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April 8th, 2020:

TDP files federal lawsuit over expanded vote by mail

Double your venues, (hopefully) double your chances of success.

With primary election runoffs scheduled for July and the November general election on the horizon, the Texas Democratic Party has expanded its ongoing fight for more widespread mail-in balloting to federal court, fearful that a Monday U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Wisconsin presidential primary signals a need to get federal litigation in the pipeline quickly.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Antonio, the Texas Democrats argue that holding traditional elections within state and federal safety guidelines attempting to limit spread of the new coronavirus pandemic would impose unconstitutional and illegal burdens on voters unless state law is clarified to expand voting by mail.

[…]

In a recent advisory, the Texas secretary of state’s office signaled that the state’s voting-by-mail qualifications could extend to voters affected by the pandemic but provided no explanation of how eligibility could be expanded so more Texans can qualify for absentee ballots.

In their lawsuit, the Democrats argue the advisory “unhelpfully” gave local election administrators “no material guidance” on who can qualify to vote by mail under the circumstances brought on by the pandemic.

“Left without Court intervention, the state will march toward upcoming elections with no plan in place,” the Democrats wrote in their complaint, in which they allege multiple violations of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.

See here for more on that recent advisory, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. As the story notes, there is already a state lawsuit filed. I have no idea which one is more likely to get a resolution first, nor do I have any idea which one may have better odds of success. The US Supreme Court sure doesn’t care, if Wisconsin is any example. I still think a settlement can happen, but I’d sure like to see the state take a step forward on that.

MLB begins to contemplate its return

Well, this is interesting.

Major League Baseball and its players are increasingly focused on a plan that could allow them to start the season as early as May and has the support of high-ranking federal public health officials who believe the league can safely operate amid the coronavirus pandemic, sources told ESPN.

Though the plan has a number of potential stumbling blocks, it has emerged above other options as the likeliest to work and has been embraced by MLB and MLB Players Association leadership, who are buoyed by the possibility of baseball’s return and the backing of federal officials, sources said.

The plan, sources said, would dictate that all 30 teams play games at stadiums with no fans in the greater Phoenix area, including the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field, 10 spring training facilities and perhaps other nearby fields. Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium, sources said. Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health have been supportive of a plan that would adhere to strict isolation, promote social distancing and allow MLB to become the first professional sport to return.

The May return date depends on a number of concerns being allayed, and some officials believe a June Opening Day could be more realistic, sources said. Most important would be a significant increase in available coronavirus tests with a quick turnaround time, which sources familiar with the plan believe will happen by early May and allow MLB’s testing to not diminish access for the general public.

While health officials see MLB players as low-risk candidates for COVID-19-related issues because of their age and health, putting protocols in place to ensure the health and safety of older managers, coaches, umpires and other personnel would be paramount to the plan working, sources said.

The logistics to pull off such a plan would be enormous and cumbersome on the league side and require the buy-in of players, who sources expect to be skeptical of separating from their families for an indefinite amount of time — perhaps as long as 4½ months, if the inability to stem the coronavirus outbreak keeps teams from playing in their home stadiums in 2020.

Still, there is hope among leadership on both sides that the combination of receiving paychecks for playing and baseball’s return offering a respite to a nation beset by the devastation of COVID-19 would convince players to agree to the plan, sources said.

[…]

While the possibility of a player or staff member testing positive for the coronavirus exists, even in a secured setting, officials do not believe that a positive test alone would necessarily be cause to quarantine an entire team or shut down the season, sources said. The plan could include teams carrying significantly expanded rosters to account for the possibility of players testing positive despite the isolation, as well as to counteract the heat in Phoenix, which could grow problematic during the summer, sources said. The allure of more players potentially receiving major league salaries and service time would appeal strongly to the union, according to sources.

Both sides acknowledge the uniqueness of the season would not be limited to stadium location or roster size. Among the possibilities that have been discussed among people from both sides, though not in the talks on Monday, according to sources:

• Implementing an electronic strike zone to allow the plate umpire to maintain sufficient distance from the catcher and batter

• No mound visits from the catcher or pitching coach

• Seven-inning doubleheaders, which with an earlier-than-expected start date could allow baseball to come closer to a full 162-game season

• Regular use of on-field microphones by players, as an added bonus for TV viewers

• Sitting in the empty stands 6 feet apart — the recommended social-distancing space — instead of in a dugout

Each option, though far from certain, is likely to be bandied about in the coming days as the viability of the plan for everyone involved takes shape.

That’s a lot, and MLB has subsequently clarified that pretty much everything is still under discussion. A June start date may be more feasible, for one thing. I’m glad they’re willing to consider all kinds of outside-the-box ideas, and I’m glad that they are in discussion with the NIH and not just winging this, but there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about this. I mean, if the goal is to avoid having no baseball at all in 2020 – which, let’s face it, is a real possibility – then this is the sort of thinking that will be required. Nothing is sacred other than the health of everyone involved. If that can be managed, then let’s make something work. I’ll be very interested to see where these negotiations go. Fangraphs has more.

UPDATE: The Ringer is dubious:

But one crucial element necessary for the enactment of any “Baseball Biodome”–style plan is missing from these early drafts. It’s the Maldivian resort workers waiting on one couple, trapped by someone else’s flouting of the COVID-19 danger.

