Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

June 13th, 2020:

Just a reminder, you can get a mail ballot if you need one

No one is going to stop you.

As Democrats and civil rights groups sue to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic, a recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court has left it up to voters to decide for themselves whether they qualify for vote-by-mail.

In its decision in late May, the highest civil court in the state ruled that lack of immunity to COVID-19 alone does not constitute a disability that would allow those under 65 years old to vote by mail rather than at the polls, under the Texas election codes.

But it added — which legal experts say is crucial — that a voter can take the possibility of being infected into consideration along with his or her “health” and “health history” to determine whether he or she needs to vote by mail under the ‘disability’ provisions in the law.

“I think really the story here is that it’s going to be up to individual voters to decide whether they fit this definition or not,” said Joseph Fishkin, a University of Texas professor who studies election law and has closely followed the cases.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray has said Harris is relying on the Supreme Court decision to bolster its recommendation that voters request a ballot if they believe they are eligible.

“If it’s checked disabled, we’ll just send the ballot,” Ray said. “We don’t question that. We don’t have the authority or ability to investigate that.”

In Bexar County, the commissioners court last month passed a resolution supporting access to mail-in ballots for voters afraid of contracting COVID-19 at polling place, but the county has not made any recommendations to voters since.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Monday that such a public notice is on the way.

The Bexar commissioners last week directed the county attorney to help craft language for voter guidance, citing the Texas Supreme Court decision, and requesting for the election administrator, Jacque Callanen, to consider publishing it. Callanen did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’ve asked her to make it clear to voters that it’s up to them to determine whether they have a health condition or a physical condition” that qualifies them to vote by mail, Wolff said. “It’s their decision, not the state’s decision.”

Well, we know what Harris County has done. (Note: That was mail ballot applications the Clerk sent to all over-65 voters, not actual mail ballots.) We’ll see what the demand looks like in November. I would still advise, in my extremely I Am Not A Lawyer way, that there is some risk in applying for a mail ballot under the disability provision. How much there is I can’t say, but given the times and the apparent determination of the Republican Party to salt the earth, it’s definitely greater than zero. Make the best decision for yourself. Campos has more.

Threat level orange

Not great.

A large, ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 places the Houston area on the second-highest of four public threat levels unveiled by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday.

If troubling trends continue, including an increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, the county health department again would recommend residents stay at home except for essential errands, such as buying groceries and medicine, she said.

Without criticizing Gov. Greg Abbott directly, she said the reopening of businesses he permitted to begin May 1 happened too quickly, leaving the Houston area at risk of an outbreak hospitals are unable to handle.

“I want the reopening to be successful. I want the economy to be resilient,” Hidalgo said. “But I am growing increasingly concerned that we may be at the precipice of a disaster.”

The county judge said she wanted to create an easy-to-understand chart for the public to replace a series of lengthy advisories and orders her administration has issued to date.

The county currently is at Level 2 of the color-coded chart produced by the county health department, with Level 1 being the most severe.

Level 2 is defined by ongoing transmission of the virus, with testing and contact tracing likely to meet demand. It states that residents should avoid unnecessary contact with others, avoid crowds and visit only businesses that are following public health guidelines.

Coronavirus cases in the Houston area have increased steadily since Memorial Day weekend, and COVID-19 hospitalizations reached an all-time high last week. Harris County had 9,296 active cases and 267 deaths as of Thursday.

[…]

Hospitals in the 25-county Houston region were using 88 percent of their ICU capacity as of Wednesday, and the system has never exceeded 100 percent. City of Houston health authority Dr. David Persse, however, said the situation at individual facilities is more dire. He expressed particular concern about the two public hospitals in the Harris Health System, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ben Taub.

During the county’s stay-at-home period, local ICU bed usage often was below 80 percent.

See here and here for some background. You can find the threat level system here. To put that latter statistic into some context:

But don’t worry, Greg Abbott is concerned but not alarmed.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Greg Abbott visited Amarillo to declare victory over a coronavirus outbreak that had wreaked havoc on the Panhandle.

Showcasing dwindling caseloads and a stable supply of hospital beds, he said the region’s success was indicative of a state moving forward amid a containable pandemic.

“Amarillo has turned a corner on its pathway toward a positive, effective resolution of this particular hotspot,” Abbott remarked, applauding local officials and the “surge” teams of medical and military staffers that have become a hallmark of his reopening playbook.

But as one problem subsided, others newly emerged. Cases in Texas have since ballooned to record highs, and hospitals in Houston, San Antonio and other major cities are filling once more with COVID-19 patients. On Friday, as Abbott allowed restaurants to open at near-full capacity, the public health nightmare seemed to only be growing.

The governor, though — one of the first to relax his state’s stay-at-home order — is pushing ahead. “Concerned but not alarmed” was how he and his surrogates put it this week, even as fellow governors in Oregon and Utah pumped the brakes on their reopenings amid rising caseloads.

“This was to be expected,” said Abbott, a Republican, in a television interview on Wednesday. “Many of these cases we’re seeing have been in the aftermath of the Memorial Day weekend, and some are the early part of when these protests began.”

[…]

John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, said responsibility ultimately lies with the public.

“Texans have done a good job so far, but the reality is people need to stay vigilant,” he said. “Summer is here and everyone wants to go to the pool, but COVID has not left the state. People need to social distance, they need to wear masks.”

