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April 18th, 2020:

So this is reopening

There’s not much to this, is there?

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday announced initial steps to reopen the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic, including those that in the next week will loosen surgery restrictions at medical facilities, allow all retail stores to provide product pickups and reopen state parks.

Abbott also named a “statewide strike force” devoted to getting the economy going again. Austin banker James Huffines will chair the task force, while veteran lobbyist Mike Toomey will lead its staff. The group will oversee what Abbott described as a phased reopening, starting Friday with additional announcements set for April 27 and sometime in May.

At the same time, Abbott announced all Texas schools will stay closed through the rest of the academic year. He had previously shuttered them until May 4.

Abbott made the announcements during a news conference at the Texas Capitol that he began on a note of optimism.

“Because of the efforts by everyone to slow the spread, we’re now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said, noting the number of infections is “beginning to level off” and the death toll, while tragic, has “not come close to the early, dire predictions.”

“We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus,” Abbott added.

[…]

Abbott said the task force will include fellow state leaders such as Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, as well as top medical experts including state health commissioner John Hellerstedt and Mark McClellan, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The medical advisers will focus on developing a strategy to “comprehensively test and trace COVID-19 that will enable Texas to gradually and safely” begin returning to normal, Abbott said.

The task force will be rounded out by an advisory group of business leaders, Abbott said, naming prominent entrepreneurs including Kendra Scott and Michael Dell.

The first phase came in a series of executive orders issued Friday. One order allows for product pickup at retail stores — what Abbott described as “retail-to-go” — that will begin April 24. Outlets will be allowed to bring orders straight to customers’ cars in a manner similar to how many restaurants are currently offering curbside pickup.

Another order, which goes into effect 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, will allow a limited amount of nonessential surgeries at hospitals, as long as those surgeries don’t deplete the hospitals’ supplies of personal protective equipment and allow the facilities to keep at least 25% of their capacity available for the treatment of patients with COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

A third order will allow state parks to open Monday. Visitors to parks will be required to wear masks and keep a safe distance from people outside their households.

Additional openings will be announced April 27 “after further input from medical staff,” Abbott said.

See here for the background, and here for the very manly-man-named Strike Force. Just so we’re clear, “beginning to level off” means we’re still not yet at the peak, which is to say the curve of new cases and deaths is still increasing. Go read that previous post about the curve maybe starting to flatten in Houston. “Near the peak” is not where you want to be.

There’s also no actual plan for expanded testing, which is a bare minimum for easing the restrictions. We are not testing more people in Texas. We don’t even really have the funding to test more people. Who are your medical advisors, and what is their advice for getting true comprehensive testing off the ground?

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott decided that it was better to let Mayors and County Judges lead the way on stay-at-home restrictions? Well, local leaders are nowhere to be found on the Strike Force.

What happens if the Strike Force and Dan Patrick’s Secret Megadonor Team disagree? Do they fight it out?

What if Greg Abbott reopened the economy and no one came, because they’re more worried about ramping down social distancing too quickly than they are about being able to go out in public like they used to? I can tell you that the latest word from the large multinational corporation that I work for is that they expect us all to still be working from home into May. I won’t be surprised if a lot of similar businesses are thinking along the same lines.

You get the idea. We all want to return to normal. We all want businesses to open again. But we all also want to not get sick and maybe die. I don’t think we’re ready for the returning to normal and opening things up part yet. The Chron, the Texas Signal, the Press, the Observer, and the Current have more.

UPDATE: What RG Ratcliffe says:

The problem is not so much that Abbott has named an advisory committee but that he has again found a way to deflect responsibility before taking action. Just as he let mayors and county judges do the hard work of shutting the state down to stop the spread of COVID-19, he is now hoping the strike force will help him balance competing demands for fighting the virus and getting Texans back to work. Abbott put his toe into the water on Friday, but put off big decisions until April 27, saying he wanted to be guided by data, doctors, and the advice of his strike force.

Such a weak leader.

Are we near the peak yet?

We sure hope so, but it’s still a little soon to tell.

After weeks of grim, ever-worsening statistics, Houston medical and public health leaders say the area has begun to flatten the COVID-19 curve, the rate at which the disease is spreading through the community.

The start of such flattening, seen in testing and hospitalization data, represents the turning of a significant corner for an area that has been shut down for more than a month to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The virus has infected more than 2 million people globally and killed more than 33,000 in the U.S.

