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Active case count plummets below 80

With seven new cases added Friday afternoon, Nacogdoches County’s estimated number of active cases of coronavirus dropped to 78.

Active cases — those testing positive and considered contagious — are determined by subtracting fatalities and recoveries from the county’s now 1,209 cumulative cases since the first case was confirmed in March.

Recoveries, however, are presumed after a period of two weeks or more. Patients are not retested to determine if they have recovered, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services. Instead, they considered recovered after 14 days if they were not hospitalized, or after 32 days if they were.

As of Friday, 26 of the county’s active cases were hospitalized, with 10 patients in intensive care, according to the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council website.

Only one of the cases confirmed Friday was from a previously reported household. Seven of 19 cases announced Thursday and two of the three cases reported Wednesday were from households that already had a diagnosed case.

After peaking at 442 Aug. 7, the number of active cases dropped below 100 this week for the first time since late June. But the virus continues to impact plans. Summer band rehearsals at Nacogdoches High were halted Thursday after an attendee tested positive for the virus.

Masks and distancing were in place at summer practices and tests were being administered to those who had been closest to the person testing positive, NISD officials said. Still, the remainder of summer practices have been canceled as a precaution. Athletic workouts are taking place during summer, he said, but athletic practices aren’t set to begin until Sept. 7.

A falling case count is welcome news for Stephen F. Austin State University, which begins its fall semester Monday. Thousands of students are back on campus, and enrollment has remained about the same as in spring, university officials have said.

Everyone on the campus is required to wear a facemask, and some buildings and activities are restricted.

This Thursday, the Nacogdoches Economic Development Corp. and Memorial Hospital are planning a free noon webinar to update the public on the virus’ local impact. “A Current Look at COVID-19” will be accessible at www.gotomeet.me/NacogdochesEDC/memorialstaff or by calling 1-872-240-3311, access code 782-585-229.

A local COVID-19 Call Center remains open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at 468-4787.

Foretravel sees record demand, supply disruption

Foretravel has felt the same pressure from shutdowns and supply line shocks that have rippled throughout the automotive industry during the coronavirus pandemic, but unlike carmakers the motorcoach manufacturer is experiencing record demand for its products.

“They’re sold as soon as we get them on the lot” said Tyle Fore, marketing director for Foretravel. “People don’t want to travel commercially, and they want to stay with their own personal effects.”

As consumer confidence in commercial travel declined during the pandemic, sales of RVs and motorcoaches has skyrocketed by as much as 170%, according to the RV Industry Association.

“We’re busier now than we have been as long as I remember,” Fore said.

Automakers, unlike most industries, almost universally closed up shop in March when workers started becoming ill on their assembly lines, and suppliers shut down completely.

Foretravel was no exception. It shut down briefly and approximately 150 people were temporarily out of work. Records show the company sought relief though a federal loan program designed to keep workers on the payroll during shutdowns.

The idle time at Foretravel was largely over a breakdown in the supply chain, Fore said. Motorcoaches require specialized parts — even more so than other automobiles. Unlike other automakers, Foretravel isn’t engaged in mass production, so supplies can be stockpiled and aren’t used up as quickly.

“We’re working with our vendors and working toward some resolutions,” Fore said.

Demand has plummeted for cars, though trucks and large SUVs continue to be in high demand alongside motorcoaches, said Tony Bennett, CEO of Texas Manufacturing Association, a trade group that represents more than 600 companies across various production sectors.

“The automotive sector decided to shut down in March and most of April, primary because demand just plummeted,” Bennett said.

Supply chain disruptions have hampered more than just the auto industry in Texas, Bennett said.

“There was a lot of breakdown. Mexico was one of those major supply breakdowns,” he said.

Mexico has shuttered most of its factories because of the coronavirus pandemic. Those factories are key suppliers to automotive, aerospace and petrochemical industries.

Texas is the largest trade partner with Mexico, and the state is also the largest exporter of manufactured goods.

“We can’t wait to get back to normal,” Bennett said. “We’re awaiting that vaccine that we hope will be here by the end of the year or maybe the first of next year.”

