DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) — When many North Texas businesses were ordered to close, Dallas citizens flooded the city’s 311 hotline with complaints of businesses violating the state’s emergency coronavirus orders.
Since April, Dallas’ 311 hotline has received 5,383 COVID-19 related calls. The complaints included non-essential businesses opening too soon, crowds that were too big and people not following social distancing guidelines.
For the Dallas Code Compliance Department, making sure emergency orders were being followed became a full time job.
“We galvanized our forces, rallied the troops, and we had nearly all of our 180 officers deployed just focusing the COVID-19 emergency regulations,” said code compliance director Carl Simpson.
According to city records, code compliance officers have looked into 20,363 cases since April. Some were in response to the citizen complaints called into the 311 hotline, while the majority of cases were protective compliance checks.
Simpson said his code enforcement officers discovered thousands of violations but also found the vast majority of businesses willing to quickly comply.
Dallas has handed out 5,782 notices of emergency order violations. These notices, though, are essentially warnings. There is no penalty or fine as long as the violation is fixed.
“I would say 95–96% of the folks we’ve had to deal with, maybe somewhat reluctantly, but they have been willing to comply,” said Simpson.
This is why despite thousands of notices, Dallas has issued just 32 citations for violating COVID-19 emergency orders — 24 of which were issued to non-essential businesses and three were later voided.
The most recent citations this month were issued to bars and several tanning salons that the city said opened before the governor’s order permitted them to.
On Monday, gyms, offices and non-essential manufacturers joined the growing number of businesses allowed to reopen in Texas.
As the state orders change, so does the job of code compliance.
The focus now will be on making sure businesses follow the occupancy requirements. Restaurants and retail stores currently are required to keep occupancy at 25% but the state plans to loosen those restrictions soon to 50%.
Simpson said he plans to start moving some of his enforcement officers back to traditional code calls, such as illegal dumping, that have — for the most part — been put on hold.
While often a thankless job, Simpson said he believes his department’s efforts in the past two months have “contributed to saving lives.”
“This is one of those times that I really think the code team has been able to standup and provide a service to our community,” he said.
Fort Worth does not have a 311 hotline but the city set up a COVID-19 hotline back in March.
Since Mar. 22, the hotline has received 5,424 calls and emails. During this time, Fort Worth code enforcement officers have issued nine citations to businesses.