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Day One of reopening

Just a reminder, this is where we started.

Texas reported 50 more COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, the most in any one day since the state reported its first deaths in mid-March.

The state also reported it had added more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 to its total of 28,000 — the biggest one-day increase in infections since April 10.

The numbers came out less than 9 hours before Gov. Greg Abbott was set to lift restrictions on many businesses, allowing malls, movie theaters, retail stores and restaurants to begin operating at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Those businesses can only operate at 25 percent of their maximum capacity for the next two weeks under Abbott’s phased re-opening plan. After that, if things are going well, Abbott has said he will increase the limit to 50 percent occupancy.

[…]

“Understand that Texas has either the 3rd or 4th best — meaning lowest — death rate in the United States,” Abbott said in a television interview on KVUE, an ABC affiliate in Austin. “Texas never has had a situation like New York, like California, like Washington, like Louisiana, like New Jersey, like Michigan, like Illinois with deaths. We’ve never had capacity strains on our hospitals like those states.”

But over the last two days, Texas reported more than 90 deaths from the disease, state records show. That number did not include another six deaths from Harris County, according to an independent tally by Hearst Newspapers.

On Wednesday the state reported 42 people had died. In the previous week the total deaths were 25 per day, on average.

Cheerful, I know. To be fair, the total on any one day is not itself that useful – it’s the trend, the rolling average over several days, that really matters. The point here is that we were not on a steady decline to begin with. Looking at the Trib’s chart, we’re still going up. Some of that is because of more testing, though we’re still at a pathetically low level of testing. If we can ever get to an adequate level, maybe then we’ll know how it’s truly going.

In the meantime, just because we can open doesn’t mean we will.

Arrows on the floor show customers which way to walk. Sanitizing stations appear on the walls. Signs advise shoppers to wash their hands.

On the first day that Texas’ stay-at-home order expired and non-essential retailers were allowed to reopen under social distancing protocols, customers, business owners and employees alike braved a new world together — six feet apart and at 25 percent capacity.

Most of Houston’s Galleria Mall, a massive up-scale mall that typically attracts 30 million visitors a year, stood empty. The majority of the mall’s 400 storefronts kept doors locked. Tables and chairs in the food court are missing, since only to-go orders are allowed. Kiosks that normally sell jewelry, perfume and gifts are draped with black cloths.

But lights flickered from some retailers, where masked workers stood anxious as the clock neared 11 a.m., when they would open their doors. Employees went about their business in the minutes leading up to the reopening; at ba$sh, a women’s clothing retailer, workers prepared the store with new inventory, pulling a rolling rack of flower-print dresses for display. Then, a handful of customers began to trickle in.

Mall general manager Kurt Webb said many tenants are anxious to get back to business, but he’s not expecting them to do so all at once.

“Early on, we’re OK with that,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re giving everyone enough space and earning people’s confidence that malls are a place the community can come and feel safe.”

Extra masks and sanitizing wipes are available for shoppers on the mall’s third floor office. But earning consumer confidence back will be a tough sell, particularly in malls. Only about a third of U.S. consumers feel safe going to the store right now, according to a Deloitte survey of consumer behavior.

[…]

Labor advocates and pro-business groups alike largely advised against the re-opening.

The Greater Houston Partnership, a business-financed economic development group, discouraged Houston companies from returning to the office if possible on the first day that the stay-at-home order had expired in Texas. Bob Harvey, the CEO of the GHP, said in a statement that office-based employees have been able to carry out tasks remotely for some time, and there is, “no need to add fuel to the fire,” when it comes to COVID-19 transmission.

Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy criticized the opening as a “premature green light,” if the state does not allow employees to refuse work if their employer does not meet safety standards in the pandemic.

Also not rushing to reopen:

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in late March deemed churches to be “essential” services and superseded bans on in-person religious gatherings in Harris and other counties, many local congregations opted to stick with online services and follow the advice of public health experts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

A month later, Abbott has cleared the way for churches, synagogues and mosques across the state to resume larger gatherings as part of a plan announced Monday to restart Texas’ economy.

But there is far from a consensus among local religious leaders over whether now is the time to throw open church doors, even with Abbott’s social-distancing recommendations. A group of more than 80 Christian churches across greater Houston has signed a statement saying they would not hold in-person services during May.

