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STEPHEN HEMELT – How long can COVID-19 keep us from each other?

“So, what do you think about this coronavirus?”

That’s been the No. 1 way people have engaged me in conversation in the last week.

I’m sure I’m not the only one.

We’re all dealing with the fallout of our governments’ social distancing orders.

As more people locally and regionally get tested — on Thursday alone, Port Arthur had its first confirmed case and Southeast Texas had its first confirmed COVID-19 death — health impacts to our loved ones increase.

Health professionals are telling us the worst is likely still to come.

Jefferson County Commissioner Michael Sinegal was clear earlier this week that he wanted a stricter “stay-at-home” order.

County Judges eventually agreed with him, as Friday afternoon, Judges across Southeast Texas delivered such an order.

We still have yet to receive a “shelter in place” order that some hope occurs.

Restricted movements are the normal in our corona-infused world.

Governor Greg Abbott also issued an executive order for travelers who fly into Texas airports from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and New Orleans.

The fact is many of the people in Southeast Texas who frequent New Orleans don’t get there by plane — they do so by car.

Are those trips going to stop?

It’s important to consider when you realize the parish (Louisiana has parishes, not counties) that News Orleans is in, Orleans Parish, has the highest per-capita death rate for the coronavirus among all American counties.

Nola.com reporter Gordon Russell reported “More disturbingly, perhaps, it’s not even a close call. The county with the No. 2 rate — Richmond County, N.Y., better known as Staten Island — has a rate half that of New Orleans.”

These are scary facts considering how close and connected Southeast Texas and the Big Easy are.

It hits home for my family; my and my wife’s parents and siblings live in and around New Orleans.

My mother works for a cemetery in New Orleans. She’s surrounded by this deadly disease on a daily basis and must continue to work despite the city’s near shutdown because of her profession’s “essential” status.

My wife is scheduled for major surgery in mid-April, a procedure that will necessitate a two-week recovery.

At this point, should we tell our family to stay away during the procedure and recovery?

Yet, in the midst of all this negativity, I’ve noticed a couple of contradictory trends.

Many of the people who start conversations with me, using “So, what do you think about this coronavirus?” often let their guard down and share opinions not considered “politically correct” in a coronavirus-conscious world.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was not alone when he said, “Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it. And those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

Many local leaders, including some elected officials, have told me they favor this approach, although they are not willing to be quite so publicly bold.

I’ve also seen a lot more people outside walking. One night after dinner this week, my wife, children and I took an extended walk through town, observing social distancing when approaching others. And that was no easy task, because many people were doing the same thing, trying to escape the confines of their homes and do so with children by their side.

We’re not a culture meant to be kept in and closed off from society. Children and adults know now, more than ever, that social media and cell phones are not enough to satisfy us.

We crave interaction and we want it face-to-face.

I just wonder if that human desire for contact will be our persevering strength or the fatal flaw that leads to our undoing.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher of The Port Arthur News. He can be reached at stephen.hemelt@panews.com or 409-721-2445.