Warren Lee wasn’t particularly worried about the coronavirus. Back then, few were. It was mid-January, and the 29-year-old Dallas-area resident was visiting his girlfriend in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where they planned to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Lee, who is launching an esports start-up, had begun tracking online whispers about the new virus earlier that month, but, he remembers, “everyone was taking it fairly lightly.”
Lee was too. He and his girlfriend, whom he’d met through video game circles, had recently flown to Seoul to attend a stadium concert headlined by the reconstituted British rock band Queen, then returned to get ready for the New Year’s festivities. “We were just loafing around doing nothing,” Lee told me. “That’s when everything got fired up.”
On the night of January 22, Lee’s girlfriend saw a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo: the government would be quarantining the entire city of 11 million people. All flights and trains out of Wuhan were canceled, and public transport inside city limits would be suspended. Lee and his girlfriend had already stocked up on provisions for the holiday (a lot of ramen and hot pot), so they hunkered down at her apartment and spent most of their time watching movies and playing their Nintendo Switch. On the fourth day of the quarantine, Lee filmed an eight-minute YouTube vlog showing empty streets and a convenience store with shelves still full of instant noodles. Lee had water and heat and internet, and he and his girlfriend had been routinely taking their temperatures; they didn’t have fevers. “It’s not the apocalypse out here as much as people have been saying,” he explained. “I’m okay, but I’m kind of figuring out what the day-to-day is going to be like.”
When I Skyped with Lee on March 24, he was two months into quarantine. He projected a kind of droll resignation, occasionally sucking on a vape and glancing off-camera at his girlfriend as she played Animal Crossing. From his perch at the epicenter of the pandemic, Lee had watched the coronavirus’s relentless global advance. Its progress was slow at first. “We heard about a couple cases in Hong Kong and Korea and Japan,” he said. “And at that point, it’s like, ‘Okay, so it’s trickling in there.’ ”
As the outbreak expanded, Lee grew frustrated. The forward march of the disease was predictable, inevitable, but each newly affected country seemed to react as if it were being hit by an unforeseeable calamity. “You keep on hoping that it’s like, ‘Maybe these people will take the hint and they will get their stuff sorted as fast as they can to stop it.’ ”
Lee talked regularly with his family and friends back home, and in late February, as it became clear that the coronavirus was spreading through the United States, he told his mother, who lives in the Mid-Cities, west of Dallas, “It might be there—just stay inside. It’s not safe.” She listened. His friends, mostly millennial gamers, heeded his warnings too. “They know how seriously I’ve been taking things here, and I was like, ‘Hey, all you need to do is stay at home and play Doom Eternal or League of Legends.’ ”
By the time Lee and I talked, Wuhan and Dallas were trending in opposite directions. The Chinese government had just announced that it would lift its travel restrictions on Wuhan on April 8, and the most populated counties in Texas had just announced they were issuing “Stay Home, Work Safe” orders for their residents. Lee isn’t a public health expert, but given his unique vantage point, I was curious why he thought the world had been a step behind the virus from the start. “No one wants to admit that they’re in the middle of a really, really, really bad situation,” Lee said. “The thing is, even when it was happening in the States, it was, ‘That sounds like a Seattle problem’ or ‘That sounds like a San Francisco problem.’ It doesn’t sound like a Dallas problem.”
On the same day Lee’s girlfriend read on Weibo about the impending lockdown of Wuhan, a Texas A&M student who had recently returned to the United States from Wuhan checked into a Brazos County emergency room with mild symptoms consistent with an upper respiratory infection. Doctors swabbed the patient and shipped the samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, to test for the coronavirus. As soon as news of the possible case broke the next day on the local CBS affiliate KBTX, residents of Bryan and College Station began snatching up protective masks. Within hours, area stores were out of stock.
Over the next several days, state health officials investigated three other suspected cases of the new disease, which was still two weeks away from being named COVID-19. On Monday, January 27, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced that the results of the four tests had come back: they were all negative.
