A postcard from Texas, where cases are rising but the barn dances are in full swing

Sarah Ivens
Wearing, or not wearing, a mask has become a political statement in the Lone Star state - getty

My adopted home state of Texas has lost a little of its infamous swagger this week. Usually so self-assured with its moniker of ‘biggest and best’ place to be in the Union, in the last few days the only list it’s leading is fastest growth of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the US.

Since the weekend, the country music dance halls have been shuttered, the frozen margaritas are no longer being poured at my local Tex-Mex tavern, and if we want beef brisket, its probably safer to barbecue at home. Hitting at the same time as the usual 100F hot and humid summer days, it’s a pretty tough and tiring place for a pasty Brit to be stuck right now.

Perhaps these depressing new epidemic statistics are not a surprise. Our Republican Governor Greg Abbott led the charge in reopening the US economy back in May, getting people back out shopping, dining and building when most other places around the world were hunkered down, baking sourdough and working their way through Netflix at home. It seemed to be working at first. Maybe fortune favours the brave, we thought, but today, as the state capital, Austin – the city where I live – posts another daily record for positive cases, and hospitals from Houston to Dallas are warning of overcrowding like we saw in Italy back in February, we’re not so sure.

As an outsider who has lived in the Lone Star state for four years, the most interesting thing about being here in these unprecedented times is seeing how facts about health and safety are thrown out to protect political affiliations. Wearing, or not wearing, a mask has become a political statement, rather than a matter of life or death. We move in two tribes. I am in with the mask-wearing fellowship, therefore instantly recognizable as a liberal snowflake who is driven by fear. We are not legally bound to wear a mask out and about here in Austin, but 90 per cent of us in this very Blue hubbub of this Red state do, leaving just a few cowboys lurking around bareback – looking for a moral shoot-out. 

My children and I have been sniggered at in car parks when passersby have witnessed me laboriously coating their hands with anti-bacterial spray and looping their protective gear behind their ears before queuing up at a surprisingly crowded beauty spot; a neighbour was called ‘un-American’ for asking when the Clorox disinfectant wipes would be back in stock at our local supermarket, while a friend’s dad, who has lung cancer, was called a ‘communist’ for wearing a mask in public. Its truly unfathomable how something so simple – a piece of equipment the rest of the world is counting and clambering over daily – has become a weapon in an anti-science or anti-freedom war over here.

Residents queue up at a Texas testing facility - getty

Yes, it’s very much about freedom. Indeed, on our weekend scenic drives away from the city and out into the Hill Country, past ranches, and peach farms, vineyards and oil fields, we’ve seen barns swinging with folk dancing under gigantic Stars and Stripes flags, hooting and hollering, cold beers in their hand and barely enough space to slide a beef taco between them. ‘God Bless Texas,’ they cheers. They listen to Garth Brooks, not daily updates from public health advisors with PhDs. 

I hear whisperings from friends and family back home over the pond that the majority of Brits are fearful to resume normal life. The rapscallions who threaten our national recovery with their raving and littering en masse are not in the majority, most of you sensibly socially distancing and staying at home when you can. How I miss you, my measured, sensible brethren, you science-loving bunch. Since mid-May, when we were first encouraged, for the sake of our $1,645billion plus GDP, to get back out there and spend, many of our population of just under 30 million have been doing just that, relying on hopes and prayers rather than PPE – or even worse, insisting the whole thing is some sort of hoax. 

Last orders: Punters enjoy a beer last week before bars were ordered to close again - getty

Luckily there is enough space in Texas to stay away from people who say daft things (it’s twice the size of the UK) – and the huge, wide skies are still as starry as they ever were – we saw the Milky Way the other night – and the fireflies seem to be out in force this year, probably enjoying the reduction in human noise and clatter spilling out of the bars into the inky evenings. The prickly pear is still flowering its yellow blooms along cacti-brushed roadsides, and no one has told the armadillos they need to hide away. Some of the humans may make living here a little stressful, but the flora and fauna can soothe the soul. And I can bless Texas for that.