I’ve spent so much time during the past seven weeks on the phone with my family, scattered far away around Texas, calling to say hi, but mostly to keep tabs on them. Two weeks ago, my mom, who lives in Houston, was wandering around the Sam’s Club, looking for flower bulbs.
She gets stir crazy easily—I get it, I’m the same way—and she’s spent her time in isolation filling every patch of dirt in her yard with tomatoes and flowers and herbs. Soon the plants are going to be coming in through her windows. Later that week, I checked in on her mom, my granny; she’d taken my grandpa to the Walmart in their small Texas town that day because he wanted a specific type of printer paper. She said he was going nuts, just sitting around all the time with nowhere to go. I called my other grandma, who’s immunocompromised and lives outside of Austin, and who hasn’t even so much as gone to an HEB in more than a month. She said she was curious to hear what the governor would say in his coronavirus briefing the next day, because rumors were swirling that he’d start loosening restrictions in Texas. If gyms were allowed to open, my grandma said, she’d go back to hers.
I end every call with a plea to please stay home. Stop going to the Sam’s Club, use the printer paper you already have at home, please don’t go back to the gym, even if it’s technically allowed. It’s such a strange role reversal, to be the one worried about the people who’ve spent my whole lifetime worrying about me and my foolish decisions. But all I do is worry. The governor making the hasty decision to reopen the state is only making things worse.
On April 17, just like my grandma predicted, Governor Greg Abbott announced his initial plans to reopen Texas. He’d issued a stay-at-home order just 15 days prior, a measure intended to keep his constituents, including my family, from getting sick and dying. “We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus," Abbott said. His assessment is entirely detached from reality: Texas has one of the worst testing rates per capita in the country, second only to Kansas, a state with one-tenth its population. Cases of coronavirus in Texas are still increasing; as the Texas Tribune reports, it’s unclear if the state has hit its peak.
This week, on Monday, Abbott further clarified that he’d let the stay-at-home order expire tomorrow, Thursday. By the end of this week, stores, restaurants, movie theaters, malls, museums, and libraries can open and operate at 25 percent capacity, with a second phase of businesses, including hair salons and gyms, reopening by May 18 as long as he sees “two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19.”
My mom texted me immediately after Abbott’s announcement, telling me she doesn’t know if it applies to her office, which she accesses by an elevator; if it does, she says she only has to go in twice a week. Twice a week, I tell her, still feels like too much. Harris County, where she lives, had recently put a 30-day mandatory mask order in place, similar to the one I’m under in New York City. But Abbott’s plan basically nullifies it, just as it does the distancing orders in Dallas, Austin, and El Paso. On Tuesday morning, I got a text from the Houston hair salon I go to with my mom each time I come home, letting me know it’d be back in business soon. A few hours later, my mom texted me to say she’d scheduled an appointment for herself for May 20, two days after its potential reopening.
In the recurring nightmare I’ve had since March, my 56-year-old mom is pregnant and in labor and something is going terribly wrong. I’m the only person with her and we’re outside somewhere in the dirt. She’s weak and can’t stand up, bleeding everywhere, and when I try to grab my phone to call 911, it keeps slipping out of my hands. On our actual phone calls, she tells me to stay in my apartment; all she sees on the news is how bad things are in New York City—and, to be clear, they are.
I’ve tried every way I know to communicate the same worry back at her, magnified: Friends of friends have lost parents her age; in the event that she got sick, there’s no way I could come back and see her. I told her about the bad dream, but it’s so hard to sound rational and be taken seriously while saying, “I have this dream where you die. I’m terrified this virus—one your governor deems ‘corralled’—is going to kill you, and I’ll never see you again.”
It’s been hard enough to emphasize the seriousness of this virus to my restless family from afar as it is. Now that their governor—their elected leader—has told them it’s OK to go back out to restaurants, it feels like any influence I had in convincing them to stay at home has been completely diminished.
I can’t blame them for following his guidance; leaders are supposed to lead. At the same time, the facts before us show that his decision to reopen the state is objectively wrong, and is based on politics and not science. Politically, it’s good for Abbott to say that the Texas economy is reopened, but it puts business owners in the impossible position of opening their doors amid a pandemic, because their government couldn’t come through with assistance in a crisis. Residents and line-level workers are in an even more confusing scenario: they’re meant to pretend things are normal and put themselves at risk because… something something the economy?
Scientifically speaking, Texas is suffering the same issues as every other state, if not worse. There aren’t enough tests; people without symptoms are still spreading this thing around; a virus doesn’t respect borders or rules about certain people quarantining. And what about the way Texans tend to greet each other, arms open for hugs? Does the governor’s plan for reopening, even at diminished capacity, take this into account?
I keep thinking about the way my mom used to stand, knotted with worry, watching my little brother pull away from the house after he got his driver’s license. Reasonably, my mom knew that she couldn’t keep him under her watchful eye and in her house all the time, that she had to let him make his own decisions. At least out on the road there were clear rules to be followed, designed to keep him and everyone around him safe and alive. As I sit thousands of miles away from my family in Texas watching the governor boldly and foolishly reopen the state in the middle of a pandemic, I have no such reassurance. People have been wondering what the country reopening will look like, and it’s upsetting to realize that it will look like this: Like states led by conservative governors thrusting their citizens—our loved ones—into harm’s way, and leaving the choice of how to behave up to the individual, who may or may not know what to do, or be able to do it.
This would be a fantastic time for federal interference; for some higher elected power—perhaps a president?—to step in, enact federal stay-at-home guidelines that supersede Abbott’s; offer sound, science-backed recommendations to the American public; do anything a government is supposed to do when its people need help. But that sort of fantasy is worthless in the face of devastating, infuriating reality. All I can do now is keep calling my family, keep sending them every horrifying story about the virus that I can find, and tell them I really don’t want the last time I saw them to be the last time I saw them.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.