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Coronavirus in Texas: Judge opens door to expansion of voting by mail in Texas

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Here are the latest updates on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic:

Three more detained migrants test positive for COVID-19

[4:35 p.m.] Three more detainees in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Texas have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to an agency website that tracks cases.

The detainees are being held in the Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, about 45 miles outside of Dallas. A detainee in a facility in Livingston also tested positive earlier this month. There is also a positive case in a detention facility in Chaparral, New Mexico — which is under the jurisdiction of the El Paso field office.

Also on Friday, a federal district judge ordered a detainee released from the Montgomery Processing Center in Conroe. The release of the 28-year-old woman came as a result of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. Two other detainees that were part of the lawsuit were released on bond earlier.

“ICE must release many more people,” Kate Huddleston, an attorney for the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement. “We’re grateful that our client will be able to return home where she can protect her health and life, and we will press for others to get the same relief.” — Julián Aguilar

Judge opens door to expansion of voting by mail in Texas

[4:31 p.m.] State district judge Tim Sulak of Travis County made official his bench ruling from Wednesday to allow voters to request mail-in ballots by citing the disability excuse allowed in the Texas election code.

In a preliminary injunction signed Friday, which is sure to be appealed, Sulak opened the door to a massive expansion of voting by mail in the state during elections affected by the pandemic. In his ruling, Sulak wrote that it was "reasonable to conclude" that "voting while the virus that causes COVID-19 is still in general circulation presents a likelihood of injuring" a voter's health.

Until now, voting by mail has been limited in the state. Texans seeking absentee ballots that they can fill out at home and mail in had to be 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, be out of the county during the election period, or be confined in jail.

The Texas election code defines disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of “injuring the voter’s health.” Sulak ruled that currently applies to all voters who don’t have immunity to the coronavirus.

You can read the full ruling here. — Alexa Ura

Houston will limit access to parking lots in parks this weekend

[3:50 p.m.] Mayor Sylvester Turner will limit access and close parking lots adjacent to some city parks in Houston until Monday morning in order to try to control overcrowding and promote walking and biking as a way to get to these green areas, according to a press release.

"I want Houstonians to enjoy our parks because spending time outdoors allows us to breathe fresh air and stay healthy," Turner said. "But we must also work together to save lives and blunt the progression of COVID-19. The HPARD [Houston Parks and Recreation Department] measures to restrict access to parking lots will help everyone maintain social distancing and prevent overcrowding."

The measure will start Friday night and will affect public spaces like Buffalo Bayou Park, Memorial Park and Hermann Park, among others. — Juan Pablo Garnham

Texas reports 17,371 cases and 428 deaths

[1:10 p.m.] Texas reported 916 more cases of the new coronavirus Friday, an increase of about 6% over the previous day, bringing the total number of known cases to 17,371. One new county reported its first case Friday; three-quarters of the state’s 254 counties have reported at least one case.

Harris County has reported the most cases, 4,306, followed by Dallas County, which has reported 2,066 cases. See maps of the latest cases numbers for each county and case rates per 1,000 residents.

The state has reported 35 additional deaths, bringing the statewide total to 428 — an increase of about 9% from Thursday. Harris County reported five additional deaths, bringing its total to 63 deaths, more than any other county.

As of Friday, 1,522 patients are known to be hospitalized in Texas. That’s an increase of 63 patients from Thursday. At least 169,536 tests have been conducted. — Carla Astudillo

Face coverings will be mandatory in San Antonio and Dallas

[10:30 a.m.] San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg ordered that everyone 10 years or older must wear a cloth mask in public areas where it's difficult to stay 6 feet away from other people, the city announced Thursday. The requirement, which will take effect Monday, also mandated that essential businesses provide face coverings for their employees.

In Dallas County, Judge Clay Jenkins took a similar step, ordering all residents over the age of 2 to wear face coverings when visiting essential businesses and riding public transit starting Saturday. On Friday, according to The Dallas Morning News, county commissioners voted to limit this order, reopening craft stores so that people can get materials to make masks and specifying that there won't be fines if they can't comply with the face covering requirement.

Travis County and Austin, Laredo, Bastrop and Hidalgo officials have issued similar orders this month. — Juan Pablo Garnham

Conservatives sue Abbott, Paxton over statewide stay-at-home order

[5 a.m.] Conservative activists and Houston-area pastors are suing Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton over the state’s stay-at-home order, according to the Houston Chronicle.

In a filing not yet posted in court databases, activist Steve Hotze and multiple pastors claimed the order imposes “draconian, unconstitutional requirements,” the Chronicle reported. The petition, calling for a Travis County state district judge to halt the order, in part focuses on religious liberties — claiming churches are shut down.

Hotze and others in the suit also sued Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo over her stay-at-home order before Abbott’s order, which deemed churches essential services. Abbott said church services could continue but members should practice social distancing. — Jolie McCullough

This article first appeared on The Texas Tribune. Click here to view the article in its original format.

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