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May 1st, 2020:

Ready or not, here we reopen

Who cares what the data says?

As he moves to reopen the state Friday amid the coronavirus pandemic, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has cited data and science as his guiding lights.

But Texas has yet to meet most of the benchmarks for easing restrictions set by Abbott’s most prominent outside medical adviser.

The governor is using a phased re-entry plan that seeks to balance a need to restart the economy while also preventing a second wave of the outbreak. On Monday he told Texans: “Because of your efforts, the COVID-19 infection rate has been on the decline over the past 17 days.”

While the rate of positive tests is indeed declining, the state doesn’t know the true infection rate — how many people have been infected out of all those at risk of exposure — because it has only tested about 1 percent of the population since the outbreak began.

There are still a lot of indicators the state can track. For help, Abbott has turned to medical advisers including Dr. Mark McClellan, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President George W. Bush.

McClellan — the son of former Texas comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn — directs the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University and co-authored a paper last month that laid out four prerequisites for states to meet as they reopen their economies. It has helped inform the Trump administration’s guidelines for states as the pandemic plays out.

In an interview, McClellan said Texas took effective early steps to avoid the overwhelming outbreaks that have hit New York and other states.

He also acknowledged that Texas has not met all the benchmarks he and his colleagues envisioned, and said the state will have to work hard in the coming days to boost testing and train people to track down the contacts of those infected, to slow the spread of the virus.

Here are the four goals McClellan helped outline, and where Texas stands on each.

Short answer: Of the four benchmarks, we’re missing three of them. The number of new cases is not actually declining, and hasn’t come anywhere close to declining for 14 straight days. We have less than half of the daily testing capacity Abbott required, and we have less than half of the number of contact tracers he wanted. The one metric we are meeting is on hospital capacity, and if we’re not careful or unlucky, that could get away from us as well. But hey, other than that, everything is just ducky.

I believe the interview with Dr. McClellan that the story references is this one in Texas Monthly with RG Ratcliffe. I mean look, I’m going stir-crazy too, and I want very much for our hurting businesses to get back to something sustainable for them. None of this is easy. I very much hope this will work out great and we all look back on this point in time as when the tide turned in our favor. But all that is is hope. There’s no data behind it, and no reason to believe it will go that well. And as bad as things are now for businesses, having the infection rate spike will not do anything good for them, or anyone else. I will be delighted to be proven to be a worrywart. We all better pray that I am.

The TDP motion for a fast ruling in their federal vote by mail lawsuit

I mentioned this in passing in yesterday’s post, so here are some more details.

Updating an ongoing lawsuit, the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday asked a federal judge in San Antonio to issue an order by May 15 requiring state officials to expand vote-by-mail opportunities in upcoming elections.

The motion also asked U.S. District Judge Fred Biery to block Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton “from threatening voters with criminal or civil sanctions” if they vote by mail over fears of contracting the coronavirus at polling places.

The fast deadline is required, the petition argued, because county election officials need clarity as they prepare for primary runoff elections and a special election to fill the seat of retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin — both set for July 14.

[…]

On April 15, state District Judge Tim Sulak ordered expanded ballot access due to coronavirus concerns, a ruling that Paxton has appealed. That same day, Paxton issued a statement saying that fear of contracting COVID-19 is not a legitimate excuse under state law.

“While the state Court has ruled that under age 65 voters can use the disability exemption to vote absentee, the Attorney General has threatened to prosecute those who engage in this activity,” the updated federal lawsuit said.

“Texas’ law discriminates on its face against younger voters by creating two classes of voters: those 65 or older and are able to access absentee ballots and those under 65, who generally cannot,” the lawsuit argued. “When in-person voting becomes physically dangerous, age-based restrictions on mail ballot eligibility become constitutionally unsound.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I presume the state will file its response shortly. There really is a compressed schedule here, because the more mail ballots that will need to be sent out, the more time election administrators will need to handle the requests. I’ll keep an eye on this.

Reopening the beaches

Galveston has opened its beaches again.

