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Coronavirus: The pandemic through Texans' eyes

As COVID-19 cases surge in Texas, a hospital administrator retires — but is ready to jump back into the fight

A hospital says goodbye, a restaurant welcomes diners back and others reflect on the pandemic’s lessons. In the finale of our weekly series, Texans from across the state share stories about how they’re navigating life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smiling as she notices the incoming air ambulance helicopter, outgoing CEO Donna Boatright watches it land in the parking lo…

Each week, The Texas Tribune has featured 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. This is the final installment of this series. You can read the entire collection here.

Click on a name to jump directly to a story.

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Party on Boatright Way: A hospital says goodbye to its beloved boss

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

BY EDGAR WALTERS

Donna Boatright’s staff assured her that her last day as administrator of the Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital would be a quiet one. After some urging, she’d allowed herself a farewell party — she’d worked there nearly 43 years, after all — but it wouldn’t be anything too fancy. Just a little outdoor celebration, maybe a cake.

Instead, “it was the craziest thing I’d ever seen,” Boatright said with a laugh.

Among the festivities: a parade of ambulances and fire trucks, a helicopter flyover, the renaming of a hospital drive in her honor, and a declaration by the mayor of Sweetwater that Friday, June 12, was Donna Boatright Day. Around 150 old friends and coworkers gathered to give the 66-year-old Boatright a hero’s send-off.

To Boatright, it was an emotional celebration of her 11 years as the hospital’s chief executive, although “I would not be able to brag on our social distancing,” she added somewhat sheepishly.

For a few hours, the virus that had demanded so much of Boatright’s focus was blissfully out of mind.

The circle drive leading up to the entrance of Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital in Sweetwater was renamed Boatright Way in h…
Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital CEO Donna Boatright gives the coronavirus-era greeting of bumping elbows to a friend during…

Boatright’s successor will inherit the job of shepherding the hospital through the uncertainty of a global pandemic. That includes financial difficulties, after the state-mandated suspension of all elective procedures cut deeply into the hospital’s revenue, and preparing for the possibility of a bigger outbreak that could stretch resources even thinner. With coronavirus infections across Texas back on the rise, hospital beds across the state are filling up with sick patients.

If COVID-19 cases surge in Nolan County, Boatright says she’d willingly come out of retirement to help however she could, like volunteering with the public health department to make contact-tracing phone calls.

But she’s hopeful it won’t come to that. The county has reported fewer than 10 cases to date. “The hospital, at least at this point, has got things pretty much under control,” she said.

Besides, she’s got a long list of home projects she’s ready to dive into: a new irrigation system for the garden, a closet begging to be reorganized and a stack of books to read.

“I’m sure I’ll settle in,” she said.

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Shower curtains and masks: Houston restaurant reopens for dine-in customers

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

BY ALEX SAMUELS

Tuesday was the big day.

After months of keeping its dining room closed because of COVID-19, Shabu House fully reopened for dine-in eating. Like restaurants across Texas, the Chinatown restaurant had to change how it operates because of the pandemic. Shower curtains serve as barriers between tables, condiments come in to-go containers and customers get reusable chopsticks they can take home after eating.

Still, Debbie Chen and her small staff were ready to return to some semblance of normalcy at their struggling restaurant, which brought in just $1,700 through takeout business in April and $1,500 in May.

Before Tuesday’s reopening, Chen was antsy. Anxious, too.

“I’m nervous about having either too many people come at the same time or having nobody show up,” she said. “We just don’t know what to expect.”

A few days before the restaurant officially opened its doors — under Gov. Greg Abbott’s order, restaurants can open at 75% capacity — Chen did a trial run with a few friends to practice the logistics of the new reopening standards.

The friends ate between curtains, which they described to Chen as “intimate” or “private.” The chef prepared a full menu. All staff members had their temperature checked when they arrived and wore masks — for fear of spreading or contracting the new coronavirus.

Chen says she and her team of four will take down the shower curtains after each customer leaves, replacing them with fresh ones while the old ones get cleaned in the back.

