The current coronavirus scare has radically transformed the Central Texas landscape in the space of less than three weeks.
Schools, already out for spring break, remain closed. Movie theaters, bowling alleys and bars have gone dark. Restaurants have eliminated eat-in service. Retail stores’ hours of operation are reduced. Churches have suspended Sunday services. Athletic events have been canceled. Club meetings, fundraisers and banquets are postponed. Even some funeral services have been delayed.
The closings and cutbacks are the result of sweeping actions taken by state, county and local officials in an attempt to prevent the highly contagious virus from spreading through gatherings of large groups.
It’s an unprecedented step made necessary by an unprecedented health threat.
In a state that highly prizes the freedom of choice, many of those choices have been taken away.
Just three weeks ago, Central Texans didn’t give a second thought to dining out, taking in a movie, going out for a drink after work or hitting the gym.
Those choices don’t exist now.
Just a few weeks ago, shoppers could find milk, bread, eggs and paper products at just about any grocery or convenience store in town. They could select their favorite kind of lunchmeat and their preferred cut of ground beef.
At most stores, those items simply aren’t available now.
Fearing the possibility of being homebound or quarantined, panicked shoppers have scoured the shelves of items such as bottled water, cleaning products and toilet paper. Meat products and canned food items also have been snapped up, leaving bare shelves and empty freezer cases.
And that’s not just at one or two stores. It’s virtually everywhere in Central Texas.
We’re living in a different world now — a reality out of sync with what area residents have come to know and expect in their daily lives.
The strangeness of the situation only heightens the level of fear in a community where the virus hasn’t yet gained a solid foothold..
For the vast majority of Central Texans, this new normal is anything but.
And for some, this new reality is about much more than inconvenience or product shortages.
Couples who are working and have no childcare while school is out for a month are in a bind. Some employers are permitting working from home but in other cases, it’s not feasible.
Even harder hit are those who have lost their jobs, at least temporarily, because their workplace has curtailed its hours or closed its doors entirely.
And small-business owners, many of whom already operate with slim profit margins, are facing the prospect of losing their investments if the crisis continues for months on end.
The virus’ impact — and the government’s measures to slow its spread — are having a ripple effect across the Central Texas economy.
The very steps taken to protect area residents from a serious health threat are inflicting economic harm on some — though unintentionally.
Still, our federal, state and local officials had to make a choice — whether to take a “wait and see” attitude on the coronavirus’ spread, or take strong action in an attempt to head off a greater threat down the road.
Given the rising numbers of infections across the state, it’s becoming evident that our officials made the right call.
But with the virus just now starting to invade the local area — seven cases reported in Bell County as of Friday — our local governmental entities must take further action.
City councils and school boards must decide whether they want to continue holding public meetings, or temporarily switch to teleconferencing with public access, as Gov. Abbott authorized last week.
Those same boards and councils must choose whether to keep the current May 2 election date or move their elections to November, as the governor also authorized.
Given the state’s ban on large groups and the continuing effort to reduce the level of human contact, it would seem that moving the elections makes sense — especially since early voting begins April 20, less than a month away.
The Killeen City Council and Harker Heights City Council will be discussing the potential change at their respective meetings Tuesday.
Killeen ISD — which holds elections jointly with Killeen and Harker Heights — will consider changing the election date in the next two to three weeks.
On the KISD election ballot is a $265 million school bond issue. The school board should consider postponing the bond vote or withdrawing it altogether.
KISD board members and administrators must recognize that a substantial portion of district residents likely will be experiencing some economic hardships as the coronavirus crisis continues to play out in the area.
With more job layoffs, business closures and rising healthcare bills looming, now is simply not the time to ask residents to support a tax increase to build schools. It’s also not the time to ask voters and poll workers to put their health at risk.
The bond issue can wait, and maybe it can wait all the way until next year.
In the meantime, all of us have some decisions to make.
We must be proactive in doing what we can to stay safe and well: Practice good hygiene, follow the social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and avoid large groups, whenever possible.
We must also be good neighbors to our fellow residents during this trying time. That means checking on the needs of others in our churches, our workplace and in our neighborhoods.
That also means avoiding panic-buying and taking only what we need when we’re out shopping.
Above all, it also means being supportive of those who are having a difficult time coping with the crisis, and trying to remain positive in the face of frustration and fear.
No doubt, the coronavirus threat has taken away many of our choices. But we still have a choice as to how we will respond.
Certainly, the crisis will test our character, our patience and our resolve.
But we can come out of this trying time a little stronger and more compassionate for having gone through it together.
At this point, we don’t know how this health crisis will play out or when it will end.
But we can make a potentially difficult journey a little easier by leaning on each other along the way.