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“There won’t be a goodbye party”: Hospital administrator prepares to retire during pandemic

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Donna Boatright received a flag from U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington as a gift for her upcoming retirement. Courtesy of Donna Boatright

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.

At “family hospital,” retiring administrator relishes her last, chaotic weeks

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

BY EDGAR WALTERS

It’s tough to forecast much in the three remaining weeks before Donna Boatright is scheduled to retire from her post as chief executive of the Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital.

The only thing that feels certain is that there won’t be a goodbye party, “since the situation is as it is,” she said matter-of-factly in a phone call from her office this week.

If it fazes Boatright at all, she’s not letting on. She’s hardly had time to think about farewells, what with a global pandemic and the ongoing handoff of leadership responsibilities and all. Besides, having preached the gospel of social distancing to everyone in Sweetwater for nearly three months, she wants to set a good example.

She’s asked her mother not to go grocery shopping, she’s asked her grandchildren to skip hugging and wave instead, and she’s asked her hospital patients to largely refrain from bringing visitors.

She figures there will be plenty of time for cake later, once all this is over with.

Still, it was a pleasant surprise when the local congressman, U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, paid a visit to Rolling Plains last Thursday bearing a retirement gift.

Boatright has known Arrington since he took office in 2017. “I have spent a lot of time bending his ear on rural health issues,” she said.

During a stop in Sweetwater on Arrington’s way to Lubbock, he presented her with a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol. Boatright was touched.

“There’s really not much that could’ve been done for me that would’ve meant more,” she said. “I was pretty much blown away.”

And there’s one more quiet celebration Boatright is looking forward to. This weekend, she and her husband, Kent, celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Again, no party, no hullabaloo.

“I’m not quite ready to risk a restaurant at this point,” she said.

Instead, they plan to do some yard work, play with the dogs, cook jalapeño and cheese hotdogs — and wave to the grandkids over the fence.

More canceled plans: the annual Gulf fishing trip and summer football

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

BY MITCHELL FERMAN

Every spring, Joseph Norman, his brothers and their father travel to the Gulf Coast, load up on groceries and bait, and then board a boat and head into the waters of Aransas Bay.

But this year, Norman says the risk of interacting with so many people during the coronavirus pandemic convinced them to cancel the trip.

So instead, on Monday, Norman took his wife, Belinda, and their two young boys — and their fishing gear — to a pond near their home in Midland.

“Everything changed this year,” Norman said. “So we ended up finding a saltwater pond in Imperial, Texas.”

Joseph Norman fishes with his son at a saltwater pond in Imperial.

Joseph Norman fishes with his son at a saltwater pond in Imperial. Courtesy Joseph Norman

The coronavirus pandemic, the battered oil industry, a pregnant wife and two young boys have kept Norman at home the last two months, but a fishing trip to the pond was the family’s way of getting out of the house while following federal health guidelines to remain physically distanced from people, which the Normans have taken seriously.

Meanwhile, their two boys, Maxwell, 8, and Joseph Lee, 3, have been without in-person school, child care or summer camp.

“That’s the other thing — getting these boys on a schedule,” Norman said.

So Norman has recently tried to implement a new morning routine: trips to the nature preserve for some outdoor exercise. This comes just as summer is beginning, when Maxwell is normally enrolling in camps — soccer, karate and flag football.

“Summer football is still going on, but we had to request a refund because we weren’t quite sure about the policies because they weren’t taking any precautions,” Norman said. “They weren’t taking temperatures, they weren’t regulating spectators. They were basically going on like normal.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has announced that businesses can begin reopening at limited capacity across Texas, but Abbott has only encouraged, not required, Texans to wear protective masks or gloves. Yet Norman has seen other examples of people around Midland not following health guidelines surrounding the new coronavirus, cases of which have spiked in West Texas after an outbreak in the Amarillo region.

On a recent pickup from Academy Sports, Norman said he saw plenty of people close together and without masks.

“I don’t know if it’s just Midland, but Midland is stubborn,” Norman said. “I really do believe that they think it’s all a hoax and this is all some left-wing, media, liberals who fabricated this whole thing because they’re out to get President Trump. And they walk around like it. They walk around no mask, no gloves, nothing. Like, man, namaste. Stay 6 feet away.”

Norman said other people “can test the waters” with businesses reopening, but his family doesn’t plan on it.

“To me, it’s like walking in West Texas with tall grass,” Norman said. “You’re just waiting to step on a snake.”

Matagorda County is close to “a pretty good normal,” judge says

Nathan McDonald, 64, is the county judge in Matagorda County.

BY CASSANDRA POLLOCK

Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald has noticed that the traffic on the state highways in this part of the Texas coast is starting to return to pre-pandemic levels.

