THE GROCERY STORE – The shelves for bread are bare. Paper towels and toilet paper are MIA. Hand sanitizers are on the endangered species list. Fortunately, there are still plenty of liver, brussel sprouts and kale. Here comes another customer. I veer into the bruised fruit section (hey, I’m desperate) to avoid getting within 6 feet of him, and notice he’s not wearing a mask. “You there!” I shout through my NASA space suit. “The law says you have to wear a mask.” He shrugs. “It’s only a suggestion.” I reply, “County Judge Hidalgo said it’s the law.” He throws a turnip at me and shouts back: “Governor Abbot said we could wear one if we wanted to.” I swat him with stalk of celery, and move on.
The new rules are confusing. If restaurants have to keep tables 6 feet apart, how do waiters serve the food? Maybe they have long paddles — pizza joints stand at the ready. Or just toss the salads, literally. Bartenders shout as they throw: “Here comes your martini, both shaken and stirred.” If eateries can only be 25 percent full, can McDonald’s only sell quarter-pounders? Menus will used just once and must be printed on paper. Take them home in case the toilet paper shortage continues. I wore a ski mask to a liquor store and was almost shot by the clerk. My neighbor wouldn’t let me shelter in his bomb shelter.
These mixed messages are because of Austin’s power grab over local authorities on pandemics or anything else. First, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered residents to cover their face in public, and failure to do so could result in a hefty fine or jail. There were exceptions for children under 10, adults while walking or jogging, and those with suicidal intentions. Then Gov. Greg Abbott issued his own order, loosening up the restrictions. He explained, “because the COVID-19 infection rate has been on the decline over the past 17 days.” Abbott’s optimism was at odds with the facts. Actually, all data showed an increase in the state’s COVID-19 victims, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services website. He could not plausibly state that the “infection rate has been on the decline.” “The governor’s pronouncement today pretty much will take these measures, the ability to do stay-at-home orders, out of our hands locally,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
Granted, Hidalgo’s orders had been opposed. Houston Police Officers Union President Joe Gamaldi, a New Yorker who apparently came to Texas on missionary work, called the orders “idiotic” and “draconian.” The Harris County chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police called it a shake-down. Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican, said that state lawmakers “are going to have to look at all these emergency powers” being wielded locally “and see if they have to be scrubbed down.” Lite Gov. Dan Patrick said it was “abuse of the use of executive orders” and “the ultimate government overreach.” Speaking of “the ultimate government overreach,” it was Patrick who called for the resignation of the Fort Worth ISD superintendent for his stand on transgender school bathrooms that differed from Patrick’s. Gov. Greg Abbott once called these local rules “a form of collectivism.” The Republican-controlled legislature has even passed state laws overturning local governments’ ordinances on Uber, Lyft, fracking and cutting trees.
Then there were the plastic bags. Our Legislature passed a statewide law that prohibits local governments from banning plastic bags. The city of Laredo, which had such an ordinance, sued, arguing it imposed the ban to avoid spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean disposable bags from the sewer system. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that the Texas Constitution declares state law takes precedence over any local law. These are the same pols who keep whining about “Washington interference.” It’s called hypocrisy. We have this remarkable, if depressing, secretly taped conversation between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, the No. 3 Republican in state government, and a fellow GOP House member, and a big bucks conservative activist in 2019. They talked about their “hate” for cities and counties. They bragged about calling the Austin mayor to testify at two different hearings at the same time earlier that year. And they plotted how to outlaw cities and counties from hiring lobbyists, undermining the political clout of local government. They wanted 2019 to be the “worst session in history of the Legislature” for cities and counties. Said Bonnen: “Let me tell you something: In this office and in the conference room on that end, any mayor, county judge that was dumb (blank) enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties.” The legislator added: “I hope the next session’s even worse.” “And I’m all for that,” Bonnen said.
Back here at the frozen gar locker, I ponder again that Gov. Abbott declared that retail stores, restaurants, malls, and movie theaters could reopen starting May 1, even though his own medical advisors opposed the re-openings. And polling showed that 78 percent of Texans were still worried about being around others. The day before that order went into place Texas reported 50 more COVID-19 deaths, the most in any one day since the state reported its first deaths in mid-March. The state also reported that day it had added more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 to its total of 28,000 — the biggest one-day increase in infections since April 10. Apparently the only Texans who don’t have to stay 6 feet apart are 6 feet under.
The guy without a mask coughs as he comes by. I squirt him with a 2-gallon bottle of mustard. He lobs a Jell-O salad back. A voice comes over the loud speaker: “Clean up on Aisle Four. Again.” Let me check my grocery list. Oh, I still need some Clorox to gargle.
Ashby shops at email@example.com