HOUSTON — For months, Republican leaders in Texas resisted calls by Democrats to allow widespread mail-in voting, more swayed by President Trump’s concerns about mail-ballot “fraud” than by the threat the coronavirus might pose at polling places.
The pandemic would have run its course by the time voting began, they believed. The election had been postponed, after all, and would not take place until long after Gov. Greg Abbott had embarked on an aggressive reopening of the state.
But the virus did not go away, and instead has surged in Texas, catching Mr. Abbott off guard. And as early voting began on Monday in statewide primary runoff contests, local election officials were scrambling to make polling sites as safe as possible.
In Houston, poll workers in masks and full plastic face shields pointed voters to large yellow sanitizer stations and offered tiny blue finger covers for manipulating the voting machines.
Similar scenes could be found around Texas. In the city of Waco, voters were given unsharpened pencils, rather than finger caps, and told to use the erasers to operate the machines without touching them. Election officials described low turnout, though not unusually so for a primary runoff.
Still, the initially rosy expectations for the vote, and the more tense reality in which it unfolded on Monday, reflected the on-again, off-again path Texas has taken in recent weeks, as a confident march to reopening last month wound up in a partial rollback when coronavirus cases surged.
Late last week, the governor closed bars and limited restaurant capacity, an attempt to stem the tide of new cases and hospitalizations. But they keep growing. And even some Democratic leaders worried whether another full shutdown — seen by some as the best way to prevent the spread of infection — would even be possible.
“The things we did the first time were the correct things to do; they worked,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston, describing the efforts to get residents to stay home in March and April. But locking down a second time would not be so easy, he added. “It’s very difficult now to put the genie back in the bottle.”
So many people have been trying to get tested for the virus in Texas that one testing firm, Clinical Pathology Laboratories, told its clients that it had temporarily suspended routine coronavirus testing to deal with a backlog, a development that disturbed health officials. A company spokeswoman declined to comment, but pointed to a surge in demand that was overwhelming testing companies nationally.
Hospitalizations have grown to a point in Houston that some top elected officials warn that medical centers could soon be overwhelmed.
“We are where we are because of wishful thinking,” said Lina Hidalgo, the top official in Harris County, which includes Houston. “Leaders thinking that if we just wish away the virus, that the virus is going to agree with us. We have to wake up from that. Hope is not a strategy.”
On Monday, Texas Medical Center hospitals, a major provider in Houston, reported another sharp increase in the average number of people newly hospitalized for Covid-19 — the disease caused by the coronavirus — over the previous week, to 252 from 186.
Ms. Hidalgo, who quarantined herself on Sunday after learning that she had been exposed to a staff member who tested positive for the virus, said that nothing short of a new stay-at-home order — with legal enforcement — would halt the spread.
“The question is do we have it now or when our hospitals are turning away patients?” she said Monday in a telephone interview.
Customers at supermarkets and other businesses in Houston are required by local regulation to wear masks, but at polling places on Monday, election workers could not force voters to wear the free masks being offered.
“We have to do what the governor and the secretary of state say,” said Lee Parsley, an election judge at one Houston polling site, speaking through a white mask and behind a facial shield. By the early afternoon, no one in the largely Democratic area had arrived unmasked, he said.
Turnout was expected in any case to be low in the election, a primary runoff that included a heated race between Democrats to take on Senator John Cornyn. Voters have two weeks to cast their ballots early, a voting window that the governor, perhaps reflecting his confidence in the course of the pandemic, had stretched by a week, beginning it in June rather than in July. Early voting will continue for two weeks; Election Day is July 14.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 24, 2020
What’s the best material for a mask?
Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
The opening of the polls on Monday came after a lengthy legal effort by Texas Democrats to allow all voting-age residents to cast their ballots by mail as a safer alternative amid the pandemic. Those 65 or older are permitted to do so currently. The Democrats were unsuccessful in their attempts to broaden the law but were still planning to pursue other legal avenues in advance of the November general election.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said concerns about the virus would undoubtedly have an impact on turnout. “It can’t help but suppress the early in-person vote, at least marginally,” he said. By the afternoon, roughly 5,500 people had turned up to vote in Harris County, according to preliminary data from the county clerk’s office.
A spokesman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment about early voting and the pandemic.
State Representative Phil King, who represents two conservative North Texas counties just west of Fort Worth, said he believed Texans would be able to safely exercise their democratic rights without the option of mail-in ballots.
“Common sense dictates that we can be safe and go vote,” said Mr. King, a Republican House committee chairman and member of the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. “People go shopping, they go get groceries, they go to the doctor’s office. It’s not going to be any added risk going to the polling place.”
On Monday around noon, voters at one large polling place in Houston came in a light but steady stream. The machines had been moved to a large gymnasium from a small room in the same city building to ensure spacing and better airflow.
Andrea Camangon, 32, said she came to vote early on Monday because she was anxious about the kinds of lines that she found at the same polling place on the initial primary Election Day this year. “We waited three hours, back-to-back with people,” she said through her mask.
Inside, Jim Blair, 59, said that the voting had been smooth. “I brought my mask, I came and I voted,” he said, indicating the red Delta Air Lines-branded mask of his employer.
Mr. Blair, like many Houston voters, expressed confidence in his ability to protect himself at the polls; the virus, after all, has shown up at his own doorstep.
A neighbor directly across the hall in his condominium building tested positive, Mr. Blair said, and he has been bringing him home-cooked food during his quarantine. “Roast beef,” he said. “Breakfast tacos in the morning.”
David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.