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coronavirus

The state of the state’s response

I mean, it’s something.

Gov. Greg Abbott took multiple measures Sunday designed to expand hospital staffing and capacity in Texas, but declined to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order — even as calls for such an action increased as the new coronavirus continued to spread across the state.

In an effort to free up hospital beds in anticipation of an influx of patients sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Abbott ordered health care professionals to postpone “all surgeries that are not medically necessary” and suspended regulations to allow hospitals to treat more than one patient in a room.

But he did not order all Texans to shelter in place, noting that there are still many counties in the state without confirmed cases and that he wants to see the full impact of an executive order he issued Thursday. In the meantime, he welcomed local officials to take more restrictive action than he has statewide.

During an afternoon news conference at the state Capitol in Austin, Abbott also announced the formation of a “strike force” to respond to the coronavirus and that the Texas National Guard, which he activated several days ago, would be deployed this week to help hospitals deal with the outbreak.

In the lead-up to Abbott’s news conference, though, attention centered most intensely on whether he would go beyond the executive order that he issued Thursday. That order urged all Texans to limit public gatherings to 10 people, prohibited eating in at restaurants and bars and temporarily closed schools. That order went into effect midnight Friday and goes through midnight April 3.

“We need to see the level of effectiveness of the executive order,” Abbott said. “What we may be right for places like the large urban areas may not be right at this particular point of time for the more than 200 counties that have zero cases of COVID-19.”

[…]

Abbott said that his decision not to issue a statewide order should not stop local officials from issuing such orders in their jurisdictions.

“Local officials have the authority to implement more strict standards than I as governor have implemented in the state of Texas, “Abbott said. “If they choose to do so I would applaud them for doing so, but at this time it is not the appropriate approach to mandate that same strict standard across every area of the state, especially at a time when we are yet to see the results coming out of my most recent executive order.”

See here for the background. I can see the reason for Abbott’s actions, or lack thereof. It’s not clear that this is necessary for rural areas, and for the most part the localities that have needed such action have taken it themselves. (Insert reminder about Abbott’s self-serving relationship with the concept of “local control” here.) Indeed, the next story the Trib ran is about Dallas County prepping a shelter-in-place order. (Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has said she is considering such an order but has not yet announced one.) At least some hospitals have already acted to limit or suspend elective procedures as well. What all of this does is mostly make me think that Abbott is behind the curve rather than ahead of it. You know I don’t think much of our Governor, but even for him this seems kind of limp. What could he be doing that isn’t already being done? That’s what I’d like to know.

Worrying about the restaurants

Alison Cook laments the potential fate for her favorite part of Houston.

Depending on local or state strictures, to help stem the spread of Covid-19 restaurants in most major markets would be able to provide takeout, drive-thru or delivery rations only. Dine-in was done, for the present and — according to some epidemiologists and public health experts — very possibly in rolling closures for the next 18 months. That’s the time it will take for a vaccine to be tested, manufactured and made available.

If we’re lucky.

Even though I’ve suspected this was coming since the calamitous February business drop experienced by restaurants in Bellaire Boulevard’s Asiatown — a preview of what lay ahead for the whole market as Covid-19 spread, I feared — the reality of the closures has hit me hard.

I gasped when I saw an Open Table graph that showed restaurant bookings, already down 45 to 65% last week, plunging off the cliff to zero on Tuesday in Boston, L.A., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and Washington, D.C. It looked like the highway to hell.

I’m in mourning daily as I read the anguished tweets from Houston chefs and restaurant owners I admire. I’m sick with worry for the servers and bartenders and bussers and line cooks whose livelihoods are in peril.

[…]

My greatest sorrow is that I see a great winnowing ahead. On the other side of this public health crisis, it seems likely that Houston’s dining landscape will be substantially altered. Restaurant profit margins are slim in the best of times, and without serious public investment at the state or federal level, we are likely to see many bankruptcies.

It’s not the big chain restaurants I’m worried about — it’s the mom-and-pops and the small independent operators who help to define the city. Those are a cultural legacy well worth saving.

Ian Froeb, the restaurant critic at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, told a radio interviewer the following: “I have a top 100 restaurant list and somebody that’s in the industry said, ‘You could be looking at 80 of the 100 might not come back.’ I didn’t push back. That seems like a real possibility.”

I’m not quite that pessimistic, yet, but the fallout is going to be bad.

Obviously, we can all do more ordering takeout in the interim, in the hope that these places we love can weather the storm, which we also hope will be measured in weeks and not months. But let’s be clear, the state of Texas could also help.

