An increase in COVID-19 cases has followed each two-week phase in Texas’ reopening plan, and local health officials are watching closely as the rate of tests coming back positive increases statewide, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said Wednesday during a weekly press conference.
“All of these are not surprising. You’ve got more people mixing together,” Deaver said. “But there are things that we need to continue to watch and continue to bear in mind that COVID-19 has not left McLennan County, or the state of Texas, or the United States, or the planet Earth.”
Three new cases in McLennan County residents were confirmed Wednesday, bringing the number of people with active infections to 19. Three local patients were hospitalized, and two were in critical condition as of Wednesday. Less than 1% of tests given to McLennan County residents have been coming back positive. Statewide, however, the positivity rate has increased to between 6% and 7% after hovering at about 5% for the past few weeks, Deaver said.
“That tells you that even though the number of tests is going up, the number of positive tests is going up as a percentage at a faster rate,” he said.
Though concerns remain as more people come into contact with each other, the policy of checking employees’ temperatures at the local Chuy’s restaurant in Legends Crossing helped catch a COVID-19 case, Chuy’s regional supervisor Brooke Trevino said. The restaurant closed before lunchtime Monday after officials got word Sunday that the employee had tested positive, and it will remain closed until its owners feel it is safe to reopen, Trevino said. The employee who tested positive had not been to work since June 2 and did not have direct contact with diners.
Waco-McLennan County Public Health District officials were at Chuy’s on Wednesday offering tests to co-workers of the employee who fell ill, health district spokesperson Kelly Craine said. She was unsure how many workers took the tests, and more Chuy’s employees may be asked to self-quarantine, Craine said.
Trevino said Chuy’s did not reopen until the governor’s office allowed seating at 50% capacity, and it has continued to maintain social distancing policies.
Reopening businesses and increased gathering nationwide is raising concerns, Waco Family Health Center CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs said.
“As states continue to relax their policies, continue to relax social distancing in order to produce a widening economy, and the aftermath of Memorial Day celebrations, and of course the large-scale demonstrations against racial injustice, there is a concern about a growth in transmission rates nationwide,” Griggs said.
There had been 1,973,797 people in the United States with confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country is on pace to pass the 2 million mark this week, Griggs said. As of Wednesday, 112,133 people in the United States had died of the disease, according to the CDC.
Griggs said because of the virus’ incubation period and the time it takes to process a test, the effects of large events and holidays would not be apparent until at least two weeks later. He said Texas has one of the highest incidence rates of any state, with just under 80,000 cases reported so far.
Prompt test results are critical so the health district can start the contact tracing process promptly and potentially contain further spread. However, commercial labs initially were overwhelmed by demand, delaying results statewide and locally, Griggs said.
“The commercial labs are starting to catch back up this week, and we’re starting to see the 48-hour turnaround now this week,” he said.
The Texas Tribune reported Wednesday that some people who were tested at the state’s mobile sites staffed by the Texas National Guard are still waiting for results nearly a month later.
Deaver said the health district has 70 staff members trained in contact tracing. The city is trying to maintain a one to 10 ratio of employees to cases being tracked, meaning it would only need more contact tracers if the district were required to trace contacts for 700 cases at once.
Griggs said he would guess most current patients know how or where they caught the virus because there are so few cases in McLennan County.
“In situations like New York, where there’s high population density and a very high case count, there’s more spread among people that don’t have symptoms,” Griggs said.
Attending any large gathering increases risk, but indoor events and places where people are singing or shouting in close proximity are especially dangerous, he said.
“If you know you’re going to get a crowd, please wear a mask and try to stay outdoors,” Griggs said. “And don’t cluster if you can at all avoid it.
Still, event schedules are slowly filling back up, and city facilities are on their way to opening back up.
The city issued a permit to the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce for the annual Juneteenth parade, which will proceed with additional physical distancing, occupancy limits and a new route. The chamber worked closely with the city of Waco to establish social distancing and sanitation measures for the parade, said Rachel Pate, chamber vice president for economic development. This year, the entrants will register online and receive assigned spots, and officials will limit the number of people walking in the parade and the number of people riding in each vehicle.
