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Texans’ tales: stories of how people in the Lone Star State are confronting COVID-19

El Paso lawyer Taylor Levy leaves home before dawn each morning to cross the international bridge into Ciudad Juárez, where she helps migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.      Courtesy of Taylor Levy
El Paso lawyer Taylor Levy leaves home before dawn each morning to cross the international bridge into Ciudad Juárez, where she helps migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. Courtesy of Taylor Levy

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 Wednesday. You can read the entire collection here.

Moving home from Mexico: “It was starting to feel more dangerous”

Taylor Levy, 33, is an immigration lawyer in El Paso.

BY JULIÁN AGUILAR

EL PASO — Taylor Levy still shows up at the base of the Paso Del Norte bridge in Ciudad Juárez to assist asylum seekers or recently deported immigrants.

But now she approaches the bridge from the north instead of the south after the Juárez hotel where she’d been living closed earlier this month.

Levy, an immigration lawyer, had relocated to Juárez in March, just before the coronavirus paralyzed the United States, because she wanted to continue helping migrants in Mexico in case cross-border traffic was restricted because of the virus.

After she arrived in Juárez, she began noticing fewer people in the streets and more businesses closing temporarily because of the pandemic. The occupancy at her hotel began to shrink until she was the last guest there. One day on her way to the bridge, she walked within a block of a homicide scene, she said.

The city averaged more than five homicides per day last month, which helped Levy make up her mind to return to Texas.

“It was starting to feel more dangerous, being the only person in the hotel,” she said.

After the hotel staff members told her they were closing, she moved back to her house in El Paso, but she’s continued her practice of leaving home in the predawn hours and heading to the downtown bridge.

Although the international bridges have been closed to nonessential traffic, as a lawyer her work is considered essential, and Mexican officials let her into Ciudad Juárez without trouble, she said. “I say I’m an immigration lawyer and they seem to understand,” she said.

She has become a de facto adviser to recently deported Mexicans who are left to fend for themselves after U.S. officials sent them back across the bridge into Mexico.

Levy has her own N95 face mask to reduce her risk of infection, and she distributes hand-sewn fabric masks to the migrants she encounters and avoids the city shelters. But there’s no way to do her work without being physically close to other people.

“It’s a decision that I am making every single day, multiple times per day I think it through,” she said. “I don’t have any small children, no elderly relatives are here, I just feel a huge drive to keep [helping].”

Her family is glad that she’s living in El Paso again, but she said they still worry about her.

“They’re pretty frustrated with me. My brother is worried about me getting sick, because he’s a doctor. My dad is more worried about me getting shot,” she said. “But they’re proud of me.”

Easter during a pandemic: Waving to grandkids and palm leaf deliveries

Donna Boatright, 66, is a hospital administrator in Sweetwater.

BY EDGAR WALTERS

Instead of joining the family Easter egg hunt on their son’s ranch, this year Donna Boatright and her husband waved to their grandchildren over the fence.

“We’re exposed to people all the time,” said Boatright, who’s been working long hours as the chief executive of Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital in Sweetwater. “We want to keep them safe.”

Under normal circumstances, the Boatrights would spend vacation days on the property hunting, hiking and hanging out with the four grandchildren in their homemade treehouses. But this year’s celebrations have been socially distant, down to the Sunday church service, which took place online.

“It’s really out of the ordinary for the little ones,” Boatright said. “They usually come stay with us when they’re in town, so that’s been a little hard on them.”

Boatright is Episcopal, her husband Methodist. For Palm Sunday, the Episcopal church leaders left a bucket of fronds on the front steps for members to take home and pin on their front doors. A roving Methodist pastor delivered palms to members’ porches.

Some of the changes have been fun. On Wednesday nights, Boatright’s church does “cocktail Bible hour” over video chat, featuring a prayer, a toast and some “robust discussion,” she said.

“I think it’s really made us a lot closer as a congregation,” she said. “There’s a lot of things about the internet that I do not like, but under these circumstances it has provided us with an amazing opportunity to communicate with each other that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Donna and Kent Boatright's Episcopal and Methodist churches made sure they received palm branches for Palm Sunday despite the suspension of in-person services.

