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COVID drove major changes in Galveston County churches, finances

LEAGUE CITY

As reports of coronavirus spreading across the country began to appear in March, leaders at Ecclesia Clear Lake held a meeting to discuss how the church would navigate the pandemic, said Coby Cagle, lead pastor at the church.

“Things like communion were off the table,” Cagle said. “So we had to ask, was it worth it to hold in-person services? We decided to put our energy into figuring out the best quality of online live streaming.”

Churches across Galveston County and the nation held conversations just like the one at Ecclesia in March and April, and the answers they came up with have largely charted the unprecedented path they find themselves on as 2021 begins.

Congregations have taken financial hits and made adaptations that might last through the pandemic, as have commercial businesses.

Also similar to COVID’s effect on commerce, the virus is accelerating change and increasing pressures already there for years among churches, said David P. King, a professor of philanthropic studies and the director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

“We know that engagement and regular attendance are the best patterns for giving,” King said. “So the congregations that are using this crisis as a moment to take stock of their mission may come out stronger, if a more stripped-down organization.”

Churches across the country have seen a steady decline in attendance in recent years, King said. Yet, despite that, studies show fewer churches have closed during the pandemic than might have been expected.

Just 65 percent of American adults described themselves as Christian during telephone surveys in 2018 and 2019, a 12 percent decline in a decade, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

FUNDING

A September study from the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving found a slight majority of congregations, about 52 percent of those surveyed, reported an increase in participation during the pandemic. A significant minority, 41 percent, reported a decline in giving during the same time, according to the study.

About 28 percent of surveyed congregations actually had an increase in donations, King said.

Those trends appear to be playing out among Galveston County congregations.

Magnolia Creek Baptist Church in League City, with an annual budget of about $180,000, has taken a financial hit of about 25 percent, Brett Dutton, the church’s pastor, said. That’s actually better than church leaders expected at the start of the pandemic.

“Thankfully, a couple years earlier, we’d started using an online giving platform called tithe.ly,” Dutton said. “That really helped us. Had that not been in place, it would have been really difficult.”

With online giving measures already in place, church officials could instead turn their attention to finding the best way to livestream services, Dutton said. The church already used social media to communicate with members, so it was just a matter of adding cameras and figuring out how to stream.

Just like Magnolia Creek in League City, many of the measures needed to handle online services at Faith United Methodist Church were put in place years before, because of Hurricane Harvey, said Johnnie Simpson Jr., pastor of the church.

The church was inundated with water during the storm in 2017, and Simpson advocated for audio and visual upgrades during the rebuild, he said.

“We got better microphones, recording equipment and cameras,” he said. “We got software for live streaming and graphic presentation software.”

Once the pandemic hit, all church leaders needed to do was upgrade the internet to accommodate streaming, Simpson said.

Unlike some other churches, finances at Faith United Methodist Church have remained fairly consistent through the pandemic, though the sources have shifted somewhat, Simpson said.

For instance, about 30 percent of the budget came via online sources, in sharp contrast to previous years, he said.

COSTS

Comparatively speaking, Ecclesia Clear Lake has seen less of a financial hit than some other area churches, but organization leaders have still worked to cut back on some costs, such as conferences and other smaller, miscellaneous expenses, Cagle said.

Magnolia Creek, likewise, benefited because one of only two full-time staff on the payroll left and took a job in Kentucky in August, which removed one of the bigger costs on the congregation’s budget, Dutton said.

The church owns the land the building sits on but has made payments for the building, Dutton said. For several months at the start of the pandemic, congregation officials worked out a deal with the lender to make interest-only payments.

But the church has since returned to making full payments, Dutton said.

Faith United Methodist Church has managed to stay on top of all of its bills and also continue social services and feeding the needy during the pandemic, Simpson said.

Overall, only about 14 percent of all congregations surveyed had to lay off or otherwise reduce staff during the pandemic, according to the study.

CHANGES

For all of the negative things about the pandemic, coronavirus has forced congregations to adapt and learn, Cagle said.

For instance, the shift to online services has led to less in-person giving, but it has opened up churches to a brand new audience farther away, Cagle said.

