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June 7th, 2020:

Weekend link dump for June 7

“Workplace temperature checks are becoming more common as the pandemic wears on. They’re also happening at airports, restaurants, and stores. But it’s not clear how effective these screenings are at preventing the spread of the coronavirus—especially when they’re conducted by employees with inadequate training.”

“The United Kingdom’s anti-cybercrime agency is running online ads aimed at young people who search the Web for services that enable computer crimes, specifically trojan horse programs and DDoS-for-hire services. The ad campaign follows a similar initiative launched in late 2017 that academics say measurably dampened demand for such services by explaining that their use to harm others is illegal and can land potential customers in jail.”

“By reading this plaque, you have made a valuable addition to the number of people who have read this plaque.”

“What is up with Uber destroying tens of thousands of perfectly good e-bikes?”

“Trump and some of his advisers calculated that he should not speak to the nation because he had nothing new to say and had no tangible policy or action to announce yet, according to a senior administration official. Evidently not feeling an urgent motivation Sunday to try to bring people together, he stayed silent.”

“John Ratcliffe is the least-qualified director of national intelligence in history—and a staunch partisan as well.”

Yeah, some of those early renderings of Baby Yoda were kind of rough.

“In other words, Trump could hole himself up in the Oval Office, but the Oval Office would very soon be cut off from all power. He would have no choice but to give up.” I sure hope that’s right.

RIP, Christo, flamboyant visual artist.

“The police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain public respect.”

“Researchers have spent 50 years studying the way crowds of protesters and crowds of police behave—and what happens when the two interact. One thing they will tell you is that when the police respond by escalating force—wearing riot gear from the start, or using tear gas on protesters—it doesn’t work. In fact, disproportionate police force is one of the things that can make a peaceful protest not so peaceful. But if we know that (and have known that for decades), why are police still doing it?”

“By the time I got back to my car, around 7, I was getting texts from people saying that Trump was outside of St. John’s, Lafayette Square. I literally COULD NOT believe it. WE WERE DRIVEN OFF OF THE PATIO AT ST. JOHN’S – a place of peace and respite and medical care throughout the day – SO THAT MAN COULD HAVE A PHOTO OPPORTUNITY IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH!!! PEOPLE WERE HURT SO THAT HE COULD POSE IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH WITH A BIBLE! HE WOULD HAVE HAD TO STEP OVER THE MEDICAL SUPPLIES WE LEFT BEHIND BECAUSE WE WERE BEING TEAR GASSED!!!!”

RIP, Wes Unseld, basketball Hall of Famer.

Good riddance, and more good riddance.

RIP, Irene Triplett, the last person receiving a pension from the U.S. Civil War.

Rapid, low-cost, at-home COVID-19 tests are a key to getting back to “normal”.

K-pop fans are doing their best to save us.”

“As summer nears, 2020 has another trick up its sleeve. This time, it’s cicadas. A lot of cicadas.”

“When a paper publishes an editorial, it lends its authority & above all RESOURCES to the author. Not only does Tom Cotton get the IQ boost of Times typeface, he gets editors, copy eds, & fact-checkers who are charged with burnishing his argument to give it the best possible shot.”

RIP, Bruce Jay Friedman, novelist and screenwriter who was nominated for an Oscar for Splash.

RIP, Thomas Freeman, renowned professor and debate coach at Texas Southern University.

So how’s that reopening going?

Well, there’s more of it.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced his third phase Wednesday of reopening Texas businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing virtually all of them to operate at 50% capacity.

That is effective immediately, and there are “very limited exceptions,” Abbott’s office said.

Restaurants were already permitted to be open at 50% capacity. Abbott is allowing them to immediately increase their table size from six people to 10, and on June 12, they can ramp up their capacities to 75%.

Abbott’s latest order also brings news for professional and college sports that are played outdoors, letting the former shift from 25% capacity to 50% capacity at their stadiums and allowing the latter to resume for the first time, also at 50%.

