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Associated Press — Michael Thomas/  

Joe Wickline, shown here in 2015 during his days coaching at Texas, said he’s happy to be back at Baylor 22 years after he last coached in Waco.

6 COVID-19 cases confirmed in McLennan County, including 2 Baylor professors
 Brooke Crum  / 

The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District announced six cases of COVID-19 in McLennan County on Wednesday, signaling a new phase in the local response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Five of the six cases involved people who have recently traveled, district director Brenda Gray said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

By 5 p.m., the health district had reported another confirmed case, involving a 27-year-old man “with an unconfirmed travel history.”

Cases include:

  • A 64-year-old man who returned from Israel on March 12 along with a person in Bell County who was infected. The case was confirmed at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
  • A 68-year-old man from Ecuador who was visiting family in McLennan County. The case was confirmed at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
  • A married couple, ages 56 and 52, who had recently traveled to New York. The case was confirmed at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
  • A 59-year-old man with a travel history to Wyoming. The case was confirmed at 8 a.m. Wednesday.
  • A 27-year-old man with an unconfirmed travel history. The case was confirmed at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday.

Texas had reported 83 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and two deaths from the disease, as of Wednesday. The list of cases in 23 counties reported by the state did not yet include any from McLennan County. It included one in nearby Bell County, while the Temple Daily Telegram reported local officials there had confirmed three cases as of Wednesday.

Statewide, 1,907 people had been tested for the coronavirus as of Wednesday, 697 by public labs and 1,210 by private labs, according to the Department of State Health Services website. The site notes that additional providers are testing that have not reported their numbers yet.

The McLennan County couple who recently traveled to New York City over spring break on a non-university trip are two Baylor University faculty members who fell ill upon their return, Baylor President Linda Livingstone said in a press release. The couple did not return to campus and have been self-isolating at home.

The 64-year-old man who traveled to Israel went with a group of people, including a Bell County resident who also tested positive. Health district Senior Epidemiologist Dr. Vaidehi Shah said the health district is working to contact everybody who went on the trip.

“Because there were people from different counties, the state will be taking the lead on that, but we are in the process of contacting everybody,” Shah said.

Results from 16 other local tests are still pending, but it was unclear Wednesday afternoon if that number included the sixth confirmed case. Multiple labs are now testing for the coronavirus.

Dr. Farley Verner, health authority at the district, said the state reported the fifth case involving the man who traveled to Wyoming to the health district. The man had been tested in another county but is a McLennan County resident. Reporting is done by county of residence.

“These cases are travel-related, and they were discovered because of the mechanisms in place,” Verner said. “It’s important to do all the social distancing we recommended so that the cases that are unrecognized don’t spread.”

Health care providers notified their patients who tested positive for COVID-19, and the health district’s epidemiologists interviewed them by phone, Verner said. They have been instructed to isolate themselves and their families at home, while the health district actively monitors their conditions via phone.

If the patients’ conditions worsen, they have been instructed on how to seek further medical care, and emergency responders are aware of the need to pick up these patients in personal protective equipment, Verner said.

Mayor Kyle Deaver on Tuesday ordered bars, gyms, bowling alleys and a variety of other public gathering places closed, and limited restaurants to take-out, drive-thru and delivery service.

Deaver urged the public Wednesday not to panic but to take prudent steps to avoid spreading the virus.

“There’s no need to panic as a result of this,” he said. “Most people who acquire COVID-19 are going to recover and have mild symptoms, but the vulnerable population and some others may have bad outcomes.”

People who feel sick should not go to the doctor but should call first to avoid exposure, Deaver said.

Livingstone urged local students who experience symptoms such as fever, cough and difficulty breathing to call the Baylor Student Health Services nurse hotline at 254-710-4939.

Staff will advise students whether they meet the criteria for testing.

Student Health Services will be able to make appointments for on-campus testing for the coronavirus at this phone number from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Students not in Waco, as well as faculty and staff, are advised to call their health care providers if they have symptoms.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Volunteers Tasha Minnitt (left) and Rashonda Thomas work to provide free to-go meals Wednesday at the Gospel Cafe, 825 S. 10th St. The nonprofit’s to-go service is one of many local examples of COVID-19 precaustions.

Jail looks to release nonviolent inmates, police to limit misdemeanor arrests as COVID-19 precautions
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

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Some local jail inmates with nonviolent misdemeanor cases are expected to be released on personal recognizance bonds, and the sheriff is asking police to limit or delay misdemeanor arrests in new efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, officials said Wednesday.

McLennan County judges were in the process of reviewing almost 30 inmates’ cases for potential release Wednesday evening, after the Texas Commission on Jail Standards issued coronavirus-related guidance to all county sheriffs and jail administrators.

