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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

Index

In recent weeks, Abbott and the state’s other Republican leaders have blasted local officials in Dallas and Houston for what they called overzealous enforcement of COVID-19 regulations, first zeroing in on Democratically-led Harris County’s decision to fine residents for not wearing face masks, a penalty Abbott banned in his April 27 reopening order.

 

The fights came to a head this month with the arrest of a Dallas hair salon owner who refused to shutter her business, an act of defiance that was supported by a right-wing group that launched a GoFundMe campaign a day before she reopened that raised $500,000 before it was disabled.

 

Abbott subsequently announced he would ban cities from arresting people for violating virus regulations and retroactively nullify any prosecutions. He also reopened hair salons sooner than expected.

 

Last week, the Texas District and County Attorneys Association issued guidance to prosecutors in response to Abbott’s changing directives. “If the governor is going to keep changing the tune he plays as he leads the state out of this pandemic, there is little incentive to put your own necks on the line to enforce an order that could be invalidated the next day.”

 

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said: “It’s just not enforceable. The second the political winds changed, [Abbott] not only changed the rules, he left the local government and the local judges holding the bag. You just can’t trust that he’ll stand by the orders he makes in the future.”

 

In a statement, Abbott’s communications director John Wittman said: “Throwing Texans in jail who have had their businesses shut down through no fault of their own is nonsensical and the governor will not allow it to happen. That is why he modified his executive order to ensure confinement is not a punishment for violating an order---however, fines and license suspension or revocation still apply.”

 

OnMay 12, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton upped the ante again, telling three of the state’s largest counties their decisions to extend stay-at-home orders despite the governor’s decision to ease up were “unlawful and can confuse law-abiding citizens.”

 

But for all the outcry and focus on extreme enforcement approaches, the ProPublica-Tribune analysis has found that for every example of aggressive enforcement, there are far more instances of leniency---and in some cases a lax approach that placed workers at risk of contracting the virus.

 

Officials in cities defended their individual approaches, saying they have done what is best to protect their communities while having to enforce unprecedented and complex regulations.

 

Laredo police investigator Joe Baeza, the department spokesperson, said in an interview it was necessary to arrest the two women offering beauty services, though prosecutors could no longer pursue charges after Abbott revised his order to ban arrests.

 

“Who answers when several dozen people get sick from the same nail service?” he asked, adding the first cases in the city were from community spread, not travel. “Those potential risks were there, and that’s the reason why the city took the proactive stance” of closing the businesses.

 

“We won’t know who was right and who was wrong until all this is over with,” he said.


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