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UNT officials confirm seven positive tests for COVID-19 infections

Three more University of North Texas student-athletes tested positive for active COVID-19 infections during a round of testing conducted by the school last week.

The three new cases push the total number of infections in the UNT athletic department to seven. Four student-athletes and three members of the school’s staff have tested positive. The university acknowledged last week that three staff members and one student-athlete had tested positive.

Three members of UNT’s football team tested positive for coronavirus antibodies following the first round of testing earlier this month. Antibody tests indicate that a person has recovered from an infection or been exposed to the virus.

UNT has not publicly released its testing figures. A school official provided them to the Denton Record-Chronicle on Tuesday afternoon.

The university changed its policies on testing student-athletes for COVID-19 nearly two weeks ago as cases were spiking around the state and in Denton Country.

UNT’s original policy was to test student-athletes for COVID-19 antibodies upon their return to campus. Athletes who tested positive for antibodies or showed signs of a COVID-19 infection received a nasal swab test that detects active infections.

UNT gave each member of its staff swab tests upon their return to campus. The school is now administering swab tests to each member of its staff and all student-athletes.

The school administered 104 swab tests last week after changing its policy. UNT tested athletes who arrived on campus before the policy change in addition to athletes who just reported to campus.

UNT has now conducted 191 swab tests and 78 antibody tests since implementing its return-to-campus plan in the first week of June. UNT has tested its staff, members of the football team and a few members of the women’s basketball team, a school official said.

UNT shut down its campus in March. Schools across the country shuttered their athletic programs at the same time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNT officials formulated a plan to safely bring its athletic department staff and players back to campus during the shutdown. The plan is based largely on testing and social distancing.

The university approved the plan that was designed to gradually bring the school’s football team back to campus to participate in a summer conditioning program.

UNT’s coaches and staff reported June 3. Three waves of about 30 players returned to campus on June 8, June 15 and June 22. The remainder of UNT’s football players are expected to arrive on July 13, and UNT’s other teams are expected to return to campus in July.

Players and staff members who test positive for COVID-19 are immediately isolated to prevent an infection from spreading.

Testing is one facet of the school’s return-to-campus plan. UNT officials require each person who enters any athletic department facility to go through a check-in procedure, which includes a temperature check and health questions. Each person who completes the process receives a colored wristband when they complete the check-in. Wristband colors change daily to ensure that everyone participating in team activities has completed the process.

UNT has also instituted social distancing measures in an effort to prevent infections from spreading.

The school has split its football players into small groups and set up four locker rooms and three weight rooms. Each group is assigned to one locker room and one weight room to minimize contact between players.

“You can’t completely eliminate risk, but we feel like we have put enough measures in place to provide a safe environment,” Jared Mosley, UNT’s associate vice president for athletics, said before the school began bringing athletes back to campus. Mosley played a key role in formulating UNT’s plans to reopen its facilities.

The spread of COVID-19 caused the NCAA to call off its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments as well as its spring sports season. Some schools have now been forced to shut down their offseason football programs.

The University of Houston shuttered its program on June 12 after six players tested positive.

The University of Arizona paused its plan to return athletes to campus on Monday due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the area. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas suspended on-campus workouts on Friday after four athletes tested positive for the coronavirus.

Denton County health department recommends face mask requirement; commissioners decline

As the COVID-19 health crisis continues to worsen, Denton County commissioners on Tuesday sparred over whether to institute a countywide face mask ordinance, ultimately deciding against the public health department’s recommendations and citing an inability to enforce.

Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson spoke with a sense of urgency during the public health portion of Tuesday’s meeting, saying the COVID-19 crisis is intensifying. In addition to an increasing number of new coronavirus cases, Richardson said both symptoms onset and the weekly percent positivity continued to trend in the wrong direction.

Later that afternoon, health officials announced 105 new virus cases in Denton County — the second-highest one-day increase since 115 cases were recorded on Wednesday, June 24.

With COVID-19 hospitalizations increasing by roughly 500% in recent weeks, Richardson said the time to act is now.

“All of these things working together are really heightening our concern, and due to that concern, we are recommending to the Commissioners Court to consider health and safety plans for businesses that would require masks,” he said. “We know that the economy and accounting is very important, but we think that it’s important, more than ever, to take these [measures].”

