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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 8:36 p.m. to correct vote totals on the measure and which two council members voted against it.
Denton city leaders did their best this week to clear the way for more resources as well as give a clearer understanding for residents on the new rules in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, at least for now.
In an emergency meeting late Friday afternoon, the City Council split 5-2 over amending the local disaster declaration, but they were united in approving new agreements to bolster local law enforcement. Other cities are reporting diminished capacities as officers fall ill with the virus and are quarantined.
Denton City Manager Todd Hileman told council members that he met with Police Chief Frank Dixon to plan for impacts the virus may have on the city’s social fabric.
In addition to keeping police and firefighters safe and well, the city must be ready for other problems, such as domestic violence and looting. New Orleans saw such problems after Hurricane Katrina when social safety nets collapsed.
“At some point, people have to take responsibility for themselves and be civil to each other,” Hileman said.
The main purpose of the emergency declaration is to provide the city manager the spending authority to respond to the crisis. But it also allows the city to tap its police powers for the greater good, such as the ability to temporarily shutter businesses or set up emergency shelters.
For example, Dallas County is using the American Airlines Center for new drive-thru virus testing. (Patients must have a doctor’s referral to be tested.)
With 24 people confirmed with the virus in Denton County as of Saturday afternoon, including seven in Denton, local health systems are not overwhelmed — but that could change, Hileman said.
The city has identified buildings that can be used by public health officials and local hospitals, if needed, for overflow when the time comes. Hileman said he didn’t want to broadcast what buildings they had identified since they aren’t needed right now.
Council member Keely Briggs expressed frustration over how much the city must do, with scant information about how the virus is moving through the city.
“If we do not have tests in our city, this is all for nothing,” Briggs said.
The city is closing Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center to the public beginning Saturday for a deep cleaning in anticipation that public safety will need the facility for some administration operations.
Last week, the center was left open so people could access the public showers and restrooms. That is being shifted to Quakertown Park. Beginning Monday, the public showers and restrooms at the Civic Center Pool will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
In its initial declaration earlier this week, the City Council allocated $50,000 to the United Way of Denton County to help prevent imminent homelessness for the neediest families. Several council members asked whether the city should allocate more money. They ultimately agreed they would assess information from local nonprofits about the need before doing so.
Some renters in the city launched a coordinated write-in campaign asking for rent freezes just before the council’s emergency meeting began. The renters pointed to their sudden job losses in the wake of business closures and the lurching economy to justify their request.
Rent control is outside the city’s authority, per the state constitution. But the Texas Supreme Court issued an order that essentially bars evictions for nonpayment through mid-April, a move that should give many people some time to recover.
Similarly, the city of Denton and Atmos Energy have suspended utility shut-offs through April.
The city’s declaration continues until April 30 but better aligns with state and county declarations when it comes to closures and the like. City leaders agreed that small-business owners and workers alike were confused about what the many closure orders meant for them.
Bars, gyms and theaters have been ordered closed by the state. Restaurants and microbreweries are limited to take-out, drive-thru and delivery services.
Massage parlors are closed, per the state’s declaration, but the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation said the declaration does not affect the license of an individual massage therapist to practice.
The city received requests to close salons and day cares, but the council declined to do so. The council also declined to write a rule requiring social distancing and disinfection practices at retail checkouts.
“If we start adding in, we create confusion,” said council member Jesse Davis, adding that the county and the state are working with public health experts to put out both legal requirements and health recommendations to the public, based on the kind of expertise the city doesn’t have.
In addition, making a practice, such as social distancing, into a local law also means the city risks getting 911 calls, for example, from angry shoppers looking to enforce distances rather than dealing with police emergencies, Hileman said.
Most of the council disagreement over the declaration was whether to add prohibitions beyond what the county and state are doing. Ultimately, Deb Armintor and Briggs voted against the amendments because they didn’t include additional prohibitions.
One place where the city’s rules are different, however, is in community gatherings.
The state’s order does not define a community gathering, but the city’s does. That prohibition was strengthened and remains through April 30 — no community gatherings of 50 or more.
An example of such a gathering, Denton’s venerable Arts & Jazz Festival, is among those many community gatherings that have been postponed or canceled.
In addition, social gatherings of 10 or more people are also prohibited to align with the state’s prohibition. For example, no service club meetings can be held from now through midnight April 3.
Council members previously authorized the city manager $500,000 spending authority in ensuring basic city services are available in responding to the health emergency. Hileman told council members the city’s finance department is keeping meticulous track of those expenses, including city staff overtime, for future state or federal assistance.
Armintor asked whether some of that money could be spent on essential services, such as food delivery, being provided in the private sector, but she had no takers.
The city staff have published a FAQ document on the city’s website to help residents and business owners make sense of recommendations and new rules in effect during the health emergency.
The City Council is expected to meet again on March 31 to tackle both the ongoing crisis and other city business.