Once the brief panic subsided, there were plenty of reasons for anyone reading the news to feel assured that our worst fears were overblown. On the day the Texas tests were revealed to be negative, the New York Times reported that the United States had seen only five positive tests so far. That same week, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, said that he was most concerned about the virus spreading to less-developed countries “with weaker health systems, and which are ill prepared to deal with it.” In the States, experts urged us to wash our hands and worry instead about the seasonal flu. Kaiser Health News published a story titled “Something Far Deadlier Than the Wuhan Virus Lurks Near You,” and an article in the Washington Post admonished America—using a pun for the French word for “influenza”—to “get a grippe . . . the flu is a much bigger threat than coronavirus, for now.” Even Peter Hotez, a leading vaccine researcher who serves as the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, downplayed the threat, telling CBS Austin, “Flu is a major killer of Americans, and I guarantee you, it will kill more Americans by orders of magnitude than what will happen with this [novel] coronavirus.”
State officials claimed they had the situation under control. On January 30, DSHS spokesperson Chris Van Deusen told the Texas Tribune, “One of the advantages we have in this situation is we know it’s there, we know what it looks like and have the tests to identify it.”
For a time, Van Deusen’s comment sounded reasonable. The CDC reported Texas’s first case of COVID-19 on February 13, but it came with a big asterisk. The infected individual had been evacuated from Wuhan to Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, and hadn’t interacted with the general population. By the beginning of March, 11 of the country’s 74 confirmed COVID-19 cases were in Texas, but all of them were U.S. residents who had returned from overseas and were in quarantine at Lackland. One Wuhan evacuee, it turned out, had been released from quarantine prematurely, checking into a Holiday Inn Express and walking around San Antonio’s North Star Mall before authorities realized her last coronavirus test had come back with a “weak positive” result. (She is not believed to have transmitted the virus to anyone.)
Why did we seem so surprised at every turn? Texas officials had no excuse to be blindsided.
For most of us, though, the crisis still seemed like something that was happening elsewhere. Sure, the producer and distributors of the latest James Bond movie, eyeing an already reeling global market, delayed the film’s release date from April to November. And, yes, the top Italian soccer league had already begun suspending matches. But we carried on like life in Texas and across the country would be fine so long as we didn’t import the problem. On March 1, when organizers of the Houston energy conference CERAWeek canceled the event a few days before it was to begin, they cited “growing concern about large conferences with people coming from different parts of the world.” (CERAWeek was slated to draw delegates from more than 80 countries.) After Austin mayor Steve Adler called off the South by Southwest festival on March 6, he said that he was particularly concerned by the fact that the event was such an international draw. (In 2019 SXSW attracted some 400,000 attendees from 105 countries.) To blunt the economic blow, Adler promoted the “Stand With Austin” campaign, posting a video on Twitter in which he, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, and state senator Kirk Watson asked Austinites to help local restaurateurs and entertainers. “Go out to eat, drink & listen to live music,” Adler wrote. (The tweet has been deleted.)
The following Monday, March 9, Adler told Texas Monthly’s Andy Langer that he was still going out and thought other Austinites should feel safe to do so too. Austin’s health officer, Adler said, had described coronavirus as resembling “a hurricane in the Gulf.” The storm clouds were “forming above us,” but landfall didn’t seem imminent. “There’s no reason for people not to gather in our town,” the mayor said.
Two days later, it became clear that the storm was already here. The WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In Montgomery County, north of Houston, health officials announced that they believed that a man who had tested positive for the coronavirus had contracted it through “community spread,” meaning that the source of the infection was unknown. It was the first known instance in the state—confirmation the virus was now moving through the population.
By that afternoon, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo had shut down and cleared its attendees out of NRG Stadium. That night, President Donald Trump announced a travel ban on flights coming from Europe, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, sitting courtside at American Airlines Arena, stared slack-jawed at his phone as the news broke that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus and the NBA had suspended its season. Within 24 hours, the NCAA canceled March Madness, and Major League Baseball suspended spring training and delayed opening day.
