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Skip Cox served as head trainer and equipment manager at Baylor before moving into administration as an assistant athletic director.

Waco fellowship 'Zoom bombed' with child pornography during Sunday service

From boardrooms to courtrooms, universities to elementary schools, statehouses to jailhouses, the video-conferencing app Zoom has become an important communication tool during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing efforts.

However, it was not long before Zoom executives acknowledged their platform had a number of security issues, giving birth to a new term: Zoom bombing.

About three dozen worshipers from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco learned that in a most traumatic way April 26 when their worship service via Zoom was bombed with images of child pornography, including sex acts involving infants.

It took church officials about 12 seconds to figure out which online visitor was sending the images and to shut down that person’s camera.

To Kris Cervantes, UU Fellowship of Waco minister, those dozen seconds seemed like a lifetime.

“I believe in an all-loving God, which is nice because it frees me to not have to love these people,” Cervantes said. “My feeling is for the safety of everyone, they need to be locked away. My religion calls for me to treat prisoners humanely, even if they don’t deserve it. I stand by that. But it is difficult not to wish for vengeance in this case. Justice is one thing and vengeance is another. The UU faith calls for us to believe in justice.”

Others made a similar attempt to disrupt the UU service Sunday. However, the safeguards that Cervantes and church leaders put in place after the April 26 incident prevented them from disrupting the broadcast again.

Zoom announced last week that it was releasing updates to the app to address the onslaught of security concerns, including encryption and new privacy controls.

After the April 26 incident, Jeff Martin-Moreno, who regularly attends UU Fellowship of Waco and who was online when the child pornography flashed across screens, contacted Cervantes and offered to help improve church Zoom security.

Cervantes said she is grateful that a young couple in the church who recently had a baby were not logged onto the service that day.

“As the pastor, you feel so violated,” Cervantes said. “I am responsible for protecting my people. It is just hard on all of us. I’m not easily shocked, but this shocked me right down to my core.”

Martin-Moreno is a research analyst in McLennan Community College’s Institutional Research Department. He has helped the college set up a more-secure system there. He did the same for the church, setting up a “lobby,” where people who try to sign on to the service are met by a “greeter,” who vets the person a bit, asks how they heard about the church and other information.

Those who the church allows to enter are then sent to a breakout room known as the “sanctuary,” where they can view the service.

“Part of the reason it was so bad from our perspective was that it was from human error,” Cervantes said. “One of our settings was not correctly set, and that allowed them to get in and post things so everybody could see what was posted. Jeff has been running Zoom meetings for MCC. He helped lead all of our leaders and tech folks through the best settings and best practices in terms of screening folks and other issues.”

Martin-Moreno, who also has provided technical assistance for local recovery groups who also have been hit with inappropriate Zoom bombers, said he was shaken by the images.

“I have seen a lot,” he said. “Never in my life have I ever seen anything like that. It was very jarring. My first impulse was to cover my screen so I couldn’t see it.”

After composing himself, he knew he had to help the church.

“I asked if they would be open to doing a workshop after the service that day and I met with the board and workshop participants and shared whatever information I had learned,” he said. “I told them some of the options I was aware of, and they decided which option worked best for them. One option that was real helpful was a setting where you can allow only the host to share their screen and limit that to the host only. That prevents people from being able to put something on the screen. Recovery groups and churches are the most open. They don’t want to turn anyone away, so people prey on that.”

The person who bombed the first meeting had an innocuous woman’s name, like Kristina B. Those who tried to infiltrate the meeting on Sunday used crude screen names, which made it easier to detect and shut them out, Martin-Moreno said.

Those subjected to the images on April 26 were given the opportunity to meet with a church member who is a sex-abuse counselor, Cervantes said.

“We had about 15 people come. It was a small fellowship,” Cervantes said. “We let people process and offered some spiritual care and emotional support. It was really good and very helpful.”

Cervantes said church leaders reported the incident to Waco police.

“We were contacted about that situation and we basically gave the person some advice and a list of things we needed to investigate things like that, but they have not gotten back with us on anything,” Waco police spokesperson Garen Bynum said.

Bynum said a case like this can cross jurisdictional lines and involve federal or state agencies, including the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Zoom bombings are becoming more frequent as the pandemic continues. Last week, Dallas school officials reported that a Zoom meeting with parents of seniors and teachers was compromised.

