April 4, 2020

Deadly Disease Rolls in Waves into Rural Texas
Where Scary Case Count Proves Forecast Wrong

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

The folks who live in the tiny Texas Panhandle town of Clarendon had major cause for celebration in 2002 when the Sandell Drive-In came back to life after gathering dust in the dark for 18 years. While there will be no movies playing this weekend at the Sandell, a significant number of the city's 1,800 residents are expected to gather there on Sunday morning to pray for neighbors who've been diagnosed with the coronavirus this week.

The vintage outdoor theater hosted a community-wide worship service that more than 150 people attended a week ago when churches in some of the largest Texas population centers had been forced to lock their doors by orders that local leaders had imposed in the fight to curb the invasion of the deadly disease.

But that was before the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Donley County the same day this week that Governor Greg Abbott gave churches across the Lone Star State the right to conduct public worship services that he declared to be an essential need in an order that banned gatherings of a non-religious nature for a month. The locals who flock to the Sandell on the first Sunday in April will have people with names and faces to focus on now that a handful of Donley County residents have tested positive for the coronvirus in the past five days.

The novel illness that's had the state's largest cities closed for the past three weeks is starting to invade rural parts of Texas that were under the impression that they'd be spared from the worst worldwide public health catastrophe in modern history. That message evaporated the moment that Donley County Judge John C. Howard, who's a family practice doctor, revealed that the first known virus case there had been a product of community spread with a victim that hadn't traveled anywhere before coming down with it.

Donley County, where the official population had been 3,311 in 2010, isn't an isolated case of the coronavirus march into the Texas countryside. Eleven people were added this week to the COVID-19 tally about 100 miles away in Castro County where a shelter-in-place order took effect at midnight on Friday as residents mourned the first reported death from the coronavirus there. The Castro County Sheriff's Office that's based in Dimmitt has made it clear that it plans to enforce the local mandate that appears to be as strict as those that major Texas cities and counties had adopted before Abbott implemented a statewide policy that overturned temporary prohibitions on worship in person with more than 10 people on hand.

The emergence of the virus in the Texas locations has caught most off guard after weeks of assurances from President Donald Trump and Republican leaders in Texas that it would keep life on a normal track during a pandemic that feeds on areas that are congested with people. Abbott has been accused of taking his cues from the president with a wait-and-see approach that deferred the toughest calls to mayors and county judges despite pleas from experts for a swift and aggressive statewide plan of action.

While Anthony Fauci has been pleading for a nationwide stay-at-home order as the nation's leading authority on infectious diseases, U.S. Senator John Cornyn warned on Friday that such a move would be an overreaction for areas where there are more cows than people. But the rate of the coronavirus spread is more alarming in the state's most wide open spaces despite the total count of cases in larger population centers.

One out of every 662 residents in Donley County have tested positive compared to one case for ever 4,200 people in Harris County. While the population is more than twice the size in Castro County, one coronavirus case has been reported there for every 784 residents. While some of the state's most sparsely populated counties have yet to record a single case recorded, the number of people with the coronavirus is five times higher in some rural areas in the northwestern tip of Texas that hadn't been in the virus path.

One coronavirus case had been reported earlier this week in Moore County south of the Amarillo area the positive test count climbed to six. Deaf Smith County, which connects Amarillo to New Mexico, has seen the virus count jump from two to five in the past couple of days. At least 48 people in Randall and Potter counties that Amarillo straddles have come down with the coronavirus less than a week after 11 cases had been reported in those two jurisdictions.

The virus appears to be rolling through Texas in waves that began in larger cities in March before rolling through rural destinations within a radius of about 100 miles. Officials in parts of Texas that are farthest away from cities as small as Amarillo, Lubbock and Midland and those of similar sizes or significantly larger face the choice of bracing for the invisible tsunami or dismissing action that isn't needed immediately as overkill.

Donley County appears to be taking COVID-19 seriously as a early target of the second Texas wave. The drive-in theater in the county seat of Clarendon has come up with a creative plan to alleviate concerns about the threat of exponential exposure when large groups of people worship together at the same location. The Sunday service organizers are telling people to only travel to the Sandell in cars and trucks with people from the same household. Worshipers have been warned that they cannot leave their vehicles unless they have specific parts in the services. But they will be able to tune into the service together on a local radio station from their cars.

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