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Local officials warn of 'July disaster' if COVID-19 spread continues to accelerate

Local leaders stressed the importance of face coverings during a press conference Wednesday as the county reported 52 new COVID-19 cases and a sixth local death attributed to the disease.

The county has recorded 473 cases, which includes 293 residents who are actively sick with the disease. After an initial spike in March, the number of people actively sick had not regularly been more than 10 until recent weeks.

Family Health Center CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs said the county’s hospitals currently have “ample capacity” with a total of 96 intensive care unit beds and 441 hospital beds, but the local health care system could be overwhelmed if the spread does not slow down.

“Now is the time for our community to act to prevent a July disaster,” Griggs said.

Officials announced Wednesday that a 44-year-old man died at a local hospital Tuesday, bringing the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 to six. Of the 13 people currently hospitalized in the county, five are on ventilators. Locally, 14,655 tests have been conducted so far.

Statewide, 125,921 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed, and 2,249 Texans have died of the disease. An average of 9.8% of all tests conducted statewide are coming back positive.

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver Deaver said McLennan County successfully kept the rate of infection low for about three months after reporting the first local cases March 17. The overall case count stayed at less than 100 until May 20, then rose to 200 by June 17, to 300 by Saturday and to more than 400 by Tuesday.

“I am appealing to every person in Central Texas to follow the safety guidelines and the mask order, for the good of our community,” Deaver said.

Officials also announced four people who work at the McLennan County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19, and all jail staff and inmates will be tested.

McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Ricky Armstrong said three jailers who work at McLennan County Jail tested positive for COVID-19. One tested positive Tuesday, and two tested positive Wednesday.

A kitchen employee of Trinity Commercial Contractors, which supplies food to McLennan County Jail, also tested positive Friday, Armstrong said. McLennan County Jail and the Jack Harwell Detention Center are connected by the kitchen, but no inmates or staff members at Harwell have tested positive for the virus, Armstrong said.

The process of testing all employees and inmates at both jails as a result of the recent positives will take about 2,100 tests, Armstrong estimated.

A total of 82 inmates were placed in quarantine seven days ago after possible exposure, but none had exhibited symptoms of the illness as of Wednesday.

According to Waco-McLennan County Public Health District spokesperson Kelly Craine, three nursing home staff members — two at Royal Manor and one at Senior Care — tested positive three weeks ago had have since tested negative in follow-up testing.

“The main priority was to make sure all the residents and points of contacts were notified first,” Craine said.

Griggs said the health district has identified 10 clusters of members the same households among residents who have tested positive.

The health district is monitoring 556 residents, including those who have tested positive and their close contacts. The district has 80 staff members involved in monitoring and 10 specialists who investigate the virus’ spread full-time. Griggs said anyone who tests positive should take quarantine seriously and answer health district staff members’ questions to help them monitor the virus.

‘Exponential growth’

Deaver said reporting issues delayed the seven-day rolling average of the county’s positivity rate, or percentage of tests that come back positive, but he estimates the current daily rate is close to the state’s, which sits at a little less than 10% and is trending upward.

Deaver walked through the doubling of active cases over four-day and five-day spans that the county has seen recently.

“This is again exponential growth,” Deaver said. “This is what has occurred in many places around the world that has ultimately led to overwhelming the hospitals. As Dr. Griggs mentioned, our hospitals are not close yet to being overwhelmed, but it is this rapidly rising trend that gives us all concern.”

Deaver said a recent study published by Texas A&M University researchers was just the latest to find that face coverings are an effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19 and, and he said it was part of the reason he decided to enact a mask order Friday.

“I know this is not popular with many of you, and I’m sorry about,” Deaver said of the mas order. “We have to follow the science and do everything we can to stop this rapidly rising disease in our community.”

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said the county commissioners have not issued a similar mask order yet, but are in close conversation with the city leaders. Commissioners are set to discuss the issue during their regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday.

