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For Texas counties, business mask mandates have mixed results

When Gov. Greg Abbott banned local governments on June 3 from penalizing individuals for failing to wear a mask, metropolitan areas concerned with rising case numbers were at a loss. With no enforcement mechanism, how could they get residents to mask up?

Two weeks later, Bexar County officials found a loophole: put businesses in charge. Judge Nelson Wolff ordered businesses to require masks for all customers when social distancing is not possible or risk facing a $1,000 fine.

With Gov. Abbott’s blessing, a handful of local governments implemented similar orders. On Thursday, Victoria Mayor Rawley McCoy joined in after a week of rising case numbers in the county.

Victoria County reported 31 new cases of COVID-19 Saturday, bringing the county’s total to 536. Of those, 283 cases are active, 245 have recovered and eight died.

Only time will tell whether McCoy’s order for local businesses will be effective in slowing the spread.

Business owners in some of the first counties to implement these orders have had mixed results getting customers to comply.

Malcolm Hartman, manager of Tycoon Flats, a San Antonio burger joint, said his customers have been compliant. He said the vast majority have come in already wearing masks, and some customers voluntarily keep them on until their food arrives.

“We are a big supporter of our local government and they’ve got a job to do and we’re not here to hinder them,” Hartman said. “So far everybody coming to the restaurant has been doing their part, for the vast majority. We haven’t really had anybody get upset.”

Peter Patel, manager of Prescott Meat Market in Corpus Christi, said most of his customers are regulars and he has had no problem getting them to follow Nueces County’s requirements, which were imposed Tuesday and apply to larger stores and malls.

“We have put signs outside at the door and in the store, and we don’t provide services without a mask,” Patel said.

Linzy Humphries, a sales associate at the Bath & Body Works store in the La Palmera mall in Corpus Christi, said most customers were already wearing masks before Nueces Judge Barbara Canales’ order. She said wearing masks complicates things for the store because customers often want to smell the products, but there haven’t been any complaints.

For Blanco Hereda, manager of Tacos La Silla in Mission, a city of 80,000 on the U.S.-Mexico border, things haven’t been so easy. She said many of her customers haven’t wanted to wear masks inside, and business is down about 50%.

“We try to ensure everyone follows the rules,” she said. “But there are certain people who are bothered by it.”

Hidalgo County, which includes Mission, McAllen and Edinburg, was the first county to follow Bexar in requiring businesses to mandate masks on June 17.

Carlos Sanchez, spokesperson for Hidalgo Judge Richard Cortez, said the county acted aggressively to stop COVID-19 from spreading in the pandemic’s early stages, implementing a shelter-in-place order, requiring masks, enforcing a curfew and banning gatherings of larger than 10 people.

Abbott took away the county’s ability to impose these restrictions when Texas began reopening on May 1. In recent weeks, Hidalgo’s case numbers and hospitalizations have increased rapidly. The county had been looking for a way to slow the spread of infection when Bexar’s order was approved, and Judge Cortez quickly followed suit, Sanchez said.

“We were moving to suggest that people take personal responsibility for this and we just weren’t seeing evidence of it,” Sanchez said. “There was just a real sense that the virus had passed us by and people were getting more relaxed, especially with using facial coverings in public.”

The business mask mandate provides a new option for county officials looking to stem the tide of infection. But Hereda isn’t the only business owner who’s faced challenges as a result.

Jose Hernandez, manager of Taco Palenque South 10th St. in McAllen, said his restaurant has had some issues enforcing Hidalgo County’s order. He’s doing all he can to keep things safe for customers, including cleaning the restroom after each use and sanitizing tables, but some customers have been reluctant to put a mask on.

“We’re just trying our best to keep things safe, but a lot of people don’t want to wear them and they don’t care,” he said. “I think the county should have done something else.”

Sanchez said Hidalgo County has additional new orders this week, reinstating a curfew and once again limiting gatherings of larger than 10.

“The best way to weather this crisis is in many respects to prolong it by flattening the curve,” Sanchez said. “We did that very successfully in the March to April time frame. We are in a position where we need to do that again.”

Goliad County

Officials said on Friday one new resident tested positive for the new coronavirus this week. This is the eighth case reported in the county.

The county said the case is “pending investigation,” which means a positive result has been turned over to the state and the Texas Department of State Health Services is working on contract tracing and investigating the source of spread.

Matagorda County

Matagorda County officials reported 10 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday.

The county has reported 170 total cases to date, 104 of which are active, officials said. Sixty-one residents have recovered and five died.

Wharton County

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 18 cases of the coronavirus in Wharton County on Saturday, bringing the number of active cases to 102.

This brings the total number of COVID-19 cases in the county to 163. Sixty of those who tested positive have recovered, and one died.

County officials urge residents to wear masks, avoid crowd and use common sense in public to reduce the spread of infection.

