Light in the darkness

How the Houston Community Has United During the Coronavirus Crisis

When the chips are down, Houstonians stand together.

By Dianna Wray May 1, 2020 Published in the May 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Amy Kinkead


As we grapple with the onslaught of challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, it would be almost too easy to let ourselves get stuck in the muck and mire of despair. But that, of course, isn’t what this amazing city is about. Here are some reasons to take heart and find hope, Houston-style:

History is on our side

As surreal as things have been in the Bayou City in recent weeks, we have been here before. When the deadly Spanish flu swept into Houston in 1918, our officials faced many of the same painful decisions that our leaders are facing now. They ultimately did the right thing—shutting down bars, restaurants, schools, and public gathering places—and in the end, the city got through it.

In fact, that is one thing Houstonians can count on. Throughout this town’s relatively brief history—we’ve only been around for 184 years, after all—we’ve faced more than our share of setbacks, including floods, hurricanes, oil busts, and recessions. And we have endured. 

“Oh, I’m not too worried,” Donnette Hansen, the longtime owner of Rainbow Lodge, said of the stringent measures our restaurants and bars have had to take to fight off the spread of the coronavirus. “I’ve been here a long time, and I went through Allison, 9/11, the Great Recession, the oil busts, Harvey. It might not be easy, but we’ve got this. Houston always makes it through.”

Gallery Furniture’s Jim McIngvale always pitches in.

We've got good leadership 

While there have been confusing messages coming from some officials, Mayor Sylvester Turner has continued to convey the seriousness of COVID- 19, how dangerous and contagious it is, and the very real risk that it could overwhelm our hospitals if Houstonians don’t take it seriously. But he also isn’t afraid to smile, to crack jokes about people’s toilet paper hoarding, to be the voice of reason and calm in an otherwise chaotic time. 

That's just what Turner does. He knows his city, he knows his people, and he knows how to speak to all of us in ways that are king, decent, measured, and occasionally funny—without ever underselling how serious this thing is, and how bad it could get if the proper measures aren't taken. And he's put his faith in us, too. "Let's show the world what Houston is made of," he said as the city implemented stringent measures to slow the spread of the virus. “We are known for nothing if not for being able to get through tough times together.” 

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has stepped up as well. The 29-year-old had big shoes to fill after her surprise win against Ed Emmett in 2018, and while it took some time, she seems to have found her mettle during the coronavirus crisis, offering decisive leadership as she makes hard decisions and communicates them to a frightened public.

And then there’s the other leader Houstonians always look to. We’re talking, of course, about Gallery Furniture’s Jim McIngvale. Over the decades we’ve always been able to count on Mattress Mack, whether he’s acting as a one-man promotion team to try to finagle an Olympics for the Bayou City, or helping us through hurricanes, recessions, and now this global pandemic. Throughout the crisis, he’s been collecting and handing out food and other supplies for food-insecure students, the elderly, and other vulnerable community members.

“I knew it was going to be bad, so we decided early on, because of what we’d done with Katrina and Harvey, that it was only natural to get out and help these people now in this difficult time,” McIngvale told Houstonia. “That’s just who we are, and that’s what we do.”

Lizzo, offering up sage advice and peaceful music. 

Everyone wants to chip in

When the chips are down, Houstonians are there for each other. Take Allison Miles Garcia, who works at a local advertising agency and has never been bothered by needles. A few weeks ago, when she learned that the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center was calling for donations, she signed up for a Saturday-morning slot. And Garcia wasn’t the only one, either: When she arrived, the place was packed with fellow volunteers, all maintaining a careful distance from each other. “They were turning away walk-ins, and were completely booked for the day,” she said.

Elsewhere, in mid-March, right before Harris County’s mandate shutting down dining-room service in restaurants and bars went into effect, one couple had one last hurrah downtown at Irma’s Southwest. The pair left a $9,400 tip on a $90 meal, with the husband adding a note to the check telling owner Louis Galvan to “hold tip to pay your guys over the next few weeks.” The story made national news, but anyone who’s from here knows it’s just the kind of thing we do for each other when we can.

That willingness to do our part, to make the best of a strange and often alarming situation, has shown up in smaller ways, too. No, we aren’t shaking hands, let alone hugging each other, just now, but we’re all looking each other in the eye, offering smiles and good wishes. The elderly lady in my apartment complex laughed when I recently asked if she needed supplies—I was the fifth person to offer her assistance that day alone. Everyone wants to help each other get through this.

KiKi Maroon has brought her burlesque show online.

Or else people are reaching out

Social distancing means nobody is—or should be, at least—gathering in real life. But the city’s musicians, yoga teachers, and performers of all kinds have been utilizing the interwebs to safely provide us all the connection we currently cannot have in person.

Houston native Lizzo was supposed to be headlining RodeoHouston when the pandemic entered the picture. Instead, on the day of her scheduled performance, she offered up a meditation via Instagram. “There’s disease and then there’s fear of the disease,” she told her followers as she set up the practice. “This is a very serious pandemic. This is a very serious thing that we’re all experiencing together. Whether it’s a good thing or a tragic thing—the one thing we will always have is togetherness.”

Our local entertainers also are trying to make the best of a daunting situation. Burlesque madam KiKi Maroon, who in ordinary times performs at Houston’s House of Blues, has been diverting fans by using Barbies and puppets to modify material from her stage show and livestream it on Facebook—sans actual stripping, which would get her banned. It’s hard to stay anxious while watching Maroon’s dolls do the stripteases she herself would normally perform. “I’m just trying to stay grateful,” she told Houstonia. “It will be fine. I don’t know what fine will look like on the other side of this, nobody does, but I know we’ll get there.”

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