May 18, 2020

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.