States that reopened too quickly amid coronavirus are facing a problem: Getting the genie back in the bottle

Jumps in Texas and Florida have caused a change on mask policies.

July 12, 2020, 11:13 AM

Strict social distancing measures, and eventually mask-wearing, were seen as life-saving tools early on in the coronavirus pandemic, as it tore through the Northeast and officials came to fear the worst.

But as daily caseloads and death rates began to fall in the spring, many states in the South and West pushed hard to reopen, egged on by President Trump, despite not meeting White House guidelines for doing so.

Now states such as Texas and Florida have had to make a drastic about-face in recent weeks as coronavirus cases and deaths there jumped dramatically.

As some of the earliest locations to end their stay-at-home orders, local leaders and more recently governors in those states have had to reverse course, shutting down bars and restaurants and in some cases mandating face coverings.

Those moves have precipitated uneven compliance and even acts of defiance from businesses, residents and officials alike in the politically charged atmosphere, such as bars in Mississippi staying open and residents in Florida without face coverings (there is no statewide requirement).

But experts and local officials say it is possible to put the genie back in the bottle and get populations to comply -- thanks to peer pressure and enforcement, even if it is late compared to other states.

Beth Redbird, an assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University, who runs the school's ongoing COVID-19 Social Change Survey, said the pandemic -- once largely centered in New York -- has started to hit close to home for Americans living in these states, sickening and killing loved ones and overwhelming hospitals.

"I think by and large people are more worried," she told ABC News.

PHOTO: Hostess Ashley Clinton waits for customers behind a plexiglass partition at the KYU restaurant, July 9, 2020 in Miami.
Hostess Ashley Clinton waits for customers behind a plexiglass partition at the KYU restaurant, July 9, 2020 in Miami. The restaurant created an outdoor seating area as restaurants have been asked by Miami-Dade county officials to shut their indoor dining areas down as the county tries to combat a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Redbird and other experts said that while these grim circumstances will help communities accept stricter COVID-19 regulations, they warned that local, state and federal leaders need to come together with succinct plans and messaging if they want to see any progress.

An about face in Texas

Texas has seen 168,008 new coronavirus cases since Gov. Greg Abbott began reopening the economy on April 30, an average of 2,400 cases a day, according to Texas Health Department data on July 9. During that same period, the state saw 1,270 new COVID-19 related deaths, an average of about 18 deaths a day, the health department said.

Between July 7 and 9, the state recorded 29,789 cases, a three-day average of nearly 10,000, and 263 deaths, a three-day average of 88, the health department said.

In June, Abbott told reporters the rising numbers were concerning, but said "there was no reason to be alarmed," declining requests from mayors to mandate a face-covering order statewide.

However, as the cases rose, Abbott changed his stance. At the end of June, he ordered all bars to close and on July 2, he ordered that counties mandate face coverings if they've seen more than 20 positive cases in a day.

"The only strategy we have to prevent that from happening is by everybody wearing a mask," Abbott said at a news conference on July 9.

PHOTO: A sign outside the West Alabama Icehouse on June 29, 2020, in Houston, reads, "Closed Again :(."
A sign outside the West Alabama Icehouse, June 29, 2020, in Houston. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shut down bars again and scaled back restaurant dining as cases climbed to record levels after the state embarked on reopening.
David J. Phillip/AP

Several Texas sheriffs and law enforcement leaders have been vocal against the governor's mandate, and have said through their social media pages they won't enforce the fines for violating Abbott's order. Houston Police Officers' Union president Joe Gamaldi called the order "draconian" in a tweet, which has been liked by over 160 users as of July 10.

"Everyone needs to wear a mask, but don't put us in this position," he tweeted.

There have been several protests against the governor from residents and business owners over his orders.

People protest against mandates to wear masks amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Austin, June 28, 2020.
Sergio Flores/Reuters

Better late than never

Redbird said political backtracking normally hurts the public's trust in elected officials and some people won't heed their policy or warnings. However, the pandemic's effects are too hard to ignore and, based on her studies, more people are taking precautions seriously.

About 75% of the Northwestern Social Change Survey's respondents said they were in favor of keeping non-essential businesses to closed, and the response increased between March and April. The data has corresponded to the rise in respondents who said they knew someone who contracted the disease, according to the survey.

"Knowing someone who gets sick will be more impactful than your governor saying, 'OK you have to do this,'" Redbird said.

Redbird added that organizations and businesses are beginning to take the precautions into their own hands by mandating face coverings and limiting people, regardless of what the government says. That kind of peer pressure has led to more compliance, she said.

Vice President Mike Pence listens as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right, holds up a mask and discusses the importance of wearing one, during a news conference in Dallas, June 28, 2020.
Tony Gutierrez/AP

Jeff Shaman, a professor of environmental health science at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, said one of the biggest roadblocks in fighting the pandemic has been the lack of a consistent message from all levels of government.

For example, while President Trump has been pushing for more businesses and schools to reopen, leaders in states like Michigan, New York and cities like Miami, seeing the COVID cases rise, have been ignoring his calls and sticking to their slower economic re-openings, plans to limit in-person classes and strict health orders.

"What needs to be out there is a national dialogue," Shaman told ABC News.

At the same time, experts say that the recent health orders implemented by state and local leaders are better late than never.

Mark McClellan, the director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, told ABC News strong government enforcement of public health policy has always been difficult because people's attitudes are associated with the availability of information and the access to that information.

Visitors, some wearing masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19, ride a river barge along the River Walk, July 7, 2020, in San Antonio.
Eric Gay/AP

Even though the stricter COVID rules in Texas came in later, McClellan said the governor's order, and subsequent media messaging about the benefits of masks and social distancing, will help residents.

"It changes people's behavior," he told ABC News. "I think actions by leaders encourage people to take these steps."

Need to reduce confusion

McClellan and other experts said governments have to step up their efforts to clear up the confusion among residents and cut down on their reluctance to adhere to COVID-19 safety measures. Moreover, they need to focus more on health information than politics.

Dave Kerner, the mayor of Palm Beach County, Florida, told ABC News he's taken more steps to make sure his residents take the pandemic seriously. The county is one of the many locations in the state that has seen a jump in cases with 17,242 confirmed coronavirus cases and 543 deaths as of July 6.

Statewide, there were 240,710 COVID-19 cases and over 4,200 deaths related to the virus as of July 10, according to the Florida Health Department. On Friday, there were 11,000 newly reported cases across the state, according to Florida Health Department data.

A woman rides her bike past pedestrians on Ocean Drive on July 3, 2020, in the South Beach neighborhood of Miami Beach, Fla.
Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

Last month, Palm County's health department mandated face coverings, even though there is no statewide order to do so. Some residents have been vocal about their disapproval of the order, and have come to public meetings without masks to jeer Kerner and the health department.

Kerner said these residents represent the "hyper minority" of his constituents and many people are taking heed of the orders.

"This (pandemic) has really galvanized an immense portion of this population to be like, 'OK, we're not only going to comply with this law. We're going to be ambassadors and spread the word,'" he told ABC News.

Kerner said his office is going the extra mile through a task force led by the county's first responders that goes out and educates people about the virus. His office is in the process of mailing out over 3 million masks, four per household, to every resident.

"It makes it easier for them to comply and it doesn't cost the city that much," the mayor said.

Kerner, a former police officer, acknowledged that even though it may be hard to "put the toothpaste back in the tube," he is willing to order the closure of businesses if cases continue to rise. However, he is confident that more people in his city and the state will come to accept the harsh realities and take action on their own.

"When you see the hospitals fill up, you can't fight that metric," he said.