Houston, Texas: Debbie Chen walks through the Shabu House restaurant on June 16, 2020 in Houston.
Houston, Texas: Bowls are placed inside curtained off areas at the Shabu House on June 16, 2020 in Houston, Texas. Mark Feli…

They won’t require customers to wear masks — they have to eat, after all — but they’ll have hand sanitizer available near the front door and provide paper bags for customers who do bring masks and other protective gear.

“For me,” Chen said, “a successful opening day is that no one gets mad at us for taking too much time to swap out the curtains and that no one tells us they’re stupid or excessive.

“I hope people understand it takes time, and we want everyone to feel comfortable and to sit and enjoy their meals. We don’t want people to be afraid of the person sitting next to them.”

She’s also hoping the restaurant isn’t full for the first few days. Fifty percent occupancy, Chen said, would be a good start before “gradually moving up.”

On Wednesday morning, Chen said Shabu House had customers at three table Tuesday: two tables of old customers and one table of newcomers who arrived shortly before the restaurant closed for the night.

“I hope people think our food is just as good as it was before,” Chen said, laughing. “The bright side is that if no one shows up, we can sit around and have a good dinner ourselves.”

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“I think we’re gonna be fine”: Matagorda County’s eternal optimist sees better days ahead

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

BY CASSANDRA POLLOCK

Nate McDonald considers himself an eternal optimist.

He says he became one in 1989 after Neil, his 4-year old son, almost drowned.

Their healthy, athletic boy suffered severe brain damage and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair with a trachea tube. Doctors didn’t think Neil would live more than 18 months, but after McDonald and his wife brought Neil home from Texas Children’s Hospital, he survived that first year, and for many more years after.

“I always believed that tomorrow was gonna be a better day,” McDonald said last week. “Tomorrow, Neil’s gonna talk again; tomorrow, Neil’s gonna say, ‘Hi, Dad,’ again.”

Neil never regained the ability to talk or walk. But under his parents’ care, he lived another roughly 11 years before respiratory complications triggered fatal cardiac arrest. His father never lost the optimism that carried them through those years.

Matagorda County Judge Nathan McDonald goes 'live' on Facebook to declare a shelter-in-place order for the county.

That optimism has served him during his nearly 14-year tenure as Matagorda County judge — a post he has held during hurricanes, tornadoes and, most recently, the novel coronavirus pandemic.

And it’s made him confident that his rural county — as well as Texas and the rest of the nation — will be fine once the pandemic passes, if people practice good hygiene and wear masks when they’re near others.

“It’s going to cost a little more to buy the hand sanitizer,” he said, “but you don’t need enough to bathe in it, you just need enough to clean your hands and do it frequently during the day.”

McDonald already considered himself patient before the pandemic, thanks to Neil, whose improvements were “so minute, you had to be an optimist even to see them.” But McDonald said he has learned to be even more patient during the virus, which has lasted longer than any hurricane or other natural disaster he has experienced.

Above all else, McDonald said, people need to view the pandemic as “a teaching moment” — a chapter in history that offers everyone the opportunity to become a better person. Civility and respect, McDonald said, “are fleeing the scene all over our country.” If every Texan would commit to being civil and respectful to other people, he said, people would find themselves working constructively to get through the challenges facing them.

“If we all practice good hygiene and care for one another, I think we’re gonna be fine,” McDonald said, before adding with a chuckle, “But then again, I’m an eternal optimist.”

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Midland family is determined to build a new life during the pandemic

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

BY MITCHELL FERMAN

The Normans had just returned home to Midland after a quick getaway to Las Vegas when everything changed. Looking back, early March seems like a lifetime ago.

“Could you believe when we came back from Vegas that we would be quarantined for the next three months?” Belinda Norman asked her husband, Joseph, earlier this week.

“Did you imagine in February us losing all of our work?” Joseph Norman replied.

Joseph recalled the exchange this week as he drove back from a morning jog with their two boys, Joseph Lee, 3, and Maxwell, who turned 9 on Sunday. He’s trying to build a new routine for the boys this summer; their usual camps are canceled, another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic that also claimed the Normans’ oil well technician company as the oil and gas industry collapsed.

