When Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued an executive order announcing the second phase of a plan to open more businesses and activities in Texas, his words were met with mixed emotions across Galveston County.
Some Galveston County residents are eager for a return to “normal” and fear the response to COVID-19 has inflicted worse harm on the economy than the virus has on the populous. But others fear what Texas’ reopening economy might mean for their health and that of their loved ones.
Factors driving such differences in opinion are complicated and go far deeper than partisan politics, economists and experts in human behavior say.
“One reason why there’s this confusion and debate about going out or not going out and how it relates to the economy is that normally we have a list of options,” said Steve Cotton, an associate professor of economics at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. “Some of those options are good while some are bad. Right now, we have a list of options and they’re all different flavors of bad.’”
When people stay home and stop shopping and spending money, it’s bad for the economy; but everyone getting sick is bad for the economy, too, Cotton said.
“We get differences in people wanting to go out, or not, primarily because they have wildly different private benefits,” Cotton said. “If you have a preexisting medical condition or are older or have people in your life you care about who are vulnerable, your private costs are higher. If you’re healthy and single and don’t have much contact with others, maybe your private costs are lower.
“But even people with the same private costs can reach a different conclusion through wildly different estimates of the social benefits.”
Hitchcock resident Teri Gibson, 44, worries more about the toll pandemic fear is taking on the economy than the virus itself, she said.
“I personally think the decision to reopen businesses is a good thing,” Gibson said. “We need to stimulate the economy and get these fuel prices to rise.”
Gibson, a secretary, has been working from home since the shutdown began and has visited a few local restaurants to help stimulate the economy, she said. But because she doesn’t like wearing a mask, she’ll wait to return to hair and nail salons, she said.
“I feel very safe on how the restaurants I’ve gone to are handling things,” Gibson said. “I know my stance isn’t a popular one on social distancing, but I robbed myself of so many weeks of happiness when all this mess started and so regret it now.
“I’m not being reckless by any means. I’m going to spend time with my family and enjoy life to the fullest.”
Government-enforced social distancing measures have greatly restricted and closed some businesses, but fear of the virus is the bigger threat, Cotton said.
“Enforcing social distancing isn’t the primary cause of the economic damage — the virus is,” Cotton said. “Even if there weren’t legal requirements to shut down, a lot of people are going to stay in anyway. Countries that have ‘stayed open’ have had drops in economic activity on a scale similar to that of countries that have ‘remained closed.”
Some residents in the county will miss some aspects of the COVID-19 stay-at-home measures.
A survey released this week reports 1 in 3 Texans admit they’ll miss the changes made during the COVID-19 lockdown, with 45 percent reporting being grateful for the opportunity to spend more time with their partner, or family, according to the survey conducted by EverydayCarry.com.
After retiring from the Galveston Independent School District, Galveston resident Gwen Jessel-Lisbony, 68, is all for reopening — but with guidelines, she said.
“I’m the type of person that observes a situation and makes choices on how I will proceed — I don’t live in fear,” Jessel-Lisbony said. “I’ve always practiced good hygiene and know that is what my husband and I need to continue to do.”
Jessel-Lisbony said she and her husband have gotten closer and she predicts life will be back in the full swing by June 1, she said.
“I know our days are numbered on this Earth,” Jessel-Lisbony said. “I’m making good choices with the guidelines given to us. In some ways, I’ve enjoyed this slower pace of life. We’ve taken long golf cart rides all over the island to enjoy nature and have enjoyed fires in our fire pit, too.
“I have enjoyed the sweet fragrance of our roses and plumeria,” she said. “Life has been peaceful because of a pandemic.”
AS LONG AS IT TAKES
Raymond Bryant, 46, of Texas City, believes the virus hasn’t gone anywhere and nothing has stopped the spread of COVID-19 and everyone should remain cautious, he said.
“Ever since the first phase of the plan was released, the number of cases has increased and that’s terrifying to me,” Bryant said. “Every day, I see people out here not practicing social distancing or wearing face masks. This disease is serious and deadly.
“Personally, I’m taking every precaution to protect myself.”
A commodity relocation specialist for Delta Chemical Services in Deer Park, Bryant is extra careful in the workplace and will wait as long as it takes before he goes out for recreational purposes, he said. Now, he goes only to work and the grocery store.
“I’ll have to see the number of cases drop significantly before I’ll feel comfortable again,” Bryant said. “I know the economy is hurting and people need to get back to work, but is it worth your health or, even worse, your life? My main concern is staying healthy and COVID-19 free.
“Once all of this passes, America will bounce back,” he said. “It’s still just too soon for me.”
Several psychological reasons might explain why some people aren’t ready to venture out yet, according to Crystal Reeck, an assistant professor of marketing and supply chain management at the Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Reeck, who specializes on how emotions influence choices, believes the first reason might have to do with the availability bias, which is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision.
“When people consider venturing out now that restrictions have eased, they might recall recent instances of other people becoming sick or dying,” Reeck said. “These readily available mental images of people suffering may make them more cautious about returning to their normal activities.
Another reason has to do with anxiety, Reeck said.
“When people feel anxious, they’re often less likely to take risks,” Reeck said. “Given the high levels of anxiety among many people regarding the pandemic, they may be hesitant to change their shelter-in-place routine and reengage in behaviors that might carry a risk of infection.”
NO EASY ANSWERS
Like Bryant, La Marque resident and teacher Amber Ferguson, 33, worries the economy is reopening too soon, she said.
But Ferguson is willing to venture back out after the current plan is in place and if case numbers stay low.
“I do understand that the reopening of businesses and the economy is important for the nation, however, I think that it’s still too soon at this time,” Ferguson said. “I feel that there’s no easy answer during this pandemic, but it’s my hope and wish that the decision-makers could place a little more emphasis on human life over business and the economy.”
There are no right answers yet, either, Cotton said.
“What I really hope to get across is that nobody on either side of this debate is just flat wrong given the information we have now,” Cotton said.
“With the benefit of hindsight, we may eventually be able to look back and say that one side or the other had the right of it. But with all the uncertainty, rational, logical and informed people can reach justifiably different conclusions on how they should behave personally and how government should involve themselves in people’s private decisions.”