Felton said he is confident in saying the commissioners urge everyone to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Those guidelines include a recommendation to wear a face covering in public places.

Felton said he urges residents to remain on-guard and think of their at-risk family members.

“It’s my responsibility to know what my family is doing and where they’ve been before I see them, and it’s their responsibility to be careful when they come to see me, and it’s the same way for everyone else’s family as well,” Felton said.

When the Waco City Council met to ratify its mask order, public comments in opposition cited fear that masks could cause medical problems or make them sicker.

“There are these claims that masks cause sinus infections or increase carbon dioxide, and these are usually some kind of distorted exaggeration around some scientific fact,” Griggs said. “Distorting the truth is much more believable than just outright silly myth.”

Griggs said despite misinformation circulating on social media, face coverings pose no risk to the general public, and do not cause elevated carbon dioxide levels in a wearer’s blood or cause sinus infections, two common claims. Griggs said it is theoretically possible for face coverings to interfere with someone’s breathing if they have advancing emphysema and respiratory acidosis.

Griggs said doctors, surgeons and workers in various fields long have worn masks daily without adverse effects.

Churches are not subject to the mask order, which only applies to commercial establishments, but Deaver asked churches to implement a mask policy for the sake of worshipers’ safety. Enclosed spaces where people are singing or shouting in close proximity are especially dangerous for spreading the disease, Griggs said.

“Ultimately, it’s not about the numbers,” Griggs said. “This is not an abstract idea. We are not fearing some unnamed, lurking pestilence. What our community is experiencing is a known virus with specific characteristics of transmissions and particular behaviors we have an option to enact to either invite or limit the spread of the virus.”

Sweet support
Girls' lemonade sales bring sweet support for Waco NAACP chapter

A refreshing form of activism led to a group of 10-year-old girls delivering a $4,200 donation for Waco’s NAACP chapter Wednesday.

The girls, Caroline Hogue, Rory Stonikinis, Emma Clark-Martinez, Hayden Luce, Finley Ritter and Katarina Telep rallied efforts Friday to host a lemonade stand in the Castle Heights neighborhood, calling it “Lemonade for love.”

After seeing the world’s reaction to the killing of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis and learning more about longstanding racial injustice, the girls decided to raise money to support the local NAACP’s work. Between the sale and some additional donations that followed, the soon-to-be fifth graders at Hillcrest Elementary School had raised $4,207.

“We all kind of grew up with the perspective that we are treated equally, so when people were being treated unfairly by their race, we wanted to speak out and make a change,” said Rory, who is white.

Customers were warm and thankful for the girl’s efforts, including some who gave $100 each, even after the lemonade stand itself had closed down.

“Our community has been so generous,” said Tiffany Hogue, Caroline’s mother. “We’ve now received five separate $100 donations, which is just so amazing, because we have such wonderful people in our city.”

The girls and their parents went to NAACP President Peaches Henry’s home Wednesday to deliver the donations. Henry, who is home recovering from eye surgery, said although she missed the fundraiser, the efforts were overwhelming.

She opened her arms wide to give the girls an “air hug” from a distance to thank them, along with words of appreciation.

“These young girls are taking action,” Henry said. “It is often easy for people in the heat of emotion to want to be a part of the conversation, but at this point in our country’s history we are talking about action and it is commendable that these young girls looked at the situation and wanted to have an impact.”

Henry invited the girls to a future NAACP meeting, where she would like to publicly recognize the girls for their hard work.

“This is absolutely amazing and it makes me want to cry,” Henry said. “You’ve got amazing parents, because what we know is children don’t just develop ideas, but in fact they develop ideas from parents who are perfectly teaching them.”

She said the money will be used to help educate people locally about their rights and how they can fight for their rights, particularly in voter rights and voter engagement.

For more information about the Waco NAACP and ways to contribute, visit waconaacp.org.