“Some have joined our church that only found us because of our online presence,” Cagle said. “People are viewing now from around the country. And tithes are coming in from people not in the city but who came on our website and like who we are and what we do.”

It’s an experience Simpson has noticed as well, he said. One of his sermons after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis went viral after he uploaded it online.

“It’s actually helped the church a lot,” Simpson said. “It’s why I’m strategizing with leadership that when things return somewhat back to normal, we have to be willing to accommodate virtual viewers without giving them the worship experience of sitting in the balcony.”

Simpson has plans to host two services even after the pandemic ends — one for in-person attendance and another strictly for online viewership, he said.

“Those are each distinct audiences,” he said.

Neither Simpson nor Cagle’s congregation has returned to in-person services since the pandemic began, they said.

Dutton’s congregation, meanwhile, has made several efforts to return to in-person services, he said.

Most recently, Magnolia Creek attendees returned to in-person services in September but closed down again after the first week of December because about 10 families out of a congregation of 100 or so became sick with the virus, Dutton said.

That followed two previous shutdowns, the first in March to the end of May and the second from July to September, Dutton said.

The church again opened with the start of 2021 and plans to stay open as long as feasible, but cases appear on the dramatic rise, Dutton said.

What’s happening to churches is a timely issue because coronavirus fatigue might have taken a toll on many residents, Dutton said. It’s important to remember what businesses and churches are going through.

“Weirdly July, at the height of the surge, was our best giving month,” he said. “But looking at the graph, it’s down now. And I think a large part is just because people are tired of dealing with COVID.”


News
Touchless, take-out trends here to stay at restaurants in Galveston County

In March, Red River Cantina in League City had a modest food-to-go program. Operators of the 2-year-old restaurant planned to ramp it up but hadn’t yet.

When pandemic-driven restrictions closed dining rooms all over the country, Jimmy Molina, concept leader at the 1911 E. Main St. restaurant, introduced streamlined curbside services and delivery via a third party.

“It forced our to-go business to increase because that’s all we had,” Molina said.

But restaurant management hopes this shift to take-out won’t drive people out of the more profitable dining room long-term, he said.

“Our to-go business has been doing good, but our total sales are down,” Molina said.

Diners who order take-out typically don’t buy as many drinks or other add-ons as they would if they were dining in, Molina said.

Pandemic restrictions hit the U.S. food and beverage economy particularly hard, forcing operators to innovate and adapt their business practices to attract and retain customers fearful of the coronavirus, greatly altering — possibly for years to come — how people enjoy restaurants. Those changes range from touchless menus to home meal kits. Services such as curbside pickup and online ordering, which began as emergency survival measures, likely are here to stay even after COVID-19 fades to meet consumer demand, industry stakeholders say.

‘CHALLENGING MONTHS AHEAD’

Business during the week of Thanksgiving was down about 50 percent for island favorite Shrimp ‘N Stuff, which operates restaurants on Avenue O and 25th Street in Galveston, owner Jeff Antonelli said. It was worse, down about 60 percent, the week of Christmas, he said.

And tough times are likely to linger, he said.

“It’s a real challenging few months ahead,” Antonelli said. “Thank God for the local people that support local restaurants.”

By December, about 110,000 restaurants, 17 percent of the national industry, had shut down either permanently or for the long-term, according to the National Restaurant Association. Those restaurants had been in business on average 16 years.

Nationwide, the restaurant industry in 2020 also lost $235 billion in sales, according to the association.

“We have lost a lot of really good operators,” said Mike Whatley, vice president for state and local affairs. “There are going to be vacancies in major retail areas. You’re going to see a lot of shifting.”

‘ALL OF IT’S GOING TO STAY’

Whatley is optimistic that government assistance and the rollout of COVID vaccines will continue to improve conditions for restaurants, he said.

But customer preferences have changed during the pandemic and many operators have had to adapt to meet those changes, he said.

About 70 percent of people surveyed reported preferring digital ordering for to-go food and 58 percent preferred digital ordering for dine-in, according to an analysis by consulting firm Deloitte.

Convenience was the top reason 62 percent of those surveyed chose to patronize a restaurant, according to the survey.

