The police went into Fatty’s Smoke Shop in Beverly Hills, a small city surrounded by Waco, last Wednesday about 10 a.m., owner Jesse Singh recalled. His business, they informed him, is not considered essential under McLennan County’s emergency order, issued the previous day as part of the government’s increasingly restrictive efforts to slow COVID-19, the viral disease racing across the country.
“They also told my customers they were illegally out of the house because this wasn’t an essential business,” he said.
Singh balked, noting the county’s emergency order permitted “health care operations” to remain open, and that his shop sold CBD oil, among other products, which many people use to treat a variety of ailments. “My parents use it for arthritis,” he said.
The officers left, but returned later that evening, writing Singh a ticket for “violation of the emergency plan” — a fine of up to a $1,000 per day. He remained closed Thursday, but the store was back and open for business on Friday and Saturday, with strict social distancing measures and an official letter of complaint from his lawyer to the county firmly in place.
On Sunday the police returned, this time threatening the clerk with a personal $1,000 fine, Singh said. The shop closed around 11 a.m.
Apart from apparently being one of the first punitive actions taken against a business for remaining open in violation of a county’s coronavirus emergency declaration, the dispute could foreshadow future legal battles as the business shut-down drags on.
It also highlights the challenge of enforcing a patchwork of emergency orders across the country and state when details of the directives can be open to interpretation.
“The assignment of essential vs. non-essential businesses seems arbitrary based on the current order in McLennan County,” Singh’s lawyer, Hunter Shurtlett, wrote in a March 27 letter to County Judge Scott Felton. “Currently, convenience stores as well as liquor stores are designated as essential businesses. Customers of Fatty’s rely on CBD products for severe health concerns and purchase the products for health care purposes.”
Turns out, asking the question was the key, because the city backed down and allowed Fatty’s to remain open.
In an email sent Tuesday afternoon, the City of Beverly Hills, a small municipality surrounded by Waco, told Fatty’s Smoke Shop it could reopen so long as its clerks followed social distancing best practices.
Beverly Hills police had issued Fatty’s a citation last week after officers disagreed with owner Jesse Singh’s argument that customers use CBD oil to treat various medical ailments so his shop qualifies as an essential health care business. Despite the ticket, which could bring a fine up to $1,000, Singh remained open, only to have police return and forcibly close the store two days later.
In response to a letter from Fatty’s lawyer, however, the city changed its mind. Referencing McLennan County Judge Scott Felton’s March 23 emergency order, City Secretary Angel Nevarez wrote, “After review of the Order that is in place Fatty’s may remain open, however, there will have to be a curbside service. Only workers should be in the store.”
The flipflop highlights the difficulty in reconciling competing economic and public safety interests in the country’s response to the novel coronavirus, as officials trying to limit social contact to slow its spread bump up against businesses desperate to stay afloat.
For sure. Other counties, with varying degrees of explicitness, have generally not designated shops that sell CBD oil to be essential. I’m not qualified to assess the argument one way or the other. I don’t know what kind of effect closing these shops might have on the people who use CBD oil. There’s a lot of gray area in these stay-at-home orders, and we’re all trying to figure out the best way to balance risk and necessity. The main thing I hope is that we get a better idea of what the best practices should be, so that the next time something like this happens – there’s going to be a next time, hopefully more later than sooner – we’re better equipped to deal with it. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.