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March 14th, 2020:

Abbott declares a state of emergency

Seems like it’s called for.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday declared that the new coronavirus is a statewide public health disaster and said that Texas is on the verge of being able to significantly ramp up its testing capacity.

At the same time he announced that he was directing day cares, nursing homes and prisons to limit visitations.

He said San Antonio is opening on Friday the first state drive-through with testing capabilities that will initially prioritize health care workers and high-risk patients.

Abbott also finally clarified the state’s testing history so far and current capabilities. In total, he said there have been 220 Texans tested by either a state public lab or by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are another 75 Texans being tested currently.

On Friday, the state’s testing capacity was roughly 270 people per day, but he said next week that capacity will expand into the thousands as private labs come online.

The Chron adds some more details.

The governor didn’t provide details on where and when the lab would open. But he credited Mayor Ron Nirenberg and his team for leading the way on the issue.

The facility will initially be only for first responders, health care workers, operators of critical infrastructure and key resources and certain high-risk patients, Abbott said.

He said the state has tested 220 Texans so far for the virus and he expects public and private labs to exponentially increase the capacity next week. The labs will be able to test several thousand people a week.

It’s a good and necessary start, but there’s a lot more that can be said and done. What about paid sick leave, which the state is fighting tooth and nail in court, for one? What about the millions of people with no health insurance, including all those who would have benefited from an expansion of Medicaid? It may seem crass and opportunistic to bring up heated political points like these right now, but we’d be in a much stronger position now if Abbott and his fellow Republicans hadn’t so fiercely opposed these things. Policy and politics matter. We shouldn’t let Abbott off the hook for these things just because he did his job today. WFAA and the DMN have more.

Bloomberg takes his money and goes home

Thanks for nothing, dude.

Back in the halcyon days of late January—before the Iowa caucuses melted down, before an ascendant Bernie Sanders was supplanted by a triumphant Joe Biden, back when Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar were viable candidates in their own right and not small parts of the Biden machine that sought to cruise its way to the convention—Tim O’Brien, senior adviser to Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign, came to the candidate’s South Austin headquarters to talk about the future.

O’Brien, a clear-eyed political thinker who spent most of his career as a journalist, explained to me that he saw Bloomberg’s path to the nomination running through Texas, and that its best chances of succeeding would come if you saw the delegates from the first four primary states split among a number of candidates. But he wasn’t worried about what it would mean if that didn’t happen—he and the campaign, he told me, where prepared for every possibility, including the one that exists right now.

“If Biden comes out of it as the clear leader, you’re going to see a lot of the party falling behind him, and that changes our calculus,” O’Brien said in the former taco-themed pop-up on South Congress, near St. Edwards University. “But, you know, for us—and we’ve said this a lot publicly now—we’re hiring people for a year. This office is going to be open till November. Everybody is being hired through the election.”

The campaign had indeed said that a lot publicly, but it still seemed worth confirming. Committing to people for nearly a year, even if your campaign is rejected by voters—especially at the salaries Bloomberg was paying even his lower-level field organizers—is unheard-of in politics, and for good reason: it would take one of the richest people on the planet to be able to afford that. Bloomberg, of course, is one of those people.

“You said everybody is?” I asked O’Brien.

“In every state. Every state. Full time. We’re paying twice as much as most campaigns pay for our team. And we’re signing them on for a year. This office is open for a year,” he stressed. “Because we’re building this big political machine that Mike wants to put at the service of the party, or ultimately whoever the nominee is. Because first and foremost he wants to see Trump beaten, and that’s really what informed his decision to jump in the race.”

On Monday morning, via a conference call, the Bloomberg campaign announced that it would be taking back its public and private commitments to that team. Staff at the South Congress field office, like all of Bloomberg’s offices in Texas, were told they could keep the shiny new MacBooks and iPhones they received when they took the job, and that they’d be paid through the end of March—but their jobs with Bloomberg were over, most of them effective immediately. (Some were asked to stay on for a few more days to wrap up administrative loose ends.) If they wanted to try to continue on with Bloomberg’s efforts to see Trump beaten in the fall, they were invited to apply for jobs in the states that the campaign says it’ll be focusing its efforts on.

