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Baylor students must test negative for COVID-19 before heading to campus

Students headed to Baylor University in the fall must pass their first test before the semester starts, faculty and staff members, too.

Baylor announced Thursday it is mailing all students, faculty and staff members at-home test kits for COVID-19, and they must receive a negative result before going to campus next month for the fall semester.

In the weeks before the announcement, the university rolled out safety measures including moving 24% of its courses online and requiring face coverings for everyone on campus.

Baylor President Linda Livingstone made the announcement in an email to students and employees Thursday afternoon.

“One of the most common questions I’ve been asked as of late: ‘What can I do to help the University?,’” Livingstone wrote. “We want to remind students that if you undertake risky behavior, such as not wearing face coverings and gathering in large groups, it will potentially impact your fall semester — for yourselves and possibly also for others.”

Baylor spokesperson Lori Fogleman said the university would release more information about the testing effort next week.

“As the countdown to Aug. 24 continues, please pay close attention to all communications from the University,” Livingstone wrote. “Our plans are rapidly evolving based on the latest COVID-19 developments as we continue to prepare helpful measures for your health and well-being this fall.

The take-home tests are only the first step. During a press conference after last week’s Baylor Board of Regents meeting, Livingstone announced the university was looking into surveillance testing as well as testing symptomatic students. Fogleman said the surveillance testing would be separate from the at-home tests.

In a letter to Baylor faculty earlier this month, Provost Nancy Brickhouse said the university would be pursuing more rigorous testing that would “allow Baylor to manage a student population situated in a state with very significant community spread.” Plans include working with Baylor experts to monitor and conduct testing on the sewage leaving on-campus residences.

According to an article in Nature published in April, sewer testing can provide information about how widespread the virus is in, for example, a city, and can also warn of when the virus has returned to an area.

On guard
Vigilance remains as McLennan County Jail sees more staffers, inmates recover from COVID-19

Moments after McLennan County Jailer Krystal Ramirez brushed against a booking table during her Thursday morning duties at McLennan County Jail, a trusty wiped down the table and nearby surfaces.

McLennan County Jail staff credit that extra level of vigilance in implementing new protocols for keeping the novel coronavirus from continuing a quick march through the county’s jail complex that was first detected a little more than a month ago. The virus entered McLennan County Jail sometime before June 19, when a kitchen contract worker became ill and tested positive. Subsequent testing of all inmates and employees early this month confirmed 55 inmates and 60 employees had been infected.

Despite the high numbers, the majority of people with COVID-19 cases linked to McLennan County Jail or the adjoining Jack Harwell Detention Center have recovered, said Ricky Armstrong, the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Major who serves as jail administrator for both facilities.

“It’s gotten a lot better from 55 positive inmates down to five who have it now,” Armstrong said. “Our staff count was high from the illness, and we have nine positive officers now. It’s been very stressful, but I think we’ve hit our plateau and are hopefully on the downhill trend of it.”

Jail authorities implemented new protocols early on to keep potential exposure limited, McLennan County Jail Capt. Karen Anderson said.

“We knew it was going to get into the jail and since the jail is a confined area anyway, not only for the inmates but for the staff as well, we always come to work with safety and security as our top priority,” Anderson said. “When you get something like this disease that can spread very easily, we have to take that safety and security to a whole different level.”

Workers installed plexiglass around inmate booking areas and have implemented trusty cleaning crews who have been routinely wiping down high-traffic areas throughout the facility for the past three months. Jailers, who have always worn gloves while interacting with inmates, are now required to wear masks and have required all inmates to wear face coverings provided by the jail to limit spread by people who may be unwittingly carrying the virus.

Armstrong said staffing and keeping in compliance with Texas Commission on Jail Standards requirements on inmate-to-staff ratios, has been a concern. Authorities have restricted vacation time, kept employees on the same schedule and asked employees to be mindful of their contacts outside the workplace, Armstrong said.

“We put all of our plans in place because COVID is highly contagious and can be dangerous to the population,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen to any of our staff or inmates.”

Limiting movement

Since the end of March, the local judicial system has been conducting court hearings by teleconference to reduce inmate movement around the facility. Judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors have worked with the jail during the pandemic, Armstrong said.

Judges also approved personal recognizance bonds allowing about 80 McLennan County Jail inmates accused of nonviolent misdemeanor crimes to be released in early March, in an effort to reduce the jail population.

Jails across the state are also sending daily reports to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to keep him advised of the situation.

“None of our cases at the jail have led to a hospital stay or the need for serious medical treatment,” Armstrong said. “We are still requiring all new inmates who come in to the facility to be quarantined for 14 days to help limit any potential exposure.”

