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    Wednesday, June 19, 2024

    In rural Texas, skeptics prevail even with virus cases mounting

    Jeff Donaldson, left, says the government mandate to wear a mask in public places is unconstitutional. (Bloomberg photo by Thomas Black)

    In the vast expanses of rural Texas, coronavirus is creeping in like the dust.

    And - like the dust - few pay it much mind. 

    Outside the state's pandemic-ravaged big cities is Donald Trump country, where the disease is seen as more threatening to personal freedoms than personal health. Masks mostly stay in the truck, where they're fetched only if needed. Even then, they're worn grudgingly out of politeness to business owners -- many who are friends or neighbors -- and taken off again as soon as possible.

    That thinking is making it harder to stamp out the latest outbreak as it spreads to the most remote corners of the state, putting a population with the highest concentration of elderly at increasing risk.

    "I'm not worried about it," said Jeff Donaldson, a 63-year-old resident of Bosque County who has been occupying himself riding motorcycles and fishing with friends since he retired as a truck driver. "It's all just about the politics."

    Gov. Greg Abbott, who initially resisted stringent measures to combat the disease, is enduring the fury of his own party's right wing to convince voters like Donaldson. Four Republican state legislators called mask requirements "tyranny, plain and simple." And that was before the governor reversed course early this month as the state's outbreak intensified, ordering businesses to require face coverings in any county with 20 or more active cases.

    Abbott's approval rate has dropped to 47% from 56% since early June, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released July 22.

    Teeming Houston has become one of the nation's hottest covid zones, with hospitals straining to contain all the sick. Dallas County had an 18-day streak of 1,000 or more cases a day. But in counties like Bosque, about 95 miles southwest of Dallas, surging coronavirus deaths compete with the conviction that the pandemic is being hyped to undermine Trump's reelection. With local case counts still relatively low, many people don't doubt COVID-19 is real, but dismiss it as no worse than a bad flu.

    While Texas's big cities have become multicultural melting pots with international perspectives and predominantly Democratic political establishments, the state's small towns are pure Texas. Toughness, independence and a rebellious spirit shape the culture. Trump, despite his New York City pedigree, is seen as a fellow fighter, admired for defying the establishment, whether it's big-government elites or liberal media.

    To these places, the virus has come. Only four out of Texas's 254 counties remain untouched by COVID-19, down from 23 on June 1. The state has been regularly charting about 10,000 new cases a day in July, and daily deaths were at 173 Thursday, bringing the total to 4,521.

    Masks are a particular sore point in rural Texas, as residents cite the cascade of contradictory advice about how much they actually help fight the virus. Top health officials originally advised against wearing them, and Trump himself resisted being seen in public with a face covering until recent days.

    Tucked into verdant hills separating sandy West Texas from Central Texas farmlands, two neighboring counties illustrate the challenges. Bosque, population 18,700, currently has 55 active cases. There are just 25 in Hamilton County, where about 8,500 people live.

    But both counties have seen a five-fold increase in the past two weeks. What's worse, their percentage of 65-and-older residents is twice the state's average.

    Bosque County's cases will continue to rise, said Judge Don Pool, the county's highest elected official. Tourists from hot spots such as Dallas and Waco poured into nearby Lake Whitney on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, certainly bringing the virus with them, he said. Locals are fed up with sheltering at home and are venturing out more.

    "When I go out in the country, a tremendous number of people are wearing masks. They're trying to behave," Pool said. "But there's still this element that thinks this is no worse than a cold and they're going to do what they want because it's their right."

    Pool is walking a fine line with voters - 80% of whom voted for Trump - after active cases surpassed 20 in his county and triggered the governor's mask mandate. He hears the conspiracy theories and is constantly defending the constitutionality of the order he requires businesses to post.

    "They're infringing on our rights," said Melanie Stark, 46, who shopped maskless at a grocery store in Meridian. The face covering is suffocating for Stark, who preferred to use her maiden name, and she believes she's healthy enough to withstand the virus if she got it. "You can't enforce something like this."

    Sherri Beardan, 42, whose beauty salon was closed in April for more than four weeks, wears a mask as required while conducting business, but she's not concerned about health risks. She doesn't believe the rising virus numbers are accurate.

    "I think it's a whole government crock of B.S.," she said. "They want to get rid of the president. They want him to look as bad as possible."

    The case count in the county is still low and few people know anyone who's contracted the virus, making it seem like a far-removed, big-city problem.

    Septuagenarians John and Mary Bingaman were turned around by the manager of Johnny's Place in the tiny Bosque County town of Clifton when they entered the diner without masks. Without complaint, John, 73, fetched them from his truck, and they were seated for breakfast. The couple doesn't really see the need - no one they know locally has gotten sick.

    "I don't think it's as bad as they say it is," said Mary Bingaman, 76.

    Bradley Calderon, 31, and Karrie Bradshaw, 38, who both work at a convenience store and fast-food restaurant called Cubs Corner in Clifton are taking the virus seriously. Calderon's wife is pregnant and he wears gloves and a mask at all times, even though some regular customers don't. "I'm in safety mode," he said.

    Bradshaw's fear of the disease comes from knowing someone near Dallas - a former boss in his mid-40s - who got critically ill from the virus. Bradshaw said she's shocked by how many locals believe the pandemic will subside after the election.

    With chronic bronchitis, Randy Yates, 62, knows he's in a high-risk category, but sides with those who say COVID-19 is hyped. He puts on a mask when entering a business out of politeness to the owner or employees, but said he won't be told what to do by the governor or county judge. Yates, like many residents, believes Bosque County will pull through the pandemic just fine. That hinges on faith, he said, not following orders of government officials.

    "If the good Lord is ready for me, there's not a thing in the world I can do to change it," he said after a meal at Johnny's Place. "I'm not going to panic about what's going on in this world."

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