The protest movement opposing social distancing and continued closings to fight the spread of COVID-19 arrived in Texas on Saturday in a defiant rally at the state Capitol that drew hundreds and was promoted by the conspiracy website InfoWars.

Its discredited leader, Alex Jones, arrived in an armored Terradyne Gurkha, shooting out T-shirts to a supportive crowd and blaming the Chinese government for the coronavirus spread.

A war of ideas pitting science and data against partisan politics and irrational behavior now threatens to undermine weeks of national unity to accept social and economic sacrifice. That unity, which has held for one month, has helped control the COVID-19 outbreak in most parts of the country, including San Antonio, where early emergency orders and other measures by San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have limited the number of positive cases to 992 and deaths to 38.

President Donald Trump has encouraged such resistance rallies in states with Democratic governors, sending out a series of Twitter messages Friday urging his red-capped supporters to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.”

The Austin rally was promoted by Owen Shroyer, an InfoWars contributor who told his audience that coronavirus was a Chinese Communist Party plot used by Trump’s “deep state” enemies to undermine his reelection in November. Evidence to the contrary published by the New York Times, Shroyer said, is propaganda.

More than 450 people have died and 18,260 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Texas, according to state reports, even though Texas has the second-lowest rate of per capita testing in the country. Less than 180,000 of the state’s 29 million people have been tested. Gov. Greg Abbott promised a “dramatic increase” in testing by the end of April or the start of May at a Friday press conference.

Harvard University researchers said last week that nationwide testing must triple from about 146,000 a day to 500,000-700,000 a day in order for social distancing and closures to be relaxed by mid-May. Public health experts say spread of the virus has not yet peaked in San Antonio and that social distancing and closures must continue until the outbreak curve flattens.

Whether local leaders can hold the line is a serious question.

Last week, Nirenberg and Wolff appointed a nine-member COVID-19 Health Transition Team charged with developing strategies for slowly reopening the local economy while continuing to combat the spread of coronavirus. On Friday, Abbott announced the formation of a much larger “statewide strike force” dominated by business leaders and some medical officials to oversee the phased-in reopening of businesses and public places such as parks and a return to hospitals and clinics performing elective surgeries and other procedures.

Any disagreement among the state and local task forces could lead to public confusion and conflict over who has the ultimate authority in issuing orders.

“I believe the governor has the authority to say when and what businesses can open, but we can say how and set conditions,” Wolff told me Saturday.

“We remain in close coordination with the major metros of the state, all similarly wary of opening carelessly,” Nirenberg told me Saturday. “The governor’s comments yesterday seem to indicate that he understands the reality that the medical experts must set the rules of engagement when it comes to how we can begin to open up. That is why our transition team is so important.”

The impact on the economy and the 22 million people or more nationwide who have lost their jobs as a result of the viral outbreak and subsequent shutdown has fueled growing calls for a reopening of businesses and public life, regardless of warnings from public health officials, including those advising President Trump, that premature relaxation of current restrictions could lead to the spread of the virus.

Protesters gathered in front of the state Capitol Saturday at noon for a “You Can’t Close America” rally to defy state and local orders that aim to control the COVID-19 outbreak in Texas, even though one day earlier Abbott signaled the start of phased reopenings.

Hundreds gather at the Texas State Capitol in a ‘You Can’t Close America’ rally on Saturday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Nirenberg and Wolf continue to act prudently and last week brought in a range of medical and public health experts to communicate with the public and provide evidence-based reasoning for the decisions being taken.

Like many, I crave the security that only science and data can provide. Partisan politics and ignorance of science is now infecting the process. As long as we are a city at risk, we need to think of the greater good and act accordingly.

The pandemic is inflicting terrible harm on many individuals and families who lack the means to ride out the shutdown. That is where the mayor and county judge are showing genuine leadership, making difficult decisions while remaining sensitive to the resulting suffering.

San Antonio’s new task force members should speak directly to the community alongside elected leaders to share their findings and recommendations. Let such familiarity fortify public trust. Broad community support for social distancing, for wearing masks in public, and for staying home except for essential outings and work is key to defeating the viral spread quickly. The health of our economy can be rebuilt only after we first restore the health of the community.

This column has been updated to correct the type of vehicle in which Alex Jones arrived.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.