In Houston's Chinatown, restaurants plan to feed front-line workers during the pandemic
Restaurant owners aim to give 10,000 meals to frontline workers. A boy with cancer wants a mohawk. An East Texas town prepares to reopen some businesses. In this weekly series, Texans from across the state share stories about how they're navigating life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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.
- Debbie Chen, Houston restaurant owner
- Genevieve Gilmore, Celina middle school student
- Greg Smith, Jacksonville city manager
- Donna Boatright, Sweetwater hospital administrator
- Taylor Levy, El Paso immigration lawyer
- Rupal Shah, San Antonio tech executive
- Liz Salas, Dallas food pantry employee
- Joseph Norman, Midland oil field worker
Asian restaurants hatch a plan to feed first responders
Debbie Chen, 49, is a restaurant owner in Houston.
BY ALEX SAMUELS
As Debbie Chen sees it, being one of Texas’ first responders or essential workers is no picnic.
Tending to the state’s most vulnerable populations and working long hours as essential employees is taxing on its own; figuring out when you’re going to fit in meals on top of that is a whole other challenge.
To help, Chen, a co-owner of Shabu House in Houston, and several other Asian American community leaders in the state’s most diverse city have devised a plan.
The goal: Collect $100,000 to divvy between (hopefully) 20 restaurants — including Shabu House — in Houston’s Chinatown. The money will all go toward buying food and packaging to make meal boxes for the people who are keeping Houston running while most people stay home. They’ve already raised close to $60,000 so far.
Each $10 meal will be paid for by donors and, with the help of volunteers, get distributed to firefighters, nurses, grocery store workers and doctors working on the front lines.
Chen has already planned the meals Shabu House can provide. Rice with coconut curry chicken. A vegan option with tofu instead of chicken. Popcorn chicken. Or, a fourth meal with their signature pickled cabbage and bulgogi beef rice dish.
Already four restaurants have agreed to participate. Chen, 49, said another colleague working with her on the project is in contact with at least nine others. She hopes the mission can be fully up and running by the first week of May, with the end goal of distributing 10,000 meals.
“This helps first responders know that people care about them and appreciate what they’re doing,” Chen said. “I also think it will take away from stress because I can’t imagine them having the time and bandwidth to go get groceries at the store.
“We’re supporting Asian restaurants and supporting first responders at the same time,” she added.
Initially the community group Chen works with wanted to organize an Asian Restaurant Week to help bring money to restaurants in the city’s Chinatown. Then the coronavirus hit. And a seed was planted for the initiative underway now: one that can help not only Asian restaurants, but help first responders, too.
“Hopefully this will save [first responders] from the stress of having to buy food and cook it,” she said. “Especially when they could be using that time to shower or unwind or do something else.
“We know this is a small thing, but we hope it will help,” she added. “Every little piece helps.”
With teachers helping online, student gets the help she needs
Genevieve Gilmore, 14, is a student in Celina.
BY ALIYYA SWABY
Genevieve Gilmore can now look at a computer screen while finishing a math or science assignment and see her teacher’s face looking back at her.
More than a month after the coronavirus pandemic closed Prosper Independent School District, sending all its instruction to computer screens, the eighth-grader last week began receiving the support she needs to learn remotely and overcome the constant distractions spurred by her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
In the classroom, Genevieve had received one-on-one instruction from her teachers as required by federal law, but that ended when the district was forced to switch to remote learning. Many school districts have been slow to adapt special education to the virtual realm, leaving parents like Genevieve’s mom, Katherine Gilmore, to serve as amateur teachers.
“On a broad scale, we are working and doing our best given the circumstances all public schools are under to provide services and accommodations based on the child's needs,” a representative for Prosper ISD told The Texas Tribune.
Before last week, the stress of struggling to complete assignments overwhelmed Genevieve; she was hoping schools would never re-open and was glad when the state announced they would be closed through this school year. “Part of me didn’t want to confront my teachers about some of the missing work I had,” Genevieve said.
Without the accommodations, “I don’t think she was retaining anything,” Katherine said. “The knowledge was gone after [the assignment] was turned in.”
