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Texas gov. says National Guard could monitor virus testing

AUSTIN

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday said the National Guard could begin monitoring drive-in testing sites on Monday and prodded the federal government to do more to help states secure more tests and medical supplies to fight the spreading coronavirus outbreak.

The Republican declined at a news conference to follow the lead of other states with a statewide “shelter in place” order. But he warned Texans that it could be coming if they don’t heed his previous orders on Friday that limited social gatherings to under 10 people, closed schools, bars and gyms and banned dine-in eating at restaurants.

“Stricter standards will be taken,” if necessary, Abbott said. “If you don’t have an essential reason for leaving your home, you should not be leaving your home.”

The announcement came as the Texas Department of State Health Services reported 334 people statewide have tested positive for the virus, up from 304 on Saturday, and officials in Dallas said a man in his 80s has become the sixth Texas with the disease to die.

Four new cases were announced in Galveston County on Sunday, bringing the local total up to 12.

The vast majority of people who contract the virus recover within weeks. It causes only mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but it can lead to more severe illness, including pneumonia, especially in older adults and people with preexisting health problems.

Abbott did not dissuade big-city mayors in Dallas, Houston and Austin from issuing a shelter-in-place order if they think that is best. He said local authorities have the power to enforce stricter standards than he has so far, and noted that more than 200 counties haven’t had a reported positive coronavirus test.

In the hours after Abbott’s address, no local cities or municipalities immediately moved to issue local sheltering orders.

A local order will at least be a topic of discussion in coming days, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said.

“At the recommendation of the local health authority, we will be speaking with all the jurisdictions in the county tomorrow to review the situation and discuss potential future actions,” Henry said in a statement.

Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough echoed Abbott’s statements about leaving homes and said there were no immediate pending plans for stay-at-home orders on the island. But city officials are discussing what those plans would look like if they were needed, he said.

“If you have no critical place you absolutely need to be, you need to be in your home away from others,” Yarbrough said. “Should compliance with the governor’s orders and suggestions be lax, the City of Galveston is prepared along with the state to take more drastic measures to ensure we are doing all we can to slow the spread of the COVID19 virus.”

The mayors of Dickinson, League City, Santa Fe and Texas City all also said they did not have immediate plans to issue shelter-in-place orders.

On Sunday, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued an order telling residents to shelter in their homes except for “essential activities.” The order also prohibits gatherings beyond a single household and commands non-essential businesses to cease operation outside of people working from home. It takes effect at 11:59 p.m. Monday and will remain in place until the same time on April 3.

Abbott previously told the National Guard to get ready and said Sunday they can help local officials set up medical tents, reboot previously closed hospitals and medical facilities or monitor the traffic at drive-thru testing sites that are sprouting up the state’s major cities.

He said Texas shares the frustration of other states regarding the the federal government’s slow response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The governor also urged the federal government to ramp up production of personal protection equipment. He said the state has tried but can’t deliver quickly enough.

“We’ve tried strategies,” Abbott said. “And the delivery date’s in July. That’s not going to work. We need delivery dates tomorrow. The next day. And we have ready money to pay for anybody who can sell (personal protection equipment) to us. We’ll cut you a check on the spot.”

Abbott also announced new measures to free up hospital resources to address the pandemic. He said that he issued executive orders to allow hospitals to treat two patient in a room, rather than one, and directing health care workers to postpone all “elective or non-essential” medical procedures.

John Wayne Ferguson contributed to this report


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One Galveston trolley returns after more than a decade

GALVESTON

Galveston residents might have seen an iconic sight coming down the street last week.

About 12 years after Hurricane Ike damaged Galveston’s rail trolleys, one has finally returned to the island, repaired and ready for testing.

Return of the trolleys has been an elusive promise, bordering on island myth, for more than a decade. But even as the first car finally returns home, some island leaders and taxpayers have raised questions about the cost to operate it.

The trolley pulled into town last week after undergoing extensive repairs since 2017 at the Iowa-based Gomaco Trolley Co.

The company also is repairing two other trolley cars damaged during Hurricane Ike in 2008. The city expects the second to be delivered in about eight weeks and the third delivered eight weeks after that, city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.

People shouldn’t expect to be able to ride the trolley right away. Testing should take about 30 days, Barnett said.

The rail trolleys are geared specifically toward tourists. In 2017, the city decked out several buses to look like trolley cars, which have served as the tourist transportation while the trolleys underwent repair.

Running the trolley should cost about $456,000, about 10.9 percent of the city’s $4.19 million public transit expenses, according to city records.

The city is in communication with the Federal Transit Administration about the potential for additional funding, Barnett said.

The cost of running the trolleys has been a point of public discussion for years, but the city accepted federal money to run the trolley before Hurricane Ike. If Galveston doesn’t revive its trolley system, the city will be required to return about $8 million to the federal government, city officials have said.