Also, Zoom-bombers disrupted virtual graduation at Oklahoma City University on Saturday with swastika displays and racial slurs.

University President Martha Burger said in a statement that the university community is “heartbroken and outraged” that an event meant to honor graduates was interrupted.

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Sales taxes slumping, but some Waco retailers still purring

No sales mean no sales taxes, so COVID-19-related store and restaurant shutdowns in late March spelled trouble for Waco this month.

At $3.46 million, the city’s rebate from the Texas Comptroller’s Office was 6% less than the $3.68 million refund Waco pocketed in May a year ago, well before the coronavirus was even a far-off concern, much less a pandemic. Still, some retailers have maintained steady, if altered, business.

Sales tax rebates reflect local governments’ share of consumer spending. Economists including Amarillo-based Karr Ingham, who prepares a monthly snapshot of Waco trends, said lean days loomed as residents hunkered down and retail and dining establishments bowed to pressure, and directives, from Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver and McLennan County Judge Scott Felton.

The first installment affected by the closures came last week, when Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar sent $824 million in rebates to cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts. That is a 5% decline from last May’s outlay.

Possibly the worst is yet to come, Hegar said in a press release.

“Widespread social distancing requirements were not in place across much of the state until late March, meaning the impact of those measures affected only a portion of allocations for this month,” Hegar said. “The agency expects next month’s allocations, based on April sales, will show steeper declines.”

Rebates in May reflect March sales reported to Hegar’s office in April.

Already the city of Waco is bracing for impact.

Budget manager Laura Cox said Monday her office believes sales tax revenue will fall $6.5 million shy of the $39 million mark previously established in 2020 budget projections.

“And the adjustment is coronavirus-related,” Cox said. “We may refine this projection after the June 2020 sales tax numbers come in.”

Sales tax typically represents 26% to 30% of the city’s general fund every year, Deputy City Manager Bradley Ford recently told the Tribune-Herald. The city analyzed several possibilities in tweaking its predictions of sales tax proceeds, the worst-case scenario envisioning an $8 million shortfall.

Major metro areas statewide joined Waco in feeling the pinch.

Houston and Dallas suffered declines of 10.3% and 9.4%, respectively, in their May sales tax rebates. San Antonio experienced a 10.7% dropoff, El Paso, 11%, Midland, 9.5%, Fort Worth, 6.5%, and Austin, 4.5%. Even Arlington, home to the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, Six Flags, and the Texas Rangers’ sparkling new baseball stadium, Globe Life Park, suffered a meltdown, watching its sales tax check in May plunge 13.7%.

Interestingly, a few Waco suburbs enjoyed stellar May refunds.

Woodway, Crawford, Lorena and Lacy Lakeview enjoyed double-digit increases. Lacy Lakeview saw a stunning 53% increase.

Retail response to the pandemic has been varied and spotty, depending upon respective designations as essential or non-essential. Richland Mall closed for weeks, and Central Texas Marketplace was lifeless. But Walmart, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Target, H-E-B, Orscheln Farm and Home and others continued to operate, though some with limited hours, staffing or access.

“We have been extremely busy,” said J.P. Pizzio, who manages Circle Hardware Supply on La Salle Avenue. “All team members have continued working, and we’ve not had to reduce hours. We’ve been blessed.”

Sales of bleach, hand sanitizer, disinfectant and paper products have skyrocketed, and deliveries to building contractors remain steady.

Texas Comptroller’s Office spokesperson Kevin Lyons said Hegar will revise his revenue forecast for the state’s 2020-21 biennium in July.

“He said publicly sales tax will be revised downward by billions,” Lyons said.

Ingham said he expects conditions to worsen before improving.

“April, the first full month of the shutdown, will almost certainly look terrible in terms of the sales tax numbers,” he said in an email. “April taxable spending has already occurred, obviously, but we will not know until the June sales tax report just how bad April actually was.”

April could prove to be the worst of the worst, Ingham said.

“In Waco, as in other places, the economy is beginning to reopen, but spending as reflected by tax receipts will likely continue to suffer for months into the future,” Ingham said. “This is for two reasons: First, the local (and beyond) economy is not going to fully reopen immediately. That will be spread out over time, and economic activity will not return to predownturn levels for at least months into the future, and perhaps longer.”

