facilitate food pickups

In an effort to improve safe access to curbside pickup, the city’s Transportation Department is installing temporary pickup zones for restaurants that have made the now-required shift away from dine-in service to take-out and delivery. A press release from the city explains, “Austin Transportation has begun converting some paid on-street parking spaces near restaurants into free temporary loading zones to make room for more people to pick up food while practicing appropriate social distancing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.” At the moment, the city has concentrated its efforts on areas with high concentrations of restaurants that lack loading space. As of Thursday there were about 50 loading zones on the interactive map created by the city. In person, zones are marked with blue and white signs that read “Food Pick-Up Priority.” Restaurants can request a pickup zone by filling out an online contact form at SmartMobilityATX.com.


Friday, March 20, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Bandcamp holding COVID-19 fundraiser today

Given the cancellation of SXSW, the calling off of tours and the shuttering of venues across the city, this has been an especially rough time for musicians. As National Public Radio has reported, Bandcamp will be forgoing its share of Friday sales, making this an easy and safe way to support local musicians directly. In a letter directly to would-be listeners, Bandcamp CEO and co-founder Ethan Diamond writes, “It may sound simple, but the best way to help artists is with your direct financial support, and we hope you’ll join us on Friday and through the coming months as we work to support artists in this challenging time.” Buy an album or two from your favorite band.


Thursday, March 19, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Abbott calls July 14 election for Senate seat

Late Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation for a special election on July 14 to fill the seat being vacated by longtime Austin Sen. Kirk Watson, who is resigning to become the first dean of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. Although the election for Texas Senate District 14 would normally have been called for May 2, after issuing an emergency declaration to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, the governor was able to suspend some provisions of the state election code to allow the election to be held later. According to Abbott’s press release, the governor is consulting with the secretary of state about “additional strategies to ensure public health in relation to any upcoming election” and is authorized to “suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute prescribing the procedures for conduct of state business” if complying with the rules would “prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in regards to a disaster declaration.” So far, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt have said they are running for the seat Watson is vacating. Council Member Greg Casar has also expressed interest, but when contacted Monday before Abbott called the July election, Casar said he was devoting all of his time and energy to helping Austinites impacted by the pandemic. Candidates for the Senate position may file for the office starting April 29, with a deadline of May 13. If Casar decides to run, he will need to tell his colleagues he is resigning so they can set a date for a special election sometime before the November uniform election date, according to City Clerk Jannette Goodall.


Thursday, March 19, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Municipal courts close until March 30

All Austin Municipal Court locations are closed, with the expectation that they will reopen on March 30. According to the city’s website, “The decision is made in an effort limit the number of individuals gathering in a confined space to reduce the risks to public health.” However, people can still contact the court through phone and email to get information and, potentially, handle their cases. “All individuals are encouraged to call or email the Court in lieu of making personal appearances to take care of their court business. This includes requesting civil parking hearings by email.” As of now, all court dockets are cancelled, with cases to be rescheduled after May 8; notices of new court dates will be mailed. In addition, all due dates are now extended until May 8.


Thursday, March 19, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin Regional Clinic implements new protocol

Austin Regional Clinic has launched a hotline and new safety protocols in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Clinic staff will now meet patients at the entrance of the clinics to screen for coronavirus symptoms and determine how check-in will proceed. Those who have symptoms, or have been in contact with someone who does, will be asked to return to their vehicle or another spot away from other patients until they can be escorted to an exam room. This process is intended to limit risks to others, as is a policy of limiting visitors to one per patient and discouraging visits unless necessary. More information and an informative video can be found on the ARC site. Call 866-453-4525 for the 24/7 hotline and to learn about treatment options.


Thursday, March 19, 2020 by Tai Moses

Aquifer district adjusts operations

The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has closed to the public until further notice in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to protect the public and staff members and stem the spread of the virus, the district has implemented a number of operational changes. Staff will work from home until at least April 17, and calls will be accepted remotely on weekdays between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. The district “will otherwise continue to conduct business and continue to fulfill its mission to the best of its ability during these changed operations.”

 


Wednesday, March 18, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Central Health opens COVID-19 hotline for uninsured residents

Central Health has launched a COVID-19 hotline at (512) 978-8775 for uninsured Travis County residents and CommUnityCare Texas patients experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. The hotline is available from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., though those hours may be expanded in the future. Medical professionals will be staffing the phones in order to triage uninsured callers in an effort to prevent them from going directly to a clinic, urgent care or the emergency department. The Health Authority recommends that those with questions about the coronavirus call the hotline established by Ascension Texas at 1-(833)-919-1680, which is available from 6 a.m.-midnight. The hotline is staffed by registered nurses who have up-to-date information to guide patients to the most appropriate and effective care options. Central Health notes that non-U.S. citizens and non-U.S. permanent residents will not have their path to citizenship impacted by the test, as “COVID-19-related testing, treatment or preventive care is not included in the new public charge test.”


Wednesday, March 18, 2020 by Tai Moses

FCC pledge keeping Americans connected

With all the things we have to worry about these days, here’s one less thing for us to worry about: our Wi-Fi and telephone connections. On Friday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai introduced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge in an effort to ensure that no one loses their broadband or telephone connectivity, even as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts the social fabric in so many other ways. Telecommunications companies large and small stepped up to the plate to answer Pai’s request to take the 60-day pledge, including Sprint, AT&T, Comcast, T-Mobile, Verizon and a host of others. In addition to pledging not to terminate service to any residential or small business customer because of their inability to pay their bills, the companies also pledged to waive late fees and open Wi-Fi hot spots “to any American who needs them.” Read the FCC news release about the pledge.

 


Wednesday, March 18, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

UT switches to online instruction

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Texas announced Tuesday that all spring semester instruction will be moved online, starting March 30. In addition, a letter from UT President Greg Fenves asks students not to return to campus this semester “unless there is a specific need.” Fenves continues, “This decision today will create new challenges for many of our students, specifically regarding the completion of courses and credit (especially for students intending to graduate this year), housing, the retrieval of personal items from university residence halls and access to technology away from campus. Our goal is for all students to complete the courses they are registered for during the spring 2020 semester.” According to the letter, support staff working on the transition to online instruction, aiding with student housing and working in critical areas of public safety, IT support and the like will continue their work. In addition, according to the letter, “Some research – including efforts specifically related to COVID-19 – will continue, with social distancing procedures put into place in laboratories. All lab directors will make localized decisions about whether to maintain operations and are preparing shutdown procedures in case that is needed. Undergraduates will no longer participate in research in person. Graduate students may opt out of lab work at their discretion.” A decision has not yet been made concerning May commencement.


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