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COVID-19 numbers jump with record-setting 79 new cases in McLennan County

McLennan County officials reported 79 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, setting yet another daily record.

The new cases bring the cumulative count to 552 confirmed cases, which includes 362 residents with active infections, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported.

Fifteen COVID-19 patients are hospitalized locally, including four on ventilators, the district reported. Six people have died of COVID-19 in McLennan County, and 184 have recovered from the disease.

Of the 79 new cases reported, 65 are in patients 50 or younger, including 25 people in their 20s. The health district reports it is actively monitoring 556 people, including residents who have tested positive and their close contacts.

Health district spokesperson Kelly Craine said local contact tracing efforts have found personal interaction with family members and friends more responsible for spreading the virus than large gatherings or events.

“The virus is being spread by day-to-day contact and with family and friends,” Craine said. “You’re getting the virus from someone you know.”

In addition to the increase in cases overall, the percentage of COVID-19 tests that came back positive also continued to increase, with a rolling seven-day average at 11% as of Tuesday. The statewide positivity rate is 11.7%.

Craine stressed the need to continue social distancing, hand washing, mask wearing and limiting non-essential trips to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s sounding like a broken record, but we need to keep doing all those things,” she said.

At the same time, county residents need to continue to call their doctors about other health issues they may be having to keep those problems from worsening, Craine said.

A fourth jailer at the McLennan County Jail has tested positive for COVID-19, McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Ricky Armstrong said Thursday. One tested positive Tuesday, and two tested positive Wednesday.

A kitchen employee of Trinity Commercial Contractors, which supplies food to the jail, also tested positive last week. The kitchen connects the McLennan County Jail and Jack Harwell Detention Center, but no Harwell inmates or staff members have tested positive for the virus, Armstrong said. No inmates at either facility have tested positive, and officials started the process earlier this week to test every staff member and inmate at both facilities.

A “detention team member” at the Bill Logue Juvenile Justice Center in Waco also has tested positive. Juvenile Probation Director Collin Coker said the center would comply with all guidelines from the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but declined to share any details of those actions.

McLennan Community College also reported Thursday that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19 and that anyone known to have close contact with the employee would be notified and given further instruction.

Neighboring Bell County also saw its 12th death attributed to COVID-19 and a high number of new cases, with 68 reported Thursday, the second highest single-day increase for the county since March, said Amanda Robison-Chadwell, director of the Bell County Public Health District. Bell County also is seeing a rise in cases among people younger than 60, Robison-Chadwell said.

The recent surge in new cases statewide — more than 17,000 in the past three days — led Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday to halt elective surgeries in the Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio areas to save hospital space in those metropolitan areas. Abbott also said the state would “pause” its reopening, effectively freezing businesses at their current level of occupancy.

Splashy entrance
Hawaiian Falls holds grand opening for new attraction

It might be a stretch to say Brandi Gawlik traveled from Phoenix to Waco just to visit Hawaiian Falls with her three children. But she did visit the water park as quickly as she could, and bought a season pass.

“It’s clean. It’s small enough to watch the kids, yet there are rides and attractions that keep the entire family entertained. It’s impressive,” said Gawlik, who was relaxing at Hawaiian Falls at about noon Thursday with her three girls, ages 8, 6 and 5. The park was packed with squealing, splashing, laughing tykes, many flocking to the newest attraction: Kona Bay.

Like other venues, Hawaiian Falls must deal with COVID-19, which is spreading more virulently than ever locally and statewide, forcing new restrictions Thursday at hospitals in Texas’ major metro areas.

Hawaiian Falls in Waco limits occupancy to 50% of capacity, though the hubbub Thursday belied that restriction. A sign cautions that by visiting the Falls “you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19.” Staffers must wear masks, and visitors may do so if they wish, park manager Justin Litton said.

