Kyle Deaver

By Kevin Tankersley

Waco mayor discusses the community’s response to COVID-19

There’s an old saying, seen sometimes on bumper stickers: I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.

That pretty much describes Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver. He was born in Clovis, New Mexico, but his family moved to Waco two years later. And Deaver has never left. He’s served on numerous nonprofit boards through the years and is currently on the board of the Waco Foundation. He and his brother John are partners in the law firm Deaver and Deaver, and they’re also directors of American Bank and owners of American Guaranty Title.

After serving on the Waco City Council for four years, Deaver was elected mayor of Waco in 2016, and then re-elected in 2018. He decided not to run for re-election this year, but the May election has been postponed, thus he’s still in office.

WACOAN: May was going to be your last month on council and as mayor, correct?

Deaver: Yeah, that’s right. That was certainly an unexpected situation. And right now, we’re scheduled for a November 3 election. We’re going to ask the governor to see if he will allow us and several other cities to reschedule that to July at the same time as the primary runoff. It would be a lot better if we can get that done.

WACOAN: Why did you decide now would be a good time to step down?

Deaver: Well, I had always said I would just serve two terms. I’m term-limited to three terms, which would be six years, but served on the council for four years prior to being mayor and did four years as mayor, and that seemed like enough to me.

I love doing it. It’s something I never thought I would do. But it’s time for transition, and we’ve got a great council member who would be a great mayor if he gets elected. I think it’s time for transition.

WACOAN: And which council member is that?

Deaver: Dillon Meek is on the council now, and he is running for mayor. He has a couple of opponents who have not served on the council.

WACOAN: You said you never thought you would do this. What drew you to city government in the first place?

Deaver: I had served on [the City Plan Commission] for six years, several years ago. And when Malcolm Duncan was elected mayor, it opened up the District 5 seat for an appointment. And a good friend of mine called me and asked me whether I would think about [running for city council]. I really had not thought about doing that. I’ve served on an awful lot of boards in Waco. I serve on the Waco Foundation board now. And I started thinking about that opportunity and what that would mean. I just felt like I had the experience to do it. And I have enough flexibility in my work to allow me to do that.

My brother and I work together in our law firm. And he’s had to cover for me a lot, especially the last few weeks, where I’ve been doing almost nothing but the work of the mayor.

WACOAN: Has your law firm had much to do recently?

Deaver: The only work we do at our law firm is to support our bank and our title company that we’re part owners of, and so that work really has not slowed down much. And now with the PPP, [Paycheck Protection Program] loans, the bank’s extremely busy. We’re not doing a lot of work surrounding that, but our loan officers worked all weekend trying to get those things processed. And the SBA [Small Business Administration] system is really a mess right now. They’re overwhelmed, the banks are overwhelmed. Everybody’s doing their part to try to get the money out to the businesses and the employers and the employees that need it, but it’s been a challenge.

WACOAN: So you’ve been in Waco your entire life?

Deaver: Yeah, basically. I was born at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, but my parents were from Waco. My dad went through Baylor on an ROTC scholarship, so he was out there completing his duty in the Air Force. That’s where I was born. But we got back here by the time I was 2 years old. So effectively, I’ve been here my whole life, but I’m not a native.

WACOAN: You’ve been here ever since.

Deaver: That’s right. I did go to Vanguard [College Preparatory School] and ended up graduating from Richfield [High School] and then Baylor and Baylor Law.

WACOAN: What kept you here?

Deaver: You know, I’ve always just really liked Waco. Of course, a lot of my friends left when they graduated high school, went off somewhere else to college and didn’t come back. And then most of my friends at Baylor didn’t stick around Waco, but I had some business opportunities here, which was certainly part of it. But I just love Waco, and I’m glad to see it finally kind of coming into its own in a way that I think we all thought it would, but it’s really happening now.

WACOAN: What’s been the hardest decision you’ve had to make the last few weeks?

Deaver: You know, all the decisions have been hard. When we first made the decision to close restaurants and bars except for takeout and delivery, and then later, within seven days, go into a stay-at-home order.

We were really hoping that the governor was going to issue a statewide stay-at-home order much earlier than he did. A lot of mayors and county judges had asked him to do that on the Monday prior to the Tuesday morning when we imposed our stay-at-home order.

