In eighteenth-century France, salons were gatherings where the free exchange of ideas fomented revolutionary sentiment. So, too, in twenty-first-century Texas. Let’s look closely at the events of the last week—call it the Great Cosmetology War of 2020—and despair together. But, perhaps, for a different reason than you are otherwise currently despairing. Hopefully it will be a nice little break.
The conflict really kicked off on April 25, at a protest in front of the Frisco City Hall calling for the reopening of shuttered businesses. Shelley Luther, the owner of Salon à la Mode, took center stage. She had gained local publicity for reopening her business in defiance of Governor Greg Abbott’s shutdown order. By way of enforcing it, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins had sent her a cease and desist order—and, as Abbott had laid out in his order, a $1,000 fine. (The governor also threatened violators with up to 180 days in jail.) In front of a cheering crowd, Luther ripped up the document. There she stood: she could do no other.
Your move, governor. On April 27, at a press conference, Abbott laid out his vision for unwinding his shutdown order. On May 1, his “phase one” would go into effect, allowing retail businesses and restaurants to partially reopen, as long as they followed certain guidelines. In mid-May, assuming things had gone well and COVID-19 infection numbers weren’t spiking, he declared that he would move Texas to “phase two” and allow more businesses to open. Hair salons, barbershops, gyms, and bars could welcome customers back in once the state had collected “two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19” after phase one, he said.
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Why the different standards? Well, barbering and hairstyling involve sustained intimate contact, in an environment where customers are coming and going over the course of the day. Barbershops and salons provide a much more potent risk for viral transmission than, say, a Home Depot. And why two weeks? That’s the minimum period required to get a sense of whether the virus is in submission, according to public health experts. Though the coronavirus has a median incubation time of about five days, some of those infected don’t show symptoms until about twelve to fourteen days after infection.
Abbott got pushback from all sides. Some thought he was moving too fast while others complained that he was acting too slowly. Setting that aside, he deserves at least a little credit for the fact that unlike some governors—the fella who rules over our unfortunate brothers and sisters in Georgia, for one—Abbott at least had a plan. With dates. A 66-page manual. An order of operations. Something you could make into a flowchart. Less dangerous businesses first, more dangerous businesses later. Capiche?
Nonetheless, many Texans nonetheless yearned to sweat in gyms again, and others to breathe in the stale air of bars. And a much higher number of Texans needed to get their hair done. (I, for one, am nursing a baby mullet.) Perhaps predictably, then, Abbott’s vow to keep the state’s clippers holstered for another few weeks became a rallying point. Even though polls still show the great majority of Americans, and Texans, are more worried about the shutdown ending too early than too late, Abbott’s antennae are most keenly attuned to those on his right.
The day after Abbott’s press conference, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough went on Facebook to tell his constituents that he had read Abbott’s order. In his reading, it was vague and inconsistent, and it needed clarifying. The governor had said at his April 27 press conference that hair salons would remain closed, but his order states only that “people shall avoid” a list of places that included “cosmetology salons.” Until Abbott told him otherwise, Keough said, the hair-doing could resume on May 1 like everything else.
Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton descended on Keough to convince him otherwise, and they succeeded: Keough changed his tune. But the spark of rebellion had flaked off from Keough’s rusty razor. The governor was now fighting a two-front war. Montgomery County, a populous satellite of Houston, is one of the more conservative big counties in the state. What happens there matters in Republican politics.
And up in Dallas, there was Luther, who continued to ignore local officials and a temporary restraining order issued from a local court to shutter her hair salon—even after the governor set a prospective reopening date. Luther was a congenial small businesswoman, and Dallas was less blond than ever before: its women yearned for highlights. She struck a chord.
And then, on Tuesday, something bigger happened. Luther was fined $7,000 and sentenced to seven days in jail by Dallas County civil district court judge Eric Moyé. To be clear, Luther was not punished for opening her business. She was sentenced to jail for both civil and criminal contempt of court—for refusing lawful court orders.
For this, she instantly became a national folk hero for those who are angry at the measures taken to mitigate the virus. Fox News covered her case at length. An online fundraiser started in Luther’s name raised $500,000 before the organizer cut people off from donating more. Sarah Palin stopped by the salon to show her support. Members of the executive committee of the Texas GOP penned a sharply worded letter to the governor, complaining that “we have all been stripped of our constitutional rights and dignity these last two months.” They demanded that Luther be freed.