Up against a Friday deadline, the broad base of workers in the Texas restaurant industry have asked Gov. Greg Abbott and other officials to waive monthly sales taxes due by the end of the day.

Bobby Heugel, owner of several popular bars and restaurants in Houston, said many businesses could ride out the new coronavirus’ social slowdown for months if the state waived, delayed or deferred the monthly taxes.

“We have been crushing the governor’s office for requests of deferrals,” Heugel said Thursday. “Their voicemail actually stopped working late last night.”

Comptroller Glenn Hegar said the state won’t push back Friday’s deadline, though it has done so after hurricanes and other disasters. Hegar and aides cited a couple of reasons: Hurricanes and similar disasters, unlike pandemics, can knock out the infrastructure used to calculate and pay taxes. More importantly, the state and local governments that depend on those taxes to keep hospitals and emergency services going need the money as they prepare for the number of Texans testing positive for the new coronavirus to skyrocket within weeks.

“It would be irresponsible, but more popular, to delay collections,” said Karey Barton, associate deputy comptroller for tax. “The people who paid those taxes need that money to be available to keep operating hospitals and other services.”

I understand the concern, but the state has a rainy day fund it can tap into to bridge the gap in the interim. Maybe Greg Abbott needs to use his emergency powers to make that happen, maybe he needs to call a special session to enable it, or maybe he just needs to order it and let someone file a lawsuit to stop him, I don’t know. But the effect of losing a significant portion of the hospitality industry will last a lot longer than this crisis. We need to think outside the box here, and take action as needed before it’s too late.

Metro suspends fare collections

Among other things.

Transit in Houston will be free starting Monday and passengers will use the rear door to board and exit buses to limit exposure to drivers and other riders, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials announced Friday.

The changes are aimed at providing some social distance for passengers and employees while also offering some savings for Houstonians facing job and wage losses during the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

“Everyone is facing economic hardships, so we are going to adjust the system,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

While necessary for many to access jobs, crowded buses and trains complicate efforts for riders to keep a distance between themselves and others as medical experts advise to reduce the spread of the coronavirus or the COVID-19 illness it causes. Though Metro has seen sharp declines in ridership, it remains fully functional, agency leaders said.

Generally, only the back doors of local buses will be used so fewer people have to walk from the front of the bus to a seat, Lambert said. Anyone who needs a ramp or lower step to enter and exit the bus still will be able to use the front door, he said.

Dropping fares is one of several changes to Metro’s operations in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Along many high-use routes, Metro has added buses and put placards on seats encouraging people to distance themselves from other passengers.

You can see the full press release from Metro here, and their coronavirus resource page is here. San Antonio’s VIA has taken the same step. Metro is also running more buses on certain routes to help people maintain social distancing. There’s still a lot of people that have to go to work, and they deserve all the care we can give them. Like traffic in general, Metro’s ridership is down at this time, and they will have to deal with the financial fallout from that when this is over, but in the meantime they’re still providing service. I’m glad for that.

TDP files lawsuit to expand vote by mail

All right, then.

Following fruitless negotiations over how to proceed with the upcoming primary runoff elections, Texas Democrats are looking to the courts to push for an expansion of voting by mail in the state.

In a lawsuit filed in Travis County district court late Friday, the Democrats are asking a judge to declare that a portion of the Texas election code allowing voters to cast a mail-in ballot if they suffer from a disability applies to any voter in Texas “if they believe they should practice social distancing in order to hinder” the spread of the new coronavirus.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Texas Democratic Party and two individual voters who would seek to vote by mail given the state of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Whatever happens from this moment forward with respect to the pandemic, numerous voters, including the two individual Plaintiffs herein, seek to avail themselves of the option of mail-in ballots,” the lawsuit reads. “Similarly, the Texas Democratic Party needs to know how state law permits local election officials to handle such ballots cast in the Texas Democratic Party Runoff Primary Election so the [party] can determine how it desires to proceed in selecting nominees who were facing a runoff.”

[…]

Election officials in Texas generally agreed that a traditional election for the runoffs is implausible if the current circumstances — including limits on public gatherings and the ongoing closures of locations that typically serve as polling sites — were still true in May.

But in conversations with the Texas Democratic Party this week, some local election officials said they opposed moving to universal voting by mail, under which all registered voters or all voters who participated in the March primaries would be automatically sent ballots, without a postponement to build up their capacity to take on that expansion.

