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SOS moves towards increasing vote by mail

How about that?

Texas is opening the door to an expansion of mail-in voting during the coronavirus outbreak, though the state is unlikely to heed calls to have every voter cast ballots by mail to avoid exposure to COVID-19 at polling places.

The state’s director of elections on Thursday sent guidance to elections officials in all 254 counties telling them that voters can ask for mail-in ballots if they are worried that showing up to a polling place could be a danger to their health. The guidance also suggests that counties be more lenient with curbside voting and says counties should consider recruiting and training more poll workers this year.

[…]

The guidance isn’t a mandate. The secretary of state’s office says it can only advise counties on how to work within existing election law. But it offers a green light to county officials to take a lenient approach in approving requests for mail-in ballots.

“This is a big step in the right direction,” said Bay Scoggin, director of Texas Public Interest Research Group, one of dozens of groups that have urged the state to expand mail-in voting as at least one option for this year’s elections. “While we still want a more concrete expansion of vote by mail, this plan gives guidance to counties on a number of important issues.”

Texas is one of the few states that still require voters younger than 65 to have an excuse to cast a ballot by mail. Fewer than 7 percent of Texas voters mailed in ballots in 2018.

The guidance notes that the election code currently includes a “disability” clause that allows voters to apply for an absentee ballot if showing up at a polling place risks “injuring the voter’s health.” It suggests counties can get a court order to temporarily expand eligibility for mail-in voting — especially in areas under quarantine.

Advocates say while it appears to allow anyone with concerns about the coronavirus to get a mail-in ballot, the state still needs to be more clear. Democrats say it doesn’t go far enough.

“In the middle of this public health crisis, we must all be working together to keep people safe and healthy, while also keeping our democracy moving forward,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat. “This should include a statewide no-excuse vote-by-mail program that will give every eligible Texan the opportunity to make their voice heard in this year’s electoral process and guarantee their well-being.”

Every Texas Democrat in Congress wrote a letter to Abbott this week urging an expansion of voting by mail, pointing out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests shifting that way for 2020 elections.

This was also covered in that Trib story about the May elections being postponed. As noted, there was a lawsuit filed to force this issue, and I have to say, I’m more than a little surprised to see the state take the idea seriously rather than dig in their heels as usual. It isn’t everything that activists have demanded, but it’s a lot, and it’s not clear that “everything” would be possible to do in time for November. If this were the basis of a settlement agreement in that lawsuit, I’d be happy with it. Let’s put a bow on this so we can get down to the practical issues that would need to be addressed to make this much happen.

The May elections will not happen

Not in May, anyway.

Citing the state’s stay-at-home order, the Texas secretary of state is instructing municipalities to delay their May 2 elections.

In an email to local election officials sent Thursday afternoon, the state’s director of elections, Keith Ingram, said cities, towns and school boards that hadn’t pushed their upcoming elections to November “must take action to do so immediately” or risk facing a challenge in court.

“If you don’t move your May 2nd election, you are subjecting voters to health risks and potential criminal violations,” Ingram wrote. “Failure to postpone your election will put your election at severe risk for an election contest.”

[…]

Abbott issued an executive order Tuesday telling Texans to stay at home for the next month unless they are taking part in essential services and activities. In announcing his order, the governor made clear he expects all Texans to adhere to the guidance or face criminal punishment. The order lasts until April 30. Early voting for municipal elections would have started before then.

Although election workers are included under the federal government’s guidance on essential workers, that would not include voters, Ingram said.

Earlier in the week, the Trib had a previous story about a handful of cities, school boards, utility districts, and the like that were still planning on having their May elections, despite the earlier admonition to put them off till November. I can understand the arguments for wanting to proceed as scheduled, especially for elections that would be expected to have miniscule electorates, but really there was no good justification for it. This was the right thing to do.

That was a statewide stay-at-home order

And we’re under it now, even if you don’t want to call it that.

Be like Hank, except inside

Gov. Greg Abbott released a new video Wednesday clarifying that his executive order issued on Tuesday “requires all Texans to stay at home” except for essential activities.

“Now, I know this is a great sacrifice but we must respond to this challenge with strength and with resolve,” Abbott said in the 48-second video.

Abbott’s order goes into effect at midnight on Thursday morning.

With that, Texas now joins 37 other states that have enacted statewide stay-at-home orders. Mississippi, Georgia and Florida were among those to join that list on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Abbott intentionally avoided using the phrase “stay at home” during a briefing while describing his executive order, leading some to believe he had stopped short of ordering Texans to stay at home.

“In short, what this provides is that Texans are expected to limit personal interactions that could lead to the spread of COVID-19, while also still having the freedom to conduct daily activities such as going to the grocery store, so long as you are following the presidential standard of good distance practices,” Abbott said Tuesday.

Abbott also said on Tuesday he didn’t want to call his order a “stay at home strategy” because he thought that would mean you cannot leave your home under any circumstances.

But on Wednesday he issued a press statement just after 4 p.m. directing the media to the video that makes clear his order requires Texans to stay at home except for essential activities. His executive order makes clear those who don’t follow his decree face up to 180 days in jail and a fine of $1,000.

People are allowed out for basic exercise like running, bicycling or hunting, but must maintain distancing guidelines. The public can also go to grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores and the like.

See here for the background and here for the video, which is also embedded in the Chron story. As noted before, this order explicitly exempts churches from the restrictions, to appease sociopathic nihilists like Steven Hotze. Who, by the way, in addition to filing that writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court is also planning to file lawsuits in district courts in Montgomery and Galveston counties to challenge the stay-at-home orders there. Because this is exactly the type of person we need to be appeasing right now. Be that as it may, stay home. If we’re all diligent about this, we can truly hope for a different story in May. The Observer has more.

Intervening in the mail ballot expansion lawsuit

From the inbox:

The ACLU of Texas, American Civil Liberties Union, and Texas Civil Rights Project on Wednesday joined a case seeking to declare that under Texas law all registered voters qualify to request a mail-in ballot as a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis.

The lawsuit states that in order to prevent wide-scale disenfranchisement during this public health crisis, the court should declare that the Texas Election Code’s definition of “disability” in the vote-by-mail provision – one of the basis of eligibility to vote-by-mail in Texas – currently encompasses all registered voters. The suit further states that the court should order that all mail-in ballots received by eligible voters under this category due to the pandemic be accepted and tabulated.

Because of the current COVID-19 public health crisis and the need to be confined at home, all individuals cannot physically appear at a polling place on Election Day without a risk to their health. Texas has 3,997 confirmed cases as of today. The latest guidance from the Trump administration advises against gatherings of more than 10 people, and many Texas counties have ordered restaurants and bars closed.

“Public safety must be prioritized during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “If we don’t address how COVID-19 will affect our access to the ballot, people will find themselves balancing their civic duty to vote and their need to stay healthy. Clarifying that all Texans may vote-by-mail during this crisis under current state law is unquestionably the most effective and immediate way to ensure we protect both public safety and voting rights. Our state leaders must act fast so we can educate the public about how they can safely exercise their right to vote.”

The civil rights organizations are asking for the court’s declaration that the vote-by-mail provision applies to all Texans in light of the pandemic to allow for public education and planning to process an increase of mail ballots.

“Texans should not be asked to choose between their physical well-being and their fundamental right to vote, when we already have an election code that can accommodate a public health emergency,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, lead attorney on the case in the Voting Rights Program at Texas Civil Rights Project. “The secretary of state has been shockingly silent when our clients have been seeking her leadership and guidance the most. I know we’re in isolation, but you can send an email.”

“States all across the country are making vote by mail available because they know it is a common-sense solution to protect democracy and people’s well-being during this public health crisis,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, citing states such as West Virginia, Indiana, Delaware, and Virginia, among others. “In failing to issue guidance making clear that all Texans are eligible to vote by mail due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Texas is forcing a false choice between protecting public health and allowing Texans to exercise their right to vote. Vote-by-mail for all eligible voters allows for both. Texas can and should make this common-sense solution explicit.”

The plaintiffs in this filing include the League of Women Voters of Texas, MOVE Texas, League of Women Voters of Austin Area, Workers Defense Action Fund, and University of Texas student Zach Price.

A copy of the motion to intervene is available here.

See here for the background. Again, the arguments are straightforward and have been discussed before. It’s mostly a question of how the state will oppose them, and what the courts do from there. As the Chron editorial board notes, the Secretary of State could simply agree to the plaintiffs’ demands and be done with it, but I think we both know that Abbott and Paxton won’t let that happen. We’re going to need a ruling soon for this to matter for the primary runoffs. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: And as soon as I finished drafting this, I got the following in my mailbox:

On Wednesday, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs’s office responded to Progress Texas’ petition calling on Texas to implement universal vote-by-mail. So far, the petition has received roughly 3,000 signatures from voters across the state.

In the response, the Secretary of State’s office hinted at the possibility that Texans who are concerned for their health may meet the disability requirements currently in place to apply for a ballot by mail. However, the vague response is open to interpretation and requires clarity in the form of an official proclamation or agreed court order from Secretary of State Ruth Hughs or Governor Greg Abbott.

“Right now, no voter we know of has immunity to COVID-19, and physical polling places could risk exposure and cause injury by way of sickness,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas. “We have to make our upcoming elections as safe as possible. We believe that election law provides a remedy for all voters to vote-by-mail, but we need clarity from the state. Texas already allows no-excuse vote-by-mail for voters aged 65 and up, and we need our statewide lawmakers to step up and expand the benefit to everyone.”

“Being terrified of catching a virus that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people should obviously qualify as a legitimate reason for Texans to want to vote by mail, but we need an advisory from Secretary Hughes to make that official,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director at Common Cause Texas. “This email communication seems to indicate the Secretary of State agrees with our position, but this needs to be explicitly stated.”

Secretary of State Ruth Hughs office’s response states:

“One of the grounds for voting by mail is disability. The Election Code defines ‘disability’ to include ‘a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.’ (Sec. 82.002). If a voter believes they meet this definition, they can submit an application for ballot by mail.

“As the situation changes, we will be updating our guidance. We hope this information has been helpful.”

Progress Texas and Common Cause Texas call on Secretary Hughs and Gov. Abbott to act in the interest of Texans’ health, safety, and voting rights to officially expand vote-by-mail universally through an official proclamation or agreed court order as soon as possible.

We all agree on what the law says. What matters is what it means. If, as we have previously discussed, the state agrees that anyone can claim the disability allowance, then great! We’re done here. If not – and clearly, I think they won’t, though I’ll be happy to be proven wrong – that’s where we need the court to step in and issue a ruling. The clock is ticking.

Three cheers for grocery store workers

They deserve them, and more.

They are the friendly cashiers, the helpful baggers, the essential stockers and warehouse workers. The receivers who unload the delivery trucks, the personal shoppers who fulfill online orders and the teenagers who haul back all the shopping carts left behind in the parking lot.

Supermarket employees have long toiled behind the scenes of the most mundane of weekly errands: grocery shopping. But since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the humble grocery worker has taken on a new mantle in society, that of an emergency first responder in the global fight against the spread of the virus.

