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.
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Food pantry employee gets a promotion during the pandemic
Liz Salas, 23, is a food pantry employee in Dallas.
The Bluetooth audio system filled Liz Salas’ car with the sound of her manager’s voice.
“Oh crap. Was I not supposed to leave? Do I have to turn back around?” Salas thought, already on her way to visit her boyfriend in Fort Hood for the weekend.
“I have the great honor to tell you you got the position as the new volunteer coordinator.”
Salas could practically hear Meredith Parrott, her manager, beaming with pride through the phone. Before even telling Salas she got the job, Parrott already bragged to a few of the staff members at CitySquare Food Pantry that Salas got the promotion.
Salas took the intake specialist job about a year ago as her first full-time job out of college. In her new role, she’ll be responsible for managing the pantry’s volunteer program, recruiting volunteers and handling partnerships with corporate volunteer groups.
Days before, Salas had been crying on the phone to her boyfriend. After multiple rounds of interviews, she was sure she’d bombed the last one. The pantry director texted her about how great she’d done, but Salas was stuck in her own head, worried she didn’t give the best answer or make her thoughts clear enough.
“Sometimes you’re your own worst critic,” Salas said.
Ever humble, Salas said it was probably her bilingual skills that gave her a boost. And maybe her boss liked her ideas to improve the pantry’s volunteer program, which on a given day has 10 to 12 volunteers, compared with only two full-time pantry staffers.
If she got the job, she wanted to lead a coalition of Spanish-speaking volunteers, expand the pantry’s Latino outreach and partner with local high schools that require students to volunteer in the community.
Salas said she’s especially excited to build up her team of Latino volunteers so pantry visitors see, “Hey, we have volunteers who look like you.”
Tuesday is Salas’ first day in her new role — the same day a new AmeriCorps member, who’ll report to her, is set to start at the pantry.
He’ll probably be looking to Salas for all the answers, she said.
“Joke’s on you, we’re both training,” Salas said, laughing.
Mother’s Day in quarantine: a home perm for mom
Donna Boatright, 66, is a hospital administrator in Sweetwater.
The salons in Sweetwater may be reopening, but Donna Boatright has no interest in paying a visit just yet.
So when her 86-year-old mother asked for a perm for Mother’s Day, Boatright made it a socially distant undertaking. She set her mother up in the kitchen with tissue paper, rollers and pungent-smelling solutions while her husband hid on the other side of the house. Afterward, they watched a Hallmark movie.
“Her hair didn’t fall out, which we considered to be a victory,” Boatright said. “She said it looks nice today.”
Boatright’s mother is part of their “quarantine family.” That involves cocooning her from risks, especially by reducing contact with other people as Sweetwater reopens. Boatright does the grocery shopping for her mother, who was initially resistant to the idea. “She was not happy to give up that independence,” she said.
Boatright, 66, is scheduled to retire from her administrator position at the Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital next month. Her mother, meanwhile, is still working full time as an accountant.
“People asked me for several years when I planned to retire, and I said, ‘Well, I’m embarrassed to retire because my mother still works full time,’” she said.
At the hospital, Boatright said the past week brought good news. Doctors there have resumed some elective surgeries, and that’s brought in a little more money. Although revenue this month is still about $800,000 less than what the hospital would expect in a more normal year, that’s a smaller red number than Boatright had feared. “Anything that’s less than we anticipated in deficit is a good thing,” she said.
Businesses in town are allowed to reopen at 50% of capacity under Gov. Greg Abbott’s order because Nolan County has reported fewer than five cases. But Boatright has noticed, to her chagrin, that only about 10% of people in town seem to be wearing masks.
The hospital has cared for four patients with COVID-19, and roughly a dozen more people have tests pending or are being monitored for possible sickness.
“I guess because we’ve had so few cases positive that maybe people feel like the risk is very remote,” she said.
New immigration policy sparks new confusion at the border for lawyer
Taylor Levy, 33, is an immigration lawyer in El Paso.
EL PASO — In a new world where the monotony of stay-at-home pandemic precautions is in the new normal, Taylor Levy can always rely on federal immigration policy to throw her a curveball now and then.
Levy said she and the migrants she works with got that reminder this week after the Trump administration announced another policy change due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve probably talked to 100 people today,” Levy said Tuesday morning from Ciudad Juárez. “It’s just been super frustrating trying to explain it.”
Levy, an El Paso-based immigration attorney, has acted as an unpaid, informal legal adviser to many migrants on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande since both countries limited cross-border bridge traffic to a select group of people, like students, health care workers and other professionals who work in Mexico.