“I think that’s an important tradition and it has elements of First Amendment rights to it, so I think it is proper for us to allow the community to have that celebration,” Deaver said.
The parade will Start at Paul Quinn Campus, then make its way to Elm Avenue and across the Brazos River to Heritage Square outside Waco City Hall.
Also, garage sales and estate sales are once again allowed, and the city is waiving permit fees. The Waco Convention Center will reopen July 1 at 50% capacity. Deaver said there are some events booked for next month, but canceled events have not rebooked so far. Waco Transit’s Silo District Shuttle is not operating, but shuttles are running to La Salle Avenue again.
Deaver said the city’s canceled Fourth of July concert, which brings in tens of thousands of visitors each year, would have been too difficult to safely hold.
Alan Ritchie said COVID-19 kicked him unmercifully in April, forcing him to shutter his Ritchie’s Western Wear the entire month to comply with orders that nonessential retailers cool their heels until further notice.
“It was worse than rough, the worst month we’ve ever had,” Ritchie said.
He has sold boots, shirts, jeans and western hats more than 40 years and operates across Waco Drive from the El Conquistador Tex-Mex restaurant.
“Sales were down to almost zero,” he said. “You can’t get much lower.”
Retailers, restaurants and other sales tax generators around Waco must also feel Ritchie’s pain, as Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar sent Waco a $2.6 million sales tax rebate this week reflecting April transactions. That represents a $500,000, about 15.7%, drop from the $3.1 million rebate arriving in June last year, well before COVID-19 forced the hand of community leaders trying to control its spread.
June rebates reflect April sales reported to Hegar in May.
Statewide, Hegar sent rebates totaling $690 million to cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts, 11.7% less than disbursements in June last year, Hegar said in a press release. He said the year-over-year decline in allocations was the steepest since September 2009.
The Waco economy bled from a thousand cuts starting in late March. Richland Mall was closed the entire month of April, and not all occupants joined the reopening May 1. Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, Earthbound Trading Co. and Build-A-Bear Workshop, among others, remain closed.
Stores at Central Texas Marketplace, Waco’s largest concentration of retail operations, either closed or limited on-site commerce to curbside deliveries.
Restaurants resorted to drive-thru and delivery service, only recently reopening their dining rooms in phases starting at 25% occupancy.
“We were closed six weeks,” Ritchie said. “We’d have customers drive up. Some even tapped on the door. We always tried to be very courteous, but we couldn’t let them inside. We had that curb service, but that’s not any good for our type business. People want to try things on. We’re not carrying out a meal. There is zero chance of selling a pair of boots under those conditions.”
Ritchie, who said he is almost 80 years old, said boredom ran a close second to frustration during his time hunkering down. He visited the store often to check on things, often with his son, Mike, but it was not the same. He missed doing business, the interaction with his customers.
“Fortunately, we were in a position to continue paying all our employees, and we’re still paying them,” he said. “The pandemic didn’t jeopardize our existence, but could have had it lasted much longer. Fortunately, even with the increased competition, our sales have increased in recent years.”
It was aggravating that his shop could not operate, having been deemed nonessential, while big-box competitors and even niche retailers selling similar merchandise continued to welcome shoppers, Ritchie said.
Across town at Central Texas Marketplace, Cavender’s Boot City, however, also took a forced break from business in April.
“We were closed to the public for operational purposes, but three or four would come in daily to pull web orders,” first assistant Zach Henderson said. “We thought we would be considered an essential business since we sell workwear to city employees and to those in construction, but that first week, code enforcement came out and shut us down. We sent in the necessary paperwork, hoping to qualify as essential, but were turned down.”
He said revenue losses mounted as the store remain shuttered.
“It was typical to have 300 to 400 customers in here on a Tuesday or Wednesday,” Henderson said. “Last Sunday, we were open limited hours, from 11 to 6, and we had 550 people in the store, according to our counters.”
The city of Waco’s budget office is making contingency plans should sales tax revenue continue to plummet, spokesperson Larry Holze said Wednesday.
But for now, at least, sales tax revenue is holding its own.
