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OPINION

Cobler: New year can't shake focus from COVID-19

CHRIS COBLER
Cobler

It’s a new year, but the news out of the capital continues to focus on COVID-19.

Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted last week that “a significant portion of vaccines distributed across Texas might be sitting on hospital shelves as opposed to being given to vulnerable Texans. The state urges vaccine providers to quickly provide all shots. We get plenty more each week.”

Many health providers and county health department officials responded that they were working as quickly as they could to give shots to front-line health care workers and lacked the doses necessary to move to what Texas calls phase 1B recipients. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, phase 1B recipients include those 65 and older and those 16 and older with medical conditions that would put them at greater risk from COVID-19.

Various state news outlets reported Texans in phase 1B could not find any vaccine available to them yet. The state health department encouraged the public to check its website weekly for updates on vaccine availability. 

In the meantime, people should continue wearing a face mask when in public and follow all social distancing guidelines, health officials said.

AG blocks Austin

The city of Austin and Travis County tried to impose New Year’s weekend restrictions on restaurants, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Abbott won the final round of a legal battle.

The local officials’ order limited restaurants to drive-thru, curbside pickup, takeout and delivery services between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. from Dec. 31 to Jan. 3. Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown imposed the three-day restriction to limit social gatherings over the holiday weekend after the state reported a record number of hospitalizations and new cases.

“Mayor Adler and Judge Brown do not have the authority to flout Gov. Abbott’s executive orders by shutting down businesses in Travis County and our state’s capital city,” Attorney General Paxton said in a statement. 

District Judge Amy Clark Meachum denied Paxton’s motion, saying the state had not shown “imminent and irreparable harm.” The AG immediately asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to block the order, but that court rejected his appeal. Paxton then went to the Texas Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the order. The high court granted the injunction late Jan. 1 without comment.

Food benefits increased

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission will provide $204 million in emergency SNAP food benefits during January as the state continues its response to the pandemic.

Recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also will see an additional 15% in their total benefits in January because of recently passed federal legislation.

“As we continue through the new year, these benefits offer nutritious food to those who need it most, especially in these trying times” Wayne Salter, of HHS, said in a statement.

The state received federal approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend the maximum allowable amount of SNAP benefits to recipients based on family size. The emergency January allotments are in addition to the almost $2 billion in benefits previously provided to Texans between April and December.  

Beginning in January, recipients will receive a 15 percent increase in their total benefits, which will continue monthly until June 2021. The additional 15 percent increase and the emergency allotment amount should appear in recipients’ accounts by Jan. 23. Administered by the state agency, SNAP is a federal program that provides food assistance to 1.7 million eligible low-income families and individuals in Texas.

Texans in need may apply for benefits, including SNAP and Medicaid, at YourTexasBenefits.com.

‘I know Chuck’

The new year brought another California company’s headquarters to Texas.

Financial services firm Charles Schwab recently announced a $26 billion merger with TD Ameritrade. As part of the merger, the combined company’s headquarters officially moved Jan. 1 from San Francisco to Schwab’s $100 million campus in Denton County. 

In a news release, Schwab said the Westlake location and facility in Denton were chosen and designed as a more centrally located hub for Schwab’s nationwide operations. Before the merger, Schwab had more than 2,500 employees at its Westlake campus, and about 2,000 employees worked at TD Ameritrade’s location in Southlake.

Gov. Abbott welcomed Charles Schwab in a tweet last week and reassured Texans that the influx of California companies wouldn’t change the Lone Star state.

“I’ve talked to Chuck, I know Chuck,” Abbott tweeted. “He wants to keep Texas, Texas.”

Chris Cobler is a board member and past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He welcomes email at ccobler@texaspress.com.