In West Texas, Lingering Distrust in Public Health Measures as Virus Spreads

The Four Percent


LUBBOCK, Texas — For a while, it seemed that the coronavirus had spared West Texas. Cases were low. Few had died. Concern through the spring was focused on getting businesses running again.

By mid-June, the Texas Tech football team returned to campus. Local baseball tournaments resumed. Hotels filled up.

Then people started getting sick.

In Lubbock, a burnt-tan city of 250,000 with a rollicking college bar scene, more people tested positive for the virus in the last three weeks than in the previous three months combined. On the day Gov. Greg Abbott began to swiftly reopen the state, two months ago, the city recorded eight positive tests for the virus. On Wednesday, there were 184.

The sudden jump, concentrated among those in their 20s, reflected a sharp and uncontrolled rise in the virus that has hit Texas harder than many other places in the country. Unlike the early weeks of the pandemic, when infections were concentrated in the state’s mainly liberal cities, the virus has now reached into the deep-red regions of the state that have resisted aggressive public health regulation.

Yet for many conservatives, even those with the virus now at their door, the resurgence has not changed opinions so much as hardened them.

For those Texans, trust in government is gone, if it was there to begin with, and that includes some of the state’s top leaders. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas declared himself tired of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor. “I don’t need his advice anymore,” Mr. Patrick said.

That sentiment was echoed outside a popular, newly opened hamburger restaurant in Wolfforth, Texas, just outside Lubbock, where even Mr. Abbott, a Republican, came under harsh criticism. “It seems like he’s been influenced by Fauci and the left,” said Mark Stewart, who sat with his wife and children and several other families at a gathering for locals who home school.

None in the 18-person group, which squeezed around several outside tables, wore masks or made an attempt to stay distant. “This is the first time we’ve met each other and we don’t care,” said Mr. Stewart’s wife, Tamera, adding that other people might take precautions when they are together and stay far apart. “Texas has all kinds. But we’re done with all that.”

Such attitudes present a daunting challenge for local leaders trying to contain a resurgent outbreak, especially in solidly Republican areas, where mandatory public health measures can generate swift opposition.

And they could complicate an order by the governor, issued late Thursday, requiring Texans to wear face coverings in public, with few exceptions, or be fined up to $250. The order applies to counties with more than 20 positive cases, in other words, most of the state.

It is the sort of requirement that Lubbock’s conservative mayor, Dan Pope, an eighth-generation Texan, sought to avoid imposing himself, opting instead to urge compliance from his avowedly independent-minded constituents.

“My approach all along has been one of personal responsibility,” Mr. Pope said in an interview from a ground-floor conference room in the city’s new municipal building. He said that he would enforce the governor’s mask order nevertheless.

The mayor, who wore a black Lubbock-branded face mask, was working out of the conference room, rather than his 11th-floor office, because his adult daughter who lives in town had recently tested positive for the coronavirus. His younger brother had also been infected, he said.

“I’m clean as far as our health department goes, I just think in an abundance of caution — I don’t want to be the guy,” Mr. Pope said. “I’m asking our people to act this way. Why wouldn’t I act that same way?”

That message is commonly heard from conservatives in Texas as they seek to balance public health concerns against worries that an aggressive government response could result in a backlash. Mandates have come to be associated with demands from leaders of the state’s largely Democratic cities.

In the Houston area, the top county executive, Lina Hidalgo, has called for a new and stricter stay-at-home order. Several other county leaders from major metropolitan areas, all Democrats, have also urged Governor Abbott to grant them the power to impose local lockdowns. He has so far refused.

But that has not won Mr. Abbott support on the right. Instead, many conservatives have strongly criticized the steps that Mr. Abbott has taken — such as closing bars and limiting restaurant service, as well as the mask requirement — in response to the huge increase in cases.

“There’s a lot of frustration that the governor is not giving our nation a contrasted worldview to that of California or New York,” said Luke Macias, a conservative Republican political consultant in Texas who said that Mr. Abbott had not offered a conservative vision of how to deal with the crisis. “With Abbott, he’s tried to have his cake and eat it too; he wants to not protect your individual liberty and then say he is.”

