People are getting restless.
After nearly two months of being cooped up in houses and the absence of everyday lives and routines, Galveston County residents are venturing out in increasing numbers, eager to make human contact and return to society — at least some semblance of it — as health officials warn too much intermingling too fast could cause a spike in COVID-19 cases.
A social distancing index developed by the Maryland Transportation Institute shows that Galveston County residents, and Texans, are leaving their houses more frequently and traveling farther than they were a month ago, said Lei Zhang, director of the institute.
On April 13, Texas had a social distancing index of 50, and by Tuesday, the most recent data available, that index had dropped to 39, according to the database for which 100 means everyone stays home.
For Galveston County residents, the index was 52 on April 13 and 37 on Tuesday, according to the index.
The index uses data from 100 million cell phones to measure how much people get out, how far from home they go and whether or not they’re going to work, Zhang said.
Easter on April 12 was the peak of social distancing across the nation, but the index started dipping after April 14, when people started going out more often, Zhang said.
Initially, the dip was just in southeastern states, Zhang said.
“Now, it’s all over the place,” Zhang said.
‘LIFE GOES ON’
“People just want to get out of the house and get some fresh air,” Galveston resident Steven Michael Sparks Jr. said.
Sparks has been working at his job at a car dealership, but his wife was furloughed from tourist attraction Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier and has been helping their three children with virtual schooling since mid-March, he said.
The family has adjusted its lifestyle by wearing masks when out and by practicing more frequent hand-washing, but it’s time to allow people to return to normal activities and let parents entertain their children out of the house, Sparks said.
“Life goes on,” Sparks said. “Everyone just has to be careful.”
ANXIETY OF THE UNKNOWN
Restlessness and anxiety are understandable, experts say. Being stuck inside can be challenging for people whose normal routines are upended, said Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine.
The unknown causes anxiety and with COVID-19, the unknown is prolonged and feels indefinite, he said.
What people define as normal always changes, but right now it’s changing so quickly that people can’t adapt, Shah said.
“That’s what’s causing some of the stress,” Shah said.
Kemah resident Lori Kindred understands the need to be cautious, but for mental health, it’s time for governments to start easing restrictions, she said.
“I think for mental stability, if anything, getting back to semi-normal is a good thing,” Kindred said.
Kindred doesn’t like large crowds, but she’s still eager to get back to her favorite restaurants and spots, she said. Others, however, have definitely been ready and might have jumped over the phased reopening, she said.
“People were so eager to get out of the house that it was hopping to phase three,” Kindred said.
People want to social contact, said Matthew Gallagher, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Houston.
“It’s the social relationships, the social contact that is really, really crucial and is often one of the best predictors of doing well mentally,” Gallagher said.
Although some people are limiting their outside venturing to returning to the work of the office, others might be moving too fast in their quest to return to normal, Gallagher said.
“They’re finally free and they really want to go for it and they might not be thinking it through,” Gallagher said.
Many people who want to leave home are doing so safely and are wearing masks, Shah said.
“But there is a second group that always likes to defy,” Shah said.
There will probably be multiple spikes of the virus as people start to go out into society, said Dr. Philip Keiser, the Galveston County Health District’s top health official. The influenza epidemic of 1918 took two years to eradicate, he said.
“People don’t want to hear that and I understand that,” Keiser said.
What saved Texas and the region from becoming harder hit by coronavirus was shutting down large events and closing businesses, he said.
“It could have happened to us,” Keiser said. “I think our leadership made the right decision.”
But it’s time to start reopening, he said. Keiser and his wife have been to several restaurants, but he’s also seen many people not wearing masks in public or practicing proper social distancing, he said.
“The reality is if we all wear masks for a month, that’s really going to help with preventing the spread of this,” Keiser said.