Texas LE, lawmakers still divided over stay-at-home enforcement

Lawmakers are critical of enforcement in larger cities, while law enforcement in smaller towns have chosen to heavily enforce the order to prevent an outbreak

Lauren McGaughy and Allie Morris
Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN — When Gov. Greg Abbott told businesses to close and residents to stay home amid the coronavirus pandemic, he gave local officials power to jail and fine those who defied the order. But when big cities tried, he and other state GOP leaders called it government overreach.

Two days after Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther was jailed, Abbott axed confinement as a penalty altogether. The governor overrode Houston’s policy to fine residents who didn’t wear masks before it could be enforced. And this week, Attorney General Ken Paxton threatened action against local policies he’s deemed “unlawful.”

Meanwhile, those same leaders have been silent about far more aggressive crackdowns in Texas communities along the U.S.-Mexico border where local officials say strict enforcement was needed to avoid an overwhelming surge of coronavirus cases.

According to a Dallas Morning News analysis of eight counties and nine cities across the state, the most populous areas relied largely on voluntary compliance to enforce stay-at-home orders. In just three border counties, by contrast, at least 2,600 people were cited and more than 200 arrested for violations such as not wearing face masks, having too many people in the same car and breaking adult curfew.

The city of Laredo has issued almost six times as many citations as the state’s five most populous cities and counties combined.

Enforcement in Dallas and statewide has eased as Abbott has begun reopening more sectors of the economy. But, for weeks, the South Texas border was one of the few places where local leaders enforced stay-at-home orders to the full extent of the law.

“The governor’s decisions were clearly political. ...He bent to the will of the people who wanted him to disregard his order,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins told The News this week. “The governor was better served when he was following the advice of science.”

State leaders shot back, saying government overreach is wrong no matter where it occurs.

“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,” Abbott deputy press secretary Nan Tolson said in a statement. “The Governor made clear that his order applies to all 254 counties.”

The News asked eight counties and nine cities for the total number of fines and arrests associated with enforcing state and local stay-at-home orders. In the state’s five largest counties — Bexar, Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Travis — and the five largest cities therein, police, fire marshals and code enforcement officers handed out 158 citations. San Antonio led with 67 citations issued so far. Meanwhile, sheriffs and county fire marshals in Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Travis counties have not issued a single citation.

To date, no one has been arrested in these counties for violating stay-at-home orders.

Local leaders in the state’s most populous areas told The News they opted for educating and warning citizens instead of fining or jailing them. But Abbott and other top Republicans repeatedly criticized the approach of big city leaders, saying they were too aggressive.

The day Harris County was to begin penalizing people for not wearing face masks in late April, Abbott blocked the policy statewide. Days later, Abbott blasted Houston on Fox News.

“They were issuing fines and potential jail time for anybody who refused to wear a mask,” Abbott told Sean Hannity on May 6. “No one should forfeit their liberty and be sent to jail for not wearing a mask.”

In fact, Houston never fined or arrested anyone for not wearing masks, Police Chief Art Acevedo said. Rather, most of the 26 citations issued were to individuals engaged in street-level prostitution.

“The elephant in the room is it wasn’t until a blonde-haired Caucasian woman got involved that the interests of our political leaders were piqued,” Acevedo told The News. “You can’t have it both ways. [Abbott] issued the order to try to follow the science. But the second there’s a little bit of pushback, he tries to distance himself from his own order. I don’t think so.”

But criticism of big cities continues. This week, Paxton sent letters to local leaders in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio warning that their stay-at-home orders are confusing and unconstitutional.

The News spoke with officials in Cameron, Hidalgo and Webb Counties and four cities within them about their local coronavirus response. Since March, county and city law enforcement there issued more than 2,600 citations and arrested nearly 225 people for violating stay-at-home orders.

Elected officials said they heavily enforced the orders because their cities and counties have fewer health care resources than large cities like Dallas. Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said the city does not have the capacity to respond to a large surge of COVID-19 patients, especially since employees at one local hospital made up over one-fifth of the city’s positive cases last month.

"Ultimately we're going to be faced with a situation here locally and we know we don't have the resources,” he said. “So what other tool can we use, but to enforce this stay-at-home order?"

Dolores Zarate, a Brownsville attorney, hasn’t represented anyone jailed solely for not wearing a mask or breaking curfew. But for weeks, she said police were citing residents for having too many people in the car or not covering their face. The typical fine was $500 — per person.

“Luckily our leadership was paying attention to what was going on and, as soon as they could, they shut us down,” said Zarate, who supported the heavy enforcement. “[The police] were doing their job.”

In Brownsville, police issued around 600 citations and made 81 arrests. In Laredo, police issued over 800 citations for offenses that included not wearing a face mask. Already, 59 people have paid fines for that violation that average about $42 per person.

The city of Palm Valley in Cameron County issued over 30 fines mostly to people who broke curfew or who didn’t wear face coverings, Police Chief Alvaro Garcia said. Officers would even cite joggers and bikers who didn’t have to wear masks while exercising, but still had to carry one on them.

Most enforcement in these areas was scaled back or ended since Abbott lifted the statewide stay-at-home order on May 1 when Abbott began allowing restaurants, movie theaters, hair salons and retail stores to partially reopen.

Brownsville Police Chief Felix Sauceda said officers are no longer making arrests.

“The governor was very specific,” Sauceda told The News. “With what happened up in Dallas County with the hair stylist, we now have a very strict order not to arrest.”

While confinement is no longer an option, Abbott said business owners can face fines or license revocations for violating coronavirus orders. But The News found two state agencies tasked with investigating violations haven’t penalized anyone yet.

In fact, after Abbott revised his executive order that eliminated jail as a punishment and applied it to salons retroactively, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations dropped hundreds of complaints against cosmetologists and barbers, including several filed against Luther.

Meanwhile, seeing Luther’s success and attention, some other businesses like bars and tattoo parlors are opening in violation of Abbott’s order.

Last week, law enforcement arrested Gabrielle Ellison, the owner of Big Daddy Zane’s bar in Odessa, for violating the governor’s order. Still, Ellison said she has no plans to shut her doors and has not received any more visits from law enforcement.

“I don’t believe we need to be allowed to open our businesses,” she said. “One thing these officials don’t understand is you can’t stomp on rights.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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