Police overhaul dims as GOP Senate bill blocked by Democrats

WASHINGTON — A Republican policing bill stalled out Wednesday, blocked by Senate Democrats who dismissed it as meager “crumbs” in a vote that signals the collapse for now of Congress’s efforts to respond to mass demonstrations over the killings of Black people.

With a tally that fell almost exclusively along party lines, Congress reached a familiar impasse despite public outcry over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Americans. Polling shows the country overwhelmingly wants changes. But in the stalemate, Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other as a generational crisis over racial injustice and police tactics explodes outside the doors.

“I’m frustrated,” said Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator and the author of the GOP legislation.

“The issue is, do we matter?” he asked, echoing the words of the Black Lives Matter movement, during an impassioned Senate speech that drew applause from his colleagues. “We said no today.”

The outlook ahead is uncertain, as Democrats press forward Thursday with a House vote on their bill, a more sweeping package that is certain to be approved. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to try again before the July 4 recess. Yet swift action seems difficult.

With the standoff, the parties are settled into their political comfort zones, even if they are displeased with the actual outcome. Republicans are lined up squarely behind Scott, a uniquely credible voice in the chamber recounting his personal experience with racism at the hands of police. Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, are standing with progressive and civil rights activists urging outright rejection of the Republican approach.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., brushed aside the GOP bill as inadequate crumbs that don’t respond to a movement that stretches from Emmett Till to Rodney King to today.

“We are part of a movement that started a long time ago and this movement will not be deterred,” she said.

She urged colleagues to “let the beginning be today” and start new talks toward a better bill.

The GOP’s Justice Act is seen by both Republicans and Democrats as a starting point in the broader debate over how best to change policing practices. It would create a national database of police use-of-force incidents, restrict police chokeholds and set up new training procedures and commissions to study race and law enforcement.

The Republican package is not as sweeping as a Democratic proposal, the Justice in Policing Act, which mandates many of the changes and would go further by changing the federal statute for police misconduct and holding officers personally liable to damages in lawsuits.

A constellation of high-profile civil rights, celebrity and industry leaders have lined up behind the Democratic bill, while the Congressional Black Caucus urged a no vote on the GOP bill. Law enforcement and business groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have urged both parties to find common ground.

President Donald Trump supported the GOP effort as a “great bill.” But he acknowledged during an event Wednesday at the White House that the differences with the Democrats may mean that no bill becomes law.

“If nothing happens with it,” Trump said with a shrug of his shoulders, “it’s one of those things. We have different philosophies.”

The vote was 55-45, failing to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance. Two Democrats, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, along with Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, voted with Republicans to open the debate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized Democrats as engaging in “political nonsense.” He switched his vote to no, a procedural move so he could swiftly bring the bill back for reconsideration.

Vice President Mike Pence joined a Senate GOP lunch after the vote, but it appeared they mainly discussed the COVID-19 crisis, according to a Republican granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

As talks potentially continue, Democrats are trying to force Republicans to the negotiating table . The two bills, the House and Senate versions, would ultimately need to be the same to become law.

Scott vowed to remain open to many of the changes Democrats are proposing, such as fully banning chokeholds or collecting more thorough data on police misconduct. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to allow plenty of debate on potential amendments.

But the depth of Democrats’ distrust of McConnell runs deep, and the senators are withholding their votes as leverage, believing once the House Democrats pass their bill, Senate Republicans facing the groundswell of public sentiment will have no choice but to negotiate.

Neither bill goes as far as some activists want with calls to defund the police and shift resources to other community services.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., another co-author of the Democrats bill, noted that McConnell calls himself the “Grim Reaper” for letting House bills die in the Senate, and questioned if he will do the same this time.

But tensions are running high on a topic has torn the country apart, almost since its founding.

Republicans criticized Pelosi for saying Republicans are “trying to get away with murder, actually — the murder of George Floyd” with their bill.