Grocery employees are working long hours — and putting their lives on the line — to provide food and basic household essentials to worried consumers increasingly staying at home during the pandemic. Unlike office staff, these workers cannot do their job from the comfort of their homes. U.S. grocery cashiers made a median wage of $10.78 per hour in 2018, far less than the median salaries for police officers ($30.47 an hour) and firefighters ($23.85 an hour), according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the same time, these workers have taken on additional duties, particularly to help keep stores clean. H-E-B is asking employees to devote shifts to cleaning entire stores, wiping down self-checkout after every two customers and frequently sanitizing high-touch areas, such as scales and shopping carts.

“People are starting to realize who they are, that these folks are really unbelievable,” H-E-B President Scott McClelland said. “They realize we’re on the front lines and we’ve got a role to fill in the community, one that’s as essential as the medical community.”

You might also read this Texas Monthly story about how HEB prepared for coronavirus, because unlike a certain Presidential administration I could name, they understood that it was coming and they needed to be ready for it. Funny how these things work. Anyway, among the many things that I hope come out of this crisis, maybe now we will all learn to appreciate – and compensate – people like these a bit more. They have more than earned it.

Cities and counties are going to need their own bailout

This story is about the rough financial future that the city of Houston faces as we go through the coronavirus shutdown, but it’s not just Houston that is in this position.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration continues efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Houston, another dire challenge looms for City Hall: its budget.

The economic downturn caused by the pandemic and plummeting oil prices has thrown an already cash-strapped spending plan into more arduous territory, raising the specter of the first furloughs or layoffs of city employees since 2011.

Controller Chris Brown, who recently finished a recession stress test for the city’s coffers, has said he thinks the situation is likely to rival the recession that began in 2008, approaching the test’s worst-case scenario: a budget deficit in excess of $300 million.

He told council members Tuesday they should begin dusting off the recession playbook.

“Unfortunately, they had to do some furloughs and cut some expenses and things like that, because you can’t control the revenue right now,” said Brown, the city’s independently-elected financial watchdog. “These are tough decisions that are going to have to be made, I think.”

Turner said budgeting is always difficult under a revenue cap, but the city in the past has forged its way through challenging deficits and will do so again.

The mayor would not say whether he thinks layoffs will be necessary, but he sees other actions that can help cut the deficit. Turner plans to use some of the city’s current fund balance, which is projected between $187 and $203 million. The rainy day fund, he pointed out, will also have $15 million when it comes time to adopt the budget.

Some job vacancies have already gone unfilled, he said.

“We always assume there is going to be a budget shortfall with the revenue cap,” Turner said, referring to Houston’s voter-imposed ceiling on increased property tax revenue. “There’s always some elephant in the room. The elephant here now is the coronavirus and the impact on your sales taxes.”

The city’s two largest streams of money are property and sales taxes. All eyes are on the latter, which are expected to take an unprecedented hit as most businesses have been ordered to close and the region’s residents have been told to stay home in a bid to slow the virus’ spread.

It’s not just sales tax revenue, which will hammer the state budget as well. No one’s flying into or out of the airports, no one is staying in hotels or renting cars or booking conventions. All of those things affect the enterprise fund, which is a part of the city’s budget that is largely not subject to the revenue cap. And as noted, it’s not just Houston. Every city, in Texas and elsewhere, will be facing this. Part of the solution here, very simply, needs to be a federal relief package for local and state governments, all of which would otherwise have to lay people off and drastically cut back on services, all of which would just further exacerbate the recessionary effects we are now feeling. Just as we expect business activity to more or less return to normal once everyone can leave their homes again, we should expect local tax revenues to more or less return to normal. All of that assumes that the business are still there to return to, which is why we needed the first stimulus bill, to prevent them all from suffocating in the meantime. We all want to return to normal, but we have to do everything we can to preserve what was normal until we can get back to it. That’s what the federal government can do, and what it needs to do.

But we should also recognize that forcing cities and counties and states to observe “balanced budget” requirements at a time like this is not only ridiculous, it’s self-mutilating. Mandating an artificial deadline for when one number must be shown to equal or exceed another is beyond stupid and pointless, and that’s even more so if we not-unreasonably assume that the feds will eventually come in with a check to make up for the sales taxes that did not happen. The single best thing Greg Abbott could do with his emergency powers once we’re at or near a point where we can begin to think about easing up on the stay-at-home rules is to declare that all “balanced budget” requirements are suspended for the next two budget cycles, along with the revenue cap that was passed in the last Lege. That won’t be carte blanche for cities and counties to start spending like crazy – they’ll still have to get their budgets to “balance” later on – it will just be a recognition that this was something entirely beyond their control, and they deserve a chance to recover from it. It won’t happen, of course – I’m sure Greg Abbott and the entire army of financial ghouls he has behind him are salivating at the prospect of forcing their local nemeses to slash their budgets – but it should. I will never stop beating this drum.

The state of inmate releases

Harris County judges are going to follow the federal bail lawsuit settlement agreement and not Greg Abbott.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has moved to restrict the release of people in jail during the coronavirus pandemic — but Harris County’s misdemeanor judges aren’t abiding by his executive order. Instead, they’re following a federal court’s orders for their bail decisions.

And those tied to the court have again raised skepticism that Abbott’s order is even constitutional.

Instead of following Abbott’s recent executive order, a lawyer for the 16 criminal court judges that preside over low-level offenses in Texas’ largest county said in a Tuesday letter obtained by The Texas Tribune that the judges will continue to comply with practices solidified in a federal court agreement. That will allow for the automatic release of most misdemeanor defendants without collecting bail payment.

[…]

Abbott’s order, issued Sunday, suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released on these personal bonds. But Abbott’s order only prohibits personal bonds, so those inmates could still walk free if they have access to cash.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, Abbott said his order had nothing to do with bail reform efforts, which prompted Harris County’s lawsuit.

“Bail reform efforts, among other things, are focused on making sure that you’re not going to imprison someone just because they don’t have any money, and you’re not going to have a bifurcated system where the rich are gonna get to bail out and the poor are not,” he said. “So this doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed.”

A law professor overseeing the Harris County decree advised county officials this week that the federal court order supersedes the governor’s. And he also doubted the constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

“The Order is likely unconstitutional under state and federal law. But regardless of whether it is ultimately challenged and/or implemented, [it] does not affect any terms of the pre-existing … consent decree,” said Brandon Garrett of Duke University School of Law.

See here for the background. It’s still not clear to me what Abbott intended with this order and what if anything he’ll do in response to the courts’ actions. We do know what the plaintiffs in that bail lawsuit are doing, however.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some Texas jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic is being challenged in federal court. Civil rights attorneys filed a court motion Wednesday arguing the order unconstitutionally discriminates against poor defendants and also takes away judges’ power to make individual release decisions.

[…]

On Wednesday, in an ongoing federal lawsuit over Harris County’s felony court bail practices, attorneys representing inmates filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against Abbott’s order. The motion asks U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to order Harris County judges to ignore Abbott’s order until a full hearing can be held.

“The text of the Order purports to block release of presumptively innocent individuals even if state judges conclude that there is no individualized basis for their pretrial detention — but only for those who cannot pay,” the motion said.

Abbott said Tuesday that his legal team and the attorney general’s office worked for days on the order to ensure it met “constitutional muster.” His order “doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed,” he said. A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to questions about the court challenge Wednesday.

My guess is that Judge Rosenthal will not be impressed by Abbott’s order, but I expect we’ll know soon enough.

And then there’s this.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order Wednesday directing the Harris County Jail to release some low-risk inmates to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

It could take up to 32 hours for the relevant agencies to weigh in and allow eligible people to leave the downtown campus of the third largest jail in the country.

The order by Hidalgo — more than two weeks in the making — calls on Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to assemble a list of people accused of nonviolent offenses with no violent prior convictions. Murray Fogler, a lawyer for Gonzalez, estimated this initial list could include 1,000 to 1,200 people who fit the criteria.

The order cites the grave risk the disease poses to both the jail population and the whole Houston area.

“Without significant reductions in the current population, the lack of physical space, supplies, and staff to control an infectious outbreak in the Harris County Jail system is likely to spread to the greater Harris County region,” the order says. “These detainees spend significant time in communal spaces, including dormitories, eating areas, recreation rooms, bathrooms, and cells or holding areas, and are unable to choose to do otherwise. Further, detainees live in spaces with open toilets within a few feet from their beds, and unable to access a closed toilet that would not aerosolize bodily fluids into their living spaces.”

The order excludes anyone with three or more drunk-driving convictions, a conviction for burglary of a habitation or any pending temporary restraining orders.

See here and here for the background. The order, which is embedded in the Chron story, also takes into account inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19. The jail is going to be a huge vector for the virus, and the only thing we can do about it is to minimize the number of people who could be affected by it. Again, I wonder what if any resistance we’re going to get from the state.

Abbott imposes travel restrictions

Where we are now.

Now please pull over

Gov. Greg Abbott is tightening travel to Texas by ordering some motorists from Louisiana to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The new travel restrictions come as Louisiana’s status as a novel coronavirus hotspot grew Sunday to more than 3,500 positive cases statewide. Abbott said drivers with commercial, medical, emergency response, military or critical infrastructure purposes for entering Texas would be exempted.

State troopers will enforce the order at checkpoints at major roadways along the border. Those asked to quarantine will be asked to provide an address for where they plan to hold up in Texas, either for two weeks or until their return to Louisiana, whichever is comes first.

A provision in the order allows for DPS special agents to check on those under quarantine to make sure they’re complying. Violators could be subject to either a $1,000 find or 180 days in jail, according to the four-page document. Another rule states that if a driver is showing symptoms associated with COVID-19, such as fever, coughing or shortness of breath, a trooper will follow them to their destination.

The Texas order follows suit from Florida, whose governor on Friday required drivers from Louisiana to also quarantine upon entering their state. Motorists from Louisiana would have to cross both Alabama and Mississippi to make it to Florida.

The Louisiana border is 113 miles from Houston along I-10.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he urged travelers returning to Texas to do the same more than three weeks ago, regardless of where they had been.

“If you leave Texas and come back to Texas, you should self-quarantine,” Turner said at a news conference. “Nobody should be traveling unless you absolutely have to.”

I get it, it’s a rational move to make, though there’s not much in the way of enforcement behind this, so it’s more suggestion than requirement. A perfectly reasonable suggestion, as long as we keep in mind that that’s what it is.

Younger people get coronavirus, too

Because that’s how viruses work.

More Houstonians younger than 60 are testing positive for the novel coronavirus than those who are most at risk of developing serious complications from the illness.

Of that number, middle-aged adults — those in their 40s and 50s — have garnered the brunt of the cases that have tested positive, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis.+

A review of 164 cases from March 4 through [March 23] in counties with confirmed diagnoses — Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria, Galveston, Liberty and Chambers — show around 78 percent of COVID-19 cases in the greater Houston region are of children and adults under the age of 60. People older than that, who federal health authorities say they are more likely to require hospital care if infected, make up about 21 percent of those who have tested positive.

[…]

Even a handful of children in the Houston region tested positive for the novel coronavirus.+

Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health, was aware of the trend of younger people contracting the novel coronavirus.

“People like me, who feel like they can go out and do everything — we, too, can test positive,” Shah said Tuesday morning at a news conference, where officials also announced a stay-at-home order.

“All of us have the potential of transmitting that to others,” he continued.