Two weeks ago, Katherine had a virtual meeting with the school’s assistant principal and two of Genevieve’s teachers, while Genevieve listened in behind her. They went through the accommodations she needed to finish the year and would need to begin the next year, when she started high school.
Now, with the support of her teachers, Genevieve has caught up on all her assignments.
At first, she said having her teachers watch her on a screen was “kind of weird,” but she adjusted pretty quickly.
“It’s like being in normal class,” she said.
East Texas town eases restrictions, but "we still have to stay vigilant”
Greg Smith, 52, is the city manager of Jacksonville.
Until earlier this week, the city of Jacksonville had a plan: Some businesses, including hair salons and tattoo parlors, could reopen Friday with restrictions, while restaurant dining rooms, movie theaters and other businesses would have to wait.
But on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest directive effectively superseded the plan city leaders like City Manager Greg Smith had put together. Now, movie theaters, restaurants and malls can reopen Friday under certain guidelines, while hair salons, bars and gyms must remain closed for the time being.
“I think there’s a sense of wanting to do more, but we’ve gotta be smart,” Smith said last week. “We’re certainly doing a great job, and that’s proven by the numbers we have currently, but I think our community knows that we’re not out of the woods … We still have to stay vigilant.”
The novel coronavirus hasn’t hit Jacksonville, a rural East Texas town of about 15,000 residents, as hard as other parts of the state. Within city limits, only one case has been confirmed and Cherokee County has only seen about a dozen cases.
Still, the virus has upended life for most of the community; for the past several weeks, most businesses there have been shuttered under Abbott’s stay-at-home order, which expires Thursday at midnight.
The community’s resilience, Smith said, has been tested — and so far it has been up to the challenge. City officials, he said, haven’t heard from any business owners indicating that they plan to shutter for good.
“Are they going to suffer? Sure,” he said. “But I do know that several businesses have already received some of their federal stimulus money, and that has certainly eased some of their concerns.”
Beyond that, Smith said there is a sense of camaraderie among residents. “There is a sense of calm … in trying to figure out what the new normal is going to be,” he said.
Neighbors are helping neighbors, Smith said, by picking up items like paper towels or toilet paper while at the store. And a local business, he said, is making masks for first responders, nursing home residents and doctors.
Still, returning to something like normal life is unchartered territory — and the damage to the economy will last a while, which Smith said is one of his biggest concerns.
“What [will] things look like in September or October?” he said. “I think that’s still the unknown.”
West Texas hospital administrator worries that "the worst is yet to come"
Donna Boatright, 66, is a hospital administrator in Sweetwater.
On Wednesday, for the first time in “many, many, many weeks,” Donna Boatright took a day off.
Doing so felt “risky,” she said, but after months of tireless work responding to a global pandemic that recently reached the Sweetwater city limits, it was high time to tackle the long list of household chores and errands that had piled up. Plus, Major and Bo Henry, her Labradoodles, desperately needed a backyard shearing.
Two days prior, the Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital, where Boatright is the administrator, held a board meeting to wrestle with a grim financial outlook. The hospital lost some $1.6 million in revenue in March compared to the same time frame last year — largely because of a statewide suspension of elective procedures at hospitals due to the pandemic. Those procedures make up a big part of hospitals’ income streams.
Boatright was in charge of cutting costs, including reducing her and her staff’s pay by about 10%. Now she’s trying to find ways to restore some of the lost revenue.
Not that Boatright is one to complain about it. This is information she only divulges after some prodding from a reporter, and she delivers it with relentless optimism. “We’re just taking it step by step,” she said. “We’re making progress.”
After an order from Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday allowed hospitals to begin performing some elective procedures again, Rolling Plains is calling patients who delayed surgeries, including those with gallbladder or musculoskeletal issues, to see if they’d like to rebook.
“It’s really the public's decision whether they come and have things done,” she said. “We’re trying to not use the hard sell but say, ‘This is what we can do based on the regulations, and these are the safety protocols that we have in place.’”
