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Fourth COVID-19 related death confirmed; Denton County extends disaster declaration

Denton County’s fourth COVID-19-related death is a man in his 60s from The Colony who caught the virus through local transmission, according to county officials.

“Today, we have learned of yet another death due to COVID-19, which has impacted our communities in Denton County,” County Judge Andy Eads said in a news release Tuesday. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to this man’s family as well as the families of those who have also been victims of this terrible pandemic.”

An additional 15 cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed Tuesday afternoon, bringing the countywide total to 206.

At the Denton State Supported Living Center, an increase of one resident and one staff member who tested positive are reflected in Tuesday’s updated case count. The total number of confirmed resident cases is 50, while 23 staff staff members have tested positive for the virus.

Also Tuesday, the first cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed in Sanger and Ponder.

A total of 50 individuals have recovered as of Tuesday, while about 58% of cases are in people age 50 and older.

Denton County’s disaster declaration for public health was amended Tuesday afternoon, extending the county’s stay-at-home mandate through Tuesday, April 7, at 11:59 p.m.

County commissioners voted to extend the declaration in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has increased exponentially since the first case in Denton County was confirmed in mid-March.

The mandate extends closure of all nonessential businesses and prohibits nursing home visitation and use of playground equipment. As well, essential retail does not include furniture stores, while curbside services are now allowed for nonprofits and non-secular organizations, according to a news release.

“This is a difficult decision to make, and we know it is causing hardships for our Denton County residents,” Eads said in a news release Tuesday. “However, we must keep your health and safety uppermost in our minds as we continue to deal with COVID-19.”

During Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, held virtually, Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson cautioned against complacency as the outbreak spreads.

“As the pandemic moves through Denton County, I would caution the public to not assess risk based on reported cases in their community,” Richardson said. “I do not want people to have a false sense of security, [because] risk is generalized and we have community spread present.”

He said confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus are underreported and underrepresented in data, because only positive cases are required to be reported by law. Additionally, he says the outbreak is “border to border” inside Denton County.

At the Denton State Supported Living Center, where a growing number of cases has been confirmed, Richardson noted that almost all residents have been tested, while a small portion of staff have been tested on a tier-based approach. He says that the most vulnerable and highest-risk individuals are being tested and that additional resources have been requested.

Meanwhile, coronavirus testing is available inside countywide detention facilities, but there has not yet been a case confirmed, Richardson said. While an undisclosed number have been tested, he said Denton County Public Health is screening individuals on arrival.

“I am aware that a small number of symptomatic patients have been tested, but those tests have been negative,” Richardson said. “I will say, because this is a pandemic and because they are bringing in people from where we know there is community spread that there is no doubt about the risk in our detention facilities, as is around the state and around the nation.”

COVID-19 symptoms include a fever, persistent cough and shortness of breath.

Public health officials are urging individuals to call ahead before arriving at an emergency room or doctor’s office to limit community spread of the virus.

Evictions may be delayed, but renters still fear pandemic's plight

Like many Denton tenants, 24-year-old Azlyn Vaughn is terrified she will soon be evicted from her home. Vaughn used to juggle three service industry jobs in order to cover her rent at The Forum at Denton Station student apartments.

She has been laid off from all of them as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s undoubtedly the case with many of The Forum’s college student-aged renters. Still, Vaughn said that every few days since mid-March, property management has sent reminders to pay rent in full by April 1 — no exceptions.

“It is nonsensical to be asking tenants who can’t work to pay rent,” Vaughn said. “They clearly understand the gravity of the situation. They’re just willing to put every single one of their tenants at risk.”

Renters make up around 52% of Denton’s housed population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And although evictions have been temporarily suspended by order of the Texas Supreme Court, many property management companies have made it clear that rent is still due.

Sean McCrory / Kara Dry/For the DRC  

A padlock and chain lock the doors to The Forum at Denton Station’s leasing office last week, which was closed due to coronavirus safety concerns.

A spokesperson for Campus Advantage, The Forum’s property management company, said in an email Monday that it has implemented a payment plan for eligible tenants.

Vaughn said it has been over a week since she tried to sign up for the plan and has yet to hear back whether she has been approved. Even if she were accepted, she said it wouldn’t change much.

“The reality is that rent is due in two days, and I still don’t have an income,” Vaughn said Monday.

Sean McCrory / Kara Dry/For the DRC  

North Texas Fair Housing Center coordinator Dewey Marshall, left, and Aid Network Denton volunteer Ray Soller stand outside City Hall on Sunday. As local organizations and groups like the United Tenants of Denton mobilize in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, residents and nonprofits alike are leaning on resources from the city government to address growing concerns around housing.

Two weeks ago, the Texas Supreme Court issued its fourth emergency order, postponing eviction hearings until April 19. North Texas Fair Housing Center coordinator Dewey Marshall said the move may have given some renters a false sense of security.

“What people don’t realize is that it’s kind of a facade,” Marshall said of the order. “It doesn’t buy any more time to get rent together.”

It’s true that Texas’ justice of the peace courts have suspended eviction hearings until that date, Marshall said, but some precincts are still taking eviction filings. That means as soon as the courts reopen, tenants who didn’t pay their full rent by the end of their lease’s grace period can still be evicted.

