This week, the Fort Worth City Council and Tarrant County Commissioners Court refused to join other local governments in trying to defy Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order, choosing instead to follow his lead in reopening Texas. This comes as Tarrant County announces they have flattened the coronavirus curve, and Fort Worth and Tarrant prepare to spend federal taxpayer money from the CARES Act.
Since late March, in response to the Chinese coronavirus, both Fort Worth and Tarrant County enacted “stay home” policies that all but shut down most businesses and heavily restricted many activities.
One of the policies was Fort Worth’s ban on in-person worship services, which two city council members publicly said they didn’t actually enact. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley—the spokesman for the county commissioners—previously claimed during Easter week that the county had an in-person worship ban, despite the orders of the commissioners court stating the opposite.
The bans were in conflict with guidance provided by Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
The grassroots pushed back against both local governments, resulting in Tarrant’s commissioners forcing Whitley to recant his statement and Fort Worth City Council eventually amending their order to fall in line with updated guidance from Abbott and Paxton. Dallas County also backed down from their own ban.
Last week, Tarrant commissioners caused confusion as they made changes that appeared to move the county even closer towards Abbott’s orders but also raised questions regarding whether fishing and farming would now be prohibited.
After weeks of uproar from grassroots Texans, Abbott unveiled on Monday his strike force’s plan to reopen Texas. A number of businesses, such as restaurants and movie theaters, will be allowed to reopen but can only allow 25 percent of their normal in-store capacity. Abbott said his plan supersedes all local governments in Texas.
However, some local officials have indicated they may wish to fight Abbott and keep their areas locked down; but for now, it appears Tarrant County and Fort Worth won’t be among them.
In a special meeting yesterday, the Fort Worth City Council voted 7-2 to amend their city’s order to fall in line with Abbott’s, with only Councilwomen Kelly Allen Gray and Gyna Bivens voting against.
“We don’t have a choice in accepting the governor’s orders,” Gray said.
The council also approved language giving the city power to order evacuations of people from areas the city deems “stricken or threatened.”
Penalties for violating the city’s new order is considered a class C misdemeanor, punishable with a fine of up to $500.
“My concern will be the amount of the fine [$500] for individuals,” Councilman Cary Moon said. “I believe that is excessive.”
He went on to say future orders should have significant reductions.
“The ability to issue a citation is something we are very supportive of,” Police Chief Ed Kraus told council members.
The council also voted unanimously to accept over $157 million in federal taxpayer money from the CARES Act, and to give City Manager David Cooke authority to “execute any contracts or other legal instruments necessary” in regards to these federal funds without seeking council approval. Mayor Betsy Price expressed interest in hiring a third-party firm to help spend the money.
At Tuesday’s meeting of Tarrant’s commissioners, instead of making more changes to their current orders, they chose—for now—to let the orders expire on April 30. Their emergency declaration is set to expire in mid-June, meaning they could still issue new emergency orders in the meantime.
“[Abbott] has specified that we could not institute orders that would further restrict the opening of cities and the opening of businesses,” Whitley said.
This came after Tarrant’s Public Health Director Dr. Vinny Taneja gave commissioners an update on the coronavirus situation in the county that day.
“We have achieved [the flattening of the curve],” he said.
It was also revealed that Tarrant’s hospital bed capacity is well above what Abbott is requiring.
Commissioner Roy Brooks wasn’t as enthusiastic about the upcoming reopening.
“As for me and my house, we will be staying at home. And I hope the rest of the community will make the same choice,” he said.
Commissioner Devan Allen asked if it was possible to still issue orders, such as a mask mandate, despite Abbott.
“Technically, you could put something in an order, but it would have no effect,” replied the county legal department. “If we can come up with a way to get creative, we will put our heads together and think of it,” legal added when pressed by Allen. Whitley agreed with Allen in wanting such a mandate, but said Abbott was preventing it.
Allen was heavily criticized by Kaye Wade—a constituent and owner of Lady Hairroin Glam Boutique—who spoke to commissioners by phone that day.
“Since March 22, at 6 p.m., the government has deemed my business as non-essential, and I have been out of work. I do not have [paid time off] or the benefit of even working from home. My career is essential to me and my family,” Wade said.
She described the many sanitation and health procedures required in her business by the State of Texas.
“Do you understand how much money barbers, stylists, lash artists, estheticians licensed massage therapists are paying in your precinct alone,” Wade asked Allen. “I do, because my 2019 tax bill was a little over $7,900.”
Tarrant County’s current order expires on April 30.
When it comes to federal taxpayer aid to Tarrant from the CARES Act, commissioners voted unanimously to approve a 90-day contract with the Guidehouse company, worth up to $260,000 taxpayer dollars. Guidehouse “will help [determine] how funds be expended” and “bring recommendations” to the commissioners court. The payment will be made by federal taxpayers in the CARES Act.
“All funds need to spent by December 30,” County Administrator G.K. Maenius said regarding federal requirements under the CARES Act. “Any monies that we do not spend [the federal government] intend[s] to sweep back into the federal treasury.”
Tragically, 58 have died from the coronavirus in Tarrant County, which has a population of over 2 million.