Donna and Kent Boatright’s Episcopal and Methodist churches made sure they received palm branches for Palm Sunday despite the suspension of in-person services. Courtesy of Donna Boatright

It’s a brief respite from work, where the coronavirus is raising everyone’s anxiety. Boatright announced this week that Rolling Plains is treating its first COVID-19 patient.

Before the public health crisis, Boatright had planned to retire in June, but she still needs to find a replacement for her chief nursing officer, who will run the hospital when Boatright leaves.

And that’s on top of all the other tasks that need handling, like arranging carpools to drive samples to Austin for lab testing. Last week, Boatright drove to Brownwood to meet a local official who’d procured a pickup truck full of hand sanitizer to distribute to local hospitals.

Unfortunately, because the hospital is operating on about half of its regular revenue, Boatright’s toughest challenge last week was telling staff members that the hospital is cutting their hours and salaried employees will see a 10% pay cut.

“It’s hard on everybody because there are a lot of people who work for us who have a spouse that’s not working, or they’re going home trying to figure out how to be homeschool teachers to their kids,” Boatright said. “But I’m not going to complain. We have jobs. We’re going to count our blessings right now.”

The pledge, reading and tennis: Parents learn to home-school on the fly

Rupal Shah, 45, is an education technology executive in San Antonio.

BY EMMA PLATOFF

Shah Academy convenes promptly at 8:30 a.m., when students and teacher stand at the American flag outside the front door and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. School is at home now, but the students — Nikhil, 5, and Nina, 6 — maintain a familiar schedule.

It’s an effort by Rupal Shah and his wife, Lea, a former middle school psychologist and diagnostician, to maintain a sense of routine in their kids’ lives as they grapple with two life-upending new circumstances: the global outbreak of a new coronavirus that has killed hundreds in Texas, and Nik’s diagnosis of kidney cancer. So they get up each morning, eat breakfast and convene outside for the pledge.

Lea Shah and her children, Nina and Nikhil, recite the Pledge of Allegiance outside their San Antonio home.

Lea Shah and her children, Nina and Nikhil, recite the Pledge of Allegiance outside their San Antonio home. Courtesy of Rupal Shah

“It just feels like something that we need to kind of keep that glue together,” Lea said.

The schedule has helped anchor the family as they learn a monotonous but unsettling new routine, shut up in their San Antonio home. School starts with language arts — Nina reading, Nik practicing writing his letters, sitting outside when the weather allows. On Mondays, Nik has chemotherapy. On Fridays, Nina takes spelling tests.

Before the outbreak shuttered schools, Nina was enrolled in a dual-language program, getting most of her daily instruction in Spanish. She now speaks the language better than her parents, making that part of her instruction a challenge. And Nik is learning, too. The letter of the day on a recent Friday was “L,” so he traced and then copied “lápiz,” Spanish for pencil.

Nina has been tearing through a shipment of Roald Dahl books sent by a cousin — “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Witches,” the unrivaled “Matilda.” Nik loves Curious George. And their parents are doing their best to keep the kids outside as much as possible; physical education with tennis coach Rupal is a favorite schedule block.

Lea had in the past considered home-schooling the kids. Now that it’s been imposed upon them, she’s enjoying it, though it comes with its challenges. And it’s early still — some still believe San Antonio schools will resume in early May, though the Shahs aren’t so sure — but she’s thinking ahead to what next semester may look like for her family. Nik loved his teachers and his classmates, but his diagnosis, which has weakened his immune system and made him more vulnerable to the virus, may keep him out of public spaces for months after Texas reopens.

Shah Academy may have to enroll for the fall, too.

Loan applications are filed. The rent is due. Will help come in time?

Debbie Chen, 49, is a restaurant owner in Houston.

BY ALEX SAMUELS

For most people, rent is due on the first of the month.

But thanks to the grace of her landlord, Debbie Chen has until Wednesday to cough up the nearly $6,000 she owes for Shabu House.

