PARIS, Texas – Barely a week ago, rural Lamar County could make a pretty good argument for Texas' reopening on Friday.
Only a handful of the 50,000 residents here, right on the border with Oklahoma, had tested positive for the coronavirus. None had died. The mayor of Paris, Texas — a pit stop for drivers passing through to snap a selfie with the city's miniaturized Eiffel Tower — had drive-thru virus testing in the works, just to give locals peace of mind. Some wore masks but many saw little reason to bother.
Then an outbreak at a nursing home turned up over the weekend.
Now at least 65 people are infected, and everything has changed. A courier drove 11 hours through the night to pick up testing kits and stores are second-guessing reopening as Lamar County becomes a cautionary tale of the fragility of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's plan to get Texas back in business faster than many states. And on the eve of every retailer, restaurant and movie theater being allowed to let customers back in the door, Texas set a single-day record high for fatalities Thursday with 50.
“We don’t know what it’s going to do here,” said Taylor Wright, owner of Aden Ann's, a women's boutique in Paris. Word of the sudden outbreak at Paris Healthcare Center, she said, shelved her plans to reopen over fears of exposing her staff and family.
“We don’t know where it’s all spreading," she said.
The whiplash in Paris from healthy outlier to overnight hot spot illustrates the balancing act states are taking on as they begin relaxing public health restrictions, particularly in places with Republican governors, who broadly support President Donald Trump's determination to get the U.S. economy back up and running.
In Texas, Abbott's instinct throughout the crisis has been to govern from the middle ground, reflected in his reluctance early on to issue statewide stay-at-home orders that soured conservative activists. Democrats who control Texas' booming big cities, meanwhile, have praised him for shaking loose protective gear from a stretched-thin supply chain, but the speed at which Abbott is now hitting the reset button is making some fidget.
Like many governors, Abbott is taking a piecemeal approach to rolling back restrictions. Counties with fewer than five active cases of COVID-19 can reopen businesses at 50% capacity, which Abbott on Monday said would apply to nearly half of Texas' 254 counties. Everywhere else — which is where the vast majority of Texas' nearly 30 million people live — can open back up at 25% capacity. Beaches in Texas are reopening this weekend, while hair salons, gyms and bars remain closed.
Up until last weekend, Lamar County looked like a contender to begin to reopen under the loosest restrictions. There had been just eight cases of coronavirus as of April 23, and six of those had recovered.
“And then, ‘boom,'" Paris Mayor Steve Clifford said.
The first positive case at the nursing home appeared the very next day. “It hits us like right between the eyes, and all of a sudden we have this really huge, huge outbreak."
Now Clifford, a radiologist, worries about a second wave. He worries about getting more testing kits, which has been a chronic problem that may have masked the true number of cases in his city from the start. He had purchased 1,500 antibody tests — a big gesture for a city of 25,000 — and did a trial run of drive-thru testing April 23, in preparation for opening up for three days this week.
The nursing home outbreak scuttled those plans. One resident has died, but Clifford said if Texas doesn't open back up soon, “every business in my city is going to go bankrupt and no one will have a job, and then there will be poverty."
Texas has reported 27,000 cases and more than 750 deaths linked to the virus. Experts said a one-day spike in deaths is no cause for alarm on its own, since it could reflect a lag in reporting or patients who succumbed after battling the disease for weeks.
But as Abbott targets May 18 as the date for peeling back restrictions even more, they also worry it's rushed.
“It seems a little bit jumping the gun. It seems a little fast, for sure," said Dr. Diana Cervantes, an epidemiologist at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
It hasn't come fast enough for John Bratcher, whose restaurant and beer garden, named 107, off the town square in Paris has been pushed to the breaking point. Money is tight despite having kept the kitchen open for to-go orders. He wishes the governor would let his outdoor patio, which sways Saturday nights with live music, accommodate at least a half-full crowd again.
“He’s trying to take into consideration all areas of Texas," Bratcher said. “And that’s a tough one."
Stengle reported from Dallas and Weber from Austin.