According to daily hospital capacities, roughly 53% of all hospital beds — including 42% of intensive care unit beds — are occupied, while 17% of ventilators are in use. The total number of Denton County hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients was 49, as of Monday.

Denton County Judge Andy Eads said the public health crisis is not over but that masks would not be mandated.

“We are not out of the woods, and we are asking the public to wear masks, but we are not requiring [them],” Eads said. “We are focusing on the things that we can do, which is an aggressive marketing campaign encouraging people to do the right thing.”

A significant hurdle to implementing a countywide face mask ordinance is whether the mandate could be civilly or criminally enforced by the District Attorney’s Office. During Tuesday’s meeting, John Feldt, chief of the civil division with the District Attorney’s Office, said that because of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, a mask ordinance is “aspirational.”

Under Abbott’s executive order No. GA-28, “no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.” Commissioner Hugh Coleman said the county should not enact something without the ability to enforce it.

Eads noted that Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree said he would not enforce a mask requirement on county property, further challenging any meaningful action. Instead, Eads noted that the county government would continue to recommend that masks be worn.

While commissioners have argued their hands are tied by state government, Richardson said nobody wants another shutdown — but that it’s “way late” for containment. He said the community, however, has a responsibility to try.

“One of my household members is undergoing injections of chemotherapy for an immunocompromised disease, and my parents are both immunocompromised. We don’t know who is asymptomatic, and that’s the point,” Richardson said. “It is our collective responsibility, our ethical and moral obligation, to protect each other. … Facial coverings, physical distancing, hand washing … these are not political assumptions or manifestations, and is not red or blue — this is simply the science.”

A handful of public comments were submitted prior to Tuesday’s meeting, with most opposing any mask ordinance.

As Tuesday’s meeting rolled on to other agenda items, commissioners approved technology purchases for county departments. An order for Community Supervision and Corrections includes 326 laptops, 335 docking stations, 112 USB cameras, several monitors and licensing fees, and specific items such as “temporary contractors.”

The $811,890 purchase serves to facilitate social distancing and telework amid COVID-19. Eads said the funding for the laptops and other technology purchases came through available CARES Act money.

Commissioners also approved extending the disaster declaration through Tuesday, June 28, but no significant changes were made, because local and county governments cannot supersede state actions during the pandemic.

Poolside safety counts: Child drownings spike during coronavirus
Frank McKenna/Unsplash 

New data released by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission shows a spike in child drownings in pools and spas. Most drowning deaths happen in a residential setting, and more children are homebound as U.S. authorities cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash.

A new report released this month by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission shows a steady increase in child drownings since 2016, and experts are urging parents to be more watchful as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps more children at home.

Texas is among the top four states where the most childhood drownings occur.

“Many factors play into that, including the size of the state, the access to recreational waterways — lakes, coastline, pools, etc.,” said Monica Martin, the Denton Natatorium’s aquatics program manager.

Texas weather also makes it a spot where kids are vulnerable to drowning.

“Our state has an extended swim season, where the water temperature remains comfortable for outdoor activities compared to many states north of Texas,” Martin said.

Denton officials have suspended summer swimming lessons due to COVID-19, which means hundreds of local children might not get to learn beginning swimming skills, such as treading water, basic swimming strokes and breath control. It also means young but experienced swimmers will miss out on intermediate and advanced swimming lessons, which develop swimming strokes, competence in and around bodies of water, and safety skills.

The combination of canceled swimming lessons, parents working from home and children antsy to cool off means Denton-area children could be more vulnerable to drowning.

DRC file photo 

The Civic Center Pool remains closed this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. This photo is from last August.

DRC file photo  

Kids play in August at the Civic Center Pool, which remains closed this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Experts are urging parents to be more watchful as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps more children at home.

“Denton in particular has large lakes to the north and south, making this community attractive to families,” Martin said. “Many homes have private pools, as do apartment complexes. We also have access to a variety of creeks, ponds and other exposed waterways within the city.”

Most of those bodies of water don’t have a lifeguard on duty, and access to them is often not restricted.

But adults shouldn’t confine their worries to pools, lakes and creeks.

