On Integrity: The View from Bryan-College Station
College Station, Tx — Here at the local Cinemark movie theater, fitted neatly at the intersection of Highway 6 and University Drive, there is a sight heretofore unseen in my eight years in College Station: the display cases — which typically present posters for films “Now Playing” or “Coming Soon” — are empty. Theater workers have replaced the posters with white sheets of paper. Their message is clear: this movie theater, like so many others, is but another casualty of the coronavirus.
And yet, even if the quiet comforts of a familiar theater escape you, there is a benefit to being a columnist during a pandemic: any shelter-in-place order worth its salt considers the press “essential.” So when your apartment feels a bit smaller than it did the day before — and when you start to see the figure of a woman in the lines of your yellow wall-paper — as long as you take appropriate precautions, you are free to roam as you please. (One might ask: Has this writer spent longer outside than necessary for a column? To which I say, quoting the immortal Francis Urquhart, “You might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”)
To venture forth in Bryan-College Station is to participate in a study of contradictions. The local movie theatre may be closed, but not a half-mile away is a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts — its red neon sign gleams gleefully into the night, advertising to all who pass by that, yes, even in the time of COVID-19, you can still get your fix of sugar and carbs. Over on Texas Avenue, both Chick-fil-A drive-thru lines are operating at full capacity.
Such are the uneven results of Brazos County’s extant shelter-in-place order, which officials recently extended through the end of April. It is an order which, as best as this writer can tell, is swift government action in the form of Swiss cheese. Essential businesses include (a deep breath is advisable here): “healthcare operations and essential infrastructure; grocery stores, certified farmers’ markets, farm and produce stands, supermarkets, food banks, convenience stores,” “hardware and construction supply stores; plumbers, electricians exterminators” and “businesses providing mailing and shipping services, including post office boxes.”
I’d go on, but hopefully I’ve made my point — these are not insensible exceptions, but their sheer number begs the question: Just what doesn’t count as an “essential” business? In what universe does the temporary shuttering of a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts imply the slow, inevitable collapse of the Brazos County community? Why is there a young man twirling a sign on a local byway informing passersby that CiCi’s Pizza — another “essential business” — is still available for takeout?
And that’s before one considers the “essential services” exceptions. One in particular stands out: Residents are allowed “to engage in outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements.” Again, this is not an unreasonable exception, but its capaciousness defeats the order’s purpose. It accounts for why, in Sue Haswell Park, a stone’s throw away from Downtown Bryan, couples can be seen playing tennis. At John Crompton Park over in College Station, a group of undergraduate boys regularly plays a pickup basketball game. There must be about 10 of them. Sometimes there is a cop car nearby, but no one ever breaks them up.
Still, one should be understanding of Judge Duane Peters, the man ultimately responsible for the order. Brazos County is not New York. It is a moderately affected county in a state which has, by and large, dodged the worst of COVID-19. It’s easy to social distance in Texas, a mostly wide-open space where everyone has a car. Sure, we had our run on toilet paper (never has a pun been more enthusiastically intended!), but no one here meaningfully discusses hospitals being overwhelmed. It’s not because we’re scared of the possibility; it’s because, as yet, it seems unlikely.
So certain surgical exceptions to a shelter-in-place order are wise. But the exceptions as defined are not targeted, they are cavernous. A box of Chinese takeout gives license to spend the entire day outdoors spreading untold numbers of germs.
But, amid this shelter-in-place order — as porous as The Ogallala Aquifer itself — take heart, for the peculiarities specific to a pandemic remind us of an old school truth, a truth we occasionally forget when ensconced in the casual comforts of the 21st century. The truth is this: government and science can only protect us so much. Government, for all its strength, is often more of a sputtering machine than anything else. Our greatest scientific minds caution us that we are a year away from a COVID-19 vaccine — and that is being optimistic.
What Bryan-College Station, the state of Texas and the nation require is a little more individual integrity. Integrity is not just some abstract good parents instill in their children so they behave. Nor is it merely feeling guilty with respect to a cheap joke about a journalist staying outside longer than is necessarily for a column (especially when you are well aware that some journalists have caught the disease while doing their duty).
Instead, integrity is doing the right thing when you have every possibility of getting away with not doing it. It is understanding that lacking integrity is always bad for your community, and the extent of the damage done is only a matter of scale. It is understanding that, for the foreseeable future, a lack of integrity means people die.
Quite simply, the view from Bryan-College Station is this: while the government must do all it can, at the end of the day, it is no substitute for the individual.
Joshua Howell is a PhD student at Texas A&M and a columnist with The Battalion