Maybe someone can tell Dan Patrick? It’s one thing for geezers like him to get sick and die, but people in their 40s and 50s aren’t Grandma and Grandpa, they’re Mom and Dad. And, as Dr. Shah notes, they’re all very capable of passing along the virus to whoever else they encounter, old and young. True, they’re less likely to die than old useless people like Dan Patrick, but 1) the chances are still greater than zero, and some people with zero risk factors have died from COVID-19; 2) plenty of younger folks have pre-existing respiratory issues and/or are immuno-compromised; 3) some people have had lasting after-effects of the disease; and 4) getting sick, and especially going to the hospital, can be very expensive. All of which to say, it’s better to not get sick. Which is what human beings with empathy and compassion, who are not sociopaths like Dan Patrick, are trying to accomplish with social distancing and stay-at-home requirements. I can’t believe I have to explain this, but here we are.

(Yeah, I drafted this last week, which now seems like a million years ago, and Dan Patrick has been blessedly quiet since then. He still needs to be raked over the coals at every opportunity for his hateful, nihilistic blatherings.)

Harris County stay-at-home order extended

Not a surprise.

Be like Hank, except inside

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday extended her stay-at-home order through April 30, as cases of novel coronavirus infections in the Houston area continue to rise, three county officials with knowledge of the plan said.

Hidalgo could further lengthen or shorten the duration of the order, depending on the success of efforts to combat the outbreak, the sources said.

[…]

The original stay-at-home measure, which closed most businesses and prohibits public gatherings of any kind, is set to expire Friday. Health experts say extending the restrictions to daily life are necessary to prevent a spike in cases that could overwhelm hospitals.

Hidalgo signaled at a news conference Monday that she would do so.

“It’s not a matter of if the stay-at-home order will be extended; it’s a question of for how long,” she said.

Violations of the order are punishable with fines or jail time, though Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said authorities have yet to make any arrests. She said her investigators have answered about 2,500 calls from residents with questions and focused enforcement efforts on reminding businesses of the rules.

The rules are the most restrictive in a series of steps taken by local officials this month to limit interactions between people that can spread the highly communicable virus. Turner ordered the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo closed on March 11. Hidalgo closed bars and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery on March 16.

I know it feels like forever, but the Harris County stay-at-home order was issued eight days ago. HISD was closed beginning March 13, and I’d say most people who could work from home began doing so on the 16th, so we’re a bit more than two weeks into this. And speaking of the schools:

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday told Texans to stay at home for the next month unless they are taking part in essential services and activities, announcing a heightened statewide standard to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. He also announced that schools would remain closed until at least May 4.

During a news conference at the Texas Capitol, Abbott declined to call his latest executive order a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order, arguing such labels leave the wrong impression and that he wants Texans to know, for example, they can still go to the grocery store. But in an interview afterward, he said “it’s a fact” that the executive order nonetheless brings Texas up to speed with states that have issued orders with those labels.

“States that have adopted stay-at-home policies or even some that use shelter in place are very close to ours, which is, if you had to put a label on it, it would be ‘essential service and activities only,'” Abbott said. “If you’re not engaged in an essential service or activity, then you need to be at home for the purpose of slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

The state has outlined a list of more than a dozen sectors that provide essential services that comply with Abbott’s order, which is largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue. Those include health care, energy, food and critical manufacturing. Texas’ list adds religious services, which are not included in federal guidance.

The order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and lasts until April 30, aligning it with the new end date that President Donald Trump announced Monday for social-distancing guidelines.

The order supersedes one that Abbott issued March 19 that limited social gatherings to 10 people, among other things. The new order narrows that standard significantly, asking Texans to “minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.”

In using terms like “minimize,” the order’s language stops short of explicitly banning nonessential activity. But Abbott made clear he expects all Texans to adhere to the guidance or face criminal punishment — and that there is only wiggle room in the language to account for potential “exceptions to the rule.”

“You never know what the exception would be, like let’s say there’s some emergency where you have to go do something or whatever the case may be,” he said. “And you don’t want to get people subject to being in violation of a law for a lack of clarity.”

[…]

At the news conference, Abbott encouraged churches to conduct their services remotely but said that if they must meet in person, they should follow the federal social-distancing guidelines.

“I’m unaware of a church that would want its constituents, its parishioners, to be exposed to COVID-19, and I think there’s enough public information right now for them to be aware of the practices that are needed to make sure that their members don’t contract COVID-19,” Abbott said in the interview.

Still not a statewide shelter-in-place order, which the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Nurses Association are calling for, but it is what it is. As for that exception for religious services, we’ll see what that means.

Abbott said religious services should either be conducted remotely or in-person using social distancing guidelines. He added that “drive-up services,” where congregants would remain in their cars, which some churches plan to use this Easter, would “satisfy the criteria that we’re talking about.”

David Duncan, pastor of Houston’s Memorial Church of Christ, said he appreciates Abbott’s recognition of the “importance of religion.” But he added, “The second greatest command is to love our neighbors as ourselves. For me, at this moment, the way I love my neighbor is by giving them physical distance.”

Many congregations moved away from in-person gatherings prior to orders by local officials, including one by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo that banned gatherings. Hidalgo said Tuesday afternoon that the county was reviewing Abbott’s order.

“We will continue doing what we have been doing,” said Mike Miller, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville. “Gathering crowds in any way that would make 6-foot separation impossible is not acting responsibly.”

[…]

Josh Ellis, head of Houston’s association of Southern Baptist churches, declined to comment on Abbott’s order.

Ellis did, however, advise churches to continue suspending in-person services. “Ministry is essential, and continues, while continuing to keep the most people safe,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which suspended in-person services earlier this month, also said it is reviewing the governor’s order.

We’ll see if this has any effect on the Hotze death wish lawsuit. I still think the full-on ban was the correct move, mostly because assholes like Hotze have now demonstrated they don’t give a shit about anyone else, but if this avoids a nasty court ruling, I can accept it.

(By the way, has Dan Patrick been a little quieter than usual lately, or am I imagining it? Just wondering.)

The Fifth Circuit does what the Fifth Circuit always does

The fix, as ever, is in.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court on Tuesday temporarily reinstated Texas’s ban on abortions amid the coronavirus outbreak, saying it needs time to review arguments about its impact.

The ruling is the latest in a ricocheting legal battle that began last week after the governor postponed non-essential surgeries, and the attorney general declared abortions to be included.

The Republican-led state is one of several that have moved to block abortions, arguing that providers are draining critical medical supplies that could be used to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two of the conservative justices on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued the ruling, and gave both sides until Friday to respond, meaning the ban will remain in effect at least through this week.

In a dissent, Circuit Judge James Dennis noted that a federal judge in Austin had declared a day earlier that “irreparable harm would flow from allowing the (governor’s) order to prohibit abortions during this critical time.”

See here for the background. I wish these predictions weren’t so easy to make, but this is literally what the Fifth Circuit does. I’m going to go walk my dog and hurl curses in their direction. You go read Mark Joseph Stern and Mother Jones for more details about this.

Another “when might this peak” projection

From the Current:

A new study suggests San Antonio’s current shelter-in-place order, which runs through April 9, may not be long enough to ride out the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas is more than a month away from the peak of the crisis, which is likely to hit the state May 2, according to a state-by-state analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The United States as a whole will hit its peak earlier, on April 15. But that’s still days after the Alamo City’s order expires.

May 2 will mark both the date of the virus’ peak drain on Texas’ hospital resources and the state’s highest number of COVID-19 related deaths, according to the IHME, an independent research center at the University of Washington. It made those projections by modeling statistics collected by the World Health Organization and local and national governments.

[…]

Worth noting: the IHME’s modeling assumes the public is practicing strong social distancing and other protective measures. However, it also assumes Texas Gov. Greg Abbott continues not to implement a statewide stay-at-home order and won’t mandate closure of all non-essential services.

After Texas’ potentially devastating peak, the number of deaths and hospitalizations would drop sharply by the beginning of June, according to IHME’s projections. The virus could run its course by early July.

Even so, IMHE expects 4,150 Texans to die from COVID-19 related causes by August 4. It also predicts more than 82,000 nationwide will succumb to the disease by then.

A previous projection done by UT Health scientists suggested that the Houston area could peak in mid-April, with the pandemic burning out in our area by early May. I don’t know much about epidemiology, but I do know that the assumption of when Day 0 is – that is, the day of the first infection – matters a lot, so a variance of even a couple of days could shift things quite a bit one way or the other. Beyond that, I would recommend taking these different studies and projections with the same level of skepticism and trust one would put into an individual poll result: Illuminating and useful, but still just one data point that doesn’t mean as much as it might without confirmation from other results.

With Dr. Fauci’s estimates of 100K to 200K dead nationwide in a best-case scenario, this seems optimistic to me. Maybe it’s better to think of it as a more formal (if not necessarily more precise) quantification of that best case scenario. Note that the numbers given in this projection represent the midpoint of a range of possible outcomes – those error bars are pretty damn wide. Given the uneven implementation of stay-at-home orders and the lack of a statewide order, I’d be prepared for this to end up being well on the low side. But maybe we’ll get lucky. In the meantime, stay at home. TPM has more.

(You can play with the data yourself here. That’s how I generated the embedded image in this post.)

UPDATE: This Twitter thread from Carol Bergstrom, who is an actual expert, explains the concerns with this much better than I can. His interpretation is similar to mine in that this is a “best case” model, but he posits that the “error bars” are the range of uncertainty for that best case model, not for the entire range of possible outcomes. In other words, if the underlying assumption that social distancing isn’t working as well as we hope, or that we’re not doing it well enough for it to work properly, then the range of outcomes we will get will be considerably worse.

More on Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

Here’s that more detailed Chron story I referenced yesterday. I’m just going to quote the newer information about Greg Abbott’s executive order that attempts to basically stop most releases of inmates from the jail regardless of the coronavirus situation.

The newly appointed monitor over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail protocol, Duke law professor Brandon Garrett, said the decree violated “many state and federal constitutional provisions.”

Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights attorney who represents thousands of indigent defendants awaiting trial at the lockup on felony charges, called the governor’s stance illegal and perilous.

“The edict is dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic, and a flagrantly unconstitutional attempt to infringe fundamental constitutional rights,” he said. “If enforced it would have catastrophic public health consequences.”

[…]

The governor’s order suspends portions of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and statues related to personal bonds, barring any personal bonds for anyone with a prior violent conviction or a conviction involving the threat of violence. He also outlawed releasing inmates with prior violent convictions on electronic monitoring.

In a barely veiled reference to the preparations taking place by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the governor suspended portions of the Texas Government Code permitting a county judge, mayor or emergency management director from releasing people outlawed under his new order. He said criminal court judges who handle misdemeanor and felony cases may still consider such releases on an individualized basis for health or medical reasons proper notice to prosecutors.

Among prison inmates, Abbott suspended portions of the state criminal code related to commuting sentences for anyone convicted of violence or threats.

Multiple plans for lowering the jail population have evolved in the past two weeks, including an executive order by Hidalgo that never came to fruition and a request by the lawyers who sued the county over its bail practices. District Attorney Kim Ogg also entered the discussion, telling the sheriff and presiding district judge that she wanted to weigh in and expedite releases of low-risk inmates in the “high likelihood” of a federal court order dictating either substantive bail hearings or outright release on personal bonds.

“As the legal representatives of the State of Texas, we also have the duty to be advocates for victims and the community in a full and fair bail hearing related to the proposed release of individuals who do pose a substantial risk to public safety,” Ogg wrote, in the letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Hours before Abbott’s announcement, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal convened an emergency hearing by phone to address incomplete plans by plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case to craft the a release order for people accused of some nonviolent offenses, along with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge.