“Things are moving along. Businesses are picking up, and folks here see that,” McDonald said last week. “I think folks are pretty optimistic in our county that we’re going to get back to a pretty good normal here in a month or two, and we’re well on our way to that.”

In the rural county, the judge said, residents are pleased that Gov. Greg Abbott announced that hair and nail salons could reopen early under certain guidelines.

“It’s good to see folks using these services in an orderly way,” McDonald said Friday morning before heading to his first haircut in two and a half months. “Like with my hairdresser, I have to pull up to the parking lot and call or text to let her know I’m there. She makes sure that the person before me is out, and she’ll let me in. Then I’ll go in with a face mask on and get a haircut.”

McDonald said he had heard from restaurateurs who told him that they needed to operate at 50% capacity — instead of the current 25% threshold — to break even or make a small profit. They got their wish Monday, when Abbott announced restaurants could begin operating at 50% starting Friday.

McDonald also said he has heard “the drums beating loudly” from some in the community who want bars to begin reopening as well. And on Monday, Abbott gave bars the green light to reopen under certain guidelines starting Friday.

“Social distancing, I assume, will be the challenge,” he said. “But at the same time, I don’t think that’s insurmountable if everyone works together.”

McDonald said the county will keep following the governor’s guidance on reopening the economy in phases. While most of the county is optimistic about the process, McDonald said he also hears the criticisms and concerns of the “1 percenters who have nothing to do but throw darts at everything.

“That’s present whether we’re in a pandemic or in a hurricane or in day-to-day business — it matters not,” he said. “It’s just going to be the same 15 people. And I accept it as part of the job.”

A quiet restaurant becomes a hub for civic work

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

BY ALEX SAMUELS

Shabu House might not be seeing in-person customers, but the restaurant in Houston’s Chinatown isn’t completely vacant.

Stacked near the front entrance are six boxes of bright yellow yard signs, four boxes of census dragon bags and 100 boxes of placemats. Their message: Respond to the once-a-decade census.

Debbie Chen, a co-owner of Shabu House, said that while her restaurant is closed for dine-in services during the pandemic — she plans to reopen June 10 — it has turned into a de facto storage unit for OCA-Greater Houston, the nonprofit for which Chen serves as programs director.

OCA-Greater Houston is a civic engagement organization dedicated to advancing the social, political and economic well-being of Asian Americans in the Greater Houston area, Chen said. While the group does everything from providing citizenship assistance to helping students register to vote, right now volunteers have their eyes set on census outreach.

Debbie Chen, a co-owner of Shabu House, said that while her restaurant is closed for dine-in services during the pandemic, it has turned into a de facto storage unit for OCA-Greater Houston.

Debbie Chen, a co-owner of Shabu House, said that while her restaurant is closed for dine-in services during the pandemic, it has turned into a de facto storage unit for OCA-Greater Houston. Courtesy of Debbie Chen

Chen, who’s been a member of the group since 1998, was recruited by a past president to join. The work she’s doing, she said, reinforces the overall need for “social and racial justice and a greater understanding and knowledge between communities.”

“For the last count, there were 400,000 [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] in the Greater Houston area,” Chen said. “Right now I think there’s more than that because of natural growth, but we want to get as accurate a count as possible.”

Chen said she and her group are looking to distribute the census awareness placemats to some of the restaurants in Houston’s Chinatown that are reopening for the first time in months. The disposable pads, she said, are a play on old takeout placemats. While one side depicts an illustration of the Chinese zodiac, with cartoonish animals used to represent different years, the second side is a 2020 calendar with information related to the census.

OCA-Greater Houston has 200,000 placemats to distribute to restaurants around town.

Chen said she enjoys serving as the group’s temporary distribution center for this effort, especially if it can help.

On Friday, Chen, along with six or seven other volunteers, will put up the signs in the medians of Bellaire Boulevard on Houston’s west side — the heart of Chinatown. Each one has “Yes to Census 2020” printed in various languages, including English, Chinese, Spanish and Vietnamese.

“This goes along with what I originally envisioned for Shabu House as a restaurant that people would know as a business that supports workers’ rights, community involvement and community service,” Chen said.

When Shabu House opens again, Chen wants to reserve one of the front windows as a community bulletin board. The one that now has a census poster taped to it.

First, a painful nasal swab. Then an anxious wait for test results.

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

BY STACY FERNÁNDEZ

Liz Salas got tested for the coronavirus and got a separate antibody test Friday. She was supposed to hear back within two or three days, but Monday and Tuesday came and went without any news.

Salas wasn’t even sure she wanted to get tested. She’d seen the videos of how people administering the test painfully stick a long swab into your nasal cavity and swirl it around, then repeat the same process in the other nostril.

But a clinic across the street from the Dallas food pantry where she works was offering free testing. It was too convenient to pass up.