“Our weather plays a part in the risks as well,” Martin said. “Since rain can cause temporary flooding, currents and movement of underwater obstructions — think branches, rocks, etc. — all of these are considerations to take into account when assessing the risk to anyone around the waterways in our community, including adults and children.”

The suspension of swimming lessons and the closing of local pools means parents and grandparents will need to step into the swimming coach’s shoes — sort of.

“Adults have responsibilities to create good habits in, on and around water,” Martin said. “These include ensuring everyone has access to — and wears — a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket, practices sun safety by wearing sunscreen and taking breaks from activities to hydrate and refuel.”

Adults should make sure children swim with a buddy and that they aren’t near or in the water without supervision. Adults should take a good look at what could cause an injury at a pool, lake, pond or creek.

But Martin said children have responsibilities, too.

“They need to have a system where they check in with a supervising adult, always remain within a safe distance, avoid dangerous games or water activities that can cause harm,” Martin said.

You’ve seen “no horseplay” on signs posted at community pools and apartment pools. That means children shouldn’t push someone underwater by the head or neck or hold someone underwater. Children should also understand that their life jacket stays on until the boat docks and everyone is getting back on land. And wearing a life jacket means wearing it fastened, Martin said.

Families who have private pools — and families considering building a swimming pool — should consider including a fence that surrounds the pool and makes the pool separate from the yard and the house, Martin said.

Homeowners should also take care to make a fenced pool less attractive to children.

“Remove floats, balls and other toys from the pool and surrounding area immediately after use so children are not tempted to enter the pool area unsupervised,” she said.

Regardless of where families swim this summer, Martin said adults should plan before anyone kicks off their flip-flops and makes a beeline for the pool or dock.

“There is also a difference between having a dedicated lifeguard doing surveillance and an adult who is trying to watch the kids play while also cooking on a grill, reading a book or being on their phone,” she said. “All of the safety components to water come down to layers of responsibility that begin with a family’s safety plan.”

Texas unemployment agency postpones return of work search requirement as COVID-19 cases spike

AUSTIN — The Texas Workforce Commission has postponed the return of the work search requirement for unemployment benefits for another month as COVID-19 cases across the state spike and some businesses across the state are forced to close.

The announcement, which came at the commission’s weekly meeting, is a major reversal from two weeks ago when the commission said it would reinstate the work search requirement beginning in July. That decision was heavily criticized by worker advocates who said it was unfair to ask job seekers to prove job searches when so many businesses remained closed or under financial pressures.

At the commission meeting, executive director Ed Serna said the agency was putting a pause on the requirement’s return.

Serna mentioned the major spike in new coronavirus cases in the state last week and Gov. Greg Abbott’s Friday decision to shutter bars and tubing businesses and reducing the capacity of restaurants to no more than 50%.

“Due to the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Texas, TWC has decided to pause the return of work search requirements at this time,” Serna said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the situation and make further recommendations in late July.”

Jonathan Lewis, a senior policy analyst with the think tank Every Texan, which had warned against reinstating the requirement, said the commission’s reversal was in the best interest of Texans.

“It’s great to see the agency reverse this policy decision that would have put undue burdens on Texans at a time when so many businesses are still closed and many have re-closed,” Lewis said in a statement. “Going forward, the commission should stop focusing on how to make it harder for struggling Texans to get benefits, and instead shift its focus to supporting workers so people can get back to work safely.”

Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, said he was relieved to see the commission postpone its “ill-considered” resumption of the work requirement at a time when unemployment benefits seekers are still struggling to get through the commission’s phone lines for help.

“Until TWC ramps up public access to acceptable levels, the agency needs to dispense with administrative requirements that are not essential to the task of verifying eligibility and making payments,” Levy said in a statement. “The agency should go further and suspend the bi-weekly ‘request for payment’ required of workers who have already been deemed eligible for benefits.”

Just two weeks ago, Serna had said employment opportunities were beginning to bounce back.

“There are opportunities out there, and getting Texans back to work and businesses up and running again will create even more,” he said two weeks ago.

The agency’s Tuesday decision will be welcome news to unemployed workers who would have been required to complete three job searches per week in order to continue receiving their unemployment insurance benefits.