The expansion Democrats are seeking would not result in all mail-in ballot election, and voters would still have to formally request mail ballots from their counties.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. It’s basically the argument that we’ve discussed before about the law as written being sufficiently broad – or vague, if you prefer – as to allow anyone who believes they qualify for the disability provision due to health issues, especially in this time of coronavirus, to be able to vote by mail. Obviously, I believe this argument has merit, though I thought it would be more of a stealth application rather than formally litigating the question. There will need to be a quick ruling for this to be relevant to the runoff, so I expect we’ll have an idea of what the courts think shortly. We’ll see.

Does Houston have enough hospital capacity?

We sure hope so.

Houston-area hospitals would not have enough resources to respond to a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus unless they take strong action to significantly increase capacity, according to new calculations released by Harvard University.

Even in the most conservative of three outbreak scenarios that it created, the Harvard Global Health Initiative found that Houston-area hospitals would lack the necessary beds to care for all patients in need of hospitalization. In a worst case scenario, it would need four times the number currently available in the region.

In the middle scenario — if 40 percent of adults contract the virus over a 12-month period and a fifth of them require hospitalization — more than 430,000 people would be hospitalized in that time. That would require 14,300 beds on an average day, nearly three times the estimated number currently available in Houston.

“We simply do not have enough hospital capacity to assume all of those people,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said last week, assuming 30 percent of county residents were to become sick at the same time. “We can’t afford to have a sudden spike in cases.”

The Harvard initiative data, taken from what’s known as a modeling exercise, don’t constitute predictions so much as they provide scenarios that hospital and policymakers can take into account in planning for a possible surge of the epidemic of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. The data was produced at local hospital market-specific levels because “how many beds are available in Boston is irrelevant to a person in Utah,” said Ashish K. Jha, director of the institute.

The study, released Tuesday, modeled nine scenarios. The scenarios use infection rates of 20 percent, 40 percent and 60 percent and outbreak spans of six, 12 and 18 months.

A 20 percent infection rate over 18 months would mean fewer people caught COVID-19 than fell ill to the flu last year, according to an analysis by ProPublica. Previous studies have suggested the virus is more transmissible than the flu.

The study assumes that hospitals will not free up occupied beds by delaying elective procedures or sending people home early. It also assumes hospitals will not add beds.

[…]

The Harvard calculations were criticized by some policy experts and doctors, who said not enough is known about the spread of COVID-19 to make meaningful assumptions.

“It’s incredibly hard to (make) projections about what’s going to happen because this is a unique first-time event and we have so little data,” said Vivian Ho, a Rice University health economist. “Because we don’t have that much testing, we do not know how quickly it’s spreading, what percent of cases are serious, if we can target hot-spot areas and essentially shut them down.”

Ho added, “I hope there’s something wrong with their assumptions because if not, we’re doomed.”

I’m not an expert, but I do know that Houston hospitals are in fact now suspending elective procedures, so that should help. I have hope that all this social distancing we are doing will help, too. Beyond that…man, I don’t know. I can’t wrap my mind around the possible bad outcomes we may face. I have hope because the other options are just too grim.

Les traffic, easier construction

We’ll be talking about the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic for years to come.

A lighter load on Houston-area freeways and COVID-19 concerns have not slowed the heavy machinery making way for more lanes or new ramps along many of the routes seeing unprecedented drops in traffic.

Some crews will even ramp up work as traffic takes a coronavirus-induced holiday.

“Lighter traffic on our roadways potentially presents some opportunities to advance some of our work, and that is being assessed on a case-by-case basis,” said Raquelle Lewis, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

All TxDOT projects remain active, Lewis said.

Houston Public Works and contractors on city jobs also remain out tying steel, pouring concrete and smoothing asphalt, Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones said this week.

This is actually a great time to hit the streets and get some major work done while there are fewer folks driving, officials said. Work is accelerating or changing on a handful of projects, Lewis said. Typically during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, crews halt work on TxDOT projects in the vicinity of NRG Park. When the rodeo pulled up stakes, the highway workers returned.

The chance to disrupt fewer drivers also is changing some schedules, Lewis said.

“Work on the (Loop) 610-Interstate 69 interchange project has moved up the placement of beams for some of the new connectors,” she said.

Contractors working with TxDOT also are seeing if they can extend lane closures to expedite work while traffic volumes are low. Lewis said those are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“As events evolve, this also could change,” she said.

This all might not last too long – Lord knows, we are all hoping that the bulk of the social-distancing requirements will have a short lifespan – but road construction will be a little easier, and a whole lot less disruptive, in the meantime. I know I’ve barely been in my car over the past two weeks – my group at work was told to start telecommuting ahead of most others, and this past week was spring break. What has been your experience – are you driving less and enjoying the respite, or driving as much and enjoying the lesser traffic?