In Galveston County, restaurant owners are learning the importance of shifting to take-out and digital platforms.

Frank and Teffeny Caruso, owners of Hubcap Grill, 2021 Strand St., have expanded to-go with curbside service, added scannable menus and are updating the restaurant’s website for online ordering.

“All of it’s going to stay in place, curbside, touchless,” Frank Caruso said. “Anything that you can possibly do to make the client across the table, the customer feel more secure, we’re going to do that.”

‘COMFORT OF THEIR HOME’

Landry’s properties, which includes Landry’s Seafood House and Saltgrass Steak House, also have made changes to serve customers, said Keith Beitler, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Landry’s Inc.

“Once pandemic-related restrictions are lifted, we will continue to offer touchless menu options in our restaurants, as well as enhanced online ordering and delivery options,” Beitler said. “We have also started to introduce mobile pay opportunities at all our restaurant locations nationwide.”

Greek restaurant Kritikos Grill, 4908 Seawall Blvd., started curbside service and uses three third-party delivery apps, manager Wendy Hartman said.

The restaurant also extended its patio space so more people could dine outside at widely spaced tables, Hartman said.

Kritikos Grill plans to keep its curbside and delivery services, for now at least.

“Until we get so busy inside the restaurant that we can’t or we’ll have to hire more people to do it,” Hartman said.

Whatley expects interest in to-go to continue.

“People really like being able to have their favorite restaurant food in the comfort of their home,” Whatley said.

The industry already had been trending toward more take-out and the pandemic just sped up the process, said Ken Duffy, senior manager and a lead of restaurant practice at Deloitte.

“This trend is here to stay,” Duffy said.

‘STREAMLINED MENUS’

But the upward tick in take-out poses some challenges, Duffy said. It’s typically more difficult to produce the same quality for restaurant food consumed at home than meals consumed in the dining room. And diners tend to order fewer drinks, appetizers or other add-ons with to-go orders than they would in a restaurant.

To meet that challenge, owners have been introducing meal kits that allow families to cook restaurant-made meals at home, which can increase revenues per order, Duffy said. And increasing to-go options often means a restaurant needs less physical space or fewer employees, which can reduce costs, he said.

This growing to-go trend also is pushing owners to contract or change menus, Duffy said.

‘WE’RE A SERVICE INDUSTRY’

“There are many brands that have reduced their menu and that will likely stay,” Duffy said. “There has been a long-standing preference for a more simplified, streamlined menu.”

Take-away alcohol sales also will encourage people to continue dining out from restaurants, Whatley said. Before the pandemic, fewer than five states allowed restaurants to serve take-way alcohol. Now more than 30 states, including Texas, allow the practice, Whatley said.

Outdoor dining and growing reliance on ordering technology also are likely to continue in popularity, experts said.

Although restaurant owners are shifting to include more to-go options, that might not be the most profitable option.

While to-go business grew in 2020 for Red River, total sales were still down for the year, Molina said.

The restaurant also uses third-party apps, such as DoorDash, for delivery, but those apps take a sizable chunk of the delivery profits, he said.

“Hopefully, the DoorDash will turn into curbside or dine-in,” Molina said.

Whatley hopes people continue to support their local restaurants, he said. Whether restaurants continue to close really depends on whether additional government aid comes, he said.

Antonelli is optimistic that as the vaccine rolls out, people will return to restaurant dining rooms, he said. But he plans to continue offering the curbside and take-out options he has introduced at Shrimp ‘N Stuff during the pandemic.

“We’re a service industry and that’s what we do,” Antonelli said. “We serve the public. That’s just the nature of the business.”


Free
As vaccine net widened, UTMB rushed to find recipients

GALVESTON

When orders went out to widen the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, physicians at the University of Texas Medical Branch rushed to identify and contact people suddenly eligible to receive a shot.

The effort involved a lot of phone calls and participation of many, including top medical branch administrators, to get people signed up.

Among those making the calls was the medical branch’s interim president and the county’s local health authority, who personally phoned to invite the eligible to be vaccinated.

