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Tourism leads way as Waco jobless rate improves in May

Cheers to the Dr Pepper Museum and thumbs up to Magnolia Market at the Silos. The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum also deserves a salute.

Waco’s tourism industry has been in COVID-19-induced free fall, but jobless figures released Friday show it rising to its feet, still unsteady but upright. The Waco-area’s unemployment rate ticked down by half-a-percent between April and May, from 10.5% to 10%.

The local lodging occupancy rate rose to 40.3% in May, up from 29.5% in April, meaning more travelers are stopping to check out the sights and sounds, the recently increasing local spread of the coronavirus notwithstanding. Sobering is the fact the occupancy rate in May a year ago stood at 71.7%, said Carla Pendergraft, who markets the Waco Convention Center, which remains closed.

Waco bested May’s statewide norm of 36.2%, Pendergraft said.

The slight improvement to 10% unemployment came with 3,900 more people employed month over month in the Waco Metropolitan Statistical area, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

The number of people with jobs in the “leisure and hospitality” sector increased by an estimated 700 between April and May in the Waco MSA, which includes McLennan and Falls counties, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

The numbers promise to improve in the near future.

Justin Edwards, who manages the Waco Hilton next to the Waco Convention Center, confirmed Friday the Hilton will reopen July 1.

“We are all trying to hire our team members back, but a few have found employment elsewhere during this time and some have moved,” said Edwards, president of the Greater Waco Hotel Lodging Association. “Therefore, there are opportunities in the market for future hoteliers.”

State figures for leisure and hospitality also enjoyed a surge, with total employment in that category up by 176,400, to a little more than 1 million, still a far cry from the nearly 1.4 million in May last year.

“Though the market is still significantly down, we are starting to see a trend of leisure guests returning,” Edwards said by email. “The last two weekends have been up for the market over prior weekends. Though small, it’s still a positive trend. Conventions/groups continue to cancel due to social distancing rules, but September forward is currently looking fair.

“All hotels are operating with minimum staff and services until occupancy becomes consistent, so we ask guests to keep that in mind when traveling.”

Based on current trends, he said he does not expect staffing levels to return to previous levels until early next year.

The Texas Workforce Commission reported the state’s economy added 237,800 nonfarm positions over the past month and saw its nonseasonally adjusted jobless rate slip to 12.7% from 13.1%. Applying seasonal tweaking, the rate stood at an even 13% in May, fractionally below the national rate of 13.3%.

Leisure and hospitality created the lion’s share of new jobs, 176,400, while education and health services added 51,900 positions and the category of trade, transportation and utilities created 20,700 positions.

The Amarillo MSA enjoyed the lowest jobless rate in Texas at 8.5%, followed by Bryan-College Station’s 8.6% and Abilene’s 8.9%, according to the workforce commission.

Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said Friday’s news should not come as a surprise.

“The job numbers today are reflective of the phased reopening of the Texas and Greater Waco economy,” she said by email. “Businesses that have been closed are now reopening, bringing employees back from furlough and creating new opportunities for unfilled positions.

“There are a number of employers that continue to grow their workforce. Looking at the top occupations for help-wanted positions in McLennan County for April and May — registered nurses, retail salespeople and managers and truck drivers lead the openings to be filled.”

The chamber continues to highlight openings at WacoTXJobs.com.

The city’s diverse industry base should serve it well during its recovery from COVID-19 “and lead to a fast rebound,” said Jennifer Branch, the chamber’s director of existing industries and workforce development.

“We continue to see many organizations, representing various industries, recruit for immediate job openings,” Branch said by email.

Among companies hiring are Neighborly, formerly The Dwyer Group, a Waco-based franchising operation, Branch said. Others are Caterpillar, Texas State Technical College, Clayton Homes, Caritas, Mission Waco, Sonoco, L3Harris Technologies, Diversified Product Development and Behlen Manufacturing.