The trolleys are paid for through a $2.15 million slice of hotel occupancy tax revenue, which also pays for Mardi Gras, police service on the seawall and some historic preservation, according to city records.

Hotel occupancy tax is a 15-cent tax assessed on every dollar for the price of overnight stays in Galveston in hotel rooms and short-term rental properties. A portion of the money goes to the state, and the rest stays on the island to be used for attracting more overnight visitors.

The city collected $5.9 million in hotel tax revenue in 2019, according to city records.

The city plans to test the trolleys despite planned reconstruction of 25th Street from Broadway to Seawall Boulevard, Barnett said.

“The tracks will not be moved or changed during the project,” Barnett said. “We will work with the contractor on trolley access.”

The city is still finalizing the trolley’s route with the state and federal governments, Barnett said, adding that the city shouldn’t have to hire any new people to run the trolleys.

There is a chance that coronavirus concerns could further delay the testing process for the trolley, Barnett said.

The first priority is running the Island Transit bus system and response services for residents, city officials said.


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Amid a crisis, one Texas City couple finally says 'I do'

GALVESTON

It was a whirlwind week for James Gorton.

His partner of 41 years, Diamantina O’Donohoe, was taken to the University of Texas Medical Branch because of blood pressure-related health scare. When he tried to reach her, staff told him the hospital was restricting visitors as a precaution to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“I got to the front door and I couldn’t get in,” Gorton said. “They were watching us pretty close.”

When he finally reached Unit 10B at Jennie Sealy Hospital, Gorton, 67, had made up his mind about something — 41 years is a long enough engagement, he said.

“I just thought, let’s just do it here and celebrate later,” Gorton said, adding the couple had recently planned to marry and already had a license.

James and Diamantina were married last week. Their wedding was attended by the nurses at the hospital ward, and officiated by Judge Mike Nelson, a justice of the peace from Santa Fe.

“There’s been so many things going on, and things are getting a little more complicated, so this simplified things a little bit,” Gorton said. He hoped by making their marriage official, she would be able to get health care covered under the benefits he receives from the Veterans Benefits Administration.

The hospital staff gave the couple a “big ol’ vase” with carnations and roses, Gorton said.

“It was nice,” he said. “We thought they were just going to say ‘Here’s the judge, now let me check your blood pressure,’ but it was a really nice thing. Everybody on the whole floor came.”

The couple was celebrating their honeymoon by recovering — and self-isolating — at their home in Texas City, Gorton said.


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Social distancing violators in League City could face $1,000 fines

LEAGUE CITY

In the hours after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott banned social gatherings of more than 10 people and forced restaurants to close dine-in options, local law enforcement wasn’t quite sure who was in charge of enforcing the new rules.

“Waiting on the legal department,” said John Griffith, spokesman for the League City Police Department, in response to that question.

The League City council will meet in some form or fashion Tuesday evening and, among other items, will address exactly that question, Mayor Pat Hallisey said.

“I was talking with John Baumgartner and our attorney late last night about what the governor said,” Hallisey said. “I asked them if the Texas Rangers were coming to enforce it and was told no.”

Baumgartner is city manager for League City.

An item on the meeting’s supplemental agenda calls for the council to consider extending a disaster declaration, adopting an emergency operations plan and instituting a penalty for anyone who violates social distancing orders, documents show.

Violators will face a $1,000 fine, Hallisey said.

“It’s important to me that people understand we aren’t sending police to wrestle people out of all gyms and bars, but that if someone doesn’t listen to the governor’s order and meets in large groups, there’s going to be a penalty,” Hallisey said. “This is just to formalize that, so people know that.”

City administrators as of deadline Friday were planning to have the council meet but were working out a way for residents to send in public comments so they wouldn’t have to congregate in person, said Sarah Greer Osborne, spokeswoman for the city.


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Four more COVID-19 cases confirmed in Galveston County

GALVESTON

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Galveston County increased to 12 from eight Sunday, according to the Galveston County Health District.

It is the largest single-day increase of confirmed cases since the local testing for the virus began on March 2.

Three women and a man were the included among the new local cases, according to the health district. Two of the women had not traveled recently and had not come into contact with anyone known to already have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the health district said.

They are the second and third people believed to have been infected with the virus by people in Galveston County, the health district said.

The third woman had recently traveled internationally, and had been in contact with another person diagnosed with the coronavirus, the health district said. The man had recently traveled domestically, but had no known contact with people carrying the virus, the district said.

Local and state officials have forecasted increases confirmed cases as testing increased at the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Last week, officials said they planned to announce the number of completed positive and negative tests in order to provide a picture of the progress of testing within the county. As of Sunday, however, the district was only releasing reports of positive tests.

The health district did not release any specific information about where the people with confirmed diagnoses live in Galveston County. All of the local people diagnosed so far have been ordered to self-quarantine.