1. In Sun Belt, will rising cases cause less pandemic politicking?
When Ricky Pigg, chef-owner of Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro in Fernandina Beach, Florida, emerges to talk to patrons, he wears a face covering, bandido-style.
His diligence has earned him a Nassau Safe certification from the local Chamber of Commerce, but he is also met by glares of contempt from some patrons who feel it is inappropriate for the chef to refuse to remove his mask.
“It is strange how stressful and emotional just being cautious has become,” he says.
Mr. Pigg’s experience comes amid a national reckoning as populous Sun Belt states from South Carolina to Texas see dramatic spikes in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, causing officials to rein in reopenings and plead for residents to wear masks in crowds. On Monday, Jacksonville, Florida, mandated masks be worn indoors and in public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible.
Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.
“Unfortunately when [Texas] cracked open that door, everyone took that as a sign that it was safe and everyone charged through,” says Angela Clendenin, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M School of Public Health. At the same time, she adds, “It is really challenging to have to make decisions in that environment, especially one where the disease you’re trying to contain and control sometimes makes a sharp left turn on you.”
The challenges in not just the South, but also the West, suggest that the United States is entering a “long slog” phase of the pandemic, pitting personal beliefs and regional values against what experts say is a growing imperative for Americans to take responsibility for one another.
“It’s a mystery to many of us what’s going on. ... You have to think about it with a great deal of humility,” says Michael Osterholm, author of “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs.”
“When we did the national lockdown, we never created an expectation of what it was going to be, other than it was a short-term type of program that would respond to the initial curve that we’re trying to shave off. When it was kept in place, people said, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t know if I agreed to this,’” he adds. Summer weather and a virus that hit harder in some spots than in others also exacerbated issues. “You put those together and we were just primed to see what we are, in fact, now seeing.”
Southern states now seeing spikes in cases so far have lower death tolls than those seen in Northern states in the spring. The average age of those testing positive has declined to the mid-30s, who may experience less severe symptoms. But public health experts say deaths are a lagging indicator, and it will take two to four weeks to know whether the death toll from the current spike will truly be lower.
Mirroring trends in Arizona, Florida, and California, hospitalizations in Texas from the virus have tripled since the start of June, according to state data, with just over 5,500 COVID-19 patients as of Saturday. Last week, the Texas Medical Center in Houston reported that its intensive care units hit 100% capacity.
The percentage of tests for the virus that come back positive has been steadily climbing since May. The seven-day positivity rate in Texas last week was just over 13%, compared with 1% in New York, the previous U.S. epicenter, with hospitalizations in that state dropping below 1,000 for the first time last week.
Although only two states have seen declines in cases, the spike has put the spotlight on states whose Republican governors ballyhooed their decisions to reopen ahead of meeting federal guidelines. They include Govs. Ron DeSantis in Florida, Doug Ducey in Arizona, and Greg Abbott in Texas.
An April poll by The Texas Tribune and the University of Texas at Austin found that, while 66% of Texas voters considered the coronavirus a serious crisis, 72% were “extremely” or “very” concerned about the national economy.
By rushing to reopen their economies, Governor Abbott, and perhaps other Sun Belt governors “gambled on their ability to manage this, and frankly on the fact that people would be compliant and cooperative,” says James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “As of now, that’s not working out.”
The spikes mean that the virus is “becoming more real for people,” says Austin resident Larry Tu, stopping to get ice cream on Saturday with his three children.
Polls show Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a lead over President Donald Trump in Republican Sun Belt strongholds, including Texas, Florida, and Georgia. Some 55% of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the virus, while 40% approve, according to poll averages compiled by the website FiveThirtyEight.
On Friday Governors Abbott and DeSantis reversed course and closed bars just a day after Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox News, “We won’t be going back.” Mr. Abbott also banned tubing and ordered restaurants back to 50% capacity, saying the virus had taken “a dangerous turn” and for Texans to be vigilant.
Even as President Trump has pushed reopening economies, downplayed mask-wearing, and held the nation’s first large gathering to support his reelection campaign, the on-a-dime-turn in tone and policy in Texas and Florida suggests that Republican governors are willing to set politics aside in order to safeguard their publics.
“There is a price to be paid for being visibly unserious about this stuff, and these governors know that,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
In Mueller Lake Park on Saturday, Adamary Carillo and Maynor Ochoa, rising seniors at KIPP Austin Collegiate High School, admit that the virus may have taken a back seat in many people’s minds.
“Especially with the other problems, it took away the attention from this,” says Adamary, noting large protests against police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota on Memorial Day.
“Because we reopened everything, people probably thought that everything went away, when in real life ... it was still here,” adds Maynor.
In shutting down some businesses again, Mr. Abbott is doing what he said he might have to do. But his leadership has been combative and confusing at times, adds Professor Henson, and it’s fair to ask if the governor “conveyed sufficient urgency about the degree to which people had to modify their behavior for this phased opening to work.”
“The far-right forces in his party are out there and clearly casting a shadow over his every policy move,” he continues. “That’s where some of the impetus to open up quickly, and some of the reluctance to backtrack when the numbers started moving in the wrong direction, came from.”
Confusion caused by pandemic politicking has also manifested in disputes between the governor and local Democratic officials. The reopening order superseded any local orders that may conflict with it – localities, for example, couldn’t impose fines or penalties on people not wearing face coverings in public.
In mid-June, as cases continued to rise in Bexar County, home to San Antonio, county Judge Nelson Wolff mandated that local businesses require employees and customers to wear masks. The order, he said, “may be pushing the legal bounds a little bit.”
Instead of objecting, as he had done in the past, Governor Abbott a few days later said that Judge Wolff “finally figured that out.”
But sociologists who study the interplay of behavior and public health say that personal values and risk assessment carry more weight than politics in how people respond to public health crises – including, in the South, “an ideological reluctance to tell people what to do,” says Professor Jillson.
“It would be a mistake to say that messaging would cure this, or if only people had more information they would understand more,” says Jennifer Reich, author of “Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines.” “People tend to not just do what they know but do what feels true. It’s not knowledge that leads to perfect health behaviors, but values and a sense of identity and how things work for your own life.”
In Florida’s Nassau County, Mr. Pigg says he finds comfort in supporting the community, even if patrons get mad when he wears a mask.
“I’m going to sound like an old hippie, which I’m not, but this now requires empathy and understanding, respecting each other’s decisions, helping each other, and being transparent,” says Mr. Pigg. “The only way to get through it is together.”
Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.