The pandemic has raised broad questions about America’s dependence on global supply chains, particularly the reliance on China for medicines. Both President Donald Trump, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are calling for an increase of American-made goods.

Public can address city on tax rate in person

The Nacogdoches City Council will hold its first in-person meeting since March next month, allowing the public to address city officials about a small proposed tax increase.

Public hearings on Sept. 8 will be held at the C.L. Simon Recreation Center to allow for social distancing that’s not possible inside the council’s modest-sized chambers at City Hall.

The council has been permitted to meet though livestreamed videoconferences due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the state recently mandated that public hearings and votes on tax rates must be held in-person. Council members last met in person on March 26.

After the public hearings, city officials meet again Sept. 15 at the rec center to adopt the budget and tax rate. Times for the public hearings and meeting have not been announced.

For the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, city officials are proposing a trimmed down budget in response to an expected dip in revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic, including lower collections on fines, fees and sales tax and reduced property values.

The council held a discussion Aug. 19 on the proposed budget, which postpones funding for six vacant positions, reduces the city’s planned contribution to an economic development fund and delays recommended salary adjustments and includes a small tax increase, said Finance Director Pam Curbow.

“We are hopeful in the next fiscal year we can come up with a plan to get all of our employees within market,” she told the council. “There may be a necessity to phase that in over a couple of year’s period.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and state Sen. Robert Nichols have discouraged municipalities from raising taxes during the coronavirus pandemic.

Proposed is a city tax rate of 63 cents per $100 of assessed value — an increase that would mean the owner of a $108,000 home would pay an additional $12.10 over the prior year.

“Part of that increase is to help offset some of those decreases in revenue that we just don’t believe we will be able to collect because of the pandemic,” said City Manager Mario Canizares. “We hope that as things normalize those revenues will come back, but right now we can’t rely on (them).”

In addition, one-time capital projects have been limited to only those badly needed, such as a $200,000 roof replacement at City Hall and $110,000 phone system and IT upgrade.

“Department heads were really gracious in paring back their requests for these particular items,” Curbow said. “We told them, ‘This is needs, not wants.’”

Staff writer Josh Edwards contributed to this report.

NISD to meet on delaying classes


Nacogdoches ISD will consider delaying the start of school even further in an effort to allow teachers time to prepare for the return of students to campus and provide a new laptop to every educator before class begins.

The school board will meet in special session at 5 p.m. Tuesday to consider the delay. School was initially set to begin Monday, but in June the board unanimously approve postponing until Aug. 31.

“There’s so much for our teachers and staff to complete to be ready for students,” Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo said. “We want to ensure that our teachers and staff have the resources they need to start school successfully.”

If the delay is approved, NISD’s end date would also be affected. The last day of instruction – originally planned for May 27 – would likely be pushed into June, Trujillo said.

During the Aug. 31 meeting, trustees approved the $717,000 purchase of 624 laptop computers for educators. Those computers and additional personal protective equipment are expected to arrive next week, district officials said.

Taking an additional week before the start of classes would provide teachers more time to familiarize themselves with arriving technology and refine their work on new learning management systems purchased by the district that will ease student transition between in-person and virtual instruction, officials said.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to kickoff a safe and successful school year,” said NISD Board President Pam Fitch. “We are going to take the necessary steps and precautions to ensure that our team is starting the year with confidence.”

NISD is also distributing laptops and iPad tablets to students who do not have a device at home, but those are not the same computers the district purchased earlier this month at a cost of around $780,000.

The school board approved purchasing nearly 5,000 computers so that every student can have their own district-issued device, but that tech isn’t expected to arrive until mid-October. That purchase also included 500 internet hotspots to be distributed to families without internet access. Hotspots are devices that provide internet service though the same technology used by cellphones.

NISD is adding roughly 30 minutes to each instructional day this academic year to provide additional cushion in the calendar to absorb any needed closings that might occur because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Texas Education Agency requires students receive 75,600 minutes of instruction during the school year. NISD has not held in-person classes since mid-March when the pandemic began here. The district initially extended its spring break, but class was called off by an order from Gov. Greg Abbott.