So Joseph takes the boys for morning jogs at a local nature preserve while Belinda, who’s due to deliver their baby girl this month, stays home.

After losing the business they built over the last seven years, Joseph has been reinventing himself on the fly — and the stakes have never been higher. He’s tried to work his way through it — he released a song called “Quarantine Lover” and tried his hand at video livestreaming. Recently, the Normans launched an online hemp and CBD oil company.

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Joseph isn’t quite sure yet how it will all work, but he’s confident it will. He says he learned a lot from the last time his life was upended, after the 2008 recession wiped out his savings and left him sulking for months. But he was single then. A different person.

“The abruptness was similar, as far as things changing overnight,” he said. “But it’s totally different because I have that responsibility. I’m thinking of more than just myself. I’m thinking about how, no matter what, I got to feed my kids. I'm not expecting them to eat ramen noodles and hot dogs like I did.”

Joseph isn’t even certain what the family’s budget will look like come fall. But certainty hasn’t mattered much for the Normans during the pandemic. They’ll figure it out.

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“Lessons on hope and faith”: Border attorney digs in for a long ordeal

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

BY JULIÁN AGUILAR

EL PASO — It was March when Taylor Levy first stationed herself near the international bridge in Ciudad Juárez so she could answer questions asylum seekers had about changes to their cases as the new coronavirus became a global pandemic.

The immigration lawyer doesn’t get paid for her work in Mexico, and she isn’t mining for new clients. Instead, she’s handing out face masks to asylum seekers and passing out toys and coloring books to their kids in an effort to ease some of the stress for some of the thousands of migrants forced to wait in Mexico under the U.S. government’s Migrant Protection Protocols.

With immigration courts shut down and asylum hearings suspended because of the pandemic, the wait seems endless. Yet the migrants still arrive at the bridge each day because they’re not sure if they still need to check in with American officials — or they don’t trust what they’re hearing and want to see for themselves.

Three months later, Levy said she never imagined she’d still be waking up hours before sunrise and trekking to Mexico to answer some of the same questions she’s been asked for nearly 12 weeks.

“That’s just the central problem with MPP, because people aren’t going to stop showing up,” she said.

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Levy knew the immigration system was broken before the pandemic; she’s been working with asylum seekers for more than a decade. But what she’s seen since March has reinforced her belief that federal policies in place are aimed at “hurting migrants” — even those escaping violence or death threats in their home countries.

Some civil and criminal proceedings have continued in federal courts via teleconferencing or conference calls. Levy said the Department of Justice could do the same for immigration courts if it had the will.

“I still think there would be ways to do court in a safe and sane and fair and just and equitable manner,” she said.

Even when the courts open again — possibly as soon as late July — Levy knows the migrants’ chances of receiving asylum are slim. But amid the frustration and the maddening lack of movement, Levy has found the inspiration that she’ll need to soldier on.

“I’ve definitely learned some lessons on hope and faith. Even though there is a lot of desperation, there are definitely a lot of strong and resilient people,” she said. “They continue to hold out hope that something is going to change, that they’ll be able to keep their families safe.

“I am just going to keep going,” she said. “Until I can’t anymore.”

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“If I can do this ... I can probably do anything”

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

BY STACY FERNÁNDEZ

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the food pantry’s small staff suddenly had to reconfigure its whole operation. The staff had abruptly lost the majority of its volunteers — many of them older and at higher risk of complications from the virus — and had to switch to a drive-up distribution model to reduce personal contact.

Liz Salas, who started working at CitySquare Food Pantry right after college, said she’s learned a lot about being resilient and flexible during this crisis.

“It’s been challenging. You kind of find pieces of yourself that you never thought you had,” Salas said.

Salas wouldn’t take days off, and there were days she missed lunch breaks altogether. She insisted she’d rather be at the pantry making sure her community was fed and assisting her manager. The only thing that worried her about working so much was contracting the virus. She tested negative a few weeks ago.

Liz Salas.