An official from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office told the federal judge that Paxton was poised to appeal any order by Rosenthal that called for blanket releases of inmates.

See here for the previous post. The Trib adds on.

Abbott’s order applies to inmates who have been accused or convicted of “a crime that involves physical violence or the threat of physical violence,” which defense attorneys called a vague and subjective standard. Abbott’s directive also appears to apply to inmates with any history of violent offenses — meaning a person arrested on a nonviolent drug charge last week could be held if he had a decades-old conviction of a violent offense.

Though the order bans release of inmates on no-cost, personal bonds, it does not set a standard for how high a bail amount must be. Presumably, judges could still release inmates on bonds of $1, defense attorneys said.

Legal experts questioned the order’s validity, and it drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and bail reform advocates, who argued the order discriminates against poor people. Several Texas counties, including Harris and Dallas, have in recent years had their bail practices deemed unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

“It is a dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic and flagrantly unconstitutional edict that if enforced would expose many people around the state of Texas to a public health catastrophe,” said Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the Civil Rights Corp, which has been at the helm of Harris County’s federal bail lawsuits.

El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, a state representative and former prosecutor and defense attorney, said “if followed, this order will see jails bursting at the seams [with] minor drug offenders, homeless people whose most recent ‘crime’ was something like simple trespass & everyday citizens picked up on the flimsiest of allegations.”

According to Abbott’s order, a judge may consider a defendant’s release for health or medical reasons, after the district attorney is notified and there is an opportunity for a hearing.

You can see the executive order here, and a brief analysis of why it doesn’t pass constitutional muster here. Rep. Gene Wu was on a call with Abbott and reports that the Governor is either misinformed or not telling the truth about his own order. The ACLU of Texas has responded to Abbott’s order, and I presume we’ll have some action in the federal court today. I should note that Ken Paxton jumped out in front of this parade ahead of Abbott’s order, which prompted a couple of folks to observe that Ken Paxton is himself under a felony indictment and out free on bail. Hey, irony went into hospice care sometime back in 2002, so just keep swimming. The Texas Observer has more.

Steven Hotze’s death wish

I have three things to say about this.

A hardline conservative power broker and three area pastors filed a petition with the Texas Supreme Court Monday arguing that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order violates the Constitution by ordering the closure of churches and failing to define gun shops as “essential” businesses.

The emergency petition for a writ of mandamus, filed by anti-LGBTQ Republican activist Steven Hotze and pastors Juan Bustamante, George Garcia and David Valdez, contends Hidalgo’s order undercuts the First Amendment by limiting religious and worship services to video or teleconference calls. Pastors also may minister to congregants individually.

Hotze and the pastors argue the order also “severely infringes” on Second Amendment rights by closing gun stores. The order does not define gun shops as essential businesses, though Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion Friday that stay-at-home orders cannot force gun stores to close or otherwise restrict sales or transfers.

Hidalgo’s order, issued March 24, requires most businesses to close and directs residents to stay home unless they are getting groceries, running crucial errands, exercising or going to work at a business deemed essential. The directive is aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, and it came a day after chief executives at the Texas Medical Center unanimously called for the county to implement a shelter-in-place order.

[…]

Hidalgo spokesman Rafael Lemaitre declined to address “the specifics of the litigation,” but said: “Public health and science must drive our response, and the science is clear: If we fail to take adequate steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, people will die. We continue to urge folks to take this seriously.”

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said county officials view the order as “necessary to deal with the extraordinary crisis that Harris County, Texas and the country are facing as a result of the coronavirus.”

Soard said the order does not intend to close gun stores and “we’ve not advised any gun stores to close, as far as I’m aware.” He also said Paxton’s opinion makes clear that gun shops in Texas will remain open.

As for the First Amendment challenge, Soard said there is “nothing in the order that prevents churches from broadcasting” services. He said Hidalgo crafted the order “as precisely or narrowly as she could to allow people to worship as they choose.”

1. If Hotze and his band of idiots were only putting their own health and lives at risk, I wouldn’t care. Hell, I’d cheer them on, from a sufficiently safe distance. But as we’ve said many times, that’s not how viruses work. They would be putting many other people in jeopardy. They may not care about that, but they don’t get to make that kind of decision unilaterally.

2. Even if the courts stop them, Hotze is still working to put other people in danger:

In a video posted to YouTube late last month, Hotze advised that people take multivitamins and not worry about the virus, which he said is “all media hype” and “fake news.”

Hotze then compared the virus to the flu or dysentery, and accused democrats of having “weaponized the coronavirus” to hurt President Donald Trump.

Marc Boom, CEO of Houston Methodist, called the lawsuit “disheartening” and “reckless,” and said it is “potentially endangering lives.”

I’m old enough to remember when behavior like that was considered to be un-Christian.

3. I’ll leave the last word to this guy:

‘Nuff said. A copy of the lawsuit is embedded in the story. The county should be filing its response today.

Latest abortion ban halted for now

We follow the script.

Right there with them

A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked Texas’ ban on abortions, a prohibition state officials said was necessary to preserve medical resources during the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling came less than a week after Texas abortion providers announced a lawsuit against top state officials, challenging Attorney General Ken Paxton’s assertion that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning all procedures deemed to be not medically necessary should be interpreted to include abortions.

The court granted the abortion providers’ motion to temporarily block the state from enforcing the order, which was set to expire April 21, as it relates to abortions. The temporary restraining order will expire April 13.

“Regarding a woman’s right to a pre-fetal-viability abortion, the Supreme Court has spoken clearly,” wrote U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel. “There can be no outright ban on such a procedure.”

Yeakel also wrote that people seeking abortions would “suffer serious and irreparable harm” if the ban were allowed and that temporarily blocking the executive order “will not disserve the public interest.”

“The attorney general’s interpretation of the Executive Order prevents Texas women from exercising what the Supreme Court has declared is their fundamental constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable,” Yeakel wrote.

See here for the background. The next page of this script is the state appealing to the Fifth Circuit, and the Fifth Circuit inventing some reason to give the state what it asked for. After that it gets a little murky, but by then it almost doesn’t matter because the state gets to do what it wants in the interim. In theory, once the emergency order is lifted then the justification for this ban goes away, but if you don’t think there’s some way that Abbott and Paxton might try to work around that, you’re not thinking hard enough. The Current and Slate have more.

The federal stimulus package includes money for elections

What we’ll do with it remains unknown at this time.

Be like Hank, except inside

The $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package Congress is working to pass this week includes $400 million for election costs states face in wrestling with how to hold high-profile 2020 elections in a time of social distancing.

Advocates estimate the that could mean as much as $20 million for Texas, where state officials have so far opted to delay election dates — including pushing back a runoff to pick the Democratic challenger to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn until mid-July — rather than expand vote-by-mail options or offer up online voter registration.

It’s unclear how the state would use the funding — which still has to clear Congress and get signed by President Donald Trump — but advocates were already pushing for state leaders to consider expanding mail-in voting and offering online registration, something 39 states do now.

“Every Texan needs should be able to safely register to vote and cast their ballot whether by mail or in person,” Anthony Gutierrez, Executive Director of Common Cause Texas, said in a statement. “The way we make that happen is to use these funds to implement online voter registration, expand vote by mail, extend early voting, recruit more election workers, and ensure all poll sites meets public health safety standards.”

I don’t know if $20 million is enough to accomplish that, but then I also don’t know what if any conditions there are on this money. I hope there are some and that they are clear, because I have no doubt that our state leadership would use the money in some way that they could claim was about supporting the 2020 elections but really wasn’t. I have no idea what that may be, but I have faith in their ability to conjure something.

The rest of the H-GAC region

As long as we’ve been talking about Waller County and Montgomery County, I thought I’d check in on the other members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council region. Harris County and six of its seven neighbors – Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, and Montgomery, but not Waller – have issued stay-at-home orders. What about the other five counties in the region?

Austin County says the following on its website:

UPDATE 02.24.2020

We have been advised by authorities of one confirmed Covid-19 case in Sealy. The family is self-quarantining and is complying with guidelines. Any potential exposure is being investigated. Our recommendations have not changed. Continue to practice good hygiene and social distancing. Stay home if you are sick. If you have symptoms, even if they are your usual allergies, flu, etc., call your doctor first. Only go to the doctor’s office or hospital if directed by the doctor. We need to isolate the virus. Stay home as much as possible. Limit your exposure. Tell this to your kids if they are running around on their extended spring break. Stay calm and be safe. As the governor says, we can defeat Covid 19 in Texas.

Here’s a news story from Brenham that basically recapitulates this information. One thing you find when you go looking for news about these smaller counties is that there ain’t much out there. For now, this is what we know.

Colorado County has a disaster declaration by its County Judge and the Mayors of three towns (Columbus, Eagle Lake, and Weimar) that “shall be read to comply” with the initial executive order from Greg Abbott, which closed bars and gyms and schools, limited public gatherings to a maximum of ten people, and limited restaurants to take-out only. The Colorado County order says it continues till March 27, but I presume there has been an extension since then; the Abbott order was through April 3, anyway. As of March 25, there were no confirmed cases in Colorado County.

Matagorda County has been under a disaster declaration since March 16, and has closed county parks, community centers, fairgrounds, and county beach access, in addition to restricting access to county government buildings. They reported eleven positive cases as of Saturday morning.

Walker County has a COVID-19 information page, where I learned that they have a midnight to five AM curfew as of March 23, and they report two confirmed cases as of Friday. Walker County is the home of Huntsville, and thus the Huntsville Correctional Unit, and I sure would like to know what their plan is for when the first inmate tests positive.

Finally, there’s Wharton County, which has this press release stating that there have been five positive COVID-19 tests for county residents (out of 50 total, with eight still pending as of Friday), and little else.

Far as I can tell, none of these counties has a stay-at-home order similar to what the big counties have been doing. These five counties combine to have nineteen confirmed positive cases, though given that test results are taking up to ten days to return, who knows what the actual number is. It’s surely higher now than when I drafted this post on Saturday. I have no idea what is informing Greg Abbott’s decision-making process, but at least now you know.

UPDATE: From the Trib, a note on the larger picture: “As of Friday, the Texas Department of State Health Services said 105 of the state’s 254 counties had reported cases. A week earlier, there were only 34.”

Still trying to do something about the coronavirus risk in the jail

Time is extremely limited for this.

A federal judge Friday asked lawyers to hammer out a plan for releasing about 1,000 indigent inmates detained on bonds of $10,000 or less amid fear of a COVID-19 outbreak at the third largest jail in the country. The judge indicated she would take up the fate of another 3,400 people in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial on higher bonds next week.

The instructions by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal came in response to an emergency request Friday by the team of lawyers who challenged the county’s bail policies. They argued that thousands of poor defendants trapped in the jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail should be granted immediate bail hearings or be released.

The pleading laid a grave situation at the hands of a judge who has made many tough decisions in the criminal justice realm.

“A public health catastrophe of historic proportion looms in the Harris County Jail. Only this Court can avert it,” the motion says. “With every passing hour, the risk of disaster increases. All eyes turn to this Court in this dire moment.”

The bail lawsuit motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction seeks release of about half the jail’s population of nearly 8,000 if they cannot be afforded immediate bail hearings. This would mean thousands of people charged with nonviolent offenses would be allowed to await trial on bond outside the facility, as they would otherwise be able to do if they could post cash bond.

