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Coronavirus: The pandemic through Texans' eyes

“The African American community is not alone”: A Houston restaurant owner joins the protests

They went to protests in Houston and El Paso, spoke at an online town hall in Midland and held small celebrations amid national upheaval. In this weekly series, Texans from across the state share stories about how they’re navigating life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From left, Au Huynh, Vee Duong, Emma Crooks, Gloria Gonzalez, Long Nguyen, Debbie Chen, Dr. Stephen Chao, Patricia Garcia.

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.

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“We’re here”: Restaurateur joins protest to support African American community

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


The moment Debbie Chen found out about a march and protest in the Houston area condemning the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in Minneapolis police custody last week, she sprung into action.

She called one of the organizers: Could she donate masks and gloves? Did protesters need water? Were folding tables needed at the meet-up site?

After an exchange of pleasantries and an agreement on what was needed — she ended up pulling from her restaurant’s supply and donating 2,000 pairs of gloves and another 2,000 face masks from OCA-Greater Houston — Chen was ready.

She wanted to help, she said, because she’s seen the effects of racism firsthand.

“I moved to Houston from Nebraska and we lived in subsidized housing, so all my friends outside of school were either Native American or African American,” she said. “I grew up seeing how people are treated differently.”

On Friday afternoon, she met with OCA-Greater Houston members and local activists and set up shop. After handing out personal protective gear for about an hour at Discovery Green, she and her friends loaded into their cars and drove to Houston City Hall to join the protesters.

A board member for the group — a civic engagement organization dedicated to advancing the social, political and economic well-being of Asian Americans in the Houston area — brought a sign that read, “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.” Everyone had their own masks to protect against the coronavirus.

“We’re in the middle of the pandemic, and the African American community is hugely suffering disproportionately, and I thought it was really important to support them with face masks and gloves to help promote safety and show solidarity and show we care,” Chen said.

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“The African American community is not alone.”

While at the event, Chen said, she and about 2,000 other protesters stood together as speaker after speaker denounced Floyd’s unjust killing at the hands of a white officer who has since been fired and charged with second-degree murder.

“There was this calm outrage,” Chen said. “It’s so not right. It’s unfair and un-American.”

By the end of the afternoon, Chen said her team gave away about 25% to 50% of the gear it brought — along with a case or two of bottled water. She said the remaining supplies will be donated to a local Black Lives Matter chapter, which plans to give masks, food and water to the local homeless population.

“Overall it was a very powerful day for me personally — seeing all these people there marching to make a statement,” Chen said. “We just wanted to show we’re here, and here in solidarity.”

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In Midland, “celebrating a new life while America is burning”

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


The Normans’ front yard was full of balloons, cupcakes and family members wearing masks last weekend for a socially distant baby shower. Less than a month before their baby girl is due, Joseph and Belinda Norman wanted to celebrate safely.

It was a strange moment for Joseph Norman, enjoying a peaceful weekend with loved ones while people across the country risked their safety to protest.

“It’s crazy, the dichotomy that’s going on,” he said. “We’re over here celebrating a new life while America is burning.”

After George Floyd, a black security guard, died last week after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck until and after he lost consciousness, Norman turned to his brother, John, the only black city Council Member in Midland.

Instead of a protest, they arranged a town hall-style meeting at the end of last week, which included the mayor, district attorney and chief of police, all of whom are white. Dozens of people attended the meeting, and Norman spoke while wearing a mask.

Joe Norman and his wife Belinda Norman sit for a portrait as the drive-thru baby shower begins to wind down. Belinda is expe…
Decorations surround the Norman family home as they wait for people to arrive to deliver presents Saturday morning.

“People got to recognize why the people are frustrated,” Norman said days after the meeting. “People got to recognize why they’re angry and mad and pissed off. Address those feelings. You think they’re just making it up? They’re coming from somewhere, and they’re legitimate.”

Texans protested across the state over the weekend, including more than 300 people at a mostly peaceful protest in Midland, according to the Midland Reporter-Telegram. Norman was not interested in joining.

“I’d rather set a meeting with the chief of police or some influential business executive or something like that,” Norman said. “I would rather set meetings with those guys and try to work internally. I just don’t feel like a lot is getting done when you use your anger and frustration to be violent and destructive. You can harness that anger and harness those feelings to solutions that can definitely change things.

“I am not Martin Luther King, bro. I’m totally different in how I operate,” Norman added. “My wife said I have too many damn kids to go out there protesting, and not enough life insurance.”

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Lawyer attends El Paso protest: “They were just clearing us out”

Taylor Levy, 34, is an immigration lawyer in El Paso.


EL PASO — By 9 p.m., Taylor Levy is usually getting ready for bed these days. Her work as an unpaid and informal adviser aiding asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez requires her to head to the international bridge before 4 a.m. most mornings so she has time to prepare before migrants arrive a couple of hours later.

