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The great state of Texas

And so the re-reopening begins

Are we really ready for this?

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that most of Texas will be able to loosen some coronavirus restrictions, including letting many businesses increase their capacity to 75%, as soon as Monday.

Retail stores, restaurants and office buildings, which have been open at 50% capacity, will be permitted to expand to 75% capacity. Hospitals will be allowed to offer elective procedures again and nursing homes can reopen for visitations under certain standards.

The new reopening stage applies to 19 of the state’s 22 hospital regions. The three hospital regions excluded are in the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Victoria. Abbott said those regions’ hospitalizations are still “in the danger zone,” which he defined as places where coronavirus patients make up 15% or more of all hospitalizations.

At the same time, Abbott said the state was not yet ready to reopen bars, saying they are “nationally recognized as COVID-spreading locations.” He stressed, though, that the state is looking for ways to let bars reopen safely.

[…]

“Gov. Abbott’s press conference today was notable for what he didn’t say,” state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “There was no mention of a contact tracing program, no mention of improving the state’s unreliable data and no mention of expanding Medicaid to increase access to health care for the millions of Texans who are uninsured.”

The Texas Democratic Party said Abbott is “basing his decisions on dirty data.”

Abbott began the news conference by hailing the state’s progress in the fight against coronavirus, saying the “biggest reason” for improvements has been that Texans are taking the pandemic seriously and exercising personal responsibility.

The governor reminded Texans that doctors have said the goal is not to eradicate the virus but to “contain the disease, to limit its harm and to maximize the health care system’s ability to treat both COVID patients as well as other medical needs of the community.”

When it comes to further reopenings, he emphasized the state will consider all data but “rely most heavily” on hospitalizations, calling that metric the “most important information about the severity of COVID in any particular region.” It is also the “most accurate information available on a daily basis,” Abbott said.

To that end, the regions that will be allowed to further reopen must have seen coronavirus hospitalizations make up less than 15% of all hospitalizations for seven consecutive days, according to the governor. If coronavirus hospitalizations rise above the 15% threshold for seven consecutive days in a region, a “course correction is going to be needed,” Abbott said, suggesting the solution would be a reversal of the area’s latest reopenings.

Given that many other countries have essentially eradicated the virus, one could certainly disagree with Abbott’s assertion about what the goal should be. Though to be fair, it does seem impossible to set such a goal while Donald Trump is President, so perhaps this is just Abbott acceding to that reality. The Chron adds some details.

The new regional threshold marks a significant shift for the Republican governor as the state’s pandemic response moves into the fall, with flu season arriving and many schools about to reopen for in-person instruction. He previously resisted committing to a regional approach, and said he would rely on a range of metrics — not just hospitalizations — to determine policies.

But the state’s health agency has been dogged by data backlogs, and some counties said they had lost confidence in state metrics such as the number of new daily infections and the percent of positive COVID tests, also known as the positivity rate. While the state has remedied at least some of the issues, hospitalization data have been more reliable throughout the pandemic.

Other large states, including New York and California, are currently using regional reopening plans based on several criteria, including new cases and test positivity. Public health experts caution against relying on hospitalizations alone, since they lag behind infections and therefore provide a delayed glimpse into the community spread of the virus.

All but two of the state’s 22 hospital regions have previously surpassed the new 15-percent threshold, according to the state’s calculation. The governor did not provide the methodology for how they calculated the percentages, and a spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about how the benchmark was selected.

The state has reported nearly 700,000 infections since March and nearly 14,500 deaths, a toll similar to that in other large states, including California and Florida. New York has reported fewer infections but more deaths, stemming from a surge earlier this year.

Texas has been below 10 percent test positivity for at least two weeks now. Earlier this week, state health officials unveiled a new method of calculating the rate, which shows it first dropped below 10 percent in mid August. Abbott has said before that he would consider further reopenings once the state remained below that threshold for two weeks.

Yes, our lousy data quality is an issue. I get that there’s a lot of pressure to let businesses get back to “normal” again. But let’s be real here: One, plenty of people will still not change their habits to what they were in the Before Times until they feel confident that the pandemic is truly under control. Public opinion is clear that most people do not feel this way, and as such this greatly limits the upside of any reopening scheme. Two, we have been down this road before, and the last time we went this way Abbott basically ignored all the metrics that he himself set and just went about loosening restrictions even though none of his own stated criteria were being met. There’s no reason to believe he has learned this lesson. Three, even if we had complete clarity on hospitalizations, that’s a lagging indicator, meaning that by the time the hospitals have started to fill up again, it’s already too late to stop it. Four, see above about the lack of our data quality, which again strongly suggests that even if Abbott is sincere about turning the car around at the first sign of trouble, that first sign may not be at all apparent when it’s happening.

Finally, the reason why people finally started to take the pandemic seriously is because Greg Abbott finally started taking it seriously, and conveying a message that we all needed to be wearing face masks and social distancing and avoiding large gatherings, especially indoors. We certainly haven’t gotten that message from Donald Trump or his biggest toadies like Dan Patrick. If you want to praise everyone for their personal responsibility, then you need to emphasize that they have to continue being personally responsible, which means wearing masks and so on. If that makes the rock-filled heads of Steven Hotze and his ilk explode, then so be it. Abbott loves being in front of the parade, but he does a crappy job of leading it. As I said the last time we re-opened, I really hope this works out. And I really hope Abbott is serious about backing off at the first sign that it isn’t. A statement from Mayor Turner is here, and the Dallas Observer, Reform Austin, the Texas Signal, and the Houston Press have more.

We suck at COVID data, the continuing story

Would have been nice to have known this when it was happening.

State health officials published new data this week that showed the state’s positivity rate was higher in the spring that originally disclosed, even as public officials cited the data to justify business reopenings during the pandemic.

The Department of State Health Services on Monday announced a new method for calculating the positivity rate, or the proportion of positive tests, and conceded the previous method obscured the extent of viral transmission by combining old and new cases. The new formula relies on the date a coronavirus test was administered, rather than the date it was reported to health officials and verified as a case.

As Texas prepared for the first phase of reopening in late April, Gov. Greg Abbott repeatedly pointed to the state’s positivity rate, even as the number of new cases and deaths continued to rise. Announcing his initial reopening order on April 27, Abbott declared that the “COVID-19 infection rate has been on the decline over the past 17 days.”

The following week, the governor downplayed a new single-day record in new COVID-19 cases by again pointing to the positivity rate.

“Despite concentrating on areas where we think there may be a high level or number of people who could test positive, the fact remains that more than 95% of the people who were tested test negative,” Abbott said during a May 5 news conference.

State data at the time placed the seven-day average positivity rate at 5.84%, near the 5% benchmark recommended by the World Health Organization before governments ease restrictions. The actual rate, however, was higher. According to the new method employed by DSHS, Texas’ seven-day average positivity rate was actually 8.4%, near the 10% threshold Abbott had called a “warning flag” indicating a high level of community spread.

Following the reopening of bars, restaurants, stores and child care centers throughout May, Texas saw a surge in cases beginning in June. The state’s reported seven-day average positivity rate under the old method jumped from 4.27% at its lowest point in late May to 17.4% at its peak in mid-July. After revising the data, the state’s new chart shows that the positivity rate jumped from 5.81% in May to a peak of 21% in early July.

See here, here, and here for earlier entries in this chronicle. This stuff is hard, I don’t want to minimize that. Doctors and scientists have made mistakes and have changed their tune on COVID-related matters over time, as new data has come in and revised our understanding of what we thought we knew. Maybe no one could have known this at the time, I’m not in a position to judge. But as we’ve said before, the state rushed to reopen on Greg Abbott’s orders even as the Abbott-defined metrics for reopening were not being met. Now we know we were even further from the desired levels than we thought, and many more people have gotten sick and died or are suffering from long-term effects of the virus. We can have some level of sympathy for Greg Abbott, we can recognize that anyone would have made bad decisions if they were given bad data, and still hold him responsible for the outcome. His decision to reopen as he did was risky at the time, and it’s so much worse now. That’s all on him.

Scrambling to finish the Census

It’s a hell of a job, and it’s so important.

With a deadline looming for local governments to complete a population count for the 2020 Census, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is warning that the city could miss out on billions in federal funding for services such as road repairs and school lunches.

The reason? Less than 57 percent of the city’s residents have filled out the census form, a nine-question survey that can be completed by mail, phone or online. The city of Houston was planning a major outreach effort to avoid an undercount among young and poor people, immigrants and communities of color. The pandemic and economic insecurity from shuttered businesses, however, hampered outreach efforts and hobbled participation, officials say.

“September is the final month to respond to the Census,” Turner tweeted this month. “Over 40% of Houstonians have yet to answer 9 questions @mycensus2020.gov which could cost Houston $1500 person per year for 10 years. Please do so now.”

Sasha-Joi Marshall Smith, a city planner who has been coordinating outreach efforts, attributed low participation to political interference, civil unrest and the coronavirus pandemic. She is “terrified” about the economic and social reverberations of an undercount that’s now running about 15 percentage points behind 2010.

Every 1 percent of the population that’s not counted means $250 million in federal funding that the city is entitled to will be directed to another city, she said. “It’s that serious.”

“I tell people, ‘It’s our federal tax dollars… God forbid it goes to Dallas,’” she said. “Whether you were born here or not, it’s our job to make sure people here have basic services.”

Harris County faces a similar predicament, with just under 61 percent of residents having participated.

“There are so many pockets in Harris County where we haven’t heard from most people — perhaps a fraction of the people have responded but most have not responded,” said Tazeen Zehra, a senior census staffer in Houston.

Galveston County has had such a low return rate — 58 percent — that census workers have sought helpers from neighboring counties. Montgomery County is doing slightly better with just under 66 percent reporting. Fort Bend County has the highest participation rate in the state with more than 73 percent responding overall, including nearly 80 percent in Sugar Land.

The current deadline for local governments to complete their counts is Sept. 30. But outreach workers are hoping a federal judge will extend that deadline to Oct. 31 for the entire country at a court hearing in California next week. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined as plaintiffs in the California case because they’re concerned that their districts will be undercounted without an extension. The Trump administration previously offered an extension, then withdrew the offer.

We’ve discussed the challenges of the Census many times. The undercounting issue is so pervasive that even our retrograde state leadership has been forced to try to do something about it. There’s a temporary restraining order in that California lawsuit to which Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are parties, with a hearing scheduled for the 17th. I think the odds are good that the plaintiffs will prevail since “arbitrary and capricious” is the standard operating procedure for this administration, but even with those extra 31 days it’s going to be tough to get an adequate count. As with so many other things these days, this did not have to happen.

On a related note:

A three-judge federal panel in New York has ruled that the Trump administration cannot keep undocumented immigrants from being counted when lawmakers reapportion congressional districts next year — an effort that could have potentially cost Texas several seats in Congress.

In a significant departure from the way representation is typically divided up, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum in July directing Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to exclude undocumented immigrants from the base population used to distribute seats in Congress. But in its Thursday ruling, the panel of judges deemed the memo an “unlawful exercise of authority granted to the President.”

The constitutionally mandated count each 10 years of every person residing in the country is used to determine congressional representation from each state. Excluding undocumented residents from the counts used to parcel out congressional districts would likely lead to a drastic realignment of political power throughout Texas.

Trump pursued the change by arguing that the U.S. Constitution does not define “which persons must be included” in that base population. But the New York panel of judges blocked Ross, who oversees the census, from providing any information on the number of undocumented people in each state.

See here for the background. This would almost certainly cost the state of Texas at least one if not two of the Congressional seats that it’s otherwise likely to get. Not that any of our state leaders care, going by their utter lack of any reaction to that memorandum. The courts can’t save us from everything, but they have been there at times like this.

We are not ready to re-reopen

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but…

Texas COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined the most significantly — 4,144 Tuesday, down from 10,893 on July 22 — but new cases, positive test rates, daily deaths and viral spread are all dropping. They are dropping enough that one Texas modeler, Spencer Fox of University of Texas at Austin, went so far as to say he thinks that Texas may have seen the worst of the pandemic — as long as people continue to wear masks and keep their guard up.

A number of other health experts warned against lifting restrictions, noting that the coming Labor Day weekend, the expected resumption of schools and seasonal weather changes have the potential to cause a resurgence like Texas experienced earlier in the summer. They also said the amount of transmission, although improved, is still way too high.

“I don’t want to be Debbie Downer, but we’ve been surprised before,” Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the UTHealth School of Public Health, said last Friday. “It’s a double-edged sword when things start looking better. The virus is still out there, but people think things can go back to normal.”

Troisi added that some experts are hesitant because of the state’s data reporting problems, because it’s possible some other issue will surface. Those problems include under testing, coding errors that caused backlogged results and combining positive diagnostic and antibody tests.

Chris Amos, a Baylor College of Medicine quantitative scientist, said “the timing could not be worse for rolling back.”

“Given the number who test positive reflect perhaps 10 times as many individuals who have not been tested but are positive,” said Amos, “there remains a large pool of individuals who can spread COVID-19 if they begin interacting with many others, and particularly if we allow large groups to start coming together again.”

Amos acknowledged that optimism about opening up is natural given the slowing of COVID-19’s spread. The spread is measured by a value, known as reproductivity, that suggests a slowing or growing of the virus. Over 1 means each infected person transmits it to an average of more than one person and the epidemic grows; under 1 means the virus is transmitted to less than one person and the epidemic won’t sustain itself.

The value for the state overall has been under 1 since July 20.

According to Amos’ calculations, if the state maintains the current trend, with the number around 0.87, it would take 38 days to reduce the COVID-19 burden by another 50 percent.

It’s important to keep reducing that burden before students resume in-person classes, Amos said. He and others advised against a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Not every community or county in Texas is experiencing the same burden of disease,” said Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist with the Texas A&M School of Public Health. “In some places, it may be justified to roll back some restrictions whereas in others, it’d be ill-advised to do so. It will be critically important that rolling back restrictions does not send the message that we are somehow ‘all clear.’”

See here for the background. The basic fact remains that we are still at levels well above where we were in early June, when we first re-opened. There’s no question that if we re-reopened like we re-opened the first time around, we will get the same result. To me, three things are clear. One we shouldn’t change anything until we are back at early-June levels. Two, we should have sensible objective metrics that we can actually measure with accuracy and that we stick to, unlike the first time around. And three, give some discretion back to local jurisdictions so that the counties with a sufficiently low infection rate can be more open (though still within state guidelines) while those that aren’t ready for that kind of openness can continue to do what they need to do to get there. All of this should be screamingly obvious after what we just went through, but I see no reason to believe that Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick have learned anything from that experience.

Wait, there’s a Census going on?

I smack my forehead so hard.

Through a small notice tucked into the state’s business register, Texas appears to have acknowledged that the 2020 census count is going badly.

With just a month of counting to go in the crucial decennial census, the self-response rate for Texas households has barely topped 60%. As census workers have followed up in person with households that haven’t responded, the share of households accounted for has risen to 79.5% — but Texas is still far behind several other states and several percentage points behind the national average.

On Aug. 26, the Texas secretary of state’s office quietly put out word that it has up to $15 million to spend on an advertising campaign intended to urge residents to get themselves counted. The effort — which Texas will pay for by dipping into federal dollars meant to address the coronavirus pandemic — amounts to a last-minute about-face by the state, whose Republican leadership had previously shot down any significant state funding for efforts to avoid an undercount.

The urgency the state is feeling a month out from the census deadline is apparent in the timeline of its request for proposals for a broadcast, print and digital campaign to “educate Texans on the significance and value of participating in the 2020 Census” and drive up response rates. The notice was posted last week, and bids are due by Wednesday. The contract is projected to begin two days later. Counting for the census is set to end Sept. 30.

The latest census figures showed that households in urban, Democratic-leaning areas of Texas had filled out the census online, by phone or by mail at higher rates than those in more rural, Republican-controlled areas and South Texas communities. The U.S. Census Bureau’s door-to-door campaign to follow up with households that did not self respond to the census is ongoing.

Wait, you’re telling me that the deliberate choice made by the Republican leadership to not give a dime to Census outreach efforts may actually be coming back to hurt them politically? That’s a plot twist I hadn’t anticipated. Now it all makes some sense – if it was only Dems that were in danger of being screwed, for sure they wouldn’t care now.

The state’s sudden pursuit of a multi-million advertising campaign to promote the count comes more than a year after it left local governments, nonprofits and even churches to fill the organization void in chasing an accurate count.