We have been so concerned about the projections that show our hospital system being overwhelmed and seeing the terrible decisions that doctors are having to make in places like Italy and Spain where they’re having to choose who gets a ventilator based on who’s most likely to survive. And then talking with our health authority, Dr. Farley Verner, who is an infectious disease specialist in the county health authority, as well as our hospital CEOs and Dr. Jackson Griggs, the Waco Family Health Center CEO, it became pretty obvious that that was what we needed to do. So as hard as it was, it was not a really difficult decision

WACOAN: How have folks in Waco done in their response to the stay-at-home order?

Deaver: I think they’ve largely done well. I won’t say everybody, but I think the large majority of our citizens understand the risk and understand that the one thing we can do to help is to stay home and stay away from each other.

There is certainly a group of people that it’s harder to communicate that with and harder for them to take it seriously. And young people in particular seem to have a hard time taking it seriously. I think some of that was probably due to the early information that [the virus] didn’t seem to affect young people very much. But we’ve got a number of young people that are hospitalized or have been hospitalized. But I think largely they’re doing well.

I know how hard this is on so many businesses and so many employees and so when I say they’re doing well, I mean, they’re doing well in terms of adhering to the rules, but I know it’s incredibly difficult.

WACOAN: As of yesterday, [April 5], McLennan County was at 53 cases, five hospitalizations, a few in critical care, 19 have recovered. So out of the county, that’s a pretty low percentage. Is that good news, or kind of what you expected at this point?

Deaver: It’s hard to know how to understand that data because the testing has been so limited that people who were exhibiting symptoms, especially early on, were not given tests unless they also had additional factors, like they had traveled to a hot spot or they had some underlying health condition that made them more likely to have a bad outcome from COVID-19. So now that the tests are more available, I think we’ll start to see those cases rise. But it’s just hard to interpret that data. So what I’ve been really watching more than anything else is the hospitalizations and the ICUs. And those numbers have been pretty flat now for the last couple of weeks, or at least last 10 days or so. And so I’m encouraged by that, but talking to some of the health experts, they’re still very concerned that we just may not be on the rise yet. And if you look at places like Dallas County and Harris County, this past week, they had tremendous increases in the number of positive tests. And I have not seen their hospitalization numbers, so I don’t know exactly what that looks like yet. [Editor’s note: As of April 27, McLennan County has 87 confirmed cases, 15 of which are active, two current hospitalizations and four deaths.]

WACOAN: Experts have said there’s going to be a surge. What would a surge look like in our community?

Deaver: They have been talking nationally, and President Trump has been saying this may be the worst week [April 5-11]. But that is because of New York and L.A. and I guess some other large cities. We haven’t seen that yet here, and so I’m afraid that our surge will likely be you know, a week or two behind the surge that they are going to experience.

It’s hard to know what that surge is going to look like here in McLennan County. We hope that the measures that we’ve taken early on will help to suppress that surge and keep the peak of the graph from getting as high as it would. Because if it gets as high as it would have according to the projections we saw, our hospitals would be overwhelmed. We would have inadequate ICU beds, inadequate ventilators, inadequate [number of] personnel to run those ventilators. But like I said, so far, we’ve been able to keep it at a very low level. In fact, our ICU beds have gone down the last two or three days.

It’s hard to know. And I think the hospitals are preparing for the worst. They have, as you know, canceled all elective procedures, which has created a lot more capacity for regular beds in their hospitals. Some of those can be adapted to be ICU rooms, but again, there would be a shortage of ventilators and a shortage of personnel to run those ventilators.

WACOAN: The original shelter in place was until April 3, and then it got extended to April 21. What was the process there in extending that for you and the council?

Deaver: Well, again, we’re always in consultation with the health experts before we do anything like that. And we felt like we certainly were going to need to extend at least to the 21st. The first one expired on April … I can’t even keep up with it anymore it’s changed so much. We took that action to extend to the 21st on [April 7] because it was going to expire on the 14th, and we didn’t want to have it end on the same day that we were having a meeting to discuss it. And so we went ahead and extended it out to the 21st. I feel certain we will need to extend it further. The governor has made his order last through April 30, and so I think we will certainly need to do that. [Editor’s note: As of April 27, the current shelter-in-place order for Waco and McLennan County is through April 30.] And then we just reassess on a weekly basis now. For awhile there, we were reassessing every day. Now we’re at least to the point of reassessing every week.

