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Texas locked in a battle over voting by mail

With Texas’ runoff elections set to happen in the middle of a pandemic this summer, many voters are asking: Do I have to go to the polls to cast a ballot?

The short answer is that it’s still up in the air for many. An ongoing legal fight is being waged on multiple fronts over whether the novel coronavirus means more people should be eligible to vote by mail in Texas this year.

In the federal courts, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery granted a preliminary injunction that said anyone in Texas who wants to vote by mail to avoid transmission of the virus could qualify for a mail-in ballot. However, less than a day later, a panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily stopped his ruling from taking effect.

A separate but similar case is pending at the Texas Supreme Court, meaning that it’s unclear whether Texas will expand who is eligible to vote by mail during the pandemic, as other states have.

As of Wednesday, the state’s traditional rules remained in place. But the courts could still force the state to expand. And the Texans who normally qualify to vote by mail can still do so in July regardless of any decisions by the courts. Here’s a look at how voting by mail works in Texas and the ongoing legal fight.

How do I qualify to vote by mail in Texas?

According to Five Thirty Eight, 29 states allow any registered voter to request a ballot by mail, and five states conduct all elections via mail. In multiple states that do not regularly allow all voters to vote by mail, state officials have recently expanded voting by mail due to the pandemic or allowed voters to use the coronavirus as a reason to vote by mail during the upcoming elections. Texas isn’t one of them.

A registered voter can request a ballot to fill out at home and then mail in if they meet a narrow set of qualifications. Voters can apply if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or an illness, or are confined in jail, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office. Voters who will not be in the county where they registered on the election day and during the entire early voting period can also request a ballot by mail.

What’s the status of the state’s rules for mail-in voting?

In multiple lawsuits, individual voters, state Democrats and civic organizations are asking the courts to clarify whether a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus is a valid reason for people to request absentee ballots under the Texas election code’s disability qualification. The code defines a disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of “injuring the voter’s health.”

Texas Republican leaders, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, argue that the vote-by-mail disability qualifications apply to voters who already have a sickness or physical condition and not those who fear contracting a disease, “whether it be COVID-19 or the seasonal flu.”

Last month, state District Judge Tim Sulak issued a temporary order in favor of the Democrats and nonpartisan organizations, allowing voters who are susceptible to the virus to qualify for mail-in ballots by citing a disability. A state appeals court upheld the district judge’s order, but the Texas Supreme Court then put it on hold.

The state’s victory in federal court Wednesday could prove to be temporary. The 5th Circuit granted what’s known as an administrative stay, which only stops Biery’s ruling from taking effect while the court considers whether it will issue an injunction nullifying it during the entire appeals process.

Some believe the fight could make its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. For now, the existing qualifications for absentee voting remain in place.

How can I submit an application to vote by mail?

To apply for a mail-in ballot, voters must mail a completed application for ballot by mail to the early voting clerk in the county where they are registered. Voters can print out their own applications, contact their local elections office to receive one or request one from the secretary of state’s office. In order for someone to vote absentee in the July runoffs, counties must receive the applications by July 2. Contact information for early voting clerks in every county can be found here.

How do I turn in my ballot?

For most people voting absentee, counties must receive completed ballots that aren’t postmarked by 7 p.m. on election day. Ballots are also valid if they’re received by 5 p.m the day after the election as long as they were postmarked by 7 p.m. on election day. Under Texas’ election code, an absentee ballot can be delivered to the county clerk’s office by mail or dropped off in person on the day of the election with a valid form of ID.

Correcting oversights
McLennan County Army veterans killed in Iraq to be added to memorial after delay

Christine Lebron still harbors a few bitter thoughts about her son’s exclusion from downtown Waco veterans memorials honoring McLennan County residents killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After all, the Army named a medical clinic after her son, Javier Antonio Villanueva, at Fort Irwin in Southern California, where the Waco native was trained as a combat medic.

Another name missing from the downtown veterans memorial is that of Jeffrey Paul Shaffer, who grew up in West and who was killed in Iraq in 2006.

While local veterans officials regret the oversights, they say they intend to rectify those omissions and will honor the two fallen McLennan County soldiers at a makeshift Memorial Day observance at 5 p.m. Monday at the memorials at Washington Avenue and University Parks Drive.

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the traditional Memorial Day event at the avenue of the flags at the Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Waco, veterans officials are inviting the public to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice by creating a motor caravan down Washington Avenue before turning along University Parks Drive to pass by the Vietnam Memorial and other veterans memorials. Participants in the caravan can then cross the river to drive by the Doris Miller Memorial at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Elm Avenue.