Statewide, a total of 2,096 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, along with 702 jailers, according to a Texas Commission on Jail Standards report. Bell County Jail has had two inmates and six jailers test positive, and Brazos County Jail has had eight inmates and eight staff members test positive, according to numbers released Wednesday.

Armstrong said the jail is constantly restocking personal protective equipment and supplying workers with cleaning instruments and disinfectant. Though the trend now is in the right direction, COVID-19 remains a concern, he said.

“Our curve is on the downhill slide and we are hoping that continues,” Armstrong said. “I am sure we may still get one or two cases here or there, but we are doing our best to isolate, quarantine and keep inmates and staff safe and make sure we stay vigilant on our responsibilities.”

In the nearby McLennan County State Juvenile Correction Facility in Mart, 29 inmates have recovered from COVID-19 and have been cleared to return to dorms in the facility. A total of 41 inmates and 20 staff members have tested positive for the virus, according to information released Thursday.

Waco bars maneuvering to reopen, 1 joins lawsuit challenging COVID-19 shutdown

The Backyard Bar Stage and Grill, a popular destination on Waco’s nightlife scene, will reopen Friday with a food and beverage certificate that sidesteps Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to close bars statewide to combat COVID-19.

It is not alone in taking this approach, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission spokesperson Chris Porter said. Establishments around the state are “looking for ways to expand their ability to operate,” as they continue to struggle with closing orders and limits on occupancy.

“I can tell you, this is financially killing these people and their employees,” said Waco attorney Cody Cleveland, whose clients include The Backyard. “I’ve had bar owners tell me that if something isn’t done by the end of the week, they’re done.”

Chris Cox, an ownership partner in The Backyard, said he secured a food and beverage certificate Tuesday following lengthy talks with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. He formally submitted a request July 12.

“This is not a loophole by any means,” Cox said. “We have the same license, just added a food and beverage certificate. Our food sales must remain above 40%, and we will be audited. We will be asking people to order food. You can’t just sit and drink all night. You have to order food.”

He said The Backyard maintains an extensive menu, but alcohol sales comprise more than 51% of gross sales, making it a bar in the eyes of the TABC. The Backyard joined bars statewide in closing June 26 to comply with Gov. Abbott’s directive aimed at curbing the surging number of COVID-19 diagnoses, hospitalizations and deaths. It was the second such order aimed at bars. Abbott has since said publicly that he regrets reopening bars as quickly as he did after the initial shutdown. Local health officials said Wednesday that the rate of spread in McLennan County remains high but is showing signs of leveling off or even decreasing.

$10M lawsuit

The Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance has filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against the State of Texas seeking to overturn Abbott’s executive order.

Andrew Steakley, who owns Barnett’s Pub at 420 Franklin Ave., said he has joined in the lawsuit. Steakley said he has decided against pursuing a food and beverage certificate.

Cox said Wednesday that securing the food and beverage certificate means country entertainer Mike Ryan will take the stage Friday evening. The Sloppy Joe Band will appear Saturday, and lead singer Brian Brown will make frequent announcements throughout the evening stressing the importance of following rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Cox said.

Brown also is a business partner in The Backyard Bar Stage and Grill.

Cox said he likely will limit occupancy to 20% during the performances.

“That’s the top number I feel comfortable with bringing in here,” Cox said. “The last thing we want to do is get shut down. There will be masking requirements. Unless you’re sitting at a table, you must wear a mask. If you get up to go to the restroom, you have to wear a mask.”

Cox said he does not believe reopening The Backyard will frustrate efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 by eliminating gatherings.

“I really don’t think so, simply because we will be seating people outside at a 6-foot distance. We’re not cramming people into a shotgun bar, shoulder to shoulder,” Cox said. “This is going on three weeks of bars being shut down, and there has not been a drop in cases. That is being recognized too.”

Porter, the TABC spokesman, said establishments applying for a food and beverage permit must have a permitted kitchen where food is prepared, not just a microwave or a toaster oven.”

“In some instances we have received requests from businesses that have a food truck parked outside, and plan to have it there permanently. That would not qualify,” Porter said.

Nothing new

Granting food and beverage certificates is nothing new or uncommon for the commission, which historically has issued them in geographic areas where the serving of alcohol is restricted, he said.

“They didn’t want a full bar, but they did want to accommodate a Chili’s, for example, which would be allowed to operate in those areas,” Porter said.

He said the TABC has issued more than 200 such certificates since March 1 “out of approximately 25,000 restaurants and bars across the state.” He said about 50 businesses in Central Texas are among those. He said he had no exact figures for Greater Waco, but estimated about a dozen.