As of 4:30 p.m. Saturday, no new cases had been reported in Victoria, Calhoun, DeWitt, Jackson, Lavaca or Refugio counties. Many counties are not currently reporting cases on the weekends.

How a Waco nonprofit built a community grocery store in a food desert

WACO – Linda Benson is used to feeding people.

By day, she works in a cafeteria at Baylor University, where she keeps college students fed and cared for.

When she leaves work and heads back to her home in North Waco, she’ll usually stop by Jubilee Market, the nonprofit grocery store that opened there in December 2016.

The grocery store, one of more than two dozen initiatives from the longtime nonprofit Mission Waco, has quickly become a neighborhood staple and emerged as a model for a small-scale, community grocer that, so far, has withstood competition from larger chains.

“I like it because the people are friendly, they help you out if you come here for the first time, and some of the prices you can’t beat,” Benson, 60, said.

Community grocery stores like Jubilee have become an increasingly rare presence in communities across the U.S., as they’ve been replaced by large, retail giants like Walmart. In the absence of locally owned, neighborhood stores, there’s been an explosion in dollar stores and convenience stores, which offer food at affordable prices but often have no or limited fresh food.

Community stores have virtually disappeared from Victoria, where a group of residents in the city’s Southside community has taken interest in Mission Waco’s model, as they work to find new ways to bring businesses and other assets to the neighborhood. Annette Yancey, 67, a longtime Southside resident, remembers raising her children in a neighborhood with two grocery stores, a laundromat, and a corner store that sold snow cones to her kids.

“We had everything we needed within walking distance,” Yancey said. “I couldn’t pinpoint when, but I feel like people just sort of abandoned and forgot about the Southside.”

Yancey is part of the Southside Community Coalition, a loosely organized group of residents and community leaders in the neighborhood. Jubilee Market’s model has become a blue-sky goal for the group, which is watching the store closely to see if it’s found a path to success.

Victoria isn’t the only city looking at Jubilee Market. Visitors from throughout the state have traveled to the store. They’ve toured the Mission Waco’s neighboring cafe and adjacent aquaponics garden that sells fresh basil to local restaurants to learn about the nonprofit’s reach in this Texas city of about 138,000 people.

After more than three years in business, and thanks in part to a jump in sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, the store is projected to break even in 2020, said Jimmy Dorrell, the co-founder of Mission Waco. If Jubilee stays successful, it could provide a road map for other cities – including Victoria.

Bringing a grocery store to a food desert

Five years ago, the roof over the vacant building at the corner of North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue in Waco caved in.

The damaged roof was just the kind of price cut Jimmy Dorrell was looking for.

Emree Weaver / Emree Weaver | eweaver@vicad.com 

Jimmy Dorrell, co-founder of Mission Waco, the nonprofit organization the Jubilee Food Market project operates under, talks with assistant manager of the grocery store, Robert Lopez. The duo visited on Saturday, March 7.

Dorrell is the co-founder of Mission Waco, the Christian nonprofit he started with Janet Dorrell, his wife, in the 1990s. Dorrell retired from his role as president of the nonprofit in April, but has spent decades working and living in the North Waco neighborhood, where 36% of residents live below the poverty line.

One thing the neighborhood lacked for years was a grocery store, or really any way to access fresh, healthy food. In North Waco, the closest H-E-B was more than two miles away, and the only local option were corner stores. When the local county health department studied food pricing throughout the city, it found the corner stores in North Waco marked up staples such as rice, beans, bread, milk and eggs by up to three times as much as they sold for at a regular grocery store.

When the building’s roof caved in, the owners offered Dorrell a lower price that the nonprofit could pay. Dorrell took the idea to the community, and at a neighborhood meeting, a majority of the 70 residents who showed up backed the plan to turn the vacant, 6,500-square-foot building into a small grocery store.

It took almost $650,000 to gut and renovate the store to get it ready for opening. The startup costs were subsidized with sizeable gifts from Walmart, Pepsi and Joanna and Chip Gaines, the Waco residents-turned-reality television stars. But along with the big dollar donors, the store sold $25 “shares” to members of the neighborhood and anyone else who wanted to back the project.

Since the store opened in late 2016, Dorrell said he and other Mission Waco leaders have learned a lot. They’ve started to stock specific items requested by customers, including cactus and oxtail. They’ve remained committed to their initial decision not to stock liquor, cigarettes, or lottery tickets, but still sell regular, albeit unhealthy, food items like potato chips and sodas, Dorrell said.

‘It’s better than H-E-B’

Kesha Johnson, a mom of two, says she comes to Jubilee almost every day.

Emree Weaver / Emree Weaver | eweaver@vicad.com 

Kesha Johnson places her items on the counter at Jubilee Food Market as Robert Lopez, assistant manager, rings them up. Johnson was shopping on Saturday, March 7.