The impromptu parade can be done all day Monday, said Robert Gamboa, a member of Waco Citizens for Waco Vietnam Memorial and a historian of veterans-related issues. Anyone wishing to attend the brief ceremony at 5 p.m. Monday is asked to wear a mask and practice social distancing, Gamboa said.

Lebron said she likely will attend the ceremony, at which veterans officials plan to honor her son and Shaffer and publicly pledge that their names will join two other McLennan County men killed in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

Also Monday, Mary Duty and the Blue Star Mothers will lay a wreath near the flagpole at Rosemound Cemetery at 10 a.m., and members of the Young Marines will place flags at the graves of veterans buried there. Duty said the public is invited to the Rosemound event, but she also urges those in attendance to adhere to safety practices associated with the pandemic.

Gamboa and other veterans officials say they regret the oversight that left Villanueva and Shaffer off the Iraq memorial. They subsequently discovered the omissions occurred because the Army listed Villanueva as being from Temple and Shaffer from Arkansas, Gamboa said.

“I was real upset because he was the first one from this area to have been killed, and they didn’t even mention him,” Lebron said. “I was like, ‘How could they not?’ He was a medic and he even has a medical clinic named after him at Fort Irwin and he was from here. He grew up here.”

After graduating from La Vega High School, Villanueva worked as an assistant manager at a big-box clothing retailer, assistant manager at a fast-food Mexican restaurant and at a grocery store deli, his mother said.

He joined the Army primarily to provide for his family, and he moved to Temple when he got married and joined the Army, she said.

Lebron said she still is haunted by that 6 a.m. knock on her door by Army representatives.

“You just know what happened if they come knocking at your door,” she said. “I knew he was gone.”

Villaneuva was assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment as a combat medic and died Nov. 24, 2005, in Asad, Iraq. He had sustained fatal injuries the day before when an improvised explosive device detonated near his unit during combat in Hit, Iraq, according to an Army site about the clinic named after him.

Lebron said the things she remembers most about her son, who was 25 when he was killed, are his sense of humor and his love for hanging around listening to music with his cousins. She said he liked to play basketball and ran track at La Vega.

Villanueva’s daughter lives with her mother in Killeen, and they visit regularly, she said.

“He loved his daughter,” Lebron said.

Shaffer, who grew up in West, was 21 when he was killed on Sept. 13, 2006, in Ramadi, Iraq. He was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment when a makeshift bomb exploded near his Bradley fighting vehicle.

According to research by the Army and Gamboa, Shaffer, who enlisted in the Army in February 2005, had been looking forward to serving his country since the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He has a daughter who lives in Arkansas.

Photo gallery: Memorial Day weekend around Waco

Photos: Memorial Day around Waco

Memorial Day weekend sees partially reopened Waco parks, tourist sites

Memorial Day weekend has served as the pivot from spring schedules into summer, but COVID-19 concerns and shutdowns have scrubbed most calendars of seasonal events and activities.

Anyone interested in venturing out this holiday weekend, however, may find flickerings of life as Waco tourist sites, museums and activities continue to reopen. Bars will be able to reopen at 25% capacity starting Friday, joining many restaurants and businesses that will be allowed to bump up to 50% capacity.

Here is a rough look at what is open and what is not and any operational changes.

Waco parks continue to be open with basketball courts, the Waco Skate Park, horseshoe pits and public restrooms now available for use. City baseball, softball and soccer fields are available only for groups of four or fewer from the same household, but playgrounds and splash pads are still closed. The city’s three disc golf courses and tennis courts are open for play as is the Cottonwood Creek Golf Course, with groups limited to four players or fewer.

Cameron Park Zoo is still closed, but expected to reopen May 29. Trails at the Waco Mammoth National Monument reopen Friday, though the monument’s main buildings remain closed. Hawaiian Falls water park also is closed, awaiting an OK from the Texas governor’s office on water parks and amusement parks.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Waco parks are open, with boat ramps open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Group shelters, pavilions and playgrounds are still closed, and Airport Beach and the back beach of the Twin Bridges day use area are closed because of flood damage.

Campgrounds are open, though booked through the Memorial Day weekend, and reservations and payments must be made in advance online at recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777.

Those interested in kayaking and paddleboarding can find rentals on Lake Brazos this weekend with Waco Paddle Co. and Pura Vida Paddle. Both companies do walk-up rentals and reservations, with the latter through their respective websites.