Before Mr. Abbott’s latest order, mayors in West Texas had blocked efforts to require residents to wear masks while inside stores, in some cases linking their opposition to disgust with leaders in Austin and Washington.

“Free Americans, and free Texans, must not allow a fractious, divided and politically motivated body of values lightweights to dictate day-to-day living,” Mayor Patrick Payton of Midland said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Gabrielle Ellison was elated to hear that message. Ms. Ellison is the owner of Big Daddy Zane’s, a bar in Odessa that attracted national attention in May after it joined with other businesses in Texas and, aided by men carrying assault rifles, reopened in defiance of state restrictions.

Ms. Ellison said she was defying the state’s order again and keeping her bar open. She has joined a statewide lawsuit over the governor’s closures.

“To me that is a life-and-death situation,” she said. “I can’t feed my family. My bartenders can’t feed their families.”

If anything, she said, the aggressive growth of coronavirus cases in Odessa made her more confident in reopening. “It has affected it in a more positive way,” she said. “We’re having people survive,” she said, adding, “Let’s just let this run its course.”

In Lubbock, the shutdown of bars left a usually bustling strip near the Texas Tech campus devoid of all activity on Wednesday evening, even as parking lots filled outside gyms elsewhere in town. Several local bars have said they would not reopen.

The city is deep in Trump country — the president won here with 66 percent of the vote — but it is also a college town. Household income is below average for the state, the mayor observed, while the number of people with college degrees is above.

“We’re some of the nicest people in the entire world,” said Jason Corley, a conservative who beat a more moderate Republican to become a Lubbock county commissioner. “But as soon as you make demands and tell them they’re going to do something, you get a different response: You don’t get to tell me what to do.”

About a third of the city’s residents are Hispanic, according to census figures, and that community has seen about a third of the city’s total coronavirus cases. Officials said they could not yet provide a demographic breakdown of the recent wave of cases, which have now totaled more than 1,700 since June 15.

While many residents expressed confidence that they would not be infected, others were more concerned.

Michael Machuca, 29, said he worried about the virus spreading among staff in the warehouse where he works. “The whole night shift didn’t show up one day,” he said, as he and his 6-year-old son were casting for bass in a local park.

The focus on bars came in part from what was learned about the outbreak by the city’s contact tracers in their interviews with young infected people, said Katherine Wells, the city’s director of public health.

Still, it has been a challenge to get people to self-quarantine, she said. And the virus has since spread more broadly into the community, cropping up again in at least one nursing home.

The return of the virus to nursing homes has been particularly demoralizing: The majority of the city’s 52 deaths have occurred in those facilities, but city leaders believed they had blunted that part of the early outbreak by the end of April.

While the campus of Texas Tech remains closed, many student athletes returned for practice in the middle of June. On the football team alone, 23 players and staff tested positive for the virus, a school spokesman said, adding that all had recovered.

“When the governor opened the bars, the floodgates opened,” said Latrelle Joy, a City Council member. “Now we’re in a position where he’s closed those bars, but we’ve got spread in the community.”

With the closures, gatherings had shifted from bars to pool parties by day, and house parties at night, officials said. Cases have now been traced to those gatherings.

Despite the surge in infections among young people, before the new mask order this week, many chose not to wear a mask. Or let it slip their minds.

“I left mine in the car,” said Ambroshia Pollard, 29, as she emerged from a grocery store with her mother and month-old daughter. Still, she said, she took the virus seriously. “My brother’s friend got it. He’s young, 21,” Ms. Pollard said. “I feel like it’s real and people should be more conscious. Us too, we should have masks.”

But many of their fellow shoppers also came and went without them, as did diners at a Braum’s Ice Cream and Burger restaurant in Wolfforth, and drinkers at the Brewery LBK in downtown Lubbock. There, groups of friends gathered around beers and cigarettes on the patio and argued about the utility of the governor’s mask order shortly after it came out.

Not a mask in sight.


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