Abbott delays primary runoffs

So this was originally going to be a post about what various groups have been advocating for the primary runoffs. And then Greg Abbott went and pushed the runoffs back to July without addressing any of the other concerns that had been raised. So here’s my post about that, and then because I spent a lot of time writing the other post, I’ve included that beneath the fold, so you can see what would have been.

Texas is postponing its May 26 primary runoff elections to mid-July to help prevent community spread of COVID-19, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday.

State officials had been trying to decide whether to convert that election to an all-mail-ballot, but Abbott on Friday said the state will instead move the election.

“Holding the runoff in May would cause the congregation of large gatherings of people in confined spaces and cause numerous election workers to come into close proximity with others,” a statement from Abbott’s office said. “This would threaten the health and safety of many Texans.”

The election will be moved to July 14 with early voting starting on July 6.

[…]

Some lawmakers had been pushing Abbott to convert the May runoff election into an all-mail election. Because the turnout out is typically low, they said Texas could easily get ballots to people who want to vote in the runoffs.

I mean, this could be adequate. Lord knows, we all hope that we’re finished with social distancing and coronavirus is more or less under control by then. If it’s not, though, then what’s Plan B? I can understand why Abbott might have wanted to take the easy way out, but he doesn’t really have control over that. Hope for the best, I guess. Anyway, read on for what this post was going to be. The Trib has more.

(more…)

Coronavirus and local control

From Politico, evidence that there are no small-government “conservatives” in pandemic self-isolation foxholes:

Texas is a big state with a proud small-government philosophy. And that’s being tested by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Strict bans on public gatherings to curtail the virus’ reach and widespread testing and treatment run counter to the politics of top Texas officials. Instead they’re calling on local officials to lead the response.

As governors in states including New York and California have imposed statewide measures such as closing schools and limiting commerce, Texas leaders have been reluctant to set restrictions conservative voters might consider draconian and business leaders oppose. They’ve also opposed steps to expand health insurance coverage.

Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration Friday — after dozens of states already had done so — and activated the National Guard on Tuesday, after more than a dozen states already had. State officials have yet to impose statewide limits on public gatherings, close schools or beaches or issue a special open enrollment period for health insurance, as California, New York and other big states have. And some health providers say Texas has been slow to boost coronavirus testing capacity and help them meet equipment needs.

“In this instance, President Trump is right: Governors need to step up,” Clay Jenkins, a Democrat and Dallas County’s top elected official, said in an interview. “When it comes to stemming the tide of the loss of life that we’re staring at, the governor is in a unique position to act.”

Abbott is fully in charge of the state’s response, because as part of the small-government philosophy, the state’s Legislature meets only in odd years for 140 days. So far, more than 60 coronavirus cases and one death have been confirmed in the state. Abbott said he expects the number of cases to explode next week as more testing capacity comes online and more diagnoses are counted.

Abbott, who has been governor for five years, tends to shine in moments of crisis. He’s been relatively hands-off during legislative sessions, but has played an active role in managing during disaster. Abbott earned praise for providing a steady hand during Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in 2017.

But the swift-spreading coronavirus public health crisis is catching Texas unprepared. The state, which didn’t expand Medicaid, has the highest uninsured rate in the country meaning millions of people don’t have doctors to call if they show symptoms. And Abbott has opposed local paid sick leave ordinances, which could encourage sick people to stay home and keep from spreading the virus, saying they hamper business growth.

[…]

Abbott’s office says the governor believes in taking a decentralized approach letting local officials take the lead in imposing restrictions and relying on private companies to help boost testing capacity.

Several Texas cities and counties have already closed schools and limited public gatherings. That includes Austin, which issued an order Tuesday banning gatherings of more than 10 people and shutting down restaurants and bars through early May.

“County judges and mayors have done a very good job in listening to local health officials,” Abbott’s spokesman John Wittman said in an interview. “What is best in Dallas may not be best for Amarillo or Abilene.”

Those of you who are old enough to remember the last couple of legislative sessions have likely done a spit-take to the sound of a record scratch upon hearing those words. But they’re not the first time they have been uttered. From the Trib, plowing a similar furrow three days earlier:

Abbott’s office, asked about the local protocols, said Monday that cities and counties “have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities” and nodded to how helpful local decision-making can be in a state as large as Texas. That approach is in stark contrast to Abbott’s recent attitude toward local control. In the past few years, he has routinely sparred with mayors and backed several laws that chipped away at the power of cities and counties.

“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”

Abbott’s push for local decision-making comes as the nation’s top infectious disease expert said the most effective way to stop spread of COVID-19 may be a 14-day nationwide shutdown.

