A bunch of protesters pretending to be just regular Texans took to the streets around the capital in Austin yesterday and hollered that it was time for Gov. Abbott to give them back their freedom and reopen the state so we can all get to work again. In reality, the protesters were listeners of rant-and-rave conspiracy-theory propagation site InfoWars, where guest host Owen Shroyer urged his audience to protest, under the moniker “You Can’t Close America.”
So then later today, just by coincidence, Gov. Abbott will apparently walk back his statewide shelter-in-place order of March 31, in an announcement where he intends to “share his plans for reopening the Texas economy,” according to news reports.
“We have to understand that we must reopen in a way in which we are able to stimulate the economy while at the very same time ensuring that we contain the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said.
Which is good as far as it goes, in that he at least acknowledges the existence of the virus, whereas InfoWars entertainers are pretending Covid-19 is made up.
Here’s the problem with Abbott’s statement, though. So far, Texas and its counties haven’t shown any ability to contain the virus. You can’t contain something unless you know where it is, how much of it there is, and whether it is growing like hell or is on the decline.
Texas is 49th out of 50 states in terms of the number of Covid-19 tests it has administered per 100,000 people. According to a recent Houston Chronicle analysis, for every 100,000 people in Texas, 332 have been tested. According to recent state health department figures, 2,307 of Fort Bend County’s 812,000-plus population has been tested for the virus (about 280 per 100,000). And in Harris County, where Houston and more than 4.7 million people live, testing is being done at the rate of just 270 per 100,000 people.
Harris County accounts for more known cases (4,306 as of today) and known deaths (63) than any other county in Texas. But if you’re only testing 270 out of 100,000 people, you cannot know how many really are sick. And if you don’t really know how many people have Covid-19 today, and how many more get it tomorrow, then you can’t tell how fast it’s growing. And if you can’t tell how fast it’s growing, then you can’t tell when it peaks, and you can’t tell when it begins to recede.
And you have no way of knowing that it’s safe to begin gathering in public, or whether public gatherings will just amount to tinder for a new Covid conflagration.
The point is, Texas hasn’t begun testing on anywhere near the scale it needs in order to make rational decisions about public safety.
And I’d like to add a word about “reopening the economy.” No one, whether governor or president, has a little button they can press that will cause the economy to start up. Gov. Abbott can say that it’s OK to gather in church or in parks and restaurants, but that doesn’t make it safe (see above). And most people will determine for themselves whether they think things are really safe enough to start living large like before. Companies that laid off employees are not going to re-hire until their officers and directors and managers and owners determine employees will not be put at risk of disease and death. And until they see that demand for their products and services has picked back up.
Employers and most members of the public have seen what this pandemic can do and know it isn’t some conspiracy theory. They want life to resume as before, but they need proof that it’s safe to come back outside and play. Or at least evidence that things aren’t about to get worse.
So far, for whatever set of reasons, no one seems capable of providing such proof or such evidence.