Waco Paddle Co. operates from 1 to 6 p.m. Friday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Monday, near the intersection of Franklin Avenue and University Parks Drive. Pura Vida’s hours will be 1 to 6 p.m. Friday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday. It is located on the lower dock at Buzzard Billy’s, 100 N. Interstate 35, and parking is recommended in Buzzard Billy’s upper lot.

More COVID-19 restrictions lifted at Waco parks and rec facilities

Waco basketballers, skateboarders and horseshoe pitchers, along with parkgoers needing to use the restroom, regained access to those outdoor facilities Monday as the Waco parks and recreation department continued a gradual relaxation of COVID-19-related restrictions.

The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, 100 Texas Ranger Trail, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with admissions ending at 4:30 p.m. Because of COVID-19 measures, tour groups are limited to 23 people, and the museum’s interactive exhibits are turned off. Visitors are asked to respect social distancing, and masks are encouraged but not required. Bandanas are available for purchase at the museum’s admissions desk.

The Texas Sports Hall of Fame, located nearby at 1108 S. University Parks Drive, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Monday. Building occupancy is limited to 125 visitors. Hand sanitizing stations are available, masks encouraged and social distancing is practiced in lines and exhibit spacing.

The Mayborn Museum, 1300 S. University Parks Drive, remains closed.

The Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute, 500 S. Fifth St., is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Monday, and noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Building occupancy is limited to 25% of normal capacity which may affect tour size and admission timing. Masks and payment by credit or debit card are encouraged.

Waco bars can reopen on Friday, and live music is following close at hand. The Backyard, 508 S. Eighth St., will open for lunch at 11 a.m. Friday with Waco band Sundae Drivers performing a free show at 9 p.m. Next weekend, the Huser Brothers are scheduled to play. At downtown Waco club Z’s on the Curry, Max, Lynnette & Steven are scheduled to play at 8 p.m. May 29 with Sami Brown on June 4.

The Waco Hippodrome, presently the city’s only operating movie theater, will mark Memorial Day with two recent war movies added to this week’s screenings. Sam Mendes’ “1917” and Roland Emmerich’s “Midway,” both released last year, will join the movies “The Hunt,” “Trolls World Tour” and “Love Song” in daily showings this week. Seating is limited to 25% capacity. Call 299-9000 or go to the box office for tickets.

Photo gallery: Memorial Day weekend around Waco

Photos: Memorial Day around Waco

Four more COVID-19 cases in McLennan County raise vigilance

Local health authorities cautioned against complacency Thursday after reporting another four COVID-19 cases in McLennan County, the same number as Wednesday.

The eight cases reported over two days represent an uptick after a lull in cases over the past few weeks. Before Wednesday, only 10 new cases had been reported this month, and the last day with more than three cases was April 7.

“We wouldn’t call it a pattern yet, but this is why we do daily case monitoring counts,” Waco-McLennan County Public Health District spokeswoman Kelly Craine said. “For the public, the takeaway is that the virus is still here and circulating.”

She said none of the eight cases reported Wednesday and Thursday are thought to be related to each other, and all are considered to be “community spread” rather than originating outside the county. Each of the cases will be investigated through contact tracing methods.

No cases have been reported in McLennan County senior care facilities or jails, Craine said.

As of Thursday, the county had 106 cases, with 12 active, 90 patients recovered and none remaining hospitalized.

Within the county, 5,919 tests had been completed. However, Craine said the health district is still waiting to hear about 268 tests that were administered in free drive-thru test clinics the Texas Division of Emergency Management and Texas National Guard held May 8 in Bellmead and Waco, and on May 15 in West.

She said the health district has learned that the tests are being processed at a lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. A spokesman from the Texas Division of Emergency Management did not return calls from the Tribune-Herald this week.

More COVID-19 restrictions lifted at Waco parks and rec facilities

Waco basketballers, skateboarders and horseshoe pitchers, along with parkgoers needing to use the restroom, regained access to those outdoor facilities Monday as the Waco parks and recreation department continued a gradual relaxation of COVID-19-related restrictions.

Meanwhile, health authorities in neighboring Bell County reported 11 new cases Thursday, the second-highest daily case number after Wednesday’s count of 15.

