On March 24, 2020, Williamson County issued a so called “Stay Home Stay Safe Order” covering all 550,000 residents of Williamson County. This Order took effect at midnight on March 24 and is scheduled to continue through midnight on April 13.
This Order, like many that have been issued around the country, is an immense and unprecedented curtailment of our individual civil liberties. While there is no doubt that well-meaning local governments have enacted these draconian orders from a desire to take action in face of public health crisis, using the police power of the state to enforce blanket lockdowns represents a serious encroachment on the most fundamental of our rights, including the right to freedom of movement, the right to assemble, the right to engage in commerce and the right to the pursuit of our livelihoods without interference.
Laws that are enacted to usurp our civil liberties, no matter the emergency, should be carefully drafted, narrowly tailored and provide clear and unambiguous guidance. Unfortunately, the Williamson County Stay Home Stay Safe Order is hopelessly flawed.
Laws have real effects. The impact of the Williamson County Stay Home Stay Safe Order has already caused thousands of our neighbors to lose their jobs, shutter their businesses and upended lives and livelihoods, while we face an uncertain future.
Williamson County’s Order is riddled with ambiguity, inconsistencies, loopholes and nonsensical carve out exceptions. Some examples include:
- Section 4 – Homeless persons are not ordered to shelter in place – seems like we missed a good opportunity here to help the disadvantaged – especially given that homeless populations are highly vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases.
- Section 5 – All business EXCEPT essential businesses are required to cease all activities EXCEPT for “minimum basic operations” – but there are thirty (30) broad categories defining “essential businesses” including everything from healthcare and food operations to newspapers (newspapers are essential in 2020?)
The definitions of so-called “essential businesses” is so broad that it even includes “Businesses that supply other Essential Businesses with the support or supplies necessary to operate.” (Category 25) This carve out exceptions is so broad, vague and ambiguous that it is capable of capturing everything not already exempted. For these reasons, the Williamson County Stay Home Stay Safe Order is not enforceable.
Further, another critical inconsistency is a carve-out for “Businesses that provide food, shelter, and social services, and other necessities of life for economically disadvantaged or otherwise needy individuals” (Category 5). What about the rest of us, who are not necessarily disadvantaged or needy? Do we not also require businesses to provide the “necessities of life.” The inconsistencies make the law meaningless.
Moreover, everyone is permitted to completely ignore this Order and leave their homes as long as their purpose falls into any one of six (6) “essential activities” which includes, to engage in any “outdoor activity” whatsoever, as long as you practice “social distancing.” The obvious problem is that anything under the sun (literally) can be deemed an “outdoor activity” and individuals are left to themselves to determine what complies and what doesn’t comply with the law. And, what exactly is the policy difference between permitting a broad range of activities outdoors, but limiting what some (but not all) businesses can do indoors? Bizarre.
It is clear that this inconsistent, ambiguous, Order was issued in haste with little thought to actual enforceability. The only thing Williamson County has accomplished with this Order is to ensure that our businesses board up, lay-off and furlough their staff, interrupt incomes, disrupt families and cause confusion and uncertainty (and enforce some arbitrary social distance in the process). Meanwhile the Williamson County residents who were already out of work, or on the verge of home-loss prior to this order will suffer the most as the government is scaring them into inaction and telling them that their livelihoods fall within the category of “non-essential.”
The residents of Williamson County have learned that their civil liberties and personal freedoms can be curtailed with the stroke of a pen from a County Judge even when the Order is fundamentally flawed, ill conceived and unenforceable at its core.
It is understandable that Williamson County officials felt as if they needed to take action, but when the government asks so much of its citizens it should be held to the highest standard. This Order should be rethought, clarified and reissued.
It is not unreasonable to require that enacted laws whose purpose is to restrict our liberties be narrowly tailored and precisely drafted using the least restrictive means possible while encouraging the highest level of personal responsibility.
I call on our elected officials who have taken oaths to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Texas Constitution, to reconsider the Williamson County Stay Home Stay Safe Order and replace it with an order that is more deliberate in thought and more precise in drafting so that it is capable of being enforced and provides clear guidance and ensures that any restrictions on our freedoms are limited to only those restrictions that are necessary and appropriate to the protection of the public health.