Local leaders discuss surge, masks and strategy

At a community update meeting held Thursday morning, City of Kerrville and Kerr County officials weighed in on recent developments in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kerrville Mayor Bill Blackburn noted that anger, frustration and fear are prevalent among many locals.

“In the midst of all that, I would suggest we come back to Kerrville kindness,” Blackburn said.

He recently met with representatives from 10 local businesses to learn what they were doing to prevent viral spread, and was encouraged by their responses.

“They were doing (their part) to protect their customers, to protect their staff and ultimately this community,” he said.

Kerrville Fire Chief Dannie Smith then relayed the latest COVID-19 numbers ( as of Thursday morning): 219 cases in Kerr County, with 138 considered active, and two deaths.

“Peterson has five hospitalized at this time as a result of COVID-19, and we have 79 that have recovered,” Smith said.

He clarified that “probable cases” – family members sharing households with those testing positive – are include in that total, and noted that discrepancies between state and local numbers exist because city and county numbers are more up-to-the-minute, with state numbers lagging slightly behind.

“We ask your patience, because … information changes hourly and sometimes by the minute,” Smith said.

When Texas first reopened, businesses were allowed to open at 50 percent capacity, Smith said – but if Kerr County surpasses the current state threshold of 3 positives per 1,000 residents, more closings may be indicated. (For Kerr County, this number would be 152 active cases – just 14 more than the current number.)

Smith said the National Guard will be returning to offer more testing soon. Unlike the last round of testing, those attending must preregister online. The opportunity to register will be given 36 hours in advance at http://texas.curativeinc.com; registration will be capped at 250.

Kerr County Judge Rob Kelly said the pandemic is a daunting task to navigate.

He mentioned recent comments by Kerr County Sheriff Rusty Hielholzer, who has publicly stated he will not enforce Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s recent order to wear face masks in public places.

“I’m sure you’ve heard our sheriff’s comment that he’s not going to enforce any of this, which just makes it more difficult and more frustrating,” Kelly said. “Somehow, we have to find a way to come together and overcome our differences and work together to protect the public welfare.”

He said if the medical consensus is in favor of wearing masks, he hopes Kerrville residents will voluntarily comply.

“if you want to (wear a mask), wear one and encourage others to,” Kelly said.

The state has also delegated to local officials the capacity to approve outdoor gatherings. Any gathering of 10 or more people must be approved by the mayor if within city limits, and the county judge if within the county.

Kelly said he is still considering what numbers he considers reasonable, but feels the prior guideline of 100 was “too large.”

“I think we need to reduce the size of the groups that are gathering,” he said.

On May 1, the county had 5 total cases and 2 or 3 active cases, Kelly said. Now, on July 9, there are 219 total and 138 active cases.

“I’m concerned because when we reach 152 active cases … there’s going to be an automatic rollback to opening capacities,” he added.

Cory Edmondson, CEO of Peterson Health, said Peterson Health has performed over 2,600 tests locally, and other local entities also perform testing. Testing continues at Peterson Urgent Care. With an increase in the need for testing, Peterson Health continues to work hard to keep pace.

“We’re seeing an increase in total admissions for COVID-19 patients,” Edmondson said. “We have the capacity to handle that and we’re not concerned about that at this point in time.”

But if numbers continue to increase, capacity could be reached.

“We ask that you do your due diligence and try to mitigate that so you don’t overwhelm our health system like what they’re experiencing in San Antonio with volumes of patients,” he said.

Edmondson emphasized that masks continue to be required within Peterson Regional Medical Center, and strict visitation restrictions remain in place.

He cautioned those with medical conditions that they should not put off seeing doctors or obtaining health care due to fear of contracting coronavirus, adding that a hospital or doctor’s office is one of the safest, most sanitary places during a pandemic.

Edmondson encouraged the community to continue following CDC guidelines – wearing a mask, social distancing and washing hands frequently to control the outbreak.

Blackburn noted that Kerrville Independent School District Superintendent Mark Foust could not attend the meeting, but that information about fall school reopenings could be found on the KISD website.

Kerrville Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Charlie McIlvain spoke briefly about the local state of tourism and commerce.

While Kerrville has not been seeing its ordinary volume of visitors, it is still hosting about 50 percent of its normal number.

“One of our most frequently asked questions from visitors is, ‘Is the river open?’” McIlvain said, adding that tourists continue to flock to Kerrville to enjoy amenities like aquatic activities in and along the Guadalupe River, the River Trail, shopping opportunities, dining opportunities, theater arts and museum and fine arts exhibits.

Youth camps are still in session this summer, adhering to strict guidelines established by the state, to include social distancing, sanitizing often, wearing masks and frequent hand washing.

The Kerrville Sports Complex continues to host events, but with updated health and safety practices.

And, McIlvain added, occasional small gatherings and weddings have been permitted, though Kerrville continues to see cancellations of many such events.

“Tourism is a vital cog in the economic recovery process for Kerrville,” McIlvain said, adding that the hospitality industry is the largest employer in Kerrville, second only to the medical industry. “We encourage everyone to help restart our economic engine.”

Kerr Economic Development Director Gil Salinas observed that unemployment is down in Kerrville, from 12 percent just over a month ago to 10.1 percent in July.

“This shows that we’re making progress and we continue to be lower than state and national averages,” he said.

Sales tax revenues are increasing, and he encouraged residents to continue shopping locally.

“We truly have a diversified and resilient economic base,” Salinas said. “Let’s do our part to keep people employed and keep our entrepreneurs busy.”

Salinas remains cautiously optimistic.

“We’re doing better than expected but we still have a long way to go,” he added. “We still need to support our local shops and do our best to keep Kerrville Main Street alive.”

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