As such, Marshall said Denton soon may witness a “massive increase” in homelessness.

This year has already witnessed an increase in evictions in Denton County, according to data compiled by attorney Evan Stone. January and February witnessed the highest number of evictions when compared with corresponding months from the past seven years.

It’s still too early to tell, but it seems likely that the coming months will rank similarly as workers continue to lose their jobs.

Taylor Brakefield, owner of Professional Service Property Management, a single- and multi-use residential management service, says tenants are being offered relief, such as leniency and late fee waivers, during the outbreak. Notices were sent out asking for tenants to communicate their situation, but in general, she said, everyone has been anxious.

“There’s a lot of confusion at this point and a lot of unknowns, and everyone is trying to figure out what’s going on from both sides,” Brakefield said. “I can tell you that we have ceased all evictions, but that this is definitely uncharted territory.”

Brakefield, who manages properties in Denton, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, said the hardest hit for her company has been larger multi-family properties in Dallas — where an increasing number of COVID-19 cases have been confirmed.

Over the past two weeks, the city of Denton has seen a surge in unemployment. Michael Carroll, an economics professor at the University of North Texas, said this year’s unemployment rate will likely dwarf the city’s 2009 Great Recession-era rate of 8.1%.

“Depending on how long this lasts, I certainly think it would be in the 20% range, even 25-30%,” he said. “With 25% of workers in retail, recreation and food service industry, I think we could easily see unemployment in the 20% range.”

Kara Dry/For the DRC 

Amanda Simon, James Crane and their black Lab retriever Maddy stand in the front yard of their rental home in Denton. The couple has taken a significant hit to their household income due to the COVID-19 crisis, and with no grace given from their property management company, they worry if they can pay for groceries and dog food after they make rent and utilities.

Tenant James Crane, 40, rents an Adami & Associates Realty-owned duplex, where he lives with his fiancee and their 6-year-old black Lab retriever, Maddy.

He said that after the pandemic hit Denton, his work hours were slashed and his fiancee was furloughed. Suddenly, their combined income dropped by 70%. Crane estimates that now after they pay rent and utilities, they won’t have any money left for groceries and dog food.

Last week, Crane said he contacted an Adami representative to propose a payment plan. They responded in an email: “We are all being affected by this pandemic. Your situation is not unique.”

Crane said that he was floored by their insensitivity and unwillingness to compromise.

“I’ve got to keep paying everything exactly the same, even though we’re entering into the ‘Great Depression, Part II’?” he said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

The Denton Record-Chronicle made multiple attempts to reach Adami & Associates for comment but had not received a response by late Tuesday.

Although Vaughn said she doesn’t think she’ll become homeless, she still doesn’t know where she’ll go if she’s evicted. She said it’s ridiculous that Campus Advantage isn’t doing more to help tenants who may soon face homelessness themselves.

Vaughn added she has one simple question for the property management company that’s worth $1.5 billion in student housing assets:

“Why are your profits worth more than my life?”

A bee flies close to a bluebonnet on Egan Street in central Denton on Tuesday. Bluebonnets are near their peak this week.

Denton's COVID-19 extension thwarted by Texas governor's latest order

The Denton City Council on Tuesday evening postponed a decision on extending the city’s emergency declaration after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a new executive order that limited local powers in the COVID-19 crisis.

The city was poised to match Denton County’s declaration extending the “stay at home” order to April 7, which was adopted Tuesday morning. They stopped when they received word of the governor’s edict.

Governor's 3/31 Executive Order

Mayor Chris Watts and other council members went behind closed doors with city attorneys for more than an hour to discuss the latest order out of Austin. They came out saying it wasn’t clear what the city could still do to help stop the spread of the virus.

“It took away the power of local officials to some degree,” said council member Keely Briggs.

Briggs asked that the city still be able to discuss the local safety net and whether the city’s current funding support was enough.

She recently learned that Denton nonprofits have received requests for help from more than 250 families, most of them new clients.

She was concerned that the city’s $50,000 allocation to those social service agencies may not last long.

Earlier in the meeting, council members learned that the city staff helped close the emergency homeless shelter, booking a block of 60 rooms in two hotels to house some of Denton’s most vulnerable residents.

The staff from the Monsignor King Outreach Center are providing support to clients at the hotels. The kitchen at Our Daily Bread continues to prepare midday meals for them and others who are at risk of going hungry, city staff said.

City Manager Todd Hileman confirmed that the funding for those services was coming from the shelter’s allocation and other emergency sources.

Council members agreed they could continue that discussion when the staff had more information about local needs.

The governor’s order suspended two sections of the Texas Health and Safety Code — where Texas cities derive some of their police powers — to ensure that cities “do not impose restrictions inconsistent with this executive order.”

Watts said the city attorneys needed time to figure out what that meant.

Abbott and some members of the Texas Legislature have battled with Texas cities over matters of local control for many years. Most recently, Abbott went over the head of Austin officials in handling some facets of the homeless crisis there.