The reason is pretty simple: It’s cheap, and for every $25 she spends, she’ll get $5 back on her Oasis loyalty card, a discount available only to residents who live within one mile of the grocery store.

“It’s better than H-E-B, and I mean, the people here are friendly. I know the guy that runs it,” Johnson said.

During her family’s pre-dinner shopping trip on a Saturday in March, Johnson’s two kids, plus the cousins and nieces who were staying for a sleepover, wandered the aisles, hopefully trying to sneak cans of whipped cream and a bag of Bugles into the shopping cart. Instead, Johnson filled the cart with everything she needed to make barbecue chicken for the family dinner.

Johnson and other shoppers said Jubilee is a regular part of their shopping routines, creating a loyal customer base in a challenging industry. Even large, retail grocers like H-E-B operate with thin profit margins, so for a nonprofit store like Jubilee, the question is not just whether the store could raise enough money to open its doors, but if it can earn enough money to stay open.

Shoppers such as Johnson said they patronized Jubilee because they liked the atmosphere and because the prices were cheaper or competitive with the larger stores in the city.

Both of these factors are key in determining whether a supermarket that opens in a food desert will actually stay open, said Tamara Dubowitz, a food policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, a global think tank.

“A lot of that research has shown that the physical locality of a grocery store is just not enough,” Dubowitz said.

Dubowitz has studied food deserts, and grocery stores that have tried to open in them, and said simply opening a store in an area where there previously wasn’t one won’t keep the operation afloat.

“Stores that have had a community-centered framing have been much more successful than stores that have not prioritized their communities,” she said.

Robert Lopez, then the assistant manager of the store, who recently became the manager, said he made a point to build relationships with customers and offer them a sense of community.

“If our customers give us $7 in quarters and dimes, we take it,” he said.

Like many of Jubilee’s employees, Lopez started as a volunteer. Today, the store has seven part-time employees as well as lots of volunteers who pitch in.

Emree Weaver / Emree Weaver | eweaver@vicad.com 

Robert Lopez, right, assistant manager at Jubilee Food Market, greets Kesha Johnson, left, her children and their cousins while Johnson shops for ingredients for the family's dinner. The family shopped on Saturday, March 7.

In addition to shoppers like Johnson, locals who shop at Jubilee regularly, the store’s model also relies on middle-class residents from other neighborhoods in the city to support the store, either through occasional shopping trips or through donations.

Although an unusual arrangement, Dubowitz, the food policy researcher, said the solution sounded like a Waco-specific system that was working for Jubilee.

“It sounds like that is something that is totally working in this community,” she said.

The view from the Southside of Victoria

Victoria’s Southside neighborhood does not have its own grocery store. That’s not unusual for most neighborhoods, but residents there say the disappearance of the grocery store is just one of a number of community assets that have closed in the past 40 years.

A 2017 analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that most of the Southside neighborhood meets the definition of a food desert because most households are low-income and the closest grocery store is more than a mile away. Census data also shows at least 20% of households don’t have a car. Together, these factors make accessing food difficult for families, according to the federal government.

Throughout the Southside neighborhood, more than a quarter of residents live below the federal poverty level, according to census data, a far higher poverty rate than other neighborhoods in the city.

Yancey, who raised three children in the Southside and is now the resident manager at Perpetual Help Home, said a grocery store, a laundromat, and a new playground were all investments she wanted for her community.

The Southside coalition had its first meeting in January 2019, and members have organized community events like a block party, a trunk-or-treat for Halloween and, most recently, a mask giveaway.

Bethany Castro, an organizer and member of the coalition, said it’s clear the group still has work to do to bring in more community members to the conversation, a key part of Jubilee Market’s model.

“One of our biggest struggles has been getting more voices involved so that we really do know what the community wants,” Castro said.

And before the coalition is able to tackle a project as big or ambitious as a grocery store, the coalition needs to determine how it can accept donations, apply for grants, and generally handle money. Castro said the group is exploring several options to do so.

In Victoria, as in Waco, the question for some residents is not just access to food, but access to healthy food. Diet-related diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, are prevalent throughout the U.S., and particularly in South Texas.

But opening a grocery store in a food desert won’t automatically make the community healthier. Americans of all incomes have worse diets than other wealthy nations, and although grocery stores typically increase access to healthy foods, they usually contain packaged foods as well.

“I would say that if you’re looking for health and well-being that looking at a grocery store as more of an asset to the community and less of a place that’s going to potentially make diabetes go away, is much more realistic,” Dubowitz said.

‘Located in the middle of the need’

The pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout have upended much of the country. More than 125,000 people have died in the U.S., and thousands more have been hospitalized by the respiratory disease.