Scott on Tuesday played for colleagues the racist and threatening voice mail messages he has recently received. Some senators were shocked, and suggested he needs security protection, a Scott aide said. The senator is considering options, his aide said.

Some Waco businesses see growing use of masks ahead of deadline to comply with rule

Wearing a mask into public places became more than good advice Wednesday. It became a rule in Waco, and violators may face consequences.

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver signed an emergency order Friday requiring masks to be worn in restaurants, retail establishments and public venues where social distancing is not practical. The Waco City Council approved the action Tuesday, putting the rule in place until July 7, with further extensions expected. The cities of Hewitt and Woodway have acted similarly, and McLennan County is pondering action.

Waco Code Enforcement officials will issue warnings before issuing citations that could cost business establishments up to $1,000 per day for not posting and enforcing notices that employees and visitors must wear face coverings, said Ryan Holt, Waco police chief and assistant city manager.

Tommie Hugghins, who has been selling suits at Dillard’s 29 years, said he will not stand face-to-face with anyone not sporting a face covering.

“Before the mayor made his announcement on Monday, about 40% were wearing masks and 60% were not,” Hugghins said by phone between fittings Wednesday. “But word is getting out. Those numbers are changing. A lot who did not wear masks now are wearing them, and I am surprised.”

He said the Richland Mall retailer of high-end merchandise has installed signs informing the public of Waco’s new masking standards.

“I’m not supposed to help if they’re not wearing a mask,” Hugghins said. “Everyone coming in is going to be asked if they have one.”

He said he would rather the store deal with enforcement before a visitor reaches his department.

“We have masks available, but I don’t know how far those will go,” he said.


Employees at Waco’s Target store on Bosque Boulevard have posted the necessary signs and seek to educate guests about new policies as they enter the building, assistant manager Sharon Nelson said.

Beyond that, the store hopes for cooperation, Nelson said.

“The expectation is that everyone will follow those rules,” she said Wednesday. “It’s hard for me to gauge the percentage wearing masks, but as soon as it was announced, the very next day we saw a trend of increased mask use. And more are wearing them today than on day one.”

Employees, meanwhile, have been sporting masks two months.

And the employee count will continue to swell, Nelson said.

“This is a back-to-college store, and we’ve hired eight additional team members and will hire 15 more between July and August,” she said.

Texas Star Tire & Auto Repair at 4600 W. Waco Drive will continue limiting traffic in the waiting area and requiring masks of customers who enter, “unless they have a medical condition,” owner Devlin Cole said.

“Fortunately, there is enough room in the shop area to maintain social distancing, so they are not required to wear masks. … Business is OK, still a little slow, but that’s to be expected,” Cole said.

Dining out

Chris Arnesen, assistant manager at Golden Corral, 618 N. Valley Mills Drive, said most diners enter wearing masks but remove or adjust them in line as they place their orders or at the table when they prepare to eat.

“That’s probably the hard part for us,” Arnesen said.

The mask orders specify an exception for patrons at restaurants who are eating or drinking while maintaining 6 feet between parties.

Richland Mall’s website states the property is requiring anyone entering the premises to wear a mask or face covering.

It also prohibits groups of more than 10 people congregating in the mall common area. It also has closed the children’s play area, soft seating areas and drinking fountains until further notice, according to the website.

The mall also requires management staff to wear masks while in common areas, and encourages stores to provide their employees with masks.

It also has placed hand sanitizers throughout the property.

‘Best for community’

At Cricket’s Grill and Draft House on Mary Avenue downtown, manager Guy Boutilier said, “The restaurant business being what it is today, if someone shows up without a mask, I’m going to give them one.”

Boutilier said trips around town in recent days served as reminders that enforcement of the masking guidelines will get stiffer.

“It’s something we have to do, and we’ll do what’s best for community,” he said. “Since day one, we’ve screened our employees upon arrival. We take their temperature and ask them to fill out a screening form modeled after Centers for Disease Control requirements. Step two, they go wash their hands. We’ve taken this quite seriously.”