“We haven’t peaked yet, but we’re seeing very encouraging signs that the curve is flattening,” said Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist. “The number of people testing positive has slowed and hospitalizations have also leveled off.”

Dr. Paul Klotman, president of Baylor College of Medicine, added that the trend is “definitely positive — we’re getting closer to the peak.” But he noted that “the peak is not a good place to be. The only safe place is when we’re going toward the valley.”

Texas Medical Center leaders told Mayor Sylvester Turner this week that the rate of the virus’s spread, exponential early, has definitely slowed. But they were quick to warn again complacency and stressed that now, more than ever, people need to keep aggressively practicing social distancing.

[…]

Despite the measures, the Houston area’s COVID-19 numbers continued to spike — expected, experts said, because of the virus’s incubation time of two to 14 days, the sometimes slow disease progression, the lack of access to testing and the often lengthy delays in lab results.

But in recent days, public health officials said, the signs such measures are working have become evident.

According to new research by two Harvard scientists and a Baylor doctor, for instance, the rate at which the virus is spreading dropped from nearly 30 percent a week and a half ago to almost 5 percent as of Wednesday. That means the time it takes to double the size of the outbreak has gone from every three days to 20 days now.

“It’s too early to really tell — the next week or two will be crucial — but Houston’s social distancing appears to be doing enormous good,” said Dr. Mark Siedner, a Harvard professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The trend over the last week is really positive.”

The next two weeks are when a number of models project Houston’s cases will peak.

“The peak is not a good place to be”, and “The next two weeks are when a number of models project Houston’s cases will peak” are the quotes you should keep in mind when you hear people talk about “reopening the economy” and things like that. Two weeks from now is when the current stay-at-home order for Harris County expires. That order will certainly be extended, and if we’re lucky then by then we will be seeing the numbers decline. But we’re not there quite yet. Keep doing what you’re doing, we will get there.

Texas Central opponents see an opportunity

Never waste an opportunity.

Examination of a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas should be halted as the country addresses the new coronavirus pandemic and the company rethinks its financial shape, 30 elected officials in Texas told federal regulators.

In two separate letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, 28 state lawmakers and two members of Congress said work by the Federal Railroad Administration on the Texas Central Railway project — which has faced stiff opposition for six years even as Dallas and Houston officials showed support — should stop entirely.

“It has become clear Texas Central simply does not have the financial resources required or expertise employed to continue with this project,” state lawmakers, led by state Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson, wrote. “To proceed otherwise would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizes the integrity of the rules making process.”

Leman, a long-time critic of the project which rural residents have assailed as a boondoggle that will ruin the Texas countryside and never be financially sound, said the aim of the letter is to stop all analysis of the project’s safety procedures and environmental effects, which the FRA has been working on since 2014 with Texas Central. Federal regulators must approve the safety of the trains — unlike any other trains in the United States — and apply federal soil, air, noise and species protection rules to the construction and operations.

Texas Central last month said COVID-19’s effect on financial markets could impact the project, tightening its ability to secure the $15 billion or more necessary to build a 240-mile sealed corridor along a utility alignment between Houston and Dallas. Global response to the pandemic hits every sector of the company’s plans, which rely on Japanese trains, a Spanish rail operator and engineering from Italy. Within Texas, the company has laid off 28 employees.

It was also last month, right before the coronavirus shit hit the fan, that Texas Central was expressing hope they would begin construction this year. That sure seems like a no-go at this point, regardless of what effect this may have on their finances. As far as that goes, I would expect the process would take into account the financial solvency of the firm in question – certainly, Metro’s finances were closely scrutinized during its journey to get funds for the light rail expansion – so I don’t see why this would carry any more weight than that. This seems more like a signal from the prominent bullet train opponents to their supporters that they’re still out there fighting the good fight than anything else, but you never know.

Speaking of which, the signers of this epistle are for the most part the usual suspects who have opposed the high speed rail line all along. The two names on there that caught my eye are Rep. Tom Oliverson, whose HD130 in northwest Harris County would be on the path of the train, and Sen. Joan Huffman, the one legislator in there from a mostly urban area. I’d think at least a few of her constituents might actually want to ride this thing some day, so my eyebrows went up a notch upon seeing her name. Make of that what you will. The DMN has more.