“It’s frustrating that we’re doing this at the last minute,” said Luis Figueroa, the legislative and policy director for Every Texan, a left-leaning think tank previously known as the Center for Public Policy Priorities that has been at the forefront of census efforts in the state. “We hope there is enough time for it to be meaningful and effective. There’s an adage about ‘better late than never,’ but there is also ‘a day late and a penny short’.”

[…]

If enough Texans are missed in the count, it would jeopardize the three additional seats in Congress the state was expected to gain after this census.

Even as other states put millions of dollars to mount census campaigns, Texas lawmakers during last year’s legislative session declined to put additional state dollars toward the census, rejecting proposals by Democratic lawmakers to create a statewide outreach committee and set aside millions of dollars in grants for local outreach efforts.

Already without state funds, the local canvassing and outreach efforts were derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Then, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it was cutting moving up the deadline for responding up by a month. Combined with the strain on outreach efforts brought on by the pandemic, the earlier deadline has heightened the risks that Texas will be undercounted and that some Texans, particularly those who are low-income or Hispanic, will be missed in the count as the pandemic continues to ravage their communities.

“Republicans had an opportunity to address this. They refused to do this, and now the secretary of state is in the fourth quarter of the game, in the final seconds, trying to throw a hail mary, and it ain’t going to work,” said state Rep. César Blanco, an El Paso Democrat who had unsuccessfully pursued state dollars for the census. “This is an embarrassment.”

See here for more on that earlier deadline, which is now even earlier than before thanks to continued malfeasance from the federal government. This was a deliberate choice by our Republican state leaders. We will pay the price for that choice for the next ten years.

From the “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” department

Who’s ready to re-reopen Texas?

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled he may be preparing to roll back some emergency restrictions put in place this summer at the height of the state’s coronavirus surge.

Responding to concerns from the battered restaurant industry, the governor tweeted Monday night that new infections and hospitalizations from COVID-19 are receding, and added, “I hope to provide updates next week about next steps.”

“Since my last orders in July, COVID numbers have declined—most importantly hospitalizations,” said Abbott, a Republican.

The governor gave no indication about what steps he might take, and a spokesman did not respond to questions. Abbott has previously said he would consider allowing bars to reopen and restaurants to open further if positive trends continue.

Statewide, new daily infections and hospitalizations are declining, though they remain well above where where they were when Abbott began reopening the state in May — hospitalizations are now double, and average new daily infections are four times as high. It’s also unclear whether the rate of people testing positive, a key metric, is anywhere near where public health experts recommend before opening more businesses and allowing children back into schools.

What could possibly go wrong? See here for a statement from Mayor Turner, who unsurprisingly urges caution. You should also read this Politico profile of County Judge Lina Hidalgo, which I will blog about separately, and remember that at every step of the way in this crisis, Lina Hidalgo has been right and Greg Abbott has been wrong.

We are finally making progress in getting COVID-19 under control

Good news is always welcome, but be aware of the context.

Houston-area hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients dropped below 900 Sunday, the lowest amount since the summer surge peaked in mid-July.

Some 893 people confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 were admitted to hospitals in the nine-county area around Houston Sunday, the fifth straight day under 1,000, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle. The latest number represents a 67 percent decline since July 14, when hospitalizations hit a high of 2,694.

The last time the number was under 900 was June 15. The number hospitalized then was 820.

COVID-19 related patients in intensive care units also hit a post-surge low Sunday. There were 402 such patients in ICUs Sunday, down from a high of 1,057 July 18. Sunday’s amount was the lowest since June 17, when Houston-area hospitals reported 398 ICU patients.

[…]

The decline in hospitalizations continue a trend of improving COVID-19 numbers in the Houston area. Other key metrics include a TMC COVID-19 positive test rate of 6.7 percent over the past seven days, down from 8.6 percent a week ago and 16.8 percent a month ago; and the 14th straight day in which the rate of the disease’s spread was below 1.0, meaning those infected are passing it on to an average of less than one person each.

That’s all very good, and you should click over to the story to see the embedded charts. I would just note that on the first chart, which shows the daily count of COVID-19 patients in hospitals affiliated with the seven healthcare systems based in the Texas Medical Center, the total daily hospitalizations due to COVID are way down from the peak in July, it’s also more than fifty percent higher than it was in early to mid-June, at the start of the rapid increase in infections. For example, on June 5th the total number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 (ICU plus general beds) was 537, very close to what it was in mid-April. On August 22, the total number was 908. That is indeed way better than the mid-July peak that topped 2,400, but we still have a way to go and we can’t afford to loosen up just yet.

The story is similar in San Antonio.

The coronavirus positivity rate in Bexar County dipped to 9.9 percent on Monday, a measure that officials consider “very good news” when it comes to efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus.

The positivity rate – the percentage of those tested for the novel coronavirus who test positive – is considered a key indicator of how localities are faring against the coronavirus. Calculated on a weekly basis, it was at 11 percent last week, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Monday marked “the first time the positivity rate has been below 10 percent since early June.”

The positivity rate in Bexar County was as high as 25 percent in early July, he said.

With 109 new coronavirus cases reported Monday, the total stands at 45,364 since the pandemic began.

[…]

Local hospitalization rates continue to improve, with 473 people currently being treated at area hospitals, down five from Sunday. Of those, 207 are in intensive care and 139 are on ventilators. However, officials said the hospital system continues to be under high stress.

Four more deaths were reported Monday, raising the overall death toll to 725.

The seven-day moving average (the average number of positives within a 7-day period) in Bexar County increased only slightly to 148 on Monday, but continues to trend in the right direction, officials said.

Again, good news, but again look at the chart. This one shows the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in Bexar County, which on June 5 was 74 and on August 22 was 137. That’s way down from the peak of 1,600, but still almost double what it once was.

I don’t want to underplay this, these numbers are so much better than they were a month ago, and the trend is clearly going in the right direction. We may get to those April/May/June levels in another week or two at this rate, and that’s excellent. But remember, April is when we were under the strictest shutdown orders, May is when the numbers were at their absolute lowest and also when we started reopening, and June is where it all started to fall apart. We can cautiously start to reopen again once the numbers are back down to these levels, but only if we stay committed to wearing masks and social distancing and avoiding large indoor gatherings. I would like to think that this time we really did learn the lessons we needed to learn to keep this virus at a manageable level, but it would be very easy for us to forget it all again, and repeat this cycle as if we knew nothing. The choice is ours.

Who knows what our positivity rate is?

From the We Still Suck At Data Department:

As schools begin to reopen and Gov. Greg Abbott faces pressure to relax shutdown measures, it is impossible to determine where Texas stands on a COVID-19 metric that has guided the governor’s decisions on when to tighten or loosen restrictions on businesses and public activity.

Over the past week and a half, the state began reporting coronavirus data from a backlog of 500,000 viral tests that officials say accumulated because of coding errors from Quest Diagnostics, Walgreens and CHRISTUS Health — all private entities that process the tests.

The result has been an ongoing miscalculation of the “positivity rate,” the rate at which people test positive for the virus.

Last week, it reached as high as 24.5 percent, and suddenly dipped back down again to about 11 percent this week as more backlogged tests were included in the data. Abbott has said a sustained positivity rate below 10 percent would allow for further reopenings in the state.

The influx of backlogged tests, dating as far back as March, has also exposed a convoluted reporting system that requires state officials to receive lab results, send them back to counties and wait for them to return to the State Department of Health Services before counting them.

The result is a mess of information reported recently to the public in “data dumps” that include test results from months prior, skewing statewide coronavirus statistics and positivity rates.

“The timing of it is horrible because it’s right at the beginning of opening the schools, when you want your data to be as accurate as possible, and it’s not,” said Darrell Hale, a Republican commissioner in Collin County.

The county on Wednesday pasted a disclaimer to its COVID reporting site declaring “no confidence” in the state’s numbers, which Hale said have ballooned in recent days even as lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined.

[…]

Abbott faulted private labs for the glitches, as well as technological issues in the state’s own reporting system, which did not have the capacity to process more than 48,000 tests per day until Aug. 1. The state did not disclose the issue as it built up throughout July, when as many as 67,000 tests were conducted each day.

It may well be that the private labs can’t keep up with the demand. But:

1. Greg Abbott knew about this problem for at least a few weeks without ever saying anything about it.

2. The positivity rate was and is one of Abbott’s key metrics that were supposed to guide how and when we reopened things. Greg Abbott is currently not allowing local health authorities to make their own decisions about whether it is safe to open schools even though the data that we all need to know what the risks are cannot be trusted.

3. Greg Abbott continues to support and defend the federal government and its completely disastrous response to the pandemic, even though the federal government is the one entity in the country that could have marshaled the responses to meet the demand for testing. Nearly six months into this crisis, the federal government, under Donald Trump, which Greg Abbott supports, has made zero headway on this issue.

So yeah. Our data sucks, we are reaping the consequences of that failure, and the responsibility for it in this state rests with Greg Abbott.

Time for another COVID roundup

Let’s start with some good news, which comes wrapped in a warning.

The number of coronavirus patients crowding hospital wards in the Houston area is now in its sixth week of steady decline, a welcome reversal of the virus’ alarming surge in June and July.

The headcount of COVID-19 patients has fallen by half since its mid-July peak in hospitals affiliated with the seven systems based in the Texas Medical Center. And the number of intensive care patients at those facilities has dropped by a third.

The subsiding wave has merely shifted civic leaders’ concerns, however — and not only because hospital headcounts, new cases, and other metrics remain well above their levels before the spike.

Worried that Houstonians will invite another crisis by concluding it is safe to attend cookouts or crowd onto restaurant patios, public officials and medical leaders are stressing that the best measures of success are not empty intensive care beds but an absence of widespread infections.

“I do worry about people listening to this news and taking it the wrong way, saying, ‘Whew that’s over, now let’s go back to life as normal,’” said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, CEO of Harris Health, the county’s public hospital district. “This is not the time.”

[…]

In every case, these metrics suggest the Houston region remains well short of containing the virus. The testing positivity rate, for instance, is about 15 percent in the city and county, and 10 percent among TMC institutions.

What about case counts? Harris County over the last week has averaged more than two and a half times as many daily cases as the 400 it would take to step down from Hidalgo’s top threat level. And the nine-county Houston region is averaging almost nine times as many new daily cases as the TMC goal of 200.

Another of Hidalgo’s metrics calls for the share of intensive care patients who have COVID-19 to not exceed 15 percent; the share of ICU patients in the county who have COVID-19 remains more than double that.

We’re headed in the right direction, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Stay home. Maintain social distancing. Wear a mask. Wash your hands.

And while case numbers may be coming down, fatality numbers are higher than we’ve counted.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, the state’s death toll from all causes has soared by thousands above historical averages — a sobering spike that experts say reveals the true toll of the disease.

Between the beginning of the local pandemic and the end of July, 95,000 deaths were reported in Texas, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data. Based on historical mortality records and predictive modeling, government epidemiologists would have expected to see about 82,500 deaths during that time.

The CDC attributed more than 7,100 deaths to COVID-19, but that leaves roughly 5,500 more than expected and with no identified tie to the pandemic. The CDC’s chief of mortality, Dr. Bob Anderson, said these “excess deaths” are likely from a range of pandemic-related problems, including misclassifications because doctors did not initially understand the many ways that COVID-19 affects the circulatory system and results in a stroke or a heart attack.

“It can cause all sorts of havoc in the body,” he said.

The CDC data offers an opaque but important estimate of how deadly the virus has been in Texas, which suffered from testing shortages for weeks as COVID-19 case counts climbed.

“It has shocked me to see people think that there’s overcounts of the COVID deaths, because I can’t even imagine that that’d be the case,” said Mark Hayward, a professor at the University of Texas who studies mortality trends. “The undercount is so dramatic.”

And there is a clear racial disparity in the undercounts. Between March and the end of July, Texas recorded more than 21,000 deaths of Latinos — more than 5,000 higher than epidemiologists predicted. Of those, about 2,100 were attributed to COVID-19. That leaves more than 3,000 deaths in excess of the expected number, many of them in border counties that lack resources for testing.

This is a phenomenon we’ve seen literally around the world. We’ve certainly known that it’s happening in Texas. The expert opinion is that we’ve already passed 200K deaths nationally, or about 25% more than the official count. If you could read one of the names of those 200K dead Americans every second, it would take you over 55 hours, nonstop, to read them all. Think about that for a minute. Or for 55 hours.

Also, too, we still suck at testing.

After plummeting for days, the number of COVID-19 tests reported in Texas suddenly jumped by 124,693 on Thursday, which state health officials said was a result of coding errors and a system upgrade.

Backlogs at a hospital lab and a commercial lab accounted for most of the tests, which could not be added to the state’s official tally until the coding errors had been fixed, said Lara Anton, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Of the 124,000 tests reported on Thursday, approximately 95,000 were from a lab that served several hospitals, Anton said, adding that the lab sent files containing an error in one of the data fields, which DSHS’ electronic system could not read.

DSHS doesn’t know when the tests were actually conducted and is working with local health departments to find out, she said.

[…]

Whether because of human error, shifting benchmarks or bureaucratic changes, it’s not the first time that Texas officials have corrected their data since the beginning of the pandemic. Almost every major data point has come with caveats, sometimes blurring for days the big picture of the pandemic in Texas.

It is what it is. I don’t know what else to say.

Finally, the coin shortage is real, y’all.

Some retailers have started posting signs notifying customers that they might not be able to provide exact change for their purchases, and instead ask for them to pay with a credit or debit card or exact payment.

“It’s not like coins are not there,” said Venky Shankar, professor and director of research at the Center for Retailing Studies in Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School. The coins are just being used less as business has slowed and more people stay home.

Another hurdle for coin usage, Shankar said, is the fear that money could carry the novel coronavirus, even though experts don’t know definitively whether cash actually poses a threat.

In order to keep coins circulating, the U.S. Mint has asked people to pay with exact change. “We ask that the American public start spending their coins, depositing them, or exchanging them for currency at financial institutions or taking them to a coin redemption kiosk,” the mint said in a news release. A new task force — the U.S. Coin Task Force — has also been charged with determining how to reinvigorate the supply chain.

[…]

According to Shankar, roughly 45 to 50 percent of sales in smaller stores — places such as convenience stores — are made in cash. But big grocers such as H-E-B, Kroger and Walmart have also faced a shortage of coins.

In response to the shortage, some retailers and restaurants have started to pay or reward customers for their coins.

The U.S. Mint has also increased production from 1.2 billion coins in June to 1.35 billion coins per month for the rest of 2020, according to a Statista review.

But that doesn’t solve everything.

“That still will not unlock the coins that are already in the drawers and the banks,” Shankar said.

Laundromats, which rely heavily on coins to function, are among the businesses directly impacted by the coin shortage.

Yeah, that would suck if no one has any damn quarters. This is a problem all over, and offhand I have no idea what to do about it. I normally like paying for things in cash, but have barely used any since March. This is a teeny tiny reason for saying this, but we live in very strange times.

Who needs testing?

It’s the surest way to see the infection rate decline, am I right?

The number of Texans being tested for the coronavirus has fallen sharply in recent weeks, a trend that has worried public health experts as officials consider sending children back to school while thousands more Texans are infected each day.

In the week ending Aug. 8, an average 36,255 coronavirus tests were administered in Texas each day — a drop of about 42% from two weeks earlier, when the average number of daily tests was 62,516.

At the same time, the percentage of tests yielding positive results has climbed, up to 20% on average in the week ending Aug. 8. Two weeks earlier, the average positivity rate was around 14%.

On Saturday, the state set a record for its positivity rate, with more than half of that day’s roughly 14,000 viral tests indicating an infection.

Taken together, the low number of tests and the large percentage of positive results suggest inadequacies in the state’s public health surveillance effort at a time when school reopenings are certain to increase viral spread, health experts said.

“Opening the schools is a really complicated problem, and the best thing we can do is get the number of cases down so kids can go back to school safely,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “There are so many reasons why kids need to be in school, particularly younger kids, but we’re finding out more and more they can get infected, and the concern is them bringing it home and spreading in the community and spreading to teachers.

“I think the worst thing would be for schools to open, then close,” she said. “That really makes it hard on parents, that unpredictability, and there’s a lot of costs associated with opening the schools safely.”

[…]

The number of tests performed in Texas has “never been great,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, but “it’s extremely troubling” that the numbers have dipped since last month.

“It’s troubling because we can guess at some of the reasons, but we’re not sure,” she said.

She suggested that some people may have been discouraged by long wait times for test results, or less concerned about the virus’ toll in Texas after a frightening peak in July began to flatten out.