“I have been working in the jail for 29 years, and this is unprecedented territory,” said Maj. Ricky Armstrong, jail administrator for the McLennan County Jail and neighboring Jack Harwell Detention Center. “We have asked for all nonviolent misdemeanor offenders to be released to try and keep our jail population and employees safe.”

The county had six confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, but none are in the jail population, Armstrong said.

The jails already had suspended volunteer programs and closed their visitor center, effectively limiting non-inmate and non-staff access to the jails to law enforcement officials and lawyers. Jail staff is also limiting movement among inmates, screening all inmates before kitchen and laundry duties, and screening all staff at the start of each shift, Armstrong said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara sent a letter to local law enforcement agencies requesting that they limit arrests for many nonviolent misdemeanor offences in an effort to keep the jail population down. The measure is a precaution against COVID-19.

Shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday, there were 699 inmates in McLennan County Jail and 506 in the Jack Harwell Detention Center. The jails share a kitchen. It was unclear Wednesday how many, if any, inmates already had been released. Policies are not changing in relation to felony cases or federal cases.

Sheriff Parnell McNamara also issued a letter to police agencies in the county requesting they refrain from booking suspects in misdemeanor cases during the health crisis.

“Right now, there is an international, global health crisis,” Chief Deputy David Kilcrease said. “It is getting ready to impact the entire United States. The letter comes down to (police) trying to do their jobs and mitigate the circumstances to make it less dangerous than their jobs already are.”

Coronavirus latest: What's happening around Waco

The request could create issues for officers in the field, but because of the coronavirus, “we must modify our practices until we can stabilize the situation,” McNamara wrote in the letter.

Jail population

Waco police Officer Garen Bynum said adjustments to arrest policies are planned to help keep the jail population down. Waco police and surrounding agencies are making an effort to help control the spread of the disease, he said.

“We are still going to be making arrests on certain offenses that are misdemeanor offenses, partly because some of them are statutory requirements, like Class B and above misdemeanors and family violence offenses,” Bynum said. “If it is a nonviolent crime for misdemeanor offenses, like criminal mischief or burglary of a motor vehicle depending on the severity, we will conduct a full investigation on it and get a warrant on it at a later time for the subjects’ arrest.”

Bynum said officers will use their best discretion for each individual case, but any violent or felony crime will still be subject to arrests on-scene. He said officers expect some uptick in crime while the city’s disaster declaration is active, because residents will be spending more time together at home in confined spaces while schools, restaurant dining rooms, public places and many businesses are closed temporarily.

“We are only doing this for the COVID-19 (pandemic),” Bynum said. “When life gets back to normal, we will get back to our normal operating procedure.”

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Staff photo —

Jerry Larson 

Micha Robbins, 4, tries to touch the nose cone of a F/A-18 Hornet as the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron known as the Blue Angels, landed at Waco Regional Airport to refuel at Texas Aero as the teams heads to Florida.

Retailers, other businesses bring mix of responses to COVID-19 pandemic
 Mike Copeland  / 

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While bars, restaurants, gyms and theaters are under specific restrictions, self-imposed precautions vary for retailers and other local entities.

Operations of just about every stripe are at least adapting in the public health emergency.

Waco’s Richland Mall demonstrates a mixed bag of responses, with anchors Dillard’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Gordmans choosing to remain open but JC Penney announcing it would shutter its stores nationwide late Wednesday until April 2 as a precautionary measure.

Also late Wednesday, the franchisee of the Chick-fil-A location in the mall announced on social media that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19 and the location would be closed until further notice.

“We are working with the Waco-McLennan County Health District, as well as disinfecting and deep cleaning the restaurant in accordance with public health guidelines,” according to the post, which bears the name of franchisee Jake Roye. “A re-opening date will be determined following clearance from local health authorities.”

It is unclear whether the employee’s positive test is one of the six in McLennan County confirmed by local public health officials as of Wednesday evening.

Waco Restaurant Association President Kyle Citrano said Wednesday night he was aware of the notice, and said it is a “real eye-opener.” The news is especially unfortunate since Chick-fil-A was one of the first national entities to close its dining rooms as a measure against COVID-19, Citrano said.

“Unfortunately in this industry you’re always standing in front of the customer, putting yourself at risk,” he said. “It’s tough. It’s a moral dilemma.”

Many responses to the post about the positive test inquired about the employee’s schedule and the potential for transmission to other workers and to customers.

Elsewhere in the mall, other stores already had announced temporary closures, including Foot Action, Foot Locker, Champ Sports and Kids Foot Locker. Hibbett Sports, which offers a a broader selection of sports apparel, remains in business, at least for the time being, according to information on the mall website.