Since March, when the Trump administration said it was rescheduling hearings for asylum seekers under the Migrant Protection Protocols program, she’s been stationed on the Juárez side of an international bridge to answer any questions people have. The program requires that asylum seekers wait in Mexico until their court dates in the United States, but even after the hearings were postponed, migrants were still required to show up at ports of entry to learn when their new court dates were scheduled to take place.
That led to criticism from immigration attorneys who said it forced some asylum seekers to travel through dangerous parts of Mexico just to check in and get their court dates. Social distancing was also a challenge on bus rides or in car pools, they added.
But on Sunday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said asylum seekers can now assume they need to show up one month after their most recent hearing date instead of traveling to ports of entry.
But after months of postponed hearings and policy changes, the already weary migrants aren’t sure what to do.
“People are so devastated and confused, they’re [asking], ‘Well if I came here [to the bridge], why won’t they give me paperwork? How am I going to prove that I came, and what happens if they don’t believe me next time?’” Levy said.
Taylor and the larger community of nonprofit organizations and immigration attorneys posted messages to Facebook and other social media platforms to inform migrants about the new policy and help them avoid unnecessary trips.
“Even then, some people this morning told me they saw the post, but they don’t want to believe some random post on Facebook, so they want to show up on their own,” she said, adding that she’s had to drive some migrants to local shelters because they have no money for hotels when they arrive.
Levy said she recognizes DHS was likely trying to make the situation better for the migrants, but the change has caused even more confusion. That’s because some of the migrants have court dates for September or later, but it’s unclear if they still need to show up next month to confirm the dates.
“What happens if I don’t show up on June 12?” she said she was asked. “The answer is that no lawyer knows what will happen.”
Mother's Day road trip: quiet time with family and no coronavirus talk
Joseph Norman, 37, is an oil well technician in Midland.
The last two months have been dizzying for Joseph Norman and his wife, Belinda. They lost their oilfield company due to the coronavirus-induced oil price crash. Joseph has been at home helping with cooking, cleaning and schooling for their two young boys while Belinda is due with a baby in June.
So for Mother’s Day weekend, they were eager to leave town for the first time this year. At this point, they can’t remember the last time they left town to relax with family.
“Was it New Year's?” Joseph asked Belinda as they drove back to Midland on Monday, trying to remember their last family getaway.
“What did we do for Thanksgiving?” he said. “Where did we do Christmas?”
At any rate, it had been a while, and it was needed.
“It was nice to escape for a little bit,” Joseph said. “A little peace.”
The four-hour drive from Midland to Belinda’s parents’ home in Granbury, southwest of Fort Worth, was a surprise for their boys, Joseph Lee, 3, and Maxwell, 8, who learned about the trip to their grandparents’ house the night before they left.
“We’re all going?” Maxwell asked his father. Over the last two months, Joseph has mostly been the only one leaving the house during their self-quarantine. So Maxwell was excited.
Normally on road trips, the family stops along the way to grab a snack and use the restroom. This time, when they stopped for gas, Joseph wore a mask and gloves while he pumped the fuel. His wife and kids didn’t get out of the car.
As for restroom breaks?
“We just pulled over,” Joseph said. “Side of the road, you know what I mean?”
At their family’s home in Granbury, they stayed inside, swam in the pool and talked about the new baby due in June.
“Just playing and swimming,” Joseph said.
And no coronavirus talk.
“It was a far-away thought,” Joseph said. “It was a perfect break, man. It really was.”
“We’re not 100% together”: East Texas town has a bumpy reopening
Greg Smith, 52, is the city manager of Jacksonville.
Jacksonville City Manager Greg Smith hears the frustration from both sides these days. Some residents of his rural East Texas town are annoyed that things are not reopening as quickly as they would like after weeks of pandemic-induced restrictions. Others are worried that people are trying to rush the process.
“It’s been a fine line for us,” Smith said last week. “People feel that the government may be overreaching [on this issue], and I certainly understand their perspective, but we have a responsibility to look out for the greater good of the entire community.”
While a number of businesses, including restaurants, nail salons and barbershops, can open under certain restrictions, Smith said some have decided to remain closed because they can’t turn a profit under the new rules on limiting capacity and social distancing.
Lake Jacksonville has proved to be one of the largest challenges for city leaders like Smith. A couple of weekends ago, Smith said, warm weather prompted a “free-for-all” by visitors who disregarded the closure signs at public areas around the lake and in some cases did not practice social distancing.
