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Baylor will release an update Monday on its coronavirus case numbers among the student-athlete population.

Two more COVID-19 deaths reported in McLennan County; 'clusters' of infection seen

Local health authorities Monday announced two new deaths from COVID-19 in McLennan County and warned of “clusters” of cases among friends and family that are helping drive high case counts.

The death of a 53-year-old Latino man Sunday and an 89-year-old white man Monday in local hospitals brings the countywide death toll to eight, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported. The district also reported 51 new cases of COVID-19 in the county, bringing the total to 795.

All eight deaths in McLennan County have been men. Four were Latino, two were Black and two were white, mirroring the disease’s disproportionate impact on people of color nationwide.

The main cause of the recent spike in McLennan County residents testing positive for COVID-19 is social activity, health district officials said. They urged residents to continue social distancing, even while with family and friends as Independence Day weekend approaches.

Through contact tracing, health district workers identified 23 family and friend “clusters,” or groups of two or more people in close contact, that tested positive for the disease last week. Spokeswoman Kelly Craine said these people who are gathering for dinner or celebrations are the ones testing positive because they are not as vigilant about social distancing, washing their hands often and wearing a mask around people they know.

“It’s more risky at this point because people don’t perceive it as a risk,” she said. “Even though it’s your family, someone may have the virus and not have symptoms.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

First Baptist Church’s preschool has been closed down due to COVID-19.

The viral outbreak has also made inroads into local institutions. New cases include the following:

  • Ten workers at McLennan County Jail and eight at the adjacent Jack Harwell Detention Center have tested positive as of Monday, said McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Ricky Armstrong. That is up from four workers at both units testing positive last Thursday. A kitchen worker with Trinity Commercial Contractors, which supplies food to McLennan County Jail, also tested positive last week, Armstrong said. The two jail facilities are connected by the kitchen but no inmates have tested positive, Armstrong said.
  • First Baptist Church of Waco notified families Monday morning that “an individual associated with First Baptist Preschool Development Center” had tested positive for COVID-19. The church has closed the preschool temporarily and will likely reopen after a thorough sanitizing of the facility, JoEllen Roach, director of preschool ministries, wrote in an email to families.
  • Midway Independent School District notified families over the weekend of four student-athletes who tested positive. All four students participated in the early morning workouts, and all four participated in strength and conditioning training on June 22, while two participated in the training on June 23. The students had close contact outside of training, as well.

Midway ISD coaches are communicating with all parents or student athletes who participated in the same training, according to the letter. If a coach does not contact a family, then they believe their students did not come into close contact with any of the four athletes who tested positive. Those who have been contacted must remain in quarantine for two weeks, per UIL guidelines.

Of the 51 people who tested positive Monday, 30 were in their 20s and 30s. Six people were in their 50s, and another six people were in their 60s or above. Five people were in their 40s, and four people were between 11 and 19 years old.

At least 592 people are currently sick with the disease in McLennan County, and 28 are in the hospital.

Twenty-one patients in the hospital are on ventilators, with a total of 70 ventilators available in Waco. Thirty-six of 54 ICU beds are in use.

Texas reported 4,288 new COVID-19 cases and 10 more deaths Monday, according to the Department of State Health Services. At least 153,011 Texans have tested positive for the disease and 2,403 have died as a result of COVID-19. Those numbers do not include the data McLennan County released Monday.

Staff writer Kristin Hoppa contributed to this report.

Racial justice advocates urge Baylor to go deep in confronting racist past

As Baylor University pledges to reckon with the racism in its long past, historians and campus activists are hoping the quest will lead to lasting change beyond plaques and monuments.

The Baylor Board of Regents passed a resolution last week acknowledging that the university’s key founders owned slaves or advocated for slavery. Regents said a Commission on Historic Campus Representations will study that history and make recommendations on what to do about statues, monuments and building names associated with those leaders. The commission, consisting of students, faculty, staff and alumni, will be named in two weeks.

“During Baylor’s infancy, a number of University leaders and prominent individuals connected to the institution supported Confederate causes and engaged in the fight to preserve the institution of slavery both during and following the Civil War, including some serving as members of the Confederacy’s armed forces,” the resolution reads. “Therefore, Baylor University recognizes its historic roots and initiates the process of racial conciliation.”

Regents acknowledged that three founders — the university namesake Judge R.E.B. Baylor, the Rev. James Huckins and Rev. William M. Tryon — along with most of the institution’s trustees and early leaders, owned slaves or were in support of slavery.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

A couple of sheets on display on student housing on South 10th Street show support of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Shevann Steuben, outgoing Baylor NAACP president, said she was encouraged to hear about the commission, but it comes after years of growing frustration among students looking for a more consistent stance from the university.

