Shelter in place and work from home, local officials across the state ordered Texans this week. Unless, of course, you work for an essential business — like a hospital, a grocery store or a day care.
Airports and mail carriers are essential, too. And so are oil and gas workers.
In Houston, furniture stores are also considered essential. And in Collin County, shortly after residents were instructed to stay at home, the county judge declared that actually every business is exempt from the order because “all businesses and all jobs and all workers are essential.”
Essential workers and businesses are allowed and sometimes required by the government to stay open during an emergency.
With Gov. Greg Abbott resisting calls for a statewide stay-at-home order, local officials are tasked with deciding which businesses and employees are essential, leading to rules that differ from county to county. Meanwhile, some employers are taking advantage of broadly written exemptions by requiring employees to come in — sometimes to working conditions where it’s impossible to stay 6 feet apart.
The conflicting information has many workers confused about why they’re being called into work for retail and manufacturing jobs as people are being asked to do their part to slow the spread of the new coronavirus by hunkering down.
Anne, 62, doesn’t know why she’s still being called into work at the Cabela’s in League City, an outdoor recreational retailer, which claims to be essential because it sells fishing equipment and ready-to-eat meals. Galveston County issued a stay-at-home order Monday evening, but Cabela’s is leaning on an exemption for “food production” such as fishing, farming and livestock.
When Anne voiced her concerns to County Judge Mark Henry this week, one of his staff members told her in an email obtained by The Texas Tribune, “That’s not our decision to make.”
“Retailers such as your store are deemed essential,” wrote Tyler Drummond, the judge’s chief of staff. “As far as your store remaining open, take that up with Cabela's directly.” The store’s parent company, Bass Pro Shops, said in a statement that it is "complying fully with all local laws and regulations with respect to operations, which vary by different counties and municipalities" and pointed to a number of voluntary adjustments, such as reduced hours and limiting store access to 50 customers at a time.
Anne said she’s worried because the store is running low on hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, and she lives in a community for people older than 55. Last week, she said, customers were standing in line shoulder-to-shoulder to stock up on guns and ammunition.
“I got an emergency alert on my phone for coronavirus, and I looked down and said, ‘Well, I’m getting ready for work,’” said Anne, who is being identified by her middle name because she fears retaliation from her employer. “A lot of people are coming in just to walk around because everything’s closed. It seems risky to me, and it sounds like they're not thinking of their employees or their customers.”
Drummond said in an interview Thursday that the League City Cabela’s is exempt because it is a big-box retailer that provides essential items. As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, there were at least 27 coronavirus cases in Galveston County, according to state data released Thursday.
But Cabela’s got a different treatment in a county across the state. After Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said sporting goods stores must close, the Cabela’s in Fort Worth wrote on its website that it is “now closed in cooperation with local government officials for the health and safety of our community.”
Across the board, local officials agree that first responders, health care workers and grocery stores are essential businesses and services. Many draw from federal guidelines to determine who should keep working and who should stay home. In the state’s large, urban counties, the orders are mostly similar, with a few key differences when it comes to things like commercial construction or ride-share services.
Some critics say the discrepancies are hindering the state’s response to the pandemic and could be fixed if Abbott issued a statewide stay-at-home order, like Louisiana, California and Illinois did.
“This is the kind of time when we need state action,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said at a Texas Tribune event Wednesday after issuing his own order Tuesday. “If we [local officials] wanted to wait another two or three days, we probably could have ironed out a lot of the differences. ... We said no ... get it out, and we’ll worry about the discrepancies over the next few days. Get it out.”
County officials also differ on how to enforce the measures. Galveston County is “really looking for voluntary compliance,” Henry told the Tribune. In Harris County, violations are punishable by jail time or a fine, and there’s a call line for residents to report violations.
The waters are murkier when it comes to which workers are needed to operate and maintain so-called “critical infrastructure.” To inform decisions, many counties use guidance from the Department of Homeland Security outlining 16 sectors ranging from energy and water to government and commercial facilities.
In Waco, where city and county officials declared stay-at-home orders this week, a heavy equipment manufacturer called Manitou Group is still requiring workers to come in. The company says it is exempt because it falls under the DHS guidelines, according to paperwork given to employees that was obtained by The Texas Tribune. The company did not specify which part of the guidelines or which sector it falls under, though forklifts built there could be needed to move other essential goods, such as pallets of food.
Still, a Waco employee said it’s impossible for employees working on an assembly line to maintain the recommended space between one another. The employee, who asked that their name not be used out of fear of losing their job, said as many as 150 employees work in close quarters during a single shift.
“Assembling forklifts is not essential to the public right now to stop the spread of the disease,” the employee said. “We’re risking our families to make the company a profit. I’d rather be home, away ... and if I have to struggle for a little and be without money, that’s OK. I don’t want to get my family sick.”
The state reported at least 28 cases in McLennan County on Thursday. A Manitou Group employee who picked up the phone Thursday directed questions to the corporate office, which could not be reached for comment.
Some officials say it’s the companies that are acting afoul of the local orders.
After Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered residents on Tuesday to stay home unless their jobs are “essential to the health and safety of the community,” a Bass Pro Shops in Pearland was among several Houston-area retailers that were still open. The state reported Harris County has at least 185 coronavirus cases Thursday.
A spokesperson for Hidalgo declined to comment specifically on the Bass Pro store — which, adding to the confusion, is in both Harris and Brazoria counties — but said the judge’s “clear intent is for this order to be interpreted narrowly.”
“We do not want businesses who are clearly not essential to squint and try and figure out how they could be essential if they truly are not,” Rafeael Lemaitre said in an emailed statement.
Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.