Analysis: The election won’t humble the coronavirus. It’s the other way around.

Barbers Lynese Marchic and her son Nicholas Gasper in their Austin shop on their first day of being open after closing during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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We wanted haircuts. Now we want football. The coronavirus doesn’t care.

In April, the urgency to bust the first round of coronavirus restrictions was strong. Everybody wanted a haircut, and their elected officials wanted them to be happy.

Besides, the state’s apparent success at flattening the curve made relaxed rules seem safe.

Unlike those politicians, the coronavirus doesn’t listen to pollsters. It quickly spread as we mingled for fun and commerce. The governor who opened the barn door to let us all out was soon closing bars, urging us to wear masks, stay at home if we could and keep washing our hands.

Now, the rise of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have slipped from their peaks at the beginning of the month. The pandemic curve in Texas has flattened again, this time at a much higher and more threatening level.

Talk has turned, once again, to openings of public schools, of a new college football season, to return — maybe without actually saying so — to the way things were a year ago.

The wager is bigger this time: This return of social gathering is taking place during an election.

Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas politician most directly accountable for the state’s response, isn’t on the ballot. But his party is, from the presidential race down to contests for county offices. The government response to the pandemic, to the recession and to civil unrest about racial justice and police violence will all be on voters’ minds, and the tangible results of those responses will be most evident in the success or failure of putting students back in school, and putting players on the field.

You don’t have to wait to see whether the pandemic will influence Texas politics. It’s already happening. That first reopening round introduced a new political figure — singer and salon owner Shelley Luther of Pilot Point — who was jailed in Dallas for a short time after refusing to obey an edict that closed salons and barbershops to curb the spread of the virus.

Her rallies, and the rallies that ultimately prompted her release (and Abbott’s decision to stop enforcement of his own executive orders) after a few days, made her the face of efforts to set Texans free to make their own decisions about social distancing, business closures, masks and all the rest.

Now she’s looking at the next step of her foray into the political arena. State Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, is the GOP’s candidate to replace U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe of Heath, who resigned to become Director of National Intelligence. It’s a strongly Republican district, and Fallon is expected to win that federal seat and to resign from the Texas Legislature.

Would-be replacements are lining up, and guess who’s looking?

“Dozens of you have reached out to ask me about running in the upcoming special election in Senate District 30,” Luther tweeted this week. “I'm not a politician, but as a conservative business owner, I am concerned about the direction of our state. Please pray for my family as we consider our next steps.”

She won’t be alone, by any means. State representatives and other elected officials don’t have to risk losing their current posts if they run to replace Fallon, ensuring a large field. But she would be a pioneering COVID candidate in Texas — someone whose public prominence stems solely from the pandemic and its fallout.

That race won’t be on the November ballot, but in a special election that would follow if Fallon is elected. And Fallon won’t be the only candidate running to fill an empty congressional seat. Six other Republicans in the Texas delegation — Michael Conaway of Midland, Bill Flores of Bryan, Will Hurd of Helotes, Kenny Marchant of Coppell, Pete Olson of Sugar Land and Mac Thornberry of Clarendon — decided to retire after this term, and only three of their districts are solidly Republican.

The Texas House is hypothetically up for grabs, too. Democrats hope to win a net of nine seats away from Republicans — enough to take the majority away from the GOP. Early voting starts in two months, on Oct. 13.

By then, voters won’t be guessing what might happen when we open schools for in-person classes or start playing football with or without fans. They’ll know.

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