“The people of Texas continue to prove that we can safely and responsibly open our state for business while containing COVID-19 and keeping our state safe,” Abbott said in a statement.

Sounds lovely. However:

The announcement came as the state sees record numbers of new daily cases of COVID-19. On Wednesday, the seven-day average for new daily cases hit 1,466, up from 1,280 in mid-May, a Houston Chronicle data analysis shows.

Abbott said nearly half of all new cases are isolated at jails and prisons, meatpacking plants and nursing homes, environments where he says outbreaks can be contained as the reopening progresses. The state has moved to increase testing at many of those locations, though testing as a whole remains stagnant, well below the governor’s goal of 30,000 tests per day. The state has averaged about 23,000 tests per day for the past three weeks.

Hospitalizations, another key measure, were down on Wednesday but have been rising steadily in the past week. They were still well below statewide capacity.

The state reported 23 COVID-19 deaths per day over the past week, down from nearly 40 in mid-May.

Abbott has said he would watch deaths and hospitalizations closely as he reopens the Texas economy.

Still, public health officials have said the state is at best plateauing, with new cases neither falling nor surging. And they have worried that the Memorial Day holiday and protests over police brutality, which have drawn tens of thousands to the street in major Texas cities, may also hasten the spread of the disease.

[…]

Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert at Baylor College, warned last month that the state is moving too quickly.

“I understand the importance of opening up the economy,” he told the Chronicle. “The worry I have is that we haven’t put in place a public health system — the testing, the contact tracing — that’s commensurate to sustain the economy.”

I’ll get to the contact tracing in a minute, but first let’s review that hospitalization metric, because it’s always been the one metric of four that the state has actually met. But it too is going in the wrong direction.

The state reported 1,487 people hospitalized for COVID-19 on Wednesday, the lowest since April. But that figure did not include about 300 patients in the Houston area, who were omitted because of a software glitch, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which collects the totals and sends them to the state.

With those patients included, the number on Wednesday was likely around 1,800, just shy of the state’s peak in early May.

Hospitalization data are one of the key measures that Abbott has said he’s watching as he allows more of the state to reopen. Virtually all businesses in the state can now operate at 50 percent of their maximum occupancy, and late next week restaurants will be able to move to 75 percent.

Lori Upton, the advisory council’s vice president of disaster preparedness and response, said the state informed it on Wednesday that a nationwide software upgrade had caused the error, lowering the preliminary count. A correction will take time because the data has to be recounted manually, Upton said.

She said technical issues are not common.

The governor’s spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the governor knew about the inaccuracy. Abbott, a Republican, has repeatedly advised against using single-day data points, explaining that weekly averages better capture trends over time.

On Friday, the seven-day average was 1,729, the highest number since the state began publishing data on hospitalizations. It has been increasing since May 27.

[…]

Though hospitalizations are up, average daily hospital admissions have been flat or slightly down over the past week, according to state data compiled by the nonprofit Texas 2036. Lauren Ancel Myer, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin, said that would be a positive indicator.

Myers said daily admissions in Central Texas, though, where her research is focused, have been up slightly in recent days.

“It would not be surprising at this point if we are beginning to see that the relaxation of social distancing measures, if that has actually increased the spread of the virus and has led to more patients needing hospital care,” she said.

So what happens if we do get close to the occupancy limits we have set? Well, maybe contact tracing can help with that. Oh, wait.

As Texas moves forward with a new phase of Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan for reopening businesses, the state has fallen more than 25% short of its goal for a workforce of disease detectives that experts say are crucial for tracking the spread of the new coronavirus.

One of Abbott’s reopening metrics for June 1 called for up to 4,000 Texas contact tracers, who work to identify people with possible exposure to the coronavirus and call them to get tested and self-quarantine.

But Texas officials said Thursday there were roughly 2,900 contact tracers working around the state. Of those, some 1,140 are working for the Texas Department of State Health Services, 1,170 are working for local health departments or their nonprofit and university partners, and about 600 are working for a company recently hired by the state.

