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Answering your stay-home order questions: Will the IRS keep the coronavirus stimulus money if I owe?

A member of the Rhode Island National Guard Military Police talks with a motorist with New York license plates at a checkpoint on I-95 near the border with Connecticut where New Yorkers must pull over and provide contact information and are told to self-quarantine for two weeks, Saturday, March 28, 2020, in Hope Valley, R.I. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo on Saturday ordered anyone visiting the state to self-quarantine for 14 days and restricted residents to stay at home and nonessential retail businesses to close Monday until April 13 to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A member of the Rhode Island National Guard Military Police talks with a motorist with New York license plates at a checkpoint on I-95 near the border with Connecticut where New Yorkers must pull over and provide contact information and are told to self-quarantine for two weeks, Saturday, March 28, 2020, in Hope Valley, R.I. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo on Saturday ordered anyone visiting the state to self-quarantine for 14 days and restricted residents to stay at home and nonessential retail businesses to close Monday until April 13 to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/David Goldman) (Copyright 2020 Associated Press)

HOUSTON – We are always working to answer your top questions and concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic in the Houston area. Here are a few of your top questions with the answers below.

April 6

Q: Will the IRS keep the coronavirus money if you owe them money?

Even if you owe back taxes, you will get a check if you qualify. These payments are treated differently than your tax refund. Before, it was possible to have your refund seized if you owe back taxes. For this coronavirus stimulus, those rules don’t apply. The only people who could get their check reduced because of debt owed are parents with outstanding child support.

Q: How can I change my direct deposit for the stimulus check?

You will be able to adjust the direct deposit info soon. The Treasury Department is developing a web-based portal for individuals to provide their banking information to the IRS online so that individuals can receive payments immediately as opposed to checks in the mail.

For people who have already filed their 2019 tax returns, the IRS will use this information to calculate the payment amount. For those who have not yet filed their return for 2019, the IRS will use information from their 2018 tax filing to calculate the payment. People who do not set up direct deposits with the federal government will be mailed a paper check.

Q: I got my 2020 property tax appraisal in the mail. Considering everything that is going on, is there any way the Harris County Appraisal District can cut us a break?

A lot of homeowners have written and called into KPRC asking this same question. Short answer: no. HCAD’s Jack Barnett said the tax code requires that properties in Harris County be appraised on Jan. 1 of every year. The appraisal notices were mailed out at the beginning of March, before anyone realized the coronavirus pandemic would close schools and businesses, forcing furloughs and layoffs. For now, there is no way to stop or delay these notices from being sent out.

Q: With the stay home order can my husband and I (I’m disabled) go for a drive, maybe the ferry or seawall? We won’t stop anywhere.

Police are not stopping people to check and see where they are going. However, what are the chances you will need gas, a bathroom break or a snack stop? What if you get a flat tire and need assistance? You would be exposing yourself and others. Your best bet is to stay home. This will not last forever, you can do it!

April 3

Q: What about Independent contractors or those who are self-employed? Is it true they can receive $10,000 in aid?

Yes and no. That number is not exactly accurate. However, independent contractors are now eligible to receive unemployment benefits. Many people who would not have been eligible for benefits in the past are now able to get help. The amount varies depending on your job and previous income.

Q: I saw in a social media post that the national guard is being deployed to force people to stay indoors is this true?

In March, Governor Greg Abbot did activate the Texas National Guard in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Guard members are standing by, but so far have not been needed. Abbott said if deployed, they could do things like help with traffic at drive-through testing or help hospitals organize patients, etc.

Q: Why does Texas believe it is safe and appropriate to have “church services” as an essential business while the rest of the USA doesn’t?

Most churches have moved to online services and meetings. We have heard of some churches in Texas that are still getting together in person. To date, Texas lawmakers have not explicitly addressed that question.

Q: My husband applied for unemployment back in January and he had to appeal it. He has been waiting to hear from unemployment.

You may be in better luck early next week when it comes to getting ahold of someone at the Texas Workforce Commission offices. They are working each day to add hundreds of new workers. These people, mainly call center workers who will help get through the backlog of people, are waiting for help. Hundreds of workers are set to start in the next few days, so you should see a difference when you log on and wait to get in touch with someone.

