In an emergency meeting Tuesday afternoon, the Midlothian City Council considered a number of options but ultimately took no action regarding a declaration of disaster for the city over the coronavirus pandemic.
In the end, Mayor Richard Reno and the council agreed to wait a week and think their options over after councilmembers and business owners objected to the economic damage a disaster declaration might cause.
Earlier in the day, Ellis County Judge Todd Little had issued a declaration of disaster for the entire county, calling for a ban on gatherings of 50 or more. Mayor Reno said the emergency council meeting was in response to that, in response to growing concern over the virus, and to initiate emergency activities to make the city eligible for state and federal funds.
Reno said he could issue a seven-day declaration that would carry the city to next Tuesday’s regular council meeting, or the council could vote to implement a 30-day declaration.
Reno said the county declaration would override any city action, but the city could enact more stringent measures.
“The county has declared its primary motivation is to help promote the well-being of the county, which we also have a responsibility,” Reno said. “We also have a responsibility for the liberties and freedoms of our citizens. We need to measure that in our response to this situation.”
Because of the outbreak, the city of Midlothian has already instituted a number of changes to municipal services.
For example, A.H. Meadows Library will remain closed through at least Friday as MISD has extended its spring break and as a precautionary measure in response to the coronavirus and Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide disaster declaration.
The city Animal Shelter has also instituted changes. Visits are by appointment only and the shelter’s hours may be limited. The public is asked to have an animal’s name or kennel ID when making an appointment, limit contact with cages, equipment, attendants, etc. and to please use hand sanitizer upon arriving and leaving.
But in considering further measures, Mayor Pro Tem Justin Coffman said he believed the city should not overstep and create more fear and more panic. Councilmember Clark Wickliffe added that he didn’t like the authorization of all available enforcement in the mayor’s drafted declaration and preferred a recommendation only.
Councilmember Mike Rodgers had more pointed questions about any of the declarations and their verbage, in particular the use of the word “disaster.” At the time of the meeting, no known COVID-19 cases existed in Ellis County, but that changed later Tuesday when the first presumptive positive case was reported.
“We are looking at declaring a local disaster, but what is the current disaster in our city that we are declaring?” Rodgers asked. “Since we don’t actually have a current disaster we’re dealing with at the moment that is in real time in our county, why are we subscribing to this?”
City attorney Kevin Laughlin said “local disaster” is a phraseology used in state law to invoke the emergency process, so the city needs to track the language used in the statute. City manager Chris Dick added that the current situation meets the state’s statutory definition of a disaster.
Later, Dick clarified, “I want the public to know none of this would have demanded a shutdown of businesses. That’s not what we’re looking to do.”
Reno said he wants the city to be a part of the process of pre-empting COVID-19 and that a void will exist if the city is not given direction. “Once it gets a foothold, it will run rampant and you’re behind the curve,” he said.
Brad Golden, who owns Beef O’Brady’s in Midlothian, addressed the council and told them he has already been forced to shut down half of his restaurant because of declining business. Any further action would be devastating to the local economy, Golden added.
“You can prepare a disaster plan, but that won’t help us,” Golden said. “That won’t help small business owners ... The local economy is what feeds and builds our community. Be careful how hard we push because some cities have gone nuts. I’ve got employees and their families to take care of.”
Ellis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Paul Perry, who represents Midlothian, told the council that the county disaster declaration was issued by Judge Little with no input from the Commissioners’ Court.
“I can (see) the negative effect the current environment is having on your restaurants, and it’s a sad thing to watch and it’s probably overdone right now,” Perry said. “Speaking for me, not on behalf of the county, I share many of your concerns about the current environment. The mentality that we are assisting people to have is not a positive one for a virus that is not going to be a huge challenge for many of us.
“We have people that need to shelter in place and people we need to take care of as governmental entities. But I don’t think we need to be running out in an extremist fashion telling everybody how many people they can have in their business t any given time.”
In concluding the meeting, Mayor Reno reiterated that the county’s action earlier Tuesday was what was dictating the city’s reaction.
“I encourage everyone … that you may want to contact your county judge and tell the county judge how you feel,” Reno said.