The 15-day extension gave her more time to fill out applications for loans with both the Small Business Administration and Chase Bank. If she’s approved, she could receive $10,000 from the SBA and almost $60,000 from the bank. The bad news is that she’s constantly refreshing her email inbox to see if the money has arrived.

“I hear these news reports that say some people have already got their grants through, but I haven’t heard anything,” Chen said.

She’s not alone. Thousands of small-business owners are in limbo, scrambling to secure loans backed by the federal government as part of a $2 trillion bill Congress passed last month.

If she’s approved, the money will pay the restaurant’s rent and her three employees — including herself.

If she’s denied?

“I’m going to have to probably tap into what little I have left in my savings and my retirement savings,” Chen said.

Chen, who co-owns the restaurant in Houston’s Chinatown, said she’s mainly responsible for the restaurant’s finances. Chen, 49, has only been in the restaurant business for a year, and now she’s unsure whether there will be enough money to pay the bills this month — let alone long term.

“We’re all just kind of stressed right now,” Chen said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen or when Houston is going to lift its stay-at-home order.”

Debbie Chen has applied for loans through the federal government and a bank to help cover rent and payroll at Shabu House, the restaurant she co-owns in Houston's Chinatown.

Debbie Chen has applied for loans through the federal government and a bank to help cover rent and payroll at Shabu House, the restaurant she co-owns in Houston’s Chinatown. Courtesy of Debbie Chen

Even when it does, Chen said, “I think it’s going to take a while [for the restaurant] to rebuild.”

Still, Chen’s hoping for the best. And keeping busy helps. When she’s not poring over applications, she’s calling or texting her parents or doing nonprofit work. The nonprofit she volunteers with — OCA-Greater Houston — is hoping to launch an Asian Restaurant Week encouraging people to buy meals from restaurants in Chinatown to donate to first responders.

“We’re sitting here thinking that, to be safe, Houston might extend its stay-at-home order through May,” Chen said. “We’re all just hoping for the best right now.”

“I just get so bored.” Student struggles to stay on a schedule.

Genevieve Gilmore, 14, is a student in Celina.

BY ALIYYA SWABY

Last week, when Genevieve Gilmore tried to sit down to do homework, she got distracted and began thinking about the Cartoon Network series “Steven Universe.”

The cartoon, about a team of intergalactic warriors trying to save the universe, recently ended its five-and-a-half-year run, and Genevieve has been nostalgically rewatching it in her spare time. She pictured old episodes in her mind and imagined new characters she could make if she were in charge of the show.

With schools closed at least through May 4 due to the new coronavirus, Genevieve, a 14-year-old Prosper Independent School District student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, struggles to focus.

Jillian Gilmore, left, and Allyson Dymond, right, help Genevieve Gilmore with her homework.

Jillian Gilmore, left, and Allyson Dymond, right, help Genevieve Gilmore with her homework. Courtesy of Genevieve Gilmore

Her sleep schedule is off, heightening her distraction: “I just get so bored, I don’t know what to do and I just sleep.”

Her mother, Katherine Gilmore, wakes her up at 10 a.m. every day and makes sure she does her assignments for one or two classes. At night, Genevieve stays up until 1, 2 or even 4 a.m.

On Thursday, after Genevieve and her brother Charlie slept little the night before, Katherine made sure they stayed awake all day, hoping to break their nocturnal schedule. An exhausted Genevieve went to bed at 9 p.m.

On Friday morning — which is slated for math — Genevieve woke up at 6 a.m., and by 10 she had watched her math teacher’s video lecture and slideshow and completed problems on the volume of various three-dimensional shapes. Some days are better than others.

Her teachers have regular office hours, but she isn’t receiving the same one-on-one attention she used to get for her ADHD, under federal law, before the pandemic.

And last week, Katherine found out that she will have to return to work because the retail store where she is one of two employees has reopened for curbside pickup. She’ll be at work four days this week, leaving Genevieve to finish her homework alone — an alarming prospect for Katherine.