A declining number of tests is a particularly thorny issue for schools, Ho said. “No public school has the resources to do testing under the current circumstances. There are huge class sizes and crowded hallways,” she said.

Does any of that sound good to you? Because none of it sounds good to me. Again I say, remember when Greg Abbott’s plans for reopening included sufficient testing capacity and a positivity rate under ten percent? Boy, those were the days. Oh, and as the story notes, the TEA still hasn’t yet released any specifics on which districts will be able to receive waivers to limit in-person instruction beyond eight weeks or under what circumstances. So, you know, the school situation remains a mess. Isn’t this fun?

It’s like we don’t want any extra Congresspeople

As someone once said, where’s the outrage?

For months, as Texans have been asked to stay home to avoid the spread of the new coronavirus, Jennifer Edwards has been doing the rounds at gas stations in a trio of counties near the Texas-Louisiana border.

Volunteering as a census community organizer, the Tarleton State University professor reasoned that gas stations, like grocery stores, would continue to see foot traffic during the pandemic. Setting up a booth just outside the front doors offered her face time with essential workers to deliver an essential message — please fill out the census.

“When we’re meeting with people in front of the tractor supply or the dollar store or the gas station … the communication is focused on ‘Well when does it end, what’s the deadline?’” said Edwards, who had been sharing the pandemic-induced October deadline for counting every person living in the U.S. for the once-a-decade census.

But on Monday evening, the U.S. Census Bureau upended the timeline Edwards and hundreds of other organizers, volunteers and local officials had been working under. After previously stating the census would run through Oct. 31, the bureau announced it was cutting the count short by a month, moving up the deadline for responding to Sept. 30.

The October cutoff had offered organizers crucial overtime for the count after the coronavirus pandemic derailed a ground game for canvassing and outreach efforts that in some regions of the state had been in the works for years. Now, the earlier deadline is heightening risks that Texas will be undercounted and that some Texans, particularly those who are low-income or Hispanic, will be missed in the count as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage their communities.

The schedule change comes at a key point in the count. The bureau has started its door-to-door campaign to follow up with households that have not yet filled out the census online, by phone or by mail, but census workers won’t reach some communities in Texas, like the Rio Grande Valley, that are at the highest risk of being missed until next week.

“It seems like not only are they cutting back the time they’re giving themselves to do this nonresponse follow up, but they’re also allocating the least amount of time in the hardest-to-count places in the state,” said Lila Valencia, a senior demographer at the Texas Demographic Center.

This follows Donald Trump’s efforts to exclude certain people from the Census data for redistricting purposes, as well as the state’s refusal to pay for any effort to do a thorough Census count. It’s like there’s a conspiracy to keep Texas from getting the up to three additional members of Congress that it would be due if everything went as it should. And also, you know, billions and billions of federal money that our taxes contribute to that will instead flow to other states because the Census says we have a lot fewer people than we actually do. I get what Trump’s motivations are here. I have a much harder time understanding why this isn’t a problem for Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and every Republican running for Congress. Why do they all want to hurt Texas like this? It’s a question that should get asked, a lot.

When Houston is more like Austin

In a climate sense. Which is to say, drier because of climate change.

A new study predicts that Texas’ climate is going to get drastically drier because of climate change. The journal Earth’s Future recently published the study looking at historical drought records, and it projected that the second half of the 21st century could be Texas’ driest of the last thousand years.

One of the study’s authors, Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, spoke with Texas Standard host David Brown on Tuesday about the future of the states’ climate and water supply.

“Conditions, on average, would be drier than we’re used to, and when we get extreme droughts, those will be drier as well,” he said.

Nielsen-Gammon said that could initiate a westward shift in the state’s climate – meaning, San Angelo’s climate becomes more like Midland’s; Houston’s climate becomes more like Austin’s, and so forth.

Reducing carbon emissions is the long-term solution to the problem that comes from a warming planet. But Nielsen-Gammon said that requires massive changes on a global scale that haven’t happened yet.

So Texans would be wise to prepare for drier conditions. And that includes planning for possible water shortages.

I’ve blogged about water issues and the challenges our state faces, as it sits at the crosswords of rapid growth, climate change, and a lot of people living in very dry places to begin with. Water conservation, wastewater recycling, desalinization, and on and on. The challenges we already face will be greatly exacerbated by climate change, and it’s going to change the state at a fundamental level.

The study highlighted a slew of looming problems for the state’s water supply. First, climate change will lead to even more megadroughts. In the latter half of the century, those droughts are likely to be worse than any of those previously on record.

“Our study shows that the drier conditions expected in the latter half of the 21st century could be drier than any of those megadroughts, depending on how you measure dryness,” lead researcher and A&M professor John Nielsen-Gammon wrote in a press release.

Second, the higher temperatures brought about by climate change will lead to more evaporation from the surface lakes that many parts of the state rely on. This problem will be particularly pronounced for Dallas, which relies entirely on surface water for its water supply, the study says.

Third, the state’s population is continuing to grow — from just under 30 million now to a projected more than 50 million in 2070 — meaning the demand for water will go up as the state gets drier.

“We’re warming up the atmosphere; that’s been happening and is projected to make the droughts more severe, but in cities like Austin, Dallas, Houston, the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio, we know that populations are continuing to grow at a rapid pace,” said Jay Banner, a professor at UT-Austin who co-authored the study.

Merry Klonower, a spokesperson for the Texas Water Development Board, which offers water planning assistance to municipalities, said that each of 16 regional water planning areas throughout the state is required to take into account population projections for the next 50 years when making water supply decisions.

“And if there is a shortage, then the very next step is they have to determine how they are going to meet their water supply needs for that growing population,” she said. “So we have been doing this since the ’90s and it is a very robust process. So the state is well-prepared and is looking at future populations and water supply needs for municipalities.”

I’m sure we have been preparing and planning for years, but I’m also pretty sure we’ve been underestimating the scope of the problem all along. I mean, if we took it with an appropriate level of seriousness, we’d have a very different set of government leaders in place and would have had a much different set of priorities in this state. It’s still not too late to try to reduce the effects of climate change, but every day that passes is one day less we have for that, and one day closer to the future studies like this predict. What are we going to do about that?

We still suck at COVID data

I’m sure none of this is important.

The government’s official data on the coronavirus outbreak is startling: More than 4.6 million cases in the U.S. More than 440,000 in Texas. More than 70,000 in Harris County.

But those numbers don’t include all positive COVID-19 patients.

Texas, unlike 27 other states, excludes the results of increasingly popular, rapid COVID-19 tests from the numbers it reports publicly — obscuring the scope of the pandemic, records and interviews show. The antigen tests are used in doctor’s offices, hospitals and stand-alone clinics and deliver results in less than 30 minutes.

But conflicting guidance from the Texas Department of State Health Services created confusion among local health departments about what test results to report. A reliance on faxed test results has created a paper backlog that makes it impossible for the state to do its own tally.

And while there is no way to independently estimate the scope of the undercount, based on the 11 Texas counties that publish antigen tests results separately of their own accord, the state’s tally is short by at least tens of thousands of cases — but likely far more, a Houston Chronicle analysis found.

And the undercount is about to get worse. The federal government is rolling out a program to use thousands of antigen tests in nursing homes across the country — including Texas.

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, who serves as vice-chair of the House committee that oversees the state’s public health agencies, said the lack of reliable data is hindering the overall COVID-19 response effort in Texas.

“The only way people will be inspired to act right without government mandates is if they have the information they need to make smart choices,” Hinojosa told the Chronicle. “And that has been just impossible to come by.”

The problem, apparently, is that the state considers a positive antigen test to be a “probable” positive for COVID-19, not a definite positive. I mean, I figure a couple of data geeks could work out a decent solution for this in less than a day’s work, so color me baffled by the confusion here. And if you’re confused for other reasons, please note that antigen tests are different from antibody tests, which determine if you have had COVID-19 in the past, and thus should be in a separate category. It would be nice if we could get this all straightened out. The Trib has more.

The Renaissance Festival will go on

I haven’t gone to RenFest in years, and I can’t say I was itching to go this year, but it will be there for those who want it.

The 46th annual Texas Renaissance Festival will go on as scheduled this year, but things will look a little different due to the pandemic.

Beginning Saturday, Aug. 1, tickets will be available for the 2020 festival, which starts Oct. 3 and runs through Nov. 29. Tickets will be date-specific, sold in advance online only and will not be available at the gate, according to the festival website. Tickets may also be purchased at participating H-E-B stores beginning Sept. 1.

The most visible change at the nine-week-long festival is that all staff, performers and vendors will be required to wear a face-covering and receive daily temperature checks before each shift, according to a press release.

If a statewide mask order is in place at the time of the festival, patrons will also be required to wear face masks. If no state order is in place, patrons will not be required but “strongly encouraged to do so.” In line with the festival’s long-standing tradition of themed weekends and creative costumes, a face mask contest will be held every day in search of the attendee with the most creatively decorated mask.

Texas counties with more than 20 coronavirus cases are currently under a statewide mask order. Grimes County, where the festival is held, has 828 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the latest available data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The Houston region is still considered a COVID-19 hotspot and is currently at 98,565 cases total. Texas saw the second-highest day for newly reported deaths on Wednesday, per a Houston Chronicle analysis of state data.

[…]

[Texas Renaissance Festival Marketing Manager Marlena] Solomon said the festival’s 200-acre campground typically never meets 50 percent capacity during a normal season, so capacity limitations will not be issued for this season. She added that in anticipation of capacity limitations that could be issued closer to October, the festival grounds will be limited to 22,500 guests per day.

My interpretation of this is that all guests would be required to wear a mask at this time, since Grimes County is covered by that statewide mask order. But after reading this additional story, I’m not so sure of that.

The mask-optional policy has left some workers feeling that the festival will be unsafe. Niki Korontana has been working at the Renaissance Fest for 12 years, performing as a Transylvanian and pirate for 10 of those years.

She is anemic and has to have iron infusion treatments to correct the disorder. Her fragile immune system leaves her vulnerable to COVID-19, she said, and the festival’s resistance ro institute a mask order puts her in danger. She said she resigned via email and has not received a response from management.

“I do understand that we’re dealing with a lot of upheaval,” she said. “Maybe getting back to me is not a priority, but I put a lot into this job. There’s no way to socially distance in a lot of places. There’s limited access to water and hand-washing. The faire population, as a whole, is broke with no access to health care. On the regular we all get ‘faire sick’ every year even without the outbreak. We’re used to working through all of that, and I can easily imagine people infecting others.”

The festival has lost more than half of their performing staff this year, said marketing and communications manager Marlena Solomon. That estimate includes elderly workers, people in at-risk populations and those who may not want to wear masks in the hot early weekends of the event.

“We respect their decision not to come this season due to their concerns regarding facemasks,” Solomon said. “They will be welcome back next year. No one will be penalized for not being a part of this season.”

Ginnie Eatchel, who has worked at the festival for five years, doesn’t have health issues, but she said she’s quitting, too, without at mask mandate. She said she doesn’t understand how patrons can expect performers to work in full medieval dress, including suits of armor, while they balk at being asked to wear a mask.

“Many of these people at fair are of the Trump mindset saying, ‘No one can impede on my freedom’ or ‘If they make me wear a mask, I’m not buying a pass this year,’” she said. “It’s such a selfish mindset. You’re doing it for other people.”

Solomon said that partisan concerns are not behind the voluntary mask policy. “The decisions are not being made based on political views of our patrons,” she said.

Sure seems like a good case for mandating masks to me. I’d prefer that the RenFest require mask wearing, but I’m not likely to attend anyway, so who cares what I think. Honestly, I’m a little surprised to see that they’re open at all, since many other outdoor events have been cancelled. I would have thought RenFest is sufficiently spaced out that they can reasonably minimize the risks, but now I’m rethinking that. Sure would be nice to be able to do reliable contact tracing just in case. Anyway, RenFest has been going through some changes, so maybe this was just about trying to have a little more normality in our lives. I can sympathize with that.

So we really were undercounting the COVID-19 death rate

Can’t say I’m surprised.

After months of undercounting coronavirus deaths, Texas’ formal tally of COVID-19 fatalities grew by more than 600 on Monday after state health officials changed their method of reporting.

The revised count indicates that more than 12% of the state’s death tally was previously unreported by state health officials before Monday.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is now counting deaths marked on death certificates as caused by COVID-19. Previously, the state relied on local and regional public health departments to verify and report deaths.

Public health experts have said for months that the state’s official death toll is an undercount. State health officials said Monday that the policy change would improve the accuracy and timeliness of their data.

Texas law requires death certificates to be filed within 10 days.

“This method does not include deaths of people who had COVID-19 but died of an unrelated cause,” the Texas Department of State Health Services said in a news release.

[…]

After the number of infections in Texas soared to new highs in June and early July, the rate of deaths in Texas has been accelerating. It took 53 days to get from the first death to 1,000 deaths and 39 days to get from 1,000 to 2,000 deaths. On July 10, the state surpassed 3,000 deaths — 24 days after 2,000 deaths were reported. And it took only 10 more days for Texas to reach 4,000 deaths.

While Texas continues to report daily deaths in the triple digits, the number of new daily cases seem to be stabilizing. In the past week alone, state data appears to show new daily infections leveling off, albeit at nearly record highs.

The state recorded its largest number of daily new cases July 15, at 10,791. On Sunday, that number was 5,810.

I’m not sure I fully understand what was changed, so I don’t have much to say about this. I think one can argue that we’re still undercounting the true number of COVID-19 deaths, because it has been known for a long time that some people who almost certainly had the virus die at home without ever having been tested. More broadly, people have died as a result of delaying or skipping medical care for other issues because they feared catching COVID from going to the doctor’s office or emergency room. Maybe those aren’t “official” deaths, but they are deaths that wouldn’t have happened in a non-pandemic situation. I suspect we won’t really understand the scope until some years from now when academics can do a deeper analysis of all the data. In the meantime, this is what we have. The Chron has more.

The contact tracing debacle

Let us never forget about this.

Just as coronavirus infections began rising a few weeks ago in Texas, contract workers hired by the state to track down exposed Texans were spending hours doing little or no work, received confusing or erroneous instructions and often could not give people the advice they expected, interviews and records indicate.

Health authorities around Texas also say they are running into technical snags with new contact tracing software the state has deployed, known as Texas Health Trace, saying it isn’t ready for widespread use in their counties.

The chaotic beginning and technical glitches — combined with exploding case counts and widespread testing delays — have undermined the goals of boosting COVID-19 monitoring statewide and the state’s massive deal for a privatized contact tracing workforce.

“I know that a lot of local health departments are still trying to figure out how to utilize that contract and some have decided to do the work on their own,” said David Lakey, chief medical officer at the University of Texas System and former commissioner of the Department of State Health Services (DSHS). “There is concern with local health department individuals I’ve talked to related to how they are going to benefit related to this large investment from the state.”

DSHS said problems identified by the Houston Chronicle have since been fixed and that “every week” more counties are using its software.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office said months ago that robust contact tracing capacity would help Texas “box in” the coronavirus. But after the state reopened its economy, infections, hospitalizations and deaths skyrocketed, making it impossible for many health departments to keep up with contact tracing.

“When you kind of jump the gun a little bit and open too soon, and you skip the processes that need to be in place, this kind of thing happens,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “You might have the most successfully designed contact tracing program or you may not, but honestly it’s not gonna make a difference because you’re setting yourself up to fail.”

At the state level, Texas moved to ramp up and modernize contact tracing in May, when the Texas Health and Human Services Commission quietly awarded a $295 million contact tracing deal to little-known MTX Group, a tech startup that has a headquarters in North Texas. Abbott’s office has staunchly defended the emergency expenditure, but it’s been controversial from the get-go.

The bid for the work, which was never publicly posted, was awarded to MTX without input from top state leaders, and more than a dozen legislators subsequently called for the state to cancel the contract.

More recently, four people who performed contact tracing work for MTX or one of its partners raised questions about the tech company’s performance. They spoke to the Chronicle on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record about their employment. Three said they fielded only a handful of phone calls during several weeks in May and June.

