In January, after living in Miami for 18 months, following 25 years in New York, I moved again — this time to Dallas. The idea was to be closer to my sisters, one of whom lives in Dallas, the two others in Austin. After years living far apart, I figured now we would see each other more often, just a drive away, celebrate birthdays and holidays together, and have those long family chats we loved to have, and to finally be able to do it in person and not on the phone.
Then came the coronavirus.
It seemed to sneak up on us in Texas. Back in late winter, I had a small housewarming gathering at my apartment. The talk turned to the coronavirus pandemic and the alarming news from New York and in Washington State and California. A friend who had just opened a boutique travel agency shrugged it off and blamed the media for blowing it all out proportion. I bit my tongue and changed the conversation. The epidemic was something happening far away, rather unreal, as if Texas would be spared.
A few days later, in early March, the World Health Organization, one of Donald Trump’s favorite punching bags, declared a global pandemic. The number of cases in Texas were climbing steadily but Gov. Greg Abbott, a Trump devotee, kept hands off, refusing to close the state and leaving it to the counties to manage the problem.
I put myself in lockdown on March 16, after days watching the pandemic take a terrible toll on my friends back in New York. “I’m well, still staying in most of the time … Take your time about a move east, it’s weird here right now!” one New York friend texted. A writer with two young boys cooped up at home in Manhattan, emailed, “Kids are beating the hell out of each other in the next room. I better go referee.”
I watched Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings and stark scenes of overrun hospitals, teary, stressed nurses and exhausted doctors. Stacks of body bags, devastated families. New York in lockdown was unimaginable, but here it was, deserted Times Square, shuttered Broadway, no one on the streets. The stoic resolve and extraordinary courage I was seeing in New York was a contrast to the lack of urgency around me, in my green, comfortable neighborhood, where I saw little effort to follow the CDC’s stay-at-home and social-distancing guidelines.
Finally, Gov. Abbott relented. He shut down the state – sort of. He ordered gyms and hair salons, entertainment venues and other nonessential retail businesses to close. He closed bars and limited restaurants to take out. He urged but did not mandate people to stay at home and ignored calls for wearing masks.
Those first days in lockdown, I walked blocks around me, carefully stepping away from oncoming strollers and joggers. One afternoon an older fellow walking his pooch crossed my path, smiled and kept approaching, ignoring my stop signal. I backed away quickly. A few Sundays later, I went over to a popular trail nearby, but bikers, strollers and small groups crowded the paths. Joggers whooshed by me, mouths hanging open, spewing droplets. No one wore masks. I wanted to say something but figured they would only think I was a censorious schoolmarm.
For months I’ve been living sofa to desk, writing, cooking (I make bread pudding and pasta carbonara, a feat for me). I have gained weight (like everyone I know). My hair is a ramble. I spend ridiculous amounts of time sweeping and cleaning, chores I normally detest but even worse with the need to sanitize surfaces, doorknobs, grocery bags, mail, Amazon packages. Late in the evening, and into the wee hours, I am lost in Scandinavian noir, dramas from Spain, and British everything on Neflix and Prime Video. Like millions of others in lockdown, fearing the collapse of life as we knew it, I’ve become an insomniac binge watcher.
Out in real life, the Texas economy has been feeling the pinch. Unemployment has zoomed. Business owners complain. Beleaguered restaurants cannot stay afloat. One of my favorite neighborhood bars has boarded up permanently.
On May 1, caving under pressure from his party, industry and business, political interests and his president, Abbott reopened the state. It was one of the quickest and most aggressive re-openings anywhere. He did it against the cautious federal guidelines that other states, like New York, were following. Bars and restaurants reopened with some restrictions, retail stores, cinemas, hair salons and gyms, just about everything, reopened for business.
What happened next was no surprise. Memorial Day weekend came and people cut loose, partying in packed nightclubs and bars, casinos, swimming pools, lakes and beaches. Social distancing went to hell. Then, the inevitable: Infection rates exploded in June, hospitalizations skyrocketed, the coronavirus curve spiked straight up.
Abbott had to do something. Pressure was building from the medical community and other experts, state Democratic leaders, and from Latino and Black communities hardest hit by the virus. With furor building, Abbott took half a step back and ordered bars to close and restaurants to scale back. He limited large gatherings and asked people to stay at home voluntarily. He drew the line at masks though he has since changed his mind and ordered wearing of masks outdoors.
Today Texas and Florida are the new hot zones of the pandemic. On the Fourth of July, Texas climbed over the 200,000 mark in total cases and recorded about 10,000 daily cases. Dallas set new daily records, with a shocking 1,103 new cases. But Houston is racking the highest number of casualties, straining to the breaking point its world-renowned hospitals and medical centers.
So, here we are. I enter my fourth month of corona. Days fly, which seems odd when life is so restricted. Half a year has passed since I moved to Dallas, nearly half a year in deep crisis. And there is no end in sight, not right now.
I still don’t dare to go out. Every time I step out the door or plan to make the doctor’s appointment I’ve put off three times, or think of a way to meet safely with my sister who lives just two miles away, I back out. She and I have seen each other a handful of times since lockdown, always at a distance and masked. We wave and rush away. Not having a car, I can’t go for a drive just to see what’s going on in the city. I text and email family and friends. I hear from my sisters in Austin, about their children and their pets and gardens, their health. Everyone is fine and everyone is cautious.
Here, in my leafy neighborhood, my days are busy. I write, I look over at least four newspapers online, I check Facebook and make comments that I hope are not as dull as they sound. I spend hours doing research and fiddling with a book idea. I make files. I have wine in the early evening. I make dinner. I check the mail. Out my glass door, blinds open, I look out every now and then to see if anything is stirring.
Neighbors walk by, carrying their packages and walking their dogs, gaggles chatting and laughing. A middle-aged blind lady walks her Labrador. An older gent, balding and gray, in long shorts, baggy T-shirt and sneakers, walks to the mailbox. Millennials in short shorts, muscle T’s and ball caps carry snacks, coolers and babies to the pool. Unbelievably, no one wears a mask.
I am far from my old everyday life, but close to it through the filters of television and the internet. I make plans for when this is over. I am never bored. I travel far in my head. I invent stories. I don’t mind being alone. I mind that I don’t yet feel free to walk outside, to break out. I mind feeling marooned. But I know I will catch up with the world out there, maybe not next month or the next one, or even until next year. But I will.