“We believe that in-person gatherings for worship that are larger than 50 persons should not take place in April or May. We will not have in-person worship but will continue offering worship online,” said the statement. “In making this decision, we have the unanimous support of the leaders of the Texas Medical Center who strongly recommend these actions for all the faith communities of Greater Houston.”

Since the statement went out on Friday, about 25 more churches have added their signatures, according to Scott Jones, as resident bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

“We can see clearly at this time that resumption of larger group gatherings should not happen in the next six weeks,” the statement reads. “Deciding when to resume in-person worship for larger gatherings should be evaluated as new information about the rate of new cases and the availability of testing is available.”

Not every church leader agrees. Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop for Galveston-Houston, which includes 1.7 million Catholics, announced Wednesday evening that masses would resume this weekend with social distancing.

Second Baptist Church, which counts tens of thousands of Houstonians as members, said it will resume services at its campuses — again with social distancing — on May 9. The church said it may add new services to allow congregants to worship while remaining 6 feet apart.

And then there’s restaurants:

Dozens of Houston restaurants will reopen for dine-in service on Friday, May 1.

This list includes almost exclusively locally owned establishments from across a variety of price points and parts of Houston. That’s not necessarily the case in other parts of Texas; our sister site in Austin declined to publish a similar list of restaurants because “our story would largely consist of mega-chains or restaurant groups based in other cities.”

Those who choose to dine out this weekend will find restaurants to be different places than they were in February. Per regulations from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, diners will not be able to use valet parking. They will be expected to wash their hands upon entering a restaurant. Once seated — at parties no larger than six and at least six feet away from other tables — they’ll find that shared condiment dispensers such as ketchup bottles and salt shakers have been replaced by single-use, disposable items.

Picos has installed plexiglass partitions at the bar and in between some tables to separate both staff from diners and diners from each other. Many restaurants are limiting restroom occupancy to one person at a time, with a staff member monitoring the area to enforce social distancing. Contactless payment via Venmo or another app may be strongly encouraged.

Similarly, most restaurants have not only explicitly endorsed the Texas Restaurant Association’s Texas Restaurant Promise that recommends daily health screening of employees and frequent sanitizing of common areas but have also told CultureMap that their employees will be wearing masks and gloves when they interact with customers. Patrons should also strongly consider face coverings when they’re not eating to help prevent spreading the virus.

While the decision to reopen or patronize a restaurant’s dining room is controversial — one Instagram follower got blocked for a message that simply read “restaurants = death” — many people are ready to dine out. Representatives tell CultureMap that both Tony’s and Steak 48 are mostly booked for both Friday and Saturday, and Federal Grill had no trouble filling its available tables when it reopened last weekend.

I’m not, at least at this point, going to judge any business that felt they needed to reopen, or any person who wanted to patronize them. We are going to have to figure this out one way or another, and maybe at least we’ll get a better handle on how to do this by actually doing it, however risky or ill-advised it may be. I reserve the right to judge the hell out of anyone or any business that doesn’t reel it back in if it becomes clear that’s what we need to do, or who refuse to consider how their actions may affect others. I judge the hell out of these people, for example.

Speaking of which

Gov. Greg Abbott moved Friday to open up parts of the Texas economy, but he continues to get pressure from many Republicans to move faster even as Democrats have warned him to slow down.

Several conservative state legislators began a letter-writing campaign calling on Abbott to reopen other sectors of the economy — notably hair salons, barbershops, and bars.

“It is confusing to Texans that they have been allowed to congregate en masse at grocery stores and other big box stores since this crisis began, yet they are barred from patronizing a local barber shop or salon, for example, where they are served individually by professionals trained in sanitation and where they can social distance from other customers,” State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Thursday.

She’s not alone. Other lawmakers from around the state have been sending in letters as well and taking to social media to prod the governor to open more businesses.

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, took to Facebook to post a story about a Dallas salon that tried to open in defiance of Abbott’s orders to remain closed but was later forced to shut down.

“Greg Abbott Respectfully, ENOUGH!!! You are the only one that can STOP this!!! ENOUGH!!!” White wrote.