“We feel as if this is a start, but also it could have been avoided,” Steuben said. “Like many things, if you’re more proactive about them, they can be avoided.”

Steuben said taking down some of visible reminders of Baylor’s past racism is only the first step.

“It’s a start to acknowledgement, it’s a start to the conversation of how we continue to work toward freedom and emancipation and equity, but there has to still be actions… Actions making sure students feel represented at the university and feel heard, not just heard, but accommodated,” Steuben said.

With claims to be Texas’ oldest university, Baylor is one of many universities and cultural institutions reckoning with demands to remove statues and other objects honoring figures seen as racist.

Baylor was chartered in 1845 in Independence, Texas, a hub of the slave-based cotton economy of this frontier state. Huckins, Tryon and Baylor were determined to create Texas’ first Baptist university in that town.

Huckins and Tryon were the first official Baptist missionaries to Texas, according to the 1972 book “Baylor at Independence” by Lois Smith Murray. Though Northern-born Huckins eventually split from the American Baptist Home Mission Society because of its anti-slavery stance, according to Murray. Documents available from the Texas Collection indicate that he also owned slaves.

Tryon, who was raised in the Northeast, married a wealthy planter’s daughter in Alabama before the mission board sent him to Texas, where he served as the pastor of Independence’s church.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

A statue dedicated to Baylor University co-founder R.E.B. Baylor sits between Pat Neff Hall and Waco Hall. Regents are creating a panel to consider the future of memorials and statues connected to slaveholders or white supremacist. Baylor himself was a slaveholder, though the fate of his statue has not been determined.

Meanwhile, Baylor himself owned 20 slaves by 1860 and advocated slavery as a “God-ordained reality,” according to a column by Baylor religion Professor Christian Van Gorder in the Waco Tribune-Herald in 2017.

Carey Latimore, a history and African American Studies professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, said that university’s “Roots Commission” has been on a similar mission for the last two years to examine its past connected to racism and slavery.

He said legacy of slavery goes deeper than “who” and “what,” and the commission has to be open about whatever it finds.

“It’s one thing to acknowledge it, but it’s another to, in a sense, reconcile,” Latimore said.

“As a university explores its past, they tend to find things they don’t want to find. At the same time, there’s stories that show some level of progress.”

Reconciliation, he said, could involve tracing the lineage of the founders’ slaves, forming a scholarship fund for them, or other gestures.

“The legacy of racism was a generational thing,” Latimore said. “These men and women who were in positions of power and authority, that wasn’t just expressed during slavery, it was expressed beyond that.”

Latimore said the placement of the statues and plaques matters as well. Context is everything, and their placement as part of historical display, the original intentions behind their placement, and who that person was in the grand scheme of things all matter.

“To me, the conversation is more important than desecrating something, or saying something should stay because it’s part of history,” Latimore said. “How do we find a way to bring people together? How can we use these monuments to engage in a conversation deep in the throes of what the university is, wants to be and hopes to be?”

He said race commissions at other universities can easily rush the process, not allowing enough time for the kind of research that would tell the full story. He’s worried the public might push Baylor’s commission and administration to act before they’ve assembled a complete picture.

“It takes some time,” Latimore said. “It’s easy to say the three founders of Baylor were slave owners. But who were those slaves? Were they working at Baylor? Is there a way to build some kind of a scholarship for the descendants of the slaves that were with them? These are just ideas. Is it even possible? These are the questions universities have.”

Mia Moody-Ramirez, chairwoman of Baylor’s department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media, said that in her 19 years at Baylor, she has seen change come slowly.

“Within my department I have not experienced racism, of course I do hear about it from colleagues and other people,” Moody-Ramirez said. “I do know it’s there because it’s everywhere. It’s in our society.”

She said the decision to form an official commission is a milestone she’s excited for.

Steuben, the Baylor NAACP official, said she’s spent much of the last four years working to make the university more equitable for Black students. Through Baylor’s alumni network, she’s connected with the people who were having the same conversations 20 years ago.

“These are difficult conversations to have, I’m not going to negate that,” Steuben said. “But it’s a lot more difficult when you’re in a community that’s not as open-minded as you, or many other people, would like.”

Steuben said the backlash against trying to talk about race in general terms has always disappointed her and her peers, and she doesn’t have to look further than the comment section on any article about race at Baylor to see it. She said the stock response often directed at students seeking change, “If you don’t like it, go to a different university,” is missing the point.

“I chose to be at this school because of what it stood for, because of what its mission is,” Steuben said. “I’m looking for Baylor to always uphold that, whether I’m a student there, a graduate student or just an undergraduate alumnus.”

Voters turn out at Waco High site for the upcoming runoff election.

