To hell with it, Gov. Greg Abbott seemed to be saying when he announced Thursday that Texans can no longer be jailed for violating his COVID-19 orders. 

It was a very pointed statement specifically made in the context of a Dallas quarantine controversy. Soon after he made it, The Texas Supreme Court ordered Dallas County officials to release Shelley Luther, owner of Salon À la Mode, from jail. Luther was sentenced to spend a week in jail for defying not only Gov. Abbott’s executive order to close nonessential businesses like hair salons but also Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins’ and Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson’s similar orders.  

A couple of weeks ago, Luther began to make waves when she decided to reopen her business despite the quarantine in place. She received a cease-and-desist order after she reopened her shop. She promptly tore it up at a Frisco rally aimed at reopening the state. Since then, Luther has been hailed as a martyr. When word came that police officers were going to be dispatched at the salon, supporters wearing bandanna masks and carrying assault rifles took up post outside the shop.

Dallas city officials served her with a court order and $1,000 ticket for defying the orders and possibly endangering more people. Local news reported that Luther’s attorneys later wrote in a petition challenging her jailing that Luther was following all the required COVID-19 safety measures, including requiring stylists to wear masks, practicing social distancing, and disinfecting regularly touched surfaces.

Regardless, she was still defying orders and the law. She was sentenced to a week in jail.

Abbott, who had already started phase one of reopening Texas, decided to change the law Thursday and announced it in a tweet: “Throwing Texans in jail whose biz’s shut down through no fault of their own is wrong. I am eliminating jail for violating an order, retroactive to April 2, superseding local orders. Criminals shouldn’t be released to prevent COVID-19 just to put business owners in their place.” 

It’s a complete reversal of what Abbott had said recently at one of his press conferences when he warned that businesses violating his 25 percent capacity requirement or other related COVID-19 restrictions could face a fine and/or jail time. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton agreed with Abbott’s reversal and issued a statement shortly after news broke Tuesday that Luther would be spending a short time in jail for violating the orders: “I find it outrageous and out of touch that during this national pandemic, a judge would jail a mother for operating her hair salon in an attempt to put food on her family’s table.” 

On Wednesday, a day after Luther was jailed, Abbott announced that barbers and hair salons could open under certain restrictions. Those restrictions include keeping customers from gathering inside and making sure salon stations are six feet apart. He also encouraged hair stylists and their customers to wear masks. 

The Texas Tribune reported Wednesday that Paxton had pointed out in a letter to state district judge Eric Moyé that it is ridiculous Luther will be serving her jail term while other hair salons are able to open and operate. 

It’s also ridiculous to expect Texans to follow an order they don’t like if there are no consequences for their failure to do so.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicts that a deadly COVID-19 surge would be striking in the fall. He claims that officials will be better prepared with testing, identifying, and isolating, but only if people are complying with their requests.

At a recent press conference, Abbott acknowledged that COVID-19 infection rates have slowed because Texans had closed their nonessential businesses, sheltered in place, and practiced safe social distancing. He personally thanked Texans for doing so. 

In an Utopian society, Abbott could say Texans followed his shelter-in-place orders because they truly cared for their fellow Texans despite their political affiliation. But the reality is many people were only following the orders because they thought they were facing a fine and jail time for refusing to do so. Why else would they create an “Open Texas” Facebook group, hold protests at the Governor’s Mansion, and gather at Frisco City Hall where social distancing was not observed in the slightest?

These business owners weren’t doing so because they had willingly closed their businesses and simply didn’t like it. As we pointed out in our coverage of the late April rally, they were holding signs that read, “The word ‘pandemic’ is just the word ‘Dem’ surrounded by panic,’” “Make 1984 fiction again,” “Your opinion and fear does not erase what the Constitution says.” 

But it will be hard to ask these people to shutdown their businesses again to contain the outbreak without any repercussions for failing to do so. 

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Christian McPhate

Christian has been working as a freelance journalist in North Texas for more than a decade. His stories have appeared in the Dallas Observer, the Houston Press, and Rolling Stone magazine. He covers a...