Abbott has said he, too, wants to see barber shops and hair salons open “as quickly as possible.” In an interview on KSAT in San Antonio on Thursday, he said he’s working with health officials to determine when those businesses can reopen safely. He said in those settings, workers and customers are in such close contact that they have to get the precautions right to prevent a flare-up of coronavirus infections.

“The decisions we make are based upon data as well as input from doctors,” Abbott said.

The hills some people pick to die on, perhaps literally. I do not understand.

Let’s close on a better note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday announced a fourth step to the mitigation plan she unveiled earlier this week to help reopen and restart Houston’s economy.

The mitigation plan announced earlier this week calls for expanding testing, contact tracing and treatment options. The fourth step announced Friday, what Hidalgo called the fourth “T”, is teamwork from residents to continue practice social distancing, wear face coverings and to remain vigilant of the virus, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift the stay-at-home order and reopen some businesses.

“We can’t ignore what is right around the corner,” Hidalgo said of a possible resurgence of the virus. “Some see today as a day of celebration…my message to them is not so fast.”

[…]

“Reopening doesn’t mean mission accomplished, it doesn’t mean the virus goes away,” Hidalgo said.

At least someone is keeping her eye on the ball.

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13 Comments

  1. I went to GROTTOS in the woodlands with the family. I will let ya’ll know when I start feeling sick.

    Oh by the way with all this Social Distancing going on I have a riddle what does Missouri City Municipal Court and Sugarland Municipal Court have in common?

    Both courts holding hearings on traffic tickets “remotely” to try and squeeze the last penny of drivers when they know the drivers can’t get to court to defend themselves. Problem is “with Sugarland” the remote hearings require the defendants to go to the courthouse to review the video’s and other evidence against them thus violating the social distancing rules and increasing COVID-19 exposure, They are also putting people in warrants for not showing up remotely.

    Sure would be nice to see some progressive help there or at least a little outrage.

  2. One last the thing. The County Judge is toast in the Democrat Primary. Waiting on Mayor Parker to take her out.

  3. Doris Murdock says:

    Thank you for the lengthy and informative article Mr. Kuffner. Our family is continuing to avoid unnecessary shopping, and we are practicing wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and making use of disinfectant wipes. We appreciate our county judge, who stands firm on caution, and speaks the language of 35% of its residents. The phrase ‘backwards and in high heels’ comes to mind. Meanwhile, we continue to enjoy livestream Jazzercise, meditation, book clubs, music, and reading the obituaries.

  4. Jason Hochman says:

    I have started to wonder how much of the reaction to the pandemic is disaster capitalism, and politically motivated from both sides. Many questions arise in my mind, for example the CDC guidance on death certificates states: “COVID-19 should be reported on the death certificate for all decedents where the disease caused or is assumed to have caused or contributed to death” So the deaths caused by the pandemic may be assumed as COVD? And, it may be counted if it only “contributed” to the death, for example, if a person with terminal cancer got it and then died. Meanwhile, the CDC reports the corona virus deaths in the US as around 37,000, not the more than 60,000 that I see in the media: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid19/index.htm

    The media typically reports that a person “died after testing positive for COVID-19,” which is a little different than saying “died from COVID-19” just like if someone ate a cheeseburger for lunch, and got mowed down by a truck on the way back to work and died, you could say that he died after eating a cheeseburger.

    People like John Ioannidis, who is a contrarian but he is a real scientist, believe that we are safe to start reopening businesses, now that we have the data from two months of the pandemic. According to his study, the rate of infection in California is 50 to 85 times greater than what is known, meaning that the death rate from this is comparable to seasonal influenza.

    so I wish I could know if anyone is trying to keep the public afraid, or is it best to simply err on the side of caution.

  5. Manny says:

    Jason did you bother to read past the numbers, and how they went to explain that they are constantly changing numbers.

    Plus look at the first line

    United States5 37,308 719,438 97 64,382 16,564 5,846

    now add the first number 37,308 and 16,564 =53,872

    Now if you look at April 11,

    4/11/2020 12,262 66,577 120 9,841 5,468 430 16,744

    12,262 + 5,468 = 17,730/66,577=26.6% of all death that week were because of covid 19 or covid 19 and pneumonia+covid 19 Because of the closing and distance requirements the percentage started to go down.