Other local officials, including the sheriff, state district judges and top county official have been tackling the potential public health threat from different angles over the past two weeks, seeking compassionate releases of medically vulnerable inmates, bonds for those accused of nonviolent offenses, or some cross-section of the two groups.

But early Friday lawyers from Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Civil Rights Project and pro bono counsel from Susman Godfrey, stepped in with a constitutional approach to the jail problem that could allow much more drastic cuts in the population than the compassionate release plans outlined by the sheriff and the county judge.

Rosenthal asked the lawyers for indigent defendants and attorneys for the sheriff and the county to assemble by Monday a list of thousands of people who might qualify for release based on their bond amounts, charges, criminal histories and risk factors. In addition, the judge indicated she would move swiftly on a subset of the indigent defendants who can’t pay their bond. She asked for confirmation that 1,000 or so people being held on bonds of up to $10,000 were not subject to other holds or detainers.

The sheriff and county officials told the judge that they had no objection to this first group being released if they fit the judge’s criteria. According to a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the only agency that opposed the release of those facing $10,000 bonds was the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Sheriff Gonzalez had been working on this for the past week, trying to get individual judges to allow some inmates to be released, but the process was slow. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had been working on an executive order that would have released a larger number of inmates, but she shelved it after objections from the Attorney General’s office; you can read that story for the details. And I know, we’re all going to be murdered in our sleep by a rampaging horde of pot smokers and check kiters, but let’s do pause for a moment and consider what the alternative might be:

In another effort to address the issue, Harris Health System leaders on Friday sent a letter asking for the release of defendants with nonviolent offenses.

The county medical system’s president and CEO stressed that an outbreak in the Harris County Jail is not a matter of if, but when.

“The Harris County Jail and other large correctional facilities pose a real and immediate danger to the health of the community,” Esmaeil Porsa said. “An even limited outbreak of COVID-19 in the Harris County Jail has the potential to overwhelm our already overburdened hospital system. If this happened — and the likelihood is high — it could leave many vulnerable people in our community without access to care.”

Porsa urged the county to consider prioritizing inmates over 60 with pre-existing conditions such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, heart disease and HIV. Jails are known to have higher concentrations of people in the high-risk group, he said.

He added that social distancing is nearly impossible, with dorm settings holding between 20 and 60 people in a close space. And quarantine is also unfeasible when inmates are booked in and out of the jail on a daily basis.

We could just let them all die, I suppose. I’m sure Dan Patrick would approve. I would rather not do that.

UPDATE: And now Greg Abbott is involved, and I’m confused.

As the first Harris County inmate tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order blocking any release of inmates from jails and prisons accused or convicted of violent crime.

“Releasing dangerous criminals from jails into the streets is not the right solution and doing so is now prohibited by law by this declaration,” Abbott said at an afternoon briefing.

The news comes as federal, state and local government officials continued to squabble over details of what a jail release would look like as they attempted to prevent a catastrophic outbreak among the approximately 8,000 people incarcerated at the downtown facility.

The governor was referencing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s motion to prevent Harris County from releasing 4,000 people awaiting trial on felonies, saying such a move would “allow dangerous criminals to roam freely and commit more crimes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Protecting Texans is one of my highest priorities. It is vital that we maintain the integrity of our criminal justice system and continue to enforce state law during this pandemic,” Paxton said. “My office will not stand for any action that threatens the health and safety of law-abiding citizens.”

Hours earlier a federal judge convened an emergency hearing to address plans that plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case had hammered out over the weekend with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge to release inmates accused of some nonviolent offense.

An official from Paxton’s office appeared telephonically at that hearing and said the AG planned to appeal an order by the federal judge to the 5th U.S. Circuit if it called for any blanket releases.

The judge set a hearing for Tuesday to address a possible appeal.

There wasn’t anything in the previous story about people accused or convicted of violent crimes, hence my confusion. I assume there are still plenty of people in the Harris County jail for misdemeanor charges, so it’s not at all clear to me what the extent of the dispute is. Maybe later versions of the story will make that more clear.

UPDATE: There’s now a more detailed version of the Chron story and also a Trib story, but this post is too long already. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

Of course he thinks that’s “essential”

Doesn’t get any more on-brand than this.

Best mugshot ever

Gun stores are essential business and should be allowed to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Friday.

Paxton said in his nonbinding opinion that state law prevents cities and counties from “adopting regulations related to the transfer, possession, or ownership of firearms, or commerce in firearms.”

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, on Tuesday requested that Paxton’s office weigh in on whether firearm sales can be listed as essential businesses by local officials, as businesses across the state have shuttered due to shelter-in-place orders designed to slow spread of the new coronavirus.

“Having access to tools of self-protection, hunting and for keeping your property safe and secure is always essential. It’s even more essential for access during times of uncertainty and emergency,” Burrows said in a written statement.

Many cities and counties had not designated gun retailers, ranges or manufacturers as essential businesses in their stay-at-home orders, Burrows said in his letter. However, San Antonio and Dallas County did exempt the fire arms businesses.

“It does not appear that cities or counties have the authority to restrict the transfer of firearms, even during a natural disaster,” Burrows wrote in his request.

The opinion comes less than 72 hours after the agency received Burrows’ request — a remarkably fast turnaround on a process that routinely takes weeks or months.

That’s because this process normally requires research and inquiry, and leave open the possibility of an answer that doesn’t conform to one’s initial inclinations. Couldn’t take any chances on that here, obviously. People need to be able to defend themselves against that virus. I recommend very small-caliber bullets.

AG opinions are not binding, of course, so a city or county could go ahead and impose a ban on gun stores anyway if they wanted to. That would leave it up to a court to decide; there’s a fight over this already happening in California, where gun stores were (also not surprisingly) not classified as “essential”. I rather doubt any Texas municipality would want to expend that kind of effort when there are more important things to do, but they could if they chose to. The whole thing is ridiculous, but here we are.

So about those runoffs

They’re still happening in July. For now.

Democrats and Republicans across Texas are settling in for the new normal that is campaigning in the time of the novel coronavirus.

Not only has the pandemic upended how candidates campaign for the foreseeable future, it has also caused the May runoff election to be pushed back seven weeks, adding more uncertainty to a high-stakes election cycle in Texas. The changes impact runoffs in a slew of especially consequential races, from the U.S. Senate contest to most of the U.S. House races that national Democrats are prioritizing.

Regardless of the runoff date change, campaigns were already making adjustments. Many have canceled in-person campaigning and moved as much of their efforts online as possible. Some have reoriented their campaigns for now to focus on community service in the face of the outbreak. And a few have even stopped actively fundraising, at least online.

“I think what my team knows is that we’re in a different time now than we were a couple weeks ago,” Pritesh Gandhi, an Austin physician running for Congress, told a Facebook audience Sunday.

To be sure, candidates are not setting politics entirely aside, especially as Democrats move to highlight what they see as an inadequate response to the pandemic by Republicans in Washington and Texas. But for now, they are stuck in a potentially monthslong limbo.

While Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday that the runoff would be postponed to July 14, it remains to be seen whether additional adjustments will be necessary for the election. Democrats are all but unified in arguing that the runoff postponement is not enough on its own and that Texas needs to expand voting by mail as well. Abbott has not ruled that out, though other top Texas Republicans have balked at the idea so far.

Runoffs are already low-turnout affairs, and campaign operatives are bracing for the numbers to drop even further for the new July date, especially if public health concerns persist. The extended runoff also means a longer head start for a slew of candidates in battleground races who already won their primaries earlier this month.

I don’t think turnout will be that greatly affected. Primary runoff voters are already the hardest of the hardcore, and there’s only so far down turnout could go anyway. I think, given the races and candidates involved, there will be enough money to remind voters that there is an election and that they should vote in it. This assumes that we are actually able to have the runoff in July a currently planned, which we obviously hope will be the case. It would be nice if the state had a plan to deal not just with what happens if coronavirus is still an ongoing concern, but also if people are just still afraid of it. That could include – as we have beaten into the ground – expanding vote by mail, and also early voting, all in the name of social distancing. Which, again, I hope isn’t a necessity at that time, but may still be a good idea.

What’s up, Waller County?

Meet the lone holdout county in the Houston area.

Trey Duhon

Waller County Judge Trey Duhon says he expected to announce a stay-at-home order for his rural county this week, following the lead of other major counties in the region.

But then Duhon studied other localities’ orders and reflected on President Donald Trump’s message about how the country needs to start getting back to work in the coming weeks, a view not shared by many public health experts.

“It was just the notion that we can’t paralyzed by this event,” Duhon said by phone Wednesday, referring to Trump’s remarks. “America is about ingenuity, it’s about working, it’s about enterprise, it’s about free market. People get up, they go to work. They earn a living. They move up the ladder. That’s what we do. That’s what makes America successful. So, if we’re paralyzed and we do nothing, then everything will just collapse.”

On Wednesday, Duhon stopped short of issuing a stay-at-home order, reflecting a reluctance among some local leaders to adopt the most stringent rules available to them to slow the spread of COVID-19. While Democrat-led Harris and Fort Bend counties have issued stay-at-home orders, GOP-majority Montgomery County has not. Two other counties led by Republicans — Galveston and Brazoria — have opted for stay-at-home orders.

“This action is not being taken lightly,” said Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta, a Republican, during an address live-streamed on Facebook on Wednesday. “As cases rise, the advice across the board has been to take action (now) to slow the spread of this disease.”

[…]

Duhon wasn’t calling for restrictions to be lifted in his county of 51,000 residents, but he acknowledged struggling with how far to go in imposing them.

His order calls for residents and workers to stay 6 feet apart from one another and for restaurants to remain take-out, drive-thru and delivery only. It discourages gatherings of 10 or more and encourages residents to remain in their homes as much as possible, unless they’re going to work, for example. He advised that trips out of the house should be made for essential items only. Churches and other religious institutions should aim to provide services via video or teleconference. However, they are permitted to hold services outdoors if people are 6 feet apart.

If the number of coronavirus cases goes up in Waller County, he said, he would reassess. There were no confirmed cases in the county as of Wednesday afternoon.

The order would go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday and remain in effect until April 3.

In his Facebook post, Duhon said it bothered him “measures are being taken so easily and without regard to our basic constitutional freedoms.”

“This is NO QUESTION that this is a public health emergency, and there is no doubt about that, but at each and every step, we must always carefully balance the restrictions we put in place with a person’s ability to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Duhon wrote.

As we know, Montgomery County has since issued a stay-at-home order, despite its County Judge sounding a lot like Trey Duhon as of Wednesday. Also since then, the first case of COVID-19 in Waller County has been reported. I think we all know it’s just a matter of days before that number is a lot higher than that.

Waller County is one of seven counties that border Harris. It’s mostly rural and sparsely populated (about 53K people as of 2018). Liberty County (population circa 86K) and Chambers County (population circa 42K), both of which also border Harris, are similar in nature, yet they have both already issued stay-at-home orders, Liberty on Thursday and Chambers on Tuesday. Both were stronger for Trump in 2016 than Waller was – Chambers 79% for Trump, Liberty 78%, Waller 63% – but that did not factor into their decision-making process. What’s it going to take to get you to take this seriously, Waller County?

