Coronavirus

Belton Mayor Marion Grayson on Friday defended her order to allow concerts at Schoepf’s Bar-B-Que after customers were photographed not following coronavirus safety guidelines.

“This is not a police state,” Grayson said in a statement Friday.

Schoepf’s Bar-B-Que — in the heart of one of the most coronavirus infected ZIP codes in Bell County — hosted a concert Thursday evening where more than 80 attendees did not practice social distancing or wear masks, according to a photo obtained and confirmed by the Telegram.

This emerged nearly a month after owner Ronnie Schoepf — who did not respond to a Telegram request to comment on Friday — assured Grayson that measures to mitigate the possible spread of COVID-19 would be in place during concerts at his restaurant.

“The health district has already taken the stance that such events are not advised given the COVID-19 numbers locally,” Amanda Robison-Chadwell, the Bell County Public Health District director, said.

The concert — during which Austin-based band The Spazmatics performed — happened as community spread of the virus remained high. Bell County has a positive COVID-19 test rate of 9.56 percent, according to the Bell County Public Health District.

Weeks ago, Grayson said “people have a personal responsibility to follow recommendations from health authorities. Those who are not comfortable attending, should not do so.”

City spokesman Paul Romer said Belton City Hall received calls from people, who saw the photo of the crowded Schoepf’s on Facebook, wanting the Police Department to arrest the concertgoers.

“We are not going to put anybody in handcuffs for having a good time,” Grayson said Friday. “At the same time, I urge people to follow the COVID-19 safety protocols, which by now are so familiar.”

Grayson said she will not rescind her order allowing gatherings at Schoepf’s, however, she will consider future requests, according to the city of Belton.

Mike Dent, owner of Wings Pizza n Things in Temple, said he deleted his photo from his Facebook page that showed unmasked concertgoers at the event. He said he attended the concert with friends and family and didn’t feel unsafe.

“I deleted (the photo) because the Telegram wrote a story about it,” he said, adding that he supports local businesses since they are struggling to keep their doors open during the coronavirus crisis.

“I was out there supporting another business,” he said of the Thursday concert. “They’re just trying to survive like everyone else.”

Dent, who was near the concert stage, said he didn’t notice if other concertgoers were wearing masks.

Video of the crowd and concert were posted on Schoepf’s account on Instagram Stories.

At least 3,390 infections have been reported, with 1,869 recoveries. On Friday, 29 new cases were confirmed. So far, 35,452 tests have been performed.

The Belton area ZIP code has at least 466 COVID-19 cases, according to health district data. Only one area has more cases: The West Temple ZIP code, which has at least 516 infections.

Robison-Chadwell said COVID-19 could easily spread among people at gatherings, such as the one at Schoepf’s, 702 E. Central Ave. in Belton.

“Yes, it certainly could spread well in such a situation since those without symptoms or those with mild symptoms — particularly with the lack of masks — may unknowingly expose everyone around them,” Bell County’s top public health official said.

Under an executive order from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Grayson allowed for Schoepf’s to hold gatherings of more than 100 — despite the health district’s recommendations such events should not occur.

Since that order, Abbott issued a statewide mask mandate that requires Texans to wear a face covering while in a building open to the public and outdoor spaces where social distancing is not possible. First-time offenders receive a written or oral warning. After that, people will receive a fine of up to $250 per violation.

The Belton Police Department — just blocks away from Schoepf’s — has not cited anyone under the state order even though the crowd would be noticeable to officers from nearby streets because of a chain-link fence.

“We have not been in a position where a citation was necessary,” Police Chief Gene Ellis said.

Bell County Judge David Blackburn said in early July he is relying on local law enforcement agencies to forward any face-covering violations at businesses to their respective agencies.

“What I have continued to ask our local law enforcement agencies to do is to forward any complaints about violations to the appropriate state law enforcement agency or licensing agency,” Blackburn said at the time.

Local health data has indicated that the mask order is working as officials have seen a drop in the daily number of reported cases.

Still, more cases have been reported in July than in any other month. In July, 2,181 residents tested positive — accounting for more than 64 percent of all reported Bell County infections. For comparison, June had the previous high, with 856 cases.

June, though, is still the deadliest month for COVID-19 in Bell County. Nine deaths were reported in June. Six residents died from the virus in July.

“I support local businesses and take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and invite others to do the same,” Grayson said Friday. “We could all benefit from focusing on how we can personally improve in these areas rather than point out the perceived deficiencies we see in others.”