So, local control is best when tough decisions that Greg Abbott doesn’t want to have to make need to be made. Otherwise, cities and counties need to stop thinking and acting in their own best interests and let Greg Abbott and the Republican Party do all of that for them. Could someone please make sure to have multiple large multi-colored printouts of those John Wittman quotes plastered all around the Capitol next year? Thanks. The Observer, which goes into a lot more detail, has more.

Reducing the coronavirus risk in jail

This is an obvious step to take.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

More than 8,500 people are housed inside the Harris County jail, and thousands more move through the building and return to their communities each day to keep the criminal justice juggernaut running.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez likens the situation to three massive ships docked in downtown Houston. An outbreak of COVID-19 in this setting could be catastrophic to the region and overwhelm hospitals’ limited capacity to treat patients.

That’s why the sheriff overseeing the third largest jail system in the country is pushing for “bold action” to avert the potential fallout — he is seeking compassionate releases of hundreds of vulnerable people who pose a low risk to public safety. For that to happen, judges would need to sign off.

“Jails and prisons are fertile ground for the spread of infectious disease,” Gonzales said, noting that his staff has done “yeoman’s work to keep an outbreak at bay,” addressing hygiene and health concerns. “My nightmare scenario is that an outbreak happens at the county jail.”

But he said, “The standards we implement in the general community are either impossible to follow or hard to do in a jail setting. Our criminal justice system must become more aggressive in granting compassionate releases.”

And time is of the essence, he said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is on board and considers taking steps to mitigate an outbreak at the jail “a very high priority,” noting “this could spread like wildfire at the jail.” County officials and judges are discussing the matter and consulting the fine print of statutes that govern such measures to try to assess how to make it happen.

Hidalgo also said she’s looking at ways to limit the population at the county’s juvenile lockup.

“Were trying to do as much as is feasible and can be done in a safe way to have these people not packed in so close together,” she said.

Alex Bunin, the chief public defender for the county, said the situation is dire: “If you are in jail and … and facing charges for a nonviolent crime, that shouldn’t be a death sentence because you’re going to get cornonavirus.”

He said county leaders can give the sheriff the authority to release people on misdemeanors. Felony decisions, under normal circumstances, must come from the judges.

There are easy ways to prioritize who might be released – older inmates, pregnant women, immuno-compromised inmates, and the like. Bear in mind that if the jail becomes a hot spot for coronavirus, then everyone who works at the jail, everyone who provides goods and services to the jail, and everyone they come into contact with including their families, are put at risk. Are we serious about trying to contain this pandemic, or is all that just lip service? The question answers itself if you let it.

Distilling more hand sanitizer

Well done.

Even before the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020, hand sanitizer was one of the first items to fly off the shelves during the spread of the novel coronavirus, and is still nowhere to be seen at local stores. Luckily, the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) just relaxed its rules to make it easier — and faster — for distilleries to produce their own hand sanitizer products.

The latest distillery entering the field is Grateful Dane Distilling, which makes rum in Bellaire. On March 21, from 1 to 5 p.m., owner Ian Mook will be giving away two bottles of hand sanitizer for every bottle of rum purchased, as well as selling the hand sanitizer separately, at cost.

“I knew there was a shortage and I knew I had the ability to manufacture this,” says Mook. He added, once the regulations were lifted, “it only made sense for me to start making this.”

Making hand sanitizer is a pretty seamless process for a distiller. Alcohol is composed of a bunch of different chemicals; when crafting spirits, most boil off the still to make a food-grade product, leaving just ethanol—that’s what we drink. But the other chemicals, such as acetone and methanol, are the very elements needed for hand sanitizer.

“It’s normally a byproduct that most distilleries just throw out,” says Mook. “It’s not worth the time or effort to even manufacture something like that, but we live in strange times.”

Just add glycerol, hydrogen peroxide and distilled water, and voilà. It doesn’t affect the rum production at all.

They have some one-ounce bottles available today, between one and five PM. See here for more information. I for one salute their initiative.

Statewide restrictions on public gatherings

This was expected.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday took sweeping action to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus across Texas, issuing an executive order that will close restaurants and schools, among other things.

During a news conference at the state Capitol, Abbott announced an executive order that will limit social gatherings to 10 people, prohibit eating and drinking at restaurants and bars while still allowing takeout, close gyms, ban people from visiting nursing homes except for critical care and temporarily close schools. The executive order is effective midnight Friday through midnight April 3, Abbott said.

The executive order reflects federal guidance that came out earlier this week.