Kona Bay is a 10,000-square-foot, multi-level play area with 10 “waterslide experiences and water features,” according to a Hawaiian Falls press release. It cost Hawaiian Falls $500,000 to build, but the city of Waco softened the financial blow by granting the company a five-year lease abatement that could extend to seven years, Waco Parks and Recreation Director Jonathan Cook said.

Hawaiian Falls’ struggles with declining attendance and sagging revenues appear on the mend under Orlando-based ProParks Management.

“This is their third year in operation, and we have been very thankful for what they’ve done and impressed with their commitment to the local community, their desire to make this a top-notch water park,” Cook said. “This slide complex and their investment in it shows their willingness to work with us and to keep making improvements, including the shade structures, Tiki Island, the large pavilion and upgrades to food service.”

Cook toured the park Thursday with ProParks President Curt Caffey.

“He mentioned to me, as we were walking around the site, that they are looking at 20 years,” Cook said after the visit. “They want to be a part of this community long-term. They will consider future attractions, future amenities. With the tennis center next door and the Riverbend Park complex nearby, we see potential for this area continuing to escalate.”

The park, originally Waco Water Park, sits on city property at 900 Lake Shore Drive. Water park chain Hawaiian Falls entered a contract with the city in 2011 to take control of the property, now managed by ProParks.

Attendance at the park steadily declined from 124,600 in 2015 to 86,400 in 2018 before rising to 98,700 last year. Caffey, before the arrival of COVID-19, predicted Kona Bay would attract an additional 15,000 visitors this year.

On Thursday, attendance figures were not being discussed. Cook said Hawaiian Falls remains contractually obligated to provide the city with annual attendance figures, but no numbers have yet crossed his desk.

The Waco City Council approved an agreement with Hawaiian Falls that is tantamount to a $500,000 break on its lease of 10 acres.

“It is for seven years, or until they reach $500,000, whichever comes first,” Cook said.

He also provided a breakdown of the arrangement showing that in years 2019 through 2021, a payment of 5% of gross revenue or $100,000 annually is to be made to Waco, while in years 2022 and beyond, the city was to be paid 5% of gross revenue or $50,000 annually.

Litton, who manages Hawaiian Falls, said it employs 250 seasonal staffers during the summer season, about half with lifeguard responsibilities.

Daily admission is $23.99 for anyone up to 4 feet tall and $28.99 for anyone else.

A $49.99 summer pass affords unlimited visits.

Gawlik, the patron from Arizona, said she is visiting relatives in Central Texas this summer and has taken her children to Cameron Park and Lake Waco. She and they fell in love with Hawaiian Falls on their first visit and returned for a second helping Thursday. She said a season pass made sense.

“The staff is so friendly, so attentive to safety,” she said. “I want to give my girls some joy and happiness, which is in short supply.”

Law enforcement struggles with policing in reckoning moment

WASHINGTON — As calls for police reform swell across America, officers say they feel caught in the middle: vilified by the left as violent racists, fatally ambushed by extremists on the right seeking to sow discord and scapegoated by lawmakers who share responsibility for the state of the criminal justice system.

The Associated Press spoke with more than two dozen officers around the country, Black, white, Hispanic and Asian, who are frustrated by the pressure they say is on them to solve the much larger problem of racism and bias in the United States. They are struggling to do their jobs, even if most agree change is needed following the death of George Floyd, who was Black, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Most of the officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation or firing.

“You know, being a Black man, being a police officer and which I’m proud of being, both very proud — I understand what the community’s coming from,” said Jeff Maddrey, an NYPD chief in Brooklyn and one of many officers who took a knee as a show of respect for protesters.

All of officers interviewed agreed they’d lost some kind of trust in their communities. For some, the moment is causing a personal reckoning with past arrests. Others distinguish between the Floyd case and their own work, highlighting their lives saved, personal moments when they cried alongside crime victims.

“I have never seen overtly racist actions by my brothers or sisters in my department,” wrote white Covington, Kentucky, police specialist Doug Ullrich in an Op-Ed. “In fact, I believe that my department is on the leading edge of ‘doing it right.’”

