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Thursday, 14 May 2020 22:50

TX Governor Limiting Enforcement of COVID-19 Orders, But Many Cities Already Took Lax Approach

Written by Sally Beauvais, Lexi Churchill, Kiah Collier, Vianna Davila and Ren Larson, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica


A few days after Easter, the police department in Lubbock received a call from a concerned employee of a car dealership on the southwest side of the West Texas town.

Management had continued to flout safety orders imposed by Gov. Greg Abbott, part of an effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, according to the employee, who said he was about to self-quarantine after coming into contact with personal protective equipment a customer had left in a traded-in vehicle.


It was the fifth time the city had received a complaint about the McGavock Nissan dealership in less than three weeks. The fire marshal’s office dispatched an inspector who confirmed the dealership was not enforcing social distancing guidelines or sanitizing cars between test drives.


But the inspector issued no citation, instead passing along the information to “city hall for directive.”


The next day, on the opposite end of the sprawling state, police in the border town of Laredo were alerted to social media posts from two women, one doing nails and the other eyelash extensions, from their homes in violation of Abbott’s orders. Neither was a licensed cosmetologist.


Instead of issuing warnings or urging them to comply, as happened in Lubbock, Laredo police launched an undercover sting to catch the two women, resulting in their arrests.


As Texas now reopens at Abbott’s direction, under a much looser set of restrictions, a ProPublica-Texas Tribune analysis of complaint data in a dozen cities shows these disparate approaches to enforcement---particularly among businesses---were incredibly common across the state.


Cities and counties arrived at dramatically different interpretations of Abbott’s emergency orders. Austin, so far, has issued just two citations, while others like Laredo and Dallas have written hundreds of tickets, in addition to arresting a handful of business owners who defied orders to close. In one case, a smoke shop chain was cited 16 times in San Antonio but received only verbal guidance in Austin.


The erratic pattern foreshadows the struggles cities and counties now face as they interpret an entirely new set of regulations on reopening. That’s further complicated as enforcement has become a political hot-button issue across Texas and the U.S. Abbott, a Republican, has repeatedly changed his guidance as his party base grows more agitated.


Local officials say Abbott’s loosened regulations that limit the capacity of restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses at 25%---a cap that could increase to 50% next week---are also logistically tricky to enforce.


Until recently, Abbott appeared largely amenable to cities and counties interpreting his directives however they saw fit, deciding when to arrest or fine violators, warn them verbally, leave informational flyers or do nothing at all.


His first major emergency order provided for fines of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to 180 days or both.


Then, he changed his mind.

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