Smith said it’s one of the city’s biggest concerns from an operational standpoint — “people not wanting to adhere to the rules, whether they don’t understand the rules or they just disagree with the rules.”
“We’re not 100% together on how we should respond to this, and that’s OK,” he said, “because [these are] totally unprecedented waters for the entire nation.”
After that surge of people around the lake, Smith said officials installed physical barriers with signs posted across, making clear that the beach area is closed. While he said it’s unclear how long the barriers will remain in place, residents can still take their boats or other personal watercraft out on the water.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville has also received some welcome news: Sales tax revenue allocations increased 1.2% for May compared with the same month last year, according to figures the Texas comptroller released last week — which included March sales for many businesses and first-quarter sales for those that file quarterly.
While next month’s figures could fluctuate, Smith said, “shop local” campaigns in the community may have helped the local economy and could help Jacksonville avoid the economic fallout that has already hit some of the state’s urban hubs.
“We felt we weren’t going to have a huge negative impact, but we didn’t know,” Smith said. “It’s good that we got that positive news.”
Dreaming of the beach, but staying in the house for now
Rupal Shah, 45, is an education technology executive in San Antonio.
BY EMMA PLATOFF
The Shah family loves the outdoors, particularly the kids — 6-year-old “Nature Nina” has even pitched a YouTube show on the subject. So as the state begins to reopen in phases, they have been tempted less by restaurants and shoppings malls than by state parks, which are allowing visitors who follow social distancing protocols.
For months, the family has kept to a restrictive routine: On Mondays, one parent takes 5-year-old Nikhil to his chemotherapy appointment. The only other outing is a weekly grocery run by Rupal.
They know they are lucky to have a pool and a hammock and plenty of outdoor space for the kids to enjoy. Still, ahead of Nik’s appointment this week, when he was scheduled for his harshest dose yet, they daydreamed a little, about beaches and trails.
Could they just go for a hike, or head down to the Guadalupe River? They love to go to the National Seashore and head out past the crowds, where the kids can see starfish. They could bring a portable potty for the kids and avoid rest stops. Just a day trip, maybe.
But what about the bacteria in the water? What if other people weren’t social distancing?
“It’s just too dangerous if somebody wasn’t taking social distancing seriously,” Lea said. “I know of too many people who aren’t.”
The beach will be one of their first destinations once Nik, and the world, seem healthy enough to go out. For now, they’ll keep themselves amused at home as some Texans rush the beaches and crowd into hair salons.
The kids delight in everything from a fresh pile of dirt to a newly discovered lizard. Their street recently convened a socially distant 102nd birthday party for a neighbor, Helen, who rode up the street in a golf cart to a crowd of mask-wearing, balloon-wielding celebrants.
Lea has started doing Cosmic Kids guided meditations with Nik and Nina, an activity they are just becoming old enough to appreciate. In a recent session, the instructor told them to imagine being on a beach — how the breeze would feel on their skin.
“This is wonderful,” Lea remembers thinking. “This is not just for kids.”
For now, it will have to be enough.
Mother’s Day without mom: making comfort food for family, first responders
Debbie Chen, 49, is a restaurant owner in Houston.
BY ALEX SAMUELS
Debbie Chen wanted some sense of normalcy for Mother’s Day weekend.
Her mom is still in California with her sister, in what was initially intended to be a short visit, but both siblings felt uncomfortable having their mother fly back to Texas given her age and susceptibility to complications if she contracted the coronavirus.
Normally, Chen said, the occasion would be marked by the exchange of presents and a big meal to celebrate the family matriarch. This year, they celebrated the day via an early afternoon Zoom call.
After lunch, Chen headed to Shabu House, the restaurant she co-owns in Houston’s Chinatown, to make a vermicelli noodle dish. She described the meal as like a stir fry, where all the ingredients are cooked separately and then blended together at the end. The dish is her aunt’s version of a recipe passed down from Chen’s grandmother, so there’s nostalgia in the meal, too.
“Normally, I’d make this because my mom was here,” said Chen, who lives with her mother.
But in lieu of sharing the dish with her mom, she shared it with her godmother and a couple of “aunties,” she said.
Chen said she misses having her mother in the house, so she spends more time at the restaurant — which hasn’t yet reopened for dine-in customers — doing things like making meals for first responders at St. Luke’s and Methodist hospitals as part of her restaurant delivery to front-line workers.
She says it helps keep her mind occupied so she doesn’t think about missing her mom.
“I have to admit, it’s nice having her around,” Chen said.
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