“In a good faith and well-intentioned effort to get as many people who meet the criteria vaccinated as possible, UTMB employees, including Dr. Ben Raimer, Dr. Philip Keiser (also the local health authority) and other faculty members contacted and encouraged members of the community to get vaccinated,” the medical branch said in a statement.

The rush of calls was not the way the medical branch hoped to roll out the vaccines to at-risk groups, officials said.

But faced with pressure from the state to get more vaccinations out the door, the medical branch resorted to personal phone calls, rather than a more centralized system, to get the vaccines into people’s bodies, officials said.

DEMAND AND DEMANDS

As of Friday, 9,172 people in Galveston County had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That’s about 3.4 percent of the county’s population of people over the age of 16.

The state’s data doesn’t specify how many of those were health care workers, were older than 65 or had preexisting health conditions.

On Dec. 29, Texas Gov.Greg Abbott and health Commissioner John Hellerdstedt demanded distribution sites such as the medical branch begin offering vaccine doses to Group 1B, which includes people at least 65 years old or who have chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.

The state’s order came at least three weeks before the medical branch expected, officials said. Group 1B includes more than 113,000 people in Galveston County.

The medical branch asked its doctors to begin personally contacting patients who would qualify for vaccinations. Officials initially hoped to vaccinate employees who qualified for group 1B, the medical branch said in a statement.

But after defrosting a batch of vaccines, which must be kept frozen to avoid spoiling, officials found there were fewer employees on campus than anticipated because of the holiday week, according to the statement.

“Rather than let it go to waste, UTMB physicians and staff worked diligently to find people in the community who fell under group 1B to get vaccinated,” according to the statement.

FREE-FOR-ALL

Keiser, the local authority, said the initial rollout was “very confused” and a “free-for-all” that prompted all sorts of rumors about who was getting the vaccine. He didn’t, however, know of any improprieties such as people not qualified for 1B treatment in the initial rollout, he said.

But Keiser said he understood if some people thought the system was unfair.

“We can have a system that’s fair and even and reasoned; we wouldn’t be able to get the vaccines out quickly,” Keiser said. The ultimate goal is to get 75 percent of the county’s population vaccinated, he said.

The medical branch is trying to distribute its vaccines as “quickly and equitably” as possible, the statement said.

The medical branch didn’t track how many people scheduled appointments after receiving phone calls. At the same time the calls were being made, other people were reaching out to medical branch physicians on their own, and others were invited to receive vaccinations while they were at unrelated medical appointments, officials said.

Raimer declined to be interviewed about the vaccination program.

NO SYSTEM

As of Friday, there was no organized system for qualified members of the general public to sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations.

The medical branch, which has received a majority of the vaccines issued to the county, encouraged people who use its affiliated doctors to contact their physicians to schedule an appointment.

People who do not use medical branch doctors have reported being turned away from scheduling vaccinations.

The Galveston County Health District, the county’s public health agency, has received about 500 doses of vaccines in the past four weeks. The health district has twice opened phone lines to schedule COVID vaccinations. Both times, the slots for vaccinations were filled within hours — with officials reporting being inundated by people seeking the vaccine.

Other designated distribution sites, such as pharmacies at H-E-B and Kroger grocery stores, haven’t announced their plans to schedule vaccinations and have said they, like other distributors, have only so far received a small number of vaccines from the state.

Officials say that coming months will bring wider availability of the vaccine and quell the surge of demand that came with its initial release. On Thursday, Abbott announced that more doses will be sent to large “vaccination hubs” capable of providing shots to more than 100,000 people.

It was unclear whether Galveston County would be included in any of the hubs.

With only a limited supply, the question of who is getting the first doses of COVID-19 vaccinations is a matter of intense scrutiny across the country.

‘HOW DO YOU DEVELOP A PLAN?’

In Florida, for instance, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott on Thursday demanded a federal probe after The Washington Post reported a West Palm Beach nursing home directed some of its vaccinations to donors and board members.

The medical branch said none of the people called in its initial rollout were outside eligible groups. Beyond defining who’s in the eligible groups, state rules don’t dictate how vaccine providers determine who gets the earliest shots.

Officials acknowledged, however, that some of the people who’ve received vaccines might also have donated to the medical branch.