[…]

Abbott also announced that state health commissioner John Hellerstedt declared a public health disaster earlier Thursday. Abbott said it is his understanding that the last time such a declaration was made in Texas was 1901.

Not much to add here. Cities and counties have been taking action along these lines, though there have been holdouts. (Harris County is considering further action as well.) That makes state action the appropriate solution, so good for Abbott though we can certainly debate what took so long. Be that as it may, here we are. The Chron has more.

Moving the May elections

Another possible method for coping with coronavirus.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to grow in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday issued a proclamation that will allow municipalities to postpone their upcoming May 2 elections until November.

The move comes after Abbott issued a disaster declaration over the pandemic that paved the way for him to suspend parts of the state’s election code to allow for postponements. Notably, individual municipalities will still have to act to postpone their elections, but Abbott urged them to move them to November.

“I strongly encourage local election officials to take advantage of these waivers and postpone their elections until November,” Abbott said in a statement. “Right now, the state’s focus is responding to COVID-19 — including social distancing and avoiding large gatherings. By delaying this election, our local election officials can assist in that effort.”

[…]

The May 2 municipal elections are set to feature a litany of local political races from across the state.

Abbott had previously indicated his team was deciphering whether he had the authority to order changes for municipal elections. Unlike state contests, like the upcoming primary runoffs, municipal elections are ordered — and often run — by cities, school districts and other political subdivisions. The proclamation suggests he ultimately concluded he did not have that power to order the postponements himself.

The Texas secretary of state’s office, which oversees election in the state, sent local election officials an advisory shortly after the proclamation was announced offering guidance for entities choosing to postpone. The advisory indicates the elected officials holding offices that were on the ballot for May will continue to hold their positions until November if an election is postponed.

See here, here, and here for the background. The issue of the regular May elections versus the primary runoffs was discussed in that last post. Abbott has apparently concluded that he can’t order the localities that have elections on May 2 to move them or otherwise change how they conduct them, but he can do this. We’ll see what happens. As I’ve said in previous posts, these are small elections that don’t have their results reported to the Harris County Clerk (for those in Harris County), so I at least have no idea how many of them there are and how many voters may be affected. I do know that moving them to November, no matter what else is going on, will mean that the universe of potential voters for those races will be orders of magnitude larger than if they were to be held in May. It also may mean having these races conducted by the county elections administrators, so that affected voters don’t have to vote twice, potentially at two different locations, which would be a huge mess. Again, without knowing the specifics of the races involved, I can’t offer any speculation on what that might do to their results. There will need to be a lot of thought and work put into this, that’s for sure. Abbott’s proclamation is here, and Patrick Svitek has more.

Abbott addresses vote by mail possibilities

He’s thinking about it.

Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged on Tuesday that he has the authority to postpone May 26 runoff elections or conduct them exclusively via mail-in ballots in response to the coronavirus.

“Everything’s on the table,” Abbott told reporters when asked about expanding vote-by-mail.

On Monday, Hearst Newspapers reported that state officials have been kicking around the idea. Currently, Texas allows limited use of vote-by-mail.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said because of how low the turnout is, he thinks Texas could easily do an all-mail election to keep people from having to stand in line to vote.

Abbott, however, is not certain he can order the May 2 municipal elections around the state to make similar changes because those are local elections.

“It may only be the municipalities have the power to make that decision, and so there’s that legal issue that we are making a determination on,” Abbott said. “That said, if I don’t have the legal authority, we may provide suggested guidelines.”

See here and here for the background. The local elections on May 2 are a different breed, and Abbott may be right that it’s not in his authority to order a change in their procedures. Seems like a good question to ask the Attorney General, and hopefully get a quick answer out of him, since time is of the essence. Giving them some guidance on how to proceed would also be a good answer.

Also of interest:

The Texas Civil Rights Project has sent a letter to the Texas Secretary of State arguing that everyone in Texas already qualifies to vote by mail because they have the risk of being sick.

“Texans should not be asked to choose between their physical well-being and their fundamental right to vote,” said Beth Stevens, legal director of the nonprofit group’s Voting Rights Program. “The Secretary of State should act quickly within her authority to issue guidance to counties, so they can prepare for the logistics of more mail-in-ballot applications. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but luckily, the Texas Legislature gave us this process in the election code and we can rely on it now.”

We talked about how more people could be voting by mail now if they asked for it. There are concerns, but they can be addressed, especially for a low-turnout May election like the primary runoffs. But again, if we’re going to do this we need to get a concrete proposal on the table as soon as possible so any objections or concerns can be aired and dealt with. There’s definitely some momentum here and that’s good to see, but we need to get this going.