WACOAN: Does COVID-19 present a bigger threat to our community than the influenza that comes around every year?

Deaver: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Definitely. And I think it is more deadly, and it seems to be more contagious. There’s just so much that’s unknown about it. But when you see the huge numbers of people that have died in places like Italy and Spain and China — although there are questions about whether those numbers are accurate — yeah, I believe it’s a lot more dangerous than the flu.

WACOAN: How prepared is Waco for a surge with test kits, masks, ventilators, things like that?

Deaver: That’s hard to know. It just depends on how big the surge is. The hospitals here are both part of regional networks. And with Ascension, it’s actually I think, a national network, and both hospital CEOs have said they can get ventilators from other places in the country that are part of their network if we have a surge. But that’s assuming that all those other places aren’t surging at the same time and having the same needs. So I think there is still a real risk that we could get to that point. And that’s why we are continuing to impose these stay-at-home orders.

WACOAN: With folks being told to stay at home, has the city seen a spike in any criminal activity?

Deaver: No, and we’ve been concerned about that, domestic abuse and also criminal activity. I think you’ve probably read that the county has released a lot of misdemeanor jail inmates to try to create as much space in the jail as possible to avoid getting a spread of COVID-19 within the jail, which has happened in a lot of prisons and other places like that across the country. But we really have not seen that increase yet and hope we don’t.

But I think certainly mental health is a real issue when you’re cooped up like this for so long, and that’s why we’ve been encouraging people to get out and exercise, get outside and just keep your social distance when you’re doing that.

WACOAN: Have the precedents that federal and state governments put into place done what they needed to do?

Deaver: I think we missed an opportunity early on as a nation to get ahead of this. I think the president has tried to catch up with that, when he finally became convinced that this was a real problem. But we certainly missed an early opportunity, and I feel like we missed an early opportunity at the state level to put a shelter-in-place order in effect. I understand it’s difficult to do that when you’re a governor of a state and a lot of your counties don’t have any cases yet. But the fact is the counties that were most populated already had cases. And there are a lot of counties in West Texas and South Texas that are not very populated. And so when you look at the population level, I think we should have issued a statewide order earlier.

WACOAN: When you and the council were talking about the city’s orders, did the impact on small businesses become part of the thought process?

Deaver: Of course. That’s a huge part of it. We have a small business in our title company and a fairly small business in our bank, and most of the council members are businesspeople. We all understand the impact of this and how devastating it can be.

I’m really glad to see that the federal government has put some programs in place to provide some temporary relief. It’s hard to access that stuff right now, because they’re so overwhelmed. The [Texas] Workforce Commission is overwhelmed with unemployment claims. But we’ll work through that, the governments will work through that, and hopefully we can keep most of these businesses on their feet. But yes, that was a very difficult part of that decision, and it continues to be something that weighs on all of our minds.

WACOAN: Is there anything else I need to know?

Deaver: You know, one thing I think is important is to understand the relationship with between the city and the county on these emergency orders. Judge [Scott] Felton, the McLennan County judge, and I are talking on a daily basis about what needs to be done in both our jurisdictions. The reality is the county’s order supersedes the city of Waco order.

When the county first put into effect their order, they allowed cities to do things that were more strict within their municipalities than what they were ordering as a county, because at that point, our order was a little stricter than what the commissioners put into effect. Since that time, we’ve worked to try to keep our orders exactly aligned and tried to keep them on the same date just to minimize confusion for the citizens who may live in Lorena and work in Waco, that kind of thing. But Judge Felton’s leadership through this whole thing has been really excellent and really important.

WACOAN: How are you going to spend your free time after the election, whether it’s in July or November, when you no longer have mayoral duties hanging over you?

Deaver: We’ve got two brand-new grandchildren. Our son and his wife have a new baby, and our daughter and her husband had a baby right after we put the shelter-in-place order in effect and you couldn’t visit the hospital. So we went and looked through the window from outside and got to see our new granddaughter there. But I’m just looking forward to, once these orders are lifted, being able to spend some time with our family and get outside and get back to normal.