“I sat in on a meeting about this today, and some were thrilled about where we stand, all things considered,” Holze said. “Calendar year to date we are down only three-tenths of 1% from last year, about $50,000. April was the first full month under COVID-19. We should know more when the May figures are in, and we soon will be getting into the budgeting process.
“But some are viewing this as a great report.”
The Texas Comptroller’s Office reported Waco enjoyed rebates totaling $19.9 million through June, down from $19.94 million through June last year.
Waco’s suburbs applied a fresh meaning to social distancing, generally enjoying rebates for June bettering those a year ago.
Lacy Lakeview, for example, received an almost $190,000 rebate this week, more than double last year’s $90,000, according to the Comptroller’s Office.
That community’s year-to-date total is up a healthy 42%.
Also showing year-over-year bumps in June were Beverly Hills, up 11.8%; Woodway, 7.7%; Robinson, 8.6%; and Hewitt, 19.7%.
And reinforcements are appearing on the horizon.
Best Buy, the electronics chain with a presence at Central Texas Marketplace, announced on its website plans to allow a limited number of shoppers to enter its stores starting Monday. It has maintained curbside sales.
AMC, the movie chain that operates the 16-screen AMC Galaxy 16 on South Valley Mills Drive, said it hopes to reopen properties globally next month.
Texas A&M University employees covered the on-campus statue of early Texas leader Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross with a tarp Wednesday morning after discovering it had been vandalized with graffiti overnight.
The word “racist” and the acronyms BLM and ACAB had been painted in red at the base of the statue in the university’s Academic Plaza, abbreviations for “Black Lives Matter” and “All Cops Are B---ards.” There was also red paint on the face and body of the statue along with a rainbow-colored wig.
Last week, petitions began circulating arguing for and against the removal of the statue, the oldest on campus. Several Confederate monuments have been taken down around the country following racial tensions sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Ross, a leading citizen of Waco, rose to fame as a Texas Ranger captain and Confederate general, then served two terms as governor of Texas prior to becoming Texas A&M’s president, where he served from 1891 until his death in 1898. He is credited with saving the struggling university in its early years, boosting enrollment and securing additional funding to improve infrastructure. The statue was dedicated in 1918.
Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young issued a statement Wednesday morning regarding the incident: “We became aware of the incident this morning and have immediately begun to engage experts to assess damage to the statue. We ask our Aggie community for peaceful discourse.”
In August 2017, Young issued a statement about the statue after the University of Texas removed Confederate statues from its campus: “Lawrence Sullivan ‘Sul’ Ross is honored on our campus as a former president of the school. Without Sul Ross, neither Texas A&M University nor Prairie View A&M University would likely exist today. He saved our school and Prairie View through his consistent advocacy in the face of those who persistently wanted to close us down.”
Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp also issued a statement at the time, saying, “Anyone who knows the true history of Lawrence Sullivan Ross would never ask his statue to be removed,” Sharp said.
The statue was also vandalized with graffiti in 2018.
The Ross family settled in the newly created town of Waco in 1849, when Sul was 11. Ross’ father, Shapley Prince Ross, was given four city lots, exclusive rights to operate a ferry across the Brazos River and the right to buy 80 acres of farmland at $1 an acre. The Ross family and slave Armstead Ross also built the first permanent house in Waco.
Sul Ross attended Baylor University when the school was still located in Independence, Texas and enlisted in the Texas Rangers in early 1860. Late that year, in the Battle of Pease River (about 260 miles northwest of Waco), Ross’ company killed Comanche Chief Peta Nocona, who turned out to be the husband of Cynthia Ann Parker, who’d been kidnapped as a child in 1836 and raised among the tribe. Returning Parker and her toddler daughter, Topasannah, to her white family won lasting fame for Ross.
Early in 1861, after Texas had voted to secede from the United States and join the Confederacy, Ross enlisted as a private. Eventually, he led the Sixth Texas Cavalry. In early 1864, he was promoted to brigadier general. He participated in some 135 battles.
In 1873, McLennan County voters elected Ross sheriff. In his two years in office, he helped form the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas. He later was elected to the state Senate’s 22nd District in 1880.
