In Montgomery County, ‘individual liberties’ a sticking point amid public health crisis

Residents walk through a shopping center in north Conroe wearing masks before Gov. Greg Abbott issued his statewide mask order. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
Residents walk through a shopping center in north Conroe wearing masks before Gov. Greg Abbott issued his statewide mask order. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)

Residents walk through a shopping center in north Conroe wearing masks before Gov. Greg Abbott issued his statewide mask order. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)

Editor’s note: Community Impact Newspaper has reached out to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office for comment as to what the consequences could be if a county does not enforce a state order. This story will be updated if that information is received.

Throughout the pandemic, Montgomery County officials have wrestled with balancing a public health crisis and “respecting individual liberties”—the phrase the county sheriff’s department used in a July 3 news release.

County commissioners have historically advocated for less government spending, less taxation and less gun control. Now, amidst the coronavirus, officials have pushed for fewer restrictions even as the state rolls out more stringent mandates.

Abbott’s latest statewide order, which mandated that Texans wear masks in public beginning July 3, highlights the county’s scrutiny of such orders. On July 3, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement that officers will take no actions to enforce the order, known as GA-29.

“Calls for service reporting a violation of GA-29 will only be dispatched if the reportee is an authorized supervisory representative of the business or property and is reporting that a person is refusing to leave the property after receiving notice to leave and a disturbance is occurring,” the statement read.

According to the sheriff’s office, the language in the governor’s order prohibits law enforcement from detaining, arresting or confining to jail as a means to enforce the order, essentially stripping law enforcement of the tools to enforce compliance.

The statement also said GA-29 could subject the agency, and Montgomery County as a whole, to civil liability. Stopping someone for a face covering related issue could be perceived as a detention, and holding someone for the purpose of issuing a citation related to a fine is considered detention under state law, according to the sheriff’s department.

“I am amazed and profoundly disappointed with the governor’s decision to remove the self-governance and personal responsibility from the people of the state of Texas,” County Judge Mark Keough said in a video posted to Facebook, where he called on Abbott to open the economy fully if masks are truly the key to limiting spread.

Keough continued to say he hopes a special legislative session will be called to ensure “that this type of control can never happen so that it [never] steals the freedom of the people of Texas ever again.”

The governor’s July 2 order also issued a proclamation granting mayors and county judges authority to limit outdoor gatherings of over 10 people and making it mandatory for people to avoid groups larger than 10 and to maintain six feet of social distancing from others.

In response, Keough issued a proclamation that same day, stating that events in Montgomery County with more than 10 people can continue as planned.

This is not the first time Montgomery County officials have publicly stated they will not enforce Abbott’s on the grounds that they believe the orders are vague and unenforceable.

On April 28—the day after Abbott ordered retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls to reopen May 1 with no more than 25% occupancy—Keough publicly said he interpreted the order as meaning individuals should use their individual discretion when visiting businesses and that all businesses may open.

“We’re just going to assume it’s not an order; it's advice,” Keough said at the time. “And, guess what? We’re going to leave it up to the citizens of Montgomery County.”

Sheriff Rand Henderson said April 28 that his office would continue following the same guidelines as they had before—opting for voluntary compliance rather than arrests—although it was not made clear in the meeting if this guaranteed no legal consequence for businesses that decided to open May 1.

The county eventually walked back its stance after Abbott issued a clarification.

Montgomery County’s position on coronavirus-related orders has been markedly different from neighboring Harris County. Judge Keough has repeatedly voiced in person and on social media that he will not mandate masks. Meanwhile, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo signed an order mandating face masks in businesses June 19, and commissioners later approved extending it until August 26.

Harris Commissioners passed several other coronavirus-related items during a June 30 meeting, including funding for the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office to hire 10 people to help respond to violations of pandemic-related orders, such as the face coverings order and orders that mandate businesses, such as bars, must close.

Montgomery County also lagged behind neighboring counties in enacting its shelter-in-place order in late March. At the March 24 Commissioners Court meeting, Keough said he would not follow suit with Harris County, which issued a “Stay Home-Work Safe” order that same day.

“We’re no longer putting any more restrictions on what we have,” Keough said.

Three days later, Keough issued a stay-at-home order for the county.
By Eva Vigh
Eva Vigh joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2018 as a reporter for Spring and Klein. Prior to this position, she covered upstream oil and gas news for a drilling contractors' association.


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