Virus rules not enforced. Grieving Texas family asks: Why?
ABILENE, Texas (AP) - In the weeks Mark Riggs felt worn out before Thanksgiving and died of COVID-19 last Monday, only six calls came to the Abilene Police Department through people who were not wearing face covers.
Even if it's easy to defy the Texas mask mandate here.
When Riggs checked into the hospital, a morgue trailer big enough to stack 24 bodies had just arrived. A medical field tent was erected in the parking lot while the doctors moved the 67-year-old college professor to a ventilator. He died in an intensive care unit that has been full for weeks and is the largest in an area of roughly 24,000 square kilometers of pumpjacks and pastures, larger than Maryland.
The officers responded to three of the face-covering calls required since June. No quotations were given.
"I've never been one to call government or leadership," said Katie Riggs Maxwell, 38, Riggs' daughter. "But it's suddenly very personal."
As virus cases and deaths soared across the country this fall, pressure has increased on governors who have not issued mandates requiring people to wear masks indoors and in public places. Health experts consider masks to be the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Most states have statewide orders, and of the dozen or so that do not, the majority are in the South.
But the debate over mandates and bans - usually fueled by the howling of violations of individual freedoms - often drowns out the reality of whether the restrictions put in place are actually being enforced to make them effective.
In some states like New York, where COVID cases spilled into hospitals earlier this year and were treated as a crisis, authorities have dispatched police to report violations, disbanded parties, and even monitored funerals that awaited gatherings of exposed people were. In California, Los Angeles County has issued more than 300 quotes to churches, businesses, and strip clubs for violating COVID-19 restrictions since September.
But in many smaller cities, especially in politically conservative parts of the country like Abilene, a statewide mandate cannot mean much as there is no risk of fines.
As families prepare for Christmas and create the best possible conditions for the virus to spread, Abilene is unlikely to punish anyone for failing to adhere to Texan rules for wearing masks and limiting outdoor gatherings to 10, even if they do Doctors here are overwhelmed The refusal of transfers from smaller hospitals and the city of 125,000 is struggling to stamp out a worsening outbreak.
On Thursday, Texas set a daily record for new coronavirus cases of more than 16,000. Hospital stays are at their highest level since July and are on the rise.
In the US, attempts to vigorously monitor mask mandates and seating restrictions for restaurants have met with defiance and sometimes threats of violence. In Tennessee, police officers began escorting inspectors in Memphis this month after some faced racial slurs. Maryland Department of Health inspectors were also harassed, particularly female inspectors, according to county officials.
There is no conflict in Abilene. Mayor Anthony Williams, who tested positive for the virus this summer, sees enforcement as logistically difficult and an economic burden in a city where unemployment increased tenfold by June. "We don't want to exaggerate the problem," he said.
Hospital managers say they did not ask the city to reconsider.
"I think it wouldn't be well received by the typical West Texan either," said Dr. Stephen Lowry, Chief of Staff at Hendrick Health in Abilene. He described her as "the typical rugged individualist who didn't want to know what to do".
He and the mayor believe Abilene residents recently appealed to wear masks and take gatherings to heart. The churches paused the service. In Taylor County, where at least 150 people have died, cases are still increasing, but not as rapidly. That number has doubled since November 1st.
Nevertheless, residents and companies have to set their own limits, neither.
On the cautious end of the spectrum is the downtown Paramount Theater, which has been closed indefinitely when falls soared before Thanksgiving, although it could stay open. The theater had sold tickets for a performance of a Christmas classic. Now people are strolling by and taking photos of an unintentional recap of 2020 on the vintage marquee with red letters: "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE CANCELED."
Grayson Allred, the theater's technical director, said they noticed many guests who entered wearing masks took them off after they were inside.
"There will be air circulating here and there is no way out," he said.
While many schools elsewhere rely on distance learning, the majority of Abilene's 15,000 students returned to their campus this fall. Hall traffic was diverted in one direction and masks were required. A teacher who tested positive for the virus died.
At Schuppenmarkt, a barbecue favorite in Abilene, there are no signs on the door encouraging face-covering or social distancing inside. Orders are phoned from exposed employees behind the counter. One of owner Byron Stephenson's grandparents died of COVID-19. Stacie Stephenson, his wife and also an owner, is a former nurse.
"It was really difficult to decide what to do," she said. “The nurse part of my brain thinks this way and the business owner part of my brain thinks differently. And so I feel like my feelings about it change once a week. "
Mark Riggs took the virus seriously at Abilene Christian University, where he retired after 16 years in hospital as a biostatistician.
The desks in his class were six feet apart, and the crews tidied the room after each lesson. He and his wife, Debbie, stopped going to church.
He still picked it up. The first signs came after a night of hanging Christmas decorations with his grandchildren aged 6 and 3. Doctors put him on an air pump to help him breathe easier within two days of his hospital stay. When his condition worsened and the only option was a ventilator, his family first asked for a video call with him. His last words: "This is not the end of my story."
He died a week later. On Wednesday, Mayor Williams went on Facebook defending the city's handling of the virus and reminding people that vaccines were on the way. It annoyed Debbie Riggs, who, while finding the silver lining, says she was planning a funeral.
"If the mayor says there's light at the end of the tunnel, that doesn't help right now," said Debbie Riggs, who was on the campus where her 41-year-old husband taught for more than two decades.
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