You can read on for details of the various failures of the program as implemented, and you can see here for more on Texas Health Trace. My point is that having a certain number of contact tracers in place, a number that was never met, was one of the four conditions of reopening set by Greg Abbott. The real failure here, as has been the case with everything else, was the complete lack of effort to meet those metrics that were set out. The failure to do so led directly to the situation we’re in now. The fact that MTX was given a no-bid contract on Abbott’s say-so and no one else’s input is a separate issue, one that deserves a fuller exploration, but not necessarily a main cause of the failure. It’s possible to imagine a scenario in which a legitimate and fully-resourced company could have gotten this contract in a similar fashion and done a better job with it. The process would have still been a problem, but at least the result was okay. Here we had both a bad process and a bad outcome, and both of those need to be investigated. They also need to be hung around Greg Abbott’s neck from now until November of 2022.

A very early glimmer of some possibly good news

We may be finally bending the curve, thanks to people finally taking seriously the need to wear face masks in public.

Three weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott required Texans to wear masks, epidemiologists and disease modelers say they are cautiously optimistic that the mandate is helping the state turn a corner in its efforts to contain an outbreak that has killed more than 4,500 Texans.

Throughout the summer, Texas’ coronavirus outbreak became grimmer by the day and by almost every metric: case counts, hospitalizations, deaths. But in the past week or so, Abbott and some of the state’s public health officials began to see hope in the daily case counts as they appeared to stabilize.

A growing body of evidence points to widespread mask-wearing as an effective strategy for containing the virus, and one North Texas researcher’s statistical analysis published this week argued that local mask orders in the region reduced viral transmission enough to avoid a lockdown. The governor, who has faced blistering criticism for his handling of the pandemic from members of his own political party, immediately seized upon those findings in defense of his statewide order.

“A community lock down is not needed as long as masks & other distancing strategies are used,” Abbott wrote Monday on Twitter, citing the analysis by Rajesh Nandy, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

But public health experts warn that more restrictive lockdowns may still be appropriate in the state’s hardest-hit regions, as the disease continues to infect about 10 times as many people each day compared with two months ago, ravaging some parts of the state more severely than others.

State data now appears to show new daily infections leveling off, albeit at nearly record highs. There were around 9,100 daily new cases of the virus on average over the past week. The state recorded its largest number of daily new cases July 15, at 10,791. On Thursday, that number was 9,507.

“The downside is even though we are approaching another plateau, we are at a much higher level than in May,” Nandy said.

Yes, it would be good news if the case rate stops going up. But it won’t truly be good news until the number of infections starts to go down, and then continues to go down. You know, like it has in New York and Europe and Asia and other places with generally functional governments. It’s when we get the virus down to levels at or below where we were when we first shut down back in March that we can truly contemplate things like safely sending kids back to school and reopening the economy. You’d think this would be something that would be better understood by the elected officials who have been so resistant to taking basic measures to fight COVID-19 – poll data consistently shows that the public understands this, even if they’re not always great about doing it in the absence of leadership – but clearly for some people, these things have to be learned the hard way. And as they are learning this, the hospitals are still at capacity, and could get overwhelmed at any time.

The irony there is that it may take another broad, mostly national shutdown to get to the point we want to get to. That won’t happen under this President, and if it’s still a necessary thing under the next one, then my god have we effed this up beyond all comprehension. In the meantime:

Now Starr County is at a dangerous “tipping point,” reporting an alarming number of new cases each day, data show. Starr County Memorial Hospital — the county’s only hospital — is overflowing with COVID-19 patients.

The county has been forced to form what is being compared to a so-called “death panel.” A county health board – which governs Starr Memorial – is set to authorize critical care guidelines Thursday that will help medical workers determine ways to allocate scarce medical resources on patients with the best chance to survive.

A committee will deem which COVID-19 patients are likely to die and send them home with family, Jose Vasquez, the county health authority, said during a news conference Tuesday.

“The situation is desperate,” Vasquez said. “We cannot continue functioning in the Starr County Memorial Hospital nor in our county in the way that things are going. The numbers are staggering.”

That’s the same Starr County that was once lauded for its low infection rate and ability to keep the virus under control. That was back when local officials had the authority to make and enforce shelter-in-place orders, before Greg Abbott took that authority away. Starr County now plans to issue a new shelter in place order, though of course they won’t be able to enforce it. Greg Abbott could let them enforce it, and he could let other local governments that want to take a step back in an effort to get their numbers down do so, but that’s not something he has any interest in doing. And so here we are.

Here, have a COVID update

Things are going great.

Texas set yet another record for coronavirus deaths Thursday with 154 — the third day in a row above 100.

The previous record was July 8 when 112 deaths were logged, according to a data analysis by Hearst Newspapers that shows the state reported 105 deaths on Wednesday and 104 on Tuesday.

The streak in deaths comes two weeks after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ordered most of the state’s 30 million residents to wear masks. Despite pressure from local authorities that he give back their ability to mandate stay-at-home orders, Abbott has insisted increased mask-wearing is the key.

Abbott told Houston’s Fox 26 on Thursday that “the last step that would ever be taken is to lock Texans back down” and said other measures would be taken before resorting to that.

“It seems like I get this question a thousand times a day, and there seem to be rumors out there about a looming shutdown,” Abbott said in the interview. “Let me tell you: There is no shutdown coming.”

It will take about three weeks, Abbott said, to see the effects of his mask mandate and his closure of bars in late June. Abbott claimed cases were flattening out in Harris County, though Hearst Newspapers’ analysis shows the county’s rolling average for new cases is more than three times higher than a month ago.

[…]

A new report from Kinsa, a company that uses internet-connected thermometers to predict the spread of diseases, showed that Texas’ rate of illness is spreading faster than those of other states. The company in the past few years has successfully anticipated outbreaks of the flu weeks ahead of the federal government.

The Kinsa data, which tracks whether an uncontrolled outbreak is likely using fever trends and other information, showed that the state is hitting above the threshold for the entirety of the past 30 days.

“This level of sustained, rampant disease transmission suggests that there is likely a lot more illness in the community than what has been reflected in the case numbers to date,” the company said in a press release Thursday. “In other words, there is no relief in store for Texas over the next few weeks, and we fear that the situation there may get much worse in the near-term.”

No, seriously, it’s just terrific.

A coronavirus patient in Anahuac was flown by helicopter to a hospital in El Campo — 120 miles away — because closer facilities could not take him.

Ambulances are waiting up to 10 hours to deliver patients to packed Hidalgo County emergency rooms.

And short-staffed hospitals in Midland and Odessa have had to turn away ailing COVID-19 patients from rural West Texas facilities that can’t offer the care they need.

As the tally of coronavirus infections climbs higher each day, Texas hospitals are taking extraordinary steps to make space for a surge of patients. Some facilities in South Texas say they are dangerously close to filling up, while hospitals elsewhere are taking precautionary measures to keep their numbers manageable.

Doctors warn of shortages of an antiviral drug that shows promise for treating COVID-19 patients. And epidemiologists say the state’s hospitals may be in for a longer, harder ride than places like New York, where hospitals were stretched to capacity in the spring and some parked refrigerated trailers outside to store bodies of people who died from COVID-19.

“It used to [be that] if one hospital got kind of overwhelmed … you would start transferring out ICU patients to other facilities that had ICU beds available,” said Dr. Robert Hancock, president of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians. “And there really is none of that now, because everybody’s in the same boat and they’re struggling to get their own patients admitted.”

You might say we’re red hot.

A document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force but not publicized suggests more than a dozen states should revert to more stringent protective measures, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, closing bars and gyms and asking residents to wear masks at all times.

The document, dated July 14 and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, says 18 states are in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases, meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week. Eleven states are in the “red zone” for test positivity, meaning more than 10 percent of diagnostic test results came back positive.

It includes county-level data and reflects the insistence of the Trump administration that states and counties should take the lead in responding to the coronavirus. The document has been shared within the federal government but does not appear to be posted publicly.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said he thought the information and recommendations were mostly good.

“The fact that it’s not public makes no sense to me,” Jha said Thursday. “Why are we hiding this information from the American people? This should be published and updated every day.”

[…]

The 18 states that are included in the red zone for cases in the document are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

The 11 states that are in the red zone for test positivity are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas and Washington.

In May, the World Health Organization recommended that governments make sure test positivity rates were at 5 percent or lower for 14 days before reopening. A COVID-19 tracker from Johns Hopkins University shows that 33 states were above that recommended positivity as of July 16.

“If the test positivity rate is above 10 percent, that means we’re not doing a good job mitigating the outbreak,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, science communication lead at the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization launched by journalists from The Atlantic. “Ideally we want the test positivity rate to be below 3 percent, because that shows that we’re suppressing COVID-19.”

But don’t worry, Greg Abbott is on it.

As the number of new coronavirus cases in Texas continues to rise and hospitals grow more crowded, Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday there is no statewide shutdown looming.

Abbott said last week that if the spread of the virus didn’t slow, “the next step would have to be a lockdown.” But in a television interview Thursday, he said that there have been rumors of such a move and stressed that they were not true.

“Let me tell you, there is no shutdown coming,” he told KRIV-TV in Houston.

Abbott pointed to measures he’s taken in recent weeks, including a statewide mask mandate and an order shutting down bars, to slow the spread of the virus. It will take a few weeks to see a reversal in coronavirus case surges, he said.

He has repeatedly stressed this week that, if people wear masks, he’ll be able to avoid shutting down the state. On Wednesday, he told KPRC-TV in Houston that it seems like people ask him about a shutdown “like a thousand times a day.”

“People are panicking, thinking I’m about to shut down Texas again,” he said. “The answer is no. That is not the goal. I’ve been abundantly clear.”

To also be abundantly clear, Abbott is correct that it will take a bit of time for the mask order and other interventions to work, just as there was a lag between the increasing case rate and subsequent increases in hospitalizations and deaths (not that we responded in time for them, but never mind that right now). He is also correct that universal face mask wearing would be a big help, though it may not be enough at this point, and he’s fighting headwinds from Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans on that score. And if we really want to be clear, we need to remember that Abbott mostly speaks in riddles these days, so we turn to an expert in the field for true clarity:

Yes, that’s the kind of straight talk you get from Greg Abbott.

Lawmakers quickly discovered something remarkable. It was possible to stare the man in the eyes, to speak with him for a half-hour or more, and walk away with no better idea of where he stood on important legislative matters. He seemed unwilling to speak forthrightly about nearly anything, drawing a veil around his positions, lest he alienate some key legislator or interest group.

When Abbott did make himself clear, it was to issue marching orders to those who had no reason to follow them, or to punish those who had defied him. “There was no comparison to Perry. [Abbott’s] concept of governing is ordering people around,” Republican state representative Sarah Davis told me in 2018. “He came into the regular session and kind of chided us, and then was absent for the rest of the session.”

And his public statements often contradicted his private ones. Publicly, Abbott endorsed the infamous anti-transgender “bathroom bill” in the 2017 session and pretended to advocate for its passage. But in private he reassured business groups—who worried the state would be boycotted by lucrative conventions and sports tournaments—that the bill would never pass. He was publicly accused of that duplicity by Republican state representative Byron Cook in 2018. The governor’s office has never addressed it.

[…]

Fast forward a few years, through 130,000 American deaths from the coronavirus, at least 3,500 of them from Texas so far, and the onset of the worst economic circumstances since the Great Depression. Now Abbott’s governing style is under strain. Arguably, the root cause of the current crisis is his tendency to talk a lot without saying much and his propensity to take the path of least resistance regardless of the circumstances, especially when confronted by the inchoate demands of the Republican party’s right wing. This modus operandi is on display every time Abbott gets in front of a television camera. But as we see more and more of it, the artifice is becoming more clear. Abbott’s disapproval numbers have been rising just a bit, even as other governors have seen a surge of popularity during the crisis.

Here, we could talk about Abbott’s quadruple-backflip on mask mandates; the time he issued a statewide lockdown disguised under a bureaucratic name while insisting it wasn’t one, before clarifying that it was the next day; the Shelley Luther saga, which saw him ordain that violators of his shutdown order should be punished with fines and jail time only to blame local officials for enforcing it, before retroactively nullifying what he had expressly commanded; or the way he opened the state for business before fixing the problems the lockdown was designed to address.

But instead, let’s consider a small but important test Abbott recently faced, one that seems instructive. Abbott’s party had long been planning to hold its state convention in Houston, one of the nation’s biggest coronavirus hot spots, which would have brought some six thousand attendees, many of them older and especially vulnerable to the virus, from all around the state for a crowded three-day fete. An in-person convention was a virtual guarantee that some delegates and service workers would get infected and possibly die, and that Houston’s seemingly potent strain of the virus would be spread around the state.

It was an incredibly bad idea that Abbott’s party nonetheless seemed hell-bent on pursuing. What did the governor have to say about it? Would he speak up, in an attempt to save the lives of his own party’s activists? “You’re the top Republican in the state, governor,” said an anchor for KDFW in Dallas on July 6, after Houston mayor Sylvester Turner begged the party to call off the gathering, then canceled it two days later. “What do you think should happen?”

The governor’s answer: “I know that the executive committee for the Republican Party of Texas have been talking about this. I think they continue to talk about it, and they weigh all of the consequences and the public health and measures … They’ll make a decision.”

The anchor persisted: “You don’t want to weigh in on what you think should happen?”

The governor paused and then gave his answer: “Obviously I think whatever happens—whether it be, listen, this convention or any action that anybody takes—we’re at a time with the outbreak of the coronavirus where public safety needs to be a paramount concern, and make sure that whoever does anything and whatever they do, they need to do to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.”

Huh?

A day later, an anchor for KENS in San Antonio tried a different tack: “Will you be attending in person?” Abbott dissembled, so the anchor tried again. “Yeah, listen, as for myself, as well as for everybody else,” Abbott said, “we will continue to see what the standards are that will be issued by the State Republican Executive Committee, by the state Republican Party to determine what the possibility will be for being able to attend.” To determine what the possibility will be for being able to attend.

Not only could Abbott not say whether he thought the convention was a good idea, he couldn’t even say whether he would be there. The interview went out during the KENS five o’clock broadcast. Not half an hour later, during a meeting of the SREC, the party’s executive director announced that elected officials would be pre-recording messages instead of giving in-person speeches. Abbott surely knew this important fact when he was on the air.

I hope this clears everything up.

Who wants to enforce Greg Abbott’s mask order?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Gov. Greg Abbott called on police across Texas to step up enforcement of his mask order amid the mounting pandemic, explaining Thursday that they can either “be part of the problem or part of the solution.”

Facing a revolt over the mandate within his conservative base, the governor acknowledged in a new round of interviews that masking is inconvenient, but said the alternative of locking the state down again is far worse.

“We have a short period of time in the next couple of weeks to bend the curve of this explosion in cases and hospitalizations,” he said in an interview on KSAT in San Antonio. “If we can enforce this, we will be able to keep the state open and reduce hospitalizations.”

Some local law enforcement officials, including the sheriffs in Montgomery and Gillespie counties, have refused to enforce the new order, citing personal liberties or enforcement logistics. On Wednesday, the Montgomery County Republican Executive Committee voted 40-0 to censure Abbott, joining at least three other county executive committees that have taken similar steps.

It’s more than just a few.

When Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide executive order requiring Texans to wear masks in public, he gave counties the opportunity to opt out if they have a low number of active coronavirus cases.

A week later, 78 counties have taken him up on that offer. And a handful of other local governments have insisted that they won’t enforce the order even though they don’t qualify for the opt-out provision. Officials cited a desire to preserve personal freedoms or concerns about enforcement.

“I think it’s an insult to Texans to be required to do something they should have discretion for,” said Hugh Reed, the top administrator for rural Armstrong County, near Amarillo, which opted out.

In a press release announcing the order, Abbott said that “wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19.” Public health experts broadly agree that masks slow the spread of the virus, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend face coverings for anyone 2 or older in public settings.

The order came as coronavirus cases have grown quickly in the state. As of Thursday, more than 9,600 people were hospitalized with the virus.

In order to opt out of the requirement, the counties need to have 20 or fewer active COVID-19 cases. Given the spread of the virus in recent weeks, only counties that are sparsely populated and rural tend to qualify. Most are in conservative areas of the state.

Rex Fields, the top elected official in Eastland County, said Abbott’s option for counties with low coronavirus case counts “gives people some personal freedom.”

But a few local officials without that freedom are also choosing not to enforce the order. In Montgomery County, which has a population of over 600,000 and has reported more than 2,700 coronavirus cases so far, the sheriff’s office said July 3 that it would not take action on the mask rule.

“This order includes specific language prohibiting law enforcement from detaining, arresting, or confining to jail as a means to enforce the order,” the agency wrote in a press release. “This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law.”

