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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


As Texas experiments with reopening and public health officials warn that doing so could unwind any progress the state has made on COVID-19, many local officials say they are now taking a step back from policing virus regulations---including officials who had eagerly wielded the enforcement authority Abbott initially gave them.


The ProPublica-Tribune analysis of call logs and enforcement records in a dozen cities found the municipalities had received more than 23,500 complaints from mid-March to the beginning of May, a period when the stay-at-home rules were more clearly defined.


In six cities---Houston, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, Lubbock and McAllen---roughly 300 citations were issued from mid-March to the end of April, far fewer than the number of violations found. For every 20 violations ProPublica and the Tribune identified in these six cities, authorities handed out one citation.


Complete data for all six cities is not available for the first two weeks of May, when businesses were operating under Abbott’s relaxed restrictions. But San Antonio, which keeps up-to-date enforcement data in a public dashboard, provides a glimpse of what may be happening in other places.


Early on, San Antonio received a flood of calls and, in most cases, found the subjects of most of these complaints were indeed violating the orders. In the first 10 days of April, officials found violations in 49% of complaints they received, and they issued citations in about 3.5% of cases.


But the numbers dropped dramatically in the first 10 days of this month, when the state moved to partially open dine-in restaurants: not only were complaints down, but officials found significantly fewer violations, now only about 31% on average. They issued citations in only 1.8% of cases.


Law enforcement as well as fire and inspection officials in cities across Texas said in interviews they initially prioritized educating residents and business owners about the importance of stay-at-home and closure orders, and that overall businesses and citizens have done a surprisingly good job of it.


San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said his city’s goal was always education, not punishment.


“Punitive measures and forced compliance is ultimately not the way we’re going to battle this disease,” he said. “It’s going to be data and information and transparency so businesses and the public can make informed decisions about public health.”


Dr. Eric Toner, senior scholar and scientist at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said there’s no way communities can enforce their way into compliance.


“We don't have enough police to give citations or arrest all the people who might not follow the guidance,” he said. “It requires leadership; it requires our elected officials getting on television and saying you really must do the following and here’s why it’s important to you.”


In Lubbock, officials checked in repeatedly on the Nissan dealership, but reports indicate management continued to ignore certain safety guidelines in place at the time.


In late March, inspectors found there were too many customers in the showroom. Management promised to comply and received no citation.

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