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Texas ‘wide open for business’ despite surge in Covid-19 cases

An older man in an orange apron greets customers at the Home Depot in College Station, Texas. Signs serving as a reminder they are living through a pandemic are plastered on the sliding glass doors: “Face covering required.”

The reminder is much needed because to an outsider, Texas looked almost the same in July 2019 as it does in July 2020, despite Covid-19 having claimed more than 6,000 lives in the state and more than 150,000 lives in the US since March.

Customers at the home improvement store walk in wearing masks, which have become highly politicized, only to lower them below their chins to speak or remove them altogether.

In the upscale neighborhood of Montrose in Houston, the multi-story Agora coffee house is full of people hungry for coffee, pastries and conversation. It’s difficult to spot an open seat inside or outside on the patio. It’s also difficult to spot anyone wearing anything resembling a face covering.

The Texas governor, Greg Abbott, a Republican, caught flak for allowing the reopening of bars, restaurants, movie theaters and shopping malls back in early May. In June, he said that Texas was “wide open for business”. Now in late July, more than four months into the Covid-19 pandemic, a mandatory mask order is in place across the state – a reversal from Abbott’s initial position that the government should not infringe on personal rights by telling citizens what to do.

Signage about mask requirements are seen in Austin, Texas, restaurant.
Signage about mask requirements are seen in an Austin, Texas, restaurant. Photograph: Sergio Flores/Reuters

But, with little enforcement except by some businesses, some worry Abbott’s reversals are too little, too late. As hospitals struggle and cases mount, much of ordinary life in Texas still appears to continue as normal.

“We didn’t shut down early enough,” the Texas congresswoman Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat, said in a recent interview with ABC. “[Abbott] failed to early order a mask law across the state. He has not given local officials the flexibility to do what they need to do in their own cities and counties.”

Texas has recently been reporting record single-day death tolls. Since the recording of data begun on 4 March, there had been 5,877 Covid-related deaths in the state as of 28 July.

According to the Covid Tracking Project, Texas only saw 2,170 new tests per 1 million people as of 23 July. That’s about 60,500 new tests in total for the 29 million people in the state. The total number of tests (that came back both positive and negative in the state) is 3,164,656, or under 14%.

Despite these numbers, many businesses in Texas remain fully operational. Meanwhile masks, which health experts recommend to prevent the transmission of the highly contagious virus, have become a symbol of America’s bitter political divide, with many Texas Republican officials shunning them after Donald Trump long refused to wear one in public.

On Wednesday, the Texas congressman Louie Gohmert, who steadfastly refused to wear a mask during much of the coronavirus pandemic, said he had tested positive for Covid-19 and would self-quarantine for 10 days.

“It’s really ironic, because a lot of people have made a big deal out of my not wearing a mask a lot,” Gohmert said in an interview with KETK-TV. “But in the last week or two, I have worn a mask more than I have in the whole last four months.”

Abbott’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, was also often at odds with the governor on masks, and recently criticized the advice of one of the US’s top public health experts, Dr Anthony Fauci. In an interview in March, Patrick said he would rather die than see the economy destroyed for his grandchildren.

“Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living,” he said. “Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.”

Before Abbott announced the statewide mask order, Diana Robles said she didn’t think the pandemic was being taken seriously in Texas. Robles, a recent high school graduate and an essential worker at a grocery store in Houston, has been working upwards of 40-plus hours a week.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve gotten busier. Our orders have quadrupled,” Robles said.

“Once the mask law was implemented, I saw a difference. We can now refuse service to those who don’t wear a mask,” Robles said. “What scares me the most was that I could be doing everything right but I didn’t know if other people were. Something could have been done way sooner to prevent this.”

Robles has been tasked with limiting rolls of paper towels and toilet paper rolls as well as de-escalating tense situations with customers. She recounted some experiences dealing with difficult customers.

“I witnessed a lady that wanted to return a ham. We told her we weren’t accepting returns during Covid. My manager is from Venezuela and has a bit of an accent. The customer told her to ‘go back to her country’ and threw the ham at her face,” Robles said. “Some customers are not understanding. I just wish people were considerate.”

Marisol Galarza is a daycare provider in Round Rock, Texas. Despite the soaring cases in the state, Galarza said the daycare is seeing new enrollments each week.

“Our director is giving us the option to take breaks from work if we’re not comfortable but we have bills so we can’t really do that,” she said.

Galarza’s workplace has been implementing safeguards to prevent the spread of the virus such as placing kids 6ft apart during nap time, but Galarza says she remains nervous.

“The kids wear their masks below their nose or under their chin,” Galarza said. “It’s so hard because you don’t want to tell them not to hug their friends.”

Since the pandemic, Galarza said she has considered changing careers.

“This is not going to be sustainable. We’re going to be at high risk with high-capacity classrooms. I wash my hands after everything I do and I put on gloves. I see some teachers not even washing their hands.”

Texas schools and universities are due to resume in-person learning for the fall semester. The University of Texas announced plans to start football season on 5 September at 50% capacity, with an estimated 50,000 fans in the stands. Nonye Imo, a resident physician in Dallas, said the state’s response had been terrible.

“The economy was prioritized over human life. The desire to make money was prioritized over human life,” Imo said. “That is terrible. The current people who are in charge who fumbled this response need to be voted out.”

Imo said she had already witnessed the toll the virus has taken on herself and her colleagues.

“I got assigned to the ICU the first month of my program. We have had to limit visitors so people cannot visit their family members who are critically ill,” Imo said. “But the attendings I work with in the Covid unit are bearing the brunt of it.”

Imo said it was an overwhelming time to be entering medicine.

“I have grown to think about medicine as a calling but it’s interesting for that idea to be tested so early in my career,” Imo said. “I’m willing to take the risk but I didn’t think I’d have to take it on so early.”

When asked about Texas’s outlook over the next few months, she said: “The community spread rate is so high. The word pandemic is not just being used to scare people. The media is not blowing it up. This is serious.”

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