Of course, hardly all police support change. Some are incensed — deriding colleagues as traitors for taking a knee or calling out sick to protest the arrests of some police for their actions amid the protests.

Transformation Waco creates telehealth initiative for students, hires new principals


Transformation Waco will start providing telehealth services to students through a new partnership with the Waco Family Health Center in the upcoming school year.

The in-district charter system that partners with the Waco Independent School District will phase in all five of its schools over time, starting with Alta Vista Elementary School, said Dana Carpenter, Transformation Waco’s chief strategy officer, who gave a presentation of the new initiative to the Transformation Waco school board this week.

The new initiative to better support students and their families is still in the planning stages, but the idea behind the telehealth services is essentially to keep students in school, Carpenter said. Ideally, when a student says they feel unwell, they would be sent down to the nurse’s office, where they would be evaluated to see if they need to have a telehealth visit with a Family Health Center doctor. The student could see the doctor the same day, who would determine whether the student is sick and needs to leave school to seek further treatment.

“Our hope is to eliminate kids having to leave school,” Carpenter said.

When students go to the doctor, they usually do not return to school, even if they are well enough to do so, she said. Through the partnership, Transformation Waco will receive basic information from the Family Health Center to see if and when the student is eligible to return to school, so staff can encourage students to come back when they are well.

Transformation Waco school board member Melli Wickliff asked during the meeting what plans or processes the schools would have if a student develops COVID-19 symptoms while at school. Carpenter said that is something Transformation Waco is working on, creating a process to isolate potentially sick students until they can go home or to the doctor.

The COVID-19 contingency plans will be in place at all five Transformation Waco schools: Alta Vista Elementary, Brook Avenue Elementary, J.H. Hines Elementary, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School. But the telehealth services provided by the Family Health Center will only be at Alta Vista in the fall, gradually phasing in at other schools as Transformation Waco works out any kinks in the program.

Board President Malcolm Duncan Jr. said he thinks the partnership with the Family Health Center will benefit all students and families because of the center’s “holistic treatment” approach for patient care. Once all schools are part of the telehealth service, all students and families will be part of the Family Health Center network, which has 15 clinics in Waco, one in McGregor and one in Temple.

“That is a tremendous opportunity,” Duncan said. “That is something that they uniquely offer that so many other people we talked to couldn’t do.”

The program will be at no cost to Transformation Waco, but details of the funding were not yet available.

About 90% of students at Alta Vista are considered economically disadvantaged by the state, Transformation Waco CEO Robin McDurham said. The five Transformation Waco schools have a 97% economically disadvantaged student population, compared to Waco ISD’s overall rate of 90.5%.

The Family Health Center’s mission is to increase health care access and reduce disparities in health care for “the vulnerable of McLennan County,” according to its 990 tax form. The health center will treat students on Medicaid, but it also has an eligibility process for those who do not receive public assistance to provide them with low-cost or discounted primary medical, dental and mental health care, CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs said.

The Family Health Center and Transformation Waco “speak the same language” and use the same philosophical approach in that the health center looks at individuals first, not illnesses, Griggs said.

“When Transformation Waco talks about the social determinants of education, we’re thinking about the social determinants of health and understand that among the social determinants of education, access to health care is one of those social determinants that impacts education,” he said. “We’re really eager to surround these kids with all of our services and do everything we can do to maximize their health and their families’ health.”

Transformation Waco board member Dr. Iliana Neumann, who works at the Family Health Center, agreed with Griggs and said she believes this is an “important partnership.”

“Part of the reason that I’m even on the board is because I understand the important relationship between our kids’ health and their education in their schools where they spend most of their day,” Neumann said. “Given the current pandemic and all sorts of other plotlines that have come to light more clearly, it’s even more important for us to pool our resources together and build those bridges and join those partnerships that help us really provide the services that our community needs.”