Galveston beaches were reopened to pedestrians Monday from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. after being closed for nearly a month due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. The Galveston City Council voted 4-3 on the partial reopening on April 23, allowing people to surf, swim, fish and access the jetties during these hours. The beaches will remain closed all other hours. Vehicular traffic and the setting up of chairs, tents or beach picnics will still be prohibited, with beachgoers required to maintain at least 6 feet of social distancing.

Ever since the city of Galveston closed its beaches on March 29, many residents have complained about no longer having a vital outdoor recreational space, especially since the city also shut down local parks and playgrounds in an effort to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. The fact that the city acted to close beaches independent of coastline managed by Galveston County or other localities like Jamaica Beach created scenarios where Galveston residents who wanted a day of surf and sand could still hop the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula or drive across San Luis Pass to Brazoria County, where beaches also remained open.

The staggered beach openings came to a head on Saturday and Sunday, when traffic for the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula extended from the ferry landing all the way to the seawall and peninsula beaches were significantly more crowded as a result.

Darrell Apffel, a Galveston County commissioner whose precinct includes Bolivar Peninsula, said local law enforcement had eight two-person teams patrolling the peninsula and enforcing social distancing. He said he was not concerned about keeping peninsula beaches open while Galveston beaches are closed because law-enforcement officers are well- equipped to handle crowd control on beaches.

“These large crowds are still not to the tune of Jeep Weekend or Memorial Day,” Apffel said. “They’re large crowds in the sense that people got out and enjoyed the beautiful weather.”

You can get a peek at what Bolivar looks like here. As with eating in restaurants, I’m not ready to hit the sands any time soon. However, I have sympathy for the people who want the outdoors outlet, especially if other parks are closed at this time. Henry Grabar makes the case for beaches as a low-risk way to let people be outside again, with the mental and physical health benefits that brings.

Until we are able to halt widespread community transmission and begin testing and contact tracing, it’s too soon to “reopen” the economy in the way Donald Trump envisions. But we can get more Americans—and even businesses—safely outdoors.

Those Florida beaches aren’t so different from Central and Prospect parks in New York City. Frederick Law Olmsted’s two “green lungs,” the American city’s quintessential public health infrastructure, are offering New Yorkers critical physical and mental respite during their city’s darkest hour. And why not?

“I would not worry about walking by someone,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University. “Even in a health care setting, contact is defined by being near someone for a certain amount of time. I would not worry about these fleeting encounters. The virus isn’t airborne—droplets need to get from one person to another.”

The issue, Adalja added, is that beaches tend to be places where people don’t keep their distance. Any additional open spaces where people interact even in passing, he added, create the potential for new cases.

But what little we know about the coronavirus suggests you have little to fear from brief encounters with other human beings outside. Dr. Edward Nardell, an airborne-infection specialist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said outdoor transmission was “possible but improbable.”

“It bugs me to see these restrictions on people being outside,” Nardell said. “Mental health means something as well, and I can’t imagine you’re in a better place than outside if you’re going to have any contact anywhere.” Nardell, who survived a recent battle with COVID-19, said that if he were in Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s shoes, he would go ahead with opening the state’s beaches—but with strong signage reminding people to keep their distance and under park ranger supervision.

Nardell’s colleague Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist, wrote a more general case for public spaces in the Washington Post last week.* “Closing parks and public gardens should be a temporary, last-resort measure for disease control,” he and his co-authors wrote. “The science could not be clearer: The benefits of getting outside vastly outweigh the risk of getting infected in a park.” Wear a mask, keep your distance, have a ball.

Grabar spoke about this and added some more data on a recent episode of The Gist. What stood out to me was his statement that contact tracers basically ignore people’s encounters with passersby on the streets, in part because they have no way of tracking them down short of ubiquitous cellphone location tracking, and in part because they deem the risk of transmission to be negligible. As I said, it’s not for me at this time, but I buy the idea that this is worthwhile, as long as social distancing is still being observed.