State officials downplayed the importance of meeting the initial goal despite the public health agency’s statements last month assuring that health departments were in a “phase of hiring that will get us up to 4,000 in the coming weeks.”

The 4,000-person figure was an estimate taken from a national association of public health officials that was determined by the state’s population, Texas Department of State Health Services spokesman Chris Van Deusen said.

“Texas has had significantly fewer cases per capita than the national average, and we want to match the number of contact tracers to the actual workload,” Van Deusen said in an email, adding that the state has enough personnel to contact all new cases in its jurisdiction.

But other groups have suggested that Texas needs a far higher number of contact tracers. One model from George Washington University put the number at more than 8,000.

And it turns out that the firm the state gave a $295 million contract to do contact tracing is sketchy.

More than a dozen Republican legislators are bucking Gov. Greg Abbott by calling for termination of a controversial $295 million coronavirus-related contract that was hastily awarded to a company whose CEO falsely claimed he had a Ph.D.

At least two top Democrats — including the party’s leader in the Texas House of Representatives — are also criticizing the deal with MTX Group Inc., saying the state needs to demonstrate the company is up to the vital job of tracking down people who have been exposed to COVID-19, or else it should pull the plug.

The bipartisan criticism comes as the agency that oversees the contract, the Texas Department of State Health Services, acknowledges that MTX “mistakenly uploaded” job training documents to its contact tracers that they were never supposed to get, a move some lawmakers say potentially raises privacy concerns.

Another potential privacy issue: MTX workers are using their own computers and personal email addresses, fueling worries — unwarranted worries, the state says — that private medical information about the people they investigate could be inadvertently divulged.

State Rep. Steve Toth, R-Conroe, like many conservative Republicans, already had privacy concerns about COVID-19 contact tracing before MTX got the job. But he said when he learned that MTX CEO Das Nobel had falsely claimed on his online LinkedIn bio that he had a doctorate from Colorado Technical University, he moved into the end-this-now camp even as Abbott staunchly defends the emergency contract.

“Up until that point, I was like, OK, I’m not good with this, but let’s just chill and find out more,” Toth said. “That pushed me over the edge.”

I mean, look. The overall numbers are still fairly modest, and the hospitals have done well so far. Treatment has improved as we have learned more, so people are spending less time and need less intensive therapies in hospitals. It is true that a large percentage of infections are in limited locations, and the risks of various activities, mostly outdoor activities, is understood to be fairly small. My point is this: The state hasn’t met its own metrics, contact tracing is a mess, and as far as I can tell there’s no plan except “clap harder!” to deal with any significant upticks in the infection rate. If I felt better about there being a plan for if and when the curve started going up again, I’d have fewer complaints. I just don’t know what we are going to do if things do not get better but do get worse. I admit, maybe that won’t happen. But that kind of hope appears to be all we have right now. I’m worried about it because I don’t think our state leaders are worried enough about it, never mind the dumpster fire in Washington. So yeah, I’ll hope for the best. What else can I do right now?

Time for a task force

A good step, but it needs to be followed by real action.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to appoint a task force to review Houston Police Department policies amid growing calls for reform following local and nationwide protests over the death of former Houston resident George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Turner’s office said the task force would focus on ensuring accountability and transparency within the department. He announced the task force Thursday night during an hourlong ABC13 town hall on police and community relations.

“It’s so important to hold onto the trust between the community and police because the two have to work together, not be against one another,” Turner said. “Establishing that confidence and that trust is a critical component. That’s why it’s important for all of us to listen, to listen to what people are saying, to listen to the reforms that people want to see put in place, and then to act on those reforms. And we’re going to seek to do that.”

It was not clear Friday when the mayor would appoint people to the task force or when it would begin meeting.

Turner publicly has not endorsed any specific reform, though he consistently has emphasized the importance of police training in television appearances this week.