“The May addition of 237,800 jobs in Texas was the largest of all states and by far the largest Texas has ever seen in a single month, but employment in the state is still 917,800 lower than last May and even further below where it would have been without the pandemic,” said Ray Perryman, a national and regional economist whose business is headquartered in Waco.

The state had shed 1,298,000 jobs in April, over a million more than it gained last month, Perryman said by email.

“We are seeing businesses continue to reopen, and jobs have been added as a result,” he wrote. “The recovery has begun, though it remains to be seen how smooth or steady it will be. … The ongoing high levels of new claims for unemployment suggest that, while the recovery at the national level will likely be more rapid than 2008 (Texas was helped along by an oil boom), it will take about two years to return to 2019 employment levels.”

The sun reflects off the ripples a kayaker makes in the Brazos River near the Waco Suspension Bridge. A high temperature of 97 is forecast for Monday, followed with overnight low temperatures in the mid-70s and a Tuesday high of 89 with possible thunderstorms.

MCC's online summer hints at fall backup plan

As McLennan Community College’s first online-only summer session heads into its final week, plans for a return to campus in the fall include COVID-19 protection measures and room for a quick pivot back to online-only instruction if needed.

The campus continues largely shut down to most students and employees as it has been since mid-March, shortly before city and county shelter-in-place orders went into effect.

MCC administrators plan on students returning for face-to-face classes for the fall beginning Aug. 24, but with blended or hybrid instruction that combines in-person and online instruction. No classes in only a face-to-face format will be offered.

Students will meet in classrooms at 50% capacity to allow distancing, with additional instruction conducted online. More classrooms will have audio and video equipment to stream or record in-class instruction for students working from home or on an online class rotation.

Should a COVID-19 outbreak dictate, the college could move to solely online instruction.

“We’re prepared to pivot,” MCC President Johnette McKown said. “It’s just so unknown how this (COVID-19) threat will be.”

Other community colleges are adapting their fall schedules with online-only instruction after the Thanksgiving holiday break, McKown said.

After the mid-semester shift to online-only classes in the spring, the online summer has gone smoothly so far, Vice President of Instruction Fred Hills said.

The college has seen increased enrollment for both summer sessions, including many students who attend four-year colleges.

That continues a summer trend at MCC, McKown said.

“Historically, we have had strong summer online enrollment for awhile,” she said.

However, MCC and other community colleges across the state are expecting their fall enrollments to dip because of COVID-19 disruptions and a slumping economy.

Some MCC students started back on campus May 18 for in-person training, clinicals and instruction required by degree plans and certifications. Those classes and labs have fewer students with provisions for social distancing and sanitizing.

The college is in Phase 3 of a five-phase return to campus operations devised by Emergency Management Coordinator Frank Patterson, an Emergency Operations Group and MCC’s Leadership Team. Phase 4 will start July 6 with all employees back on campus Aug. 3 for the final phase.

MCC’s Continuing Education division will start up its horse riding lessons July 6 and is developing online workforce certification programs in fields including office technology, computer technology, real estate and tax preparation to help those now unemployed or looking to change careers, Hills said.

Still ahead are MCC decisions that depend on outside guidelines or input. McKown is expecting recommendations from the National Junior College Athletic Association about athletes living in college housing and how to manage sports, particularly with some colleges choosing to pause their programs this year. MCC’s sizable dual credit program also is waiting for information from participating school districts on how they would be conducting their on-campus classes.

This fall, MCC students, teachers and staff will be required to wear face coverings when near others. McKown observed it is uncertain how many students will choose to comply.

“Making a decision is one thing, but seeing people follow it is another,” she said.

The broader “face coverings” rather than masks allows the use of transparent face shields, which some instructors prefer because the shields allow students to read their lips and see facial expressions, important considerations for sign language instruction and other subjects, Hills said.

Social distancing and hand washing or sanitizing would continue. Classrooms and high-traffic or high-touch areas will be disinfected regularly. Areas of regular student-staff or customer-employee interaction would have plexiglass shields. All employees and students would be asked to stay at home for any COVID-19 symptoms, a positive COVID-19 test or contact with someone testing positive.