April 2

Q: Why are so many people, including HPD officers, wearing masks when WHO says not to unless you are sick?

We have also noticed more people are wearing masks around town. It could just be that they are adding an extra layer of protection just in case. There has been no order to wear masks. The World Health Organization says if you are healthy you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person who might be sick. You should also wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.

Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

Q: If I am not able to work due to my job being closed, can I apply for unemployment just while my work reopens?

Texas Workforce Commission is overwhelmed with employment claims since the coronavirus crisis has caused some businesses to shut down operations and lay off staff.

In the last six weeks, more than 725,000 people have applied for unemployment in Texas. That represents more than the total number of people who requested funds in 2019.

Q: The weather in Houston has been very nice lately, but mosquitoes are also on the rise. Can mosquitoes carry the coronavirus?

The World Health Organization addresses the claim on their mythbusters page saying: “To date, there has been no information nor evidence to suggest that the new coronavirus could be transmitted by mosquitoes.”The novel coronavirus is a respiratory virus which spreads primarily through droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose.

Q: Do you have new information about who is getting sick from the coronavirus?

You’ve heard it over and over that people with underlying conditions get hit harder with coronavirus. These are the people who often end up very ill, even hospitalized. In its first report looking at underlying health conditions that could make COVID-19 worse, the CDC analyzed data from confirmed cases in every state for the last month. What they found is people with chronic lung disease, heart disease and diabetes were at an increased risk of severe complications from COVID-19.

April 1

Q: I saw on social media to avoid grocery shopping on April 1 - 3 unless you are a WIC/SNAP recipient. Is this true?

This is not an order, but it would be nice. It is true that WIC/SNAP benefits are reloaded for low-income families at the first of the month. We know there is a surge as families go to the store to redeem them. (And because families were home for much of March they may have gone through their monthly grocery budget.)

We know that grocery stores in the Houston area and beyond are working overtime to keep the shelves stocked. It’s also a good idea to check the tags of the items you are buying. There is a WIC shelf tag for qualifying items. So with grocery stores selling more these days, supplies could run out of the WIC tagged items.

If you have the option, choosing something else would leave the stock for someone who only has that choice.

Q: Are chiropractic clinics allow to be open to public during this COVID-19?

Doctors of chiropractic are part of the essential critical infrastructure workforce, according to a memo released on March 28 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The memo aims to give state, local, tribal and territorial governments guidance as they consider what actions to take in their communities to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) while still maintaining critical industries and the workers who support them.

The news comes on the heels of a letter the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) wrote to Homeland Security earlier in March, urging the agency to include chiropractors in the list of essential healthcare providers.

Q: Shouldn’t something be said about not taking the entire family into the store (grandma, 5 kids, grandpa).

It’s a good idea to designate one person for trips to the grocery store.

HEB President Scott McClelland said, “If you come to the store, don’t come with your entire family. I was at a store yesterday and because people are all bored… they’re like ‘Hey- let’s all go to the grocery store!’ And so a family of six showed up. Send one person and that way we’ll lessen the ability for the virus to spread.”

Read: H-E-B president: Don’t bring your entire family to the grocery store during the coronavirus outbreak

Q: Are car washes open during this time?

Car washes are open during this time as long as workers are following social distancing guidelines.

Of course, self car washes are open. Bring your own disinfectant wipes so you can clean off all of the items you might be touching.

March 31

Q: I’m pretty sure I was let go from work after disagreeing about the procedures we had in place for staying safe while dealing with coronavirus. What can I do?

County Judge Lina Hidalgo set up a hotline for people who may have questions or to report a business for breaking any of the order. You can call 832-839-6941 for more information.

In the meantime, Legislators passed two new acts that will allow employees to get paid leave due to coronavirus related issues and concerns. Both acts take effect on April 2. Under these new acts, your employer can not retaliate by firing you or demoting you for taking advantage of the leave. Employers with fewer than 500 employees will receive a tax credit for paying employees who do take paid leave. Check here for answers to more top employment questions.