“I’ll do it if you do it,” she told her coworker Alexis, who works as a food recovery manager.

The swab irritated her nasal passages. She said fluid filled the back of her throat with the taste of iron, and she unexpectedly shed a few tears.

“Oh my god. It was the most painful and most uncomfortable thing I have ever felt, and I have like five tattoos,” Salas said. “That’s nothing compared to that nose swab.”

The test left her so shaken up that she left the clinic before they could give her any other information — like whether she’d also get a call if she tested negative.

Salas is scared she’ll test positive, and the thought has her mind spiraling.

If she has the virus, it’s possible she passed it on to community members and her manager at work. If both Salas and her manager — the pantry’s only full-time employees — get sick and can’t work, she doesn't know who would run the pantry.

They’d be leaving the most vulnerable people in their community without food, she worried.

“Let this be the one test I actually pass,” she said.

Around 2 p.m. Wednesday, the clinic left her a voicemail letting her know it had her test results, but no one answered her return call.

"Oh crap. Do you think they would have just told me through my voicemail if I just tested negative?" Salas asked Alexis — who had already gotten her negative test results — on her way to a meeting.

The meeting was a blur. The test results were all Salas could think about.

Four hours after the first call, she heard back from the clinic: Both tests were negative.

All she felt was relief.

“There is a lot of desperation”

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

BY JULIÁN AGUILAR

EL PASO — After months of immigration policy changes and uncertainty, Taylor Levy has finally fallen into something of a routine.

But with that consistency comes another challenge for the El Paso-based immigration attorney who has spent her mornings in Mexico assisting asylum seekers: navigating through the sadness.

Levy has acted as an unpaid, informal advisor for asylum seekers who have been waiting months in Ciudad Juárez for their court hearings in the United States.

And the waiting is starting to take its toll.

“It’s becoming very demoralizing for folks,” she said. “There is a lot of desperation.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Texas’ border with Mexico, tens of thousands of migrants had already been waiting for months for their court hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols program. The Mexican border cities where most of the migrants are waiting are hotbeds of crime, and migrants have been assaulted, extorted, raped and even killed, according to human rights organizations.

Now, scheduled immigration hearings have now been postponed for several months because the virus has shuttered most of the federal government’s operations, including immigration court. That’s adding to the migrants’ burden, Levy said, and every morning she sees the desperation increasing.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security told migrants to show up for new court dates one month after their scheduled appearances under MPP. It’s a policy meant to deter migrants from traveling through dangerous parts of Mexico. But instead, it’s adding to the confusion.

“At least half who showed up already had their court canceled once,” Levy said Tuesday. “And at least half of them thought there was going to be court today.”

Levy is usually well stocked with coloring books and decorated face masks she offers migrants and their children as a way to brighten their days.

But as much as she wishes things were easier, she knows it’s her responsibility to explain the reality of what’s going on without sugarcoating it.

“I try and focus on what I think I do very well: telling people the truth,” she said. “I give people direct and honest answers, as opposed to what I think a lot of people get, they get lies from coyotes [human smugglers], they get lies from the U.S. government, they get rumors from Facebook. And they get a lot of blind faith and hope from their families or from nonprofit organizations sometimes.

“What keeps me sane is that I know I am giving people truthful, honest answers.”

With two sick kids, a trip to the zoo has be be aborted

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

BY EMMA PLATOFF

Rupal and Lea Shah hadn’t realized how antsy their kids were to get out of the house until they mentioned the zoo.

As soon as the idea came up, Lea recalled, “they were jumping up and down.”

“Can we go now? Can we go now?” they asked their parents.

The San Antonio Zoo opened as a drive-thru this month, allowing families to peruse the exhibits from behind closed car doors, starting with the bear grottos and proceeding past the Asian Rainforest to Big Cat Valley, so long as they stayed below a “sloth-like 4 miles per hour.” The Shahs, who are members of the zoo, made the trip as soon as they could fit it in around Rupal’s work schedule.

They thought no one else would be there. When they arrived, the line felt miles long.

Five-year-old Nikhil was days out of his highest-yet dose of chemotherapy. He had been treated with doxorubicin, the harshest of the three cancer drugs that will be used during his treatment for kidney cancer. Some cancer patients call it the “red devil.” The first time Nik had it, his tears and urine turned red.

His parents had been pleased to find Nik still feeling energetic and playful after the dose, but sitting in the car proved too much. Nik, who usually does fine on car rides, was nauseous just minutes into the short drive. And 6-year-old Nina was drawing, which often makes her carsick.

“We got there, we looked at the line and just realized, ‘We’re not gonna be able to sit in the car for two hours,’” Rupal said.

They left the line and drove home. They would have to play at home instead.

“We’ll just have to keep making our fun here,” Rupal said.