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March 24th, 2020:

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

Many of Texas’ biggest cities and counties are ordering residents to shelter in place whenever possible.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on Monday evening ordered residents to stay in their homes as the state grapples with the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. The move came one day after Dallas County issued a similar order. Meanwhile, the Austin City Council and Travis County will team up Tuesday to issue a stay-at-home decree, Austin Mayor Steve Adler told The Texas Tribune on Monday. And Fort Worth city officials said Mayor Betsy Price and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley will do the same at a Tuesday morning press conference.

By lunchtime Tuesday, residents in at least four of the state’s five biggest cities are expected to be under such orders. The only possible holdout is Houston, the state’s most populous city, which hasn’t publicly announced any plans. But the Houston Chronicle has reported Harris County officials began drafting a shelter-in-place order over the weekend.

“Our message is simple: You must stay at home,” Nirenberg said at a press conference in San Antonio on Monday evening. “The best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus is through strict social distancing.”

San Antonio’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order is effective 11:59 p.m. Tuesday through 11:59 p.m. April 9.

You can add in Galveston County and some other places as well. If Greg Abbott isn’t going to do it, then it looks like everyone else will. As for Houston, here’s that Chron story:

Harris County officials over the weekend began drafting an order to place further restrictions on public activity in order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to sources with direct knowledge of the discussions.

Doctors and health experts across the country have said such orders are necessary to prevent COVID-19 from spreading so rapidly that it overwhelms the nation’s health care system. Texas Medical Center president and CEO William McKeon said Monday morning the presidents of TMC hospitals and other institutions were “unanimous in our strong recommendation to move to shelter in place.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference Monday morning “it may be that we issue a stay-at-home order or something of the sort.” She said county officials are still assessing whether to do so, and seeking the advice of other local leaders including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner are holding a joint press conference with local health leaders this morning “for a COVID-19 related announcement”, which sure sounds like the prelude to a shelter-in-place announcement, but we’ll see.

What this means is that most businesses are ordered to shutter, minus “essential services” like grocery stores, pharmacies, and of course health care facilities. You’re either working from home, or you’re on a break, likely for two weeks initially (what Bexar County ordered), though it could get extended. You can go outside to exercise as long as you maintain social distancing, and there may be civil enforcement for violations. I’m making some assumptions here – who knows, maybe Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner have something else to say, though I can hardly imagine what it could be – but this is what we have seen in cities that have already gone down this road. So, on the likelihood that this is what’s in store, get ready to hunker down a little harder. It’s what everyone thinks is our best hope right now.

UPDATE: The shelter in place order for Harris County is now in effect, effective tonight at midnight through April 3.

The weather effect

Maybe a little bit of hope. We’ll see.

Communities living in warmer places appear to have a comparative advantage to slow the transmission of coronavirus infections, according to an early analysis by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The researchers found that most coronavirus transmissions had occurred in regions with low temperatures, between 37.4 and 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 3 and 17 degrees Celsius).

While countries with equatorial climates and those in the Southern Hemisphere, currently in the middle of summer, have reported coronavirus cases, regions with average temperatures above 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit (or 18 degrees Celsius) account for fewer than 6% of global cases so far.

“Wherever the temperatures were colder, the number of the cases started increasing quickly,” said Qasim Bukhari, a computational scientist at MIT who is a co-author of the study. “You see this in Europe, even though the health care there is among the world’s best.”

The temperature dependency is also clear within the United States, Bukhari said. Southern states, like Arizona, Florida and Texas, have seen slower outbreak growth compared with states like Washington, New York and Colorado. Coronavirus cases in California have grown at a rate that falls somewhere in between.

The seasonal pattern is similar to what epidemiologists have observed with other viruses. Dr. Deborah Birx, the global AIDS coordinator in the United States and also a member of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, said during a recent briefing that the flu, in the Northern Hemisphere, generally follows a November to April trend.

The four types of coronavirus that cause the common cold every year also wane in warmer weather.

Birx also noted that the pattern was similar with the SARS epidemic in 2003. But she stressed that because the virus outbreaks in China and South Korea began later, it was difficult to determine whether the new coronavirus would take the same course.

[…]

It will take another 4 to 6 weeks before health officials will have a clearer picture of how weather patterns shape the trajectory of the coronavirus, said Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director at the Pan American Health Organization, the regional office of the World Health Organization that focuses on the Americas.

The fact that local transmission is happening across the global south signals that this virus may be more resilient to warmer temperatures than the flu and other respiratory viruses. That is why World Health Organization officials still urge countries to act urgently and aggressively to try and contain the virus while case numbers are relatively low and close contacts can easily be traced and quarantined.

“One of the big perils in assuming that the virus is less dangerous in warmer temperatures, among particular ages or for any specific group is complacency,” said Julio Frenk, a physician who served as health minister in Mexico and is now president of the University of Miami. “If people fail to heed the warnings and recommendations of public health professionals, the results will be disastrous.”

But because high humidity and heat only align perfectly during mainly July and August in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere, Bukhari cautioned that the effects of warmer weather on reducing transmissions might only last for a brief period in some regions.

This is all very, very preliminary, and the effect may end up being limited in a number of ways. Even if coronavirus does behave like the cold and flu viruses in this way, that doesn’t mean it’s gone away, or that existing precautions like vigilant hand-washing are less necessary. It just means maybe our hospitals will get a break, and maybe give us some headway in getting a better handle on it. Maybe. If we’re lucky. In the meantime, stay socially distant. Kevin Drum has more.

The looming unemployment insurance crisis

Can we please not make the same egregious mistakes as last time?

As businesses across the state close to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the mass layoffs that have followed could quickly drain the state fund that pays unemployment claims.

