Texas County Asks Residents to Report Violations of Reopening Rules

A cyclist passes a mural painted on a boarded-up business in Austin, Texas, last week. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

HOUSTON (CN) — Texas’ biggest county has launched a website on which informers can lodge complaints about businesses reopening in violation of the governor’s Covid-19 orders, a move some say goes against the state’s pro-business ethic.

Standing up against big government is hardwired into Texans’ DNA. “Come and Take It” is a favorite motto of the state.

Legend has it in the Texas Revolution’s first battle in 1835, a small group of men fought off Mexican forces who were trying to seize a cannon a Mexican official had given residents of Gonzales, Texas, four years earlier to defend the town against Comanche Indian raiders.

Before the battle, the Texans raised a white banner with the words “Come and Take It” and a cannon painted in black.

That spirt of defiance remains today and permeates the top levels of state government.

Then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, bragged in 2013 that his job description was simple: “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and go home.”

He sued President Barack Obama’s administration more than 30 times, fighting what he invariably described as government overreach.

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a role reversal for Abbott. Now governor, he ordered nonessential businesses closed in early April, including hair salons and barbershops, to try to halt the march of the virus.

Abbott announced Tuesday that salons and barber shops can reopen with restrictions Friday and he’s feeling like his old self.

He is defending a Dallas woman serving a jail sentence for contempt of court. She opened her salon in defiance of a cease-and-desist order issued after the city of Dallas sued her, alleging she had opened in disregard of the city’s stay-at-home orders.

A judge on Tuesday sentenced Shelley Luther to a week in jail and fined her after she refused in court to agree to keep her salon closed until Friday.

Luther said she opened early so she could feed her kids, local media reported.

“There’s nothing that the government can do to take away God-given rights,” she said.

Abbott believes the judge went too far.

“Compliance with executive orders during this pandemic is important to ensure public safety; however, surely there are less restrictive means to achieving that goal than jailing a Texas mother,” he said in a statement.

Abbott has criticized Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a 29-year-old Colombian immigrant who is regarded as a rising star in the Democratic Party, for steps she has taken in response to the pandemic. In Texas, county’s chief executives are called county judges. They do not preside over law courts.

Shortly after Hidalgo’s order for Harris County residents to wear face masks took effect April 27, Abbott removed its teeth, nixing wording that said violators could be fined up to $1,000.

Republicans are also criticizing Hidalgo for a website Harris County launched last week, on which people can report that salons, bars, gyms, bowling alleys, nightclubs, among other businesses, are open in defiance of Abbott’s orders.

Houston is the seat of Harris County, the state’s most populous with more than 4.7 million residents.

Abbott said on April 27 such businesses had to remain closed when he announced his Reopen Texas Phase I plan and said restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters and malls could open starting May 1.

The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office is administering the website.

More than 400 complaints were lodged against businesses on the site from Friday to Sunday, most of them against bars, salons and gyms, fire marshal’s office spokeswoman Rachel Moreno said.

Moreno said the office started getting phone complaints about businesses flouting Abbott’s orders on March 17 and it had received 8,712 complaints as of Tuesday afternoon.

“It reminds me of pre-WWII Germany, people snitching on each other. I think it’s awful,” D’Ann Gummelt told local NBC affiliate KPRC-TV. She owns Splash of Sass women’s boutique in the Houston suburb Cypress.

Hidalgo’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the criticism.

Robert Henneke, general counsel of the Austin think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, said he thinks the website is unnecessary.

“I don’t think we need to live in a police state. And I don’t think we need to live in a nanny state. I think people need to worry about themselves and government needs to be responsive when problems arise but not go looking for citizens to hunt and target,” he said.

Gloria Alonzo, owner of Labelle beauty salon in Houston, said she plans to abide by Abbott’s recommendations that salons make staff and clients wear face masks, take customers by appointment and make people wait outside if the space is too crowded for social distancing.

“It’s going to be hard to make money to pay the rent. Some people maybe they won’t want to wait outside. They’re going to go home or look for some other salon. But I think it’s the best for us…because too many people together is not right,” she said. 

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