“We’ve told students to be prepared for a new reality,” Hills said.

Record 51 COVID-19 cases reported countywide Sunday; Hewitt adds mask order

McLennan County on Sunday set another daily record for COVID-19 cases, with 51 new cases reported.

That brings the total number to 354, with nearly two-thirds of the cases reported this month. The escalating caseload has prompted the cities of Waco and Woodway and now Hewitt to pass orders requiring face coverings in public.

The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported 204 active cases, including nine patients who are hospitalized, of whom seven were in critical condition. The number of deaths remained at five, and 145 people have recovered. The district is monitoring 712 people, including those with positive COVID-19 diagnosis and their close contacts.

Of the 51 cases reported Sunday, 15 or 29 percent were people in their 20s. Two were age 10 or younger, eight were ages 11 to 19, six were in their 30s, 9 were in their 40s, five were in their 50s and six were in their 60s.

Hewitt Mayor Charlie Turner on Sunday followed suit with the cities of Waco and Woodway in passing an order requiring face coverings in certain public settings. Employees and visitors to businesses must cover their mouth and nose when multiple people are in the same place and six-foot distancing is not feasible.

Starting Wednesday in Waco and Thursday in Woodway and Hewitt, businesses must post a COVID-19 health and safety policy including a masking requirement.

5 tips for wearing face masks in hot weather

5 tips for wearing face masks in hot weather

2nd wave of virus cases? Experts say we're still in the 1st

What’s all this talk about a “second wave” of U.S. coronavirus cases?

In The Wall Street Journal last week, Vice President Mike Pence wrote in a piece headlined “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave’” that the nation is winning the fight against the virus.

Many public health experts, however, suggest it’s no time to celebrate. About 120,000 Americans have died from the new virus and daily counts of new cases in the U.S. are the highest they’ve been in more than a month, driven by alarming recent increases in the South and West.

But there is at least one point of agreement: “Second wave” is probably the wrong term to describe what’s happening.

“When you have 20,000-plus infections per day, how can you talk about a second wave?” said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health. “We’re in the first wave. Let’s get out of the first wave before you have a second wave.”

Clearly there was an initial infection peak in April as cases exploded in New York City. After schools and businesses were closed across the country, the rate of new cases dropped somewhat.

But “it’s more of a plateau, or a mesa,” not the trough after a wave, said Caitlin Rivers, a disease researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security.

Scientists generally agree the nation is still in its first wave of coronavirus infections, albeit one that’s dipping in some parts of the country while rising in others.

“This virus is spreading around the United States and hitting different places with different intensity at different times,” said Dr. Richard Besser, chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who was acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when a pandemic flu hit the U.S. in 2009.

Dr. Arnold Monto, a University of Michigan flu expert, echoed that sentiment.

“What I would call this is continued transmission with flare-ups,” he said.

Flu seasons sometimes feature a second wave of infections. But in those cases, the second wave is a distinct new surge in cases from a strain of flu that is different than the strain that caused earlier illnesses.

That’s not the case in the coronavirus epidemic.

Monto doesn’t think “second wave” really describes what’s happening now, calling it “totally semantics.”

“Second waves are basically in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

But Besser said semantics matter, because saying a first wave has passed may give people a false sense that the worst is over.

Some worry a large wave of coronavirus might occur this fall or winter — after schools reopen, the weather turns colder and less humid, and people huddle inside more. That would follow seasonal patterns seen with flu and other respiratory viruses. And such a fall wave could be very bad, given that there’s no vaccine or experts think most Americans haven’t had the virus.

But the new coronavirus so far has been spreading more episodically and sporadically than flu, and it may not follow the same playbook.

“It’s very difficult to make a prediction,” Rivers said. “We don’t know the degree to which this virus is seasonal, if at all.”