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How Texas is coping with the end of lockdown There is no nuance: you are either a heartless death-spreader or a virtuous stay-at-home mask-wearer

A mural in Austin, Texas. Credit: Dave Creaney/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A mural in Austin, Texas. Credit: Dave Creaney/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


May 18, 2020   7 mins

A few weeks back, a number of contributors to this site wrote about what we planned to do after lockdown was lifted. How simple it all seemed back then: go to the pub, visit parents — a jaunt to Italy was also on the cards, I recall. But as we are now discovering, liberty once taken away is actually rather hard to get back. Just look at the response to Boris Johnson’s cunning plan to “reopen society”: precious little enthusiasm, but lots of scorn and mockery, some pearl-clutching, and even a dash of political opportunism.

For me, living in Texas, the response to Johnson’s plan wasn’t much of a surprise. I’ve been enjoying my freedom since 1 May, you see, and things are similarly messy over here. I’m not even sure that “enjoying” is the right word: when everybody in your town has spent weeks trapped at home mainlining horror stories about the virus, their fear is palpable when you finally encounter them in the outside world. It can make it seem as though the lockdown isn’t really over.

Indeed, when our governor, Greg Abbott, allowed his stay-at-home order to expire and initiated the reopening of the state (albeit with lots of restrictions), the reaction in the press was largely negative, as it is every time a state starts to reopen. For instance, Texas Monthly, a glossy magazine which normally dedicates its pages to very long articles about barbecue restaurants and serial killers, ran a piece online which highlighted the fact that mere hours before shops reopened, the state had reported 50 deaths in a day, the highest increase since the start of the pandemic.

I didn’t panic, however, as Texas is a very big place and Williamson county, where I live, has relatively few cases and very few Covid-related deaths (397 confirmed cases and 16 deaths at the time of writing, out of a population of 600,000). In fact, having taken a valedictory “freedom walk” the night before the lockdown was imposed (including a spot of singing “Free Bird” with my shirt off, of course) I was quite looking forward to having at least some of my liberty restored to me.

Yet when the day came, there were no street parties, and not one cowboy ran into the street to fire off a few celebratory rounds on his six-shooter. Disappointing. Instead, a war broke out between my neighbours online, as many of them took to an app called Nextdoor to rail against the governor and anyone who supported the reopening. The world, I discovered, consisted of two types of people: heartless death-spreaders who don’t care if they kill old people through their recklessness, and those virtuous ones who are committed to staying indoors until the virus slithers out of sight.

As for me, it had been a long week, so I waited a day before going anywhere. Even then, I wasn’t quite sure where to go as lots of shops were still closed or offering curbside service only, and the complicated rules regarding what you could and couldn’t do in state parks were too boring to read. Regardless, I donned my cowboy hat, corralled my family and declared that we were going to spend some money in our local non-Starbucks coffee shop (I wrote large chunks of my last book there and would be very disappointed were it to shut down).

So off we went, through the park under the freeway and then down the main artery that leads to the city centre. The roads were no busier than they had been under lockdown. A cyclist rode past on the other side of the road, wearing a mask lest she catch coronavirus from a tree; a man sitting alone in a car drove by, wearing a mask lest he catch it from himself.

Eventually we arrived downtown, typically a hell-scape of sports bars, now deathly silent as they were not on the governor’s list of businesses allowed to reopen. The coffee shop was doing a modest business: I ordered an Arnold Palmer and a blueberry muffin, and ice creams for the rest of the clan. Most of the clientele were sitting outside, but it was hot, so we sat inside. Aside from the staff and one other person it was empty, so it was pretty easy to practice social distancing. Nobody was wearing a face mask: it makes it hard to eat.

However, what I really wanted to do was visit my local second-hand bookstore, as I wrote in my contribution to that article published all those weeks ago. So, a bit later I drove to the slightly dilapidated strip mall where it is located. It was giving off a distinctly post-apocalyptic vibe. The car park was largely deserted and I was met at the door by a member of staff in a mask who grilled me on whether I had displayed any signs of infection and then reeled off a set of restrictions related to how long I could spend in the shop, how close I could stand to other customers, and so on.

I hit up the clearance shelves and checked out the $1 CDs, but it was difficult to get my browse on. The shop had an air of having been abandoned quickly and then reluctantly reoccupied. The masked staff stood behind plastic barriers or hung around shelves far apart from each other. None of them was talking. They outnumbered customers (there were only two of us). They exuded a deeply paranoid vibe.

Then I had a thought: was I contributing to their sense of paranoia? After all, I wasn’t wearing a mask. Neither does Trump. The bookshop staff probably listened to NPR (the US equivalent of Radio 4) and might even be able to read The Washington Post without chuckling at its pompous “Democracy Dies in Darkness” banner. Not wearing a mask was almost certainly an orange man bad stance in their eyes. How were they to know that I read articles like this one in The Spectator — written by a professor of pathology, no less — and can name not one but two Swedish epidemiologists, and that I was actually choosing to follow WHO advice rather than that of the CDC?

