"There’s no sense in risking it”: As Texas eases restrictions, a family keeps its social distance
Each week, The Texas Tribune is featuring the stories of a group of Texans from different parts of the state and different walks of life who are confronting the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. New installments will be published every Thursday. You can read the entire collection here.
Click on a name to jump directly to a story.
- Joseph Norman, Midland oil field worker
- Rupal Shah, San Antonio tech executive
- Debbie Chen, Houston restaurant owner
- Nathan McDonald, Matagorda County Judge
- Donna Boatright, Sweetwater hospital administrator
- Liz Salas, Dallas food pantry employee
- Taylor Levy, El Paso immigration lawyer
The state is starting to reopen. They’re staying in their house for now.
Joseph Norman, 37, is an oil well technician in Midland.
Restaurants, retailers, malls and movie theaters opened in Texas on Friday. But in Midland, the Normans are staying away.
“I got little kids, a pregnant wife — there’s no sense in risking it,” Joseph Norman said. “For what?”
Norman has already lost his oilfield company, Forty Acre A&M — a casualty of the coronavirus-induced oil price crash — and he doesn't want to leave anything else to chance. The family has wandered out of its home sparingly, like a recent stop at an ice cream truck. And a trip to see Paw-Paw — Norman’s father, Jerry — who pressed his mask-covered face against the car’s back window as 3-year-old Joseph Lee reached toward him from his car seat.
But other than outings like those, the Normans don’t plan to venture out much, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to relax restrictions on some businesses. Norman said he doesn’t trust that it’s safe to go out yet.
Norman said he might drive by a few restaurants in Midland to see if they’re busy, but he says he won’t set foot inside a restaurant any time soon. He doesn’t understand why government officials are allowing it.
“Most of everything that’s coming from the government and leadership — it’s coming out both sides of their mouth, it’s a bunch of confusion,” Norman said. “I don’t even think they know what they're doing, man.”
He added, “They’re making financial decisions, and that doesn’t make it the right decision.”
Many of Norman’s friends plan to stay home, too, he said, though he has seen chatter on his Facebook feed about some people ready to hit lakes and beaches.
“Y’all test it out,” Norman said with a laugh. “Let me know how that goes.”
Norman said he misses the movies — specifically “the dadgum popcorn” — and spending time out of the house. But he can’t ignore the fact that the coronavirus has killed more than 900 Texans and infected more than 34,000 as of Wednesday, and those numbers continue to rise.
“The true nature of people is being revealed,” Norman said. “Because there’s no other reason to say it’s OK to reopen things when the only benefit is money.”
“Mom, we’re too close”: Distancing becomes normal for the Shah kids
Rupal Shah, 45, is an education technology executive in San Antonio.
BY EMMA PLATOFF
When the Shahs moved to San Antonio from Austin about three years ago, they bought the lot across the street from Lea’s parents, north of the city almost in the Hill Country. Their kids, 5-year-old Nikhil and 6-year-old Nina, are “very, very close” to their grandparents, whom they call Nana and Papa, Lea Shah said. They are used to crossing the street and spending the night, and their grandparents coming over to babysit when Rupal and Lea have a date night.
Lately there have been a lot of reasons to crave a grandparent’s hug. The world is upended, school’s canceled and home is the only destination as the country battles the novel coronavirus. And Nik is partway through chemotherapy treatments for Wilms tumor, a kidney cancer that has made his family’s efforts to isolate all the more high stakes.
So Nina and Nik and Nana and Papa are staying 6 feet apart, and the comfort comes remotely. They take walks together, separated by the full width of their street. When the kids bake, they drop off zucchini bread across the street. When their grandfather picks up groceries, he remembers their favorite fruits.
Lea has begun pulling up chairs for her parents. Her mother sat nearby in the shade on a recent Friday as the kids played in a pile of dirt. On Easter, her parents perched far up the driveway as Nik and Nina hunted for eggs and dug through their baskets, bunny ears on their heads. It feels better than nothing, but still bittersweet.
At first, the parents worried they would have to keep reminding Nik and Nina to keep a safe distance — how counterintuitive, telling children not to hug their grandparents. They expected they’d have to remind them over and over, to chide them for doing what felt natural and normal. But the children, who have learned from hospital personnel and from educational videos about the new coronavirus and Nik’s cancer, are beginning to internalize the restrictions.
Now, the limitations feel so familiar that they self-impose them.
Nik is “a strong advocate for himself,” Lea said. “If he thinks we’re too close to Papa, he’s like, ‘Mom, we’re too close, we’re too close.’”
The restaurant can reopen. But the staff isn’t ready to risk it.
Debbie Chen, 49, is a restaurant owner in Houston.
BY ALEX SAMUELS
Debbie Chen says the conversation with her staff was a short one.
Chen agreed. Then the conversation drifted elsewhere.
