After recessing twice to mull the issue over, the Hopkins County Commissioner’s Court reached a unanimous decision Tuesday morning to allow salons and gyms to open-- but only under strict provisions as “locked-door businesses.”
The court originally convened on Monday at 9:30 a.m., their usual meeting time, to discuss extending the county’s disaster declaration, put in place on March 11 in response to COVID-19. After a motion from county Judge Robert Newsom and a second by Pct. 3 Commissioner Wade Bartley, Bartley asked, “Do we really need to do this?”
“If we don’t do it, what I did last week just evaporates,” Newsom responded. “I think we do. We don’t know what [Governor Greg Abbott] is going to say this afternoon.”
“Hopkins County is doing really, really well,” Newsom said. “We had four cases, and we’ve had four people get well. We don’t have any active cases right now.”
“I’ve been thinking all along,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Anglin, “I don’t want to go against your recommendation… but I’m ready to get this thing back on the plan… You know, our people are hurting here.”
“I’m ready to see them [businesses] open back up,” Bartley said.
Newsom voluntarily withdrew his motion, and Bartley voluntarily withdrew his second as the court resolved to recess until after Abbott’s 2:30 p.m. press conference to decide what to do for the county.
At 2:30 p.m., Abbott’s press conference came and went, with the governor declaring that some sectors of the economy would reopen, while others, such as gyms and hair salons, would remain closed. The court reconvened at 3:30 p.m.
The Court was not fully satisfied with the conference, and discussed their concerns that the governor's orders were not specific enough to address the challenges of a rural economy.
"I've been wanting to say open it all, and my opinion hasn't changed this whole time," said Bartley, echoing his comments from earlier in the day.
The Court faced an issue: sub-paragraph 5 of the "reopened services" sections of Abbott's hour-old executive order GA-18, stated "people shall avoid visiting bars, gyms, public swimming pools... bowling alleys and video arcades... and cosmetology salons."
However, according to Pct. 1 Commissioner Mickey Barker, Hopkins County cosmetology salons and fitness training establishments more closely resemble subsection g of the executive order, "services of an individual working alone in an office," as many employed in rural areas are independent contractors and salons or fitness classes do not have high occupancy rates, Barker said.
"That nail place downtown, yeah, I've seen where it could get pretty full. But hair salons a lot of times it's just one to one person," Aulsbrook agreed.
"If you do it by appointment, that seems right in," Civic Center manager Lonnie Fox added.
Barker stated that "short of having a uniformed officer at the door, I don't think you can force anybody to do anything. And I don't think it's our business to."
"It's a small enough town that we've got to start trusting people to do the right thing," Fox stated.
After reviewing the legal wording of the Governor's order, the Court remained unsure whether Hopkins County hairstylists or physical fitness trainers remained independent contractors operating a business, as is defined in section g, or types of businesses defined in sub-paragraph 5 of the order.
The court voted to recess until the following morning at 10 a.m. to review the language of the order.
"We've never had a discussion like this since I've been judge, but this is really healthy," county judge Robert Newsom stated. "This is about our people and their livelihoods."
The court reconvened the next morning with serious countenance. Newsom addressed a full courtroom, stating he had "been up much of the night, concerned for our citizens," regarding what decision the county might reach.
"There have sadly been victims in this epidemic... and in our county, a lot of the victims have been the least of these," Newsom stated. "In government, we forget about the paycheck-to-paycheck... We have a guaranteed paycheck... it's a danger to us that we become immune to our own citizens."
As such, Newsom introduced a proposed disaster declaration which would require businesses of fewer than ten employees to operate under the following guidelines:
- Doors should be locked to the public and be opened by key or by appointment only
- All individuals inside the business to remain at least six feet distance from other individuals
- If it is necessary for individuals to be closer than six feet to a client, the operator must wear a mask
- All equipment used by both business operator or client must be sanitized between uses and proper hand sanitizing techniques must be maintained, as outlined by (https://gov.texas.gov/uploads/files/organization/opentexas/OpenTexas-Report.pdf)
"We are watching over our people and this is a law for our people," Newsom stated.
"I think we would fall under what the national guidelines are for reopening," county attorney Dusty Rabe advised the court. "There are inconsistencies between the national and the state... it [national] recommendations said gyms would open phase I, but in Texas, our phase I didn't include the gyms."
"There are some discrepancies and some administrative oversight," Rabe admitted. "But locked doors is very safe... I feel like our county is justified in doing what we're doing... you do have the ability to do what's best for your community."
Judge Clay Harrison stated for the record that although he was present, he could not contribute his legal opinion as to maintain neutrality in case any appeals of this matter came before his court.
"If this runs afoul of another agency that would enforce this, I would hope they would consider a warning first if they would see someone that isn't six feet apart or something," Rabe said.
"This court is an arm of the state of Texas and we must follow the governor's directives," Pct. 1 Commissioner Mickey Barker stated. "Some of the directives are open for interpretations, and I think we've done that very well. We've balanced out the economic half at the same time. It is our sole responsibility to follow the directives."
Newsom made a motion to approve the motion and Commissioner Pct. 3 Wade Bartley seconded. The motion passed unanimously at 10:21 a.m. and will go into effect at noon the same day.
"Technically we are being more strict than the governor's orders," Barker told the News-Telegram. "Some directives of the law are open for interpretation, and I think we've done very well carrying them out for our county."