Ross ran for governor as a Democrat in 1886, and was so popular in office, the Republican Party declined to run anyone against him in 1888. During his two terms, the new Capitol was completed.
When he was buried at Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery in January 1898, thousands attended the funeral, including the entire student body of Texas A&M, according to reports from the time.
Sul Ross Park and Sul Ross Senior Center, both located in South Waco along Jefferson Avenue, are named for him, as is the community of Ross north of Waco and Sul Ross State University in the West Texas County of Alpine.
A former Midway school administrator charged in the 2016 hit-and-run crash that killed a Baylor University sophomore who was cycling on Franklin Avenue was indicted Wednesday on two felony counts.
A McLennan County grand jury indicted Tammy Renee Blankenship Harlan, 52, on second-degree felony charges of manslaughter and vehicle involved in accident/failure to stop and render aid in the death of David Grotberg, 19, a Baylor student from Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
If convicted, Harlan, former executive director of special populations and federal programs for the Midway Independent School District, faces up to 20 years in prison on each count. She was arrested in March 2019 after police received an anonymous letter implicating Harlan, almost three years after Grotberg was killed.
Harlan, who worked for Midway ISD for two years, submitted a resignation letter May 14, 2018. She wrote she wished to “pursue other opportunities,” according to her resignation letter.
Court records show no attorney has filed a letter of representation in Harlan’s case.
Grotberg was struck while riding his bicycle the night of Oct. 6, 2016, on Franklin Avenue near 32nd Street. His girlfriend was riding alongside him, but she was not injured.
According to an arrest affidavit, witnesses who saw the SUV strike Grotberg about 10 p.m. reported the vehicle was going “very fast and did not stop after striking Grotberg.”
Grotberg was studying philosophy at Baylor and played trumpet in the Golden Wave Marching Band. Members of the Waco cycling community placed a white “ghost bike” at the crash site to honor Grotberg.
His parents, Clark and Diane Grotberg, established a scholarship at Baylor in his memory.
“We are just so thankful that the Waco PD and the Waco district attorney’s office is still working on it and taking care of things,” Clark Grotberg said Wednesday after learning of Harlan’s indictment.
Waco police received an anonymous letter in September 2018 that claimed Harlan was speeding and drinking when she hit Grotberg. An informant followed the SUV the next day to Marlin, where the vehicle remained until it was repaired, according to police reports.
A search warrant for Harlan’s phone revealed she filed an insurance claim on the vehicle on Oct. 29, 2016. She said the damage was done after she hit a stop sign on University Parks Drive the previous day.
Based on the photos of Harlan’s car, police determined the damage was more consistent with a collision with a person than a stop sign. When detectives interviewed Harlan in October 2018, she said she hit a sign after attending a gathering in Woodway, where she had been drinking wine.
Harlan told police she thought she hit a stop sign and later said she thought she may have hit a homeless person, according to arrest records.
In other action Wednesday, the grand jury indicted Wilford Carpenter Jr., 20, on a first-degree felony charge of aggravated assault on a public servant.
Carpenter and a 16-year-old were arrested last month on allegations they shot an AK-47 rifle at Waco police Detective John Clark, who was pursuing them after another shooting incident April 14.
Patrol officers responding to a group fight at the Estella Maxey Apartments, 1809 J.J. Flewellen Road, heard gunshots near the intersection of Abbott and Delano streets and reported seeing a Jeep leaving the area, Waco police Officer Garen Bynum said at the time. Guns were fired at the apartment complex, but no one was injured and the gathering quickly broke up, Bynum said.
Clark, a 26-year police veteran, was in the area investigating another incident when he spotted a Jeep that matched the description and followed it into Bellmead. Carpenter and the teenager, riding in the car, began shooting at the pursuing police car, police said.
Clark was not injured, but his vehicle was hit, police reported.
Officials are considering whether to certify the juvenile to face the charges as an adult.
Also, Heath Lee Mynar, a former Waco police officer, was indicted on a third-degree felony charge of assault-family violence by occlusion in a November incident involving his girlfriend.
