Houston, we have a re-opening problem: Complaints versus citations

Re-opening a city isn’t as easy as it may sound. When a state’s governor gives his stamp of approval for businesses to re-open, who is in charge of overseeing what happens next?

Take Texas and the City of Houston, for example. Last week Texas entered an increased level of Phase Two in the state’s plan to reopen. One category of businesses now allowed to open is bars and clubs. They are restricted to 25% occupancy and must practice social distancing. As you may have predicted, some clubs are not exactly upholding their end of the agreement. So, what happens?

Maybe you saw the pictures of a club’s pool party in midtown Houston over Memorial Day weekend – it was packed with patrons. Club Cle has multiple bars as well as an outdoor lounge. Photos of the pool party were received by observers much like the ones coming from the Lake of the Ozarks party. It was all an eye-opener. Ten complaints to Harris County alone came from that party at Club Cle, out of more than 1,200 reported to the city and county between Friday and Monday. Complaints have been made on nightclubs, bars, and restaurants. Some businesses allowed to operate have been the source of complaints, too, such as churches, hardware stores, and sporting goods retailers.

A problem has arisen because while the governor continues to relax restrictions on businesses because Texas has been able to handle the coronavirus pandemic reasonably well, Mayor Sylvester, a Democrat, is more reluctant to reopen the city. He encourages city residents to lodge complaints against alleged abuses of occupancy orders by businesses. (What is it with Democrats encouraging people to turn into narcs, anyway?) Sylvester at first said he would not direct city officials to enforce the governor’s orders but his tune changed after seeing photographs of Club Cle over the holiday weekend.

Mayor Sylvester instructed the Houston Fire Department Chief to have fire inspectors issue citations when warranted. This was to begin Sunday but so far, no citations have been issued. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association calls it an “impossible situation” to enforce Sylvester’s new orders.

In a letter posted by the union, the group believes Turner’s decision came “without public health guidance.” The group also believes the move should have also come with an order from Fire Chief Samuel Pena in which clarification is provided on how firefighters should respond when they come across “irate business owners, managers, and customers.”

“Based on recent incidents, we have no reason to believe that mayor will back up city employees forced into this impossible situation,” read the letter.

Friday Mayor Sylvester said he would not extend any resources to enforce citations but then flipped to put the burden of enforcement on the fire inspectors. The mayor’s complaint is that Governor Abbott didn’t back him up over two attempts to enforce the governor’s orders. He claims he doesn’t want the city caught in the middle, mostly for liability issues, so he’s passing it along to the Houston Fire Department. Chief Pena says that public compliance is going pretty well on a voluntary basis and business owners usually respond when they are spoken to about any breach of rules.

“Like I said, we will go out there, we will ensure that we are having conversations with the business owners to try to provide a safe environment for those establishments, but that is our only focus – education and information,” Peña said.

You see the problem with this circular firing squad. The mayor asks for people to lodge complaints, he doesn’t want to enforce any consequences from the complaints, he tosses the hot potato to the Houston Fire Department to be the enforcers issuing citations, and the firefighters say, wait a minute, we’re doing ok just asking business owners to tighten up their admittance policy. The firefighter union points to the mayor’s flip-flopping as the source of confusion and it sure sounds as though that is where it comes from.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen has not issued any citations for the more than 12,000 complaints received by the county.

Since pandemic-related restrictions began in March, Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen has yet to issue a single citation for the more than 12,000 complaints received by the county. Christensen said to date, business owners have agreed to comply when investigators identify a violation.

Now, in the case of the bars, the firefighters are pointing out that there is only so much they can do and the rest falls to the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC).

Further complicating the picture is the question of who should enforce Abbott’s orders: Peña said Houston fire officials can stop people from entering venues or halt overcrowded events, while a spokesman for the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission said the state agency is responsible for “regulating and enforcing” the order at establishments with liquor permits and generally has relied on local entities to alert them of suspected violations. In response, Peña said both entities can enforce violations.

TABC, which can suspend a bar or restaurant’s liquor license for 30 to 60 days but cannot force the business to close its doors, has yet to do so for any establishment in Texas, according to spokesman Chris Porter. He said businesses have complied when TABC inspectors informed them of potential violations.

Mayor Turner is giving permission for the fire department to enforce penalties with citations. TABC points to the fact that there are no overall limits for outdoor gatherings. The event that caused this reversal by Turner in the first place was the Club Cle pool party, an outdoor gathering. Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association said firefighters have no legal authority to shut down a business who is in violation of capacity limits. He points the blame back at the mayor over inconsistent political directives. In the case of the county, the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office is one of the smallest local law enforcement agencies with only 25 investigators.

In the midtown area, where Club Cle is located, there were 31 complaints over the holiday weekend. This is all beginning to sound more like the unenforceable orders and fines threatened by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. The governor’s orders override local public officials. Until something more concrete is agreed upon, the public is being given conflicting messages and left to draw their own conclusions. It looks like the mayor is all hat, not cattle.