On Wednesday, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who never misses an opportunity to hop on even the most rickety bandwagon, offered to serve seven days under house arrest in her place. Abbott, who authored the very order she violated, and Paxton, who was indicted five years ago for felony securities fraud, charges that he has so far refused to stand trial for, authored a remarkable letter urging that she be let off scot-free. (Both men have otherwise urged local officials to slow the release of prisoners while COVID continues to exact a grim toll in Texas jails.) Finally, on Thursday, Abbott issued a retroactive amendment to his lockdown order to get Luther out of jail.
Now, the question of what to do with those who violate public health directives—who put the public at risk indirectly—is a tricky one. Many liberals and conservatives now find agreement in the idea that no one should be put in jail for nonviolent crimes. The situation is trickier when, like Luther, violators are given many, many chances to conform to the law and refuse. It’s a question that we’re probably going to have to face again, as we struggle to adjust to having COVID-19 as a neighbor, and it’s going to be difficult every time.
Citizens of South Korea or Denmark may like big government telling them what to do to stay safe, but we’re America, baby, and we’re high on Alex Jones’s brain-healing powder. We’re a country that’s fighting a culture war about whether wearing masks makes you a wimp, and where men complain loudly on television that the pandemic is making it hard to buy lawn fertilizer.
It’s notable, perhaps, that Shelley Luther shows up in at least one other pandemic-related local news story in the last few months. On March 11, KHOU interviewed Luther and her boyfriend, Tim Georgeff, as they boarded a cruise ship in Galveston. Were they worried about getting on an enormous floating petri dish in the middle of a pandemic, not long after the entire Diamond Princess had been quarantined in Japan? “Well, for one, I have a real good friend who’s a doctor,” Georgeff told the reporter. “It’s really nothing more than a severe cold.”
But there’s one point that’s worth triple-underlining, and it’s the strangest part of the whole salon saga. Judge Moyé has been cast as the villain, the oppressor, whose puppetmaster is Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. It’s important to listen to Moyé’s words as he sentenced Luther. He was convicting her, he said, because of the rather sensible proposition that “the rule of law governs us … Society cannot function when one’s own belief in the concept of liberty permits you to flaunt your disdain for the rulings of elected officials,” Moyé said.
Here’s the thing. One of the “rulings” in question here is by Abbott, who, if you need reminding, is the Republican governor of Texas. Moyé, a Democrat, is defending Abbott’s prerogative in ordering business closures for public health reasons. Abbott isn’t alone in this, of course. The president, the governor of Texas, the Dallas county judge, and an assortment of both Democratic and Republican mayors in North Texas all agreed that Americans should cool it in April. This group may never agree on anything ever again, but they agreed on this. And yet the Republican officeholders are urging conservatives to train their fire on Moyé and Jenkins.
This kind of bait-and-switch has been happening a lot lately. The mayor of Lubbock ordered residents to stay at home, and then showed up to a protest against his own stay-at-home order. Patrick has declined to criticize state officials for ordering lockdowns, but has been extremely harsh on local leaders who’ve done the same. Abbott declares hair salons a danger to the public, and then orders that a hair salon owner who endangered the public walk free.
But the most consequential thing to come from the Cosmetology Wars isn’t Luther’s brief time in jail and subsequent release. On April 25, Abbott had said that “phase two” businesses like hair salons and barbershops could be opened on May 18 if two weeks of data had shown no spike in infections. But on May 5—just four days after businesses had been allowed to open—he changed his mind and said barbershops could open on May 8. This chaotic week-long muddle had gotten him to do something he had argued would be dangerous to do just a week before, and despite the fact that cases have been climbing, not decreasing, since the reopening.
It’s not surprising that a politician would prefer to have his cake and eat it too, or that a politician facing criticism would try to stoke the culture wars to shield himself. But what we’re seeing now reflects fear. We the people are angry, and rightfully so, even if we’re angry at many different things. It’s an election year. State leaders are desperately looking for anything to blame other than themselves.