Yeah, so maybe undermining the rule of law was not a great idea. Greg Abbott could be in a position to insist that his order be enforced, if only Greg Abbott hadn’t so clearly demonstrated that Greg Abbott’s executive orders regarding COVID-19 are just suggestions.

That said, some places are more serious about trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled his encouragement Wednesday to Austin city leaders to move forward on “additional enforcement mechanisms” related to a recent order Abbott issued requiring Texans to wear masks in most public spaces.

In a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Abbott said the city’s consideration of new enforcement measures “to ensure compliance with my Executive Orders is an important step toward reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).”

“As you know, these Orders were created and adopted based on advise from medical experts, and if these Orders are followed, we will be able to protect both public health and the livelihoods of our citizens,” he added.

The Austin-American Statesman reported Wednesday that the City Council will meet Thursday “to vote on a resolution that would allow for a fine of up to $2,000 for anyone violating a ‘health authority rule’ like not wearing a mask” and to take “civil action against any person who maintains a business or site that does not comply with minimum health standards.”

Another riddle solved, apparently. That resolution passed unanimously on Thursday. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the Hotze contingent files a lawsuit against this, but in the meantime it’s something. (Hey, Greg! Now do letting counties issue stay-at-home orders.)

Now to be fair, if I’m going to advocate for letting local authorities have some of their authority to make local decisions back, I’m going to be circumspect about criticizing a small rural county with a still-low infection rate for not wanting to enforce a mask order. But let’s be clear that all parts of the state are vulnerable, and those lightly populated places also tend to be many miles away from hospitals, so their residents are in greater jeopardy should they get sick. The approach I’m looking for here is one that says “this is the minimum that counties must do – they can go above and beyond it within reason, but they have to do at least this much”. That philosophy has been distinctly lacking in recent years in this state.

But here we are, and here we once again face the worst case scenario, at least as far as Greg Abbott is concerned.

With Texas continuing to break records for new coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations this week, Gov. Greg Abbott reiterated Friday afternoon that things will continue to get worse. And if people keep flouting his new statewide mask mandate, he said, the next step could be another economic lockdown.

“Things will get worse, and let me explain why,” he told KLBK TV in Lubbock. “The deaths that we’re seeing announced today and yesterday — which are now over 100 — those are people who likely contracted COVID-19 in late May.

“The worst is yet to come as we work our way through that massive increase in people testing positive.”

Texans will also likely see an increase in cases next week, Abbott said, and people abiding by his face mask requirement might be the only thing standing between businesses remaining open and another shutdown.

“The public needs to understand this was a very tough decision for me to make,” Abbott told KLBK of his face mask mandate. “I made clear that I made this tough decision for one reason: It was our last best effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown.”

And then when sheriffs in heavily Republican counties refuse to enforce that, then what? Say it with me now: None of this had to happen. But it did, and it’s Greg Abbott’s fault.

No State Fair for you

Sorry, Big Tex.

The State Fair of Texas, slated for this fall, was canceled Tuesday because of ongoing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, fair organizers said in a public statement.

“One of the greatest aspects of the Fair is welcoming each and every person who passes through our gates with smiles and open arms,” said Gina Norris, board chair for the State Fair of Texas, in a written statement. “In the current climate of COVID-19, there is no feasible way for the Fair to put proper precautions in place while maintaining the Fair environment you know and love.”

Organizers said the fair, a longstanding tradition for many Texans, is scheduled to run next year from Sept. 24 through Oct. 17 in Fair Park, located in Dallas. More than 2.5 million people attended the fair last year.

Fair organizers said this is its first cancellation since World War II.

A shame, to be sure, but I think we can all understand. Makes me wonder if the Texas Ren Fest, which starts on October 3, will be following suit in the near future. It’s also a reminder that maybe college football and in person political conventions aren’t such a hot idea, either. Just a thought. The DMN has more.

Greg Abbott has no one to blame but himself

Let’s be very clear about this.

Gov. Greg Abbott is under increasing political fire from fellow Republicans as well as Democrats as he responds to a sharp rise in coronavirus deaths — a record 112 on Wednesday and 106 on Thursday — by implementing more restrictions on Texans and increasingly warning of another shutdown if people fail to wear masks.

Prominent Democrats are blasting Abbott for reopening too quickly and shrugging off early warning signs. On the other side, county Republican Party committees are passing censures of Abbott for some of his latest orders, including one requiring people to wear masks in counties reporting at least 20 people infected with COVID-19. Those who violate the order face $250 fines, but no possibility of jail time.

On Wednesday, the Montgomery County Republican Executive Committee voted 40-0 to censure Abbott, joining at least three other county executive committees that have taken similar steps.

Even Republican state lawmakers are beginning to press Abbott to call a special session to cede some of the decision-making to them. State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said in a Fox News Channel interview that it’s time for the Legislature to be more involved and not just leave it all up to the governor.

“We have information and a lot of misinformation out there, honestly, that needs to be vetted by a legislative body,” Perry said.

It’s all coming as Abbott warns the daily number of deaths is going to keep rising.

“I think the numbers are going to look worse as we go into next week,” Abbott told Fox 26 in Houston during an interview Thursday night. “We need to make sure there are going to be plenty of hospital beds available in the Houston area.”

[…]

The criticism from Democrats comes days after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Sunday on ABC’s This Week that she and other county and city officials need Abbott to give them the authority to issue stay-at-home orders again, calling it the surest way for them to get out of the crisis. She said leaders need to be taking bold aggressive steps because of how serious things have become in Houston and Texas overall. Abbott has so far declined.

“We don’t have room to experiment,” Hidalgo said. “We don’t have room for incrementalism, when we’re seeing these kinds of numbers, nor should we wait for all the hospital beds to fill and all these people to die before we take drastic action.”

I have many thoughts about this.

– The original sin in all this, from whence all other bad decisions and unenforceable actions flow, was the inexcusable, unfathomable, and completely self-inflicted Shelley Luther saga, which the Chron’s editorial board correctly identifies as a primary failing. It’s not just that Abbott took the teeth out of his own executive orders the very first time they ran into resistance, taking Luther off the hook like that – hell, turning her into a goddam folk hero, paying her court fees, bowing and scraping to her – it’s that this sent a very clear message that there are no consequences for violating any laws or orders related to coronavirus. You can draw a straight line from this to sheriffs saying they can’t or won’t enforce the current mask order, even as Abbott is now practically begging everyone to wear a mask. Turns out undermining the rule of law is a bad idea. Who knew?

– The problem with the Shelley Luther incident wasn’t just the undermining of the rule of law, or the evisceration of any consequences for pro-COVID behavior. It was the message it sent, from the top, that the people who didn’t feel like doing their part to fight the virus, who felt that their feelings and personal definition of “liberty” mattered more than anything else, were legitimate and needed to be handled as special and exceptional. Abbott could have very reasonably expressed empathy for Shelley Luther, said words to the effect of “I know this is hard, I know small businesspeople like her are suffering, but we have to bear down and really beat this virus back so that we can get back to normal life and business like we all want”. The fact that he didn’t is a clear and ongoing failure of leadership on his part.

– Yes, I know, that same message about “my feelings are bigger than your face mask” as well as pressure to “reopen the economy” came from Donald Trump as well, and Abbott had to be concerned about the heat he was getting from his fellow Republicans. I will note that other Republican governors, like Mike DeWine in Ohio, managed to figure this out. No one ever said that being Governor was going to be easy. If Greg Abbott didn’t have the fortitude to withstand the carping from the Steven Hotze wing of his party, then he has no business being Governor.

– Another self-inflicted wound in all this has been Abbott’s abrogation of the executive powers that Mayors and County Judges had exercised in the early days of the pandemic. Remember when cities and counties were issuing stay-at-home orders, and Abbott used that as justification for him not doing the same statewide because different counties have different needs? Abbott eventually and correctly bowed to pressure to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, but in doing so he basically took away all of the local decision-making power that Mayors and County Judges had. That has come back to bite him, as the big urban counties have been complaining for weeks about their need to respond to local conditions. The capper to this was the utterly ludicrous “you solved my riddle”, in which Abbott revealed that County Judges had the power all along to order businesses to require masks for their employees and customers, but he wasn’t going to tell them that, they had to figure that out on their own even though they had been loudly saying that getting more people to wear masks was the main thing they could do to help with the pandemic. Letting local authorities have more power to make local decisions was not only the better call for fighting the virus, it would have shifted a lot of the heat Abbott now feels from him to them, with “them” mostly being Democrats. When Abbott took their power away back in April, it was seen as him coming in to take credit for their work. Too bad for him that work wasn’t finished, because it’s all on him now.

– Let’s also not forget the fact that when Abbott announced his intent to reopen, he announced four criteria that were supposed to guide the reopening timeline. Those were declining case rates, declining positive test rates, enough contact tracers, and sufficient hospital capacity. Only that last one was ever met, and because the other three were completely ignored, the hospitals are now overwhelmed. A more far-sighted leader would have counseled patience, saying we need to reach these benchmarks before we get to do the things we want to do. But as established, Abbott isn’t a leader at all, and so here we are.

– Finally, and I have said this before as well, I do agree that at some point Abbott should have called a special session, partly to clarify his own executive powers and thus blunt some of the lawsuits that have been filed over stay-at-home and face mask orders, and partly to share the responsibility with the legislative body. Abbott has repeatedly shown that he likes to operate in a bubble, where he does his thing and no one gets to ask him any questions unless they’ve been pre-approved and invited to do so. I get that hating on the mainstream media is a standard part of the Republican playbook, but I think Abbott’s self-imposed isolation isn’t serving him well simply because he’s not hearing from anyone who isn’t in his inner circle. The Lege can serve as a foil, or at least a partner in taking the blame, but not when you’re a one-man show.

Every step of the way, Greg Abbott could have made better decisions. It was clear at the time he was making those decisions that he was choosing poorly. Now we are all facing the consequences of those bad decisions. Greg Abbott bears the responsibility for what happened. Never forget that.

How Texas screwed it all up

That’s a more succinct headline for this story about how Texas went from having a low COVID-19 infection rate to one of the worst in the country. And the vast majority of the responsibility for this is on Greg Abbott.

In Houston, the largest medical campus in the world has exceeded its base intensive care capacity. In the Rio Grande Valley, elected officials pleaded this week for military intervention to avoid a “humanitarian crisis.” And in several major cities, testing sites are overrun, with appointments disappearing in minutes and hundreds waiting in line for hours.

Eight weeks ago, the White House lauded Texas as a model for containing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen the economy has unraveled as the state struggles to contain one of the worst outbreaks in the country.

“We’re on the verge of a nightmarish catastrophe,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and the Baylor College of Medicine. “On May 1, I thought we actually had a chance to get this virus under control and get the economy opened up safely. I’m not sure we can get it under control anymore.”

Public health experts say the worst of the crisis was avoidable in Texas, where Abbott stripped local officials of the ability to manage their own outbreaks and until Thursday refused to mandate masks and other basic mitigation practices. The governor reopened before the state could adequately monitor the virus, health experts said, then ignored signs in late May that infections were beginning to run rampant.

“That is the point at which you say hang on a sec, we’re staying where we are, and are probably taking a step back to understand the scale of the problem here,” said Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Without the tools in place to test quickly for infections and track those exposed, authorities believe the state was left blinded as the virus spread among younger Texans, who are less likely to develop symptoms.

Spokesmen for Abbott and state Health Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstadt did not respond to requests for comment. Asked at a televised town hall Thursday why he had not mandated masks sooner, the governor said the “data was only recently bad.”

“It was only in the past couple of weeks that we saw this spike in people testing positive,” Abbott said.

[…]

On April 27, Abbott said he would reopen the state in phases based on data and guidance from medical professionals, pledging not to simply “open up and hope for the best.”

His advisers laid out four criteria to guide the reopening: a two-week reduction in cases, hospital capacity for all patients, the ability to to conduct 30,000 daily viral tests and hire 4,000 contact tracers.

Abbott, however, did not commit to following them. Only in mid-June would the state begin meeting its testing goal. It has yet to hire enough contact tracers or see a sustained drop in infections.

He said the plan was designed to be applied regionally, with lighter restrictions imposed in areas with few cases, then overruled officials from large counties who tried to enact more restrictive edicts.

Abbott punctuated that point by effectively gutting Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s April 22 mask order when he stripped the ability of local governments to punish residents who violated such mandates.

Several prominent Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, had condemned Hidalgo’s order and its potential $1,000 fine as an abuse of power. They have continued to argue that the severity of the virus is being embellished, and some have even questioned whether masks are effective at stopping it from spreading.

The mask debate — which took another turn Thursday when Abbott issued his own statewide mandate — has sent mixed messages that may have left residents with the impression that face coverings are unimportant, said Dr. Gregory Tasian, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

“Without a clear direction from the state level, some of those masking policies become much less effective,” Tasian said.

There’s more, but you get the idea. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Abbott never made any effort to meet those four metrics that he himself and his vaunted “Strike Force” laid out. (By the way, when was the last time you saw a news story about COVID-19 in Texas refer to the “Strike Force”?) Each time he relaxed another part of the previous restrictions in order to push reopening further, I pointed out that we had no plan and no reason to proceed as if everything was going to plan. All we had was hope and distraction, and look where that has gotten us. The extremely “mixed messages” (to put it lightly) about masking and social distancing was another huge problem, one that also didn’t have to happen. I get that Abbott felt pressure from Donald Trump and from the screaming howler monkeys of our state like Dan Patrick, but for Christ’s sake he’s the Governor, he’s got a gazillion dollars in his campaign treasury and by far the highest approval ratings of anyone in the state, and it’s his fucking job to be a leader. He failed at that at every step of the way.

What’s even more appalling is that he already had a model that was working for him, and that was to get out of the way of the local leaders, who were uniformly ahead of him on all the mitigation steps we first took back in March. It would have been perfectly consistent with his stated belief that some parts of the state needed more restrictions than others to let Lina Hidalgo and the other county judges impose face mask orders and keep a tighter rein on businesses as they saw fit. I believe it would have been politically expedient for him as well, since the raging assholes would have aimed all their fury and lawsuits at them instead of at him. It was when he caved in the most cowardly way possible to Shelley Luther, who was being held accountable to HIS OWN EXECUTIVE ORDER by a Dallas County judge that we all should have known what was coming next. Sure is funny how the cries for “law and order” get silenced when it’s a white suburbanite being taken to court.

I also want to note the bit in this story about nobody on Team Abbott responding to requests for comment. Another hallmark of this crisis, which has been a recurring theme of the Abbott reign in general, has been the way he operates in a closed and non-transparent fashion. He does the things he does, on his own and in consultation with no one outside his bubble, with no mechanism for feedback or consideration of other perspectives. I can’t help but think that this style has not done him any favors lately, and I expect it will result in a Legislature that doesn’t feel much need to defer to him or his priorities in 2021, and that’s even if the Republicans manage to hang onto the House. And, as some people have speculated, he could be headed for a challenge from the right in the 2022 primary. I doubt that my own preferences here would do anything to dissuade such a challenger. But a better outcome from the pandemic might go a long way towards shoring up his political position.

So here we are, and as bad as things are right now, they are certain to get worse in the short term, because that’s the way this virus operates. If we’re very lucky, the mask order and mild dialing back of reopening might make things be less bad. But it’s going to be bad. And it didn’t have to be. It’s Greg Abbott’s fault that it is.

Here’s a Census data preview

Guess what? The same trends we saw ten years ago are still trending.

Texas’ Hispanic population has grown by more than 2 million since 2010, according to new population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau, and the state’s demographer now predicts that Hispanics will be the state’s largest population group by mid-2021.

An annual gain of 201,675 between July 2018 and July 2019 pushed the count of Hispanic residents to more than 11.5 million, the census estimates show. Although annual growth has slowed slightly in recent years, the new figures put a sharp point on how quickly the Hispanic population continues to climb. The annual growth in Hispanic residents has outpaced the combined growth among white, Black and Asian residents every year since 2010.

Texas still has a bigger white population — up to 11.95 million last year — but it grew by just 36,440 last year and by about half a million since 2010. White population growth has been so sluggish this decade that the increase in the number of Asian Texans, who make up a small share of the total population, has almost caught up with the increase in white Texans.

The latest estimates could be the last to come in before lawmakers embark on redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative maps in 2021 to account for population growth — a fraught exercise that has previously led to drawn-out litigation over claims that new maps discriminate against voters of color who are behind the state’s growth. During the last redistricting cycle, Hispanics accounted for about 65% of that growth. With a year of growth left to be accounted for, their share of Texas’ population increase since 2010 is at nearly 54%.