The conditions under which baseball can return

If coronavirus cooperates. Cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Major League Baseball owners have approved a plan to address salary and service-time issues amid the indefinite delay to the start of the regular season, according to ESPN and multiple reports.

The owners completed an agreement reached between MLB and the players’ union Thursday night, which came after nearly two weeks of morning-to-night negotiations that involved players, owners, agents, executives, union officials and commissioner’s office staff.

As part of the agreement, obtained by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the players and MLB primarily agreed that the 2020 season will not start until each of the following conditions are met:

  • There are no bans on mass gatherings that would limit the ability to play in front of fans. However, the commissioner could still consider the “use of appropriate substitute neutral sites where economically feasible”;
  • There are no travel restrictions throughout the United States and Canada;
  • Medical experts determine that there would be no health risks for players, staff or fans, with the commissioners and union still able to revisit the idea of playing in empty stadiums.

While there was no formal framework in the agreement, owners and players both want to play as many games as possible. The flexibility of both sides was seen in the willingness to extend the regular season into October, play neutral-site playoff games in November and add doubleheaders to the schedule.

That’s the basic gist of it, though I’d recommend you read the whole story. There are a lot of moving parts, and who knows under which conditions Commissioner Manfred might reach for that “appropriate substitute neutral sites” clause. You also have to wonder when leagues like the NBA and NHL, which are in the middle of suspended seasons, will come out with some similar document for their own return. (The NBA is watching the Chinese basketball league to see how their efforts to restart go.) This agreement between MLB and the players’ union will also have profound effects on amateur players and potentially the minor leagues – I recommend you read this Fangraphs article for the details on that. We should all also remember that we’re still on the upslope of this curve. There’s an ending out there and it’s good to look forward to it, but we can’t yet see it from here.

The coronavirus doesn’t care about your rugged individualism

Put a pin in this story, and let’s see how things are in a week, and in two weeks.

Reports of COVID-19 cases might not be as prevalent outside of the metropolitan areas, and official actions have been slower and less restrictive.

In Midland, many residents have continued their normal routines, shopping in grocery stores and at busy retail locations. The city hasn’t issued restrictive orders but has been talking about it. There’s a striking parallel between the places restricting social gathering and the political map, but that’s not what some politicians see.

“I don’t know if it’s a red versus blue thing; it’s a human nature thing,” said Jack Ladd Jr., a member of the Midland City Council. “A lot of people want to see something like this before they react.”

That visibility is increasing as cases pop up in Midland. And the county recorded its first death attributed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, this week, which has prompted more discussion from public leaders.

Midland had four known cases as of Wednesday, and they were up to six cases as of Thursday. They don’t know where people may have gotten the disease.

Lubbock stopped short of telling residents to stay at home, but it did put restrictions in place. Lubbock’s emergency order, Mayor Dan Pope said, “is like the stay-at-home orders elsewhere, without the panic in it.”

“You know West Texas,” he said. “We have a little more common sense … and a healthy sense of skepticism.

“I would say people are in two camps — those who have bought in and understand and are really staying home, and another group that’s harder to reach,” he said.

He said Lubbock’s two hospitals are well situated at the moment — they can open another 40 ICU beds if needed — and added that “we don’t have any stress on our health care system” at this time. As of Thursday, the city had a drive-through testing center, and he said it plans to have a total of four by Monday. Lubbock County had 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, he said.

You know what else the city of Lubbock has? A population density that’s roughly the same as the city of Houston:

Lubbock, population 255,885, area 123.6 square miles = 2,070 people per square mile.

Houston, population 2,325,502, area 1,062 square miles = 2,189 people per square mile.

Now sure, Houston is an international travel and business hub, with multiple central business districts, and it is surrounded by millions of other people, in Harris and other counties, while Lubbock is mostly in the middle of empty space. But you know, those 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lubbock County (population 307K) represents one case per 16K residents. In Harris County, with 4.7 million people and 135 confirmed cases as of Friday afternoon, that ratio is one per 35K residents. I’m just saying.

Now of course the real numbers are higher, and even if I knew the exact totals right now they’d be obsolete by the time you read this. My point is, they’re going in one direction at this time, and their ultimate trajectory depends entirely on our actions, not our attitudes or innate qualities. I hope, I really hope, that the people of Lubbock and Midland and anyplace else where people are mostly moving about without much care about coronavirus don’t come to regret their actions later.

Montgomery County issues a stay-at-home order

It’s getting real, y’all.

After initially announcing he would not issue a stay-at-home order regarding the new coronavirus, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough is following other area counties and a stay-at-home order will go into effect at midnight Friday.

The 19-page restrictive order will be in place through April 12.

Additionally, Keough is putting all residents under a curfew beginning each night at 11:59 p.m. through 6 a.m.

“Given the most recent information concerning the virus and the potential for loss of life for our county and our region, I am amending my original order to become the Montgomery County Stay at Home, Stop the Spread order,” Keough said in a statement. “Having surrounded myself with a team of experts, in health district, homeland security and emergency management, law enforcement, our district attorney, and many others, whose council I value, I have made decisions that have been patient and measured.”

Keough said all non-essential business must close at 11:15 p.m. Friday and remain closed through April 12. The order allows for businesses to remain open if employees can work from home.

Keough called his order “crystal clear” with information on what are essential businesses and services and confirming all grocery stores will remain open.

“Read this order,” he said. “We are not urging you; we are telling you; you must comply with CDC social distancing guidelines. Stay home if you don’t need to be out. This is not a time for vacation or social gatherings. Take this virus seriously.”

Keough initially issued a disaster declaration March 12 following the first COVID-19 case in Montgomery County. In the last week, the number of cases in the county increased to 41. The coronavirus, according to the Montgomery County Public Health Department, has spread to all parts of the county.

As recently as Tuesday, the day that Harris County shut down, Montgomery County Judge Keough was holding firm against a stay-at-home order, though he had taken some steps. Keough is a former State Rep who ousted the incumbent county judge in 2018 in the Republican primary with tea party backing. I wonder if anyone has asked Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt what they think about this obvious betrayal of their bedrock principles.

I kid, only slightly, but the reality is that Keough is a latecomer on this train:


And indeed, Jefferson and Smith and several other counties have joined in. To update:

In case you’re wondering, Ector County is Odessa, Taylor is Abilene, Potter is Amarillo, Tom Green is San Angelo. Guadalupe (Seguin) and Comal (New Braunfels) are neighbors of Bexar County. We’ll see how long they hold out. This also means that Lubbock County has one of these orders as well; that wasn’t clear from the earlier story I blogged about. In some sense, it will soon be irrelevant if Greg Abbott orders a statewide shutdown or not. You still mad, Dan?

We are doing a good job of keeping our distance

That’s what our phone say, anyway.

Harris County residents are doing a good job keeping their distance, according to location data culled from smartphones, earning an “A” on a nationwide scoreboard.

The Social Distancing Scoreboard is a creation of Unacast, a Norway-based company that provides location data for business clients. The tool tracks the decrease of movement by people in a location over time to determine whether they are staying at home and assigns a letter grade, drilling down to the county level. The grade is tracked against the number of COVID-19 cases in each location.

It does not track whether people are staying six feet apart from each other — yet.

[…]

Overall, the United States scores a “B,” with the District of Columbia doing the best job of social distancing, followed by Alaska. Texas gets an A overall, as does Harris County.

Schleicher County, south of San Angelo, gets the highest score in Texas; Oldham County, west of Amarillo, has the worst.

You can fool around with the Social Distancing Scoreboard here. It gets its data from various smartphone apps – thank you for turning on location services, by the way – though it doesn’t specify which apps, per the Washington Post. The data for Texas was last updated on March 21, prior to all of the stay-at-home directives, so one would expect the mobility levels to drop further. It’s a good start, at least.

Metro slows its roll on system improvements

Not a surprise.

Houston-area transit officials will wait out a little more of the coronavirus crisis before soliciting bids on five of the first projects in their $7 billion construction bonanza for bus and rail upgrades.

“Moving this by a month does not hurt anything at all,” said Sanjay Ramabhadran, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member.

Board members on Tuesday delayed approval of the procedure for selecting engineering, architecture and design firms for what could be more than $1 billion in bus and rail projects along key routes. The projects are the first in the agency’s long-range transportation plan, which voters approved in November, authorizing Metro to borrow up to $3.5 billion. The remaining costs for the program, called MetroNext, will be covered by federal grants and unspent local money Metro set aside for future budgets.

Instead, officials said the requests for proposals are set for approval in April for:

  • an extension of the Green and Purple light-rail lines to the Houston Municipal Courthouse
  • bus rapid transit and a dedicated lane along Interstate 10 from Loop 610 to downtown Houston
  • rapid bus service and use of managed lanes along Interstate 45
  • a new Missouri City Park and Ride
  • enhanced bus corridors along the Westheimer and Lockwood bus routes

The time will allow Metro officials to review the specifics of the agreements, Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

See here and here for some background. No mention of the Uptown BRT line, whose target opening date is now July, though Lord knows what anything means at this time. Metro has suspended fare collection for now, in part because people need all the help they can get during this crisis, and in part because ridership numbers have plummeted during the crisis. Neither of those will have much effect on Metro’s cash flow in the short term, but the concurrent decline in local sales tax revenue will. We’ll know more about that in May when the Comptroller disburses the March tax revenues.

The difference a week makes

Imposing a stay-at-home order sooner rather than later ha a profound effect on how many people come down with coronavirus.

The person-to-person spread of the coronavirus in the Houston region would peak in two weeks and burn out by mid-May if the stay-at-home order invoked Tuesday is continued until then, according to modeling by local scientists.

The modeling, which informed Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s order, considered the effect on the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, if she’d taken the stringent intervention immediately or waited a week or two weeks to act. Spread would increase exponentially had she waited, it found.

“From our modeling, it was clear that waiting is not a good thing,” said Eric Boerwinkle, dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health, who conducted the study with a biostatistician at that Houston institution. “The numbers are sobering, but the message is clear: early intervention is better than late intervention and more stringent intervention is better than less stringent.”

UTHealth released the modeling data as the city of Houston began gearing up — scouting sites that easily can be converted into medical centers, looking for hotel rooms for COVID-19 patients who cannot isolate at home or in a hospital — for what’s expected to be the next, worse phase of the pandemic: the exponential increase in disease numbers.

[…]

The UTHealth modeling, shared with city and county officials Monday, provided data backing the warnings. It found that intervening immediately would limit the number of cases in the region to a peak at about 150 a day around April 7 and stop the spread around May 12. In that time, the cumulative total of cases would reach nearly 3,500, it found.

Cases would peak at more than 1,000 a day on April 15 if Hidalgo had waited a week and more than 6,600 a day on April 22 if she’d waited two weeks. Transmission would last until May 29 under the first scenario and June 16 under the second.

All three of the scenarios are based on the premise the restrictions would continue until mid-May. Hidalgo’s order is scheduled to expire April 3.

This is what “exponential growth” means. The basic idea is that if everyone is out there living their normal lives, anyone who has coronavirus – remember, it takes about a week for people to become symptomatic, so you can be walking around for quite some time not knowing you have it, infecting people wherever you go – will be spreading the disease to a larger number of people, who will then do the same thing, than if everyone were at home where they will encounter far fewer people. This is one of the reasons why South Korea was as successful as it was at stopping the spread in that country – they jumped on this kind of action right away. (They also did a crapload of testing and were able to aggressively track people’s movements, but never mind that for now.) For that matter, look at the difference between Kentucky and Tennessee. Which outcome would you prefer?

