In an already divided America, the holidays are going to look different this year.
Arkansas still allows indoor dining, albeit with limited capacity and reduced hours. California has not only seen indoor restaurant dining banned in its most populous county, Los Angeles, but outdoor tables are roped off as well, and it issued a new stay-at-home order.
If anything is consistent about the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a lack of consistency. While states and cities receive attention when they impose restrictions, other locales feel confident that their citizens are no worse off with a hands-off approach.
To get a sense of how states without strict rules concerning the virus are coping, we looked at four of them – Texas, Wyoming, South Dakota and Florida – and talked to officials and residents. Here are some snapshots:
Texas: Divided over rules
Think of it as a Texas-size problem.
Texas is neck-and-neck with California for the dubious distinction of being the state with the largest number of COVID-19 cases, about 1.2 million, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. More than 21,000 Texans have died. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott imposed a mask order in July, but counties with fewer than 20 cases were exempt.
That clause allowed 78 of Texas’ 254counties to initially avoid the mask rule, the Texas Tribune reported. The number of holdouts has dwindled as the pandemic has spread.
Lori Kennedy, an accountant who lives near Austin, said the mandate needs to be accompanied by enforcement.
“I realize, however, many of our law enforcement officers outside of the urban areas will not enforce a mandate. I am personally offended by people who care so little about others that they won’t wear a mask,” she said.
Thankfully, she said, many businesses she frequents have their own mask rules, but that’s not enough. She blames Texas public officials for not doing more to encourage masks and social distancing.
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James Kopeck, co-owner of the Chuters dance and night club in Pasadena, Texas, sees it differently. He said he feels bars such as his are singled out unfairly in the fight against the coronavirus.
Harris County, where the club is located near Houston, closed bars. Establishments that do a majority of their business in food can stay open even if they sell booze.
“The only difference between me and the (restaurant) across the street is I don’t sell tacos,” Kopeck said. To stay in business and not violate alcohol rules during the pandemic, he converted the bar to a place where people bring their own alcoholic beverages. “We’re now a BYOB club,” he said.
He said he runs a safe operation. He has more than 10,000 square feet in his bar and dance hall, and tables are set far apart. The club is thoroughly cleaned every night. He said a sign reminds patrons to wear a mask, but it’s not mandatory.
“Anybody who has a brain knows the precautions they need to take with COVID,” he said. He said Abbott should further open the state.
Mitch Rotter of Houston said he appreciates that the state-imposed rules, but the problem is larger.
There is a need for a “strong, coherent, compassionate, consistent message at the national level,” he said, “with leaders who communicate clearly and truthfully about the virus and who role-model and enthusiastically support the measures needed to mitigate the spread of the virus.”
Wyoming: Virus stokes fear in range country
Wyoming is exactly the kind of state where it would have seemed like the coronavirus would have the least chance to spread.
It epitomizes wide-open spaces. It is the smallest state by population, according to the Census Bureau, but it’s huge, approaching neighboring Colorado in square miles.
Yet COVID-19 is raging. On the sidelines for months as the virus ravaged other states, Wyoming registered a testing positive rate of nearly 33% over the past week, Johns Hopkins reported.
Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican who received a positive coronavirus test just before Thanksgiving, has resisted calls for a mask mandate but is worried that citizens aren’t exercising common sense. “We’ve relied on people to be responsible, and they’re being irresponsible,” Gordon said Nov. 13.
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Nearly 32,000 residents have tested positive, and mask wearing is on the rise. The Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center, part of the University of Wyoming, said in its report Nov. 2 that about 46.7% of respondents said they always wear a mask indoors in a public place, up 5.6 percentage points from the previous month. An additional 22.5% said they often wear a mask, up 2.3 percentage points.
“Now we are getting hit with this wave, so people are taking precautions,” said Brian Harnisch, a senior research scientist for the center in Laramie who leads the survey.
He said he sees more people wearing masks, and residents keep social distance by nature, “but that kind of goes out the window when you step into a grocery store.”
When the board of commissioners for Natrona County, which includes the city of Casper, considered a mask measure, there was such an outpouring of anti-maskers that the hearing was dissolved without taking action. Instead, the board backed the county health officer’s call for masks, Chairman Rob Hendry said.
Howdid the coronavirus get out of control in Wyoming?
“We got complacent,” Hendry said. “We stopped the social distancing, the hand sanitizer. We forgot what we learned in March and April, and we need to get back to that.”
South Dakota: Warming up to masks
Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken knew the city’s mask order was having an effect when he stopped by a store to pick up a beverage.
A clerk told him the percentage of patrons wearing masks had almost doubled. It was up to 80%.
“The mandate we put in place … has given a push to that extra level of compliance,” TenHaken said.
That’s important, given that a fellow Republican, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, has eschewed mask mandates on a statewide level. South Dakota has had one of the worst COVID-19 spikes. The testing positivity rate over the past week has been over 41%, according to Johns Hopkins.
TenHaken said he has advocated for a mask measure for months. Closing indoor dining at restaurants, however, could backfire. He said it would encourage more people to “let their hair down” with friends at home where close contact could put them in graver danger.
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Despite South Dakota’s high rates, he said Sioux Falls is handling the crisis.
“The health care systems have not sounded any alarms yet. We are managing this,” the mayor said.
Florida: ‘People are still afraid’
Pressure is building on Gov. Ron DeSantis to get tougher when it comes to coronavirus measures.
The Sunshine State has seen more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths, and is closing in on 1 million cases, Johns Hopkins reported.
Mayors in Miami Beach, Hialeah, Miami Shores Village, Sunrise and St. Petersburg hope DeSantis, a Republican, will require masks, create consistency in regulations and add testing capacity.
State Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat whose district includes Jacksonville, said mask wearing needs to be taken more seriously. She said she experienced people’s casual attitude firsthand.
“I went into the bank, and I was (socially) distanced, and this other guy came in after me,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I left my mask in the car.’”
She said no one in the bank refused him service, so she reminded him he should wear one. “It was very disconcerting,” he said.
Gibson compared enacting mask rules to speed limit signs on the highway. Drivers may push the limit, but at least they know the rules.
When it comes to the coronavirus, “people are still afraid,” she said.
Contributing: Associated Press