Further delay for Opening Day

Mid-May at the most optimistic, and that’s very likely too soon.

Major League Baseball pushed back opening day until mid-May at the earliest on Monday because of the new coronavirus after the federal government recommended restricting events of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred made the announcement following a conference call with executives of the 30 teams.

“The clubs remain committed to playing as many games as possible when the season begins,” the commissioner’s office said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Sunday that gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled or postponed across the country for the next eight weeks.

“The opening of the 2020 regular season will be pushed back in accordance with that guidance,” Manfred said.

No telling at this point when games will start. The All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on July 14 could be in jeopardy.

“We’re not going to announce an alternate opening day at this point. We’re going to have to see how things develop,” Manfred told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Florida. He didn’t want to speculate about the possibility of playing in empty stadiums, saying part of that decision would depend on timing.

See here for the background. This assumes that after eight weeks we will not be under a general directive to greatly limit public gatherings, and that MLB players will be more or less ready to go as soon as that happens. I’ll take the over on this best and assume that sometime in June is a more realistic target. The NBA is currently aiming for mid-to-late June, and if that is how it works out for MLB as well, I’ll be reasonably satisfied. That could yield an MLB season of between 90 and 120 games, depending on when in June things could start and whether the end of the season could be pushed back and/or whether there might be more doubleheaders. I’m sure there will be plenty of discussions between the league and the union, as there are now about pay and service time and what have you. Three months seems like forever now, but if we’re at a point of normality again where sports have returned, I for one will be pretty damn happy. I mean, there are plenty of worse alternatives at this time.

We already have the power to do more voting by mail

KUT points to a path forward that could get a lot more people voting by mail in Texas.

Texas has one of the most restrictive vote-by-mail laws in the country, but it is open to some of the state’s most vulnerable populations.

Grace Chimene, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, says she hopes the state and counties encourage eligible voters to mail in their ballots.

In Texas, people over 65 can apply for mail-in ballots, so the state’s older population can obtain a ballot ahead of elections.

People with underlying health issues can also apply. Whether those people qualify, however, largely depends on the county election officials who administer elections in the state.

Chimene said it’s possible many people with some health issues could qualify as disabled, which is one of the categories of people allowed to vote by mail here, but those qualifications could be clearer.

“I would like the secretary of state’s office to really explain who qualifies, who can vote absentee,” Chimene said. “I think it’s not super clear.”

Travis County Clerk Dana Debouvoir said that a disability can be a “fungible” thing that changes often throughout a person’s life. She says this could be a category that would allow people who should stay away from large groups because of COVID-19 concerns to vote at home.

“Here at the elections office we are not doctors,” Debouvoir said. “So if you say on one of those forms that you have a disability, we are going to believe you. I am not going to reject an application for ballot by mail on the basis that I think or don’t think someone has a disability. That’s not going to work right now.”

Chimene said she thinks state officials should make it clear if “sick” or disabled could apply to many of these voters who have underlying health issues, like a chronic disease or immunodeficiency.

“What qualifies as sick should be something that we are encouraging the secretary of state to expand on,” Chimene said.

As the story notes, not a lot of people 65 and older, who are eligible to vote by mail no questions asked, take advantage of it now. Travis County Clerk Dana Debouvoir puts the figure at 10-15% there, and I’d bet it’s similar in Harris County. We could already have a lot more people voting by mail right now if they wanted to. The HCDP has a program where it sends a vote by mail application to all of its known-to-be-Democratic voters and then calls them to remind them to send it in (I’ve participated in that), and you can see the effect it has had in recent elections. Thanks to the high level of turnout in this year’s primary we have a lot more Dems identified, and we could get a lot more mail ballot applications sent out. It’s up to the voters themselves to take it from there.

I should note, since I pointed this out before, that having more people vote by mail will also mitigate the effect of not having a straight ticket voting option, in that it will not add to the lines at voting locations. That’s another pretty big consideration after this year’s primary, too. What I’m saying here is: If you’re a Dem and you’re 65 or will be by this November, please consider getting a mail ballot. Pester your eligible friends about it, too. Yes, I know, I love going to the polling places, and I’d greatly miss it if I didn’t do that. And Lord knows, we should very much be on the other end of the coronavirus curve by then – if not, we’re in much deeper trouble than we’re in now – but still. This is a thing you can do that would help on more than one level. Give it some thought.

Even more so, if you’re a person with health issues, especially if you’re in any way immuno-compromised, you can request a mail ballot as well. Your County Clerk ought to oblige. Again, we’ll very likely be mostly out of the pandemic woods by November, but again, why not take advantage anyway? It’ll be good for you, and good for the wait times at polling places. What’s not to like?