This is one of most irritating things about living in America: how rapidly everything becomes polarised, politicised and extreme. The non-wearing of a mask is not the only signifier of potential covidian Trumpiness; the minute the President started pushing to reopen the economy I knew that this too would become an orange man bad position in the eyes of the virtuous, when in fact it is exceedingly obvious that a strategy which leads to an unemployment rate not seen since the Great Depression is completely unsustainable in the long or even short term.

Alas, all nuance has long since vanished from this debate as the main proponents of reopening besides the President are some gun-waving idiots who occupied Michigan’s capitol building, and an eccentric billionaire who just named his newborn son X Æ A-12. The respectable position is to double down on destroying the economy so that everybody can stay safe, while hoping that Santa will deliver a vaccine in time for Christmas — and if that doesn’t work, we can always implement Chinese levels of surveillance and keep the old people locked up.

Wearing no mask, and having grown a very substantial beard during lockdown, and also having a two-volume set of 1970s Savage Sword of Kull comics in my hand, I was obviously a germ-spreading barbarian Trumpoid in their eyes. Well what can you do? Not a lot. I paid for my books and left the store, pondering the semiotics of the mask in the time of coronavirus.

And that was that for my return to freedom. Over the next week I couldn’t find anyone who had gone out that first weekend. Many people were simply too anxious about contracting the virus. Others couldn’t accept that anything a Republican governor could propose would be motivated by anything other than cynicism, stupidity or cruelty, or all three simultaneously.

I even came across one local business, a crap comic shop, that had actually posted a sign on its door stating that they felt the governor’s decision to reopen was premature and they would stay closed for the health and safety of their customers (though they would let one person in at a time if you called ahead and promised to wear a mask).

Other small business owners, more alert to the imminent threat of extinction, felt differently. Days later I read about a salon owner in Dallas who was hauled before the courts for cutting hair during the lockdown. The judge offered to spare her jail time if she apologised, but rather than do what I would have done and offer up a “sorry-not-sorry”, the salon owner went full Texas and refused to denounce herself for doing what was necessary to feed her family. So off she went to jail, until the governor intervened and eliminated incarceration as a punishment for lockdown violations.

And yet despite all the politics and recriminations and vituperations, the fear, it must be said, has started to lift. Last weekend — the second, post-lockdown — I was running a few errands in Walmart and Home Depot and found that a lot more people were out and about. Some were wearing masks, others were not; everybody was doing their best to practice social distancing.

The bookstore had changed its rules so you couldn’t come in without a mask, but it was a lot busier; the person who entered after me was asked to wait because the shop was at capacity. She did so. It was almost as if we were all adults capable of self-policing ourselves, who were also willing to respect the rules of the businesses we entered. Insane! Who would have thought?

As we headed into the third post-lockdown weekend, more restaurants were opening up their dining rooms — albeit mainly Texasy ones such as steakhouses and barbecue places. My local coffee shop had put up a “now hiring” sign in the window. Even friends and colleagues who really hate the governor are starting to step out.

Of course, it’s possible that reopening little more than a month after the governor issued his stay-at-home order will turn out to have been a terrible mistake, and that cases will spike (although on May 12th only 12 deaths were reported in all of Texas, the lowest since the start of April). Many of us may yet die.

But then again, that may not be down to the coronavirus. You can clap for the NHS in the UK all you like, but here in the US the healthcare system is run for profit and 1.4 million healthcare workers were laid off last month due to the elimination of “nonessential” medical procedures and the closure of dentist’s offices. So maybe, just maybe, attempting to solve one public health crisis will lead directly to another. Still, at least we here in the US are self-sufficient when it comes to our food supply, unlike people in some less fortunate countries, who are about to become victims of the looming Covid-related global food crisis .

Ah, the law of unintended consequences. One day we’ll all look back and
 laugh? Maybe not. Of course, it’s too early to say whether the cure will turn out to have been worse than the disease, as we don’t yet know how bad the disease is — but we’ll find out, eventually. In the meantime, I suggest we all enjoy whatever degree of freedom we may have. Happy trails, y’all.


Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.

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Liscarkat
Liscarkat
4 years ago

Actual science (not the ideologically infected variety) has shown that even N95 respirator masks are only marginally effective against viruses, and only if the wearer has been trained to use them and has gone through a complicated fitting test. Cloth masks, bandanas, surgical masks, Home Depot dust masks and the like are completely useless at both virus-repelling (protecting the wearer) and virus-containing (protecting others). But for those whose science gurus are Bill Nye the Children’s Show Presenter, Greta Thunburg the Intellectually Compromised Teenage High School Dropout, or the pasty drones at NPR, masks symbolize membership in a hysterical cult that would destroy civilization rather than risk one life. They are a signalling icon like a pink breast cancer ribbon, but worn on the face.