Katherine keeps getting emails from Genevieve’s teachers telling her certain assignments have not been completed.

“There has to be someone that she can reach out to, ask questions, remind her when she’s getting off track to get back on track,” she said.

Genevieve has more faith in her ability to keep herself going without the extra support, especially when she thinks about the penalty for not finishing her homework: her mother’s voice waking her up from a nap to remind her that she still has work to do.

“I like to think that if I get it all over with, I don’t have to have anyone waking me up later,” she said.

Watching and worrying for a regular food pantry visitor

Liz Salas, 23, is a food pantry employee in Dallas.

BY STACY FERNÁNDEZ

Liz Salas hasn’t seen one of her regulars since the pandemic started, and she’s trying not to think the worst.

Every time the woman comes to the CitySquare Food Pantry in Dallas, where Salas works as an intake specialist, she greets Salas in Spanish with a familiar “hola, mija” — which means “my daughter,” but is also used as a universal term of endearment.

Salas first bonded with the woman, who she estimates is in her 90s, over their shared last name. She didn’t want to be nosy, but she rarely met other people with the same last name and had a gut feeling she had more in common with the woman. It turned out that the woman was from the same city in Mexico as Salas’ grandmother.

Salas usually sees her pseudo-abuela at least once a month. When she’s there, Salas takes the time to wander through the pantry’s aisles with her and catch up on what her kids and grandkids are doing.

Salas said it’s been at least a month and a half since she last saw the woman.

It’s been at least a month and a half since Liz Salas last saw a woman who regularly visited her food pantry. “Hopefully, God permitting, we cross paths again and I can see if she’s OK,” Salas says.

It’s been at least a month and a half since Liz Salas last saw a woman who regularly visited her food pantry. “Hopefully, God permitting, we cross paths again and I can see if she’s OK,” Salas says. Courtesy of Liz Salas

When she catches herself worrying, Salas reminds herself that the woman’s transportation to the pantry is precarious. The woman’s son drives her when he can. Maybe he’s been busy, Salas thinks.

Salas hasn’t missed a day of work during the pandemic. She’s kept a lookout for the woman when she works with patrons and she scans the intake list for the familiar Salas name, but nothing. The woman rarely goes this long without a visit, Salas said.

She knows the woman could be sheltering at home to avoid exposure to the virus; her age puts her at higher risk of complications from the new coronavirus.

But a lot of the pantry’s regulars are senior citizens, and they have continued their regular visits because they feel safer at the pantry than at the grocery store, Salas said.

“Hopefully, God permitting, we cross paths again and I can see if she’s OK,” Salas said.

In a small East Texas town, “the unknown is worse than the known”

Greg Smith, 52, is the city manager of Jacksonville.

BY CASSANDRA POLLOCK

Greg Smith spends about 95% of his time these days working on how to handle the new coronavirus.

In the rural East Texas enclave of Jacksonville, Smith serves as city manager and as assistant coordinator for the community’s emergency management team. The people on that team, Smith said, have been in constant contact for the past several weeks to plan the city’s response to the virus.

Their first directive to the city’s roughly 15,000 residents came March 13 — an announcement that every city facility providing nonessential services would be closed for the rest of the month. A few days later, they closed all city offices to the public. And a few days after that, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide order closing schools, gyms and dine-in restaurants.

Greg Smith has put in long hours as city manager of Jacksonville to keep residents informed about the city's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Greg Smith has put in long hours as city manager of Jacksonville to keep residents informed about the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of Greg Smith

But unlike some of Texas’ largest cities, Jacksonville has not yet issued a stay-at-home order. Instead, city officials have restricted access to some of the community’s public facilities and encouraged residents to practice social distancing. Lake Jacksonville and city parks remain open, though the lake’s picnic areas and the beach have been closed.

Cherokee County didn’t have a confirmed coronavirus case until March 26, and now it has reported seven cases and one death. Smith said he expects to see more cases — although he hopes his community will be spared from a large outbreak because it’s not as densely populated as big cities.

