Which stay-at-home orders apply to North Texans? It depends on how strict governments are, legal expert says.

The stringency of various government orders amid the coronavirus pandemic determines which restrictions apply to North Texas residents. (Courtesy Fotolia)
The stringency of various government orders amid the coronavirus pandemic determines which restrictions apply to North Texas residents. (Courtesy Fotolia)

The stringency of various government orders amid the coronavirus pandemic determines which restrictions apply to North Texas residents. (Courtesy Fotolia)

North Texas governments are tightening restrictions on where people can gather as the rate of new coronavirus cases show no sign of slowing.

Meanwhile, stay-at-home orders issued by local governments are causing widespread business and restaurant closures.

Some may wonder how governments are supposed to enforce their orders when some cities lie in multiple counties. The same applies to residents who live and work in separate counties.

Attorney David Coale with Dallas-based Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst said disaster declarations among city, county and state governments are meant to be in lockstep with one another.

"Counties and cities are very closely tied together," Coale said. "A city that has an emergency management plan in place really can't just pop up and say 'I'm gonna do my own thing separate.' They're constrained by laws they have already adopted that make them behave in a certain way during a catastrophe like this."

When orders vary between counties, it makes it difficult for county officials to ensure compliance, especially if a resident is mobile, he said.

"It's a real problem. ...The local entity has the power under emergency management plan to treat violations of its plan as ... basically a Class B misdemeanor," Coale said, adding that law enforcement officers are not always strict on issuing citations.

County orders will generally supersede a city's if the city order is less restrictive, according to the Texas Association of Counties.

"The state may issue more restrictive orders than the feds; the counties may issue more restrictive orders than the state ... A city may issue orders that are more restrictive than the county," a Texas Association of Counties spokesperson said in an email.

As of March 24, Dallas, Denton, Tarrant and Collin counties had issued stay-at-home orders. Those orders generally ban any gathering of people outside of one's place of residence but allow for certain essential business and government operations to continue. But some county orders are less strict on what qualifies as an essential business.

Collin County Judge Chris Hill, for example, said at a March 24 press conference that all businesses, jobs and workers are essential to the financial health and well-being of the local economy,

“Persons who are employed need to stay employed,” Hill said. “Persons who lack employment need to gain employment. Businesses that are able to remain open need to remain open.”

Alternatively, Dallas County has limited the scope of essential services to include things like sanitation, utilities, health care facilities, pharmacies and anything in the food supply chain.

Both Collin and Dallas Counties orders expire around the same date. But Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said his order will most likely be extended beyond its April 3 expiration, as health conditions are expected to worsen.

“The estimate from the medical community is not two weeks, it’s months unfortunately,” Jenkins said at a March 23 news conference. “I hope that turns out to be wrong.”

Coale stressed that the Texas Government Code may not easily provide for coordination between counties amid a disaster.

"If there's a hurricane and it hurts Corpus Christi, they should be able to act and not bother Dallas," Coale said. "But if you have two counties next to each other doing separate things—that's just a problem, and it's a consequence of having something as decentralized as our government code is."
By Gavin Pugh
Gavin has reported for Community Impact Newspaper since June 2017. His beat has included Dallas Area Rapid Transit, public and higher education, school and municipal governments and more. He now serves as the editor of the Grapevine, Colleyville, Southlake edition.


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