Owners: 'We were left out'
Hopkins County fitness and cosmetology proprietors are speaking about what they believe is inconsistent messaging from state government and licensing boards in the wake of COVID-19 economic restrictions.
On Tuesday at approximately 10:21 a.m., the Hopkins County commissioner’s court declared that hair salons and gyms may open in the county, along with any other business of fewer than ten employees.
This is only the case provided that doors are locked to the public, business is conducted by appointment only, and employees take measures such as hand washing, sanitizing and mask-wearing while on the premises, along with other provisions, according to the Hopkins County Court.
This decision, reached after the court recessed twice over the course of 48 hours to clarify legal language, stems from the challenges of operating a rural economy under a Governor’s mandate designed for larger cities, according to Pct. 1 Commissioner Mickey Barker.
"This court is an arm of the state of Texas and we must follow the governor's directives," Barker stated. "Some of the directives are open for interpretations.”
Barker’s main concern, he said, was that sub-paragraph 5 of the "reopened services" sections of Abbott's executive order GA-18 prohibits crowded places, such as bars, gyms, public swimming pools, bowling alleys and cosmetology salons.
However, according to 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 “sole proprietors” and salons or fitness classes do not have high occupancy rates, he said.
The Commissioner’s Court agreed with Barker, and unanimously moved to allow salons and gyms to reopen in Hopkins County.
The news of Hopkins County’s decision was far-reaching. A News-Telegram article about the Commissioner’s Court decision was seen by over 167,000 people, with comments on social media by those from nearby counties such as Delta, Wood and Henderson.
Several other counties in Texas made similar decisions, including Montgomery County. Montgomery County judge Mark Keough spoke in a viral video about his plan to reopen all his county’s businesses, including gyms and hair salons, by May 1.
Quickly after the decisions by Montgomery, Hopkins and others, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) put out a press release and began to contact area business owners, according to reports.
“Abbott [Gov. Greg Abbott] said his order ‘supersedes all local orders’ saying those businesses must remain closed,” the release from TDLR stated. The TDLR release further states that hair salons and gyms cannot expect, per the state, to open up earlier than mid-May. This includes “whether a salon is a sole proprietorship or not,” the release stated.
“The governor’s office told me on the phone... when I called that gyms are not permitted to open at all under his order,” Snap Fitness proprietor and former Sulphur Springs city council member Erica Armstrong said. “The Governor supersedes all county orders. The only restrictions that can be modified for rural counties with less than 5 cases are those that have already been allowed to open.”
Jennifer Adams of Gypsy Salon stated she believes someone informed TDLR directly about Hopkins County’s decision, as they knew almost immediately. Gypsy has been closed since March 31.
“We need to open,” said Adams. “We have less than 6 people in our salon at all times. It's a struggle to pay rent for our business without income.”
Hairdresser Lisa Lutrick said she believes that having a license in cosmetology is exactly what should reassure the TDLR that salons can practice proper infection control.
“I went to 2 schools (barber and cosmetology), passed 4 tests which were mostly sanitation, disinfection and cleanliness,” Lutrick said. “These tests are regulated by the state of Texas to allow me to have a license. [I was] trained on how to not spread disease, but I can’t open because of ‘social distancing.’”
Hopkins County Judge Robert Newsom said he believes Hopkins County took the correct steps.
“We are being overly safe,” said Newsom. “Masks, distancing, that’s not required by the state. Our people want to get back to work and they can’t, and there’s something wrong with that."
In Hopkins County, businesses with fewer than ten employees will have to lock their doors to the public, wear masks, and practice mandatory handwashing. The state does not require this. Commissioners say they took this into consideration.
"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."
Barker stated a main concern of his was “balancing the economic side.” Other commissioners agreed.
“I’m ready to see them [businesses] open back up,” said Pct. 3 Commissioner Wade Bartley said, later stating, "I've been wanting to say open it all, and my opinion hasn't changed this whole time.”
“Our unemployment numbers have gone up in April and will probably go up again in May,” Newsom stated, reflecting on a 3.2% countywide unemployment rate in March and February and a 4.2% rate in April, according to the Texas Workforce Commission’s April report.
“Hopkins County has been lucky. Those [unemployment] numbers are not astronomical. But people want to go back to work and we need to get our economy started,” he said.
Besides economics, there are social impacts of continuing closures, business owners say.
“We’re taking a hit, and it’s not just financially,” said stylist Brittany Petty of Hair by Fawcett. “People have been demanding house calls, and it’s a frustrating battle we’re fighting. We want business, but not when it’s our license on the line. I don’t know how to make people understand.”
Local martial arts owner Daron Bilyeu also told the Commissioner’s Court that the impacts were more than financial. While Bilyeu has another job as a teacher to make ends meet, he said he worries about his martial arts students at Sulphur Springs ATA going without physical fitness-- which is sometimes their only constructive outlet.
“Our business caters to students with problems-- our students come to us with Attention Deficit Disorder, problems at homes, other difficulties,” Bilyeu said. “Martial arts, gymnastics, dance, they let our students get out that energy, and it’s not the same when they have to stay home.”
Ultimately, what Bilyeu and other proprietors seek is cohesiveness about reopening, they said.
“I’m not asking for help,” Bilyeu said. “Under Trump’s plan, we were supposed to reopen, but under Abbott’s plan, we were left out.”
*An earlier version of this owner misidentified Daron Bilyeu as a "gym" owner when he owns a martial arts studio, and misspelled his name. This story has been updated to reflect those changes.