The immediate and subsequent impacts of the virus and the way the U.S. government failed to contain it are visible in dozens of places, but one of the most common and worrisome visualizations has been photos of hundreds of cars waiting in line at food banks, the vehicles filling parking lots and backing up roads in cities throughout the country.

Most Victoria organizations that provide meals or groceries have said the need has either doubled or tripled since the pandemic began. One research paper found that nationwide, the rates of household food insecurity has doubled since the pandemic began.

Emree Weaver / Emree Weaver | eweaver@vicad.com 

View of Jubilee Food Market in Waco, a nonprofit grocery store under the larger organization Mission Waco.

For now, the Jubilee Market may be one of the few organizations in Waco that has come out of the first few months of the pandemic in a better financial position. To break even, the store needs to sell about $65,000 worth of food in a month, Dorrell said. Since the pandemic started, sales have well exceeded that, due in part to worried shoppers stocking up in the early days of the pandemic. Although Dorrell said it’s too soon to officially declare the store a success, it’s definitely on stronger financial standing than he expected at this point in the store’s lifespan.

Beyond the financial bump, the pandemic has highlighted a core part of Jubilee’s mission.

“It put us in the profile of who we are,” Dorrell said. “We were located in the middle of the need.”

In Victoria, the pandemic has meant a halt to the Southside coalition’s in-person meetings. But over virtual calls, group members have continued to meet and focus on the community’s more immediate needs.

“I think COVID has turned our attention to what are the needs now,” Castro said. “A grocery store three years down the road is not going to feed somebody that’s hungry now because their parents haven’t been working, or they’re not able to go to summer school.”

In the long run, however, the coalition’s members dream of a grocery store, a goal that might be made more feasible if Jubilee paves the way.

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City officials plan $2.12M decrease for 2021 streets budget

City of Victoria officials have proposed a tighter streets budget for the coming fiscal year that outlines $2.12 million less in expenditures compared to the current year.

Ken Gill, the city’s public works director and engineer, proposed a streets budget of about $5.47 million, down from the current budget of $7.59 million. Several public works projects have been delayed because of COVID-19 and pushed down the road, he told Victoria City Council on Tuesday, June 23.

Gill presented the city’s proposed street budget for the coming fiscal year during the second of two days of annual budget hearings, when city department heads presented their proposed budgets and outlined their goals for the next year.

Overall, city officials are planning a leaner budget for fiscal year 2021 that includes $9 million less in expenditures compared to the current year, in part to consider the impact of COVID-19.

During the council’s meeting, Councilman Mark Loffgren urged the city to be more intentional about prioritizing streets because they are “the No. 1 priority of people that live in Victoria,” he said, and should be treated as such.

“We don’t treat actually fixing streets as something that needs to be done every year and put money in it every year,” he said. “It’s the first thing we cut. It’s a stepchild.”

Public works projects that have been delayed as a result of COVID-19 include the 2020-2021 rehabilitation and overlay project: Woodway phase three and Bridle Ridge phase two, Gill said. The project was scheduled to bid later this summer but has been pushed to later on.

Phase six of the North Heights street reconstruction, on San Antonio Street, and phase seven of the North Heights utility replacement project on Nueces Street were both scheduled to bid in August or September of this year, but are being pushed into the next budget cycle, Gill said.

Additionally, he said the 2020-2021 sanitary sewer line replacement and 2020-2021 water line replacement projects have been pushed into the next budget year for discussion.

While streets are important, City Manager Jesús Garza said in response to Loffgren that the top priority of residents and of council members is public safety, which is where more than half of the city’s general fund goes.

He reminded Loffgren that the city is budgeting a decrease of $1.7 million in sales tax revenue during the next fiscal year, and there are pressing needs other than fixing city streets alone. The city is adding four police officers in the 2021 fiscal year, for example, but is not adding any new police cars.

Interim Police Chief Mark Jameson said during the budget presentation for the Victoria Police Department that the new positions will give the department the ability to produce more efficient patrols. The positions will be partially funded by the COPS grant.

The police department is proposing a $15.57 million budget for the coming fiscal year, down about $289,000 from the current budget.

Garza suggested the council have a conversation at another date about where to best allocate funds.

Still, Loffgren said he would like the city to put money into a capital fund every year specifically for streets.

“We don’t wait until we have money to then fund the police department,” he said, “and streets should be treated the same way.”

The city’s fire, parks, environmental services were among other departments proposing budgets that see a decrease from their current budgets.

On the other hand, Main Street program director Danielle Williams requested what she called a “big heavy hitter” within the proposed $342,000 budget – about $90,000 for a 30-foot, LED-animated Christmas tree for downtown.

Williams said she’s working with H-E-B about a possible sponsorship, but hoped the city would consider the request to make Christmas “a little more festive in the downtown area this Christmas.”

The city is scheduled to deliver the proposed budget in August then conduct public hearings on the proposed budget and tax rate.

The 2021 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.