The story included this table of population growth figures:


Race       2010 pop    2019 est   Increase
==========================================
Hispanic  9,460,921  11,525,578  2,064,657
Black     2,899,884   3,501,610    601,726
White    11,428,638  11,950,774    522,136
Asian       960,543   1,457,549    497,006

There must be a collection of people who don’t fall into any of these categories, because if I do the math on the Increase totals, “Hispanic” represents 56% of it, not 54%. White population growth is all of 14% of the total. This is very much in line with where we were in 2010. Now of course, these numbers are estimates, and the collection of the official Census data has been greatly hampered by the pandemic as well as the Trump administration’s relentless hostility towards immigrants, which included the now-defunct effort to put a citizenship question on the form. If the data we get next year differs radically from these figures, we’ll know why.

The headline reason for Census data is of course redistricting. Texas expects to get another three seats in Congress in 2021, though that could be affected by an undercount. Be that as it may, this is a good place to remind you to listen to my interview with Michael Li about the redistricting lawsuits from the past decade. I will have a new interview for you on the topic of redistricting for Monday, with Rep. Marc Veasey, who was one of the plaintiffs in that litigation.

Abbott finally issues a mask order

Better late than never, but it’s pretty damn late.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a nearly statewide mask mandate Thursday as Texas scrambles to get its coronavirus surge under control.

The order requires Texans living in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while inside a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. But it provides several exceptions, including children who are younger than 10 years old, people who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking and people who are exercising outdoors.

The mask order goes into effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday.

The order represents a remarkable turnaround for Abbott, who has long resisted such a statewide mask requirement, even as the coronavirus situation has gotten worse than ever over the past couple weeks in Texas. When he began allowing Texas businesses to reopen this spring, Abbott prohibited local governments from punishing people who do not wear masks. As cases began to rise earlier this month, he clarified that cities and counties could order businesses to mandate customers wear masks.

In recent days, though, Abbott had held firm against going further than that, saying he did not want to impose a statewide requirement that may burden parts of the state that are not as badly affected by the outbreak.

Abbott on Thursday also banned certain outdoor gatherings of over 10 people unless local officials approve. He had previously set the threshold at over 100 people. The new prohibition also goes into effect Friday afternoon.

[…]

Abbott’s announcement came a day after the number of new daily cases in Texas, as well as hospitalizations, reached new highs again. There were 8,076 new cases Wednesday, over 1,000 cases more than the record that was set the prior day.

Hospitalizations hit 6,904, the third straight day setting a new record. The state says 12,894 beds are still available, as well as 1,322 ICU beds.

Abbott has been particularly worried about the positivity rate, or the share of tests that come back positive. That rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has jumped above its previous high of about 14% in recent days, ticking down to 13.58% on Tuesday. That is still above the 10% threshold that Abbott has long said would be cause for alarm amid the reopening process.

First-time offenders of Abbott’s order will receive a written or verbal warning. Those who violate the order a second time will receive a fine of up to $250. Every subsequent violation is punishable also by a fine of up to $250. The order specifies that no one can get jail time for a violation.

Remember that PolicyLab projection from May that said Harris County would go from 200 cases a day to over 2,000 by now? Thankfully, we’re still not close to that – the ReadyHarris dashboard has mostly shown us in the 600 to 800 cases per day range recently, though I suspect there’s some lag in the data because there’s no reason why this week would be lower than the two previous weeks. Point being, we most certainly could have seen this coming, and we could have done a lot to protect ourselves before this happened. You know, like having mask orders in place all along, and letting local governments have more leeway to control crowd sizes. Note here that Abbott’s order targets outdoor gatherings, but not indoor gatherings. You know, like this one. I don’t understand the logic here, but whatever.

The real question is after all this time and all that bullshit from Republicans like Dan Patrick, how much resistance do you think there will be to this new order? Like, remember when Dan Patrick called Judge Hidalgo’s mask order “the ultimate government overreach”? Also, too, Jared Woodfill and Steven Hotze are suing to basically stop emergency orders, and had previously sued to stop Judge Hidalgo’s mask order, before Abbott overruled it himself. Our state has plenty of people who will perform their rage over being asked to take the health and well-being of their neighbors into consideration. I’m curious, and more than a little afraid, to see how that segment of our population reacts to this. The Current, the Press, and the Dallas Observer have more.

UPDATE: My God, but Dan Crenshaw is a hack.

The lack of testing is becoming a more serious problem

It was already serious. Now it’s extra serious.

As the new coronavirus continues to spread in Texas, leaders of some of the state’s biggest cities said Monday that their testing sites were being strained, forcing them to turn away people in the middle of the day or limit who is eligible to take a test.

In Travis County, interim County Judge Sam Biscoe said the county’s public testing is being rationed to only people with symptoms. Previously, local leaders had encouraged anyone to get tested, including asymptomatic people and people that had come into contact with COVID-19 patients.

“The rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott asking to allow metropolitan areas to issue their own stay-at-home orders.

The largest laboratory analyzing tests is also strained, Biscoe said, to the point that the county has decided to prioritize cases from severely ill patients in hospitals. Residents in Travis County who don’t show symptoms still have other options, like private facilities, to get tested.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said his city’s two public testing sites, where testing is still available to people who are symptomatic or asymptomatic, reached their maximum capacities before noon.

“The capacity on those sites will be increased from 500 [daily tests] to 650 each,” Turner said. “It is clear that there is a demand out there, and we need to ramp up as best as we can to meet that demand.”

Meanwhile, the two community-based testing sites in the city of Dallas are reaching their capacity “by noon or early afternoon daily,” according to city spokesperson Roxana Rubio. In these sites, testing is restricted to symptomatic patients, high-risk people, first responders, essential workers and asymptomatic patients who have engaged in large group settings.

The obvious problem here is that if you think you need a test but can’t get one, you have the choice of self-quarantine and hope for the best, or keep on keeping on, and hope you’re not the 2020 equivalent of Typhoid Mary. If everyone could reliably get a test and get their results in a reasonable amount of time, people would be much freer to move around, and maybe even socialize with other people who can confidently state that they are safe. Indeed, if we could do this at scale, we could do much more targeted quarantining, and thus let larger portions of society open up safely. Wouldn’t that have been nice? Other countries have managed to do it. Just not this one. SIt with that for awhile.

Meantime, in Houston, the spread of this disease is having a bad effect on crime.

With more than 10 percent of its workforce out due to COVID-19, the Houston Forensic Science Center is dangerously close to having to limit its responses to crime scenes, the agency’s director said Monday.

Of 200 total staff, 10 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, said Dr. Peter Stout, CEO and president of the agency, which manages Houston Police Department’s forensic laboratory and crime scene unit. Another 12 are self-quarantining while they await test results. None of the exposures appear to have been transmitted through their work, Stout said.

Stout said he’s “very worried” because about one-fourth of the agency’s team dedicated to crime scene investigation is out of commission due to COVID-19. He’s concerned what that might mean for the center’s ability to collect evidence at murders, police-involved shootings and child deaths.

“We’re precariously close to having to shift around so we can have any capacity to make scenes that come up,” said Stout.

[…]

Delays in collecting evidence could mean further backlogs in criminal cases, prosecutors said.

“The pandemic is stretching the criminal justice system thin, causing backlogs up and down the system,” said Michael Kolenc, a spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We will address any impact on a case by case basis.”

The center was already severely understaffed for a city the size of Houston before the pandemic, Stout said. There are usually 27 people working in the CSI unit. In cities like Dallas and Austin, the standard is around 100 crime scene investigators, Stout added.

“It’s not even close to the right magnitude of what we should have,” said Stout. “Especially this year, with the escalation in homicides, we were in a real pinch with the crime scene unit already.”

The unit is now only able to travel to scenes of homicides, officer-involved shootings, deaths of children and around 1 percent of aggravated assaults reported in the city, said Stout.

“It’s a serious issue,” Stout said.

Sure sounds like one. Maybe we’ll do a better job with the next pandemic.

Hey, how about trying that local control thing again?

Seems like it might be worth a shot to led Mayors and County Judges lead on coronavirus response again, since they’ve done so much better a job of leading than Greg Abbott has.

As Texas grapples with soaring coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, local elected officials in some of the state’s most populous counties are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to roll back business reopenings and allow them to reinstate stay-at-home orders for their communities in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Officials in Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Travis counties have either called on or reached out to the governor in recent days, expressing a desire to implement local restrictions for their regions and, in some cases, stressing concerns over hospital capacity.

Stay-at-home orders, which generally direct businesses deemed nonessential to shut down, were implemented to varying degrees by local governments across the state in March before the governor issued a statewide directive at the beginning of April. Abbott’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April, when he began announcing phased reopenings to the state and forcing local governments to follow his lead. Since then, a number of local officials, many of whom have been critical of Abbott’s reopening timeline, have argued that the jurisdiction to reinstate such directives is no longer in their hands.

“If you are not willing to take these actions on behalf of the state, please roll back your restriction on local leaders being able to take these swift actions to safeguard the health of our communities,” Sam Biscoe, interim Travis County judge, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Monday.

Biscoe asked Abbott “to roll all the way back to Stay Home orders based on worsening circumstances,” further cap business occupancy, mandate masks and ban gatherings of 10 or more people.

Officials in Bexar County also wrote a similar letter to the governor Monday, writing that “the ability to tailor a response and recovery that fits the San Antonio region’s need is vital as we look forward to a healthier future.”

“Our region’s hospital capacity issues and economic circumstances require stronger protocols to contain the spread of this disease,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote. The two asked Abbott to “restore the ability for the City of San Antonio to take additional local preventative measures, including potential Stay Home/Work Safe restrictions.” They also asked the governor to mandate face coverings when outside a household and “clearer language that strictly limits social gatherings,” among other things.

[…]

Meanwhile, counties and cities across the state have implemented face mask requirements for businesses after Wolff, the Bexar County judge, moved to do so without facing opposition from Abbott. The governor had previously issued an executive order banning local governments from imposing fines or penalties on people who chose not to wear a face mask in public.

Local leaders have also voiced concerns about the testing capacity of large cities. In Travis County, Biscoe explained that because of the “rapidly increasing demand,” they are rationing testing only for people with symptoms. The stress on the system is also making contact tracing efforts more difficult.

“In summary, the rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote.

Here’s the Chron story; Mayor Turner has joined the call for this as well. I seriously doubt Abbott will do any of this, because it will serve as an even more stark reminder of his abject failure to lead. But if the worst is still ahead of us, then it’s a choice between taking action now and making it end sooner, or denying reality and letting more people get sick and die. Abbott’s going to have to live with the consequences of his poor decision-making regardless, he may as well choose to do the right thing this time.

Of course, there may be other complications this time around.

The Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance said it plans to sue the state of Texas over Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order once again shutting bars across the state.

“Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance (TBNA) is taking the necessary steps to protect the rights of our members and their employees across the state, who have been unjustly singled out by Governor Abbott,” TBNA president Michael E. Klein said in a statement.

[…]

TBNA said its members want to be allowed to reopen and have the same capacity allowances as restaurants, grocery stores and big-box retailers. It will sue in both state and federal court seeking to override Abbott’s order.

The majority of Texas bars had been adhering to strict guidelines restricting occupancy and ensuring safe serving practices for both customers and employees, TBNA’s Klein said. His take: if restaurants with bar rooms can operate at limited capacity, why can’t actual bars?

“To suggest the public welfare is protected by singling out one specific type of alcoholic beverage license over another is without logic and does not further the aim of protecting the public from COVID,” he added.

Well, one way to cure that disparity would be to order that all of them be closed for all except to go service. We’d also need to extend that waiver that allow restaurants to sell mixed drinks to go, which I’d be fine with. While I understand where the TBNA is coming from, this is Not Helping at a bad time. But then, given how Abbott folded on enforcing his own executive order in the Shelley Luther saga, I get why they thought taking an aggressive stance might work. Eater Austin has more.

UPDATE: Looks like the TBNA has been beaten to the punch:

Hoping to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s Friday decision ordering Texas bars to close due to a rise in coronavirus cases, more than 30 bar owners filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Abbott’s emergency order.

The lawsuit, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, was filed in Travis County District Court by Jared Woodfill, a Houston attorney who has led previous legal efforts opposing Abbott’s other shutdown orders during the pandemic.

“Why does he continue unilaterally acting like a king?” Woodfill, former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, said of Abbott in an interview. “He’s sentencing bar owners to bankruptcy.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, the bar owners argue that their rights have been “trampled” by Abbott, while “thousands of businesses are on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Abbott on Friday said it “is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars.”

Tee Allen Parker said she is confused. As a bar owner in East Texas, she’s allowed to walk into church or a Walmart but not permitted to host patrons at Machine Shed Bar & Grill.

“I don’t think it’s right that he’s violating our constitutional rights,” Allen Parker, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Monday in an interview. “The reason I’m speaking up is I don’t like that he can’t be consistent. You lead by example. Everything he’s said he’s walked back. And I’m disappointed in him because I was a big fan of his.”

A copy of this lawsuit is here. I’ll say again, as with all of the other COVID-related lawsuits that Jared Woodfill has had his slimy little hands in, we deserve to have serious questions asked by better people than this. As for Tee Allen Parker, I swear I am sympathetic, but no one actually has a constitutional right to operate a bar. I would suggest that the solution here that prioritizes public health while not punishing businesses like hers that would otherwise bear the cost of that priority is to get another stimulus package passed in Washington. Such a bill has already passed the House, though of course more could be done for the Tee Allen Parkers of the world if we wanted to amend it. Maybe call your Senators and urge them to ask Mitch McConnell to do something that would help? Just a thought.

The pause effect on bars and restaurants

I feel terrible for them, but what could we do at this point?

Ed Noyes was trying to get some shut-eye when he woke up to seven different texts Friday morning.

Three of the five bartenders at his Fort Worth establishment — plus his girlfriend — delivered the news: Malone’s Pub had to shutter immediately under the governor’s orders. His employees wanted reassurances: Would the business survive? Should they file for unemployment? What were his next steps?

“We were just all in shock,” Noyes said.

On Friday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered another economic blow to bars and other places that receive more than 51% of their gross receipts from selling alcohol. The establishments had to shut down by noon after a statewide surge in coronavirus infections officials said was largely driven by activities like congregating bars. There’s no immediate plan for when they’ll be able to reopen.

“The announcement just came out of nowhere,” Noyes said. “When I went to bed last night I thought we’d be open for the weekend, so this really blindsided me.”

Restaurants were ordered to scale back their operations to 50% capacity. And Abbott also banned river-rafting trips. They were his most drastic actions yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas.

But bars arguably faced one of the biggest challenges to operating in pandemic. Every tantalizing aspect of the nighttime hotspots — large crowds, prolonged bouts of close contact, mouths constantly open to drink or speak — clash with the health guidelines put in place as COVID-19 ravages the state.

[…]

Last weekend, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission launched “Operation Safe Open” to ensure bars and restaurants were following coronavirus safety rules. As of Wednesday, 17 bars — out of nearly 600 businesses visited by the commission — got their alcohol permits suspended for 30 days.

In some enclaves, residents have complained about staff not wearing masks, social distancing measures not being enforced and tables not being cleaned after use.

“I went with a friend for a quick night out,” Steven Simmons, who lives in Tyler, said of a June 11 visit to a local pub. “Easy to enter the bar, just checked IDs and that was it. No social distancing being enforced, no hand sanitizer anywhere, tables were not cleaned after use or anything. Employees were not wearing a mask at all.”

But in other parts of Texas, including Austin and San Antonio, some bar owners say they’re trying to strike a balance between their livelihoods and business and public safety.

“We joke at the Friendly Spot Ice House that we make a ‘bestie pack,’” said Jody Newman, the owner of the San Antonio hotspot. “The pact is that people ‘friendly’ distance, that they mask up, that they have clean hands and that they be friendly and understand we’re all going through this together.”

Still, since opening during the first week in June, Newman said she’s seen about 30% of the business she would normally get at this time of year.

With Friday’s announcement, Newman said, “thousands and thousands of livelihoods hang in the balance.”

Here’s a local view of this dilemma.

“The whole thing is a mess for everyone. Obviously, we’ll have to adjust again,” said Alli Jarrett, owner of Harold’s Restaurant & Tap Room in the Heights, adding that reducing capacity means she will not be able to bring back workers she had hoped to re-employ. “It’s not just restaurants. It’s every single business – every segment of the population. We’re all in the same boat. It’s just really, really hard.”