That Sunday night, Eddie F. Roberts, a 97-year-old mortician from Bay City, became the first Texan to die of the disease. In a sign of the times, Roberts’s family decided against giving the longtime funeral home director his own service for safety reasons.
Even as it became clear that the coronavirus was a new fact of life, the disease continued to outrun us. On Friday, March 20—five days after the death of Roberts—Houston mayor Sylvester Turner and police chief Art Acevedo held a press conference to dispel rumors that the city was on the verge of a “lockdown.” Acevedo blamed the hearsay on a “hostile foreign government,” and Turner announced that he was asking the Houston Police Department and the Harris County district attorney’s office to investigate a possible disinformation campaign intended to panic the populace.
Just three days later, the hashtag #HoustonLockdown was trending on Twitter, with citizens begging the city’s leader to enact more aggressive restrictions. The next morning, on March 24, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo mandated that residents stay home unless they were leaving to buy groceries, exercise, or do what was deemed essential work. Within two days, a total of 17 million Texans, nearly 60 percent of the state’s population, were under similar orders.
How did it come to this? Why did we seem so surprised at every turn? Texas officials had no excuse to be blindsided. In October 2014, after a Liberian man named Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola virus at a Dallas hospital, Governor Rick Perry created the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response. The group’s 174-page report on the Ebola crisis, submitted that December, begins with this epigraph: “In today’s globally connected society, an infectious disease epidemic anywhere can soon become an emergency everywhere.”
Duncan, who died from Ebola, had infected two nurses at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, both of whom survived, and the task force zeroed in on the importance of personal protective equipment for medical staff. The Ebola crisis, they wrote, “revealed a shortage of PPE that is vitally needed by hospital workers, including those who may find themselves unexpectedly in an Emergency Department with an Ebola patient or similar patient with a high consequence infectious disease.” They recommended the state create a stockpile of such equipment in case of a future outbreak. Governor Perry praised the report, and Republican state senator Charles Schwertner tried to codify some of the task force’s recommendations, including the PPE stockpile, into law. The bill passed the Senate, but it wasn’t taken up by the House until the final month of the 2015 legislative session, and it never got a hearing in the public health committee.
Today’s state leaders, even while facing the dire threat of a pandemic raging throughout the state, haven’t responded with much greater urgency. In January and February, while the CDC was failing to institute a widespread testing program, state leaders were uncertain about the scope and trajectory of the problem. When the state’s infectious disease task force met in early February, DSHS commissioner John Hellerstedt likened the unfolding crisis to the fog of war. “When you have a rapidly developing situation when there are a great many factors at work, being able to see clearly is sometimes simply not possible,” he said.
But even after the spread of coronavirus throughout the state became clear, the official response lagged. On March 10, Hellerstedt told the Texas House public health committee that “Texas must show the world how this is done.” Instead, Governor Greg Abbott has consistently trailed behind city and county officials, not to mention other state governors of both parties, resisting calls for more-stringent statewide regulations by arguing that what is appropriate for hard-hit metropolises might not be right for rural areas that had yet to see their first positive test.
This may have sounded reasonable enough, but on the ground, it didn’t make sense so long as Texans were free to travel across county lines. In Dallas, for example, county judge Clay Jenkins’s stay-at-home order—the first in the state—shuttered many businesses and severely curtailed residents’ activities, while neighboring Collin County allowed all businesses to stay open because, county judge Chris Hill asserted, “all businesses and all jobs and all workers are essential.” It took Abbott until the last day of March to issue a de facto stay-at-home order that made regulations more uniform. But what was the point of waiting for the situation to get so bad when an earlier stay-at-home order might have saved lives?
At least Abbott had spent the previous weeks gradually shuttering public spaces, ordering increased hospital capacity, and strongly advising Texans to limit their social interactions. Other state leaders have been less constructive. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made an instantly infamous appearance on Fox News in which he suggested that senior citizens, including himself, should be willing to risk a painful death of intubation and fluid-filled lungs in order to get Americans back to work. Senator John Cornyn has helpfully contributed to public discourse by tweeting a photo of a Corona beer with the words “Be smart; don’t panic” and blaming Chinese culture for the viral outbreak because that nation’s citizens “eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” Attorney General Ken Paxton seized the moment by making most abortions temporarily illegal (his order is now being adjudicated in federal appellate courts), while Tyler congressman Louie Gohmert flirted with holding up a massive federal spending bill (reportedly, after a conversation with President Donald Trump, he relented).
