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When the novel coronavirus struck, California embraced lockdowns and mask mandates. Texas resisted them. Yet almost a year since the U.S. recorded itsfirst Covid-19 case, the two most populous states, so often seen as opposites, find themselves in similar shape, with crippled economies and higher casualties than most nations.
It’s easier to shop, dine, and pray in Texas than in California, where most of its almost 40 million people are living under some form of lockdown. But the states’ unemployment rates are virtually the same: 8.1% in Texas and 8.2% in California. Each state has lost about 30,000 people to the coronavirus. Texas has seen 103 Covid-19 patients die for every 100,000 people since the start of the pandemic,according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In California the ratio is 75.
Public health experts say the grim statistics illustrate the limits of their field. Government orders can make a difference—a big one. But barring draconian measures, such as China placing the city of Wuhan under virtual house arrest, what matters most may be the daily choices of individuals.
“It’s 20 decisions someone makes a day: Do I wear a mask, do I go to the store, do I congregate?” says Robert Wachter, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “The kind of facile ‘California good, Texas bad’ argument doesn’t hold up very well.”
The two states occupy opposite ends of the country’s Covid-era political spectrum, positions that shaped the way they responded to the pandemic. Yet they defy simple characterizations. Some conservative California counties opposed the state’s efforts to close beaches and businesses, and Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom now faces a recall effort. Los Angeles may be solidly Democratic, but many residents in what is now the biggest epicenter of the pandemic still shun masks, even as the nightly news broadcasts images of refrigerator trucks arriving at overwhelmed hospitals to store the dead.
“People let down their guard,” says Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Colder weather did drive some of us indoors. But it’s still warm enough here for people to say, ‘Hey, let’s hang out with each other’ in a way that doesn’t happen in other places.”
Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, at first fought cities that wanted to impose their own mask mandates but thenreversed himself and instituted one statewide in July. The state gives more leeway to businesses than California, but they’re not unfettered, with occupancy limits that grow stricter. The attitudes of Texans themselves run the gamut. Mask opponents recently protested outside a Houston burger joint that had refused service to someone with a bare face. The demonstration backfired, as mask supporters flooded the restaurant with orders. Mayor Sylvester Turner even stopped by to pick up an order for his staff.
“The messaging from Day 1 has been very conflicting,” Turner said in an interview. “If people locally are saying, ‘Put your mask on,’ and people statewide or federally are saying, ‘No, you don’t have to,’ then they gravitate to the message they want to hear.”
The states’ economies share some of the same ingredients—agriculture, technology, trade, oil—but in different proportions. Both took a big hit from the pandemic, though many factors were outside government control. As the country’s largest oil producer, Texas particularly suffered from the worldwide collapse in petroleum prices, losing almost 60,000 oil jobs from February to August, according to the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.
California is in a deeper hole. The latest reading from a monthly index of economic conditions compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia shows a 6% decline in the 12 months through November, compared with a 2.4% drop in Texas. Retail sales have done a bit better in California, up 7.4% in September compared with the same period last year; they rose 6.8% in Texas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Both have at times eased restrictions, only to clamp back down as cases surged. Location data pulled from smartphones and other mobile devices show that traffic on Dallas and Houston freeways is about 80% to 90% of its pre-pandemic norm, according to tracking company Orbital Insight. In California, which enacted new lockdown orders not long after Thanksgiving, it tends to be lower, though the numbers can vary widely by region. In wealthy San Francisco and Santa Monica, traffic in December ranged from 50% to 75% of normal. In Bakersfield, in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, it was about the same as before Covid’s arrival.
“We’re in the worst shape that we’ve ever been in,” says Barbara Ferrer, director of public health for Los Angeles County, where daily Covid deaths now exceed all other types combined. While Los Angeles had a virus flare-up in mid-2020, the state managed for months to evade the public health crises that gripped much of the country. But the county has faced three successive surges since mid-fall, including over Thanksgiving and the December holidays.
Many of its vulnerabilities that were there all along have helped fuel the recent surges: a large homeless population, pockets of poverty, and essential workers who live in multigenerational households. “We’ve had a lot of sort of disbelievers until someone in their family got sick or someone they knew died,” Ferrer says. “And then they’ve changed their mind. And they’ve stopped with ‘this is a hoax.’”
Even with the virus raging, there are still pockets of strong resistance to government directives. Anti-maskers this month protested in a grocery store and mall near Beverly Hills. And major differences exist from one part of sprawling California to another. Most San Franciscans, for example, wear masks in public.
Mayor Turner in Houston argues his own state tried to reopen businesses too early. Through phased reopenings that culminated in bars, bowling alleys and bingo halls starting back up just in time for Memorial Day weekend, Texas was among the earliest in the nation to ease lockdowns. It was much “quicker than many of us locally would have liked,” Turner says. “It’s just been a disjointed approach.”
Because of the rise in hospitalizations in the Houston region, Texas is scaling back indoor dining and shutting down bars. But that’s a sore spot for Turner also, because the state has allowed bars to recharacterize themselves as restaurants if more than half their sales come from food. “That’s a huge loophole,” he said.
Employees at Miller’s Cafe in Houston spent a recent morning pulling tables out of its dining area to comply with the new 50% capacity order. Jessica Beer, a co-owner of the business, which has been in the family for 40 years, says she understands it’s what has to be done right now. Miller’s, which was the target of the anti-mask protest this month, has been buoyed by an outpouring of support.
“There have been countless nights where we have been crying at home trying to figure out how we’re going to keep our doors open, so this little burst of business right now has been a blessing to us,” Beer says. “This is exactly what we needed.”
Public health experts say that with the pandemic now raging across the country, it’s hard to point to any state’s actions as a model for success. “It may just not be possible in the context of our culture and our politics, but I do think you have to say we really sucked at this,” says Wachter, of UCSF. “We did it in such a bad way.” —With Catarina Saraiva and Alexandre Tanzi
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