President Donald Trump lauded Gov. Greg Abbott in the Oval Office on Thursday for freeing a Dallas salon owner who had defied Abbott’s own efforts to keep nonessential businesses closed, and for reopening Texas businesses early.
“She is free today,” Abbott said, explaining the executive order he had issued earlier in the day that says “that in the state of Texas no one can be put behind bars because they’re not following an executive order. So that includes the woman.”
“Good,” said Trump, adding, “I was watching the salon owner and she looked so great, so professional, so good. And she was talking about her children. She has to feed her children.”
Shortly before the governor’s arrival, news surfaced of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the West Wing: a member of the military assigned to serve as one of the president’s personal valets.
Abbott did not wear a mask as he sat beside the president.
“I’ve had very little contact with this person,” Trump told reporters, adding that his last test was on Wednesday, and it was negative. Trump also said that White House staffers will be tested daily going forward, a significant change from the current once-a-week schedule.
The controversy involving Salon … la Mode owner Shelley Luther was on the mind of the president, who made clear his approval of Abbott’s decision to ease stay-home restrictions.
On Tuesday, the governor announced that hair and nail salons, gyms and manufacturing plants could reopen Friday with limited capacity and other precautions.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus coordinator, noted that Abbott had been open to feedback, as when he agreed to keep nail salons off the list of businesses allowed to open on May 1 “in the first opening wave, because you can’t really physical distance.” Abbott spokesman John Wittman confirmed that restriction was ending Friday as planned, after a one-week delay.
Earlier Thursday, Abbott modified a statewide order aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 to clarify that people who violate stay-home orders, or keep their businesses open in defiance of state and local orders, should not face jail time. Unlike governors in dozens of other states, Abbott had resisted issuing mandatory stay-home orders, and the latest move reinforced the approach of voluntary compliance.
Shortly after Abbott’s move, the Texas Supreme Court ordered Luther released from the Dallas County jail, two days into a seven-day sentence for contempt of court.
Like other businesses deemed nonessential during the COVID-19 outbreak, Luther’s Far North Dallas hair studio was required to close on March 22. She reopened on April 24, and tore up a cease-and-desist letter from County Judge Clay Jenkins at a demonstration the next day.
Three days later, state district Judge Eric Moyé signed an order requiring Luther to keep her salon closed. She defied that order and continued to operate the business, becoming a cause célèbre for Texas conservatives and others.
Sarah Palin, the tea party darling who served as Alaska governor and the GOP nominee for vice president in 2008, even showed up at the salon to show her support.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick vowed to pay Luther’s $7,000 fine — $500 for every day she’d kept the salon open unlawfully. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the jail sentence “outrageous” and wrote to Moyé, arguing that he had abused his discretion and should free Luther.
In the Oval Office, Trump insisted that the worst of the pandemic was past and that the focus should shift to targeted response from broad, society-wide lockdowns that have decimated the economy.
“Texas is opening up and a lot of places are opening up. … This country can’t stay closed and locked down for years,” he said, adding that “you’re going to have some embers” and that in Texas, Abbott will “put them out.”
The governor said that Texas’ hotspots were almost exclusively at meatpacking plants, jails and nursing homes, “so we have task forces that focus on those three areas.” And even with those problems, he boasted, “we have one of the lowest death rates in the United States of America.”
Half of Texas’ 254 counties — many of which are rural — have had five or fewer cases, he said.
“We’ve been able to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Texas, but at the same time we created these surge forces that will go out to regions where there are flare-ups. It’s like putting out a fire,” Abbott told the president, citing a meatpacking plant north of Amarillo.
Returning to the Dallas salon owner, Abbott said that “as we go through this process of trying to maintain order in our state … we should not be taking these people and putting them behind bars, these people who have spent their life building up a business and being told to shut it down and lose every penny they have, and then, if they don’t follow every little fine point of all the rules, they suddenly are subject to arrest. That is wrong.”
The president, Vice President Mike Pence and senior officials have been tested repeatedly. The president’s visitors, including CEOs and senators, receive rapid tests at the executive building next to the White House before meeting with him.
White House medical staffers check journalists for fever before they’re allowed through the security gate and again before they enter the Oval Office or any other room where they’ll be in proximity to the president.
Trump said that his valet had been wearing a mask and that many White House employees wear masks, though senior staffers are never seen in public with masks on.
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