“He was like, ‘If one person sneezes, it’s going to spray all over,’” she said. “It’s not worth the risk.”
Although the restaurant in Houston’s Chinatown has taken a financial shellacking since Abbott and officials in Harris County ordered restaurants closed for dine-in business, Chen said the risk of coming back right now was too big.
While the restaurant will continue to offer takeout, Chen said that because Shabu House’s team is so small — there are three employees, including Chen — “if any one of us were to come down with [the coronavirus] for a couple of weeks or if several of us came down with it, we really wouldn’t be reopening dine-in for a while.”
She understands the governor’s motivation for wanting to reopen parts of the economy. “People are unemployed, especially a lot of people who didn’t get the Paycheck Protection Program loans,” she said.
Abbott is getting pushback from his party’s right flank to reopen the state more quickly, and his decision means tough choices for restaurant owners, who must decide whether opening their doors is the right call for their employees and clientele.
“For now we’ve decided we’re going to wait and see until the end of the month to reopen dine-in,” she said. “If things look better, maybe we’ll do May 18, but my team isn’t comfortable opening yet. We’re kind of nervous about this peak we’re supposed to hit.”
According to an internal document obtained by The New York Times, President Donald Trump’s administration is predicting a steady rise in the number of deaths from the coronavirus until June 1, when the country might see upwards of 3,000 daily deaths.
The good news for Chen is that she thinks she can afford to remain afloat doing take-out only for at least another few weeks. Shabu House was recently approved for a PPP loan that she thinks will help the restaurant for the time being — and keep her from dipping into her retirement savings to pay next month’s rent.
“It definitely makes me feel a little more comfortable with being able to stay shut through this month,” she said.
Chen said the loan can go toward the restaurant’s rent, utilities and payroll but, under federal guidelines, has to be used within eight weeks.
“So it’s a breather for a couple of months,” Chen said. “Then we’ll see what happens after that.”
In rural county, some businesses are reopening while others wait
Nathan McDonald, 64, is the county judge in Matagorda County.
The Matagorda County Commissioners Court had its regular Monday meeting in person for the first time this week — a welcome sign that things are slowly returning to some version of normal since the coronavirus pandemic hit the rural community.
“Zoom is a great thing if you don’t have anything else,” County Judge Nate McDonald said. “But at this point, we do have something else, so we’ll use it and meet in person.”
Although things are beginning to return to regular programming, McDonald said residents still have questions about Gov. Greg Abbott’s most recent executive order, which allowed certain businesses in the state to begin reopening with certain restrictions. Retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls, for example, can open their doors again — but only if they operate at 25% capacity.
For rural communities like Matagorda County, asking businesses with an already small occupancy to reopen under such guidelines can be a challenge. As McDonald put it, a number of restaurants felt like it would not make a “measurable difference” to operate at such a limited capacity. So they’re staying closed for now.
“We have some folks who are going to open, but many more who aren’t,” McDonald said. “So they’re just continuing to prepare takeout meals and operate [via] drive-thru. … A number of restaurants are just going to wait until the occupancy gets up to 50% or better.”
Another challenge? Getting employees to return to work, McDonald said.
“What a lot [of businesses] are finding is that their employees don’t want to come back to work,” he said. “The federal government has made it too profitable for them to stay off of work, since they can make more not working than they can working.”
Beyond that, McDonald said residents have asked him repeatedly why Abbott didn't give entities like hair salons and barbershops the green light to reopen. Since then, the governor announced that those businesses could reopen Friday under certain guidelines, but other types of businesses must continue to wait.
“We would like to have some conversations about opening some of these businesses that are hurting badly from this loss of revenue,” McDonald said. “These typically aren’t wealthy folks who own and work at these businesses. … [And right now] they have no income.”
McDonald pointed to his own hairstylist, who he said has cut his hair every month for the past 20 years.
“She hasn’t [cut it] now for the past two months,” he said before adding with a chuckle, “I’m starting to look like I did in the ’70s, with nice, long blonde hair again. … I need to get that cleaned up, but I’m not going to do it until the ban is lifted.”
At “family hospital,” retiring administrator relishes her last, chaotic weeks
Donna Boatright, 66, is a hospital administrator in Sweetwater.
Donna Boatright is an obsessive planner, constantly strategizing how to handle every worst-case scenario her brain can come up with.
But caring for patients sickened by a previously unknown coronavirus that’s caused a global pandemic? With five weeks left before she’s scheduled to retire? As fate would have it, the final chapter of Boatright’s 45-year career is more chaotic than even she could envision.
“I’ve laughed a lot about how I thought my last couple of months would be, and this is going to sound horrible, but I really thought I would kind of cruise through it,” she said.
She’d planned to have long sit-downs with the physicians and write nostalgic notes of appreciation to the 300-person staff that has “certainly been a family to me.” Instead, she’s had to steal what little time she can for brief moments of reflection.
