May 22, 2020

GOP Governor Sets Stage for Double Standard Questions
with Threat to Enforce Law that Was Waived in Luther Case

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

Amusement Park with Grand Visions
and Slow Start Appears Poised to Try
to Call Republican Governor Bluff

Texas could be messing with the wrong customers if the state picks a fight with the Grand Texas Theme Park that fun-lovers have envisioned as the second coming of Astroworld.

But the group that developed and will run the fledgling amusement park in Montgomery County on the outer edge of Houston appears prepared to test the governor's authority with plans to open the Big Rivers Waterpark on Saturday as scheduled despite an Abbott-imposed order that requires the park to remain closed.

This is not a little family business that's going out of its way to make a political statement like Dallas lockdown rebel Shelley Luther had been doing when she opened for business illegally last month and publicized the defiance on social media. Grand Texas is major league .

The confrontation on one of Abbott's major coronavirus orders isn't a ploy to get attention. It's strictly business - pure and simple - a decision that the park had several days to make after spending a hefty sum of money on promotions, standard preparations and the implementation of safety and sanitation protocols to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Grand Texas may have decided it had more to lose if it had to wait any longer to get the show going after five years of setbacks for unexpected reasons. With Monty Galland as the chief executive, Grand Texas was conceived in 2013 with the goal of opening within two years.

The expectations had been sky high from the outset in a massive metropolitan area that had lost its only big-time amusement park when Six Flags shut AstroWorld down in 2005. With Six Flags over Texas in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, Houston had been the only major city in the U.S. without a signature theme park.

Landry's magnate Tilman Fertitta has helped fill the void with the development of the Kemah Boardwall that features a wild and highly-rated wooden roller coaster in the Boardwalk Bullet. Fertitta, who owns hotels, casinos and the Houston Rockets of the NBA, also rebuilt the Pleasure Pier in Galveston with a roller coaster and ferris wheel that lights up the nights with a kaleidoscope of colors at the end of the historic jetty where a hotel had been a battering by Hurricane Ike. Fertitta has contributed close to $1 million to Abbott and serves on the Strike Force to Open Texas that the governor created for guidance in the pandemic.

But the park was dogged by construction delays and financing complications until finally opening behind schedule in the summer of 2018 with bad weather as the latest stumbling block. Then after finally logging one full summer, Grand Texas was blindsided by the coronavirus and apparently thought that it would finally get a nod from Abbott for Memorial Day before he said amusement and water parks would have to wait for an indefinite amount of time.

The Big Rivers Waterpark was one of several components in the original plans that featured a theme park with a classic wooden roller coaster and an entertainment district with hotels, shops and restaurants as well. But people who'd been excited about a potential replacement for the park that had been a few blocks from the Astrodome that's been sittling idly for years.

But Abbott appeared to be drawing a line in the sand on Friday in a television interview in Austin where he suggested in response to a question Grand Texas that potential offenders of his emergency orders could run into problems with state licensing officials or face legal action by the state.

Abbott could use Grand Texas as an opportunity to reclaim some of the credibility and moxie that he'd lost after Luther dared state and local officials to enforce the governor's rules before he stripped the enforcement threat from them on her behalf.

Governor Greg Abbott warned on Friday that Texas businesses could face legal retaliation if they reopen before he's declared that they could like Dallas beautician Shelley Luther had done before the state abandoned plans to take action against barber shops and hair salons that had been operating illegally during the coronavirus crisis.

The Republican governor issued the threat during a television interview in response to an inquiry on a Houston-area water park's announcement that it would be opening for the Memorial Day weekend regardless of whether Abbott had offered an official green light to do so.

But Abbott dodged a question in the exchange with the Austin NBC affiliate KXAN on whether he had effectively encouraged other businesses that defied executive orders that he's imposed during the pandemic by allowing her to violate the emergency law without fear of sanctions by the state.

Abbott indicated that state officials had been having discussions with businesses on the potential consequences of refusing to abide by the policies that he implemented in March and April in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Texas.

“They subject themselves to potential litigation as well as potential licensing-based issues if they fail to comply," Abbott said. "So it’s a potentially business-dangerous process for them to proceed forward knowing they are subjecting themselves to litigation if they open up and anybody contracts COVID-19,” 

The state had appeared to be in a standoff the past few days with the Big Rivers Waterpark in the Montgomery County community of New Caney has indicated that he'd have the business up and running again when the holiday weekend got under way on Saturday with or without formal clearance from the governor.

Typhoon Texas - another water park that's located in the parking lot of the Katy Mills outlet mall - had started touting a grand reopening in the first weekend in May with Memorial Day weekend as the target date. The company's president said that the park would be enforcing social distancing with extensive sanitation protocols in place. But Typhoon Texas subsequently announced that it would follow the letter of the governor's orders that are forcing amusement venues like the Six Flags theme parks in San Antonio and Arlington to wait until Abbott deems it safe for them to reopen.

The governor raised the specter about the possibility of special treatment for selective businesses and individuals when he declined to respond to the question on Luther before suggesting in the TV conversation that he expected others to obey his commands if they didn't want to put their licenses to operate in Texas at risk.

The explanation could have led some businesses to wonder if they might be held to separate standards than Luther had been if they followed her lead and reopened in defiance of Abbott orders that had shuttered them for most of the past two months.

Abbott had ordered businesses that he hadn't designated as essential to close in an executive decree that included the possibility of jail time and monetary fines for offenders. But the governor expressed disbelief and outrage after a Democratic state district judge sentenced Luther to seven days in the Dallas County jail for repeatedly spurning orders from local officials to close the salon that she had opened in April as an apparent test case for state emergency restrictions.

After flaunting the illegal reopening on social media, Luther at one point had appeared at a lockdown protest rally where she ripped apart a cease-and-desist letter from Democratic County Judge Clay Jenkins in what appeared to be blatant attempt to get herself arrested. Luther spent one night in jail before the Texas Supreme Court set her free in a move that prompted Abbott to remove the threat of punishment as the order's enforcement mechanism.

But conservatives who the governor appeared to be trying to placate have accused him of falsely attempting to take credit for Luther's release when he'd actually been as or more responsible for her incarceration than the local officials who were simply complying with the Abbott directive in the hair stylist's case.


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