Grieving families in Texas are wondering why the rules of the virus are not being enforced

By Paul J. Webber | Associated Press

ABILENE, Texas – In the weeks since Mark Riggs went from feeling tired before Thanksgiving to the death of COVID-19 last month, only six calls about people who were not wearing face coverings entered the Abilene Police Department.

Even if defiance of Texas’ mask mandate is easy to find here.

When Riggs entered the hospital, a morgue trailer large enough to stack 24 bodies had just arrived back. A medical tent appeared in the parking lot, while doctors moved a 67-year-old teacher to a ventilator. He died in an intensive care unit that was full for weeks and is the largest of about 15,000 square miles of firefighters and cattle pastures, larger than Maryland.

Officers answered three of the face-to-face calls, which were needed since June. No quotes were issued.

“I’ve never been one to call for government or leadership,” said Katie Riggs Maxwell, 38, Riggs’ daughter. “But suddenly it’s extremely personal.”

As virus cases and deaths rose nationwide this fall, pressure has intensified on governors who have not issued warrants requiring people to wear masks indoors and in public. Health experts consider masks the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Most states have orders nationwide, and of the roughly dozens that do not, most are in the south.

But the debate over warrants and blockades – usually fueled by screams that violate individual freedoms – often stifles reality if the restrictions adopted are actually applied to make them effective.

In some states, such as New York, where COVID cases overflowed hospitals earlier this year and were treated as a crisis, authorities sent police reports of violations, partying and even monitoring funerals where early gatherings were held. unmasked. In California, Los Angeles County has issued more than 300 citations since September to churches, businesses and strip clubs for violating COVID-19 restrictions.

But in many smaller cities, especially in the politically conservative parts of the country, such as Abilene, a state-level mandate may not mean much, as the threat of fines is non-existent.

As families prepare to gather for Christmas and create the primary conditions for the virus to spread, Abilene is unlikely to punish anyone who doesn’t follow Texas rules on wearing a mask and limiting outdoor gatherings to 10 people, even as are the doctors overwhelmed here rejecting transfers from smaller hospitals and the city of 125,000 people struggling to eliminate a worsening outbreak.

On Thursday, Texas broke a one-day record for new coronavirus cases by more than 16,000. Hospitalizations are at their highest levels in July and rising.

Across the United States, attempts to forcefully disguise restaurant warrants and seat limits have been met with defiance and sometimes threats of violence. In Tennessee, police officers this month began accompanying inspectors around the city of Memphis after some faced racial insults. Inspectors from the Maryland Department of Health were also harassed, especially female inspectors, according to county officials.

There is no conflict in Abilene. Mayor Anthony Williams, who tested positive for the virus this summer, says the application is logistically difficult and an economic burden in a city where unemployment has risen tenfold by June. “We don’t want to exaggerate the problem,” he said.

Hospital leaders say they have not asked the city to reconsider.

“I don’t think he would have been well received by the typical West Texas native,” said Dr. Stephen Lowry, chief of staff at Hendrick Health in Abilene. He described them as “the typical and robust individualist who doesn’t want to be told what to do.”

He and the mayor believe Abilene residents have received recent appeals to wear masks and avoid rallies. The churches interrupted the services in person. Cases are still growing, but not as fast in Taylor County in general, where at least 150 people have died, a number that has doubled since November 1.

However, residents and businesses are left to set their own limits, including none at all.

At the cautious end of the spectrum is the downtown Paramount Theater, which closed indefinitely as cases rose before Thanksgiving, though it could remain open. The theater had sold tickets for a Christmas classic show. Now, people walking in the past stop and take pictures of an unintentional summation of 2020 on the vintage curtain in red letters: “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE CANCELED”

Grayson Allred, the theater’s technical director, said they noticed that many patrons who came in wearing masks took them off after they were inside.

“The air will circulate here and you can’t get out of it,” he said.

While many schools elsewhere rely on distance learning, most of Abilene’s 15,000 students have returned to their campuses this fall. Traffic in the hallway was redirected in one direction and masks were needed. A teacher who tested positive for the virus has died.

At The Shed Market, a barbecue favorite in Abilene, there are no signs on the door to encourage face covering or social distancing inside. Orders are sent by unmeasured employees behind the counter. One of the grandparents of owner Byron Stephenson died of COVID-19. Stacie Stephenson, his wife and also the owner, is a former nurse.

“It was very difficult to try to decide what to do,” she said. “The assisting part of my brain thinks one way, and the business owner’s part in my brain thinks differently. And that’s how I feel my feelings change, you know, once a week. “

Mark Riggs took the virus seriously at Abilene Christian University, where he ended his career after 16 years as a hospital biostatistician.

The offices in his class were six feet apart and the crews sanitized the room after each lesson. He and his wife, Debbie, stopped going to church.

He still picked it up. The first signs appeared after a night of hanging Christmas decorations with his grandchildren, aged 6 and 3. Doctors put him on an air pump to help him breathe within two days of hospitalization. When his condition worsened and the only option was a fan, his family first asked for a video call with him. His last words: “This is not the end of my story.”

He died a week later. On Wednesday, Williams, the mayor, took to Facebook to defend the city’s manipulation of the virus and to remind people that vaccines were on the way. He shakes Debbie Riggs, who says that while she is finding silver linings, she is planning a funeral.

“For the mayor to say there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that’s not helpful right now,” said Debbie Riggs, standing on campus where her 41-year-old husband has been teaching for more than two decades. “That doesn’t work.”