Seventeen more McLennan County residents tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, after a weekend of record-setting numbers in which 92 people tested positive.
Statewide, surging coronavirus numbers that also set records over the weekend will not slow Texas’ reopening, as Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday instead prescribed an emphasis on voluntary face coverings and social distancing to curtail sobering trends, including hospitalization rates that have doubled since Memorial Day.
Abbott did not announce any new measures to reverse what he called “unacceptable” trends as Texas reached an 11th consecutive day of record COVID-19 hospitalizations. And while he didn’t rule out reimposing lockdown orders in Texas — describing it as a last resort — he said the virus did not require choosing “between jobs and health.” He instead emphasized long-established voluntary measures, such as staying at home if possible.
Wearing a mask has become a political statement for some during the pandemic throughout the U.S., and Abbott is not requiring them in public, even as cities, including Waco, Woodway and Hewitt, began racing to impose mask mandates on businesses last week.
Starting Wednesday in Waco and Thursday in Woodway and Hewitt, businesses must post a COVID-19 health and safety policy including a masking requirement.
Currently, 221 McLennan County residents are sick with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, with nine in the hospital, all in critical condition.
Since March, at least 371 McLennan County residents have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. Of those 371 people, 43% are Hispanic and 20% are Black, mirroring worrying national trends that this disease disproportionately affects people of color.
Five McLennan County residents have died of the disease, including a 46-year-old man with no underlying health conditions who died June 18, the county’s first COVID-19 fatality since April.
The health district is monitoring 458 people for the disease, including those who have tested positive and their close contacts.
Eight of the people who tested positive Monday were in their 30s, and five were in the their 20s. Two people were in their 40s, and two were 50 or older.
McLennan County saw its highest reported number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in a single day over the weekend, with 41 people testing positive Saturday and 51 on Sunday, according to the health district.
Health district spokesperson Kelly Craine said part of the reason the county has seen a rapid increase in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 is because people are starting to gather and travel more. Some of the people who have tested positive recently had gathered with family members outside their households or traveled to the beach or out of the state for vacation. There was no pattern to where the people visited, she said.
Texas also set records over the weekend in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19, with the state reporting 4,430 people tested positive Saturday, the highest single-day count since the state began tracking March 26, according to the Department of State Health Services website.
On Monday, state health officials reported 3,711 hospitalizations, setting a record for the 11th consecutive day with a single-day jump of 302 new patients.
Texas also reported 3,280 new cases, the fifth-highest total since the state began keeping records and the highest yet reported on a Monday, which is typically the lowest day of the week for reported new cases. The state’s seven-day positivity rate rose again to 9.5%, it’s highest since April 20.
The 10 new fatalities reported Monday were the fewest reported in a week.
Abbott acknowledged the grim trends that continued over the weekend, saying the virus was spreading at “an unacceptable rate in Texas and must be corralled.”
Pressed on at what point he would consider putting restrictions back in place, Abbott said another doubling of new cases, hospitalizations and infection rates over the next month would create an “urgent situation” that would require action, but he did not offer specifics.
Meanwhile, both Waco hospitals reinstated their no-visitor policies Monday in response to the increasing rate of infection in McLennan County, according to a joint press release from Ascension Providence and Baylor Scott & White.
Exceptions will be made for patients giving birth or who recently gave birth; patients with disabilities or impairments or who are elderly; patients in the neonatal ICU and pediatric units; patients requiring surgery or other medical procedures; and patients requiring end-of-life care. One person may accompany these patients, and the visitor must pass health-screening criteria upon entry and wear a mask while in all hospital facilities.
“Our priority is to reduce the transmission risk within our sites of care,” the hospitals stated in the press release. “While we understand the importance of having the support of loved ones during a hospital visit or stay, we must continue to prioritize the health and safety of our patients and caregivers during this unprecedented pandemic.”
The hospitals recommended patients and their loved ones remain in contact via phone calls, text messages or video chats.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe illness, including pneumonia, and be fatal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Cities are enacting orders requiring masks or other face coverings inside businesses that serve the public while others are waiting to take their cue from county officials, who could make a decision as early as Tuesday.
Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver signed an emergency order that went into effect Saturday that orders businesses to require employees and customers to cover their faces when multiple people are in a room. Woodway Mayor Jane Kittner issued a similar order that took effect Sunday, and Hewitt followed suit with a similar order to Woodway’s.
Waco City Council will discuss and possibly ratify the order during an 11:30 a.m. special city council meeting on Tuesday. Emergency orders enacted by the mayor must go before the council within six days.
County Judge Scott Felton, who has the power to declare a countywide emergency order on masks, said he is waiting to see the council’s direction Tuesday.
“Right now with the city of Hewitt, Woodway and Waco having orders out there, I’m told that’s about 62% of the population of McLennan County and...[probably a much higher percentage of businesses,” Felton said. “We want to make sure whatever action we take is thought over.”
Felton said he has been discussing the matter with city managers and gathering information. City officials in Lacy Lakeview, Robinson and Lorena said they don’t intend to make masks mandatory before the county makes a decision.
Waco’s order came amid rapid spread of COVID-19 in McLennan County, which saw record numbers over the weekend. According to covidwaco.com, at least 165 of the 354 confirmed cases are within Waco city limits.
Deaver said enforcement will be complaint-based, similar to the city’s emergency orders about large gatherings and what businesses were allowed to remain open.
“We will start with warnings and try to educate the business owner or operator about why this is so important, and what they need to do to be compliant,” Deaver said. “We’re hoping not to issue any fines, but ultimately business owners could be fined if they fail to enforce the order.”
The orders require that any business selling goods or services to the public within city limits create and post a COVID-19 health and safety policy that includes a requirement for face coverings. Waco businesses must post by Wednesday and Hewitt and Woodway businesses must post by Thursday. Failure to post and enforce the policy could result in a fine of up to $1,000 per day of violation.