Q: We as parents are running low on food. What is being planned to give families food that need it now?

The Houston Food Bank is working to provide food to dozens of stops around the Houston area. You can search your address and find the location closest to you, or you can call the helpline at 832-369-9390.

Q: Why is the Wood Forest Golf Course still open to members? Serving food and beverages?

We have answered this one before but because we keep getting questions we think it’s important to address it here again. Golf courses in Harris County are allowed to stay open, but driving ranges must close, according to the county’s website. The use of the shared gear is not allowed. Players must take their own equipment and follow the social distancing recommendation.

Q: I am having problems trying to apply for unemployment. The number I have been told to call is not taking calls. How do I talk to someone?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, on a typical day, the Texas Workforce Commission took about 13,000 phone calls a day. That number is up to 100,000 calls a day, TWC reports. We have had many reports from people saying they just could not get through to talk with anyone. TWC is working to shift workers to call centers and working to increase its capacity to handle more phone calls. For now, keep trying.

Q: I need to know what help will I get from my mortgage company? I have faithfully paid my mortgage bill. Will payments be deferred?

If you’re worried about missing a mortgage payment, contact your lender immediately. Numerous banks have said they are willing to work with distressed borrowers, including potentially suspending or reducing mortgage payments for a stretch. For renters who can’t make payments, we do know there is a halt on evictions. According to the Texas Apartment Association (TAA), the state supreme court has halted most evictions, including for non-payment of rent, until April 19.

March 30

Q: I am an essential worker. Do I need a special ID or letter to be out?

At this time, the order does not require proof that you are allowed to be outside your home. According to the Harris Ready website, the order presumes citizens will adhere to their civic duty and follow the order. If your employer is an essential business and you have an identification badge for your job, you can show the badge to law enforcement should you be stopped.

Q: My employer is making me work in an office with employees who are not practicing social distancing or wearing PPE’s. What can I do?

If you feel like your workplace is now following the guidelines, you can ask for help. To report non-essential entities violating current public health orders click this link or call 832-839-6941.

Q: Can you apply for food stamps if you are no longer working now?

If you are now out of a job, you may now be eligible for SNAP food benefits in Texas. Good news, most people who apply for benefits don’t need to come into the office for an interview. If you need help with your benefits, you should first visit YourTexasBenefits.com or call 2-1-1. SNAP food benefits are put on to the Lone Star Card and can be used just like a credit card at any store that accepts SNAP.

Q: Can I drive to the Brenham/Chapel Hill area to see the wild flowers as long as I follow social distancing?

It is tradition for many families to take yearly bluebonnet and wildflower pictures. We get it. So, should you drive out of the area in search of the perfect picture place? The Stay Home-Work Smart order issued by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo relates to travel and commerce within Harris County. There is no language that prohibits travel outside of the county, so in most cases that kind of travel is technically legal. But will you need to stop along the way? Visiting other areas will only expose you and your family. Of course, there are certain cities, states and countries where you are not allowed to travel.

March 27

Q: Is there a Curfew?

The Houston and Harris County orders explain that residents should not leave their homes unless they are shopping for groceries, medicine or any other “essential” task. Only Montgomery and Chambers counties have issued curfews for residents, but other local leaders are urging people to stay in their homes as much as possible.

Q: It’s time to re-register my car. How am I going to get my car inspected during a shelter in place?

You don’t have to worry about it right now. Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement granting a temporary extension to obtain a renewal of vehicle registration. Since vehicle inspections need to be finished before you can renew your vehicle registration, these deadlines have also been extended.

Q: What is the obligation of employers to inform you when you have been in direct contact with someone that has confirmed COVID-19?

Yes, an employer has an obligation to let you know if someone tested positive for COVID-19 at your workplace. However, because of certain health laws, they probably won’t let you know who the person was. The person who tested positive may say it’s okay to let their coworkers know, so they can better access their risk.

Q: Is there a possibility that the lockdown (Stay Home Work Safe Order) will go longer than the expected date of April 3, as case numbers grow?