The slogan of the Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital is “Our family, caring for yours,” and a series of photos compiled by the hospital’s administration is a reminder that in many cases it’s literally true.
One features a brother-sister pair who work in the surgical suite, another a father-son duo in the pharmacy, and many others are dedicated to the married couples who are also co-workers. In a town like Sweetwater, with some 11,000 residents, even the hospital, where Boatright has been the administrator for 11 years, is a kind of family business.
Boatright knows she’s not the only one missing out on various symbolic milestones as the pandemic continues to upend daily life in her community. The son of the hospital’s cardiac rehab director, for example, is graduating this year as valedictorian of Sweetwater High School, but it seems he won’t get to deliver a speech.
“In times of crisis, those things get put to the side, but I feel so sorry for those kids,” Boatright said.
In the meantime, she’s cherishing the inspiring moments of the pandemic, like when a local businessman left pizzas for the whole staff in the conference room or when dozens of people gathered in the hospital parking lot to honk and wave and show support for their front-line health care workers.
Despite the chaos, “I’m eternally grateful that I was here during this time,” Boatright said. “I would’ve been a basket case being at home and not knowing what’s happening.”
And the grandkids are back at the ranch this week. Social distancing measures mean Boatright can only give them air hugs, but a highlight was seeing her 7-year-old granddaughter squeal with delight upon learning that Mr. Squiggles, their pet caterpillar, had finally spun a cocoon.
Her sister’s graduation ceremony is canceled. So they’ll do it at home.
Liz Salas, 23, is a food pantry employee in Dallas.
Samantha Salas, Liz Salas’ 18-year-old sister, recently learned that her high school graduation ceremony is going fully digital. Liz knew a traditional ceremony was out of the question, but she expected Dallas ISD to commemorate its students with more than just a video ceremony.
High schools in Denton ISD are hosting a “hands-free” graduation at the Texas Motor Speedway. Allen High School seniors will graduate at its football stadium with social distancing practices in place, Liz pointed out.
“How is it that Dallas ISD can’t do some sort of physical graduation as well?” Liz said.
Last week, the school district announced it would take graduation ceremonies online due to COVID-19 safety threats. Seniors will get custom banners and a districtwide ovation from 7 to 7:10 p.m. May 21, according to a written statement from the district.
But the Salas family won’t let its soon-to-be high school graduate go uncelebrated.
Samantha will don her green and gold cap and gown and walk the stage — even if the stage is the living room floor. And her family will make a special dinner to commemorate the day.
And she’ll be sporting that green for a few more years.
Liz said Samantha called her Friday, and all Liz could hear for a solid minute was her sister in tears. Liz didn’t know what was wrong, and then her sister managed to blurt out, “I got into UNT Denton!”
Finally some good news in the middle of the pandemic, Liz thought.
Samantha will start at the University of North Texas — whose colors are green, white and black — in the fall. She didn’t have a first-choice school and was just happy to get into any of the universities she applied to.
Liz was hoping her sister would apply to her alma mater, Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina, and they’d both rep royal blue. Samantha started the application but got scared that she wouldn’t get in and didn’t complete it.
“If that means I have to switch out my royal blue for Mean Green, then I guess so be it,” Liz said.
Tale of two cities: El Paso eases restrictions, Juárez remains locked down
Taylor Levy, 33, is an immigration lawyer in El Paso.
EL PASO — It’s often said that cities on the Texas-Mexico border are not separate entities, but instead large communities that span two countries and share a river.
But as Texas slowly allows businesses to reopen, Taylor Levy sees a noticeable difference in how El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel very weird every time I drive over the bridge because on the Juárez side, at least in downtown Juárez, all the shops are still shuttered,” she said. “And then I drive across the bridge, and all the shops are opened up. It’s really weird to see people closely walking down the street.”
Levy, an immigration lawyer who splits her time between the two cities and provides free advice to migrants stuck in Mexico, said that El Paso retail stores and restaurants are likely trying to do their best to limit the number of people inside, but she’s not ready to venture out yet.
“I think the numbers [of COVID-19 cases] are pretty concerning in El Paso,” she said. “I am going to continue doing my work that I see as essential, but no, I am not doing anything social or shopping beyond grocery store necessities.”
On Monday, El Paso reported that it has surpassed 1,000 cases, making the county the seventh-highest in infections in the state. That total includes 65 hospitalizations.
But Levy said efforts to require face coverings in Ciudad Juárez are also falling short in some areas of the city, which is home to more than 1 million people.
“In the nicer parts of Juárez you see a lot of compliance, but in the poorer parts of Juárez it’s more business as usual,” she said. “I think there are a lot of people who are risking tickets [from police] because they need to work in an informal economy.”
Until things become safer in both cities, Levy said she’s content in keeping with her daily routine and social distancing.
“I just feel the numbers are going to continue to keep going up, we keep hearing about more and more COVID cases in El Paso,” she said.
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