Point is, putting the stay-at-home restrictions in place now, or even later, after the disease has had time to spread even if the known number of infections is still low, would mean we’ve given it an unfettered head start. That’s the scenario we need to avoid, and it’s the reason why the death wish cultists aren’t just wrong, they’re deeply dangerous. Listen to the experts. The fondest hope we have right now is that in a few weeks, when we can think about beginning to go back to normal, we can say it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. We have a chance for that now.

UPDATE: Read this. Look at the chart. Consider this excerpt: “It means that on average, every infected person infects three other people, not 2.5 other people—which makes the spread of the virus much wider and faster. Without any control measures, for example, it means that after ten generations a single person will be responsible for 80,000 infections instead of 10,000 infections.” That’s what we’re talking about here.

Abortion providers file suit over Abbott executive order

You can’t let crass opportunism go unchallenged.

Right there with them

Texas abortion providers announced a lawsuit against top state officials, challenging an executive order earlier this week that included abortion in a ban of all procedures that are deemed to not be medically necessary.

In a press conference Wednesday, national and state abortion rights groups said they are seeking a temporary restraining order, with hopes of a more permanent injunction to follow. They are representing various abortion providers in the state, including Austin Women’s Health Center and Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center.

The ban, which Attorney General Ken Paxton later clarified applies to abortion clinics as well, was enacted to ensure the state maintains health care capacity as it prepares for an influx of COVID-19 patients. But abortion clinics and activists in the state pushed back almost immediately, with Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson calling it an “exploitation” of the current crisis.

Sealy Massingill, the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, took politicians to task for “playing politics” at a critical time. Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas still plans to keep clinics open, though he said the organization is bracing for further developments.

“I find it extremely distressing … that we are trying to respond to a purely political fight that [Gov. Greg Abbott] started. Patients who need abortions are on a time-sensitive deadline,” Massingill said.

Providers have already had to turn away patients, Massingill added, and delays of even a few weeks could render some abortions impossible if the patients’ pregnancies extend past legal deadlines.

Here’s the Trib story about the executive order. I didn’t get around to blogging about it because there’s just too much these days. It should be obvious that a “medically necessary” procedure is one that simply cannot be put off, at least not for a significant length of time, and that by that definition, abortion clearly fits. To claim otherwise, as the state of Ohio has also done, is sophistry at best and a straight up lie otherwise. In a rational world, this would get stopped in a hot second by any court. In a world that includes the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, your guess is as good as mine. Given that Abbott has declined to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, preferring to leave that to the locals, who have not seen fit to order clinics to stop providing abortions, the case for this is even flimsier. I feel confident that a district court judge will issue a temporary restraining order, but after that who knows. The Chron has more.

Coronavirus and the state budget

Ain’t gonna be great. How bad, we don’t yet know.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar briefed Texas House members on the state’s economy and budget Sunday night, saying that while it was too soon for specific forecasts, both are expected to take potentially massive hits in the wake of the new coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple people who were on the conference call.

The members-only call, led by House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, was one of state lawmakers’ first glimpses of the impact the virus is expected to have on multiple industries, state finances and Texas’ largely oil-fed savings account, known as the Economic Stabilization Fund or the rainy day fund.

Hegar, who referred to the state of the economy as “the current recession,” according to multiple people on the roughly hourlong call, predicted both the general revenue for the state budget and the savings account balance will be drastically lower — possibly by billions of dollars — when he makes a revised fiscal forecast. He said that update could happen in July.

Later Sunday, the comptroller’s office said that unless the Legislature spent money out of the savings account before July, the balance for the fund would be revised down, but not by more than $1 billion.

In October 2019, Hegar estimated that the state budget would have a nearly $3 billion balance for the fiscal 2020-21 biennium. The balance of the Economic Stabilization Fund, Hegar announced at the time, would be around $9.3 billion by the end of the 2021 fiscal year in August of that year.

[…]

Abbott, for his part, noted last week that he and the Legislature can tap into the state’s disaster relief fund immediately to help respond to the virus. He also said that the Economic Stabilization Fund could be used “at the appropriate time,” which he said would happen when state leaders “know the full extent of the challenge we’re dealing with.”

Before the stabilization fund could be used, Abbott would need to summon state lawmakers back to Austin for a special session before the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021. When asked at a town hall about the possibility for calling such a session, Abbott said “every option remains on the table,” while noting that there would not be any need for such an action if every Texan followed guidance to help curb the virus.

Obviously, the crash in oil prices doesn’t help the state’s financial picture, either. It’s sales tax collection that will really suffer, and that pain will be spread to the cities and counties as well. As always, the big picture here is “how long will this take” and “how many businesses and jobs will be lost in the interim”, and right now we don’t know.

I will say, situations like this are among the reasons why balanced budget requirements are such a bad idea. Let the state – and the cities – run a deficit for a year or two, rather than cut a bunch of programs and lay off a bunch of employees, both of which will exacerbate the effect of the overall downturn. I assure you, society will not crumble around us if we do that. We will see plenty of shenanigans pulled by legislators to worm their way around the balanced budget requirement, as we have always done. So why not be honest about it and just admit that the whole thing is a sham and we should just not worry about it, at least for this cycle? We can always get back to it next time. Much easier said than done of course – constitutions and charters can’t be so easily cast aside, which again goes to my point about why these things are stupid – but in a world where everything has been thrown into chaos, this just makes sense. Same for revenue caps as well – if the revenue for the state, or the city of Houston, falls ten percent this year, it will take three years under the existing 3.5% revenue cap just to get revenue back to existing levels, while forcing needless cuts in the meantime. It’s all a sham, we should seize the moment to recognize it for the sham that it is, and free ourselves once and for all from its ridiculous shackles. Won’t happen happen, but I’ll never stop pointing it out.

Games in the time of coronavirus

I came across this story in Slate by Stefan Fatsis about a recent Scrabble tournament he attended, and it got me thinking.

Before the tournament, I reminded players to wash their tiles and bags. (They’re an obvious germ vector, and also get really stinky.) There was hand sanitizer on the playing tables. My skin was so dry from spritzing and washing that my knuckles bled. But now—with “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” making early runs for 2020 Word of the Year—I’m questioning the wisdom, and ethics, of my decision to play.

When I drew my first tiles of the tournament—ADEEHIR; alas, HEADIER didn’t play, nor did the only possible eight-letter word, DEHAIRED—nobody in American society had started hanging CLOSED signs, particularly sports society. A week later, professional and college basketball are gone. So are baseballsoccerhockeyfootballgolftennisrugbyroad racescar races, and chess and esports tournaments.

But the little world of competitive Scrabble is playing on, its official governing body declining to suspend play. The debate among players over whether games should continue is representative of the debates being waged in other corners of America that haven’t gone dark. People are still grabbing subway poles and flying in airplanes, believing Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. What are the risks of doing what you love doing? Who gets to decide when you have to stop?

Scrabble is owned by Hasbro Inc., but the toymaker has almost no involvement in the competitive game. The 2,200 active players, 150 or so clubs, and 400 or so tournaments a year are regulated by the North American Scrabble Players Association, which is funded by player dues and tournament participation fees. Hasbro grants NASPA a license to use the word “Scrabble” in its name and promotional efforts.

NASPA hasn’t ignored the coronavirus crisis. Its website includes a detailed COVID-19 wiki. The guidelines are all sensible, some are obvious, and a few very specific: Don’t play if you’ve tested positive, wash your hands, disinfect your equipment, use a smartphone app instead of a communal laptop to adjudicate word challenges. “If you have to sneeze or cough, and are not wearing a face mask, do so into a tissue or your elbow and away from all playing equipment and players,” the guidelines advise. “Then pause the [game timer] and call the director to discuss whether you should withdraw from the event.”

As Fatsis points out, Scrabble tournament players tend to be older (average age 65), so they’re quite vulnerable to the COVID-19 threat. That got me to thinking about another group of mostly older people that like to congregate to play a game, bridge players. I played a lot of tournament bridge when I was younger – partners moving out of town, and a distinct lack of time, put an end to that. Bridge tournaments feature hundreds or thousands of people at a hotel or convention center, and a lot of those people are seniors. If they’re still like they were 15 or 20 years ago, a lot of them smoke, too. Definitely right in the vulnerability demographic.

And right now, one of the three annual North American Bridge Championships – the biggest tournaments on the calendar – should be going on. Fortunately, the March NABC has been canceled, though the summer (July) tournament is still on, for now. But there are smaller tournaments happening every week, across the continent – across the world, though those are under the purview of other bridge organizations – and who knows what’s happening with them. Most of the April ones have been canceled at this point, but not all, and those that are in states that haven’t clamped down on public gatherings in the same way may still happen. (Oh, and there are bridge clubs, too, though at this point the local shutdown order will have taken care of that.) With local and state governments putting out restrictions on public gatherings and the CDC’s “no more than 50 at a time for the next eight weeks” directive, this may have resolved itself, but I wouldn’t take anything for granted right now.

Oh, and after I started writing this post I saw this story about how Houston is becoming a hot city for poker clubs in the Sunday print edition. The story has a dateline of March 5, and tells of the reporter’s visit to one of these clubs on February 29, but wow, talk about inconvenient timing. I’m sure that like bridge and Scrabble, poker is more fun when played in person with other people, but in the short term we have to stick to playing the online version.

The Republican death wish

It would be one thing if they were just putting their own lives at risk, but that’s not how viruses work.

After Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins became the first to announce a mandatory stay-at-home rule, conservative groups including Empower Texans began ringing alarms in opposition to Jenkins and to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who they say paved the way for the move.

Abbott had said he would applaud local leaders who felt they should issue stay-at-home orders for their communities.

“I’m extremely concerned about what Dallas Co just did, and Abbott’s apparent sanctioning of it,” Empower Texans president Ross Kecseg wrote on Twitter.

So far, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is the highest-ranking state official to echo those concerns.

“What I’m living in fear of is what is happening to this country,” Patrick said in a Fox News interview. “I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed.”

Patrick, who turns 70 next week, went on to say he’d be willing to risk his own life and well-being to help preserve the way of life for other Americans — a statement that drew harsh rebukes on social media and inspired hashtags such as #DieForTheDow.

[…]

Critics of the stay-at-home orders are contradicting the advice of public health authorities at every level of government, from the World Health Organization to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to local health officials. Epidemiologists have stressed that keeping people apart is the best way to fight back against a new virus for which there is no vaccine, and that aggressive early steps are the only way to get ahead of COVID-19.

The discord in Texas mirrors what’s going on at the national level with Republican governors showing more reluctance than Democratic ones, like Cuomo, to shutting down their states, said Timothy Callaghan, assistant professor of health policy and politics at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

“On the one hand, they certainly want to protect the public health, but they are also afraid about hindering the freedoms of their citizens and they’re also concerned about the economic impact of having society in many ways shut down,” Callaghan said. “It’s a tricky balancing act for many politicians on the conservative side.”

Not only does that send Texans a mixed message but Callaghan said it could also reduce the effectiveness of the orders.

“If you want to see a true impact of flattening the curve throughout the state of Texas, it’s important for it to be a statewide policy,” Callaghan said. “Certainly in those areas that choose to enact some sort of shelter in place policy, you’re going to see some effect, but we don’t know if it’s going to be a smaller effect than if the entire state had chosen to do something.”

