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Schools close, county bans large gatherings

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    Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape (front), surrounded by school, city and county officials, announces the declaration of a local state of disaster due to COVID-19. Photo by Julianne Hodges

Bastrop County is under a local state of emergency due to public health concerns from the COVID-19 novel coronavirus after a declaration at a press conference on Monday afternoon.

As of Tuesday morning, 67 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus that first appeared late last year, have been reported in Texas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms range from mild to severe, and fever, coughing and shortness of breath may appear two to 14 days after exposure. Older adults and people who have serious chronic medical conditions are at the highest risk of getting very sick.

The conference on Monday began with Dr. Desmar Walkes, the local health authority for Bastrop County. Walkes emphasized the importance of “vigorously implementing” measures—such as isolation and quarantining, canceling mass gatherings and social distancing—to slow the spread of the virus several weeks before hospitals become overwhelmed.

“We are quite certain that the virus is here and circulating in Bastrop County,” she said after citing cases in nearby Travis County. “If left to freely transmit throughout the county, we could rapidly outstrip hospital and healthcare capacity in our community.”

Next, County Judge Paul Pape shared a resolution on behalf of Bastrop County and the cities of Elgin, Bastrop and Smithville, declaring a state of local emergency in Bastrop County due to the coronavirus. This designation allows officials to take measures that would prevent the spread of the virus and promote health and safety in the county.

“We stand in solidarity here today, because we believe this is the only meaningful way to protect the citizens of Bastrop County’s health and safety,” Pape said, “and to make an impact on the spread of this devastating virus in our communities, in our state, in our country and in the world.”

The order also prohibits community gatherings of more than 50 people anywhere in the county through the end of the disaster declaration, punishable as a class C misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000 or confinement in jail for up to 180 days. Pape later also added that they are encouraging smaller gatherings to be canceled if possible, requesting people have contact with as few other people as possible and asking that business owners self-regulate to comply with this request and promote social distancing.

Pape said there are not enough test kits to test everyone, so anyone wanting to be tested needs a doctor’s permission.

Pape compared a disease that can be transmitted among people to a pyramid, where one person can spread it to two people, and those two people can spread it to four, then those four can spread it to 16.

“Breaking that connection is the only way to control a communicable disease,” he said.

The Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management activated a call center at 512-303-4300 on Tuesday morning for anyone to call with questions about the virus.

Schools closed through early April

All school districts in Bastrop County will remain closed for two weeks after the end of spring break this week, as written in a statement from the schools’ superintendents read by Pape on Monday afternoon.

On Thursday, Elgin ISD released a letter to parents explaining that the school district was taking precautionary measures in response to the coronavirus. 

On Monday, however, Elgin ISD Superintendent Jodi Duron released another letter to parents, announcing that Elgin ISD, along with Bastrop, Smithville and McDade ISDs, would suspend school operations until Sunday, April 5 at 5 p.m. The letter said the school district would reassess the situation and release any further information by April 5, and the district would send additional information regarding instructional activities, resources and student meals over the next several days.

“I hope these actions will instill calm and confidence, thus alleviating some of the anxieties families have felt concerning the health of their children attending school,” the letter said. “In the meantime, please enjoy your spring break and take care of your health.”

On Friday morning, Bastrop ISD announced it would cancel all school events and activities until further notice, with the exception of a choir contest at Hays CISD scheduled for that day. This included a soccer game against Elgin’s Lady Cats (see page 6A for more information).

On Thursday, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) postponed all academic state meets. Then, the next day, UIL suspended all UIL-sanctioned contests through March 29. On Monday, UIL expanded this suspension to include all rehearsals, practices and workouts.

“(UIL cancellations are) changing, if not day by day, hour by hour,” said Matthew West, Elgin ISD’s director of safety and risk management, on Friday.

On Monday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced he has waived the requirement of Texas’ standardized test, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), for the 2019-2020 school year. Additionally, Abbott has requested that the Department of Education also waive federal testing requirements for the current school year.

Austin Community College (ACC) campuses are also shutting down for a while after spring break, it announced on Thursday. ACC’s spring break has been extended through March 29 for all students, although campuses will remain open for students to access essential services, such as advising or mental health counseling. Employees will return as scheduled on March 23 to prepare to transition work and classes online, and instruction is expected to resume on March 30 in online and hybrid formats for the rest of the spring semester. ACC has also canceled all events and college-related travel until further notice. 

City of Elgin to discuss plan

The city’s plans and response to COVID-19 was listed on the Elgin City Council’s agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.

Elgin Mayor Chris Cannon said there is a plan in place that would be published after Tuesday night’s council meeting. 

“We’re being precautionary and trying to be in the best interests of our citizens in Elgin and also in step with our county and surrounding counties and cities,” Cannon said. “From a city standpoint, we want to do all we can to limit the spread of the virus.”

Cannon said officials are urging individuals and private businesses to use common sense.

“What I’ve noticed is, people do a really good job of complying when there’s something serious like this,” Cannon said. “Let’s all work together and keep contact to a minimum until we can get through this.”

See next week’s edition of the Elgin Courier for more information on the Elgin City Council meeting.

Community events postponed or cancelled

On Saturday, to celebrate “Pi Day” on March 14, artist group She Creates Union planned to host a Pi Day Pie Social at The Clever Tiger, encouraging people to bring pies to share starting at 3:14 p.m. However, on Friday night, She Creates Union announced the pie social would be canceled “in the interest of the health of our friends and neighbors.”

A National Weather Service storm spotter class was scheduled for this Saturday at the Bastrop County Emergency Operations Center, but it was also canceled. The class planned to teach attendees about severe weather and reporting such weather to the National Weather Service. According to the Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management, the class will be rescheduled for a later date.

The Elgin Parks & Recreation Department had planned a week full of activities in the city’s parks for spring break, such as a community field day and park beautification activities. However, all of the week’s events have either been canceled or rescheduled. More events later throughout the month of March have been rescheduled. 

The Elgin Public Library is also canceling its spring break activities and other programs. However, the library will remain open while observing social distancing, according to a post on their Facebook page. Four computers, as well as one computer dedicated to allowing people to fill out the 2020 census, will be available to the public to use.

On Friday, the Film Alley movie theater in Bastrop announced they have implemented many measures and procedures to protect against the coronavirus. For example, all surfaces in the movie theaters are being sanitized between every showtime, all surfaces in the arcade are being sanitized regularly, and bowling facilities are being sanitized after every use.

Over the weekend, McDade-area Renaissance festival Sherwood Forest Faire was open for guests for its third week of the year. In response to the virus, the festival announced they had implemented preventive measures, such as offering easy access to hand sanitizer, and were working with health officials. However, after Monday’s declaration of a local state of disaster in Bastrop County, the faire announced it would be closed until the order is lifted.

For more information about local and state reactions to the COVID-19 coronavirus, visit