How Texans behave on July Fourth will shape the next phase of the state’s coronavirus epidemic

Chris Harper will be awake in the dawn hours this Fourth of July tending his slow-smoked brisket. He’ll wrap up the goods and drive to his parents’ and sibling’s homes near Fort Worth and Arlington for socially distanced and masked up outdoor visits. It’s his way of providing “a bit of normalcy,” without putting himself or his family at risk.

Harper’s small act of acquiescence to the realities of a raging pandemic underscores the choices millions of Texans will make this Independence Day weekend: comply with health and state regulations for the sake of personal and public safety or rebel in the name of personal liberty. The sum of these individual decisions will determine whether Texas’ coronavirus epidemic is pushed further past the brink.

Health officials want people to choose Harper’s route, finding safe alternatives to yearly traditions. But with Texas’ recent history of temper tantrums by a small but vocal slice of the populace who don’t want to wear masks and insist bars and hair salons reopen, that seems unlikely.

A segment of the public has proven it’s restless to get back to normal, and officials worry droves of people will jump at the opportunity to host family-style barbecues, dive in the local swimming pool and gather for fireworks — all things health experts strongly advise against. There’s a palpable fear among local leaders, health officials and even the governor (who’s reversed course on a number of actions) that this year’s celebration might be a multi-day virus superspreader that could pile another layer of anguish and death atop Texas’ ongoing health catastrophe.

“We have learned in the past these gatherings that took place during the Memorial Day holiday did lead to the spread of COVID-19,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a Friday interview with KSAT. “If people gather on 4th of July the same way they did in Memorial Day it is going to lead to a massive increase in the number of people testing positive, the number of people who will be hospitalized, and it could lead once again to an increase in the number of people who lose their lives.”

Since mid-June, the Lone Star state has reached record high positivity rates, and the number of people hospitalized has more than tripled. Many hospitals in parts of the state are already nearing capacity.

“It’s shocking to me that so many people aren’t taking this seriously. I’m curious to see how the fourth is going to be as far as what changes and numbers,” Harper said.

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