Sunday, April 12, 2020
COVID-19 Response: Who's in Charge?
The outbreak of COVID-19 has led to a flurry of government orders in an effort to stem the pandemic. I don't claim to be an expert on any of them. They seem to change every few day, so don't rely on anything written today to be accurate tomorrow. But here's what I think I know, and here's what I think about what I think I know.
The federal government has been of minimal help during this pandemic. Messaging has been muddled at best and contradictory at worst. As far as I can tell, the few orders the federal government has issued regard travelers entering the United States. For those of us already here, the federal government has issued "guidelines", the main one being "Listen to and follow the directions of your state and local authorities." In short, don't expect leadership from the White House.
The Texas state government has been a laggard behind other states and behind local governments in Texas. After weeks of pleas, on March 31 Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide order closing non-essential businesses. He carved out an exception for religious services. This exception appears to apply "if religious services cannot be conducted from home or through remote services." Is that a dangerous loophole?
While the state was dragging its feet, local governments were taking the lead in Texas. I haven't gone back to make sure I remember all of the dates right, but I'll credit Dallas County, the City of Richardson, and the Richardson ISD for all closing non-essential activities at about the same time, all well ahead of the governor.
These overlapping local governments seem to be leapfrogging each other on how long the closures will last. RISD was first to say schools were closed indefinitely. Dallas County closed non-essential businesses first until April 3, then until April 30, then until May 20, lastly back to April 30. The City of Richardson gets credit for closing businesses until April 30 back when Dallas County was still saying April 3. There has been some inconsistency in how long the orders will last, but how about in what they cover?
Richardson ISD seems to be more aggressive in what it covers. Schools are closed. All indoor facilities are closed. Outdoor facilities including playgrounds are closed. Kudos to RISD for taking this pandemic the most seriously. I guess when you are responsible for children all day, every day, taking their safety seriously is deeply ingrained.
Dallas County also gets credit for taking the pandemic seriously, even though the county is a little less aggressive than RISD. Of neighboring counties, Dallas had the strictest, earliest restrictions. This set up the risk of Dallas County residents traveling to neighboring counties to visit open businesses and bringing the coronavirus back to Dallas. But with the state abdicating its responsibilities, Dallas County couldn't force neighboring counties to take the pandemic seriously, Now that the state has issued a statewide stay-at-home order, Dallas County's health and well-bring are no longer threatened by, say, Collin County.
The City of Richardson seems to have hitched its wagon to Dallas County. Except for the shifting dates already mentioned, I know of no differences between the City of Richardson's order and Dallas County's. Consistency is important to avoid confusion, although not as important as residents' safety. On that front, there are still public doubts about some activities allowed by both city and county.
Dallas County and the City of Richardson are not leaders in closing golf courses, tennis centers, and playgrounds. On that front, the City of Dallas gets credit. It closed city-owned golf courses, tennis centers, and playgrounds. The Richardson ISD deserves recognition, too. It closed playgrounds early on, as well as all outdoor athletic facilities. Dallas County and the City of Richardson appear to believe that because it is possible to imagine playing golf while maintaining social distancing, this activity should be allowed in the name of exercise. In contrast, the City of Dallas appears to recognize that in practice, social distancing is violated all too often at the tees and on the greens. Tennis is problematic as well, with both players handling the same tennis balls. And playgrounds are worst of all, with children using the same equipment that other children might have used minutes before. Disinfecting playground equipment between uses is practically impossible. Nevertheless neither Dallas County nor the City of Richardson has closed playgrounds. The City of Richardson merely "discourages" residents from using them.
I hope, but don't know, that regular conference calls among the county and its various cities (and school districts for that matter) are being held to review inconsistencies in orders. Maybe there are philosophical differences that can't be bridged, but I'd hate if the inconsistencies are simply due to giving priority to aligning with neighbors' orders over residents' health and safety. The history of patchwork implementation of governmental restrictions in response to this pandemic does not inspire confidence that we can control this pandemic.
This article was first published on "Richardson Living."