A Dallas woman has been ordered to spend a week in jail and pay at least $3,500 in fines after reopening her hair salon in defiance of the state and local stay-at-home orders, meant to stem the spread of COVID-19.
District Judge Eric Moyé found Shelley Luther, the owner of Salon à la Mode, in contempt of court for resuming business on April 24, refusing to heed orders to reclose, and tearing up a cease and desist letter in protest. The salon had been shuttered since March 22.
Prior to sentencing Luther, Moyé gave her the opportunity to admit "the error of [her] ways" in exchange for a fine instead of incarceration, which he said she had "so clearly earned." She would also have to promise to close her salon.
"A society cannot function where one's own beliefs in a concept of liberty permits you to flaunt your disdain for the rulings of duly elected officials," said a masked Moyé, addressing Luther from the bench. The Dallas entrepreneur would need to formally apologize to those elected officials, he said, who she "disrespected by flagrantly ignoring and in one case defiling their orders."
"Judge, I would like to say that I have much respect for this court and laws, and that I've never been in this position before, and it's not someplace that I want to be," she said, speaking through a mask into a telephone for a court transcriber. "But I have to disagree with you, sir, when you say that I'm selfish. Because feeding my kids is not selfish."
Luther told the judge she opened her business out of desperation after she was unable to earn any sort of living for over a month. While she noted that she successfully secured a loan from the federal government under the Paycheck Protection Program, that money didn't come through until May 3. Intended to provide funding to small businesses closed by government orders, the program has been plagued by errors.
"I've got hairstylists that are going hungry because they'd rather feed their kids," Luther said. "So sir, if you think the law is more important than kids getting fed, then please go ahead with your decision, but I am not going to shut the salon."
Government efforts across the U.S. to enforce social distancing are increasingly failing. Americans are growing more anxious and depressed as a result of losing their jobs and their right to recreate freely in most public places. In Luther's case, the COVID-19 shutdown has taken a devastating economic toll. Workers everywhere are wondering how they will get by at a time when earning a living the only way they know how is suddenly illegal.
Due to the lack of testing capacity, social distancing is currently America's best strategy for beating back the spread of the novel coronavirus. Government officials at the local, state, and federal levels failed to prepare for a world in which they put people out of work in the middle of March but could not provide financial relief to them for more than a month afterward. Luther speaks for many Americans when she says the choice imposed on her—possibly contract or spread COVID-19, or definitely watch her children go without food—necessitated an act of civil disobedience.
Moyé further ordered that Luther publicly concede that the "proper way to engage concerns" is to "hire a lawyer" and advocate for "exceptions or an amendment to laws" that Luther finds disagreeable. But that's a slow approach to a problem Luther clearly felt required more urgent action. Hungry kids can't wait for the litigation process to run its yearslong course.
What's more, the judge's one-size-fits-all suggestion comports with his one-size-fits-all punishment: You pay an outlandish fine, and we put you in a cage. The sentence imposed is possibly a greater threat to public health than Luther's disobedience, as America's jails and prisons are now the country's largest COVID-19 outbreak centers. And the thousands of dollars in fines is equally merciless, particularly when considering that Luther's entire case hinged on her inability to provide for her children.
Minutes before Moyé's ruling, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced that salons will be permitted to reopen on Friday. Hairstylists across the state will start heading back to work. Luther will be sitting in jail.