“It is crazy how much time and effort this is taking. But it just, it has to,” Smith said. “This is unprecedented — the unknown is worse than the known.”

Smith, 52, moved to Jacksonville with his wife from the Houston area a couple of years ago. Smith’s daughter and his wife’s daughter are both 25 and live in the Houston area. He said they’re both following Harris County’s stay-at-home order.

He said he understands why the state’s larger cities have responded to the virus with stricter orders, and he respects those decisions. But Smith said what works for urban hubs like Houston doesn’t necessarily work for places like Cherokee County.

“From our standpoint, being a rural, small community … we have a lot of small businesses — family-owned, mom-and-pop shops, whatever descriptor you wanna use on them,” Smith said. “When you shut down a community, you’re shutting down that entire economy.”

Smith said he and other local leaders are telling people to be “smart in this time of crisis. But let’s also don’t forget that these people that we live next to are businesspeople that we need to support if we can. And we’ve come up with some really inventive ways to do it.”

A local caterer has shifted gears to create individualized food boxes for delivery, Smith said. And the city’s economic development corporation, he said, has started reimbursing businesses that buy lunches for their employees from local restaurants by picking up half the tab.

“We have plans in place for today, what happens if X happens, what happens if Y happens and what happens if Z happens,” Smith said. “Hopefully we do not need to implement them, but we’ve thought through our response already.”

Smith said he and his wife haven’t seen their lives change much since the pandemic began making headlines. His job, however, is now dominated by “constant thinking and trying to be one step ahead” of the virus.

“I hate to say corona — I’m trying to use COVID-19,” Smith said. “I’m going to be glad when corona is a beverage again, not a virus.”

The oilfields are dead. So he’s trying livestreaming to earn money.

Joseph Norman, 37, is an oil well technician in Midland.

BY MITCHELL FERMAN

For years, Joseph Norman has driven his truck to the oilfields in West Texas to repair oil wells, strapping on a blue hard hat and watching out for snakes.

But there’s almost no work now because of the coronavirus pandemic, which came as Saudi Arabia flooded the market with cheap oil while demand for crude plunged around the world. Oil companies have cut costs, and Permian Basin oil rigs have shut down because they can’t turn a profit.

Norman said the oilfield company he started in 2013 with his wife, Belinda, has lost 95% of its business since the pandemic began.

Instead of driving to the wells, Norman has taken over his son Maxwell’s video game station at their Midland home. He sits in front of an array of screens and a web camera that he bought so his 9-year-old son could livestream himself playing video games, a popular social media pastime among gamers.

Joseph Norman plans to use the gear he bought for his son to experiment with livestreaming from his Midland home in an effort to earn extra money.

Joseph Norman plans to use the gear he bought for his son to experiment with livestreaming from his Midland home in an effort to earn extra money. Courtesy of Joseph Anthony Norman

Now, Norman plans to use the camera himself. He is pivoting to YouTube, where he wants to livestream himself discussing some of his passions. He’s thinking he could talk about the oil and gas industry on Mondays, entrepreneurship on Tuesdays, faith on Wednesdays and healthy eating habits on Thursdays. He’s figuring out how it all could work; friends with expertise on a topic could join him on the livestream, or he could appear solo.

He has already written and recorded a song — “Quarantine Lover” — that he uploaded to streaming music services. And now he’s ready to try livestreaming to see if he can generate some income while he and his wife and two sons are sheltering at home.

“I’m diversifying,” Norman said. “And I’m going to try to build it into programming that makes money.

“I think it was Sam Walton’s wife who said, ‘It ain’t what you gather, it’s what you scatter,’” Norman said of the Walmart founder. “So I’m scattering seeds everywhere.”

Norman said his family has a financial cushion. They can pay their bills through the end of July.

“I’m not worried, but I want to have a clear direction about which way I’m moving, really, within the next couple weeks,” he said. “And I’m still going to keep my feelers out in oil and gas.

“I don’t want to get to the end of July and I’m like, ‘Oh, snap, it’s the end of July and I have no money coming in.”

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