Until Further Notice…

The saddest thing I’ve seen in a while is a sign, hand-written with a beleaguered blue marker on a folded sheet of copy paper taped inside a glass door: “Closed until 7/13/20.” It had later been scratched through and updated to “until further notice.”

Double-masked, fully vaccinated, yet with no small trepidation, I ventured this morning out of the rain and into the labyrinth of tunnels underlying much of Houston’s downtown, just before 10 am, before any office workers are headed to lunch, when most stores are closed and restaurants are just starting preparations for lunch. Houston’s subterranean business district lives off this market, the lunchtime office worker rush. Aside from the many restaurants, convenience and gift shops, optometrists and printers all serve the needs of the itinerate workforce. 170,000 or so people who come and go every day of the workweek—a force that for the last 14 months has been largely absent.

The carnage isn’t as complete as I’d imagined. About 60% of the shops were open or preparing for lunch as if nothing had ever changed. 15% were shuttered and dark, closed “until further notice” but at least with evidence that someone, somewhere, still holds hope of better days to come. But 25% are simply gone—empty—with signs up announcing the vacancy. Bombay Pizza, a quirky Houston favorite that served pizza and burgers with Indian spice, is one of these, as are the new businesses in its basement, where the property owner had just completed a remodel in 2019. By and large, it’s the newer businesses with less established clientele, or the juiceries and such with less committed ones, that are gone. The city’s busiest food court, underneath Allen Center, appears unscathed, but two of the four restaurants in our basement are gone, and one of those remaining (a Wendy’s) is closed. One of these, an office favorite called Alonti, appears to have closed all its retail locations and retreated into catering. Of the three Mediterranean restaurants down below, two are shuttered and one is open for business, the little one with few customers and fewer staff who I’m pretty sure bought the recipes and equipment from the previous owner when he sold his old location to a chain–now shuttered. These intrepid folks held on by grit and gristle, weathering the risk no doubt to stay out of bankruptcy.

It will take Houston’s downtown a decade to recover, and for many of those affected, a generation.

It didn’t have to be this way. From March of 2020, anyone who thought the pandemic would be over in a few weeks was delusional, but the mass lockdowns and widespread work-from-home could easily have been. COVID-19 isn’t the smallpox. We could have used those weeks in March through May to study the virus, put resources and mitigations in place, and then reopen—carefully and responsibly with widespread masking and support for mitigation efforts. But this was impossible, between a president who first dismissed the threat, then the measures needed to combat it, and a political machine eager to turn any viewpoint to political advantage, no matter how irresponsible. Houston is the fifth most populous city in the US, but our population density—and therefore the ease with which a virus can move through our population–is among the lowest of any major city. Texas could have returned to work a year ago, but where our governor should have been imploring the citizenry to mask up in order to safely “reopen the state”, he instead urged them to just reopen by sheer cussedness while he used every legal lever at his disposal to make it impossible for cities to protect their people. Thus, the people stayed home, sheltering in place for a full year longer than they might have done, until the vaccine was ready. While the economy our leaders claimed to defend withered like tomatoes on an unwatered vine.

We needed an FDR or at least a Ronald Reagan. We got Donald Trump and a Texas governor primed to fill the shoes of the last one, a man so stupid he didn’t know the Federal Department of Energy did anything important until he was put in charge of it and shuffled quietly, ignominiously off the stage. We needed a population willing to act for the greater good, the sort of population we had–warts and all, when we were the Great nation glowing in the spoils of World War victory. A population that would wear a damned mask, act responsibly and cooperate with the mitigation efforts put in place by every facility owner in the area. Instead, we got America’s fetish for personal “liberty” raised to a psychotic exponent and passed off as a form of “conservatism.”

Bullshit.

My daddy was a conservative before most of you living today were born, and he taught me that a man does first what needs to be done to care for his family and community. The romantic dream of the frontier individualist is nothing but mythology. The west was won by wives and whores and bankers and clergy, and the rest were just hired hands. But there is no money to hire without first a pulling together, a raising of barns and capital and standards and clean water from deep well to whet the whistles of the next generation and their schoolmarm. There is no liberty without fellowship, no economy without community. If you don’t think so, go park yourself on a desert island and see how long it takes you to produce a useful stone point, much less the Internet or the Federal highway system. Enjoy the fruits of your own industry as you invest each hour of every day in scraping up enough food to stay alive. I’ll keep civilization, thanks. Vaccines and masks included.

If you took part in the year-long campaign to cast COVID-19 as a Democratic hoax, mask wearing as a sign of cowardice, and social distancing as a communist plot to inculcate the masses, you helped kill the downtown economy–here and in your town–as sure as if you’d walked through the tunnels spraying Sarin gas and chanting terroristic blather. Those who were too cussed to wear a mask and help safely restart the economy have no right to the name “conservative.”

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