[…]

Conversations about potential reforms began before Floyd’s death, Councilwoman Tiffany Thomas said. After a string of six fatal police shootings here in Houston, several council members met privately with Police Chief Art Acevedo to address the deaths.

Thomas said she would favor strengthening the oversight board; ensuring there are public and readily available records of complaints made by both citizens and officers against their colleagues; and having some sort of research arm — either within the city or with an external partner, such as Texas Southern University — that could parse through data to illuminate other options.

Councilman Ed Pollard has offered a budget amendment to create an online database where residents can view complaints made to the police department. Pollard said the information would boost transparency and give the public and policymakers data to inform future reforms. His amendment calls for building off an existing platform, called Project Comport, that is free and already used in other cities, though Pollard said it would carry some costs to set up.

“We (would) have a public, online platform that is able to compile the data and put it out in real time on different complaints,” Pollard said.

Councilwoman Letitia Plummer has proposed the furthest-reaching budget amendment. It would eliminate 199 vacant HPD positions in the budget and one of five planned police cadet classes. Plummer seeks to redirect about $11.8 million of the proposed police funding toward a package of reforms, including subpoena-empowered oversight board probes; increased spending on re-entry and My Brother’s Keeper programs; and creation of a mental health unit to respond to some low-risk calls instead of regular patrol officers.

See here for more about CM Plummer’s budget amendment and plenty of other reform ideas, some of which are within Councils’ power and others of which are not. The formation of a task force or blue ribbon committee is always the first thing done when there’s a serious problem that demands actions that some people are very much going to not like. It buys time, it diverts energy, and if you’re not careful the formation of the task force can end up being the sum total of action taken. Look to see who’s on the task force (and how long it takes for it to be named), what their timeline and mandate are, and who does or does not commit to take specific actions based on their recommendations. Then remember that it exists, and that we’re waiting for it to do its job, and that the longer it takes the less momentum there is.

Austin’s sick leave ordinance is officially dead

Killed by the State Supreme Court, which should come as a surprise to no one.

Austin still cannot enforce a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance its city council passed in February 2018 after the Texas Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear its case — during a pandemic that some policy experts argue has shown the need for such policies.

The ordinance — which required most private employers to allow workers to accrue 64 hours of paid sick leave per year — never went into effect, and has been in conservative crosshairs for more than two years. As soon as it was passed, Republican state lawmakers vowed that they would have it overturned with a state law. But so far, the death knell for the capital city’s policy, and similar policies in other major Texas cities, has come from the courts.

Represented by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group of Austin businesses sued in 2018 to block it, arguing that the city ordinance was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the Texas Minimum Wage Act, which sets a statewide policy. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton weighed in on the side of the businesses.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, then dominated by Republicans, ruled in November 2018 that the ordinance was unconstitutional — a decision that will stand after the high court declined to hear Austin’s appeal this week. The court did not offer a reason for denying the appeal in a one-line order.

I never paid that much attention to the Austin ordinance or similar ones like it in San Antonio and Dallas because it was obvious from the jump how this was going to go. Republicans tried to pass a bill in the 2019 session that would have not only forbidden cities from passing sick leave ordinances but gone much farther than that, and only died because Dan Patrick tried to use it as a vehicle to overturn local non-discrimination ordinances, which after the 2018 election was a step too far. There has been some recent energy in Houston for passing a sick leave ordinance, but that is clearly a non-starter now. The only way this is happening is to pass such a bill in the Legislature, and that’s going to mean winning not only a majority in both legislative chambers but a bunch of statewide elections, too. On our side is the fact that paid sick leave polls well, and now is the best possible time to persuade people that forcing sick employees to go to work or lose pay is a Bad Idea. There’s a lot of work to be done to make this happen, but it’s doable.

Metro’s long road

It will be awhile before bus and rail ridership returns to pre-COVID levels.