But as protests over the death of Texan-turned-Minnesotan George Floyd erupted across the country and spread to El Paso on Sunday, Levy decided to stay up late and head to downtown El Paso for the night. She said she felt it was her duty to stand behind her fellow residents and document any excessive force used by El Paso police.

“I went there for the purposes of being a legal observer,” she said. “It was really odd, and I was really blown away by the strength of the response” from the police.


The protest began at Memorial Park in Central El Paso then moved to police headquarters. It was peaceful for about two hours, but after sunset, things took a turn at the park. Police fired bean bag rounds and tear gas at the protesters. A police spokesperson told local media that protesters threw projectiles, rocks and bottles, and two officers were injured after being hit with rocks and tear gas canisters that were thrown back at the police.

Police said they arrested three people Sunday in connection with the protest. Levy isn’t representing anyone involved in the protests but said she was ready to share her observations at the park with other lawyers.

El Paso’s protest was small compared with those in other Texas cities, and Levy said the police far outnumbered protesters when the tear gas was fired.

“There were maybe 30 to 50 people total and 100 street cops,” she said. “They were just clearing us out.”

Despite spending nearly every weekday working in Ciudad Juárez, one of North America’s deadliest cities, she said she was more unnerved at Memorial Park on Sunday night.

“I was really shocked … to see a bunch of people around me get shot by these bean bag guns,” she said.

After her usual predawn trip to Ciudad Juárez on Tuesday, Levy returned to downtown El Paso later in the day to observe another protest.

“Be careful, sir,” she said in Spanish to a man who was resting on a bench as a line of police officers in riot gear made their way toward the crowd.

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Matagorda County coming back to life, county judge says

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


Matagorda County’s roughly 65 miles of Texas Gulf Coast have seen thousands of visitors over the past few weeks, and County Judge Nate McDonald says residents have been able to enjoy the beach and still practice social distancing.

“We have more Gulf front than anyone in the state of Texas … so when we have 5,000 or 10,000 people on the beach, they’re in their vehicles or they’re in a fold-out chair right behind their vehicle, and they’re 10 or 15, 30 or 40 feet apart,” he said last week. “We have plenty of space to accommodate.”

The beach is just one of many places in the rural community that McDonald said are continuing to come back to life since the pandemic shut down normal life in March. Restaurants are continuing to reopen their dining rooms, coastal businesses are picking back up and highways are returning to their normal levels of traffic.

Over the past month, the county’s economic development and business recovery task force, under direction from McDonald, reached out to businesses from every sector of the economy to see what economic development officials can do to help them get back on their feet.

“What we heard was how much our businessmen and businesswomen appreciate being contacted and asked what they need to help them move forward,” McDonald said. “And they’re largely getting [direction and federal assistance] from the governor of this state and from the president of our country.”

McDonald said the phased reopening of the local economy hasn’t caused COVID-19 cases to increase exponentially. Since May 1, he said, only six additional cases of the novel coronavirus have been confirmed, bringing the community’s total to roughly 70 cases. The county reported the state’s first death related to the virus in March; four more county residents have died from COVID-19 since then.

“Seventy sounds like a lot for a small rural county, but we’re closing in on 2,000 tests,” he said. “That’s not a bad percentage if you do the math.”

As far as social distancing measures, McDonald said most in the county are not wearing masks in public — and he does not judge people on whether they’re wearing one.

“I’m proud for folks to wear masks if they would like to — but I’m also proud for folks to not wear masks if they’d like to, as long as they’re healthy,” McDonald said. “Now, if you come into an establishment and you’re spewing coughs and sneezes everywhere, though I don’t work there, I’ll probably ask you to leave and go get a mask.”

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“It’s weird having a celebration while all of this is going down”

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


Last weekend, Liz Salas and her family held a small high school graduation party for Samantha, Liz’s 18-year-old sister, and Ashley, her 18-year-old cousin, in her aunt’s backyard. The family was determined to celebrate the achievements despite the coronavirus pandemic.

They celebrated even as protests sparked by George Floyd’s death in Minnesota happened minutes away from their Dallas home. Floyd died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck long past the point when he lost consciousness.

“It’s weird having a celebration while all of this is going down,” Salas said.

It was a typical family cookout complete with music, an outdoor volleyball tournament, and plates of fried fish, fajitas and ceviche.

It was a big night for another reason, too.

Salas and her boyfriend, Joel, have been together for five months. The intimate graduation party was his first time meeting all of Salas’ family.

Salas was worried about how her family would react to her “gringo” boyfriend. “Am I done if they don’t approve? What if they like him too much?” Salas thought on the car ride over.

Her aunt poked fun at him for the taco incident — Joel grabbed a little bit of everything and plopped it all on a taco, not knowing the entrees were meant to be eaten separately.

“It was already too late, and it seemed like he enjoyed it,” Salas said, laughing.

