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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


ProPublica and the Tribune found certain industries showed up in complaint call logs again and again. Many of them, like grocery and hardware stores, were open because they had been deemed essential, though callers alleged they weren’t requiring customers to stay 6 feet away from one another. Call centers were particularly prevalent, but the ProPublica-Texas Tribune analysis could find no citations issued against any of the companies.


In El Paso, home to 19,000 call center workers, managers did their best to hide glaring safety and social distancing violations from enforcement officials, according to city complaint reports, as well as interviews with more than a dozen employees and their loved ones. Supervisors instructed employees to hide, flee their workspaces and spread out when inspectors arrived.


At the Alorica East call center, the company’s largest site in North America, employees said management was dismissive about safety concerns during the early weeks of the pandemic. The company only began implementing social distancing and other protective guidelines after employees said management told them workers tested positive. Neither the company nor the El Paso health department would confirm those cases.


Still, as of last week the company had a training class that exceeded the 10-person gathering limit and an estimated 200 to 300 employees coming in every day, according to an employee who continued working from the office until May 12, when the call center temporarily shut down.


“There’s always someone ready for us to be replaced,” said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retaliation. “For the most part, we all know where we stand as employees for that company.”


Alorica spokesperson Sunny Yu said prior to the shut down, the majority of the site’s 1,000 employees were already working from home, which allowed remaining staff to practice proper social distancing. Yu also defended the company’s response to the pandemic, saying Alorica was early to adopt safety measures including temperature checks, masks and virtual meetings.


Despite more than 295 complaints about Alorica and a handful of other El Paso call centers, as of last week fire marshal inspectors had not cited violations during their repeated visits. El Paso enforcement officials say they lack the authority to do so under Abbott’s orders, which state essential businesses “should” follow federal health guidelines, rather than “shall.”


Lubbock Assistant Fire Marshal Michael Jones, who has worked on developing the city’s enforcement strategy, says the city knew calculating and implementing occupancy rates would be a challenge as the governor began to allow certain businesses to open at limited capacity starting May 1. Because the department does not have enough employees to figure out exact occupancy loads for every business, the city instead created instructions for business owners to determine it themselves.


“There’s no way you can be at all 8,000 to 10,000 businesses to calculate them, so you have to figure out a way to get them close enough to where they’re in compliance,” Jones said.


Since Abbott began loosening restrictions and businesses started to reopen, Peña, Houston’s fire chief, said his department has stopped issuing citations altogether, though the volume of complaints remains high. Instead, it is focusing on education.


“It started getting very muddy,” he said of the governor’s changing stance on enforcement. “We’re not going to expend city resources to enforce an order that’s not going to be backed up.”


In the early stages of pandemic response, Peña said the city required more than 220 firefighters to quarantine at the same time because of potential exposure to COVID-19. That number is down to 34, but he’s worried it could begin to climb back up.


Toner of Johns Hopkins also cautioned progress could be easily unwound as businesses start opening doors and some semblance of people’s previous activities resumes.


“People are antsy and people are tired of it and they need to work because they have no money so now is the time for leaders to, I think, stand up and say … now is not the time to give up."


Signs of frustration were clear in San Antonio early this month, when a police officer found a sports bar open for business on Cinco de Mayo. About 50 people were crowded inside, according to the city’s enforcement data. None were social distancing, and none wore masks.

The officer gave the owner a citation. He said he’d accept the ticket and fight it in court.


He could no longer afford to remain closed, he said.


Laredo, which had issued 12 times the number of citations for violating stay-at-home orders as San Antonio, a city several times its size, has now significantly dialed back its enforcement in light of the shifting state direction. The city had created a task force of roughly 75 people to enforce the stringent stay home orders. A few weeks into Abbott’s scaled-back orders, that number was 15.


Last weekend, officers even gave the green light to mariachi groups, who asked if they could take jobs to sing serenades on Mother’s Day, when their services are in high demand across the city. Officers gave them the go-ahead, as long as they performed outside and respected the city’s COVID-19 10 p.m. curfew, which remains in effect through the end of May.


The city had one more recommendation, one they could no longer enforce with fines: that anyone in a mariachi group not singing wear a face mask.


Chris Essig contributed to this report.


We thank The Texas Tribune for reprint permission. 

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