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Mcc’s Connor Phillips

Nine new COVID-19 cases reported in McLennan County, highest daily count yet

Nine cases of COVID-19 were reported in McLennan County on Thursday, the highest one-day total yet, as Texas continued to see the outbreak intensify and the national tally exceeded 2 million.

McLennan County has logged 150 cases since March 18, and now has 24 residents with active cases, including five who are hospitalized.

The previous daily high was March 20, when eight cases were reported. The death toll in the county remains at four, and 13,662 tests have been performed. The health district is monitoring 168 people with possible exposure.

Neighboring Bell County reported 32 new cases both Wednesday and Thursday, which is its highest daily increase. That county has had 528 residents test positive.

Waco-McLennan County Health District spokesperson Kelly Craine said health officials are beginning to see an upward trend in cases as the economy reopens. This week has already seen 21 cases in the county, with none related to each other, Craine said.

“We’re seeing a pattern begin to emerge,” she said. “It’s important to remember that even though we’re reopening Texas, COVID-19 has not been contained. It’s still circulating in our community, and the more you go back to regular activities, the more your COVID exposure increases.”

Craine said it is easy for “COVID fatigue” to set in, but it is important for people to continue to cover their faces, wash their hands and keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others in public.

The local Hawaiian Falls water park and the Coffee Shop Cafe in McGregor reported Thursday that they each had an employee test positive with the virus.

The McGregor cafe closed on its own initiative when a kitchen employee tested positive after having last worked there June 5, according to the business’ Facebook page.

Hawaiian Falls will remain open, though other employees who had close contact with the worker will be notified and asked to quarantine for 14 days, according to a city of Waco press release.

The employee, who was asymptomatic, did not have close contact with visitors and was wearing protective equipment at all times, Hawaiian Falls spokesperson David Alvey said.

He said the company screens all employees daily, including a temperature check.

Statewide, 81,583 cases had been reported as of Thursday, up by 1,826 since Wednesday, when a record 2,504 new cases were reported.

The state reported 35 new deaths Thursday, bringing the total to 1,920. Dallas County on Thursday reported a record 312 positive cases.

McLennan County continues to have one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 among populous counties in Texas, with 0.56 cases per 1,000 residents. Texas as a whole has a rate of 2.75 per 1,000, with higher rates in urban counties and some smaller counties with meatpacking plants.

The recent increase in daily new cases in McLennan County coincides with an increase in testing since the start of the month. Through Wednesday, this month has seen two days when 2% of tests conducted came back positive and two days when 1% of tests came back positive. The other six days saw positivity rates of less than 1%. Rolling 7-day averages have generally been back up to 1% positive after staying near zero through early May.

Nun leaves as St. Catherine's chaplain to return to India

In her final two months as chaplain for Ascension Providence Park-St. Catherine’s, Sister Sini Paul — Sister Sini to almost everyone who entered her circle of warmth — found her ministry undergoing major changes.

A lockdown for residents in nursing care and assisted living because of coronavirus protective measures meant no more Mass celebrated in chapel, which she often set up with volunteers or pushed residents in wheelchairs to. It meant no meals together or group activities. It meant temperature checks before entering facilities and a mask that covered what many remember best: her smile.

Her eyes still would twinkle above that mask, and her voice still carried a friendly warmth and comfort when talking with residents. And, in a situation where contact with outside visitors was now rare, Paul’s presence provided something many needed.

“She was the only outside person outside from the nurses and staff. She was the spiritual presence for many of them,” said Father James Ekeocha, pastor of St. Jerome Catholic Church in Hewitt and Paul’s spiritual director. “Her presence gave them meaning and consolation.”

That came to a close June 5 when Paul, 43, ended five years as chaplain to the elderly to return to her native India at the request of her order, the Sisters of Sacred Sciences. It is a bittersweet moment for both Paul and the people who have worked with her.

“I have been blessed with a lot of friends here,” she said. “Saying goodbye, that’s what we do for the kingdom of God. We move on. I’m ready and willing to do what God says next.”

For retired nurse and volunteer Barbara Luther, who helped Paul with preparations for Mass each Sunday until the shelter-in-place order in mid-March, the sad part is missing the usual farewells because of measures to contain the coronavirus.

“I think she’s such a special person,” Luther said. “She was like a little light going around, (but) we never got to say goodbye.”

Paul is the last Sisters of Sacred Sciences nun who was serving in Waco after Sister Frisca Guria left last June. Father Antony Kolencherry in the Diocese of Mysore in southern India founded the order in 1997. The order, whose members are called to teach, preach and serve, has 10 communities in India, one in Tanzania and one in Switzerland.

Paul will return to the Indian state of Kerala, where she was born and grew up, but her departure hinges on the ability to get a flight from the United States to India, something limited because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Paul holds degrees in philosophy and theology from St. Peter’s Pontifical Institute Bangalore, a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Mysore and a master’s in spiritual theology from the Indian Institute of Spirituality Bangalore.