    Plus anything that comes out of any department where the Russian Cheeto has his stooges, has to be suspect.

    If only 1 percent of the population dies, that is still over 3 million people, but I have always maintained that the Republicans are death squads ready to toss old people into their graves.

  6. Wolfgang says:

    THESIS STATEMENT

    What do you fellow readers and commentators think about the following proposition:

    A. The state has a duty to protect the public health.
    B. Each person shall act responsibly to prevent and control communicable disease.

    AND KUDOS

    It’s nice to see a new name among the commentators once in a while, and I would like to take the opportunity to join in the praise of Mr. Kuff for all the hard work is doing, and has been doing for such a long time (considering the average life-span of blogs).

    I wonder how many lurkers are out there, and would urge them to consider elevating and enriching the discourse here…. Or at least express their appreciation for Mr. Kuff’s dedication likewise.

  7. Manny says:

    Jason for you and all the Virus Truthers who come post your nonsense, maybe this will help. That is assuming that you don’t consider Fake Fox the only true source.

    https://www.msnbc.com/all-in/watch/evidence-suggests-coronavirus-death-toll-much-higher-than-official-count-82781765983

  8. Jason Hochman says:

    Hi Manny, thanks for the link. I like how you have adopted the term “Virus Truther” and applied it to me, just like the video said.

    I watch Fox sometimes, and CNN, MSNBC as well. Mostly I have a lot of fatigue from them all…they all say the same thing they’ve said from day one…Tucker Carlson is a smart guy, but when I watch him, I can see he’s a bad actor, he doesn’t believe or care about what he says, but he is paid to say it…

    Meanwhile, when I look at the CDC provisional statistics page, the total all causes deaths for this year are at 97% of the expected. The expected deaths are based on the number at this same point in the year, averaging the total deaths from the last few years, I forgot how many years, but you get the picture. So we are actually slightly BELOW the expected number of total deaths. Unless you think that the CDC is incorrect.

    I’ve also seen some people, for example, Bill Maurer sticking to his statement that he hopes we have a huge recession, a beautiful recession, in order to get Trump out of office. Now, Maurer has a lot of money, he’s not going to be hurt by such a recession the way that a janitor with no money in the bank will be hurt. Or a bartender or a barista. And, I kind of sort of feel like Maurer and those like him would be happy to see a lot of deaths, if that would make Trump look worse. Really, no need to worry, Trump is already making himself look worse every day.

    Then again, I see a certain irony in that people called Trump a fascist and having totalitarian ideas, but then they criticize him for not assuming fascist powers to combat the pandemic.

    Many people were out today. Little league baseball playing and restaurant patios with a good handful of patrons. All in all, I have many uncertainties about what is the truth, but I am going to continue to be cautious. I recommend that you do the same, as the ref says to the boxers before the match starts, “protect yourself at all times.”

  9. Manny says:

    Jason: Rather than look at week one when there were zero death by the virus, why not look at the last five weeks, when it started killing people in large numbers. During the week that I stated above the death rate was at 120% or 20 percent higher during that week. If you look at the entire chart you can see that it starts going up the week of March 28. The five week or April 25 you can see that the percentage starts going down, that is after one month of stay at home and distancing.

    The other thing that is not counted is that the virus also kills by means other pneumonia type symptoms.

    In 3 weeks if the percentage starts going back up, expect that they will start closing places again. I say three weeks because of the incubation period for the virus.

    I did use the words Virus Truther because whether intentionally or not, you are using the same arguments they use.

    Thanks for the link, CDC, but I tend to believe the media like the New York Times and Washington Post to which I subscribe. I don’t have cable, have not had it since 1979 so I don’t watch any of the cable news. I will visit their websites, including Fox but I can’t stand their disregard for the truth.

  10. Jason Hochman says:

    Hi, that Washington Post link answered my question. They compile the total deaths from state health department data, which explains the discrepancy with the CDC total (which is provisional pending receipt of data from the states or counties).

  11. Jen says:

    Call for Mr. Kubosh and fellow conservatives on Line 1….yes it is a Mr. Darwin calling….

  12. Jen,

    LOL, thats funny.