When the mayor of Austin declared a “local disaster” on 6th March and cancelled the Texan film festival “South by Southwest”, the rapidly developing COVID-19 crisis still did not seem real to many Texans. It was one of the first major events to be cancelled, and a startling indication that what was happening globally was not going to just pass us by with ease.
Citizens, particularly in a predominately conservative state like Texas, looked to the President for guidance. Trump was at that point downplaying the virus to the public, making statements like: “Just stay calm. It will go away,” and “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
On 11th March the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic, and the White House suspended travel from most European countries, not including the United Kingdom. I had been advised the day before to stay in the country for Oxford’s six-week break in order to avoid being unable to return for Trinity term. However, once the travel ban was implemented, I had to make immediate plans to return home to Dallas.
A friend of mine happened to be on the same flight back. Without thinking, we went to hug each other hello before remembering why we were taking a last-minute flight home and stopped ourselves. While we were in the air, the White House banned travel to the UK. The pilot told us we would have to wait on board for a team of medics. However, after about 40 minutes, they let us disembark without any medics arriving. It was clear that no one knew quite what was going on.
I quarantined in my childhood bedroom for the next 14 days. At this point, many young Americans were celebrating their spring break with parties and trips to beaches. Some of my friends and acquaintances were confused when I explained that I was self isolating and could not see them for the time being. Given the polarising opinions and advice being presented to Americans at the time from the President and media outlets, it is unsurprising that people were unsure of the gravity of the situation.
The first Texan citizen died of COVID-19 on 17th March. An outbreak traced to a spring break trip soon followed. At first, American colleges and universities announced that students would return home temporarily. One by one over the next few weeks, universities confirmed that there would be no in-person spring semester and asked students to prepare for online courses and online graduation.
On 25th March, President Trump declared a state of emergency for Texas. Governor Greg Abbott issued a social distancing order, telling Texans to only leave the house for essentials tasks. Though Governor Abbott refused to term the order a “stay at home” order, he acknowledged that the order was functioning like a shelter in place order. His aversion to this terminology was likely to avoid upsetting his constituents, a good deal of whom are anti-mask and anti-social distancing. Despite his efforts, people gathered in large groups to protest the order. At this point, wearing masks was encouraged but not enforced.
In early April, the CDC began officially encouraging Americans to wear masks when leaving the house. By 4th April, there were over 100 confirmed fatalities due to coronavirus in Texas.
Governor Abbott began publicly discussing his desire to re-open the state soon after the shut down. On 8th May, hairdressers and nail salons were permitted to open with social distancing regulations. Bars, restaurants, and gyms soon followed. On 3rd June, Texas entered a new phase of reopening. Most businesses were permitted to operate at 50 percent of their maximum occupancy. On 21st June, restaurants were permitted to operate at 75 percent capacity and outdoor sports resumed. In the following week, Texas experienced three days in a row of record high numbers of new cases. Governor Abbott began rolling back some facets of the latest reopening, closing bars and rafting businesses, and requiring government approval for gatherings of 100 or more people. However, numbers continued to rise. It was not until 2nd July that Abbott mandated wearing masks in public through an executive order. Even now, the state’s new cases and daily fatalities continue to increase.
National leadership has been disorganized and vastly unhelpful. The President has made confusing and out of touch statements to the media about the virus, like promoting untested medications and suggesting people should ingest disinfectant. President Trump refused to be photographed in a mask until 11th July because he did not like the way it looked. His rejection of the mask fuels conspiracy theories and a dangerous culture war. In many conservative areas, people are challenged by others for wearing masks while in public. The mask is seen as a political statement instead of a necessary safety measure.
Depending on what media a person chooses to consume, a person’s opinion on the validity of masks and the pandemic itself can vary greatly. I know people who refuse to go to the grocery store, even with a mask, and I know of people who have been throwing pool parties every other weekend. Recently, I ran into a maskless neighbor while out on a walk, and she attempted to hug me hello. When I declined and remained six feet away, she seemed genuinely confused.
We of course have a responsibility to wear masks and follow social distancing protocols. Those who ignore these measures entirely are endangering themselves and others. However, the existence of such a large group of anti-mask protesters is an indication of federal failure rather than simply individual failure. The President has encouraged conspiracy theories from the start, calling the virus the Democrat’s “new hoax” in February. His inability to acknowledge the reality and severity of the virus has culminated in states filled with his followers facing staggering death tolls and overwhelmed medical facilities. The current state of COVID-19 in Texas is ultimately a failure of federal and local leadership.