The driver license mega center in Fort Worth closed abruptly, just minutes before 1pm on Tuesday. Staff removed the two tables outside the entrance that recorded all visitors’ contact information, health histories and performed temperature checks.
Since reopening on 3 June, the facility had spaced seats inside to meet social distancing guidelines, cleaned surfaces regularly and only served those who booked appointments online. All workers wore masks, and anybody allowed in was required to wear a face covering. But despite the precautions, a Covid-19 case had been reported there.
One of the people turned away was Laurie Smith, 50. She is an administrative employee at a local church, where she is also a member, and calls mandatory mask requirements a sign of “sad” government manipulation. “My college-age kids are able to follow the recommendations without questioning it, but my husband and I are of a different generation, and we value our liberty to be able to make our own choices. So we question it more than they do,” she said.
Her daughter shook her head silently in the passenger seat but did not say anything. Neither of them wore a mask.
The science of wearing masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus seems to be largely settled, but the politics around it is still raging, especially in conservative strongholds like Texas. Stores, churches, small businesses, government offices and other institutions across the state are grappling with how to enforce public health rules without alienating those who disagree.
Mask-wearing soon turned into a partisan squabble between lovers of liberty who hate government mandates and supporters worried about getting sick or infecting others. The consequences of the deep divisions are starting to appear as coronavirus cases surge in Texas, but a mask remains a public health, political and religious statement.
Covid-19 hospitalizations across the state have more than tripled since the beginning of the month, and hit an all-time daily record of 8,076 cases on Wednesday, according to the state health department. Greg Abbott has pleaded with citizens to wear masks and finally issued an order requiring them Thursday, effective on Friday.
Meanwhile, a patchwork of local regulations, loosely enforced, have sprung up. Prior to the governor’s order, nine mayors unsuccessfully petitioned for power to make masks compulsory, and the governor’s own health commissioner recommended masks. Dr John Hellerstedt said: “This is the biggest Covid-19 challenge that Texas has faced since coronavirus hit our state. Every single Texan must be part of the solution and must join in the battle to reserve these trends.”
The vacuum left between the two sides is becoming a tinderbox.
“We don’t live in a communist country! This is supposed to be America,” said Tee Allen Parker, who has banned wearing of masks at her bar.
The 45-year-old owner of the Machine Shed Bar & Grill in Kilgore, east Texas, has become the face of the resistance fighting mask-wearing among the business community in the state.
She said: “It’s an individual choice. There’s been nothing scientific that says masks are effective. I choose not to wear it, but I don’t let thousands of people breathe on me.”
Parker is leading 22 bar owners and Texans who have sued the governor for closing bars again last week after a new surge in Covid-19 cases. She points out that Abbott met the family of George Floyd without wearing a mask.
She said: “There’s a picture of the governor sitting with his family with no mask on. You can’t tell me to do something you won’t do. You lead by example.”
Nowhere is the schism as wide as in churches, in a state where 88% of adults say they believe in God and 63% pray daily. The root of the distrust of official directives among some Christian conservatives stems from government decisions at the height of the pandemic.
“Churches were closed by government order, and it makes many Christians nervous, as it should. I didn’t like it, but I support it,” said Austin-based Jon Stokes, who co-created the technology news site Ars Technica. He has noticed a fear of government involvement in the church within Christian circles, and wearing masks has become the symbol of it.
The CDC, the White House coronavirus taskforce and most of the US government recommends wearing masks to slow the spread of the virus. Vice-President Mike Pence has reluctantly come around, and is now covering his mouth and nose in public as are some GOP leaders.
Joe Biden says he would make wearing a mask in public mandatory. But Trump and the bulk of the Republican establishment are opposed, and many of their supporters are following their lead. “In the faith community, we import a lot of these divisions from politics. This has always been a struggle,” said Stokes. “Because it is a divided issue in the popular culture, it is in church as well.”
His pastor, Rodney Shaw, of the New Life United Pentecostal church, has had to navigate the sensitivities with his diverse congregation. After the mayor of Austin ordered business to enforce mask-wearing indoors, Shaw asked his assembly to do the same.
“It’s quite controversial and we have every opinion you can imagine represented in our church and our leadership. But we had near total compliance, maybe only one or two didn’t wear a mask,” he recalled.
Two church members have died, suspected to be from Covid-19. Another one died on Monday. The crisis has hit home, and Stokes has noticed a decline in doubters.
David Smith of Arlington is among those concerned about the politicization of mask-wearing. “I’m 80 years old, so I’m in the range that it can really strike me bad. My son is in a rest home,” he said. “I don’t want him dying, I don’t want him getting sick and I don’t want people with the virus close to him because he’s stuck there.”
The Texas Republican Committee may still hold an in-person convention next month in Houston, America’s fourth-largest city where coronavirus cases have doubled since the end of May. Harris county, which includes the city, extended its mandatory mask order until the end of August. Employees or customers of businesses who fail to wear a mask risk a fine of $1,000.
Lameese Williams, a 30-year-old African American nurse and mother of three, lives in north Texas where masks are not compulsory. She worries about her family. “I believe in Jesus. I plead the blood over my children every morning. I’ve got to work because I’m the sole provider, but these folks are not taking it seriously,” she says.
The Texas Medical Association recommends wearing masks. But with national and state leadership equivocating on the issue, citizens are left to the interpretation that most agrees with them.