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For Houston Fire Department, Enforcing Pandemic Rules Is More About Carrot Than Stick

Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

From Texas Standard:

Summertime means more Texans are expected to be out and gathering in public places. But that's a problem during a pandemic when the only way to keep the coronavirus from spreading is by maintaining social distance.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's reopening plan for Texas aims to maintain some of that distance, limiting bars to 25% capacity and restaurants to 50%. But enforcing those limits is up to local officials like Houston Fire Department Deputy Chief Alison Stein. She leads a task force that responds to public complaints about businesses that appear to be shirking the capacity limits.

She told Texas Standard host David Brown on Wednesday that citizens call 311 when they're concerned about a local establishment, and that's when her team is dispatched. But she said her team is more focused on educating customers and businesses about social distancing rather than issuing citations to violators.

"We're passing out masks, and a lot of the time the businesses need help with their customers," Stein said. "When they see us there, they are relieved that they have someone to help them try to gain compliance."

Her team has been busy. Several hundred complaints came in over Memorial Day weekend alone.

The task force is empowered to help businesses comply with Gov. Abbott's capacity limits, and has the authority to issue citations or even shut down a business if necessary. Still, she said, the goal is not to be punitive, but informative

The task force will continue until June 10. Beyond that, its work depends on a decision by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

"If she puts out another stay home order, then we'll continue our task force," Stein said.

Web story by Caroline Covington.

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Rhonda is the newest member of the KUT News team, joining in late 2013 as producer for KUT's new daily news program, The Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
Terri Langford