First Baptist Church’s preschool has been closed down due to COVID-19.

Towns hold off on mask orders while McLennan County leaders debate

As a fourth McLennan County city Monday ordered face coverings to be worn in businesses to stem the spread of COVID-19, other cities waited direction from county leaders, who punted on the decision.

McLennan County Commissioners voted at a special meeting Monday to delay a decision on a mask mandate until their meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The delay came after Commissioners Ben Perry and Will Jones balked at the measure as burdensome on business.

Meanwhile on Monday, the city of Mart joined Waco, Hewitt and Woodway in requiring businesses to ensure that employees and visitors wear face coverings, or face a $1,000 daily fine.

County Judge Scott Felton has the authority to issue a similar order countywide on an emergency basis, but commissioners could overturn the order, and Felton said he has not considered using that authority.

“It would have to be ratified by the commissioners court, so it didn’t make much sense to issue an order without their support,” he said. “I would like to work this out with everybody staying on one team.”

Bell County commissioners on Monday modified County Judge David Blackburn’s order that required business to enforce the wearing of masks if social distancing is not possible. They stripped away mandatory requirements and penalties and said masks are “strongly recommended.”

In McLennan County, Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones said business has suffered enough and mandating that locations serve as community watchdogs is going too far.

“I have a real problem with fining a business $1,000 for non-compliance when they have a customer refusing to wear a mask, especially if they’re trying to attract customers to their business,” Jones said. “We’re already asking a lot of them. We’ve shut some of them down. Now to ask for a fine that size . . . that’s onerous. I encourage people to wear masks, follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines and use common sense.”

Perry, the Precinct 4 commissioner, said the county shouldn’t rush into a mandate on face coverings.

“This is not a debate over whether masks do or do not work,” he said. “The opinions I’ve heard lead me to believe they can be effective. But look at what’s already been done: Waco, Woodway and Hewitt put an order in place covering 62% of the county population and 75% of businesses in the county. Counting those who commute to work, the population number increases to 70% to 75% being under order at least eight hours a day.”

He said the county acted “hurriedly” to enact sheltering in place, and probably should have considered other options. He said he knows of businesses “barely hanging on, stressed and financially stretched thin,” and he’s reluctant to toss the burden of enforcement into the mix.

Perry owns two Shipley’s Do-Nuts locations and said in an interview his lobby traffic has been devastated by COVID-19-inspired restrictions.

“Waco, Woodway, Hewitt, they put orders in place that I support,” Perry said. “An individual city may choose to take action if need be. But today — and this could change tomorrow, as this is a dynamic situation — I don’t feel a mandate from the county is in their best interest.”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Pat Miller voted to defer action on masks, but said commissioners “have a moral obligation to address public safety. We need to do something. In the final analysis, we’ll be held accountable if we don’t.”

Officials in Robinson, West, McGregor and Bellmead said Monday they’re inclined to wait on a sign from McLennan County government before proceeding.

“I was literally just drafting a letter,” said Bellmead City Manager Yost Zakhary, reached by Monday afternoon. “We are going to follow what the county will do. In the meantime, we will be encouraging residents to do what they feel comfortable doing. Wear a mask if a business asks you to wear a mask. Please abide by the rules of that business. I see no difference in this and a restaurant saying, ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service.’”

Zakhary said he was not speaking for the Bellmead City Council.

“We have six personalities, and I don’t dare speak for them,” he said.

Zakhary said he made a point of visiting multiple stores over the weekend in Bellmead and Waco and uncovered no consensus on mask-wearing.

“It was probably 50/50, as many wearing as not wearing,” he said.

McGregor City Manager Kevin Evans said he does not know if or when the city council there will take up the matter, not that it matters.

“The way our order is written, we mirror what the county does,” Evans said. “As long as we comply, we don’t have to meet again.”

Robinson City Manager Craig Lemin said city government there “is waiting on commissioners,” but the Robinson City Council may take up the matter in coming weeks. He said council members have requested more information about their role, and the county’s, in dictating policy to business owners.

“You can refuse service to someone not wearing a mask, but what if they’re determined to force their way inside?” said Lemin. “You risk making hourly employees gatekeepers. Not that we don’t feel everyone needs to be wearing masks, but it’s a matter of enforcement. Most businesses in Robinson are requiring masks. They recognize the severity, and want to protect their employees and customers. Enforcement is a difficult situation.”

West Mayor Tommy Muska said his city also would defer to the county. He said he would not impose a requirement to wear masks in West.

He said he strongly urges people, especially seniors, to wear masks, but thinks they are smart enough to assess the risk for themselves.