He said the loss of jobs and disposable income also must be reckoned with.

President Donald Trump has said he believes the economy will steadily build momentum and then boom as the pandemic wanes.

“I am not suggesting I strongly disagree with Trump,” Ingham said. “I think there is the potential for a sharp upward recovery when the economy is re-engaged. This means that the sooner the economy is fully reopened the better and faster the outcome. I suspect there is some aspect of him simply being a cheerleader and expressing hopeful optimism that will be the case.”

After all, an election may hang in the balance, Ingham said.

Waco-based economist Ray Perryman said uncertainty reigns over how best to stay healthy during an economic return to normalcy.

“Assuming that the basic structure of the economy remains in place, we should see a relatively rapid comeback,” Perryman said.

But perspective remains essential, considering the pandemic’s unprecedented assault on local, national and international economies.

“When we begin to recover, it will take a while just to get back where we were,” Perryman said. “In Texas, for example, we are expecting major losses now, with some growth later in the year. For the year as a whole, we are expecting employment losses of about 6.5% relative to 2019.”

He said he expects 5.5% job growth in 2021.

“That is an impressive pace, but leaves the state below where it was in 2019,” Perryman said. “We don’t expect to see the 2019 job levels again until 2022, and it will take even longer to get back to where Texas would have been if the pandemic had never happened. In other words, it is reasonable to expect solid growth once things normalize to some extent, but most of it will just be getting back what was quickly and dramatically lost.”

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Texas moves to test everyone in nursing homes as deaths rise

AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday ordered coronavirus testing for all Texas nursing home residents and staff after the White House urged the nation’s governors to do so as deaths mount nationwide.

The directive by Abbott, a Republican, to state health officials came hours after Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the White House coronavirus task force, told governors on a video conference call that it was the federal government’s strong recommendation to test all nursing home residents in the U.S. in the next two weeks.

It also came as San Antonio officials announced the first death of an employee at a nursing home that in April was struck by one of Texas’ first major outbreaks. More than 100 people tested positive for the virus at Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, and 18 residents have died.

The employee was a woman in her 60s with underlying medical conditions, said Laura Mayes, a spokeswoman for the city.

More than 26,000 residents and staff have died from outbreaks of the virus at the nation’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities, according to an AP tally based on state health departments and media reports. That is about a third of all 76,000 deaths in the U.S. that have been attributed to the virus.

Texas has more than 39,000 cases and at least 1,100 deaths related to the virus. State health officials Monday announced there had been an additonal 10,000 cases and 12 new deaths. The true numbers are likely higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

Gov. Greg Abbott has said he is focused on hospitalization rates that remain steady and infection rates that have dropped since mid-April.

Barbershops and hair salons were allowed to start reopening in Texas on Friday. Last week, restaurants and retailers in the state were allowed to begin reopening with limited capacity.

McLennan County jails battle to stay ahead of COVID-19 pandemic

Police have scaled back on arrests in some nonviolent misdemeanor cases in the past two months, reducing the potential for spreading COVID-19 in the county jail, but a few suspects in McLennan County have still wound up behind bars for traffic warrants or trespassing charges.

Each case varies, and officers remain able to make arrests on minor charges if they see the need. McLennan County Jail records show fewer than 10 inmates accused solely of Class C misdemeanor offenses have been booked in since March 13. Within the past week, three inmates were booked on several Class C misdemeanor charges, ranging from dog at large citations to traffic violations, records state.

“We are not telling officers they can’t arrest people, because they can arrest anyone they find the cause to arrest,” McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Ricky Armstrong said. “And they have arrested people on minor traffic violations in the past couple of months. There is no free pass, because police are still out there doing their jobs.

“They are also making judgement calls at this time whether they feel suspects need to go to jail at that time based on the circumstances.”

State officials issued guidelines about two months ago recommending law enforcement agencies reduce jail populations to limit the potential for COVID-19 outbreaks in the confined quarters.

Armstrong, administrator of McLennan County Jail and the Jack Harwell Detention Center, said he reviews daily arrests and has reached out to certain departments when nonviolent offenders are booked into jail. He said those agencies have explained the reasoning for misdemeanor arrests and have remained compliant with the county’s request for limiting or delaying most nonviolent misdemeanor arrests during the coronavirus outbreak.