Statewide, 945 new cases were reported Thursday, bringing the cumulative total to 52,268 since the beginning of March. Twenty-one deaths were reported Thursday, bringing the state total to 1,440.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders in recent weeks have gradually reopened Texas facilities that were closed or severely restricted in late March. Bars, bowling alleys and aquariums may reopen with limited capacity starting Friday, and restaurants may start operating at 50% capacity, up from the standard of 25% allowed as of May 1.

Photo gallery: Waco reopens for business on May 1

Waco reopens for business: Scenes around town on May 1

Meatpacking safety recommendations are largely unenforceable

MINNEAPOLIS — Federal recommendations meant to keep meatpacking workers safe as they return to plants that were shuttered by the coronavirus have little enforcement muscle behind them, fueling anxiety that working conditions could put employees’ lives at risk.

Extensive guidance issued last month by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that meatpacking companies erect physical barriers, enforce social distancing and install more hand-sanitizing stations, among other steps. But the guidance is not mandatory.

“It’s like, ‘Here’s what we’d like you to do. But if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to,’” said Mark Lauritsen, international vice president and director of the food processing and meatpacking division for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

The pandemic is “the most massive workers’ safety crisis in many decades, and OSHA is in the closet. OSHA is hiding,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist who was the agency’s assistant secretary of labor under President Barack Obama. Michaels called on OSHA to make the guidelines mandatory and enforceable, which would include the threat of fines.

OSHA’s general guidance plainly says the recommendations are advisory and “not a standard or regulation,” and they create “no new legal obligations.”

But the guidance also says employers must follow a law known as the general duty clause, which requires companies to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards. Critics say that rule is unlikely to be enforced, especially after President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April aimed at keeping meat plants open.

Already, examples have emerged of questionable enforcement efforts and pressure to keep plants running:

Shortly before Trump’s order, state regulators in Iowa declined to inspect

  • a Tyson Foods pork plant despite a complaint alleging workers had been exposed to the virus in crowded conditions. Documents obtained by The Associated Press show Iowa’s OSHA agency took 2 1/2 weeks to contact Tyson, get a response and conclude that the company’s voluntary efforts to improve social distancing at the Perry plant were “satisfactory.” Within a week later, 730 workers — almost 60% of the workforce — had tested positive.
  • In Kansas, the state softened its quarantine guidelines after industry executives pushed to allow potentially exposed employees to continue going to work,
according to emails and text messages
  • obtained by The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle. The state had previously advised such employees to quarantine for two weeks, before conforming to the more lenient CDC guideline, which allows employees to continue working if they have no symptoms and use precautions. The move came after Tyson raised a concern with the state of rising worker absenteeism.

After Trump’s executive order — developed with input from the industry — the Labor Department and OSHA said OSHA would use discretion and consider “good faith attempts” to follow safety recommendations. Employers would be given a chance to explain if some are not met. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made clear in letters earlier this month that the Department of Agriculture expected state and local officials to work with meat plants to keep them running. And he said any closed plants without a timetable to reopen had to submit protocols to the USDA.

The USDA did not respond to repeated requests to provide those company plans to the AP. When asked how guidelines would be enforced, a USDA spokesperson said enforcement was up to OSHA.

Major meatpackers JBS, Smithfield and Tyson have said worker safety is their highest priority. They provided the AP with summaries of their efforts to improve safety, but the plans themselves have not been made public. Tyson said because the temporary suspension of its operations was voluntary and the company was already meeting or exceeding federal guidance, it was not required to submit a reopening plan to the USDA.

One plan obtained by the AP, for the reopening of a JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota, details multiple safety improvements, including installing physical barriers, increasing spacing between workers and requiring protective equipment. The plan includes photos. It says employees will be screened for health issues, but it makes no mention of requiring testing.

JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said the plan “demonstrates the extraordinary measures” the plant has taken “to keep our team members safe as they provide food for the country.”

In an emailed response to questions about how guidance would be enforced and what role OSHA would play in protecting workers, the Department of Labor said OSHA received 55 complaints in the animal-processing industry and opened 22 inspections since Feb. 1.

Echoing language from the general duty clause, the agency also noted longstanding rules that require employers to provide a safe workplace.

“OSHA’s standards remain in place and enforceable, and they will continue to be as workers return to their workplaces,” a labor spokesperson said.

Michaels, the former OSHA official, said the clause has no preventive effect and is generally enforced only after a worker is injured. He said it’s effective only in cases in which OSHA conducts an inspection and issues citations and the employer agrees to fix the problem — so any impact is felt months or years later.

Michaels said OSHA will not issue citations if employers are doing their best to eliminate a hazard but find it’s not feasible.