5 tips for wearing face masks in hot weather

5 tips for wearing face masks in hot weather

Public can submit questions to police chief finalists in online 'Town Hall'

The public will have a chance to ask questions of Waco police chief finalists in a virtual town hall Wednesday, city officials announced.

The event is set for 6 p.m., and will feature two finalists, who are expected to be named Tuesday afternoon. City spokesman Larry Holze said the city was continuing to interview candidates Monday and was giving them tours of the city.

The public will be able to submit questions to the city for the planned two-hour town hall. The candidates will log in from their respective locations and will answer questions read by a moderator.

Questions can be submitted ahead of time by sending an email to TownHallQuestions@wacotx.gov and typing “Town Hall” in the subject line of the email. Individuals can also call in questions at 750-5750 ahead of the meeting.

Last week, the city named a slate of five candidates: Albert “Stan” Standridge of Abilene; Jason Lando of Pittsburgh; Marcus Dudley of Aurora, Colorado; Patrick Gallagher of Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Richard Bash of Columbus, Ohio.

If time allows, the city may also take questions Wednesday using the chat feature on Zoom by using the following link: https://wacotx.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_Pog4zHV4QxejA7m196-K7A

The meeting will also be broadcast live on WCCC-TV and will be available via the city’s live stream at www.wccc.tv.

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Early voting in runoff brisk despite pandemic; mail-in voting soars

Early voting in the July 14 primary runoff election got off to a brisk start in McLennan County on Monday despite worries about a steep rise in COVID-19 cases.

Election workers in three of the five early voting locations reported 100 percent of the voters on Monday were wearing face coverings.

The Texas Secretary of State has ordered that election officials can only strongly urge voters to wear masks. But those efforts were enhanced by city orders in Waco and Hewitt requiring citizens to wear masks inside businesses, including city offices.

Those voting in the runoff by mail have already returned a total of 3,626 ballots, 200 more than voted by mail in the March primary. Thursday is the deadline for mail-in ballots to be requested.

Meanwhile, 521 voters cast Republican ballots Monday at the county’s five early voting centers, while 179 Democrats voted early.

Election workers are working hard to create safe polling environments, officials said. Besides urging voters to wear masks, voters will be able to keep the pens they use to sign in so they are only used by them.

They also will receive pencils so they can use the eraser end to operate the selection wheel and buttons on voting machines.

Also, poll workers are spraying and wiping down the machines after each person votes, Van Wolfe said.

Curbside voting also is available for anyone physically unable to go inside one of the voting locations.

The pandemic did not deter 85-year-old Lonnie Rollins, a retired Baptist minister and former youth camp administrator, from voting for the first time in McLennan County since moving from Kerrville five years ago to be closer to his grown children.

“I’m not that concerned,” said Rollins, who was wearing a mask. “I just came from the eye doctor’s office and I had to go through all of that there, so here I am coming to vote. I had been an administrator of a large youth camp and they were having the 100th anniversary celebration last week, and they asked me to come talk about some of the history of the camp. There were over 200 people there and only a few were wearing masks, but I think I’m going to be just fine.”

McLennan County Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe said runoff elections generally draw low voter turnouts, with percentages often in the single digits. Monday was busier than expected, Van Wolfe said.

“We are very excited to have this turnout,” she said. “We have had voters that were here ready to vote at 8 a.m. when we opened the doors and we have had a steady stream most of the day. This is my first election with COVID, so I don’t know what to compare it to. But, unfortunately, there normally are low turnouts for these type of elections. We plan for this (runoff) election every election, not knowing how many are going to show up. So we are happy when they do show up.”

Van Wolfe said the pandemic accounts for some of the increase in mail-in votes, as does a 2-year-old law allowing anyone who is over 65 or disabled to apply for annual ballots by mail.

For those voters, the ballots are mailed to them automatically for every election, she said.

Early voting continues through July 10. Early voting locations will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Thursday. After Independence Day, early voting will resume from 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday, then from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. July 6 through July 10.

Early voting locations include the Waco High School Performing Arts Center, 2020 N. 42nd St.; Hewitt City Hall and Library, 200 Patriot Court; the McLennan County Elections Office, 214 N. Fourth St.; the Waco Multi-Purpose Community Center, 1020 Elm Ave.; and the Robinson Community Center, 106 W. Lyndale Drive.

The Democratic Party runoff ballot includes MJ Hegar and Royce West for U.S. Senator; David Jaramillo and Rick Kennedy for District 17 U.S. Representative; and Chrysta Castaneda and Roberto R. “Beto” Alonzo for Railroad Commissioner.

Republicans are choosing between former Congressman Pete Sessions and businesswoman Renee Swann for District 17 U.S. Representative; and between Kristi DeCluitt and Thomas West for judge of 19th State District Court.