Unemployed Texans may lose another source of income in the form of the $600 weekly stimulus given to them by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Those payments are set to run out by the end of July unless Congress passes another bill aimed at providing economic relief.

Abhi Rahman, a spokesman with the Texas Democratic Party blasted the workforce commission and Abbott for its policy responses during the pandemic.

“Doing the right thing shouldn’t be this hard. The fact that workforce requirements was even a question shows exactly what Abbott and the Texas Workforce Commission’s think about our current crisis. There are still thousands of Texans waiting for their workforce claims to be processed,” he said in a statement. “Texans everywhere need relief, a point the Abbott Administration and Texas Republicans seem to be missing”

Denton suspends utility cutoffs, avoids layoffs at City Hall

A hiring freeze, a voluntary separation program and several other cost-cutting measures may have saved the jobs for the staff who remain at Denton City Hall.

In addition, the City Council agreed to suspend utility cutoffs as COVID-19 cases surge in Texas, creating terrible uncertainty for many Denton families. Council members did an about-face after learning that 1,500 families could lose access to water and power in the coming days if they didn’t hit the pause button on plans to get back to normal collection plans.

Senior staff members took about three hours to brief the City Council on all things budget Tuesday afternoon — talks that included some revised revenue projections from the pandemic-induced downturn.

Projections aren’t so bleak as to require property tax or utility rate hikes to keep basic services running, according to David Gaines, the city’s finance director.

“Revenues are still trending below budget, but they are still quite a bit higher than what we said in April,” Gaines said.

In April, city staff anticipated a major slump in sales tax collections and much lower utility revenues. They also didn’t anticipate any federal relief. Since then, county officials agreed to allocate about $7.6 million in federal CARES Act funding to the city.

The allocation helps meet unexpected expenses related to the pandemic, Gaines said. The city has spent money on everything from extra cleaning and personal protective equipment to underwriting hotel stays for nearly 100 people who were staying in the city’s homeless shelters when the pandemic began.

Some of the cost-cutting measures included restructuring the city’s ongoing capital improvements projects — road work, water and sewer lines, and building construction and renovations. Nearly all that work is debt-financed and takes about one-third of the annual property tax rate to repay.

The city still needs to issue about $8.9 million in new debt to finish the projects promised in the 2012 and 2014 bond elections, but the staff said they expect that work to be finished this year.

Repaving West Hickory Street from Welch Street to Carroll Boulevard is one such long-running project that will be finished before the end of the year, City Engineer Todd Estes told council members.

(But quiet zones along the Union Pacific rail line remain on the drawing table waiting for the railroad to respond, he said.)

To help save more money, the city also changed how it issues the debt and pushed back one more year, finishing in 2023, some of the later projects of the 2019 bond election.

Perhaps the biggest savings is coming from a hiring freeze and voluntary separation program. More than 200 jobs are vacant. City Manager Todd Hileman said that each position is being reviewed before any vacancy gets filled.

Currently, the finance staff anticipates that about 100 of those jobs won’t be refilled and will be eliminated from future budgets.

After learning that the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator job is vacant, City Council member Deb Armintor asked for more information about whether the job cuts would also mean cutting programs the community finds valuable.

Hileman pledged to show council members how city programs were being reorganized, including how any regulatory requirements would still be fulfilled — a concern expressed by council member Jesse Davis.

The bottom line for home and business owners could mean a bit of relief from the city. The city plans no increases in utility rates, which means electric, water, sewer and garbage bills could remain about the same for the next year.

The city is also planning a slight cut in the tax rate next year, which could offset any increase in property values.

This year, the city assessed 59.045 cents per $100 property valuation, which came to $1,470 for the average $248,909 home. Next year, the city is considering a rate around 57 cents per $100 valuation. Because the average home value has risen to $261,354, the tax bill for that average-valued house will still rise about $20.

The long-term impact of the pandemic will likely hit property values next year, Gaines said. The city does not expect the property tax rolls to increase much at all in the coming years, particularly compared to years past.

Council member Paul Meltzer said that in relation to less dire economic projections, the continued unemployment rate has given him pause. He wondered whether the federal government’s relief packages have brought temporary relief and masked the long-term economic impact.

“It’s just a matter of eyes open,” Meltzer said.