Seems like a lot to ask of the public when the consistent message from its leaders is “we’re reopening, it’s safe to go to bars and waterparks and gyms and whatever else again”. Greg Abbott listed four key metrics. We only ever met one, and that’s hospital capacity. We’re still short on contact tracers, which may not matter anyway since a significant portion of the population won’t cooperate with them anyway. As of a month ago, we were near the bottom of state testing per capita; I can’t find any more recent numbers than that. If Abbott ever does get alarmed, we’re well and truly screwed. The Trib has more.

HISD passes its budget

And had their own debate about police funding.

Houston ISD trustees Thursday approved a $2 billion spending plan for the 2020-21 school year that includes small raises and bonuses for nearly all employees, a compromise between board members and the district’s administration amid a back-and-forth over staff compensation.

Trustees smoothly shepherded through the budget in a 7-2 vote, ending a run of three consecutive years with last-minute changes, drawn-out debate and occasional bitterness before the approval of spending proposals. While the budget contains few major overhauls to HISD operations, it lays the groundwork for an unprecedented school year amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and difficult financial decisions looming in 2021.

“This has been a challenging year with all of the unknowns,” HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said. “We’re also going into a challenging time economically, and we’ve got some really hard work ahead of us.”

[…]

Under the new budget, HISD also plans to restructure police officers’ pay and increase their salaries by about $3.5 million — a significant boost for a department with combined annual salaries totaling about $11 million. Lathan said the raises would reduce turnover, which fuels high overtime costs, by bringing officer salaries closer in line with neighboring departments.

The increase drew added scrutiny in recent days after the death of former Houston resident George Floyd, which sparked calls nationwide from some advocates seeking to reduce or eliminate spending on police. About 15 members of the public urged trustees to reject the increase or disband the district’s police department ahead of the budget vote.

“I just don’t know about spending an additional $4 million on police officers when we can spend it on kids,” said Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who joined Trustee Dani Hernandez in voting against the budget.

See here for the background. The Press adds some details.

A number of speakers including several HISD students — fighting continued technical and human error problems with the new call-in, social distancing system — called for the district to pull its police force from schools and instead direct the money to counseling, mental health assistance and libraries. Several said black students are particularly targeted by campus police out of all proportion to their share of the student body.

Ironically enough, the new budget approved an additional $3.5 million for an increase in HISD police officers’ pay, which Lathan said was lower than other police departments in the area.

Lekha Sunder, a student who said she represents a coalition of more than 950 members of the Lamar High School community who signed a letter urging HISD and Lamar to remove police officers from campuses, spoke to the board saying “When schools place police officers on their grounds, they’re agreeing to send some of their students to juvenile court for behavior they would never otherwise be prosecuted for.

“When we criminalize our students, they begin to see themselves as criminals.”

Karina Barbosa, a graduate of HISD schools, said at her high school “We had a cop but no full-time nurse. We had a cop but no on-campus library. We had a cop but no mental health counselors.”

Larsen Tosch a senior from Bellaire High School said the use of police officers in schools instills “paranoia among students, especially students of color.

“I do not see why we need to pay for bullets at a school that routinely runs out of paper.”

Board President Sue Deigaard said she was putting together an ad hoc committee of trustees to discuss the police in schools issue. In addition she said there will be a board meeting on September 1 to discuss the issue with a report from the administration. The call to defund police departments has risen nationally following George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers who have been charged in his death.

As with the city of Houston, this is a starting point. The goal is to shift spending away from police and towards other services and resources. HISD’s expenditures on police is a much smaller percentage of their budget than Houston’s is, but the principle that this is not the best use of those dollars is the same. I’m glad to see HISD is discussing this – I hope they will solicit community feedback as well – and I look forward to the report in September.

Rating summertime risks

You want to get outside and do things this summer? Here’s how to think about various activities in terms of risk, so you can do things that are safer and avoid things that are not.

It has been around two months of quarantine for many of us. The urge to get out and enjoy the summer is real. But what’s safe? We asked a panel of infectious disease and public health experts to rate the risk of summer activities, from backyard gatherings to a day at the pool to sharing a vacation house with another household.

One big warning: Your personal risk depends on your age and health, the prevalence of the virus in your area and the precautions you take during any of these activities. Also, many areas continue to restrict the activities described here, so check your local laws.

And there’s no such thing as a zero-risk outing right now. As states begin allowing businesses and public areas to reopen, decisions about what’s safe will be up to individuals. It can help to think through the risks the way the experts do.

“We can think of transmission risk with a simple phrase: time, space, people, place,” explains Dr. William Miller, an epidemiologist at Ohio State University.

Here’s his rule of thumb: The more time you spend and the closer in space you are to any infected people, the higher your risk. Interacting with more people raises your risk, and indoor places are riskier than outdoors.

Dr. Emily Landon, a hospital epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist at University of Chicago Medicine, has her own shorthand: “Always choose outdoors over indoor, always choose masking over not masking and always choose more space for fewer people over a smaller space.”

Read on for advice about fourteen specific activities. This is the right way to think about these things. Nothing is 100% safe, but some things are a lot less safe than others. Wearing a mask improves the odds in most situations, which is why we should all want to do that – it makes more things less risky. That doesn’t come with a guarantee – as with everything else in life, you can do the right thing and still get a bad outcome – but it at least moves the needle in your favor. Understanding the situation you’re in and what risk factors you face helps keep you away from making bad bets. What more do you want?