The phone call in late June went something like this: “Hello, Mr. Gorman. I want to tell you something,” and then the woman on the line told me she was upset that at the Johnson County Justice Center face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus were required but that the city of Cleburne had no such requirement. “So the bigshot lawyers and judges all want to be protected,” she went on, “but they could care less about the rest of us doing daily activities. I don’t think that’s right.”
Less than a week after that call, Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order mandating face masks in public places throughout Texas. There were plenty of loopholes: If you could keep a 6-foot distance from others, if you were a child under 10, if you were eating or exercising outdoors, and so on, you didn’t need to wear one.
Abbott’s order came late for Texas, which has seen an explosion in new cases, and deaths, over the past month. And a lot of people in places like Johnson and Parker counties are still largely ignoring that order. While big stores like Walmart, HEB, and Brookshires have their own requirements to wear a mask to enter — and there are often two local policemen outside of the entrances to enforce the rules — smaller stores and gas stations are almost completely ignoring the mandate. On recent trips to Dollar General, several gas stations, and a bakery in Johnson County, not a single customer or worker was masked. Parker County residents are behaving similarly, I’m told.
“I’m not worried about getting sick,” explained a fellow at a local convenience store who always sports a 9mm gun and whom I have known for years. “Not worried at all.”
Not only should he know that masks aren’t necessarily to protect you but to prevent you from giving COVID-19 to others, he should know enough to be worried. According to the Washington Post, which has a team of reporters tracking the coronavirus both nationally and worldwide and publishing the numbers daily, Johnson County still has low overall COVID-19 case numbers and deaths, but they are growing quickly. A month ago, there were two reported deaths and about 450 cases. Currently, there are seven deaths — three in the last week — and 973 reported cases, 88 of those in the last week. The numbers are still low, but the percentages are making a huge jump.
Nearby Parker County is doing better than Johnson. It has had only one death and a total of 697 cases, but 82 of those were reported in the last week, a jump of more than 10%.
Tarrant County has a very different story. Fort Worth and nearby cities are much more densely populated than Johnson and Parker counties, and the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths reflect that. There has been a total of more than 22,000 cases in Tarrant, with around 3,000 reported in the last week. The death toll stands at 299, with more than 25 of those in the past week.
But much of Tarrant County appears to finally be taking the pandemic seriously, in large part due to Abbott’s executive order. “A month ago, maybe half the people in Central Market or Trader Joe’s were wearing masks,” said Matthew Haddock, a lawyer who lives in South Fort Worth. “And hardly anyone was wearing them at gas station convenience stores and places like that. Now, everyone is wearing a mask in public places. Of course, the big supermarkets and places like Lowe’s won’t allow you in without one, but even the mom-and-pop place customers are wearing them now. People know it’s serious.”
I was talking with Haddock while he was getting a haircut in Fort Worth, and he said that both he and the barber were wearing masks. “I think Fort Worth will see its numbers drop because of them.”
There are still people who defiantly refuse to wear masks because they think it is a plot by the government to make us all more pliable, or that it is the mark of the devil, or because masks will lead to chips so that the government can follow our every move. There are also those who do not believe the coronavirus is real or, if it is, that it is not dangerous or, if it is dangerous, that it will not affect them.
COVID-19 is real, and it is dangerous. And while some deaths might have been ascribed to it mistakenly, most of the 140,000-plus deaths from COVID-19 in the United States are correctly attributed to it. Those places, like Fort Worth, which have begun to take the virus seriously, will see their numbers drop. In Johnson and Parker counties, where significant numbers of people are not taking it seriously, their numbers will, unfortunately and heartbreakingly, continue to rise dramatically. — Peter Gorman
Author and former staff writer Peter Gorman lives in Johnson County.
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