In other news, Transformation Waco hired a new principal for J.H. Hines Elementary and promoted an Alta Vista administrator to assistant principal.

Transformation Waco hired Everette Taylor to serve as principal of J.H. Hines Elementary School, replacing Elijah Barefield. Barefield joined the staff of G.W. Carver this summer as dean students after his friend and colleague Phillip Perry, who was principal at Carver, died March 31 from COVID-19 complications.

Taylor has more than 19 years of administrative experience in Texas public schools, including 12 years as an elementary school principal in Aldine ISD. A doctoral candidate at the University of Houston, Taylor also has a successful turnaround record in Aldine, where he helped three schools increase their levels of academic performance. Aldine ISD named him principal of the year in 2012, according to a press release. He will start at J.H. Hines on July 1.

Amber Orchard will start as Alta Vista assistant principal in the fall, after working with the school’s Aspiring Leaders Program for the past year. She served as a teacher for two years before then. Prior to joining Waco ISD, Orchard worked in school districts in the Corpus Christi area for 10 years.

Waco judge's lawsuit over same-sex wedding officiating moved to Travis County

McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley’s lawsuit against the state agency that sanctioned her last year for refusing to perform same-sex weddings will be heard in Travis County, a judge ruled Thursday.

Judge Jim Meyer of Waco’s 170th State District Court granted a motion from the Austin-based State Commission on Judicial Conduct to move Hensley’s lawsuit from Waco to Austin.

Both sides presented the judge with differing interpretations of prior court rulings pertaining to venue, with each side essentially arguing that “all or a substantial part of the events or omissions” giving rise to Hensley’s claims occurred either in McLennan or Travis county.

Hensley, a justice of the peace for five years, officiates weddings between men and women but refuses to perform weddings for same-sex couples, saying it goes against her “Bible-believing” Christian conscience. Her lawsuit claims the agency violated state law by punishing her for actions she took in accordance with her religious beliefs.

In issuing its sanction against Hensley — a public warning — the commission said Hensley has refused to perform same-sex weddings since August 2016, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision a year earlier that established constitutional rights to same-sex marriage.

The commission said Hensley is violating the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct by “casting doubt on her capacity to act impartially to persons appearing before her as a judge due to the person’s sexual orientation.”

Hensley, who has said she is entitled to a “religious exemption,” is backed by the First Liberty Institute, a high-profile religious liberty law firm based in Plano. She declined comment after the hearing Thursday, referring questions to her attorneys.

One of her attorneys, Jeremy Dys, said that while they are disappointed in Meyer’s decision, they are eager to take the case “down to Travis County and have that court review Dianne’s case.”

“We obviously think venue was proper, which was why we chose to file the lawsuit in McLennan County,” Dys said. “But ultimately, we think it will come down to the Supreme Court ruling on this issue at some point. We just want to make sure Dianne has the ability to continue this rather creative solution of hers to serve her county while also upholding her religious convictions.”

Hensley argued in her opposition to the sanctions that she, along with most all of the county’s JPs, stopped performing any weddings on legal advice from the county so as not to appear that those who chose not to perform same-sex weddings were discriminating against same-sex couples.

While most local JPs still do not perform weddings, Hensley chose to resume performing ceremonies, but only for heterosexual couples. She said her office politely declines because of her religious beliefs but refers those couples to Justice of the Peace David Pareya, of West, or others in the county who will officiate their weddings. Court records show she has performed 415 weddings for opposite-sex couples since August 2016.

Her attorneys argued Thursday that McLennan County would be the proper venue for the lawsuit because Hensley’s office, the weddings she performs and the decisions she made resulting in the sanction all happened in McLennan County.

Mike McKetta, of Austin, and David Schleicher, of Waco, who represent the commission, argued the suit should be moved to Travis County because the Judicial Conduct commissioners named in the lawsuit in their official capacities are residents of Travis County, the commission itself is headquartered in Austin and the investigation of Hensley happened in Travis County.