Nacogdoches High School will begin the school year with an A-B schedule for students in its phase-in for the first four weeks of instruction. The district’s elementary schools and two middle schools will continue to refine their phase-in instructional plans for the first four weeks of classes and will communicate that information to parents, Trujillo said.

“These are trying times, but we continue to plan for an amazing school year,” Trujillo said. “Decisions like this are hard to make and come with tremendous responsibility because of the problems they might cause for our parents and families. I want to make sure we have this right for when all our students and teachers begin returning to classes — either in-person or virtually.”

Cruz to address Nac Chamber of Commerce

Sen. Ted Cruz will address Nacogdoches community leaders Tuesday during the weekly videoconference call held by the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce.

Cruz will speak at the 10 a.m. meeting and is expected to take questions from business and community leaders.

“We are anxious to hear about the latest COVID-19 developments in Washington,” said Claire Robbins, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors. “Sen. Cruz has his finger on the pulse of developments in our Capitol and our members and community stakeholders will benefit from the information he shares.”

The Senate has been in recess since Aug. 10 after negotiations over the next coronavirus relief bill collapsed. That package looked likely to include another round of direct payments to Americans. President Donald Trump later signed a series of executive orders as a sort of stopgap but did not include any direct payments.

Anyone wanting to join the call can visit the chamber’s website at nacogdoches.org and follow instructions found on the home page. Directions are also available by calling the chamber office at 560-5533.

“We are pleased that Senator Cruz has agreed to join us,” said Nacogdoches Chamber President and CEO C. Wayne Mitchell. “I am hopeful that our members and community partners will feel free to share concerns or suggestions with the Senator.”

Cruz was first elected to the senate in 2012 and was reelected in 2018 in a tight race against Democrat Beto O’Rourke. Before joining the Senate, Cruz was Solicitor General of Texas where he argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Republican senator will be the third federal lawmaker to address the local chamber since the coronavirus pandemic began here 20 weeks ago. Both U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler and Sen. John Cornyn have also taken questions from chamber members during weekly conference calls.

Other speakers have included representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, heads of various trade organizations and economists.

Local races shape up for November
  • Updated

The slate of local candidates for city and school elections in the fall is complete and includes several races postponed by the coronavirus pandemic this spring.

Candidate filings ended Aug. 17 for the board of Nacogdoches Memorial Hospital as well as Martinsville, Central Heights and Woden ISDs.

All four hospital district board members who were up for election this year have filed for reelection. Sean Hightower, Ryan Head, James Stockman and Lisa King will retain their board positions, having drawn no challengers.

At Martinsville ISD, six candidates are running for four seats on the school board. They include incumbents Craig Mueller, Hoss Stanaland, Robert BJ Gross and Archie Haddox Jr.; and challengers Jonathan Adams and Juston Bass.

In Central Heights, five candidates are running for three seats, including Wes Jensen, Lisa Baker Stone, Victor Haley, Patrick W. Lanmon and challenger Dayna Johnson-Wall.

Woden ISD will not be holding an election after no challengers filed for board seats.

The Nov. 3 election also will determine several elections that were postponed in May due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These include a local optional liquor election in Appleby, a city council race in Garrison and school board elections in Chireno, Garrison and Cushing ISDs.

Garrison Mayor Russell Wright is being challenged for his seat by council member Samantha Rogers, and Hope Hallmark and Travis Simon are running for a seat on the council.

On the Garrison ISD board, seven candidates are seeking three seats: Heath Brewer, Billy R. Cooper, Matt Harris, Heidi Lawrence, Dusty McFadden, Sam Stanaland and Nichole Todd.

Within Cushing ISD, six candidates — Lynda Langham, Joseph Owens, Mike Evans, Roderick Stansell, Bobby Brashears and David “Chuck” Gresham — are running for three seats.

Three candidates in Chireno ISD — Ramona Shaw, Travis Zienko and Kathy Durrett — are running for two seats.

There were no contested races in May for the cities of Appleby, Cushing or Chireno or in Nacogdoches ISD.

Mail ballots sent in months ago for these elections have been preserved and will be counted, County Elections Administrator Todd Stallings said.