And her uncle gave him no choice but to stand up and learn how to dance to the ranchero music that filled the backyard. There was a bit of a language barrier, but Salas’ family approved of Joel.

Her mom liked him a little too much.

“El güero tiene nice, pretty blue eyes. Think about the babies,” Salas’ mom told her. Liz tried to change the subject.

And for once, life felt truly normal in the middle of the pandemic.

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Hospital administrator packs her office and prepares to return to church

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


Donna Boatright is going back to church this weekend.

Sunday’s service will be the first time in months that Boatright has set foot in the Episcopal sanctuary, where worshipers will be greeted by a few changes. No more common cup at Communion, for example, and the congregation will need to sit far enough apart to respect social distancing rules. There may even be a video conference option for people who are unable to attend or who consider it too risky.

Boatright thinks some of these changes brought about by the pandemic may become permanent, and she’s grateful for her church’s flexibility during difficult times.

“This has broken us out of our shells a little bit,” she said. “I like the fact that we’re thinking of creative ways to continue to do the things that we love.”

With just about a week left before her retirement, Boatright’s office at the Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital is all packed up except for a few essentials, like the whiteboard on the wall where she keeps her prayer and to-do lists.

Nolan County has reported only two cases of residents becoming infected with the coronavirus, but Boatright and her staff are closely monitoring test results from local nursing homes and neighboring counties as they decide whether the hospital can safely return to normal business.

The facility’s wellness center, which functions as a kind of gym and therapy space, has reopened with limited hours and strict rules for patients to keep their distance. But other questions are still unanswered, such as whether medical students should be allowed back into the hospital to do clinical rotations.

For now, things are operating smoothly enough that Rolling Plains is trying to repay some of the generosity it benefited from during the early days of the pandemic. The hospital recently donated 150 gowns to another rural facility in East Texas that’s responding to a large virus outbreak.

“We know that that could happen to us, and we feel totally confident that if it does and we put out the word for help, we’re gonna have help show up on our doorstep,” Boatright said.

The latest sign that things are creeping back toward normalcy: Boatright’s staff persuaded her to allow a short send-off party for her retirement next week. It’ll be outdoors so that everyone can keep their distance, she said.

Even Boatright’s sister, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, plans to visit for the occasion, as do her sons and their families. Asked whether her “no hugs” rule will be enforced throughout the weekend, Boatright answered coyly: “I’m sure that’s what we will attempt.”

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“These are happy tears”: After long wait, couple gets good news about son’s cancer treatment

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


The good news came via voicemail.

After three months of treatments for a rare pediatric kidney cancer, 5-year-old Nikhil Shah went in last week for a round of tests. Nik’s cancer was stage 3 when it was detected, meaning there was a chance cancer cells had spread from his ruptured kidney into other parts of his body.

Now, about halfway into his planned treatment, a CT scan would tell doctors whether there were tumors in other parts of his body and whether the current course was working.

Nik’s parents, Rupal and Lea Shah, had been anxiously awaiting the test for weeks, so much so that when it was delayed just a day, from a Monday to a Tuesday, they felt a hit of disappointment.

It was Rupal who took Nik in for the 8:30 appointment. Usually Nik’s CT scans are done in the pediatric wing, in a colorful room decorated with the friendly faces of Nemo and Dory and with a nurse or technician skilled in inserting needles into little arms with little veins. This time, with staffing trimmed in many hospitals due to the pandemic, the scans took place in a standard adult wing, barren in comparison.

It’s not the large, donut-shaped machine that scares Nik so much as the poking and prodding that precedes its use. Before the scan, he has to have a dye injected into his veins to light up any tumors. Nik cried as the nurse failed to get the needle into a vein in one arm, then had to try the other.

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Rupal, wearing a protective jacket, held Nik’s hand as the machine’s X-ray tube rotated around the child at high speeds.

By the time they got home, Nik was exhausted. Lea took her sleeping boy to the rocking chair she has barely used since he stopped nursing and held him there as he dozed. Nik was still sleeping when a tearful Rupal entered the room brandishing his cellphone.

“It’s good, it’s good,” he told Lea, offering the phone so she could hear the voicemail from Nik’s oncologist. Nik’s scans looked clear — no tumors in his abdomen or lungs. They would stick with the planned protocol, set to end in August. Now Nik has four treatments left, few enough to count on one hand.

Nik stirred awake amid the commotion. They told him: His superhero cells were winning the war against the evil cancer cell invaders. The poking and prodding he had soldiered through was worth it.

Rupal crossed the street to tell Lea’s parents and found his father-in-law mowing the lawn. Neither man is naturally effusive, but both of them choked up as Rupal shared the good news.

The house became a “ball of tears,” Lea said, confusing 6-year-old Nina.

“Mommy, why are you crying?” she asked. Lea got to tell her: These are happy tears, these are tears of joy.

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