Galveston County on March 23 was the first Houston-area county to issue a stay-at-home order that asks that all county residents stay in their place of residence, leaving only for what is deemed an essential activity, which could include procuring medicine, obtaining supplies and visiting a health care professional, according to the order.
League City has up to six of the so far 18 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the county, League City Police Chief Gary Ratliff said. To help stop the spread of the disease, the council passed an ordinance with "teeth" that reiterates many parts of the county's stay-at-home order with an addition that gives police the power to fine residents who violate the order.
Council Member Andy Mann proposed a scenario: If a dozen friends got together to play basketball, and someone called the police, how would police respond under this ordinance?
Ratliff said the responding officer would ask the group to disperse. If they did not, fines could be issued, but there will not be checkpoints or officers asking lone people on the street what they are doing or anything extreme, he said.
"Our approach is we’re hoping and praying 99% of these folks are gonna be under volunteer compliance," he said. "Only under a last-ditch effort would it ever result in somebody being arrested.”
Council Member Nick Long made an amendment to the proposed ordinance that exempts police from fining or enforcing the ordinance against churches that gather. However, such gatherings are already not allowed under the county's order.
"I do think we should not be banning people from meeting if they feel their faith compels them to do that," Long said, noting a city council should not be making such a call even if the county already has.
Mann said, in the interest of public health, the city cannot give exceptions to orders to religious groups that other groups are expected to obey. However, he said he was fine with Long's amendment because the county, which overrules the city, has already restricted religious gatherings of more than 10 people.
Council Member Hank Dugie said the ordinance does not do much in the big picture. The county already has a stay-at-home order, and League City restricting residents' right to assemble under fear of fines would set a precedent for future disasters he was not comfortable with, he said.
Council Member Todd Kinsey said if the council does not pass this ordinance, they could be back in three or six weeks talking about martial law.
"I hate to think what the worse situation is," he said.
Council Member Chad Tressler said it is time for the council to act. Toothless declarations such as mere recommendations to stay home will lead to more cases and overwhelming the medical system, he said.
As part of the originally proposed ordinance, the order would last 60 days. The council voted to amend the time limit to 21 days, which is when the council will meet for its next meeting and decide whether to extend the order. Long opposed the 21-day time limit, preferring instead to revisit the issue weekly, but the council did not feel seven days was long enough for the order to be in place.