What a guy. It’s his money and he can do what he wants with it. I’m sure he’ll still spend a ton to clobber Trump throughout the year, and that’s fine by me. But 1) he could have spent all that money and more without also dropping half a billion dollars on his ego-centered campaign, 2) he certainly could have helped the other efforts to build the party in Texas, and 3) that’s just a shitty way to treat the people who worked for him. Who, by the way, are all under NDAs and thus can’t talk about their experience, because that’s how Bloomberg rolls. No class at all. The Trib has more.

Coronavirus and the courts

More things that will be shut down for the time being.

Courts in the Houston region are announcing measures to reduce or suspend some operations in response to the new coronavirus outbreak and local declarations of emergency.

Harris County’s court system announced Thursday that jury service will be suspended from Friday through March 20, another move by local authorities as they grapple with the spread of the new coronavirus.

Local Administrative Judge Robert Schaffer said that the Board of District Court Judges met and decided to suspend service. “Jurors who have received a summons for these dates do not need to appear and do not need to schedule,” he said in the order released Thursday.

In addition Harris County Civil Administrative Judge Michael Gomez said earlier that civil trials will be canceled through the end of the month, and individual judges would determine how to handle bench warrants.

Brazoria County also announced suspension of jury duty because of the coronavirus outbreak for the week of March 16 and the week of March 23. “Residents that have received a jury summons for the week of March 16th or the week of March 23rd will not need to report for jury duty,” the county said in a release.

The federal courts have also announced some adjustments to civil matters in the wake of the public health pandemic, although federal courthouses across in the massive Southern District of Texas – which stretches from near the Louisiana border to the Mexico border — will remain open. Civil jury trials in Houston and Galveston have been postponed until April 1 or thereafter. Judges have the discretion to postpone bench trials.

The federal clerk’s offices will become a virtual operation, with aides available to the public by phone and responding to snail mail. The intake desks will process electronic court filings.

On the criminal side, juries are still being called. In addition, all hearings before a district, bankruptcy or magistrate judge will remain as scheduled unless the presiding judge in the case makes a change.

There’s more, involving civil, criminal, and family court, so read the rest, and check in with your court or your attorney if you have any legal proceedings in the near future. Texas Lawyer has a more comprehensive roundup of court actions around the state. As Alex Bunin, the head of the Public Defender’s office says in the piece, once there’s a confirmed case involving someone in a courtroom, whatever their role may be, it’s going to snowball from there.

Let’s also not forget the prisons and jails, which could be a major vector for the spread of the disease. The Harris County jail is doing screenings and can do quarantines, but maybe the short term answer is to arrest fewer people and let asylum-seekers and others out of detention. There’s lots of ways to do social distancing.

Texas Central hopes to start construction this year

It would be best for them if they get going before the Lege can take any action against them.

After an economic impact statement and safety rules are completed, the Texas High-Speed Train may begin construction before the end of 2020.

David Hagy with Texas Central said The Texas High-Speed Rail, a 240-mile high-speed rail line meant to make a 90-minute commute from Houston to Dallas, is expected to complete its Economic Impact Statement and safety guidelines by this summer. The train travels 200 mph between destinations, with 30-minute wait times for rides during peak times. A map on the Texas Central website shows the rail’s alignment running through northwest Harris County roughly along U.S. 290 and heads north after Hockley.

Hagy, regional vice president of external affairs for Texas Central, gave a presentation about the high-speed rail to the Government and Transportation committee of the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce on March 5.

[…]

As for land acquisition, Hagy assured that the Texas Central team is attempting to avoid going through private property as much as possible while offering to buy land above its appraised value. Texas Central already has a preferred route with roughly 30 percent of parcels needed purchased.

“All of our routes that we looked at are really drawn by the Federal Railway Administration with our input and public comments and meetings,” Hagy said. “When you straighten that route out you end up impacting a lot of private property that was not only set aside environmentally for (I-45) but you also impact a lot of it. There’s also the Sam Houston National Forest and all kinds of complications.”

Just passing along the news, which was from an earlier time when we could contemplate things like this without thinking about what effect coronavirus would have on it. Texas Central still has obstacles beyond that and the Legislature – they need to acquire all the land they require, and the question about whether they can use eminent domain remains an open question – but it’s my belief that the more physical progress they can make, the harder it will be for their opponent to stop them. This will be the test of that.