“Mall hours remain unchanged in order to allow our retailers the flexibility to operate,” said Stacey Keating, spokesperson for CBL Properties, the Tenessee-based company that owns the mall. “However, certain retailers will follow their own corporate or owner guidelines for temporary closures or modified hours.”

The mall remains open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

The former Sears space in the mall built in 1980 is being converted to a nearly 180,000-square-foot Dillard’s location to open later this year.

Others announcing they have closed temporarily include Bath & Body Works, Hollister, Earthbound Trading Co., American Eagle Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret and H&M, a women’s fashion retailer. Trade magazine Business Insider released a list of retailers announcing they have temporarily closed locations nationally because of coronavirus concerns. Stores with a local presence include Belk, LOFT, Gap Stores, Sephora, Lane Bryant, Catherines, Justice, Belk, Old Navy, Chico’s, Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank.

Other businesses of note in Greater Waco likewise are making adjustments:

L3Harris Technologies, the aircraft modification plant at Texas State Technical College’s airport and Waco’s largest industrial employer, with 775 on its staff, has implemented steps to reduce virus exposure. They include teleworking where possible, suspending non-essential business travel and participation in external events, and temporarily restricting visitor access, spokesman Jim Burke said.

So far, measures have not impacted employment, L3Harris reported.

The First National Bank of Central Texas is offering loan customers a two-month break from making payments, President and CEO Randy Crawford said in a press release. There will be no fees involved in the deferral.

Stage Stores, the Houston-based parent company of Gordmans, Bealls, Goody’s, Palais Royal, Peebles and Stage, has adjusted store operating hours. Until further notice, stores carrying these brands will remain open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Discount Tire, 5101 W. Waco Drive, issued a press release urging customers to make appointments to reduce wait times. It said Discount Tire will fix flats, replace tires if necessary, and assist with maintaining air pressure. It will not rotate or balance tires or make non-state-mandated snow tire changeovers.

Through June 12, Balcones Distilling downtown will not conduct tours or open the bar to serve cocktails or beer. Its visitors’ center will remain open for guests buying bottles of whiskey and branded merchandise.

James Avery Artisan Jewelry has closed all stores through March 27, including the new and larger location in Central Texas Marketplace.

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McLennan County, cities declare states of emergency, widening restrictions on gatherings
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

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Restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms and public gatherings spread beyond Waco on Wednesday as McLennan County and suburban cities declared states of emergency in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lorena, Hewitt, Robinson and the county passed declarations Wednesday, taking effect at 11:59 p.m. that day.

Hewitt and Lorena will close indoor recreation facilities like bowling alleys, gyms, bars and private clubs while limiting restaurants to to-go service and delivery. The cities of Waco and Lacy Lakeview adopted similar restrictions Tuesday, and Bellmead on Wednesday amended an earlier declaration to follow suit, taking effect immediately.

Robinson, Woodway and the county have opted to only limit the seating capacities of dining rooms. All have prohibited public and private gatherings of 50 people or more.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton declared a local state of disaster and public health emergency for McLennan County, enacting restrictions that will apply to unincorporated areas. Under the restrictions, the capacity of indoor recreation facilities, bars, clubs and restaurants will be limited to either 50% of their capacity or 50 people, whichever is less. The declaration also prohibits events that bring together more than 50 people.

During a special meeting, the county noted that municipalities such as Waco retain authority over their domains.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said he had been in discussions with city managers in the area, and with a few restaurant owners, to get their feel of the situation.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry mentioned he stopped at a small restaurant on his way to the courthouse, and there were as many people standing in line to retrieve their call-in orders as could have been seated in the dining area, so “mingling” is inevitable.

Perry said he counted 13 restaurants, most very small, operating within the county’s unincorporated area that would be impacted by the county’s emergency declaration.

Coronavirus latest: What's happening around Waco

Hewitt made its declaration Wednesday morning. City Manager Bo Thomas said the state of emergency will last seven days, at which point city council and the mayor will meet and vote whether to extend it.

The decision came after Waco-McLennan County Public Health District announced five people in McLennan County had tested positive for COVID-19, a number that grew to six by day’s end.

“There’s a possibility there might be a person who works in Hewitt that may be one of those affected people,” Thomas said.

Angelia Sloan, city secretary for McGregor, said city officials will follow the rules outlined by the county and have not enacted more stringent policies.

Woodway declared a “local disaster emergency” on Wednesday. While the order won’t shutter restaurants, City Manager Shawn Oubre said most restaurants in town have voluntarily moved to takeout service only. The two restaurants that will keep their dining rooms open will limit their seating capacity to 50 people.