The order is effective until 11:59 p.m. on April 3, 2020. For now, the order is set to expire at that time. But, city and county leaders are always monitoring the situation and have said they will adjust orders as necessary. Of course, we would let you know if that happens.

Q: Can we still have our yards mowed by our lawn maintenance? I didn’t want to call and schedule if not allowed.

We are getting a lot of questions from people wondering if they can still hire lawn crews. Yes, you can. Landscaping companies are considered essential businesses and are permitted to work under these orders.

March 26

Q: I am still not sure if I work for an essential business. How can I tell?

It’s understandable that you might have a question about what is considered an “essential” business. The list of what businesses are considered essential is long. Anyone who still has a question about whether they work for an essential business can call a hotline set up by Harris County at stayhome@cjo.hctx.net.

Q: Will my trash still get picked up?

Yes, your trash service should continue going without disruption. Trash and recycling collection are considered essential services under the order. Essential government functions for all local cities in Harris County are also protected, including public works, law enforcement and jail operations.

Q: Can I get arrested if I break any of the stay-at-home order rules?

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo made it clear during her March 24th press conference that we are not a police state. She said they are relying on people to do their part and trusts that they will, but added that if someone willingly violates the order in a way that puts other people at risk, they will work with law enforcement.

The order states that law enforcement agencies in Harris County have the authority to enforce the order. Violators could face a fine of no more than $1,000 and jail time of up to 180 days.

Q: I’m still confused. What activities can I leave my house to do?

We are getting a lot of questions from people asking what exactly is OK to leave the house to do? The order states people can leave their homes for activities deemed essential. In part, these include obtaining medical supplies or medication; visiting health care professionals; obtaining supplies needed to work from home; obtaining or delivering necessary supplies, such as food, pet supplies or sanitary supplies; caring for a family member or pet in another household; and performing work duties as a part of an essential business.

As we answered yesterday, you are allowed to go to public parks and outdoor recreational areas, but playgrounds have been closed. You are also asked to avoid touching picnic tables or benches.

March 25

Q: I grocery shop for my mother who does not drive. Am I able to continue to do that and deliver them to her?

Yes, since you are allowed to go to the grocery store for essentials you can still shop for family or friends. You can also visit her home for deliveries. However, consider leaving the packages at the door. It’s been advised to clean off anything you bring into your home and that includes groceries and to-go food containers.

Q: Can I visit the post office to mail something?

The post office will remain open during the stay home, work safe order. You are allowed to visit the post office to mail something.

Q: Do those that get disability SS benefits get any help from the package they passed?

If you’re not required to file a tax return due to being on Social Security, the government will use the information on your Form SSA-1099, Social Security Benefit Statement, or Form RRB-1099, Social Security Equivalent Benefit Statement.

Q: Can I still hire movers and move during my stay at home order?

Yes, you can still plan on moving during this time. Moving companies fall under the Transportation Systems category of essential businesses that can remain open. The transportation sector includes trucking and moving of necessary goods as well as public transportation. Of course, if you are planning a move, everyone should practice social distancing and self-isolate after arriving in their new home.

Q: Can I go for a walk around my block?

We’ve had a lot of questions from people asking if they can go for a walk in their neighborhood or walk on the trails near their home. Yes, you can as long as you are maintaining proper social distancing from other people you may come across. Per the order, parks remain open but the use of benches, playgrounds and workout equipment is prohibited.

Q: I don’t feel safe going to work, but my employer says I have to show up. What do I do?

Legislators just passed two new acts that will allow employees to get paid leave due to coronavirus issues and concerns. Your employer can not retaliate by firing you or demoting you for taking advantage of the leave. Under the new legislation, there is a list of reasons you can take leave.

Q: Since I am at home more now, I am working on my yard. Are places like Home Depot or Lowes open?

Since a lot of people are at home, many are working on their yards and getting housework done. The good news is home improvement stores are allowed to stay open during this time. These stores are considered infrastructure and development. For example, construction and manufacturing companies are still open and they might need supplies to keep up and running.

Have more questions? Here are the answers to the top questions we are getting about coronavirus.

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