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Abbott calls on Texans to help limit spread of coronavirus

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AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott on April 1 posted an online video message seeking Texans’ individual and collective help to reduce the spread of the deadly new coronavirus, COVID-19.

In the message, Abbott requires all Texans to stay home unless they are participating in an essential service or activity, such as going to a grocery store. "Now I know this is a great sacrifice and we must respond to this challenge with strength and with resolve. By following social distancing practices, we will slow the spread of COVID-19. We will save lives. And we will make it through this challenge together. Thank you and God bless you all," he said. 

On April 3, Abbott joined other high-ranking state officials in a news conference, saying that hospital bed availability in Texas had increased by more than 140% since March 18. Every Texan who needs a hospital bed will have access to one, Abbott said.

On April 4, Abbott called Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and discussed the importance of adhering to federal guidelines to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Abbott talked about "a uniform standard among Texans" to stay home unless performing an essential service or activity as well as other actions the state of Texas has taken to combat the virus. The two also discussed the trajectory of COVID-19 in Texas, the importance of continued social distancing through April 30 and the expansion of COVID-19 testing in Texas. 

Abbott issued earlier executive orders to:

—Expand hospital bed capacity, directing all licensed health care professionals and facilities to postpone all surgeries and procedures that are not immediately, medically necessary to correct a serious medical condition or to preserve the life of a patient;

—Suspend regulations to allow for increased occupancy of hospital rooms;

—Suspend regulations to increase the number of emergency medical services personnel;

—Require hospitals to submit daily reports of hospital bed capacity to the Texas Department of State Health Services; and

—Waive certain hospital licensing rules.

On March 29, Abbott announced a joint effort of the state, the Texas Military Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to identify and equip additional locations to serve as health care facilities if hospital capacity is exhausted. Abbott announced the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas as the first of such sites.

According to figures posted by the state health department at noon on April 5, some 6,182 people in Texas had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 127 deaths resulting from the disease had been confirmed.

Revenue increases in March

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on April 2 announced state sales tax revenue totaled $2.69 billion in March, 2.9% more than the amount reported in March 2019.

The modest growth in state sales tax revenue was led by collections from the retail trade sector, while collections from oil- and gas-related sectors declined from a year ago, Hegar said.

"While some businesses may have begun to experience slowing traffic in late February, formal social distancing measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic were not adopted until well into March and the impact of those measures would not be reflected in this month’s sales tax collections based on February sales,” he said.

Hegar added that he expects future sales tax revenue would be "drastically affected because much of the economy has been shut down to combat the coronavirus pandemic and because of the negative impact of a global oil price war."

Worshippers get consideration

Gov. Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton on April 1 issued joint guidance regarding the effect of Abbott’s Executive Order GA-14 on religious services.  

Under the order, houses of worship must, whenever possible, conduct their activities from

home or through remote audio or video services. 

“For example,” according to the official guidance, “a church may hold Easter services in its parking lot, with attendees remaining in their cars (windows down), parked in every other parking spot, with the minister using amplification to preach. Or because Executive Order GA 14 permits drive-thrus to operate, then a house of worship may, according to their faith practices, provide communion or a blessing through a similar drive-up service. Or pastors with smaller congregations may consider conducting multiple services of 10 people or fewer in their sanctuaries, so long as they maintain appropriate social distancing, properly sanitize the building between each service, and provide hand sanitizer.”

“All Texans must work together to stop the spread of COVID-19 and houses of worship face a particular challenge as we work to combat this pandemic,” said Paxton. “This guidance provides clear direction for houses of worship to protect the health and safety of Texans as they continue to hold religious services, exercise their religious liberty and serve their faith communities.”  

Unemployment ‘bot’ debuts

The Texas Workforce Commission on April 1 announced its launch of an automated virtual assistant to help answer Texans' questions on the unemployment insurance process and relieve pressure on the agency relating to the steep increase in unemployment claims as the COVID-19 crisis accelerates.

The artificial intelligence-enabled chatbot named “Larry” can instantly answer many of the most common questions about the process, the agency said.