Watts expected that the City Council would meet again, virtually, in a few days to sort out what they could do locally in the health emergency.

In the meantime, he urged residents, particularly those who’ve lost their jobs and are concerned about paying their bills, to seek out the latest, reliable information on benefits and protections.

The new federal CARES Act provides for cash payments and unemployment benefits to many, including contract laborers and the self-employed.

“Information is key,” Watts said. “If you don’t have it, you’re behind. Please be as informed as you can.”

Abbott orders Texans to 'minimize' nonessential activity outside homes; schools closed until at least May 4

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday told Texans to stay at home for the next month when not taking part in essential services, issuing an executive order to minimize social gatherings and in-person contact outside of homes. He also announced that schools would remain closed until at least May 4.

At a press conference at the Texas Capitol, Abbott purposefully stopped short of calling the decree a “stay-at-home order,” saying he wanted Texans to know they could still leave their homes to do things such as go to the grocery store or go for a jog. But when asked whether Tuesday’s order brings Texas up to speed with states that have issued shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders, Abbott answered, “It’s a fact.”

“If you’re not engaged in an essential service or activity, then you need to be at home for the purpose of slowing the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson said the extended closure wasn’t a total surprise. After a recommendations from President Donald Trump on Sunday, he said local superintendents had planned to speak Wednesday to determine how much further school closures should stretch.

So far, local schools had been extending closures in two-week increments to remain flexible and in hopes of giving families enough heads-up to plan accordingly. Until Tuesday’s order from Abbott, many school district across Denton County had announced closures only through April 20. The last day of school was originally set for May 21.

In addition to Denton ISD, Aubrey, Argyle, Krum, Lake Dallas, Lewisville, Little Elm, Pilot Point, Ponder and Sanger ISDs jointly announced Tuesday that they’ll comply with Abbott’s order.

The state has outlined a list of more than a dozen sectors that provide essential services that comply with Abbott’s order, which is largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue. Those include health care, energy, food and critical manufacturing. Texas’ list adds religious services, which are not included in federal guidance.

The language of the order — specifically the use of the word “minimize” — and Abbott’s reluctance to call it a stay-at-home order caused some uncertainty about its scope and what specifically it restricts. But Abbott spokesman John Wittman said after the governor’s news conference that the “only thing that is allowed are essential services and personal activities that correspond with those services.”

“That is in addition to the personal and religious activities that the executive order explicitly allows,” Wittman said.

Abbott later told The Texas Tribune that he said “minimize” instead of “cease” because “there could be some exceptions to the rule.”

“You never know what the exception would be, like let’s say there’s some emergency where you have to go do something or whatever the case may be,” he said. “And you don’t want to get people subject to being in violation of a law for a lack of clarity.”

Later, state Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said, “Gov. Abbott has essentially created a statewide stay-at-home order.”

“His press conference today was confusing at times, but we believe it amounts to a step in the right direction,” Turner said.

The order, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, expands on one Abbott issued earlier this month that did four things: limit social gatherings to 10 people; close bars, restaurants and gyms, while still allowing takeout; ban people from visiting nursing homes except for critical care; and temporarily close schools. That order is set to expire at midnight Friday.

Abbott’s latest order goes through April 30, aligning it with the new end date that Trump announced Monday for social-distancing guidelines.

“We’ve come too far to falter now,” Abbott said at the news conference, where he was joined by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. “We have made tremendous strides, but we have not yet reached our destination. … Together, we will persevere through this for another month.”

For over a week, Abbott has resisted calls for a statewide shelter-in-place order, leaving the decision up to local officials. In recent days, they have acted to put most of the Texas population under stay-at-home orders.

Abbott’s latest executive order supersedes any local rule where the two conflict. If local governments want to take more restrictive action than the executive order, Abbott said, they can do so as long as there is no conflict.

Hours before Abbott’s news conference, the leaders of the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Nurses Association released a letter to the governor saying the “time has come” for a statewide stay-at-home order.

“We urge you to implement this strict measure to prevent widespread illness in Texas,” the letter said.

There are at least 3,266 coronavirus cases in Texas, including 41 deaths, according to the most recent figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The cases are spread across 122 of the state’s 254 counties.

There have been 42,992 tests done in Texas, according to the latest numbers.

Schools look at long term

With a certainty of closures until early May, Wilson said Denton ISD teams will have to sort through how to proceed long-term. That might include tightening meal distribution efficiency in order to have less in-person contact. It might entail scaling back the number of workers and volunteers involved.

Even though more parents are at home as businesses shutter or have employees work from home, Wilson said parent support isn’t a complete substitute for professional teaching.

Whenever students are able to get back into school, he said teachers will work to get them up to speed on anything they might have missed.

“We will be able to fill in any learning gaps — that’s what we do in education,” Wilson said Tuesday afternoon.

Even if Denton and other area schools start on time in the fall, there are quite a few students who won’t be returning to campuses.

“Our biggest group of students that we won’t get to see any more are our seniors,” Wilson said. “That’s the group that has the biggest immediate impact.”

He said teachers and administrators are working to make sure those students are on track to graduate so they can head out into the workforce, into the military or pursue higher education.