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New section added to VZC declaration order

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    Social distancing was practiced by the VZC Commissioners Court during its special called meeting April 7. Photo by David Barber

During a 30-minute called meeting April 7, the Van Zandt County Commissioners Court, in a 2-1 vote, in response to coronavirus concerns, approved extending the current First Amended Proclamation Declaring a Local State of Disaster in VZC and added a new section to the order.

The original First Amended Proclamation was approved by the court and signed by VZC Judge Don Kirkpatrick following an April 1 press conference that gave an update on coronavirus-related issues in VZC.

The proclamation was scheduled to expire on April 8, but the commissioners’ court approved April 7 to extend the proclamation through Wednesday, April 15, when the court will have its regular meeting.

While extending the proc lamation an additional seven days did not meet any opposition, the proposal to add a new section to the proclamation created a great deal of discussion and disagreement.

ZC Pct. 2 Commissioner Virgil Melton Jr. proposed replacing Section 7 of the First Amended Proclamation with the following wording: “Engaging in other essential out-door activities, provided the individuals comply with the social distancing requirement of six feet. For example, hunting, walking, biking, hiking, running, fishing, golfing and tennis, unless the Governor’s order supersedes this order.”

The discussion on the proposed new Section 7 began with Texas District 2 State Senator Bob Hall, who joined the April 7 commissioners’ court meeting by telephone as attendance to the April 7 called meeting was limited to 10 persons or less and no access to the meeting by the general public due to coronavirus concerns.

“The real battle that we have here is trying to cure the problem of termites in the house by burning the house down,” Hall said to the commissioners’ court. “Sometimes, when we overreach, that happens. In my conversations with the Governor and the Lt. Governor, the issue of social distancing is the best tool that we have right now. We are now getting into the issue of what is an essential business and what is not an essential business. So far as transmitting the virus from one person to another, we have a bigger problem with people going into grocery stores than we do with people going into a candy store, a flower shop or out playing golf or fishing. People need to have the opportunity to get outside and be in the sunshine. That would be healthier than what we are doing now. I would just ask that you use judicial discretion. The Governor intended for counties to use discretion that is best for their community. This is not a one size fits all for the State of Texas. We are different from Dallas. People just need to use common sense. We can’t have a cure that is worse than the problem. That is what we need to be careful with. In considering the extension of your proclamation, my question would be is it really necessary? We need to preserve as much of our economy as we can. That is my concern right now.”

Melton responded to Hall’s comments. “I think we are trying to address one issue at a time,” said Melton. “Today (April 7), we are trying to address physical activities. I do somewhat agree with you in that we need to expand our physical activities. I have a proposal to present.”

The VZC Pct. 2 commissioner then presented his proposed new Section 7 of the proclamation for consideration by the commissioners’ court.

“Your proposal is very much within what the counties and cities are supposed to do,” said Hall in reacting to the new Section 7 proposal. “It is certainly your choice to do it. You are well within your authority to do what you want to do on this.”

VZC Criminal District Attorney Tonda Curry expressed her disagreement with Hall’s position and the proposed new Section 7 presented by Melton. “Our VZC emergency man

“Our VZC emergency management plan puts me in the unenviable position of having to legally interpret, provide a legal opinion and give advice to the commissioners’ court regarding the Governor’s order,” pointed out Curry to Hall and the commissioners’ court. “In my legal opinion, there is no one in VZC, myself, the commissioners’ court, the VZC judge, or any other person in VZC that has the ability or the power to overrule the Governor’s order. The Governor’s order says that non-essential businesses are closed. Here is your list of essential businesses listed on the Department of Homeland Security website. Golf courses are not on the essential list. This is not my fight and I am done with it. This has caused me great grief. Whatever this court decides to do about the golf courses, if you think you have the power to do that, that is fine. I am done with this fight, but my legal opinion is no one in VZC has the authority to overrule Governor Abbott’s order. Golf courses are businesses that are not listed as an essential business. Why confuse the public?”

Kirkpatrick said, “When the Governor leaves it up to the county judge and every mayor, you get a bunch of different orders out there that it reaches the point where the public can get confused.”

Hall informed the commissioners’ court that he would welcome any and all members of the court to meet with him in the future regarding any coronavirus-related issues.

VZC Pct. 1 Commissioner Brandon Brown voiced his support of Curry’s position and that he would be voting against the new Section 7 of the proclamation, especially the part that deals with the opening of golf courses.

“I think we need to leave this proclamation where it is at right now without adding any sections to it,” emphasized Brown. “There is no way you can make people stay six feet apart when they are on the golf course.”

“Things are open outdoors in virtually every county around us,” responded VZC Pct. 3 Commissioner Keith Pearson. “People are going to other counties to play golf.”

“If they are going to Smith County, they are losing their minds because right now, Smith County is a hot spot for coronavirus cases,” said Brown. “People could be bringing this stuff into VZC from Smith County and other counties.”

“What I am proposing involves essential outdoor activities,” pointed out Melton. “As long as social distancing is included, we should have all of these activities included in our proclamation.”

Brown responded, “I have driven down a number of streets in VZC and I am seeing kids playing together in large groups in the streets. It looks like a playground out there. There is no social distancing going on. Moms and Dads are tired of having their kids in the house all the time. Schools are trying to give them homework and it doesn’t matter if they do the work or not. They are still going to pass. You can’t fail them. Kids are running around everywhere and not practicing social distancing. School is over with. They are not going back to school. They are on a six-month summer break.”

Melton and Pearson voted in favor of the extension and the new section to the proclamation while Brown voted against. VZC Pct. 4 Commissioner Tim West was not in attendance at the April 7 meeting.

In order to include the new Section 7 into the First Amended Proclamation, the commissioners’ court agreed to move the former Section 7 to now be the new Section 8.

The new Section 8 of the proclamation now reads, “Social Distancing: Pursuant to the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), individuals shall maintain a minimum distance of six feet from others.” The former Section 8 moved to Section 9, and so on, until Section 12.

Curry updated the commissioners’ court that Dallas County had shut down all of their municipal golf courses but some of the country club courses in that county have remained open.

Kirkpatrick and the commissioners’ court expressed their appreciation to Curry for her efforts during VZC’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

“I am just trying to do what the law says and we are going to see things get worse in VZC before they get better,” concluded Curry. “Something is going to cause it to get worse and we don’t know what that might be, but I want to make sure I give you full information before you reach your decisions.”

No other action was taken by the commissioners’ court during the April 7 special called meeting.

The updated First Amended Proclamation Declaring a Local State of Disaster in VZC will be brought back as an agenda item for further discussion during the 9 a.m. regular commissioners’ court meeting on Wednesday, April 15.