In those initial months, Salas became second in command of the pantry. When needed, she’d direct volunteers, help coordinate food intakes and generally take charge of whatever needed handling.

Almost three months into operating on a “go down fighting” mentality, Salas was exhausted, but it wasn’t until these last few weeks that she and her boss felt the pantry was steady enough to give themselves permission to take a much-needed break.

Slowly, Salas said, her life is getting as close to normal as it can right now. In recent weeks, she’s experienced more pockets of joy: Her sister graduated from high school, she sees her boyfriend more often, work is less overwhelming and she went out for her first in-person happy hour with a few co-workers.

Even her relationship with her mother is sturdier. Her move at the beginning of the year, from her childhood home into her first apartment, initially caused a rift. But her mother’s worry over her eldest daughter — which took the form of constant check-ins and insisting that she stop by the house to get plates of food — went a long way in pushing the mother and daughter closer.

“When this all started, I didn’t know if I’d be able to [do it all myself]. But if I can do this, move into a new apartment, make it through a pandemic, then I can probably do anything,” Salas said.

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“We’re all in it together”: Family finds its new normal in the pandemic

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

BY EMMA PLATOFF

Recently Rupal Shah heard something rare — a statement by a politician that “struck me like a bolt of lightning.”

It was North Dakota’s Republican governor, Doug Burgum, who grew emotional as he pleaded with his state’s residents to wear masks. “If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support,” he said. “They might be doing it because they’ve got a 5-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments.”

The comment was striking because it felt so specific, so true to his experience.

“We’re all in this collective haze and sense of uncertainty… [but] there’s something good with that shared experience,” Rupal said. “It makes you think a lot of this is just really manufactured nonsense — we’re all in it together.”

The Shahs’ has been an odd course through the state’s first months of the pandemic. Five-year-old Nik’s treatment for kidney cancer started just as most people began sheltering in place. In those early days, Rupal remembers being the only person in the grocery store in a mask — “I’m not trying to make a political statement, I just don’t want to see my kid in the ICU again,” he recalled — and now, almost everyone he sees is masked.

Nikhil Shah, 5, made it to the beach this week with his family.

They stayed home to keep immunocompromised Nik safe — but it was a little easier for the fact that all the kids’ friends were staying home, too. Rupal and his wife, Lea Shah, didn’t have to worry whether Nina, Nik’s 6-year-old sister, would feel resentful about having to miss parties to keep Nik safe. There weren’t any parties.

Now, as the state opens up and cases surge in their city of San Antonio, Rupal and Lea are starting to see some of their friends and neighbors back off the precautions that have kept them safe over the last few months. For the Shahs, those safety measures will remain essential at least through the fall, when Nik’s treatment is set to conclude. Whether they’ll be able to send their kids back to school this year remains an open question.

Still, lately, things are looking up. Lea had stopped going for her usual runs around the time of Nik’s diagnosis, feeling like she didn’t have the emotional energy for the solitary, repetitive slam of feet on pavement. Lately she’s been running again — and it feels good for the kids to see her being strong. On her first run, the family drove up to the entrance of their neighborhood and cheered for her as she passed. Recently a friend came over for a glass of wine, sitting outside, a cautious 8 feet away. It was the first time Lea had seen a friend since this all began; tears flowed freely.

Good news from a recent CT scan, coupled with good bloodwork — recent tests showed Nik’s white blood cell and hemoglobin levels as high as they were before he began treatment, a positive sign — have brought the family a measure of relief. School is out, ushering in a more relaxed daily schedule, though at Nina’s request they still sometimes gather to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. There is lots of pool time — Nik, who still wears floaties, gives a legendarily huge smile when he first jumps in.

On Friday, they successfully visited a drive-thru Jurassic Quest exhibit at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, complete with dinosaurs. Last time they tried for a drive-through experience, at the San Antonio Zoo, Nik’s nausea, likely from the chemotherapy treatments, forced them to turn around before they’d even arrived. This week, they lasted two hours or so, long enough for the kids to get bored.

This week, they even made it to the beach.

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