He said the establishment does have face masks available.

“I don’t know if we’ll charge $1 apiece for them,” Boutilier said. “I do know we’ll not be turning anybody away at the door.”

He said an unruly patron objecting to wearing a mask likely would not be too different from any other unruly customer.

“We’ve been doing this a long time, and if they don’t fall in line, they will be asked to leave,” he said. “We’ll deal with the shenanigans.”

Officials with the Waco Code Enforcement office could not be reached for comment late Wednesday on how masking enforcement went the first day.


On Tuesday evening, a visitor to the H-E-B grocery store at Wooded Acres Drive and Bosque Boulevard would have seen most customers wearing masks.

Responding to a request for comment, H-E-B released a statement saying store leaders in Waco “are working hard to implement the new mask ordinance today. … We have seen a lot of positive remarks. Here at H-E-B, we believe it is incredibly important for retailers to collaborate with the local government during this critical public health issue.”

Meanwhile, Startup Waco spokeswoman April Leman said masks are required in all common areas of the coworking space at 605 Austin Ave. Users with private offices there are not required to wear masks, “as long as they maintain physical distancing with those meeting with them.”

She said use of Startup Waco facilities has declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, with most clients choosing to work from home.

“We’ve deferred all membership fees,” Leman said. “No one has been charged unless they reactivated their account and wanted to come back. We’ve kept membership on pause. Obviously coworking is a big part of what we do, but only a part. We support the business community in a variety of ways, including transitioning to virtual meetings as a resource.”

5 tips for wearing face masks in hot weather

5 tips for wearing face masks in hot weather

Waco area schools unable to solidify plans for fall without state guidance

Anxiety among Waco area teachers, administrators and other school district employees over what school will look like in fall only increased Tuesday after the Texas Education Agency failed to provide public health guidelines as planned and COVID-19 cases hit a record high statewide.

Draft guidelines detailing enrollment, attendance and public health guidelines appeared on the Texas Education Agency website Tuesday but were later removed. The agency had planned to release guidelines for reopening schools in the fall Tuesday, but it only released information on remote instruction, enrollment and attendance during a call between superintendents and state Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

TEA released a statement in response to the release of the draft documents, saying they were posted by mistake.

“They were posted in the staging portion of the TEA website by mistake as part of an internal document review,” the agency said in an emailed statement. “As we continue to closely monitor the public health situation, we are, in fact, still soliciting feedback on the Public Health Guidance. Additional guidance will be provided soon. We will continue to prioritize public health and safety above all else.”

Health guidelines

The nine-page draft document includes these health guidelines:

  • One week before school or other campus activities start, districts must provide for families and the public a summary of their plans to limit the spread of COVID-19 in their schools.
  • Parents may request virtual instruction for their students “from any school system that offers such instruction.”
  • Districts “should require” teachers and staff to screen themselves daily for COVID-19 symptoms before arriving on campus, and screening for students should occur before they get on school buses or on campus “at the beginning of the year and at the start of every week.” Parents who drop off or pick up their students inside the school should be screened, as well. But “regularly performing a forehead temperature check of otherwise asymptomatic students is not recommended,” nor is it prohibited.
  • All campus visitors also should be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and asked if they have been in close contact with anyone confirmed to have the disease. Campuses may turn away visitors who fail the screening criteria.
  • Schools must notify their local health departments if any individual confirmed to have the coronavirus has been on campus, as well as all teachers, staff and families of students in the school. The school also must close off areas that were heavily used by the person until they are disinfected or more than three days have passed since the person was on campus. There is no requirement to close the school entirely.
  • Campuses “should attempt” to have hand sanitizer and/or hand washing stations at each entrance and in every classroom.
  • When possible, schools “should open windows or otherwise work to improve air flow by allowing outside air to circulate in the building.”
  • On the first day of school, students must receive instruction on “appropriate hygiene practices.”
  • School districts can “consider” having employees and visitors wear some type of face covering. The same goes for students “for whom it is developmentally appropriate” to wear masks.
  • Campuses should place student desks 6 feet apart, if space allows. If not, students in those classrooms should wash their hands more and use hand sanitizer frequently.

