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With a baby on the way, Midland couple has to decline in-person family celebrations

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Joseph Lee Norman, 3, visits the I-20 Wildlife Preserve in Midland with his father and older brother. The family has turned down invitations to family events in part because of Belinda Norman's pregnancy. Courtesy of Joseph Norman

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.

A pandemic pregnancy means saying no to family

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

BY MITCHELL FERMAN

Pregnancy during a pandemic has meant plenty of online shopping for the Normans, and even more time spent assembling a changing table and other necessities before Belinda Norman’s June 25 due date.

But it has also meant telling family no.

No, they cannot make it to graduation festivities in Amarillo, and no, visiting family will not be able to hold the baby. It isn’t easy missing family gatherings, the Normans said, especially when there are so many of them. Belinda has more than 50 cousins.

“Our families have been giving us a bunch of crap for not going to grad parties,” Joseph said.

The Normans have mostly kept to themselves the last two months, following social distancing guidelines issued by health experts to avoid the coronavirus outbreak, which has already helped sink their oilfield services business.

“People have asked about coming to see the baby, and no, I’m not going to let anybody in my house,” Belinda said. “We’ll maybe set up a little seating area out front on the porch, and they can see her on the porch.”

All along, the two have planned for a home birth, like they did three years ago when their son Joseph Lee was born. Belinda had complications that time, and she ended up giving birth in a local hospital. This time, her midwife has been visiting her at home for scheduled appointments — “thankfully that’s an option,” Belinda said — and she’s determined to give birth to their daughter in their Midland home.

“This is the first time any anxiety has creeped up during this whole time,” Belinda said. “First of all, I’m tired of having to explain myself to people. Even pregnancy during normal times, you want to protect yourself and your baby. It’s just what you feel.”

But they have come up with a way for the family to see Belinda before the baby comes: They’re having a drive-by baby shower at the end of the month. Some cousins may come over early to decorate the porch, and cupcakes will be served. “Even that will be at a distance,” Belinda said.

“Those are all the things you have to think about that you didn’t really have to think about before,” Belinda said. “But at the end of the day, man, I don’t have to explain myself to anybody. I just want a healthy baby, a healthy delivery, and we’ll go from there.”

East Texas town welcomes back basketball, lake trips and the library

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

BY CASSANDRA POLLOCK

The city of Jacksonville is slowly but surely returning to normal, City Manager Greg Smith says.

The latest sign? Youth sports activities and camps have started making plans to open again, thanks to the governor’s most recent executive order continuing the state’s economic reopening. The community’s baseball association, Smith said last week, plans to kick off its season next month, with practices scheduled to begin June 1 and games June 15.

“We’re going to be able to do it with the best preventative ways we can operate it,” he said. “And we’re excited about that.”

Other activities that were previously shuttered have also been given the green light to reopen. The gathering areas around Lake Jacksonville, for example, reopened last week, Smith said. City officials had previously closed them off with physical barriers after visitors disregarded closure signs and social distancing practices.

Smith said that about half of restaurants in the area have not yet reopened for dine-in customers. The general sense from the community, he said, is that some restaurant owners are not ready to take on that responsibility — “whether it’s a financial implication or they’re just not ready to do it.”

Lake Jacksonville was fully open for Memorial Day weekend after weeks of restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lake Jacksonville was fully open for Memorial Day weekend after weeks of restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy of Greg Smith

Meanwhile, Smith said, things have been running smoothly from an operational standpoint. “We’re getting our city employees back,” he said. “We’re finalizing a plan to reopen city facilities. And our library opened up [last Monday] to allow people inside the building.”

The library is limiting its occupancy based on the governor’s executive orders, he said, and implementing extra precautions, such as not allowing visitors to use public computers.

The city’s administrative offices are also beginning to reopen — but by appointment only, Smith said, in an attempt to keep face-to-face interactions to a minimum. City officials are also considering ways to alter certain services, such as its utility billing system, to exclude in-person payments, which Smith said could end up saving taxpayers money from an operational standpoint.

“The way our community, the way our county, and I think the way our state and our nation operate — I think that this is absolutely going to change the way we operate,” Smith said. “And some of these operations are probably improvements.”

In San Antonio, a family mourns lost school milestones

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

BY EMMA PLATOFF

Normally, the last day of school merits a certain degree of fanfare. Lea Shah is the room mother this year for her 6-year-old daughter Nina’s first grade class, so she would have been in charge of organizing the final-day festivities. Ice cream sundaes, lots of fruit, bingo, some kind of craft — all would have been par for the course, pre-pandemic.

And for 5-year-old Nikhil, the end of this month should have meant a pre-K graduation ceremony from his San Antonio Spanish immersion school. The children were supposed to be taking cap-and-gown pictures and performing a dance routine. Organizers had planned for a Brazilian theme.

Nina Shah, 6, visited Vineyard Ranch Elementary School with her mother and thanked teachers and staff with a hand-drawn sign.

Nina Shah, 6, visited Vineyard Ranch Elementary School with her mother and thanked teachers and staff with a hand-drawn sign.

This week, the official start of summer comes with less ceremony and little closure.