[…]

Brian Ching, owner of Pitch 25 in EaDo, fears the worst. “I don’t know if the business will be here in a month, two months,” said Ching, who also is readying another bar, East End Backyard, to open in July. “We were able to get PPE but we’ve burned through it all.”

He is most concerned for his workers, he said. “This time around, being closed with no PPE, we are likely going to have to furlough employees. I feel for all of them. There seems to be no end in sight.”

Bar owner Andy Aweida said he worries what the bar shutdown will mean not just to his staff but to all those in the bar industry.

“We did everything we were asked and did it well. It’s unfair to them and many others. So many people are doing what is needed and playing by the rules,” said Aweida, a partner in the Kirby Group whose bars include Heights Bier Garten, Wooster’s Garden and Holman Draft Hall. “I truly feel horrible for all those amazing employees, staff and many other good, hard-working people this affects.”

Lindsey Rae, who opened Two Headed Bar in Midtown only six months ago, conceded that the first year for any business is the toughest. But the bar closures are catastrophic.

“This is going to be a financial disaster for us,” she said. “We are down 85 percent since the pandemic. All of our revenues are exhausted. We can only afford to operate for about one more month unless Gov. Abbott will give us some gleam of hope.”

Hope, however, seemed fading on Friday for Lukkaew Srasrisuwan, owner of the new Thai restaurant Kin Dee in the Heights. She saw six reservations cancel after the announcement.

“This is going in the wrong direction,” she said. “We are complying with the guidelines. We are a small restaurant and we just opened. This is tough.”

At 75 percent capacity, Kin Dee was “doing OK,” Srasrisuwan said. But not for long. “We can’t sustain at this level for more than one or two months,” she said. “I’ve seen the number of COVID-19 increase so I am not surprised by Gov. Abbott’s announcement but I am worried. We don’t want to lose our staff but I don’t know how to keep operating at this rate.”

For some restaurant owners, Abbott’s pullback was not unexpected.

“It’s about time, to be honest. I thought we reopened too soon,” said Christopher Williams, chef/owner of Lucille’s in the Museum District. “It’s the most responsible thing I’ve heard from (Abbott) in a while.”

Williams said he will be able to weather the capacity reduction because he was able to remain solvent by streamlining his menu, dropping prices, and increasing take-out. “At a time like this everyone needs to take profitability out of the equation. It’s about sustainability.”

George Mickelis, owner of the iconic Cleburne Cafeteria, said he was grateful for Abbott’s decision, and said he would be able to continue staying in business even at 50 percent.

“Obviously, no one wants to return to a complete shutdown and we pray that that is absolutely never necessary again,” Mickelis said. “We are all Texas tough and we will prevail.”

Two things can be true at once. This is a terrible blow to a crucial part of the Texas economy and culture. I’m much more of a restaurant person than a bar person these days, but bars are a key ingredient to neighborhood life, and a vital hang-out place for many people. They also employ a lot of people who’ve just been put back out of work at a time when we don’t know if there will be further federal assistance coming and the state of Texas has gone back to requiring out-of-work people to be actively job searching in order to get unemployment benefits. It’s also the case that we should have been a lot more careful and deliberate in allowing bars to reopen in the first place, precisely because everything about them makes them a prime vector for spreading a disease like COVID-19. I don’t know what else we could have done now, but it’s surely the case there are things we can and should have done differently before now.

Other businesses are now in a similar bind.

In the backyard of her business, Cutloose Hair, salon co-owner Ashley Scroggins watched a livestream Friday morning on her phone. On the screen was an image of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaking of the risks of COVID-19 to the region.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.” She called for nonessential workers to stay at home.

Scroggins put down her phone and put on her mask. Then she walked into her salon, shut down the online booking system and began calling upcoming reservations: The salon was closing until cases subsided.

Officials have moved to contain the number of known COVID-19 cases spiking across the state, often through conflicting messages that left businesses attempting to weigh health risks against economic concerns.

While Hidalgo recommended nonessential workers stay home, she no longer had the power to enforce such a plan because Gov. Greg Abbott had superseded it with his own plan to reopen the state. Friday morning, Abbott rolled back portions of that plan — ordering bars and tubing and rafting establishments to suspend services and restaurants to cap dine-in capacity at 50 percent — but maintained other businesses could remain open.

That left salons, restaurants, gyms, offices, retailers and other businesses Friday to decide whether to heed Hidalgo’s call to return to the stay-at-home precautions she had the power to enact in March.

Many, like Cutloose Hair, decided shutting down on-premise operations was the right thing to do.

“It’s not getting better,” Scroggins said of the pandemic. “And the only way we can truly support our city is just to do what they’re asking us to do.”

It’s not an easy choice for many. My company, for which I’ve been working from home since March 6, two weeks before the city shut down, has suspended its plan to start bringing workers back to the office until further notice. I suspect there will be a lot more like this, and there should be. If you can reasonably work from home, there’s no good reason not to.

One possible small bit of hope for the bars and restaurants:

Under current state rules, restaurants and bars can sell beer, wine and liquor, but only in closed containers with their manufacturer’s seal intact.

The organization Margs For Life is lobbying to change that.

Founder Kareem Hajjar, also a partner in the Austin law firm Hajjar Peters LLP, is talking with Texas food and beverage associations to build support for an emergency order to let bars sell mixed drinks in containers that they seal on premises.

“While that work continues today, Margs For Life has evolved into a community of people who are either in the industry or support the industry, where we can share news and events, and help one another be as profitable as possible during this pandemic,” Hajjar told the Current.

Margs for Life’s proposed rule change, proponents say, would help restaurants and bars reduce inventory — and allow some facing dire financial circumstances to stay afloat.

“I’m privileged that I work at a bar that has granted me the ability to do to-go cocktail kits… But bars and restaurants would benefit from FULL to-go kits,” said David Naylor, a bartender at San Antonio craft-cocktail bar The Modernist, via a Facebook post. “Manhattans expertly built, Negronis that don’t require you to amass a stocked bar… ALL these are possible if [Gov. Abbott] would allow it.”

Abbott has expressed support for this idea.

Abbott originally signed a waiver March 18 allowing to-go alcohol sales, in an effort to support struggling restaurants after they closed their dining areas. The waiver was originally to last until May 1, but it was extended indefinitely. Abbott teased that this change could be permanent, tweeting at the time, “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever.”

Abbott again tweeted late Saturday that he supports the idea of extending his temporary waiver. State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, replied, saying that he will file a bill in the upcoming legislative session to make it happen, also advocating to allow restaurants to continue selling bulk retail food items to go.

[…]

The Texas Restaurant Association submitted a proposal Thursday evening to Abbott’s office, asking to expand the waiver to also allow mixed drinks with liquor to be prepared, resealed and sold.

Cathy Lippincott, owner of Güero’s Taco Bar in Austin, said its margarita to-go kits were very popular during the beginning of the restaurant shutdowns, but as dining rooms began to reopen, sales dwindled. Now, days could go by without the restaurant selling a single kit.

Under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission guidelines, restaurants can only serve liquor in manufacturer-sealed bottles and with the purchase of food. For several restaurants, including Güero, this means their drinks are served in do-it-yourself kits, where customers mix the ingredients and liquor together.

Lippincott believes that if mixed drinks were also allowed to be served to go, she could see that being a popular option.

I support this as well, and any action that can be taken now to achieve this should be taken. And then, when the Lege convenes in January, we should not only pass a law to make this permanent, but also revisit all of our archaic and anti-competitive laws that govern the manufacture and sale of beer, wine, and liquor. You know what I’m talking about. Let’s please at least let this terrible pandemic be a catalyst for something good.

Put a pause on that reopening

At this point, we had no other choice.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday took his most drastic action yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas, shutting bars back down and scaling back restaurant capacity to 50%.

He also shut down river-rafting trips and banned outdoor gatherings of over 100 people unless local officials approve.

“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said in a news release. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”

Bars most close at noon Friday, and the reduction in restaurant capacity takes effect Monday. Before Abbott’s announcement Friday, bars were able to operate at 50% capacity and restaurants at 75% capacity.

As for outdoor gatherings, Abbott’s decision Friday represents his second adjustment in that category this week. Abbott on Tuesday gave local governments the choice to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people after previously setting the threshold at over 500 people. Now outdoor gatherings of over 100 people are prohibited unless local officials explicitly approve of them.

Abbott’s actions Friday were his first significant moves to reverse the reopening process that he has led since late April. He said Monday that shutting down the state again is a last resort, but the situation has been worsening quickly.

I can’t emphasize enough that none of this had to happen. Greg Abbott laid out four metrics for reopening when he first lifted the statewide stay-at-home order: Declining daily case rates, positive test percentages below a certain level (I forget what exactly, maybe seven percent), three thousand contact tracers hired by the state, and sufficient hospital capacity. None of the first three were ever met, even at the beginning, and the predictable result is that now the fourth one is no longer being met. We could have driven the reopening by the metrics, instead of saying “on this date we’ll roll back these things and allow these things to resume”, but we didn’t. Greg Abbott made that decision. What is happening now is on him.

And so, here in Harris County, where our leaders’ efforts to take this pandemic seriously were entirely undercut by Greg Abbott, we are paying the price.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday moved the county to the worst threat level, calling for a return to the stay-at-home conditions of March and April, as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to spike.

She also banned outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people in unincorporated Harris County, while urging mayors to do the same in their cities.

Hidalgo described in dire terms the danger the pandemic currently poses, and said the county is at greater risk than at any other time since the outbreak began here in March.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.”

Her remarks were a rebuke of Gov. Greg Abbott’s phased reopening strategy, which she said allowed Texans to resume normal life before they were safe. They also contradicted the rosy picture Texas Medical Center executives painted a day earlier of the system’s ICU capacity.

Hidalgo unsuccessfully lobbied the governor this week for the power to issue more restrictions, her office confirmed. Abbott’s refusal to let local officials again issue mandatory stay-at-home orders leaves Harris County “with one hand tied behind our back,” she said.

[…]

Though she lacks the power to require compliance, Hidalgo implored all county residents to follow the same rules as her stay-at-home order in March and April. That means residents should stay home except for essential errands and appointments, work from home if possible, wear a mask in public and otherwise avoid contact with other people.

Only a collective change in behavior can reverse the accelerating trend of COVID here, Hidalgo said. The alternative, she warned, is grim.

“If we don’t act now, we’ll be in a crisis,” she said. “If we don’t stay home now, we’ll have to stay home when there are images of hospital beds in hallways.”

Hidalgo and Dr. Umair Shah, the county’s health director, offered no concrete timeline for how long restrictions would be needed. The county judge noted that in some other states, lockdowns of up to three months were needed to bring the virus under control.

A tripling of cases and hospitalizations since Memorial Day have placed intense pressure on state and local leaders to act. With Abbott’s blessing, Hidalgo and other local leaders have issued mandatory mask orders since last week, mandating businesses to require their customers wear facial coverings.

The governor effectively gutted Hidalgo’s original order requiring residents to wear masks at the end of April by preventing any punishments from being levied against violators. Enforcement never was the point, Hidalgo said Friday, but she blamed the governor for signaling to residents that mask-wearing was unimportant.

See here for the background. We can’t know what shape Harris County would be in now if Judge Hidalgo had been allowed to make her own decisions instead of being overruled by Abbott. But it’s hard to say we’d be any worse off than we are now.

Of course, some people still think it’s all sunshine and puppies up in here.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went on national television to declare Texas is not running out of intensive care hospital beds and to assure viewers that the state is “not stepping backward” in re-opening businesses.

Speaking on Fox News Channel on Thursday night, Patrick acknowledged new COVID-19 cases are increasing in Texas, but assured viewers it was expected.

“We have seen a spike in cases. We expected that,” Patrick said pointing to increased testing. “Our hospitalizations are up, but here’s the good news, the good news is we’re not seeing it translate to the ICU unit or into fatalities.”

You can read the rest if you want, but really, what you need to do is CLAP LOUDER!

There is one piece of good news:

The Trump administration reversed itself and extended support for testing sites in Texas on Friday.

The extension followed a public outcry after TPM revealed on Tuesday that federal help was set to end on June 30.

Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir said in a statement that his agency would support five testing sites in Texas for two weeks longer than initially planned.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and John Cornyn (R-TX) sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday requesting an extension of support for the free, drive-through testing sites.

Local officials in Texas have spent weeks clamoring for the sites to be extended. The move comes as cases and hospitalizations in the state have skyrocketed, and as Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has paused the state’s reopening.

“Federal public health officials have been in continuous contact with our public health leaders in Texas, and after receiving yesterday’s request for an extension, have agreed to extend support for five Community-Based Testing Sites in Texas,” Giroir said in a statement. “We will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 diagnoses and assess the need for further federal support of these sites as we approach the extension date.”

See here for the background. It’s two weeks’ worth of good news, which isn’t enough but is better than nothing. Now let’s extend that out to infinity, or whenever we don’t need testing at scale, whichever comes first.

One more thing, just to hammer home the “it didn’t have to be this way” point:

Texas is also a wee bit larger than Taiwan, with less density and public transportation. They’re already playing baseball in Taiwan, have been for a few weeks now. I’m just saying.

Have we gone from “concerned” to “alarmed” yet?

We’re getting there.

With cases of the coronavirus surging to record levels in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott recommended Tuesday that Texans stay home as much as possible and for the first time moved to allow the tightening of two kinds of restrictions that had been eased under his reopening plan.

“We want to make sure that everyone reinforces the best safe practices of wearing a mask, hand sanitization, maintaining safe distance, but importantly, because the spread is so rampant right now, there’s never a reason for you to have to leave your home,” Abbott said during an early-afternoon interview with KBTX-TV in Bryan. “Unless you do need to go out, the safest place for you is at your home.”

Within hours, Abbott made two announcements to alter the reopening process. He scaled back a previous statewide order and gave local officials the ability to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people, a threshold he originally set at 500 people. And Abbott said the state would enact mandatory health standards for child care centers after prior rules became voluntary earlier this month.

The moves came a day after Abbott said at a news conference that the coronavirus was spreading at an “unacceptable rate” but did not offer any new policies to stem the virus’ spread. Instead, he reiterated long-established guidelines such as social distancing and pointed out that the state was increasingly cracking down on businesses that allow large crowds. At the news conference, Abbott also encouraged Texans to stay home, albeit in less explicit terms than he did in the KBTX interview.

The Monday news conference marked a newly urgent tone by Abbott, which he continued into Tuesday. During TV interviews in the noon hour, he made the somewhat unusual move of getting ahead of the state’s daily announcement of new coronavirus cases, bracing audiences for a new record high exceeding 5,000 — a big increase over the last peak of 4,430 on Saturday.

Before sharing the new record figure with KBTX, Abbott said he was trying to “make sure people around the state really comprehend the magnitude of the challenge we’re dealing with.”

By the end of the afternoon, the state Department of State Health Services had reported the precise number: 5,489 new cases.

At the same time, two metrics that Abbott has prioritized — hospitalization levels and positivity rate — continued to trend in the wrong direction. Hospitalizations reached 4,092, marking the 12th straight day of a new peak. The positivity rate — or the ratio of cases to tests, presented by the state as a seven-day average — reached 9.76%, back to the level it was at in mid-April.

It’s bad, y’all.

The Texas Medical Center’s intensive care capacity could be exceeded as soon as Thursday because of the surge in COVID-19 patients, the hospital system projects.

A TMC model also predicts ICU surge capacity — extra, temporary beds and equipment used in emergencies — could be exceeded as soon as July 6 if the steep rate of new COVID hospitalizations continues, the most aggressive modeling to date.

Eleven leaders of the system’s member hospitals and medical schools said in a joint statement that COVID-related admissions were increasing at an “alarming rate,” stretching the capacity of ICU units. Texas Children’s Hospital this week began admitting adult patients to handle the surge.

“If this trend continues, our hospital system capacity will become overwhelmed, leading us to make difficult choices of delaying much-needed non-COVID care to accommodate a greater number of COVID patients,” the group wrote.

The leaders urged residents to stay home when possible, practice social distancing and wear masks.

Stay home.

Houston employers ought to send workers back home from the office if possible due to spiking coronavirus cases in the region, the region’s leading business group said Wednesday.

Bob Harvey, the president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, said in a statement that Houston COVID-19 cases are reaching a “critical point” and that employers need to do their part in helping to curb what he called an “alarming trajectory.”

“We encourage employers to strongly consider returning to a work-from-home model,” Harvey said. “To keep our Houston economy moving forward, we must all do our part.”