The state has less than six months of reserves to pay unemployment insurance at recession-level rates, according to U.S. Department of Labor data from the second quarter of 2019, the most recent available. That’s well below the federally recommended level of one year, and the seventh-lowest reserve level among states.

Between Sunday and Wednesday, Texas received more than 61,500 first-time unemployment insurance claims, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, more than four times the filings during a similar period in 2019. The avalanche of claims slowed and crashed the state’s unemployment benefits websites this week, before the workforce commission made upgrades deal with the spike in traffic.

Nearly 30 percent of the unemployment insurance applications, or nearly 18,000, were from the Houston region, according to the TWC data. Shutdowns have hit the local economy hard. People who work at local theaters and event venues were “99 percent unemployed in a matter of days,” said Hany Khalil, the executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, which works with unions across the Houston region.

[…]

The reason Texas has one of the lowest reserves in the nation to pay for unemployment benefits is because the program is funded through taxes on employers, which in Texas, are very low. Texas taxes the employer for the first $9,000 of an employee’s annual wages, compared to the national average of the first $18,900, according to Labor Department data.

“Texas loves their low taxes on employers, so it’s not surprising that the fund is in trouble,” said Maurice Emsellem, a program director at the National Employment Law Project. “A lot of states are not in great shape right now.”

We basically went through the same thing in 2009, during the height of the recession induced by the financial crisis. The cause was the same – nobody in charge, especially not then-Governor Rick Perry, wanted to increase the amount being collected for unemployment insurance. In fact, Perry suspended the collection of unemployment insurance payments as a way to help businesses, at the later expense of helping the workers who lost their jobs. To make matters worse, Perry later declined to take federal stimulus money to help with unemployment insurance, which of course meant that the unemployment insurance tax levied on businesses had to be jacked up later on. Someone should boil this down to a PowerPoint presentation, call it What Not To Do During A Big Unemployment Spike, and make sure Perry’s face is on every slide.

This time around, we have a Republican in the White House, so federal money to the state is not considered dirty by the Republicans in charge, so when we are offered money now to bolster our unemployment insurance program, we’ll probably take it. I’m sure it will still come with ridiculous and insulting strings attached, like drug testing – we can’t get tested for coronavirus, but there’s always room to pee in a cup to see if you’ve been smoking weed – but that will be a fight for another day. In the meantime, there’s still ten billion or so in the Rainy Day Fund, in case anyone thinks it might be a good idea to tap into that as a way to bridge the gap rather than make who knows how many people suffer. Crazy talk, I know. All I’m saying is, we’ve been through this sort of crappy time before. I’m old enough to remember it. Let’s see if we learned anything from the last time.

Harris County settles lawsuit about voter registration records

I’m not sure what to make of this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a victory for government transparency, Harris County officials settled a lawsuit Tuesday with a conservative voting rights group, agreeing to disclose records of foreign nationals who voted in Texas elections and records documenting their attempts to register.

The Indianapolis-based Public Interest Legal Foundation behind the lawsuit is headed by J. Christian Adams, a voting-fraud crusader. He served in the Justice Department during the administration of President George W. Bush and was later tapped to serve on the Trump administration’s election integrity commission, which set out to clean up voting rolls around the country and prevent non-citizens from casting ballots.

Critics said his organization was hunting for a problem that didn’t exist, targeting low-income, left-leaning localities with a string of lawsuits that sought personal documents related to voters.

Adams characterized the agreement as “the best possible outcome for clean elections in Texas” and said his group intends to use the data to catalog and provide stakeholders with information on problems that allow foreigners to get on voter rolls.

Adams’ group PILF targeted Harris County in a March 2018 voting-rights lawsuit based on testimony from former voter registrar Mike Sullivan, a Republican, before the Texas House of Representatives alleging that for nearly two decades, officials had refused to comply with the federal law mandating inspection. The group’s presumption, according to internal briefs, was “not if, but how many aliens are getting onto Texas rolls, and voting?”

As PILF’s general counsel, Adams participated in the negotiated settlement with the county’s Democratic voter registrar, Ann Harris Bennett, in which the county agreed to provide records of people taken off the voter roll due to ineligibility and names of those who received “notices of examination” where their eligibility was questioned by election officials. The county also agreed to provide records dating back to 2013, including copies of voter registration applications with blank or negative responses to questions about their citizenship.

The county also said it would provide lists of registrants who were stricken from rolls after they were disqualified from jury service due to their non-citizenship as well as all communications between the registrar’s office and law-enforcement entities regarding registrants who were ineligible to vote.

What the county refused to provide were responses to jury summons from people who said they weren’t citizens. Instead, the county would provide the conclusions of its own findings about who shouldn’t be on the rolls.

See here for the background. I wish this story provided more context, because J. Christian Adams is a major bad guy, whom Rick Hasen calls “one of the Four Horsemen of voter suppression”. I don’t see a blog pot by Hasen about this lawsuit at this time, but you can see a list of his previous mentions of PILF here. I actually reached out to Hasen to ask him his thoughts, but with all that is going on right now he said he had not followed this story and wasn’t read up on it.

It’s clear that large parts of this story were lifted directly from a press release from PILF (I swear, it’s hard not to giggle when reading that name), with a bunch of their puffery left in for no obvious reason. Note that the settlement is about voter registrations and not actual votes cast, which is what Adams claimed to be searching for but didn’t get. Later on, Doug Ray of the County Attorney’s office noted that the plaintiffs wanted unredacted information from them, but were not given that, either. So, it’s a little hard to take this all that seriously, and I haven’t seen any chatter about this on Facebook from local Dems. Commissioners Court will have to approve this settlement as well (it’s possible they already have, it’s not clear from the story and I haven’t gone scanning through recent Court agendas), so I hope to see some reaction from the likes of the HCDP and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia. Unless I begin to hear otherwise, I’d say this is much ado about nothing much.