For now, the strangeness of this crisis for most of us—sitting in our homes all day, staring out at empty streets—is its invisibility.
In the absence of statewide leadership, local officials like Jenkins have been at the vanguard of the response. But even they haven’t managed to get out in front of the crisis. San Antonio–based H-E-B was one of the few entities that was prepared to act fast. The supermarket chain created a pandemic influenza plan back in 2005 and began tailoring it to the coronavirus on February 2, four weeks before the first U.S. case of community spread. For nearly everyone else, the responses came too late.
This virus has made a mockery of our deliberations. Adler described his decision to cancel SXSW as easily the toughest of his five years as mayor. But even if Adler hadn’t pulled the plug that Friday, it’s unlikely the festival would have ever gotten underway. By the time SXSW was scheduled to begin, nearly every concert, sporting event, and conference in the country had been called off.
The biggest difference between Austin, which as of press time has been spared the worst of the outbreak, and New Orleans, which became an epicenter of the virus in the United States, is a quirk of the calendar. Mardi Gras, which health experts suspect played a major role in the virus’s spread, brought legions of tourists to New Orleans throughout February. SXSW was set to take place during the third week of March, a week later than it had been the previous year. If SXSW had been scheduled earlier, what would Austin and the rest of Texas look like now?
If Texas somehow avoids the worst, it won’t be because of Abbott’s executive orders or even Jenkins’s clear-eyed leadership. It’ll be primarily because of dumb luck.
As I write, things look bad enough. More than 150,000 Texans filed for unemployment during the third week of March, more than three times as many as the worst week during the Great Recession. The next week that number nearly doubled to more than 275,000. The price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude plummeted as far as $20, kneecapped by a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia and whacked over the head with a lead pipe by a global drop in demand. The cost-intensive, debt-enabled fracking industry, which was already struggling to profit when oil was trading at $50 per barrel, may be shuttered indefinitely. The Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank in Washington, D.C., listed Midland, Odessa, and Laredo as three of the six U.S. metro areas most exposed to the economic cataclysm currently underway, with tens of thousands of oil workers already laid off. Having nearly one out of five residents uninsured—the worst rate in the nation—Texas’s public health infrastructure is poorly equipped to weather a crisis that will push hospital resources to their capacity or well beyond it.
For now, the strangeness of this crisis for most of us—sitting in our homes all day, staring out at empty streets—is its invisibility. This isn’t a hurricane arriving with biblical fury, flattening and flooding neighborhoods and then leaving behind crystal-clear skies and an all-too-clear social mission. Texans are used to that kind of roll-up-your-sleeves challenge. Bouncing back from this disaster will prove far trickier. This threat will linger in our schools and theaters and nursing homes; in the lives of the millions of people who have lost jobs and thousands of families who have lost loved ones; and in every mundane interaction with neighbors and friends and family members that breaches six feet of personal space. Until a vaccine becomes available, perhaps eighteen months from now, every handshake and hug will be tinged with the fear that an outbreak could flare up once again.
When I spoke with Warren Lee, he told me he was eager to get home to Dallas. His mother, who lives alone, had not stepped outside her house for weeks, and he wanted to go grocery shopping for her. But Lee wasn’t sure when that was going to happen. Wuhan would open up on April 8, but he presumed that because he was a foreigner he’d need additional paperwork before he was allowed to leave. The United States might not take him back immediately anyway. And even when he gets the all clear, he thinks it might be safer to wait. “I’m still cautious about large flocks of people,” Lee said. “I’m probably going to wait for the first couple of waves to go through, and then try to get back.”
It’s hard to imagine when any of us will feel like we’re truly back home.
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Plague on All Our Houses.” Subscribe today.