“As a municipality, it’s an easier thing for us to do, a more appropriate thing for us to do, regulating a business as opposed to an individual,” Hewitt City Manager Bo Thomas said. “There are other issues involved with government regulating an individual and their rights.”
Thomas said Hewitt’s code enforcement officer is sending copies of the order, along with a guide explaining what businesses are required to do.
“The other thing we put in there is ‘please plan on providing a hand sanitization station,’” Thomas said.
Under the order, customers are allowed to remove their masks to eat and drink. Alina Mikos, co-owner of Dichotomy Coffee and Spirits on Austin Avenue, said the coffee side of the business has been mostly filling to-go orders, but some people still dine in at tables spaced for safety. On the bar side of the business, customers must take a seat and wait to be approached instead of coming up to the bar.
“We want to keep everybody safe, our staff as well as everyone else, and we do take this very seriously,” Mikos said.
Dichotomy set up a hand sanitizer station at the entrance of the building and recently added the requisite signs reminding customers they need to mask up before entering the building.
“We still want everyone to be as comfortable as possible while they’re in here,” Mikos said.
Mikos said most customers already wear masks. It’s also common for customers to carry masks in their pockets and wait until a Dichotomy employee tells them to put theirs on. Now that the order is in place, she said she’s only seen a handful of maskless customers who became frustrated after being told they couldn’t enter.
Nelson Rue, owner of Schmaltz’s sandwich shops on Valley Mills Drive and downtown, posted his own signs after the order went into effect.
“Today at the Townwest location, we did have about three or four people who chose not to come in because they didn’t have a mask on,” Rue said. “But everybody that came on did have a mask on.”
Rue said customers don’t have to wear masks for curbside pickup.
Rue said both Schmaltz’s locations also frequently disinfect tables, paying special attention to doorknobs, and have spaced out the tables in their dining rooms.
Lacy-Lakeview City Manager Keith Bond said the mayor has no plans to enact a similar order yet, but that could change. He said the city is also waiting to see what McLennan County commissioners will decide to do.
“If the commissioners issue the order similar to Waco’s, we would need to follow the county’s order as all other cities would need to do,” Bond said.
Robinson City Manager Craig Lemin said his town is also waiting on the county.
“We’re evaluating it,” Lemin said. “I think our mayor wants some more information before he makes a decision on it.”
Lemin said Robinson has a handful of stores, a single grocery store, fast-food restaurants and a handful of dine-in restaurants that would be affected.
“Most of our businesses are offices and things like that,” Lemin said.
Joseph Pace, city manager of Lorena, said most Lorena businesses already asked their employees to wear face coverings.
“Right now we are not going to follow suit,” Pace said. “We’ll probably be more in line with what the county is going to do.”
COVID-19 concerns have led the Waco Civic Theatre to cancel this weekend’s performances of the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” while the performing arts group Wild Imaginings has canceled its planned second weekend of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The WCT musical, whose performance was scheduled for Thursday through Sunday at Waco High School’s Richfield Performing Arts Center, was canceled Friday after a cast member tested positive for COVID-19, executive director Eric Shephard said.
In a statement on the theater’s Facebook page Saturday, the director said rehearsals had been stopped and the theater building would be sanitized.
The theater suspended ticket sales Saturday morning with approximately 75 tickets sold at that point.
Shephard said the theater would refund any tickets sold upon request.
Wild Imaginings director Trent Sutton said the first weekend of outdoor performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Common Ground coffeehouse had gone well with an average of 30 people attending each performance.
With the sharp increase in new COVID-19 cases reported over the weekend and the call for masking in public, Sutton said the company opted to cancel its second weekend, scheduled for Thursday through Sunday, and sell a performance video instead.
Those who have purchased tickets for the weekend are being contacted about the cancellation and invited to put the ticket prices toward the upcoming video, he added.
Waco City Council on Tuesday will interview eight applicants seeking to fill out District 4 Councilman Dillon Meek’s term and could vote to choose a winner.
Because of COVID-19, applicants will answer a list of questions in a video conference that will air on the Waco City Cable Channel and livestreamed at wccctv.com at 1 p.m. City Secretary Esmeralda Hudson said the selection process could be split between two special meetings.
“We are expecting to do all the interviews [Tuesday],” Hudson said. “They may or may not select somebody, depending on whether or not they want to reconvene on Thursday to discuss it a little bit more in executive session and do a resolution on June 25.”
The public can comment on the meeting by leaving a comment card through the city of Waco website, or by contacting the City Secretary’s office at (254) 750-5750 or email@example.com.
Applicants include Kelly Mariah Palmer, a Baylor University School of Social Work lecturer and a social worker with Communities in Schools; Rick Victor Allen, a case manager at Veterans One Stop; Darius Lamont Ewing, a Realtor at Rydell Real Estate; Haydn Ross Harris, who serves on the Waco Plan Commission; Jose Rafael Villanueva, a self-employed attorney who has spent years serving on various city commissions; and Austin Adamson Meek, a radio host on 103.3 KWBU-FM who works in franchise development at Neighborly with no relation to Dillon Meek. Jason Paul Ramos, director of Impact Waco for Antioch Community Church, and Stephen V. Willis, a local contractor who specializes in historic preservation, filed June 17, rounding out the list.
Meek has to step down because he moved out of his district, a plan his family made before the pandemic caused the postponement of the May election in which he was running for mayor. He will continue to serve on the council until a replacement has been selected and will run for the mayor in the Nov. 3 election.
The city council will appoint a District 4 successor to serve until the seat comes open in the November election. The District 4 seat will also be in play in the May 2021 local elections.