“I told them to help us, don’t let it get too crowded,” Oubre. “We don’t have big restaurants here, most of them won’t even sit 50 people.”

Oubre said Woodway is also canceling events booked at city facilities for the next 60 days and refunding deposits.

“Although this disease has not yet peaked for our area, state, or county, we must be vigilant and take care of one another. We are working diligently to slow the spread of COVID-19 in McLennan County and this declaration will provide necessary measures to do so,” a city press release stated.

The city of Robinson’s declaration limits the number of dine-in customers allowed in a restaurant to either 50 people or half of the restaurant’s occupancy limit. Indoor gyms and pools will close, along with the city’s community center, senior center, municipal court and Peplow Park.

The city of West has not yet declared an emergency, but closed its park, West Public Library, Little League fields, City Hall and West Community Center Wednesday. The West City Hall lobby will be closed to the public but staff will still be available to answer phone calls at (254) 826-5351, and process payments over the phone or online at www.payclix.com/cityofwest. The city also reinstated a juvenile curfew, prohibiting anyone 16 years old or younger from being out in public from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

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Waco chooses Turner Behringer for Floyd Casey redevelopment, authorizes bond for Suspension Bridge funding
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

Waco City Council approved a $12 million Waco Suspension Bridge restoration and chose Turner Behringer to redevelop the former Floyd Casey Stadium site during a meeting Tuesday that saw sparse attendance and distancing precautions against COVID-19.

Paper signs on the Bosque Theater’s seats reminded guests to practice social distancing, and city council and staff took up a new seating arrangement to stay 6 feet away from one another. Waco-McLennan County Public Health District officials also gave updates on preparations for the virus.

The city last August issued a request for proposals to develop the Floyd Casey site, which has remained empty since the stadium was demolished in 2016. The request calls for a mixed-use development with residential, retail, commercial and office space. A presentation detailing Turner Behringer’s exact plans for the site was canceled.

“We would like to move forward with the negotiation with them,” City Manager Wiley Stem III said during the meeting. “So if we can get you to approve it this evening, we can go back and bring a full presentation to you.”

A Turner Behringer spokesperson declined comment on plans for the 105-acre site, which the city acquired in a land swap with Baylor University after it opened McLane Stadium.

Suspension Bridge

The council also voted to accept Gibson & Sons’ $12.4 million bid for a Waco Suspension Bridge restoration project. Plans to replace the bridge’s steel cables and wood decking and repair its cable houses hit a snag when bids for the project were all more than twice as expensive as the city had anticipated.

“As I’m sure the council is aware, this is significantly more than we had budgeted,” Stem said.

The council voted to pull $8 million from the city’s surplus to fund the project and to allow the city to reimburse itself through a bond already set to be issued in the coming months.

“It’s the primary landmark in the city of Waco, so we have to get moving on this,” Councilman Jim Holmes said.

Parks and Recreation Director Jonathan Cook said the project would close the bridge for 18 to 24 months once construction starts this summer. The riverwalk directly under the bridge will close, but Indian Spring Park will not be affected.

“There’s going to be a good amount work of site work and examination given the nature of the project,” Cook said.

Park cleaning

Public Health Director Brenda Gray and other public health officials gave general updates on COVID-19 cases and reiterated the importance of social distancing.

After updates, the conversation turned to playground equipment and parks. Councilman Dillon Meek asked if playground equipment is safe.

“As some families, not just mine, go stir-crazy, is it safe to go to playgrounds?” Meek said.

Gray said the answer depends in part on how crowded the playgrounds are. She said her own family has been bringing cleaning supplies to the park with them.

“We want people to do the social distancing. Sometimes parks aren’t crowded and sometimes they are, but it’s important that our children have activity,” Gray said. “I think, based on CDC guidance, we do have to have wisdom when getting outside and getting fresh air.”

After the meeting, Cook, the parks director, said the parks department has started sanitizing and disinfecting playground equipment, starting with high-traffic playgrounds at Cameron Park, then moving to community center parks, Sul Ross Park and then to neighborhood parks, which see less traffic overall.

“We’ll just continue for the foreseeable future,” Cook said.

Crews that started the process Monday had cleaned seven of the 24 parks as of Wednesday, Cook said. The amount of time it takes to clean each park, including pavilions, bathrooms and picnic tables, varies by the size and complexity of each location. He said workers are still determining how many parks they can clean in a given week, but he anticipates they can clean every park once every two weeks and hit high-traffic parks once a week.

“We’re just going to repeat and keep on,” Cook said. “We’ll do some closures, but we want to be accommodating people at all the playgrounds.”