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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

About a week later, the Lubbock fire marshal’s office paid another visit to the dealership after speaking with a worried partner of an employee who said managers had instructed workers to ignore the fire marshal’s instructions and hide if an inspector showed up, records show.

 

According to city records, the inspector observed more than 10 employees on the sales side. Dealer principal Brent McGavock argued he was allowed to have that many because the service department was considered an essential function.

 

“I don’t want anybody to get sick, I just want to make a little money through all of this,” McGavock told the inspector after mentioning one employee in his San Marcos dealership had already tested positive.

 

He then boasted of his connections to a city councilman and local Congressman Jodey Arrington, whom he called his best friend, according to the report.

 

McGavock disputed the city’s account in an interview, saying the congressman was “an acquaintance” whom he grew up with and reached out to for clarification about the state’s orders.

 

The dealership’s director of operations, John Pate, conceded it was still learning the rules when the city first determined it was in violation of state orders. But he said he was never told about the mid-April violation, which he called “bullshit” because the dealership had immediately closed the showroom and ceased test drives after receiving delayed clarification from the city.

 

McGavock said, “My reputation making a buck means nothing to me over the safety of the people that work for me.”

 

On April 14, after witnessing sales representatives taking test drives with customers, the fire marshal inspector submitted a report to the city’s business development director, Brianna Gerardi, who said she’s done everything she can to get repeat offenders to voluntarily comply. She even tried to get a local chapter of a state auto dealer association to convince the Nissan owner to follow the rules, but then the federal government expanded the list of essential businesses to include car sales.

 

“It's such a complex issue,” said Gerardi, explaining the difficulty of implementing rules when they are constantly changing. “You are dealing with human beings and both their lives and their livelihoods.”

 

The business never received a citation.

 

In Houston, the state’s largest city with a population well over 2 million, Fire Chief Samuel Peña said his inspectors initially reserved the few citations they handed out for repeat offenders: businesses that refused to comply, including an adult entertainment store that claimed to be essential because it sold products that could be considered medical equipment.

 

In the early stages of the crisis, Peña’s inspectors might spend two to three hours responding to a single call, ping-ponging between businesses to determine whether a sporting goods store could remain open because it sold guns or a department store because it sold mattresses.

 

The Houston Fire Department fielded an average of 78 calls complaining of alleged violations each day in April, and it handed out 10 citations from March 18 to May 12.

 

“Look, on a personal level, I get it,” Peña said. “It’s these small businesses especially, that’s their livelihood. And that’s why we gave the inspectors the discretion to try to handle it at the lowest level and not go to the stick right away with a fine or any of the penalties.”

 

Houston has been taken to court over at least one of its enforcement decisions: shutting down a strip club that reopened under Abbott’s 25% rule, arguing it was primarily a restaurant with added entertainment. The courts ultimately sided with the business.


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