Additionally, the draft guidelines recommend limiting large gatherings of students and teachers, including at lunchtime. They also do not require students to sit 6 feet apart on buses but urge families to drop off their students or have them walk to school to reduce exposure on buses. Districts should consider having students use hand sanitizer before boarding buses and clean buses after each trip.

Remote instruction

TEA did provide guidance on remote instruction for districts and how it will be counted toward attendance, which determines how much funding districts receive from the state. The state will continue to require students to attend 90% of a course to receive credit for it and for promotion to the next grade level, but there are some different requirements for remote instruction.

Districts must post on their websites and submit to TEA a signed document outlining how the district will provide remote instruction. To receive funding from the state for remote instruction, districts must meet a minimum number of daily instructional minutes. Remote instruction can be in real time, with students directly interacting with their teachers, or students may receive assignments to complete or video lessons to watch that have been prepared by teacher. Districts may use both methods for remote instruction, as well.

At a standstill

Without firm guidelines from the state, local school districts are in a standstill over how to plan for the fall. Both the Waco and Midway Independent School Districts formed committees to plan and prepare for the upcoming school year, but big questions still loom large around what in-person instruction will look like.

Waco ISD is considering three options for the school year, which is slated to start Aug. 18: all virtual instruction, a mix of in-person and virtual instruction, and alternating days or half-days for in-person instruction. The school board will discuss the options during its Thursday night meeting.

Superintendent Susan Kincannon said the district cannot fully form a plan until it receives guidance from the state, which she expected to receive two weeks ago.

“We’re all a little bit anxious about getting that guidance so that we can firm up some plans,” Kincannon said. “I know our parents and our teachers want to know what next school year will look like, and we just don’t have the answers yet. We’re all struggling with the right answer, and truthfully there may not be one right answer. We just have to figure out what can work for us.”

Kincannon also said she is concerned about the rising number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in McLennan County, which hit a total count of 421 confirmed infections Tuesday. The state confirmed 5,489 new infections Tuesday, a new daily record.

‘Teachers are scared’

Pam Fischer, a Waco ISD teacher and president of the Waco chapter of the Texas State Teachers Association, said she has similar concerns for reopening schools in the fall. If people want schools to open again, they need to wear face masks right now to slow the spread of the coronavirus so the state can recover from COVID-19, Fischer said. The Waco chapter of the association represents 120 members.

“Teachers are scared,” she said. “Teaching is challenging under the best conditions. This sounds challenging. Teachers don’t want anybody getting sick or having any illness. We don’t want anybody to die.”

Fischer also has heard from some parents who plan to homeschool their children because they do not want to send them to school in the fall, she said.

“Until this virus slows down, I don’t see us starting,” she said.

As a physical education teacher, Fischer knows how difficult it will be for younger students to social distance. She recalled an encounter she had with a former student in April, when social distancing and stay-at-home orders were still in place. While she was delivering for Meals on Wheels, she ran into a former student who ran right up to Fischer, who was wearing a face mask and gloves, and hugged her.

Midway ISD Superintendent George Kazanas said the district’s Safe Start Task Force is working on plans for myriad scenarios that will be ready to implement once TEA issues guidance on health measures.

“Our staff and parents alike are anxiously awaiting the state’s decisions,” Kazanas said. “Our working groups are fervently researching best practices, reviewing recommendations and preparing logistics so we are able to share our plans as soon as possible.”

Similarly, Kincannon said Waco ISD is “working diligently” to develop a plan for the school year, but the district still needs guidance from TEA to move forward with any plans.

“It is out of our hands at this point,” she said.