“UTMB has a large list of donors from the community and it would not be surprising for there to have been some donors who were vaccinated,” the statement said.

Medical branch officials had previously confirmed the organization was offering doses to employees who fell outside of high-risk groups because it had thawed more doses than turned out to be needed.

The medical branch declined to name the people who were part of the initial 1B group, citing medical privacy laws. The medical branch declined to say where the initial group of people lived or what demographic group they fell into.

The people who were invited were “Galvestonians,” the medical branch said.

In the first week of the new year, the system for making appointments has become more organized. Administrators aren’t making phone calls any more, a spokesman said.

Medical branch patients have been advised to wait for messages from their primary care physician to schedule appointments. The medical branch could not say whether or when it would be able to open appointments to a wider group of the public.

“As of today, UTMB does not know how many vaccines we will receive next week or if we will receive any at all,” the statement said. “How can you develop a plan to vaccinate a community when you do not know whether or not you will receive supply or the amount to be received? UTMB does not control the supply and distribution of the vaccine.”


Politics
AP
Biden calls Trump 'unfit' but doesn't endorse impeachment

WILMINGTON, Del.

President-elect Joe Biden said Friday that President Donald Trump isn’t “fit for the job,” but he repeatedly refused to endorse growing Democratic calls to impeach him a second time.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to members of her chamber that lawmakers could move as early as next week to impeach Trump for inciting a violent mob that overran the U.S. Capitol if the president didn’t “immediately” resign. Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer also have called on Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to force Trump from office — a process for stripping the president of his post and installing the vice president to take over.

Addressing reporters in his home state of Delaware after an event introducing some of his Cabinet choices, Biden noted that a key reason he ran for president was because he’d “thought for a long, long time that President Trump wasn’t fit for the job.”

“I’ve been saying for now, well, over a year, he’s not fit to serve,” Biden said. “He’s one of the most incompetent presidents in the history of the United States of America.”

But he refused to back efforts to remove Trump from the White House and insisted that impeachment was up to Congress. Instead, Biden said he was focused on the start of his own administration on Jan. 20, and he said his top three priorities are beating back the coronavirus, distributing vaccines fairly and equitably and reviving the struggling economy.

His comments laid bare the political balance Biden has worked to strike in the months since winning the presidential election. He has continued to sharply criticize Trump and nearly every facet of his administration but also worked to keep the public’s attention focused on what the new administration will do rather than indulging recriminations against the last one.

Biden nonetheless conceded that Trump “exceeded my worst notions about him. He’s been an embarrassment” and likened the “damage done to our reputation around the world” to “tin horn dictatorships.” The president-elect also suggested that a key hurdle to removing Trump was that he has less than two weeks remaining in his term.

“If we were six months out, we should be doing everything to get him out of office. Impeaching him again, trying to evoke the 25th Amendment, whatever it took,” Biden said. “But I am focused now on us taking control as president and vice president on the 20th and to get our agenda moving as quickly as we can.”

Trump would be the only president to be impeached twice. The House impeached him in late 2019, but the Republican-led Senate acquitted him. Removal from office could also prevent Trump from running for president in 2024, or ever holding the presidency again.

Most Democrats, and many Republicans, put the blame squarely on Trump after hundreds of protesters broke into the Capitol on Wednesday and caused destruction and mass evacuations. The president had urged his supporters to protest as Congress was counting the electoral votes that confirmed Biden’s win. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer.

Biden called what happened a “god-awful debacle” and said it had “the active encouragement of the president of the United States.”

The president-elect’s comments came hours after Trump tweeted that he planned to skip Biden’s inauguration, becoming the first president in more than 150 years — and just the fourth in U.S. history — to do so. Biden said he’d be “honored” to have Pence at the swearing-in, but didn’t feel the same way about Trump.

That’s “one of the few things he and I have ever agreed on,” Biden said. “It’s a good thing, him not showing up.”

Also Friday, Biden called on the Senate — which Democrats won narrow control of thanks to a pair of runoff election victories in Georgia earlier this week — to confirm his Cabinet choices “promptly and fairly.”

“Given what our country’s been through the last few days,” Biden said, “they should be confirmed as close to Jan 20 as possible.”


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