She took her final vows in the Sisters of Sacred Sciences order in 2004, the first sister to do so, and came to the United States the next year to serve as director of religious education at St. John The Evangelist in San Marcos. In 2007, she and other Sisters of Sacred Sciences nuns moved to Temple to work at Our Lady of the Angels Maternity Shelter. She worked there as a houseparent for six years, meeting Father Ekeocha at that time.

During her time in Temple, a Waco nun from the Sisters of Charity, who served at Providence Hospital for more than a century, invited her to consider the chaplaincy for the elderly at Providence. Two years of study and residency followed as Paul shifted from a ministry with women and young children to one with seniors.

Paul’s kind, warm spirit meant she made fast friends with the people she served as chaplain.

“I talk to them, listen to their stories, pray with them … and hold their hands when they’re dying,” she said.

Luther said the Masses held at Providence’s chapel often drew seniors from outside Providence and St. Catherine’s, because it felt welcoming for people using oxygen tanks and wheelchairs.

The affection was mutual.

“She loved her ministry. Each day she couldn’t wait to go to work,” Ekeocha said.

When she suffered loss, as when her mother died in September, residents were there for her when she returned from India.

“I get a lot of love and care from the residents. Sometimes I feel like their daughter,” Paul said with a laugh.

The advent of COVID-19 this spring changed that ministry. After her order called her back to India and she decided not to change to another order, she had prepared to leave in April only to find the pandemic shutting down global transportation.

With residents kept from any outside contact, Paul was a welcome presence, and for more than the residents. Staff members with families found themselves with worries and challenges in juggling new responsibilities of kids at home from school, she said.

The masked nun with smiling eyes provided a welcome contact for those largely confined to their rooms and with no personal visits from family and friends. Even those with impaired hearing found encouragement simply because she was there, Ekeocha said.

The support of her spiritual director, plus devotional music and walks, helped Paul cope during this time, she said.

Ascension Providence staff threw her a going-away party May 29.

“It was very touching, very beautiful,” she said.

Paul, who lives in St. Jerome’s old rectory, now spends her time waiting for commercial flights to resume to India, also under a surge of COVID-19 cases, continuing in prayer and remembering fondly her time in Waco.

“The hard part is to leave them all,” Paul said. “I’m grateful God allowed me to come to this beautiful country. I am taking that with me to share with my sisters in India.”

TIF board OKs contract extensions for 3 downtown, East Waco developments

Three developments in central Waco will have extra time to finish up construction and still get public funding previously approved by the city council.

The Tax Increment Financing Zone board approved contract extensions for The Containery, Behrens Lofts, and a planned dance studio on Elm Avenue. The board convened for the first time in several months in a virtual meeting Thursday.

The TIF Zone uses a portion of tax revenue collected from central city properties to reinvest in the area, and the Waco City Council has final say on the board’s recommendations for projects to fund. TIF grants come with many stipulations for how the money is spent, often on public infrastructure improvements needed for a given project, and they generally come with deadlines for project completion.

The board approved deadline extensions for two of Bill Wetterman’s downtown developments, though one extension came with restrictions on how he can paint The Containery on Fourth Street.

He asked for a new Dec. 31 deadline for Behrens Lofts, located at 215 and 217 S. Fourth St. The building’s second floor will be renovated into office space, and Wetterman said he expects work to be done by October.

Behrens Lofts developer buys building back to convert to condominiums

Bill Wetterman Jr. was betting on downtown before Magnolia bloomed. He turned the Behrens Drug building into Behrens Lofts some 20 years ago and had similar plans for a rambling pew-making plant on South Sixth Street before watching it burn to the ground, plunging him into financial and legal limbo.

“The Dec. 31 request was just to give us a little contingency time in case we hit another snag or more stay-at-home orders in the fall,” Wetterman said during the meeting. “I’m pretty confident we’ll be finished in September.”

The initial contract for the project’s TIF grant had a June 2019 work deadline, and it received a six-month extension in May 2019.

“When this project originally came to the TIF board, it was under different ownership and the initial proposal was for luxury lofts on the second floor,” city economic development director Melett Harrison said. “But in October 2018, that ownership notified us that they were going to change. Instead of luxury lofts, they would either have office or other commercial space on the second floor.”

Wetterman also got an extension for The Containery, but it comes with a requirement that he change a central design element. The Containery is a planned dining and shopping complex composed of shipping containers under construction at 319 S. Fourth St. The board’s extension approval comes with a requirement that the containers be repainted in colors that are not as bright.

In an interview after the meeting, Wetterman said the delay in the project is partially because of COVID-19, but also partially because of changes to The Containery’s plans. The building will be topped with nine boutique hotel rooms.

“We’ll be opening soon, late summer,” Wetterman said. “But we have to be 100% complete. I’ve got some other phases of the project, hotel rooms, site work and such, that won’t necessarily be completed and still require some additional permitting.”

A previous extension would have given the project until March 30, but that extension was never approved.

“Technically, the contract expired in September of last year as opposed to March of this year. However, the request in front of you is for an additional extension,” Harrison told the TIF board.

The Containery gets colorful makeover ahead of downtown Waco debut

Harrison said the request noted weather and construction delays. The project also failed city building inspections because construction was not following the initial plans, requiring the plans to be revised.