Nina’s formal goodbye to first grade came last week, when Lea took her by Vineyard Ranch Elementary School to drop off library books and pick up school supplies and summer workbooks. School staff stood outside wearing masks and waving as kids drove by in their parents’ cars.

Nina sat in the back seat wielding a purple sign that said, “We love VR.” Lea taped another sign, this one orange — “Muchas gracias!” — to the outside of the van. Kids got to tell their teachers thank you and wish them a good summer, but it was hardly the last-day party anyone wished for.

They mourn those small joys. But Lea nonetheless feels lucky that her kids are young enough that home-schooling has been manageable and milestones comparatively missable. She and her husband, Rupal, can keep up with the homework, with the exception of Spanish — Nina has gotten advanced enough that they hired a tutor to help with that subject. Nina and Nik aren’t missing high school or college graduations, after all, and they aren’t old enough that they miss their school friends too miserably.

“Even though they’re social kids and enjoy playing with others and being out of the house, I think they prefer being home,” Lea said. Occasional sibling squabbles aside, “they play so well together. … They’re just so happy to be here.”

That much was clear when Lea explained to Nina that some of second grade might be spent at home, too.

“She was like, ‘Yes!’” Lea said, laughing.

Border lawyer finds a new mission during Memorial Day weekend

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

BY JULIÁN AGUILAR

EL PASO — With cases of COVID-19 on the rise in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez area, Taylor Levy knew how she was going to spend her Memorial Day holiday. And it wasn’t flipping burgers at a neighborhood barbecue.

“I worked in the office all day,” she said Tuesday morning. “And I didn’t go to Juárez because there was no court [scheduled].”

Levy is an immigration attorney who acts as an unpaid, informal adviser for asylum-seeking migrants waiting in Ciudad Juárez for their court hearings in the United States.

The hearings are on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, but Levy is still on hand weekday mornings because dozens of migrants show up with questions or concerns. Because there was nothing scheduled Monday, she could have used the day to relax or even venture outside. But she knows she’s not ready for that.

“I didn’t want to go to any events. I think it’s too early, and I think El Paso and Juárez are hot spots for sure,” she said.

She said that on average, she comes into contact with at least 100 people every day in Juárez. But for Levy, there is a difference between taking a risk for her work and doing it just because she’s bored at home.

“It feels essential [in Mexico], but it does not feel good to be risking contagion for social stuff,” she said.

Instead, she spent the holiday working on a case of a child who’s been detained for months in the United States after crossing the border alone while the child’s family remained in Ciudad Juárez.

Levy also spent Monday trying to coordinate with other groups on both sides of the border to help migrants in the late stages of pregnancy in Ciudad Juárez.

Under normal circumstances, women who are more than seven months pregnant can ask to be excluded from the Migrant Protection Protocols, a Trump administration policy requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until they can go before a U.S. judge.

“But since the courts have been canceled, none of those pregnancy [exemptions from MPP] are taking place,” Levy said.

That has given Levy a new mission: helping women who will likely give birth while waiting in a crime-plagued Mexican border city during a pandemic.

A Houston restaurant starts planning a “safe as possible” reopening

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

BY ALEX SAMUELS

For months, Shabu House’s regular customers were given the same message when they called to ask whether the restaurant was open: “We’re closed for dine-in right now, but maybe that’ll change in a few weeks.”

But now, more than a week after Gov. Greg Abbott said restaurants can open at 50% capacity, those same customers are told that the wait won’t be much longer.

June 16. That’s the date that co-owner Debbie Chen and her small staff of four to five others have tentatively set to reopen the restaurant in Houston’s Chinatown for dine-in services.

“We thought we’d start on a weekday because we figured it’d be slower,” Chen said. “We want to make sure we have everything ready before the weekend.”

But there’s still work to be done in the small restaurant, which holds only 11 tables — only half of which could be occupied if the restaurant opened now.

Right now, her team is trying to figure out a way to make sure the tables can be arranged so customers can dine at a safe distance from one another. Chen said she asks her team every day what reopening should look like. What would make you feel safe? What have you seen at other places that have already opened?

Chen read an article about a restaurant that hung up clear shower curtains between tables, something she’s looking into.

“I was like, ‘You know, that could possibly work,’” Chen said, adding that she’s going out and buying the supplies this week to test it out. “We’re going to try hanging one to see if it’ll work. If it does, then all next week we’ll be hanging up curtains to basically cordon off between tables.”

The staff will be required to wear masks and gloves, something Chen paid for out of pocket. Chen is also trying to figure out how to put extra condiments — garlic, scallions and soy sauce — in small to-go containers to “minimize the opportunity for people to touch what other people have touched.”

Chen says that she and her team are a tad nervous, but they’re also ready to get back to work.

In April, Shabu House received between zero and three takeout orders per day, and the restaurant earned just over $1,700 in gross revenue. Normally, Chen said, the restaurant brings in between $30,000 and $35,000 per month during the summer.

“We’re prepping the team for best practices right now,” Chen said. “We were able to get our hands on authentic KN95 masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, UV air filters and bleach solutions, so I’m hopeful we’ll be able to keep everything as safe as possible.”