Editorial: Small Social Gatherings Shouldn’t Be Prohibited in Texas

When the coronavirus first started spreading in Texas, state and local authorities began to restrict the size of public gatherings. At first, they banned gatherings of over 250 people, then 50, then 10. Eventually, all public and private gatherings were prohibited under state and local ‘stay home’ orders.

Texans differ over whether those orders were necessary and effective. That’s a question that needs to be examined, studied, and debated, in order to help us prepare for the next pandemic, and to come up with better ways to contain outbreaks — ways that are less damaging to society and the economy.

The more pressing question now, however, isn’t whether the restrictions were justified in the first place, it’s when they should end, and how they should be phased out.

The governor’s statewide stay-home order was allowed to expire April 30, replaced only by an order that “every person in Texas shall, except where necessary to provide or obtain Covered Services, minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.”

That wording leaves some room for interpretation. Does “minimize” mean no social gatherings? Or does it mean minimal social gatherings?

An order that vague is pretty much unenforceable — and that may be the point. The governor has emphasized the importance of exercising personal judgment. We’re supposed to count on our fellow Texans to use their good sense to contain the spread of the virus, rather than relying on strict enforcement measures.

That’s well and good, except it puts at a disadvantage those who like things spelled out in black and white. A young couple shouldn’t be made to feel like lawbreakers for going out on a date to a restaurant. A pair of high school friends shouldn’t feel ashamed for meeting up to say goodbye before they part ways for four years of college. A brother and a sister living in different households, who have already self-isolated for many weeks, should feel welcome to come together for a reunion.

“A pair of high school friends shouldn’t feel ashamed for meeting up to say goodbye before they part ways for four years of college.”

Technically, stay-home orders remain in effect in Austin and Travis County, prohibiting such social gatherings. But enforcement of those orders is minimal to none. Under the less restrictive statewide order, it’s not clear whether such gatherings are allowed.

By imposing rules that can’t be enforced, or won’t be enforced, government officials are undermining their own authority, respect for the rule of law, and public confidence in the very institutions that they lead.

Realistically, Texans are going to ignore government orders that prohibit social gatherings indefinitely. However, many Texans remain concerned about the coronavirus and might still be amenable to upper limits on gatherings, in order to prevent ‘super spreader’ events that really do pose a serious public health risk.

Let’s remember that the stated goal of the lockdowns was to prevent the hospital system from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients before the outbreak could be contained. That goal has been achieved.

It’s time to allow Texans to go on with their lives — and that means more than just reopening the dining area inside the McDonald’s. It means formally allowing lifelong friends to see each other again, allowing a small backyard barbecue, and resuming face-to-face business networking.

To be clear, we know that increased social contact will increase the spread of the coronavirus. Texans should still exercise great caution in how they gather and with whom. Keep appropriate distances, don’t go out if you’re feeling unwell, avoid crowds, wear a mask in stores, and wash your hands. But humans aren’t meant to be alone, and they ought not to be alone for month after month. It’s time to arrange that playdate for your kids, to meet up with a friend, or to invite a neighbor over for dinner.

Originally published at https://www.honestaustin.com on May 19, 2020.

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Original reporting on local Austin news, Texas politics, and the economy. honestaustin.com

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Honest Austin

Honest Austin

Original reporting on local Austin news, Texas politics, and the economy. honestaustin.com

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