Harrison said she recommended approval of the extension, on the condition that the shipping containers be repainted to match earlier, less brightly colored renderings shown to the TIF board.

TIF Board Chair Ruth Jackson said she agrees the containers should be repainted, and she compared them to Legos.

Wetterman said earlier renderings were purely conceptual, and the “Lego” look was exactly what the project was always intended to be.

“The whole concept of The Containery, using the containers in this unique fashion … I strongly object,” Wetterman said of the board’s new requirement.

720 Elm Ave.

Anthony Billings requested a six-month extension for his project at 720 Elm Ave., where he and Rodney Clark plan to renovate an existing building and convert it into a dance studio and commercial space. When they started construction, the building’s roof had collapsed and the building had to be stabilized from the inside.

Billings said when the city repaved the 700 block of Elm Avenue, it delayed his project, though the result was “well worth the wait.”

“This has been kind of an exciting project,” Billings said. “We were planning on doing this project ourselves, but then the city stepped in and did the (infrastructure work). It delayed us significantly, but the final product from the city was fabulous.”

Elm Avenue block project, Doris Miller Memorial get TIF boost

Plans for a dance studio, restaurant and infrastructure renewal on the 700 block of Elm Avenue got a green light Thursday from the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board, which signed off on making it a “model block” as a centerpiece of East Waco development.

‘Front porch’

City Center Waco requested a one-month extension on the design and engineering contract for a Bridge Street project, also known as the “front porch” project. It will create a plaza and “festival street” along a few blocks of Bridge Street near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The board voted to defer consideration on the extension until its next scheduled meeting.

Completion of the design and engineering work was initially slated for last year, but in August the city changed the contracting method for the work and hired a construction manager at-risk to oversee the process.

“It extends the design process into the building process, which they have started on now,” Harrison said. “That’s one of the reasons this did not get completed on the original schedule. The approach to the project changed.”

In an interview after the meeting, City Center Waco Director Megan Henderson said the change helps the project fit in with the multiple construction projects in that area of East Waco, where two hotels, an apartment building, a sweeping Elm Avenue infrastructure project and utility work along Peach Street are all either underway or scheduled to start soon.

“I think at one point I counted eight projects that were right on top of each other,” Henderson said. “Everything in the world is happening, trying to happen or being designed.”

McLennan County elections officials outline COVID-19 precautions, polling changes for July 14 runoff

After pandemic-related delays in city, school and March primary runoff elections, McLennan County election officials are working hard to create a safe voting experience in the races to be decided in the July 14 runoff.

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, election dates, times, polling locations and the polling process itself have been adjusted, with protections against the coronavirus a top concern.

Early voting starts June 29 and runs through July 10, with a few changes in hours of operation and locations, county Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe said.

Early voting locations will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 29 through July 2. After Independence Day, early voting will resume from 1 to 6 p.m. July 5, then from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. July 6 through July 10.

“We are taking precautions,” Van Wolfe said. “We are trying to make sure the polling places are sanitary, and the poll workers will be wearing face masks and shields and gloves, and we are making sure we are social distancing in our polling places. We are trying to do what we can to make the voters feel safe.”

Voters also will be able to keep the pens they use to sign in, and they will then receive pencils, using the eraser end to operate the selection wheel and buttons on voting machines. Poll workers will spray and wipe down the machines after each person votes.

Voter turnout in runoff elections historically is low, about 10% to 15%, Van Wolfe said. She is hoping pandemic concerns will not drop those totals too drastically.

“We want everyone to come out and vote and we want everyone to feel safe in doing so,” she said.

There are also changes to early voting locations. One of the most notable changes involves First Assembly of God Church, 6701 Bosque Blvd., by far the busiest early voting location. It is not available for early voting this year, Van Wolfe said, and will be replaced with the Waco High School Performing Arts Center, 2020 N. 42nd St.

In Hewitt, voters are accustomed to voting early at the city Public Safety Department. That building will not be used for the primary runoff, but the Hewitt City Hall and Library next door at 200 Patriot Court will take its place. Other early voting locations are 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 Ave.

Van Wolfe said her office already has sent out about 5,000 mail-in ballots and said voters older than 65 or who are disabled can cast their ballot by mail. Applications can be obtained through the elections office and must be returned no later than July 2.

Curbside voting also is available for anyone physically unable to go inside one of the voting locations, she said. Voters with disabilities who choose to go inside by law can move to the front of the line so they will not have to stand so long, Van Wolfe said.

Van Wolfe’s office has produced a five-minute video that features all the health protocols and procedures that will be in place at the polling locations. She urges voters to watch the video, which is available on the McLennan County Elections Office website and at wacotrib.com, before going to the polls.

Anyone who voted in the March primary must vote in the same party’s runoff election. Anyone who did not vote in the primary can vote in any party’s runoff.

Democrats will choose between 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 will select Renee Swann or Pete Sessions for District 17 U.S. Representative; and Kristi DeCluitt and Thomas West for judge of 19th State District Court.

Sample ballots can be viewed on the elections office website under July 14 runoff election.

The TIF board approved an extension for The Containery’s construction deadline, but the extension comes with a requirement that the containers be painted in less-bright colors.