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott asked Texans to voluntarily stay home if possible.

We’re basically back where we were in March and April, with county governments still trying to figure out what to do without clear direction from the state and a complete abdication of responsibility from the White House. The Texas Restaurant Association is calling for a statewide face mask mandate, a thing that is very much necessary now but could have done so much more good a month ago when we were in this mad stupid rush to reopen everything. Imagine if we could have been able to reopen without thousands of people getting sick every day? Too bad, that’s not how it went. What we’re doing now – and what we’re still not doing because Greg Abbott still isn’t doing it – is definitely too late. If we’re very lucky, maybe it won’t be too little. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Oh, the irony.

Visitors from Texas will soon have to quarantine for 14 days if they travel to New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, according to the three states’ governors, who also took aim at Texas’ handling of the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday.

The move comes as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations hit record highs in Texas, surpassing 5,000 new cases in a single day on Tuesday and making the state one of the country’s coronavirus hotspots.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, and Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut, all Democrats, held a joint press conference Wednesday to announce the policy, which will affect nine states whose infection rates have met thresholds indicating “significant community spread,” including Texas, Arizona, and Florida, according to reports.

“We need to do things right inside the four walls in our respective states,” Murphy told reporters.

The restriction on Texas travelers marks a notable shift in which states are being flagged nationwide for the most alarming increases of coronavirus cases. Earlier in the pandemic, Texas touted comparatively low hospitalization rates and was pointing the finger at other states where the virus was raging.

In late March, Texas imposed a 14-day quarantine on travelers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, and California – some of the early coronavirus hotspots. The state also mandated quarantines for those driving or flying to Texas from neighboring Louisiana as well as flying from Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, and Chicago. Those orders have since been lifted.

Abbott did not respond to a request for a comment for this story, but that’s all right. We know what he’d have said: He’s “concerned, but not alarmed”. You’re welcome.

Our wishy-washy Governor

It’s all about evading responsibility. At least now it’s starting to become clear to people.

Counties and cities across Texas swiftly followed Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s lead this week after he ordered businesses — without opposition from Gov. Greg Abbott — to require employees and customers wear face masks when social distancing is not possible.

Although the governor issued an executive order June 3 banning local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public, Abbott on Wednesday commended Wolff for putting the onus for face masks on businesses. In an interview with KWTX, Abbott said the local official “finally figured that out.”

“Government cannot require individuals to wear masks,” he added. “Local governments can require stores and business to require masks. That’s what was authorized in my plan.”

But those assertions have brought quick criticism from local officials — and lawmakers from within Abbott’s own party.

City and county officials, some of whom signed on to a letter asking for the power to mandate face masks, fault Abbott for two things. They say he should have explicitly told them that businesses could require face masks. And, they say, his lack of a statewide mandate even as he emphasized the importance of wearing a mask prompted some Texans to let their guards down against taking precautions to stop the virus’ spread.

A spokesman for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Abbott’s comments about Wolff figuring out what the governor’s order allows came the same week that Texas continuously set new records for coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. More than 3,100 Texans were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday, the eighth day in a row that a new record for hospitalizations was set. And the state reported more than 3,000 new infections a day three times this week, after previously never exceeding that threshold. Those infections and hospitalizations come several weeks after Abbott allowed businesses to begin reopening.

“Our best tool for fighting this pandemic is public trust, and the work that we have to do and putting the public health guidance out front, so that people have the information that they need to make good decisions for their businesses, for themselves and their families is critical,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Friday. “When the orders at any level of government are so obtuse that our partners can’t figure them out, it’s not to be celebrated.”

[…]

State Rep. Erin Zwiener believes the reason Abbott allowed for Bexar’s order to go through is because of the rising number in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. She said she doubts state officials would have allowed the order a month ago.

“Either the attorney general would have ruled it didn’t line up with his order or Governor Abbott would have adjusted his order to get rid of that loophole,” she said.

Abbott initially appeared largely amenable to cities and counties interpreting his earlier directives however they saw fit, deciding when to arrest or fine violators, warn them verbally, leave informational flyers or do nothing at all. Then, he changed his mind and, along with the state’s other Republican leaders, blasted local officials in Dallas and Houston for what they called overzealous enforcement of COVID-19 regulations.

“Ideas were being discussed, people were looking for loopholes, the issue is that the governor created a situation where locals felt like they had to be cautious to avoid being cracked down upon,” Zwiener said. “We wasted the benefit we got from our shut down by not having well-established practices in our businesses that they opened, and not clearly communicating to the Texas public the behavioral modifications they needed to make.”

At an April press conference where he talked about plans for reopening the state, Abbott took away local officials’ ability to issue fines for violating coronavirus-related orders, adding that his executive order “supersedes local orders, with regard to any type of fine or penalty for anyone not wearing a mask.”

You know the story. It’s hard for me to say which was more craven, the Shelley Luther flip-flop, or the “you solved my riddle” baloney. I get the need to reopen, and I understand that different parts of the state were affected in different ways. But that more than anything argues for letting local leaders have more autonomy, because the places that are being hardest hit now are the ones that had been able to get things under control initially, but were completely hamstrung by Abbott’s usurping of their authority. I’ve been asking for weeks what we were going to do if the numbers started to get bad. Now we know, but is it too little too late? If it is, we know where the blame lies.

Masks up

We solved Greg Abbott’s riddle, so all is well now, right?

With Gov. Greg Abbott’s apparent blessing, Bexar and Hidalgo counties have imposed a new mask rule for local businesses, saying they must require employees and customers to wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible. The move appears to open a new way for local officials to require mask use in certain public spaces after Abbott stymied prior efforts by local officials to put the onus on residents.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s and Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez’s orders comes after Abbott issued an executive order June 3 banning local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public.

Wolff’s order states that, starting Monday and running through the end of the month, businesses in Bexar County must require face masks “where six feet of separation is not feasible” before the business risks facing a fine of up to $1,000. Cortez’s order states businesses in Hidalgo County will risk being fined starting Saturday and will remain in effect until further notice.

The orders also state that, consistent with Abbott’s executive order, “no civil or criminal penalty will be imposed on individuals for failure to wear a face covering.” Later in the day, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg signed an update to his emergency health order to express support for and adopt Wolff’s order, saying that, as the number of coronavirus cases increase in the city, “masks are our best line of defense.”

[…]

“I’m pleased that the Governor has changed his mind. I’m asking our county lawyers and business leaders to look at this and plan to make a proposal for the Commissioner’s Court to look at very soon,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said in a statement, who said he’s already looking into whether he’ll follow suit.

A spokesperson for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said they are checking with the county attorney’s office on Wolff’s order, adding that “we’re not any safer today than we were in March. There is no vaccine. No cure. We remain very concerned about the trajectory of hospital admissions.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office had already warned officials in big cities, including San Antonio, to roll back “unlawful” local emergency orders that featured stricter coronavirus restrictions than those of the state, while hinting of lawsuits if they do not. Paxton’s office declined to comment on Wolff’s order Wednesday.

See here for some background. The city of Austin has already issued a similar order, and I figure it’s just a matter of time before Harris and Dallas and a bunch of other places follow suit. I feel confident saying that the wingnut contingent will not take this lying down, so the question is whether they fight back via Hotze lawsuit, or do actual elected Republicans with their own power and ambition like Ken Paxton get involved? And when they do, what inventive technique will Abbott find to shift the blame to someone else this time?

Riddle me this, Governor

Parody is dead.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued a new executive order Wednesday that mandates face coverings for the general public and directs businesses to require employees and customers to wear them in situations where social distancing is not feasible.

The order requires all “commercial entities” in Bexar County to implement a health and safety policy that includes mandatory face coverings in situations involving close contact with others. Failure to implement the policy by Monday could result in a fine up to $1,000, according to the order.

Wolff’s order, which comes amid a surge in positive coronavirus cases and patients hospitalized with COVID-19, seems to clash with that of Gov. Greg Abbott, who said in April that no local jurisdictions would be able to fine or jail people for not wearing a face covering. Download Wolff’s order here.

“Judge Wolff’s order is not inconsistent with the Governor’s executive order,” John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, told the Texas Tribune. “Our office urges officials and the public to adopt and follow the health protocols for businesses established by doctors” that are available online.

Under the new order, an individual couldn’t be fined for failure to wear a mask, but businesses can be penalized for failing to implement face-covering policies. Though the County order is “pushing the legal bounds” against the state order, Bexar County attorneys say they can defend it in court, Wolff said at a news conference.

“We cannot rely on the state to do what needs to be done,” said Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales, who joined Wolff at the news conference.

In an interview with KWTX-TV in Waco, Abbott said Wolff has “finally figured” out what locals can do with masks under statewide order: “Government cannot require individuals to wear masks. However, pursuant to my plan, local governments can require stores and business to require masks.”

“Local governments can require stores and business to require masks. That’s what was authorized in my plan,” Abbott added. “Businesses … they’ve always had the opportunity and the ability, just like they can require people to wear shoes and shirts, these businesses can require people to wear face masks if they come into their businesses. Now local officials are just now realizing that that was authorized.”

State democrats took issue with Abbott’s lack of clarity.

“If only the Governor had been clear all along that his executive order was a riddle for counties and cities to solve,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-San Antonio) said in an email to the Rivard Report. “Earlier today, I urged him to unshackle local leaders by restoring their authority to set rules essential to protecting public health; I hope he continues on this path.”

Apparently, Greg Abbott has been channeling the Sphinx all this time. Who knew? Maybe there’s also some buried treasure out there, waiting for someone to decipher all the clues in his public statements. I can’t do this justice, so let me outsource some of the snark to a conservative talk radio host:

Perhaps if the original executive order – you know, the one Abbott soon after abandoned in a panic following the outcry from disaffected mullet-wearers – had included the instructions to click our heels together three times, we might have figured it out sooner. Lesson learned for the future, I suppose.

Anyway. Now that we have apparently leveled up, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is considering a similar order, which I hope she follows through on. I for one am never going to get over this particular piece of idiocy.

Whistling past the ICU

Clap louder!

Gov. Greg Abbott and top Texas health officials on Tuesday responded to growing alarm over hospitals now swelling with coronavirus patients, assuring there is still plenty of space available even as some facilities have neared or surpassed capacity.

Speaking on yet another day of record high hospitalizations from the pandemic, Abbott said he is confident the state can continue reopening while controlling the spread of new infections.

“As we begin to open up Texas and Texans return to their jobs, we remain laser-focused on maintaining abundant hospital capacity,” said Abbott, a Republican. “The best way to contain the spread of this virus is by all Texans working together and following simple safety precautions.”

On Tuesday, the Department of State Health Services reported just over 2,500 COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began and nearly 67 percent more than on Memorial Day in late May. State and local leaders have pointed to the holiday weekend as one likely cause for the increase.

Statewide, there are still thousands of hospital beds and ventilators available. But in some of the largest cities, including San Antonio and Houston, the surge is pushing new limits. In Harris County, some hospitals said late last week that their intensive care units were near or above capacity.

Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center, said their number of COVID-19 patients has nearly doubled from its previous peak in late April. Many of the patients admitted now are younger and generally healthier, but are still susceptible to serious illness or death from the disease.

“If it continues to grow at this rate, we’re going to be in real trouble,” McKeon said of the admissions. He added that while it may not be feasible to reimpose lockdowns or other restrictions, state leaders should consider slowing the reopening if the uptick continues.

The official death count is past 2,000 now, though everyone knows that’s an undercount. On a per capita basis that’s still pretty low, but we’re doing our best to catch up. The idea that we’re “controlling the spread” in any fashion is laughable, except there’s nothing funny about what’s happening. And then we get this:

Abbott remained unwilling Tuesday to allow local officials to enforce their own mask ordinances, even as he acknowledged that many Texans are not wearing them. He instead accused Democratic county judges of not having done enough to punish businesses that fail to comply with other protocols, such as limits on public gatherings.

While they have the authority, Abbott said, many “haven’t lifted a finger.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott cravenly flip-flopped on consequences for not following his own executive orders? Good times, good times. What would you like the county judges to use, harsh language? Let’s not forget who’s in charge here.

But local officials are still trying, at least:

The mayors of nine of Texas’ biggest cities urged Gov. Greg Abbott in a letter Tuesday to grant them the “authority to set rules and regulations” mandating face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb in Texas, an executive order from Abbott bans local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public. The mayors wrote that many people in their cities continue to refuse to wear face masks and that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option” when it comes to regulating the issue.

The letter is signed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere and Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen.

The letter asks Abbott to consider allowing each city’s local officials to decide whether to require the use of a face covering in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Mayor Turner’s press release is here, and a copy of the letter sent to Abbott is here. There was no response as of Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, let’s not forget that even as businesses may want to reopen, coronavirus may not let them. It’s almost as if an unchecked pandemic is a hindrance to having your economy run at full capacity. But don’t worry, Greg Abbott has everything under control. Now keep clapping!

Threat level orange

Not great.

A large, ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 places the Houston area on the second-highest of four public threat levels unveiled by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday.

If troubling trends continue, including an increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, the county health department again would recommend residents stay at home except for essential errands, such as buying groceries and medicine, she said.

Without criticizing Gov. Greg Abbott directly, she said the reopening of businesses he permitted to begin May 1 happened too quickly, leaving the Houston area at risk of an outbreak hospitals are unable to handle.

“I want the reopening to be successful. I want the economy to be resilient,” Hidalgo said. “But I am growing increasingly concerned that we may be at the precipice of a disaster.”

The county judge said she wanted to create an easy-to-understand chart for the public to replace a series of lengthy advisories and orders her administration has issued to date.

The county currently is at Level 2 of the color-coded chart produced by the county health department, with Level 1 being the most severe.

Level 2 is defined by ongoing transmission of the virus, with testing and contact tracing likely to meet demand. It states that residents should avoid unnecessary contact with others, avoid crowds and visit only businesses that are following public health guidelines.

Coronavirus cases in the Houston area have increased steadily since Memorial Day weekend, and COVID-19 hospitalizations reached an all-time high last week. Harris County had 9,296 active cases and 267 deaths as of Thursday.

[…]

Hospitals in the 25-county Houston region were using 88 percent of their ICU capacity as of Wednesday, and the system has never exceeded 100 percent. City of Houston health authority Dr. David Persse, however, said the situation at individual facilities is more dire. He expressed particular concern about the two public hospitals in the Harris Health System, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ben Taub.

During the county’s stay-at-home period, local ICU bed usage often was below 80 percent.

See here and here for some background. You can find the threat level system here. To put that latter statistic into some context:

But don’t worry, Greg Abbott is concerned but not alarmed.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Greg Abbott visited Amarillo to declare victory over a coronavirus outbreak that had wreaked havoc on the Panhandle.

Showcasing dwindling caseloads and a stable supply of hospital beds, he said the region’s success was indicative of a state moving forward amid a containable pandemic.

“Amarillo has turned a corner on its pathway toward a positive, effective resolution of this particular hotspot,” Abbott remarked, applauding local officials and the “surge” teams of medical and military staffers that have become a hallmark of his reopening playbook.

But as one problem subsided, others newly emerged. Cases in Texas have since ballooned to record highs, and hospitals in Houston, San Antonio and other major cities are filling once more with COVID-19 patients. On Friday, as Abbott allowed restaurants to open at near-full capacity, the public health nightmare seemed to only be growing.

The governor, though — one of the first to relax his state’s stay-at-home order — is pushing ahead. “Concerned but not alarmed” was how he and his surrogates put it this week, even as fellow governors in Oregon and Utah pumped the brakes on their reopenings amid rising caseloads.

“This was to be expected,” said Abbott, a Republican, in a television interview on Wednesday. “Many of these cases we’re seeing have been in the aftermath of the Memorial Day weekend, and some are the early part of when these protests began.”

[…]

John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, said responsibility ultimately lies with the public.

“Texans have done a good job so far, but the reality is people need to stay vigilant,” he said. “Summer is here and everyone wants to go to the pool, but COVID has not left the state. People need to social distance, they need to wear masks.”

Seems like a lot to ask of the public when the consistent message from its leaders is “we’re reopening, it’s safe to go to bars and waterparks and gyms and whatever else again”. Greg Abbott listed four key metrics. We only ever met one, and that’s hospital capacity. We’re still short on contact tracers, which may not matter anyway since a significant portion of the population won’t cooperate with them anyway. As of a month ago, we were near the bottom of state testing per capita; I can’t find any more recent numbers than that. If Abbott ever does get alarmed, we’re well and truly screwed. The Trib has more.