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Waco declares state of emergency, bans large public gatherings, closes bars, limits restaurants

Waco declares state of emergency, bans large public gatherings, closes bars, limits restaurants

From the Coronavirus latest: What's happening around Waco series
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Coronavirus latest: What's happening around Waco


The city of Waco declared a state of local disaster and public health emergency Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic, ordering the closure of bars, bowling alleys, gyms and other places or events where 50 or more people could gather, Mayor Kyle Deaver said at a press conference.

Restaurants, microbreweries, distilleries and wineries may only provide takeout, delivery or drive-thru services. All businesses with on-site alcohol consumption, including bars, taverns and private clubs must be closed, along with all indoor recreational facilities such as gyms, musical facilities, theaters, pool halls and bowling alleys.

These restrictions go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday and remain in effect for the next seven days, unless the Waco City Council votes to renew the declaration. Violations of the order will be considered a Class C misdemeanor and could result in a $1,000 fine, per day, Deaver said.

“There continues to be community spread of COVID-19 throughout Central Texas and the rest of the country, and the city of Waco has taken these actions to minimize the risk to our community,” Deaver said. “It is our desire to flatten the curve, that is, to reduce the speed of community spread.”

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Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver looks over his notes before announcing a local public health emergency to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Additionally, the mayor urged people to reschedule, cancel or not attend any non-essential gatherings of 10 or more people, and “strongly” encouraged those at high risk for contracting the disease not to attend any events of any size.

McLennan County commissioners will meet at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at the courthouse to discuss the possibly of the county making its own emergency declaration. Commissioners did not take any such action during a regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday, and County Judge Scott Felton said several had questions they wanted answered before formally considering the matter Wednesday. He said the city took the action it deemed necessary, and the county will do the same.

The city of Bellmead declared a seven-day state of emergency Monday, and Lacy-Lakeview followed suit Tuesday. Hewitt, Woodway, McGregor and Robinson are all still evaluating whether to do the same, city officials said.

Hewitt City Manager Bo Thomas and Wodway City Manager Shawn Oubre said they would know more Wednesday morning.

Deaver said while the city council must approve an extension of the disaster and public health emergency declaration, he plans to recommend it does so at last until at least the end of March.

“This is a very difficult decision, made after much deliberation,” Deaver said. “We realize the impact to business owners and employees across our city.”

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Waco-McLennan County Public Health District Director Brenda Gray (right) explains how the health district is addressing and preparing for the coronavirus outbreak at a press conference Tuesday.

Waco-McLennan County health officials released local testing numbers for the first time Tuesday. Since Jan. 23, the health district has sent 30 samples to the Austin state lab for coronavirus testing, with 12 samples testing negative and the other 18 still pending, Public Health Director Brenda Gray said. The 18 people with test results pending are in quarantine, Gray said.

Statewide, 1,268 people had been tested for the coronavirus as of Tuesday, 656 by public labs and 612 by private labs, according to the Department of State Health Services website. The site notes that additional providers are testing that have not reported their numbers yet.

Also as of Tuesday, Texas had reported 64 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and one death from the disease. The cases were reported in 19 counties, including three in nearby Bell County.

“There are a limited number of tests in McLennan County, just as there are a limited number of tests across the country,” Deaver said. “We are not in a situation where anybody can just come in and ask to be tested and be tested. They must meet those guidelines because we must reserve those tests for those who truly need it.”

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Seats were positioned six feet away from each other to help with social distancing Tuesday, during the city's press conference on the coronavirus outbreak at the Waco Convention Center.

That is why the city is enforcing these restrictions on social distancing, said Dr. Farley Verner, health authority at the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. Now that the coronavirus is spreading throughout communities, either from person-to-person or from an unknown source, people could be infectious for a few days before experiencing any symptoms and unknowingly spread the disease around before getting a confirmed test result.

But if people are not presenting symptoms, they will not receive a true test result, Verner said. Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and difficulty breathing. People at high risk of catching the disease include those over age 65 and people with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, or a compromised immune system.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its testing guidelines Friday to include people who develop symptoms and live in a community where there is ongoing spread of COVID-19. Local health officials recommended people presenting symptoms call their health care providers ahead of time or visit their websites to see what procedures to follow.

In Texas, people can call 211 for a referral to local health resources.

Testing process

Another factor contributing to officials’ efforts to limit testing is the process of actually testing someone, Verner said. A physician, nurse or other health care professional must wear personal protective equipment to take mouth and nasal swabs from a person suspected of having COVID-19. Then that equipment, which is in short supply, must be properly disposed of and the exam room must be disinfected and vacated for a long period of time while the person’s respiratory droplets dissipate.

A new study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, CDC, University of California-Los Angeles and Princeton University found the new coronavirus is detectable in aerosols for up to three hours, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces, according to the NIH website. That suggests people may contract the virus through the air and after touching contaminated surfaces.

That is why the CDC and health officials have recommended cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces often. Deaver reiterated those recommendations from the CDC to stem the spread of the disease, including frequent hand-washing, using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol and practicing social distance by keeping a 6-foot distance from others.

Verner said the health district and city would like to have more testing available for anyone with symptoms. Gray, the public health director, said the resources the federal government has dedicated to this pandemic have not trickled down to the state and local level yet, but that she expects more testing to become available soon.

Waco Family Health Center Associate Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ben Wilson said there is a nationwide shortage of tests for the new coronavirus.

“We have enough tests for now for people who meet the criteria for testing,” he said. “The criteria takes into account your probability of getting the disease. It makes sense to test people who have symptoms and were in high risk areas.”

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Dr. Jackson Griggs, CEO of the Waco Family Health Center, (left) talks about the coronavirus outbreak during Tuesday's press conference with Dr. Ben Wilson, associate chief medical officer at the Family Health Center.

The Family Health Center has 16 locations in McLennan County, serving 59,000 patients, CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs said. The center does not turn away any patients, even if they lack commercial health insurance, but if they suspect they have COVID-19, they need to call before walking into a clinic.

Wilson said the Family Health Center will be considering new ways to accommodate patients, including providing care via phone calls, writing more long-term prescriptions, meeting patients in the parking lot as part of social distancing, and canceling or postponing non-essential visits for high-risk patients.

“This is a hard moment,” Griggs said. “Schools are closed. Grocery stores’ shelves are empty. Our patients’ work and paychecks are uncertain. Cable news is COVID-19 24/7.

“Many of you are caring for your neighbors who are frail, and as this virus emerges in our community, you who are younger will reach out to those who are older and do some shopping for them and bring groceries and leave them on their front door steps,” he said. “You who are healthy will check in on those who are uniquely vulnerable or who are sick. This is what distinguishes Waco: It is loving your neighbor.”

Tribune-Herald staff writers Mike Copeland and Rhiannon Saegert contributed to this report.

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