See here for the background. It’s not actually clear that they want to protect public health, since everyone who knows anything about public health and epidemiology is practically shouting from the rooftops that these shutdowns are necessary and we risk having literally millions of people die without them. Indeed, rightwing magazines are touting the virtues of deliberately spreading coronavirus, in a ridiculous and dangerous belief that it’s preferable to social distancing. I suspect there’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance going on, since the one thing that can mitigate the economic impact of the stay-at-home orders is massive government action to put money in people’s pockets to replace the income they’d be losing, and that would seem to be the thing that Dan Patrick fears more than his own death. It’s clear that they’re taking their direction from Donald Trump, because that’s what they do these days and Trump is getting tired of the whole pandemic thing. It will be interesting to see if actual elected Republicans turn on Greg Abbott if he however reluctantly orders a statewide shutdown. In the meantime, I don’t know what there is to say other than there’s one way to get through this without a lot of people dying, and what these Republicans are agitating about is not it.

The Houston/Harris County stay-at-home order

Here’s hoping we won’t have to do this for too much longer.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a stay-at-home order Tuesday morning closing most businesses and directing residents to stay put except for groceries and errands in the latest measure aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The order will take effect at 11:59 p.m. and expire April 3.

Workers in the energy, transportation, construction and food service industries will be among those allowed to remain on the job, she said.

The county judge said she was heeding the warnings of health experts, who for days said a mandatory order limiting public interactions was necessary to prevent Houston hospitals from being overwhelmed with cases.

“What these experts and leaders tell us is that if we keep going at the rate we are going, we will end up in the situation that New York is heading towards, that Italy is at, where we simply run out of ICU space,” Hidalgo said.

Italy has reported more than 6,000 deaths; New York is the center of the American outbreak and scrambling to find beds for coronavirus patients.

The rules are the strictest Harris County has enacted in the two whirlwind weeks since the first locally transmitted case was discovered. Thirteen days ago, local officials wondered whether shutting down the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was too drastic a step.

They since have shuttered schools and universities, canceled concerts and sporting events, closed bars and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, all in an effort to contain the rapid spread of the disease.

The new stay-at-home restrictions, which have no precedent in modern American history, mirror those in other major cities. Mayor Sylvester Turner said the order was difficult to issue, though he said local government cannot wait.

“The goal we have in the city of Houston is that we don’t have 2,400 cases or 24,000 cases,” Turner said. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting two weeks down the road and then deciding this is the time to take these steps.”

[…]

Harris County’s new rules were not met with universal acclaim. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a frequent critic of local government, said it was unnecessary and would do lasting harm to small and medium-sized businesses. He said compliance with social distancing recommendations by the public has been “quite high.”

“Taking sweeping action against… the backbone of our local economy with a shelter in place order eliminates the chance to take a targeted, measured, data-driven approach to achieve better social separation results and far less economic disruption,” Bettencourt said in a statement.

See here for the background, and you can see a copy of the order here. As of yesterday afternoon, Fort Bend County has followed suit, though Montgomery County is not going that route at this time. As for Paul Bettencourt, I invite him to swap bodily fluids with Dan Patrick and hope it all works out for him. I’ll prefer to listen to people who know what they’re talking about and care about whether people live or die.

In the meantime:

Gov. Greg Abbott expressed some dissatisfaction Tuesday with how Texans are responding to various measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic, signaling an openness to imposing stricter statewide action soon.

“It’s clear to me that we may not be achieving the level of compliance that is needed,” Abbott said during a news conference in Austin. “That’s why I said before I remain flexible in my statewide standard.

“We will continue to evaluate, based upon all the data, whether or not there needs to be heightened standards and stricter enforcement,” Abbott added.

[…]

However, Abbott’s remarks Tuesday indicated his thinking may be evolving. He said that while he was heading to the news conference, he was “surprised at how many vehicles I saw on the road.” (Austin is home to Travis County, whose stay-at-home order goes into effect at midnight.)

Can’t wait to hear what Bettencourt and Patrick think about that. I mean look, this is already hard, and it will be harder before it begins to get easier. I really am worried about the restaurant scene, which now I can’t do anything to support. I’m hopeful that the stimulus bill will make a difference. (The stock market likes it, which is all that matters to Donald Trump.) But you know what else would be bad for the economy? Having two million people die over the next year. We can still do something about that, but not if we listen to people like Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt.

Coronavirus and voter registration

Time for Plan B.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas was making record gains getting voters on the rolls. Now the coronavirus threatens to grind that progress to a halt, throwing up major hurdles to Democratic efforts to make the state’s November elections competitive for a change.

Texas’ emergence as a battleground in 2020 depends largely on new voters, and both Democrats and Republicans have poured millions into efforts to register them — massive campaigns that have already added two million voters since the 2016 election.

But the coronavirus countermeasures — particularly limits on public gatherings — threaten to seriously hamper those efforts.

Because Texas is one of 11 states that do not allow voters to register online, much of the work depends on face-to-face interaction — going door to door and setting up booths on college campuses, at concerts, naturalization ceremonies, graduations and other big events that are prohibited in the time of COVID-19.

“Crises like this really expose the failures in our system — the fact that we don’t have online voter registration, the fact that we are a state currently that doesn’t allow vote by mail,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a former Democratic U.S. senate candidate who launched Jolt, a group focused on mobilizing Texas voters, where she is now a consultant.

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party, meanwhile, says it is reworking everything, launching a fully digital organizing project that will include a new Nextdoor.com-style website where people can post about everything from politics to what’s happening in their communities during the pandemic. They say they’re doing aggressive outreach to get people on it. And the party says it is starting weekly calls with groups in all 254 Texas counties.

“Obviously the challenges are not insignificant,” said Cliff Walker, Deputy Executive Director of the Texas Democratic Party. “But it helped us reorient and take our organization program that was going to be focused on voter registration at the doors — and we had great plans to ramp up a lot of that type of face-to-face interaction — and to do something that’s different and could be a silver lining on a really big dark gray cloud.”

The party says its most effective registration efforts in 2018 were reaching out to people who were new to Texas — and that effort won’t change now.

But the virus makes other outreach efforts impossible.

“It’s a tragedy. It’s a democratic tragedy,” said Drew Galloway, executive director of Mobilize Organize Vote Empower, a group that registered 7,500 voters on college campuses in three weeks in before the pre-primary deadline in February.

See here and here for some context. The story notes that Republicans are trying to register voters now too, and once again I muse about how they probably wish there was an online option available to them. Not gonna happen as long as they’re in charge, that much is for sure. As with everything else, how much of an effect this has is directly proportional to how long we’re all under some form of restricted movement. If things have more or less returned to normal by, say, the end of April, then this will be a blip in the trend. The longer it takes, the bigger the blip. If nothing else, it’s a extra point of emphasis for why we need to revamp our crappy existing system.

Go ahead and die, Dan

Just do it on your own time, and try not to take anyone with you.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, chiming in to support President Donald Trump’s new focus on the economy over fierce warnings from public health officials, suggested on Fox News on Monday night that he would rather die from the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus than see instability in the American economic system.

“No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in,” he said. “And that doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that.

“I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me … that what we all care about and what we all love more than anything are those children,” he added. “And I want to, you know, live smart and see through this, but I don’t want to see the whole country to be sacrificed, and that’s what I see.”

[…]

At the end of the Fox interview, host Tucker Carlson repeated his interpretation of Patrick’s argument: “You’re basically saying that this disease could take your life, but that’s not the scariest thing to you, there’s something worse than dying?”

To which Patrick answered in the affirmative: “Yeah.”

I just can’t right now, so I’m going to outsource this. Here’s Kevin Drum, with some data:

President Trump would like us to “open the economy,” which for all practical purposes means doing nearly nothing. The [Imperial College] study suggests that in this scenario around 2 million people will die.

If we get as serious as Italy—shut down everything, close every school, get everyone off the streets, and aggressively trace every known case—and if we do it for the next three months or so—we could get the number of deaths down to 200,000 or so. That’s about 0.06 percent of the population, similar to what Italy is likely to suffer.

This is the difference we’re looking at: 200,000 vs. 2 million. The first case is bad but manageable, and the Senate rescue bill would keep most people whole and ensure that the economy can pop back to life quickly when the control measures are over. The second is a catastrophe, and even with the rescue bill in place it would most likely produce a deep recession that would last through the end of the year at least.

The control measures are no fun. No president wants to be the guy who has to enforce them. But without them 2 million people will die and we’ll probably suffer a deep recession. Why would anyone in their right mind choose that option?

And here’s Nonsequiteuse with a more direct response:

Viruses aren’t good ol’ boys swaddled in camo with Yeti coffee mugs and Ducks Unlimited decals on their rear windows, out to bag the daily limit.

Viruses are motherfucking spree killers pumped up on angel dust and Four Loko.

We can’t ask TxDOT to use those nifty signs to direct viruses which exit to take and which parking lot to use to go get the olds.

The more people exposed, the more who fall ill. That’s it. That’s the way this works. There’s no vaccine, and the treatment doesn’t always work even if you can access it. The outbreak will only run its course if we limit the number of people the virus can reach, which we can do by staying at home and avoiding other people who might be infected.

Now, let’s look at the second issue, Dan Patrick’s stunning lack of confidence in each and every one of us in this country, which is what leads me to say that

Dan Patrick is anti-American.

Dan Patrick and Donald Trump are making the same argument—equally ineloquently—letting the economy tank is worse than letting the virus kill a bunch of people, so we should go back to work and pretend it’s all good.

Why does Dan Patrick think a month or two of large numbers of people working from home and some people needing increased government assistance over the short-term will completely and totally wreck us?

Does he not believe in American ingenuity? In bootstraps? In our cultural obsession with reinvention? Doesn’t he know we’re the Timex Nation?

There are only two options here, and honestly, hard to say which paints Danny boy in the worse light.

What they both said. Political Animal, TPM, Daily Kos, Texas Monthly, Dahlia Lithwick, the Observer, and Paradise in Hell have more.

UPDATE: I’m just going to leave this here.

While Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick became the public face of the “let’s get back to work” contingent during the coronavirus pandemic, his son Ryan K. Patrick, U.S. Attorney in the Houston region, has asked his staff handling one of the busiest criminal dockets in the country to work from home and prioritize safety.

The younger Patrick declined to comment on his 69-year-old father’s statement to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. The lieutenant governor spoke about sacrificing himself to salvage the economy and letting his grandchildren have “a shot at the American dream” after a short hiatus. The 41-year-old chief federal prosecutor asked workers and staff nearly two weeks ago to take computers home and come in only as needed. He has a skeleton crew operating at the courthouse each day, taking turns handling hearings for their colleagues.

“Our office is as fully teleworked as possible,” said the chief prosecutor in southeast Texas. “We learned a lot of good lessons after Hurricane Harvey,” he said. He noted that his office is still open and courts are still open.

Ted Imperato, deputy chief of the national security and public corruption unit at the Houston headquarters, said his boss has been on top of it, following public health directives for social distancing and flattening the curve from the beginning.

“The safety of the people that work for him has been his primary focus,” Imperato said. “Every conference call and every email I’ve gotten has been to check on your people, make sure they’re OK and to provide us necessary updates on conducting our business during this period of crisis.”

We feel your pain, Ryan.