Metro officials predict it will be months, and possibly years, before bus and rail service ridership return to pre-COVID-19 levels in Houston as economic uncertainty, a lack of firm dates for schools to reopen and commuters choosing to drive dents transit use.

“We have to understand some businesses are not going to reopen, period,” said Kurt Luhrsen, vice president of planning for Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Bus and rail use in the region, always dwarfed by automobile use, faces not only lost riders in fewer workers and students, but also questions circulating among some critics about whether it is safe to ride.

[…]

Transit officials eliminated fares in mid-March to reduce contact between bus operators and riders, a roughly $6 million monthly loss for the agency.

The biggest hit to Metro’s coffers, however, is a decline in the region’s sales tax revenues. Within Metro’s coverage area that includes most of Harris County along with Houston and 14 other cities, the transit agency is funded mostly from a 1 percent sales tax. Metro’s internal finance analysts expect revenues from the sales tax to drop by $102 million, about 13 percent of what the agency had budgeted for fiscal 2020, which ends Sept. 30.

“We are making some assumptions now,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert cautioned board members last week, noting sales tax revenues take two months to assess, meaning the latest figures are from March. “The reality is, we will probably get a couple months, and won’t know the impact until June.”

In the interim, the federal financial response will supplement Metro’s losses, and appear, based on estimates, to maintain the current budget. Metro’s share of Federal Transit Administration funds is $180 million, which officials said would cover all operations and fare revenue declines in the current budget.

The long-term outlook is less certain.

Since the close of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and a stay-home order in Harris County began on March 11, transit use in the region has dropped to about 40 percent of normal. Even as state officials began reopening many Texas businesses in early May, bus and rail use has continued to remain half or less of typical work days.

“Downtown is still relatively empty compared to what we have all come to expect,” Luhrsen said, noting that surveys of central business district offices by the Houston Downtown Management District found only about 10 percent of workers have returned.

Exacerbating the return is Houston’s reliance on the oil and gas industry, which remains mired in a downturn that means fewer people reporting to offices.

That uncertainty and industry furloughs, combined with a tough spring for food service workers and no students reporting to campuses, are expected to result in steep losses for Metro’s local bus service, rail lines that service the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, as well as commuter bus routes that connect many suburban dwellers to downtown white-collar jobs.

Park and ride poses the most difficult ridership to predict, Luhrsen said. Local bus and rail service already have started to tick upward, forcing Metro to gradually increase some frequency on routes to maintain buses at half-capacity.

[…]

Metro board member Lex Frieden also encouraged transit staff to consider assuring residents about the safety of the system.

“Many people will stop to think, what are the odds of being exposed,” said Frieden, an expert in disability rights and access, who often works with individuals most at risk from the virus.

In areas hit hard by the COVID pandemic, notably New York City, some studies have shown public transit packed with riders helped spread the illness because others were inhaling air fouled with the virus.

According to transit and health officials, no positive COVID diagnosis in the Houston area has been traced to exposure on a bus or train or transit stop, though 25 Metro workers or contractors — 14 of whom had contact with public — have tested positive for the virus.

In Houston, trains and buses typically are far less full than a New York subway and transit use accounts for 3 percent of trips regionally. Fewer people means fewer chances for positive cases to spread.

Metro is following Centers for Disease Control guidelines to limit riders and bus drivers being within six feet and encouraging — but not requiring — riders to wear masks. Frieden said if contact tracing and other data become available, Metro should make it public.

I feel like riding the bus or train, with everyone wearing a mask and with a brisk hand-washing afterwards (which we always should have done but for the most part never thought about), is probably fine. I wouldn’t want to be on a ride longer than 30 minutes or so, but the fact that no COVID cases have been linked to transit in Houston is encouraging.

It will take awhile for ridership to bounce back, but once there is a vaccine and the economy has stabilized, it should begin to do so. Metro needs the economy to hum again more than anything else, as that affects its revenue as well as its ridership. In the long run they’ll be fine, but it will be bumpy in spots. At least there were federal dollars to help tide things over for the short term.