Boatright is watching with some trepidation as community businesses weigh partially reopening after Abbott’s latest order allowed restaurants and retail stores to do so beginning Friday.
Nolan County, which includes Sweetwater, has only had one confirmed coronavirus case — two if you count the out-of-state resident who fell ill in town and was treated at Rolling Plains — which puts it at a low enough count to reopen businesses at a faster clip under Abbott’s rules.
For the first time in a long time, Boatright is grateful Sweetwater does not have a movie theater, she said.
She worries that the low case count won’t last long. Neighboring Taylor County to the east, which includes Abilene, has seen a rapid rise in coronavirus infections, reaching nearly 300 in the latest state tally. Many Sweetwater residents commute to work in Abilene or have other ties there.
“I really think the worst is yet to come, and generally I’m more optimistic than that,” Boatright said.
In border city, "People are just so stressed out and so sad"
Taylor Levy, 33, is an immigration lawyer in El Paso.
EL PASO — After making their way through Latin America and eventually stopping in Ciudad Juárez, the Turkish immigrants probably weren’t aware of Ciudad Juárez’s new mask requirement.
But Taylor Levy was in the border city to tell them about the new city ordinance, and answer their questions about how to request asylum.
Levy, an El Paso-based immigration lawyer, has been moonlighting in two countries since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold on the Texas-Mexico border. She’s in Mexico for hours every morning to advise migrants on fast-changing U.S. immigration policies. Then she travels back to El Paso in the afternoon and works from home like most other El Pasoans.
As Mexico grapples with the pandemic and Ciudad Juárez officials continue to see their daily death toll increase, they have enacted their own policies to help stop the spread, such as requiring masks in public and prohibiting more than two people in a vehicle.
Levy’s new normal includes telling migrants how to protect themselves from the virus — and not run afoul of local law enforcement. She passes out hand sanitizer and donated masks when she has them.
“I get them masks as much as possible, but what if they can’t get one?” she said Sunday.
But she can’t help them much with their bigger goal: obtaining asylum in the U.S. She has the heartbreaking task of telling migrants that the asylum process has been put on hold during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic struck, asylum seekers were placed on a list and had to wait until their numbers were called to make their case before U.S. officials. It’s unclear when that process will resume, if at all.
“I was giving advice to the Turks to see what options they might have because no one is allowed to apply for asylum lawfully,” she said. “It’s very hard for people when I explain that.”
The Turks ended up in a Juarez shelter when they learned they couldn’t request asylum.
Most of the other migrants Levy helps are waiting for their immigration hearings in the United States under the Migrant Protection Protocols, which sends asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for their court dates.
That program also has been put on hold but is scheduled to resume Friday. Levy’s doing her best to advise the migrants on what their next moves could be, but she said she’s working with limited information.
“It’s been really frustrating, there hasn’t been any guidance” from authorities, she said. “We’re just dealing with a lot of uncertainty, and everyone’s anxiety. People are just so stressed out and so sad.”
Dad shaves off moustache in solidarity as his son's hair falls out
Rupal Shah, 45, is an education technology executive in San Antonio.
BY EMMA PLATOFF
His dad calls it a “soccer star cut”: Buzzed on the side, a little long on top.
Five-year-old Nikhil Shah reached something of a cancer milestone this month when his hair began to fall out. He pulls it out in clumps and shows his parents. He thinks it’s cool.
For his parents it has been a little more startling. His mother Lea said she has to stop herself from telling him not to tug.
“He thinks it’s fun and cool and interesting,” she said. “He’s just curious, you know, and not necessarily afraid. It’s more that he’s asking questions.”
So Rupal shaved the sides of Nik’s head, a preventive step. Plans for a full mohawk are underway.
At first, Nik’s 6-year-old sister Nina and his mother, Lea, offered to shave their heads, too. (To Lea, Nik advised: “No, mom, I don’t think that’ll look good on you.”) Ultimately, they settled for Rupal shaving his moustache. It’s the first time Lea has seen him without one.
The family had known the hair loss was coming.