Baseball games don’t just need players and coaches and umpires. They also need grounds crews. They need trainers. They need janitors and laundry workers and security, and clubhouse attendants and team chefs and equipment personnel. Team hotels need almost all of those people, too. And games will likely need some sort of scouting or front office framework, and media members. They’ll certainly need television crews on site—even if announcers might be able to call games remotely, camera operators and producers would have to penetrate the biodome—if the goal is to provide entertainment for the masses without fans in the stands.

Thus, two possibilities present themselves. Either all those hundreds (thousands?) of workers spread across 15 stadiums and numerous hotels in Arizona would come into contact with the otherwise completely isolated players and coaches, risking an immediate piercing of the COVID-free bubble, or else all those hundreds (thousands?) of workers would need to be sequestered as well, in which case the logistical nightmare would amplify exponentially.

Yeah, the sheer numbers involved make it seem much less likely to work. And of course, all these other people are paid much less, and thus have much less incentive to go along with this four-months-of-isolation idea. I don’t know how you make this all work. I still think it’s worth thinking about, but we can’t lose sight of reality.

Metro will get some stimulus money

Good.

Transit agencies in southeastern Texas are set to receive more than $300 million to stem revenue losses linked to COVID-19, federal officials announced Thursday, most of it coming to Houston.

As part of the first round of Congress-approved stimulus funding, $25 billion will go to transit agencies nationwide, doled out by the Federal Transit Administration. The money “will ensure our nation’s public transportation systems can continue to provide services to the millions of Americans who depend on them,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a release.

Money will be distributed by urban areas, with most of Houston’s $258.6 million going to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which has seen ridership to drop to less than half its normal workday use. Bus and rail ridership Wednesday was 129,000, a 55 percent decline from the same day last year, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

[…]

Fewer riders means less money coming in from fares, but that pales in comparison to the expected drop in sales tax collections Metro relies on for most of its funding. With various businesses closed and most of the Houston area hunkered down, collections from Metro’s 1 percent sales tax are expected to nosedive.

We’ve talked about the effect of the sales tax revenue decline before. This should help a bit, and there may be more coming. Having a fully functional transit system for when everyone gets to go back to work is going to be a big deal, so this is very encouraging.

Is CBD oil “essential health care”?

These are the questions of our times.

The police went into Fatty’s Smoke Shop in Beverly Hills, a small city surrounded by Waco, last Wednesday about 10 a.m., owner Jesse Singh recalled. His business, they informed him, is not considered essential under McLennan County’s emergency order, issued the previous day as part of the government’s increasingly restrictive efforts to slow COVID-19, the viral disease racing across the country.

“They also told my customers they were illegally out of the house because this wasn’t an essential business,” he said.

Singh balked, noting the county’s emergency order permitted “health care operations” to remain open, and that his shop sold CBD oil, among other products, which many people use to treat a variety of ailments. “My parents use it for arthritis,” he said.

The officers left, but returned later that evening, writing Singh a ticket for “violation of the emergency plan” — a fine of up to a $1,000 per day. He remained closed Thursday, but the store was back and open for business on Friday and Saturday, with strict social distancing measures and an official letter of complaint from his lawyer to the county firmly in place.

On Sunday the police returned, this time threatening the clerk with a personal $1,000 fine, Singh said. The shop closed around 11 a.m.

Apart from apparently being one of the first punitive actions taken against a business for remaining open in violation of a county’s coronavirus emergency declaration, the dispute could foreshadow future legal battles as the business shut-down drags on.

It also highlights the challenge of enforcing a patchwork of emergency orders across the country and state when details of the directives can be open to interpretation.

“The assignment of essential vs. non-essential businesses seems arbitrary based on the current order in McLennan County,” Singh’s lawyer, Hunter Shurtlett, wrote in a March 27 letter to County Judge Scott Felton. “Currently, convenience stores as well as liquor stores are designated as essential businesses. Customers of Fatty’s rely on CBD products for severe health concerns and purchase the products for health care purposes.”

Turns out, asking the question was the key, because the city backed down and allowed Fatty’s to remain open.

In an email sent Tuesday afternoon, the City of Beverly Hills, a small municipality surrounded by Waco, told Fatty’s Smoke Shop it could reopen so long as its clerks followed social distancing best practices.

Beverly Hills police had issued Fatty’s a citation last week after officers disagreed with owner Jesse Singh’s argument that customers use CBD oil to treat various medical ailments so his shop qualifies as an essential health care business. Despite the ticket, which could bring a fine up to $1,000, Singh remained open, only to have police return and forcibly close the store two days later.

In response to a letter from Fatty’s lawyer, however, the city changed its mind. Referencing McLennan County Judge Scott Felton’s March 23 emergency order, City Secretary Angel Nevarez wrote, “After review of the Order that is in place Fatty’s may remain open, however, there will have to be a curbside service. Only workers should be in the store.”

[…]

The flipflop highlights the difficulty in reconciling competing economic and public safety interests in the country’s response to the novel coronavirus, as officials trying to limit social contact to slow its spread bump up against businesses desperate to stay afloat.

For sure. Other counties, with varying degrees of explicitness, have generally not designated shops that sell CBD oil to be essential. I’m not qualified to assess the argument one way or the other. I don’t know what kind of effect closing these shops might have on the people who use CBD oil. There’s a lot of gray area in these stay-at-home orders, and we’re all trying to figure out the best way to balance risk and necessity. The main thing I hope is that we get a better idea of what the best practices should be, so that the next time something like this happens – there’s going to be a next time, hopefully more later than sooner – we’re better equipped to deal with it. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.