It’s a tale of two mega-states — and probably of two Americas, each with a nearly opposite approach to Covid-19 restrictions. The governor of Texas allowed his stay-at-home order to lapse and restaurants, theaters and stores to reopen, along as long as they stay below 25% capacity. Meanwhile, California’s governor ordered a “hard close” of the beaches of Orange County.

The divergence reflects an increasingly fundamental divide between different states’ attitudes toward the public health science about the coronavirus pandemic. Texas is following the most permissive conceivable interpretation of the evidence; California is deploying what is just about the most restrictive possible interpretation.

It isn’t only because of different experiences with the virus. Although California has identified over 55,000 cases, and Texas has only 32,000, California is much larger, with about 10 million more residents.

It is surely not a coincidence that their decision to go different ways reflects partisan differences in attitudes toward the coronavirus. This bodes ill for any sort of coherent or consistent national approach in the weeks and months ahead.

Some ten states, including Texas, eased restrictions on May 1, with some four more scheduled for this week. Just about all of these are red states. Blue states, including many in the hard-hit Northeast, are maintaining restrictions, with some localities actually tightening their rules.

I’m not decrying the choices being made on either side of the continuum. Rational people who are paying attention to different aspects of the still-developing science could potentially favor either the Texas direction or the California one.

The Texas approach is clearly influenced by the idea that if old and immunosuppressed people can be protected, modest social distancing should suffice to keep infections rising to such a rate that hospital facilities are overwhelmed. Although no one knows the virus’s true fatality rate — which varies among different populations, according to different standards of care, and maybe even among different strains of the virus — Texas seems to be operating on the assumption that the ultimate rate will be relatively low.

Even on these assumptions, however, Texas is pushing the envelope for what could be described as a safe pathway. It’s one thing for people to go briefly in and out of mostly empty stores, encountering only shop clerks for short interactions. It’s quite another for Texans to sit in enclosed spaces like movie theaters for hours at a time.

CDC guidance suggests that transmission is most common when there is extended exposure in an enclosed space. And while people might be made to sit apart from each other in movie theaters, they can’t all be physically distant in, say, hair salons.

California’s beach-closing order is based on the concern that people on the beach won’t socially distance and could therefore infect one another. That’s based on a rational interpretation of science suggesting that transmission can occur even outdoors. It also presumably reflects an implicit value judgment that going to the beach is less crucial for human flourishing than, say, other forms of outdoor exercise (which California continues to allow).

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