From the start, Lea and Rupal have done their best to explain the dual diseases — COVID-19 shuttering the world; cancer shaking Nik’s childhood — that are upending their children’s lives. They watched educational videos together and spoke with a family specialist at the hospital to explain what Nik’s cancer treatment meant and what it would look like. The kids got to see and feel what the port in his chest, used for administering the chemotherapy drugs, would be like.
At first, his parents told Nik he had “baddies” in his body, and the doctors were going to take them out in surgery; the ongoing medicine kept the “baddies” away, Rupal recalled. Now, Nina matter-of-factly reports that her “brother has cancer.”
They have always encouraged their kids to ask questions. At a recent chemotherapy appointment, Lea asked Nik if he had any questions for the nurse practitioner.
“Yeah,” he said. “Can you tell me when this virus is gonna be gone?”
They had to tell him they were wondering the same.
Nik’s questions aren’t always so heavy. Before bedtime, Lea always asks if there’s anything he wants to ask or discuss. Recently he did have one thought.
“Hey mom, do you remember those blueberry muffins we got at Whole Foods?”
With salons closed, she's pondering a quarantine haircut
Liz Salas, 23, is a food pantry employee in Dallas.
Liz Salas is considering joining the legion of people with quarantine haircuts.
Her dyed blonde hair is past her shoulders and has been growing faster than she expected. Constantly pushing her hair out of the way and throwing it up in a ponytail is getting increasingly annoying.
“I want to be able to just wake up and go again,” Salas said.
After the end of a long-term relationship, Liz entered her final semester of college with a short red bob — a stark change from the long brown locks she’d always had.
“Redheaded Liz had the time of her life,” Salas said.
Salas doesn’t know when she’ll be able to visit her usual stylist to bring her back to her bob circa 2018. In the meantime, she’s weighing whether to put her locks in the hands of her sister and the direction of a YouTube video.
“I can’t go to my stylist, so I’m wondering if my sister would be up for it if I came up to her and was like, ‘Here’s a pair of scissors, have at it,’” Salas said.
Salas said Samantha, her 18-year-old sister, is down to wield that kind of power over her appearance. And even if Samantha messes it up, she’d only have to see Liz once a week while they all shelter at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Estás loca, her mom told Liz when she heard about the possible at-home haircut. You’re crazy.
“This is why I shouldn’t be at home too long too often,” Salas said.
Stepping up during his wife's pregnancy and sacrificing "me time"
Joseph Norman, 37, is an oil well technician in Midland.
Now that he’s home all the time, Joseph Norman has had to step up. He’s been cooking meals and keeping his sons busy when his wife, Belinda — who’s pregnant with their third child and due in June — has felt sick.
Belinda says she welcomes the help. When she gave birth to their second son, Joseph Lee, she said she was up the next day making spaghetti for the family. “I made the mistake of showing him I'm a superwoman,” she said.
The couple’s oilfield company, Forty Acre A&M, has cratered along with oil prices. Norman is exploring livestreaming as a new career and trying to figure out how to make money talking about his interests.
Belinda has also considered looking for a new job. She is a licensed professional counselor and she’s fluent in Spanish. She said she could work as a marriage counselor or in the local probation office.
“In that field, I can get a job anywhere,” she said. “My thing right now is, I’m pregnant. I don’t want to get into something and then start maternity leave in two months.”
Meanwhile, she’s enjoying watching her husband take on a bigger role at home as the family holes up together during the coronavirus restrictions. He’s helping with the cooking, house cleaning and helping the kids with their schoolwork.
When it’s his turn to cook, he has smoked buffalo wings, made barbecue sandwiches and for breakfast the other day, eggs, bacon and toast.
“His eggs are definitely better than mom’s,” 8-year-old Maxwell said.
Joseph says he’s happy to pitch in. But after more than a month mostly cooped up in the house, he misses his alone time.
“I used to drive all by myself, I used to listen to my podcasts and have some me-time,” Norman said. “Now it’s just like, I don’t have me-time until 9:30 at night.
“And then I have to rub my wife’s feet, so me-time doesn’t really start until 10:30, 11 o’clock.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Maxwell Norman's age. He is 8.
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