Mynar, who has since retired from the police department after working there 20 years, initially was arrested on misdemeanor family violence charges. However, the charge was upgraded to a third-degree felony after the woman told police Mynar restricted her breathing.
The woman reported Mynar, who was off-duty at the time, grabbed her by the neck and threw her to the ground, then dragged her by the neck across the living room during an argument at a South Waco apartment, according to arrest records.
The woman told police she and Mynar had been arguing, and that she confronted Mynar while he was sitting on the couch and “grabbed his martini glass and slung the contents onto the floor but did not throw the glass,” according to an arrest affidavit.
She “advised that this angered Mr. Mynar, and he stood up, grabbed her with one hand on her neck and one hand on her side and threw her to the ground, then stood over her, grabbed her neck with both hands, and drug her, face up, from the living room to the front door of the apartment, approximately 20 feet,” police reported.
A growing wave of class-action lawsuits against universities is spreading across the country, filed by students alleging breach of contract and seeking refunds for actions schools took in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Baylor University joined the ranks this week of at least 125 private and public universities being named as defendants in at least 175 lawsuits across the country.
The suit against Baylor seeks class-action status and was filed by Allison King, a sophomore from McAllen. She is represented by Roy Willey, an attorney from South Carolina whose firm has filed at least 30 lawsuits since April 8 against colleges and universities across the country.
King’s suit, filed in Waco’s federal court, alleges breach of contract and unjust enrichment by Baylor and seeks refunds for tuition, parking, housing, dining and other costs associated with attending the private Baptist university after they closed the school and converted to online-only classes.
“These cases are about basic fairness,” Willey said in a statement. “Colleges and universities are not unlike any other business in America and they too have to tighten their belts during this unprecedented time. They are not any more entitled to keep money for services they are not delivering than the mom and pop bakery on Main Street.
“Students and their families have prepaid tuition and fees for services, access to facilities and experiential education, and the universities and colleges are not delivering those services, access or experiences. Now universities are not delivering those services that students and their families have paid for, and it’s not fair for the universities with multi-million dollar endowments to keep all of the money that students and their families have paid. It is not fair to pass the full burden onto students and their families.”
Baylor spokesperson Jason Cook said Baylor did refund housing, dining and parking balances to students for the spring semester. He declined to say how much the school refunded to students, but said the figure was in the “millions of dollars.” Even though instruction was limited to online, students still had “interaction” with their professors and were given academic credit for coursework, Cook said.
“Baylor University stands by the decisions that were made during the spring semester as part of an unprecedented time for our country and all of higher education,” according to a statement from the school. “In a time where businesses and other organizations shut their doors from coast to coast, Baylor stepped up on behalf of our students through many unique, creative and sacrificial ways to fulfill our mission and provide educational services during a pandemic not experienced in more than 100 years.”
Last month, Baylor regents approved a $73.3 million budget cut, leaving a $679.9 million budget for the upcoming year. The school is under a hiring freeze, and administrators said at the time they would employ fewer adjunct instructors and would cut staff positions, though they had not decided which positions.
King’s lawsuit states she paid $21,421 to cover spring semester tuition, plus $2,261 for a general student fee, $50 for lab fees, $90 for chapel fees and $1,773 for a meal plan.
The lawsuit alleges she was deprived of many aspects of college life after Baylor closed its campus March 16, including Big 12 sporting events, access to the 156,000-square-foot McLane Student Life Center and activities with sororities and fraternities, religious groups, honor societies and more.
The lawsuit also alleges that studies show that online learning is not as effective as traditional, in-person instruction and that online colleges rank last in terms of “employer desirability of college type.”
“There is no question that class room learning — and all of the experiences that come with on-campus education — is more valuable to the student than online learning,” the suit alleges. “Students pay — and borrow — hundreds of thousands of dollars for the on-campus experience because it provides the students the opportunity to engage directly with their professors, to meet and share experiences with diverse and accomplished individuals from around the world, to join student clubs, to build professional networks, and to experience the campus environment.
“Online learning offers none of these opportunities — and carries few of the massive expenses associated with live classroom learning. For these reasons, many students spend tens of thousands of dollars on private colleges and universities that afford the opportunity for in-person college education.”