The Rona In The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.
For decades New Urbanist developers and fans of the dense and walkable style of city life have lambasted Houston for its endless sprawl, broke-dick public transit system, atomized master-planned communities, and overall status as among the worst of the worst of modern America’s air-conditioned nightmares.
This is the city that gave the world indoor baseball before realizing it was a mistake, one it rectified by giving us…more indoor baseball, save for those rare exquisite nights when the air temperature and humidity conspire to achieve absolute perfection. Then and only then do the Astros perform beneath their namesake stars.
This is the city of whole neighborhoods of homes with street-facing garage doors instead of, you know, like, a traditional front door for humans to knock on and/or walk in and out of, abodes offering full-on drive-in life, air-conditioned from the bedroom to the garage through the solo commute to the office, which for many, is only a couple of miles away.
A New Yorker or Washingtonian or any other East Coaster would almost certainly walk or take public transit on such a commute as those faced by Houston’s Inner Loopers, or those who live near their office in The Woodlands, the Energy Corridor, or Sugar Land or wherever, but here such scenarios are made almost impossible by the weather (barring workplace showers and changing rooms, your funk would get you a talking-to) or the absence of buses and trains. Or even viable footpaths…Where there are sidewalks, they are often buckled, mud-slicked, or intermittent enough to be all but useless, and again, that is where there are sidewalks to begin with.
All of which in the best of times is dehumanizing and soul-crushing, the bane of all Bayou City cosmopolitan sophisticates. But in the worst of times? Like right now? It might be saving our lives.
Paraphrasing local girl Barbara Mandrell, we were social distancing before social distancing was cool, and that might be one reason why our coronavirus epidemic has not yet approached anything like New York City levels.
A couple caveats here: do not mistake this as a call for an all-clear notice, a plea to get back to business as usual ASAP. Nor is this praise for the lifestyle 20th century development, gas-guzzling car-centric H-Town style, has imposed upon us. That shit sucks, and even though I am too old to take much pleasure from our newly-walkable neighborhoods with their brotastulicious indoor-outdoor dog- and rugrat-friendly chicken-wing/crawfish bar on every corner (looking at you, Nü-Heights), I recognize that their existence is an improvement over having such structures scattered about miles away from residential neighborhoods.
But even with those few tentative baby-steps toward density Houston’s been toddling toward the past couple of decades, we have a long way to go toward Old World or even East Coast city status, and that might be how we can afford to actually be exporting health care professionals to New York now instead of scrambling to find enough to deal with the problem here.
Given that this is a rapidly-developing phenomenon, it’s hard to place 100 percent trust in any numbers you can get, for a variety of reasons, but here are some statistics from gold-plated sources:
- According to an April 3 New York Times report, among Greater New York’s 20.1 million people, there were 57,000 COVID-19 cases and 3000 deaths.
- At about the same time, according to numbers from the Texas Medical Center, Greater Houston’s 7 million people had registered 506 cases and six deaths.
- Normalizing Houston’s population to that of New York, that would be 1500 cases and 18 deaths.
- And it could be that we are about to get swamped by a sudden onslaught of cases even as I type this — once again, there is so much uncertainty, it is difficult to draw any conclusions about anything yet, as this article attests. Testing here is way behind New York, true, but neither are our hospitals swamped the way those in New York have already been. So while the numbers may lie a little, they simply can’t be lying that much.
While some of y’all no doubt have a drunk uncle who would point to those numbers as verification of his long-held thesis that Texans are tougher than candyass Yankees or some such shit, that is a huge disparity requiring deeper analysis.
Perhaps Houston lags New York only in time. In the TMC article linked above, experts say that we are a month away yet from the virus hitting its peak here in Houston. Even so, it would seem unlikely that it can hit New York-level rates, given that this already socially-distanced city has gone even more so ever since the Rodeo shut down.
Perhaps it’s explainable by divergent levels of diversity. Houston takes a backseat to few American cities in that department, but while people like Stephen Klineberg at Rice love to crow that Houston’s diversity outstrips that of the Big Apple, well, it just doesn’t feel true on the ground when you visit New York, no matter what Klineberg’s numbers say. But even if, as I believe true, New York is more diverse than Houston, is it that much more dialed into Wuhan or Italy or other global hotspots than Houston?
I don’t think so, or at least not so much that it would explain such a vast disparity in the numbers. What I do know is that Houston’s diversity, like everything else in this sprawling disaster of a perpetual boomtown, is spread out from Sugar Land to Cypress to Clear Lake to Humble, and for the most part, most of those people drive to work alone, and now many of those people aren’t doing that, either.
Another possible factor in keeping Houston’s infection rate low is our climate. Once again, it may very well be that one of Houston’s worst traits now qualifies as an asset, as preliminary scientific evidence supports the hypothesis that this virus, and others much like it such as SARS, does not like heat and humidity. In places like that, the virus has a hard time spreading from exposed contaminated surfaces, like park benches and picnic tables, doorknobs, or on shopping carts.
Of course those are not the only modes of transmission a virus can take, and this evidence is preliminary, but if COVID-19 is much like its cousins, it will melt in the open air of a Houston summer just like they did. (Again, which does not mean it will go away completely — you will still be able to catch it from infected people, but if this theory holds, there will be less of them here than there would be in places cooler and more arid.)
Yeah yeah, Quiscalus, well what about New Orleans?
Fair question, but remember that it was cooler then, and even if Houston shares a climate with the City that Care Forgot, we don’t carry on the way they do at Mardi Gras. Last time I went to the Rodeo, I didn’t see couples making out on the grass outside Reliant, people passing joints around in the parking lot, nor all that much uncontrolled puking on other people or other such manifestations of extreme revelry. The Rodeo, staid and corporate, is lame by comparison, and once again, our civic awfulness conspires to spare us the worst of the pandemic’s ravages.
There’s a podunk little town on the Big River in southwestern Mississippi called Port Gibson. Their proudly proclaimed claim to fame is that back in the Civil War, when it was a far more important place, General Ulysses S. Grant spared it from the torch because, he allegedly said, it was “a city too beautiful to burn.”
Such it may be with Houston and the Rona: we are a city too dystopian to properly ravage.
But it is having its way with us all the same: in addition to the Russians and OPEC flooding the world with cheap oil, the virus has essentially shut down the world economy, sending demand for oil in a kamikaze dive not seen in the history of petroleum, an existential catastrophe for Houston’s economy a great many of us hardly have the time to even contemplate right now.
But that’s another story. — Quiscalus Texicanus