In late March, local judges agreed to release about 80 inmates in accordance with guidance issued by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to reduce jail populations. As with others released on bond, they will have to meet bond conditions and appear in court when required.

Police are continuing to investigate cases, even if they intend to defer arrests until jail policies are loosened. Policies have not changed in relation to felony cases or federal cases, Armstrong said.

As of Monday, McLennan County Jail housed 554 inmates, and Harwell housed 462, including 218 federal inmates.

Officials have maintained a “soft lockdown” at the neighboring facilities. They have not reported any inmates testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

“I think part of it is luck as to why we have not had anyone test positive for COVID-19 and I also think it is because we started taking extreme, proactive steps in the very beginning,” Armstrong said.

Both McLennan County jail facilities implemented screening procedures March 4, more than two weeks before the Texas Commission on Jail Standards advised local sheriffs to take steps to reduce jail populations. Armstrong said trusty work duty, inmate programs and visitation have ceased, and all new inmates are quarantined for 14 days before being turned over to general population if bonds have not been paid.

Three McLennan County inmates and 10 jailers have been tested for COVID-19 after experiencing symptoms of the disease, but none tested positive, Armstrong said.

In all of McLennan County, 94 residents have tested positive for COVID-19. No new cases were reported Monday, and four cases are considered active.

Elsewhere in the state, at least 10 other county jails have reported COVID-19 cases, with a total of 1,255 inmates in their custody and 338 jailers testing positive as of Monday, according to the state jail standards commission. A total of 5,126 inmates are being isolated because they have showed symptoms of the disease, according to the commission.

Statewide, 33 inmates are being treated offsite for their illness. Bexar County is the only county that has had a confirmed COVID-19 death in its jail, while Harris County has reported one death suspected to be a result of COVID-19.

Those numbers are in addition to cases reported in prisons in the state, and any cases that have arisen in private jails.

Dallas, Fannin, Gregg, Haskell, Montgomery, Smith, Tarrant, and Webb counties have all reported COVID-19 cases in their jails.

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MCC graduation trades stage to walk for video to watch

Coronavirus concerns have canceled the McLennan Community College spring commencement originally planned for Tuesday, but the college is planning a virtual graduation send-off for its 765 graduates by month’s end.

The school is working on a graduation video that students, families and friends can download with salutations from MCC President Johnette McKown, remarks from faculty and campus leaders and the recitation of all 765 graduates’ names in alphabetical order.

McKown said she felt it was important to recognize and praise graduates’ achievement in some way, even without a physical commencement ceremony.

“At the time the students graduate, they need to be honored and they need to feel good,” she said. “(Students) have done incredible work, and it’s been a hard semester.”

Graduates completed the final six weeks of their MCC education online after the college closed on-campus attendance as part of statewide measures to curb the coronavirus’ spread. Some MCC students needing hands-on training or in-person attendance for their degree or certification will have to do that work this summer to complete those requirements.

McKown said administrators had considered combining the spring and summer commencements in an August ceremony, but shifting considerations of the space needed for social distancing, the availability of suitable facilities and a possible second surge of the virus made it hard to fix those plans with certainty.

The final form of the graduation video is still being shaped, with MCC history professor Ashley Cruseturner heading an ad hoc planning committee of fellow faculty members Fay Jones, Nick Webb and Ted Robles.The MCC president said there has been an energy in the project.

“We’re pretty excited about what we’re doing,” she said.

The 14 graduates with perfect 4.0 GPAs will be noted and honored in the video.

Graduates’ diplomas will be mailed out starting May 19, and while there is no physical ceremony requiring their wear, caps and gowns have been on sale in the MCC bookstore.

Vanessa Gayle, 18, graduates this week with her associate’s degree in sociology, with Texas A&M University, ROTC and Army training as a pilot ahead of her. She said she is fine with the video version of graduation, though the traditional ceremony will be missed.

“It’s a little sad not being able to walk (at graduation) in the traditional way,” Gayle said. “I think I’ll have my parents and my sister sit on the side of the couch with me as we watch. They’ve been my biggest supporters.”

While the Rapoport Academy graduate may miss the walk, she is not passing up on the cap and gown, which she plans to buy.

“My mom’s a photographer,” Gayle said. “We’re still going to take pictures.”

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