The deserted parking lot of the Longview Mall.

Driving around my hometown of Longview, I’m struck by the scant traffic on the city’s busiest thoroughfares. This East Texas city of more than 80,000 is the seat of Gregg County, which as of April 17 reported nearly 125,000 residents, and according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, had recorded 48 cases and no fatalities. Still, it feels more like an early Sunday morning drive, before church services begin and the restaurants open, than a normal weekday just before lunch hour. Of course, nothing feels normal anywhere right now.

The parking lot of the venerable Longview Mall is deserted save for a few vehicles, presumably those of maintenance workers since the mall closed on March 23. A string of chain restaurants along Loop 281 advertises drive-through and take-out service, and random vehicles wait in line. The Walmart and Sam’s Club side-by-side parking lots are nearly full, as they have been for nearly a month, even though some shelves are often bare. A gun shop on the street in front of those stores is open and offering free hand sanitizer, according to its sign. At a strip mall nearby, the usual national retail stores—Kohl’s, Lane Bryant, Old Navy—are all closed, deemed nonessential. In the middle of the empty parking lot, enclosed by a chain-link fence, a pump jack still operates, its head bobbing up and down.

Oil and gas remain a major part of the economy around here. The crash in prices created both a direct and ripple effect: Oil field and gas workers are laid off, royalty checks dwindle, and ancillary businesses furlough workers. The double whammy of COVID-19 and plunging oil prices has hit hard here, as in much of Texas. I talked to several folks in town to see how their businesses and lives have been affected.

A pump jack in the parking lot of a strip mall still bobs up and down.

Oil and Gas
Nadine and Craig Woolsey own and operate oil and gas wells throughout northeast Texas. They use a dozen or so contractors to maintain the wells. Nadine handles the accounting, which includes sending out royalty checks and paying the contractors. The couple recently applied for funds through the Paycheck Protection Program. The loans, administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration, do not have to be paid back if the money is used to make payroll. “We’re just trying to keep it together, using that to help us smooth over the rough waters,” Nadine said. “It’s been really stressful. I’m trying to take it one day at a time.”

The married couple works out of its home. The Woolseys’ two children, Callan, 14, and Hannah, 11, are now taking classes online. Craig has dusted off his math skills to help Callan with his geometry lessons. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder, what’s going to happen?” Nadine said. “But all we can do is pray.”

Julia and Jim Barron opened a bookstore in Longview in 1972 that has evolved into a 16,000-square-foot retail store selling books, jewelry, gifts, and clothing. Barron’s of Texas added a café in 1996 and expanded with a high-end restaurant five years ago. Now, the retail business is closed to the public, and Café Barron’s only offers curbside takeout service. The Barrons’ daughter-in-law, Lacy, is using Facebook Live to pitch products that are either delivered, mailed, or handed to the customer safely at curbside.

Julia said the store’s Easter business was brisk, despite the actual doors being closed. The longtime entrepreneur said those who remain successful learn to adapt. “You truly do have to think out of the box, making a living by your wits as well as our talents,” Julia said. “This also gives us the opportunity to step back and look at our business with fresh eyes.”

Jack Stallard has covered prep sports in East Texas for more than 30 years, the last two decades as sports editor of the Longview News-Journal. With no prep sports to cover, he and his staff scramble to keep content in the paper and readers engaged. “We are spotlighting seniors who have had their seasons taken away from them,” he said. “I think it’s a good reminder that these kids are not just athletes; they’re also students who have future plans.”

Stallard said people miss watching and reading about sports. For example, ESPN recently replayed the 2006 Rose Bowl game between the University of Texas and the University of Southern California, which UT won to capture the national championship. “The next day it was all over Twitter as if it had just happened,” Stallard said. “People miss sports. We are an important part of the newspaper and society in general.”

Alex Rios is a coach at CrossFit Citadel, which, though now closed, offers daily classes through Zoom, the online meeting app. He got the idea from other gyms that he follows on social media. Both members and nonmembers can sign on to one of the three classes he holds daily. Rios puts participants through a warmup, the workout of the day (a WOD, in CrossFit parlance), and a cool-down session. “I’m still learning how to break the ice,” Rios said. “The best way to run a virtual class is to make it fun and get people fit.”

Amerti Oli is an international student from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She is a graduating senior at LeTourneau University, a private Christian university in Longview. The campus did not reopen after Spring Break, so Oli is finishing her classes online at the home of a family member in Silver Spring, Maryland. She continues to work remotely at her part-time job at the Estes Library, answering questions posed by patrons. Commencement in May at LeTourneau has been postponed with no date set, to her disappointment after four years spent half a globe away from her native land.

“I was pretty bummed about it, but since the entire world is going through this, I learned to accept it,” Oli said. She phones her family back in Addis Ababa daily, where thus far the outbreak has been minor. She hopes to begin working in either Texas or Maryland once the pandemic has passed, before starting studying for a master’s degree.

“Small-Town Dispatches” is a new series from Texas Highways focused on how COVID-19 is affecting some of our favorite Texas communities, from writers who live there or live close enough to visit often.
Read more from this series.

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