McKetta and Schleicher declined comment after the hearing.

Hensley’s lawsuit seeks $10,000 in damages, including lost income when she stopped performing all weddings in response to the commission’s investigation and punishment. She also is seeking a declaratory judgment that the commission and its members violated her religious rights and is applying for class-action status to allow any justice of the peace so inclined the freedom to recuse himself or herself from officiating at same-sex weddings while continuing at others.

In defense of the lawsuit, the commission has charged that Hensley had other options besides filing suit if she disagreed with the commission’s findings. The commission claims Hensley has no right to ask the court to attack the findings of the commission because she failed to follow established procedures to appeal the findings.

“Second, she is an unusually inappropriate person to sponsor herself as a class representative to litigate on behalf of others, in light of her acceptance without review of a public warning that her conduct violated a judicial canon,” the commission contends.

Meyer considered only the issue of venue at Thursday’s hearing.

Texas putting reopening on 'pause' as virus cases soar

AUSTIN — Faced with surging coronavirus cases and hospitalizations that have made Texas one of the nation’s virus hotspots, Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday halted elective surgeries in the state’s biggest counties and said he would “pause” it’s aggressive economic reopening statewide.

The suspension of elective surgeries is designed to protect hospital space in the Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio areas. Statewide, the number of COVID-19 patients has more than doubled in two weeks.

Texas has reported more than 17,000 new cases in the last three days with a record high 5,996 on Thursday. The day’s tally of 4,739 hospitalizations was also a record. The state’s rolling infection rate hit nearly 12%, a level not seen since the state was in a broad lockdown in mid-April.

Abbott has said the exploding numbers show a “massive outbreak” sweeping through Texas.

But those rising numbers, and a doubling of the infection rate to more than 10% — a mark Abbott said in May would be a “red flag” in his reopening plans— still haven’t convinced the Republican to roll back his previous orders that pushed Texas into an aggressive relaunch of one of the world’s largest economies.

And its not clear what impact such a pause will have.

Thursday’s slowdown imposes no new restrictions and doesn’t repeal current rules that allowed most businesses to reopen. It would appear to delay any plans to expand occupancy levels at places like bars, restaurants and amusement parks and other venues, although Abbott had not indicated when that would even happen.

Texas has no capacity limits on houses of worship, child care or youth camps and sports leagues, and professional sports leagues are allowed to hold outdoor events at 50% fan capacity.

“We are focused on strategies that slow the spread of this virus while also allowing Texans to continue earning a paycheck to support their families,” Abbott said in a statement. “The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses. This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business.”

Texas restaurants are struggling under the current rules of 75% capacity and were glad Abbott didn’t roll the state back to previous restrictions, said Anna Tauzin, chief revenue and innovation officer of the Texas Restaurant Association.

“We are grateful for that, but unless the public dramatically improves their behavior, what other choice is he going to have? That’s the last thing we want to see,” Tauzin said.

By reimposing a ban on elective surgeries, Abbott is returning to one of his first actions when the virus first emerged in Texas in March. He later rescinded the order during an aggressive reopening of the state in May that lifted lockdown orders ahead of most of the U.S.

The leaders of several Houston hospitals said their facilities are capable of handling a surge in new patients.

They also sought to tamp down alarm about data from the Texas Medical Center, an umbrella group of the city’s major hospitals, that 97% of intensive-care beds are in use. The center’s current models suggest its hospitals could reach “unsustainable surge capacity” by mid-July.

Doug Lawson, CEO of CHI St. Luke’s Health, said facilities can open or close beds as needed and said St. Luke’s would almost double its critical care capacity over the next several weeks.

“Our hospitals are OK and ready to manage this surge appropriately and effectively,” he said.

Abbott this week has taken a newly urgent tone about the worsening trends and is now telling the public they should stay home. He also has urged Texans to wear masks in public.