He declined to identify the venues receiving the certificates. He added misinformation is floating around about the process. Simply put, he said, an establishment may secure a food and beverage certificate if alcohol sales remain below 51% of gross sales. The TABC and the Texas Comptroller’s Office continuously monitor for compliance.

Mark Hall, who owns Oakley’s Texas Bar & Grill, with locations on North Valley Mills Drive and in Riesel, said he likely will pursue a certificate.

“It has to do with food sales,” Hall said. “I will need to sign an affidavit verifying my food sales the past six months, show the figures and show how they’ve changed, which ours have because I put in a full kitchen a couple of years ago. Obviously I’m not doing anything but delivering food now.”

He said TABC also has asked him to project sales for the next 12 months, provide photos of the kitchen and diagrams of his bars.

Hall said his main bank account has shrunk $28,000 in fewer than 30 days. He has laid off half his staff, retaining two cooks to prepare food orders, and negotiated a sales tax payment plan with the Texas Comptroller’s Office.

“I made every payment on time until we shut down,” said Hall.

Before COVID-19, nightly crowds of 200 were commonplace, he said.

“Even at 25% occupancy, we were doing pretty well. We could pay our bills,” Hall said. “We’re just hoping to come back alive.”

Cleveland, the local attorney, said bars believe they are being singled out for enforcement.

“People who normally go to bars … they’re going to go somewhere, so they’re shifting to traditional restaurants that serve alcohol, which is why George’s, Applebee’s and On The Border are getting flooded,” he said.

Four more COVID-19 deaths, 94 new cases reported Thursday in McLennan County

McLennan County health officials reported four deaths of county residents attributed to COVID-19 on Thursday, the most announced in a single day so far.

All four whose deaths were announced Thursday were women, ages 52, 70, 83 and 97. The COVID-19 death toll for McLennan County now stands at 32.

Three of the four died at local nursing homes, and the other died at a hospital. Waco-McLennan County Public Health District spokesperson Kelly Craine did not name the facilities where the deaths occurred.

The health district also reported 94 new confirmed cases Thursday, for a total of 3,782 cases. An estimated 1,722 who tested positive have active infections and an estimated 2,028 have recovered, based on the time since their test samples were collected. Local hospitals were treating 79 COVID-19 patients Thursday, including 13 on ventilators.

Bell County Health Authority Dr. Janice Smith issued an order Thursday delaying in-person K-12 classes through Sept. 7 for the county’s public and non-religious private schools. Bell County’s order is similar to one issued this week for McLennan County. Smith also called for school districts to submit plans for opening to the district by Aug. 21.

The Bell County order exempts extracurricular activities and University Interscholastic League strength conditioning programs for 1A-4A schools; approved school-provided child care for school employees; on-campus work by teachers and staff members under masking and social distancing measures; and student or parent pickups of prepared food, technology or school supplies with masking and social distancing.

The order also recommends the school district opening plans include required face coverings for all students and staff and a shutdown of up to 10 days for any campus with more than 2% of its population testing positive for COVID-19 over any seven-day period.

McLennan County’s Craine said the steady number of new cases and hospitalizations are concerning trends and repeated that county residents need to continue wearing masks and maintaining their distance from others, even in small groups of friends and acquaintances. Contact tracing is showing spread by both people who have symptoms of COVID-19 and those who do not show any signs of the illness.

“It’s more likely you will get this from someone you know than a stranger,” Craine said.

Those being tested for COVID-19 also should self-quarantine until they get their test results to minimize possible exposure, Craine said.

McLennan County had conducted 30,079 tests as of Tuesday. The rate of tests coming back positive had ticked down slightly as of Tuesday, to 19% on a rolling seven-day average basis. That positivity rate has remained between 19% and 23% throughout July after a sharp increase from 1% or less early last month.

Free COVID-19 testing will start Monday through Wednesday at Waco Multipurpose Facility and University Baptist Church, followed on Aug. 13 at McLennan Community College Highlander Gym. Drive-through testing will take place Thursday at Toliver Chapel Baptist Church and Aug. 3 at McGregor High School.

Craine said the free testing came through the Texas Division of Emergency Management rather than a request at the local level.

“When the state offers an opportunity for free testing in the county and community, we take it,” she said.

Here are the age groupings for cases reported Thursday:

  • 1 in the under-1 age range
  • 5 in the 1-10 age range
  • 11 in the 11-19 age range
  • 11 in the 20-29 age range
  • 13 in the 30-39 age range
  • 18 in the 40-49 age range
  • 18 in the 50-59 age range
  • 4 in the 60-64 age range
  • 5 in the 65-69 age range
  • 1 in the 70-74 age range
  • 1 in the 75-79 age range
  • 6 in the 80-and-above age range.