Jeremy Hummerstone
Jeremy Hummerstone
4 years ago

This sounds more like Austin than Texas. I am in a rural area where, generally, common sense rules.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 years ago

I assumed it was Austin.

M Bruns
M Bruns
2 years ago

I lived for 4 years in Lubbock (coming from NYC for grad school) and, as I read this article. I kept thinking “no way is this writer in West Texas, he HAS to be in Austin!!”. I wonder if I’m right?!?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

How tragic to hear that the Lone Star State has been infected with same neurosis and panic that has also afflicted the rest of the Western World.
What on earth must the heroes of the Alamo be thinking now? Indeed what must the famous Texas Ranger think when he sees someone wearing a face mask? Bandit, or Cattle Russler?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

I believe Texas is being steadily infiltrated by people fleeing the Democrat-run la la land otherwise known as California. The problem with this, of course, is that they start to turn Texas into another California. And so it goes on…

David Simpson
David Simpson
4 years ago

Quite agree – if you can, travel slowly, and stay a long time, preferably with the natives. Try learning the language.

andrew stanford
andrew stanford
3 years ago

Just curious what the author thinks now of the latest news. Texas quote ” we’re heading to pure hell regarding virus ” https://news.sky.com/story/

Marco Federighi
Marco Federighi
4 years ago

Good article – a tad condescending to people who after all are using masks not to protect themselves (which masks don’t do) but to protect others – which only works if most people do it, as in the case of vaccines. Entertaining though.

Sinclair Black
Sinclair Black
4 years ago

When I was told people needed training to wear masks I thought that was a joke. Then I saw videos of the public doing everything wrong that it was possible to do. All they have to do is put it on and not touch it but that seems impossible. Crazy.
I don’t go out but if I did I do have a mask, it has been properly fitted, has replaceable P3 filters and vents out the front. So unlike everyone else it will protect me properly but not anyone else. Maybe not going out is not so bad an idea.

Sinclair Black
Sinclair Black
4 years ago

I am retired and do not need to go anywhere. That is so lucky on many levels. I ignore social media but get information from the horses mouth of epidemiologists and ICU professionals. This virus not only kills but smashes up almost every organ in the body like a high speed car wreck. There are plenty of frightened people out there and they have every reason to be. I am not going out anywhere to end up either dead or a semi crippled survivor. You might say its is only a 10% chance but those odds are crap for death or ruined health, with no upside. The MSM choose some pretty useless experts and I am quite confident we will get a vaccine that works in 12 to 18 months or so. I am happy to wait till then. Luckily only a few youngsters will be trashed by CV, though it is bad that this seems to happens a couple of months after infection. ‘Just when you thought it was safe to get back into the water’ as the saying goes. We are only in the very early days of this virus and can say ‘we ain’t seen nothing yet’.

gbauer
gbauer
4 years ago

Loved your article. I’m a Canadian, but my best childhood friend now lives in Texas, so the state has a special place in my heart. I’m actually surprised to hear that people are being so cautious. I expected stronger stuff from Texans!

While I’m 63 years old, lean toward the left, work as a medical writer, and believe the earth is round, I do not fear the virus and look forward to the day I can start living again.

jennifer Jeffrey
jennifer Jeffrey
4 years ago

Great read. Yes, sad that the Great State Of Texas is so divided. I’ve had this virus, along with many of my older friends. None of us died, or even went to the hospital & everyone has some underlying issue, or more than one. We are all fine. Looking forward to things getting back to a more normal rhythm across the country.

brett
brett
4 years ago

A recent UN report has stated that it is likely 80 million kids will slip back into abject poverty due to the economic ramifications of the lock down, mostly in the 3rd world. That’s a huge amount of kids that will die. So thanks Daniel for being honest. We need to make this type of data more public to combat the virtue signalers. They’re killing way way more people than the virus ever will with their ludicrous quarantining of the world. What is happening to all those people who have lost their tourism jobs or any other job for that matter in 3rd world countries, they are going to perish if we don’t do something soon. There’s no safety nets for these people.

jpatrickhanley
jpatrickhanley
4 years ago

Fitting that this self-indulgent screed should be posted just as Texas posts its highest-ever one-day new infection numbers. Look, you can squawk all you want about government interference in your personal life and those who eagerly give themselves over to authoritarianism, but Covid is a weirdly literal hill to die on. I guess when you’re a hammer, everything either looks like a nail or a sickle.

kellyvitiritti
kellyvitiritti
3 years ago

This is a fantastic piece. Well written and concisely stating what I believe so many of us are feeling. As a resident of Illinois I have a feeling I will not be allowed to experience your (relative) “freedom” for quite some time. Thank you for writing!

linda
linda
3 years ago

Thank you so much for this! I am in southern California. Your pre-May 1 experience is so parallel to what I am feeling here and you have given me hope that, if we ever do have restrictions lifted in a meaningful way, people will be able to move towards something of an ‘old normal’ life. I would love an update after a few weeks, both on how things are going and feeling and how the virus has behaved in Texas. Thanks again.