Now having said all that, there are potential drawbacks to expanding vote by mail, and we need to take them seriously. One, as Josh Levin, the election protection fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project notes, vote by mail applications can be rejected due to signature mismatches, and elections officials aren’t good at notifying applicants when this happens. That was noted in the earlier story about the possibility of an all-mail primary runoff election. You’ll need to be persistent and pester your county clerk if you don’t get your mail ballot in a timely fashion. Two, if you do go this route, please don’t then show up at a polling place and vote again in person. Every cycle some people get confused about this, and it is a thing you can be prosecuted for. Three, if the GOP suspects that Democratic voters are trying to game the system somehow by getting mail ballots to people who are not 65 but are claiming a health exception, they will surely take some kind of legal action to stop it. It’s hard to say how big a deal that could be, but we really don’t need further attacks on the legitimacy of our elections.

Finally, Campos raises a good point:

On the mail ballots for everyone thing, we need to be careful on this. I am all for going to a vote by mail system in the future. Last week, I watched a CNN piece on how the state of Washington handles their vote by mail system. It is pretty elaborate with a lot of special equipment and a physical layout to handle the volume. I don’t think the folks who conduct our elections in Texas have the infrastructure in place to handle 16 million mail ballots. I just don’t think we jump into this system under emergency circumstances. Convince me otherwise. We saw what happened a couple of weeks ago today.

Yeah, I agree with that. I think we can encourage people who are already eligible to vote by mail to consider doing so if they haven’t already – there’s a clear benefit to that and the system should have no trouble handling it. Anything bigger than that will require planning and coordination, and we’re not there yet. We don’t want to risk having a worse outcome because we weren’t able to deliver on our promises.

On balance, there’s no reason why folks who are clearly eligible to get a mail ballot not to do so, and many reasons why they should. The first order of business is to make sure they know that they can, and then follow up from there. We can do that this year. It’s already in our power. Daily Kos and TPM have more.

SD14 special election date set

A bit of a surprise, to me at least.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Gov. Greg Abbott has postponed the special election for the Austin area’s Texas Senate District 14 due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

The election to replace retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat leaving office at the end of April, has been moved to July 14, Abbott announced Monday evening. It ordinarily would have been held May 2.

Two candidates have already announced they’re running for the historically Democratic seat: State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who announced last week that she would resign from her position to run for the Senate. Several others have been eyeing a potential run at the seat.

Abbott’s office said postponing the election “is another step the state is taking to protect health and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” noting that it was consulting with the secretary of state’s office “on additional strategies to ensure public health in relation to any upcoming election.” It’s unclear whether additional action will be taken to delay municipal elections across the state, which are also slated for May 2.

See here for the announcement of Watson’s resignation, and here and here for the declarations by Rodriguez and Eckhardt. I had been assuming that Abbott would not set a date until after Watson’s resignation was official. Perhaps I was overly influenced by the Sylvia Garcia “intent to resign” saga from 2018, I don’t know. Be that as it may, if there had been a previous announcement of a May 2 special election date, I didn’t see it, and I looked at Greg Abbott’s news releases going back to the date of Watson’s announcement. It may just be that this Trib story is not as clear as it could be, as this tweet demonstrates:

Whatever the case, the proclamation is here. Let’s hope that circumstances do not force it to be pushed back again.

Emergency orders extended

In Houston.

City council on Tuesday extended Houston’s emergency health declaration, reflecting a warning by Mayor Sylvester Turner that the public health crisis fueled by the spread of COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon.

“This is a crisis. I hope there’s no one around this table that’s questioning that,” Turner told his colleagues during a spirited special meeting Tuesday. “And it’s a crisis that’s going to be with us for several weeks if not several months. And I hope no one is questioning that.”

The measure gives the mayor power to suspend rules and regulations and to “undergo additional health measures that prevent or control the spread of disease,” such as quarantine or setting up emergency shelters. Similar orders have been issued after hurricanes.

Turner declared the emergency last week, after the region’s first confirmed COVID-19 case of community spread, in which the virus was contracted locally rather than travel. The order was used to cancel the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which notes that among other things, all city-produced, sponsored and permitted events are canceled through the end of April, and the city expects to begin COVID-19 testing this week, with an announcement to come.

Harris County took similar action.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday extended Harris County’s public health disaster declaration in response to the coronavirus, but only for eight days.

The agenda for Tuesday’s emergency session called for a 30-day extension. However, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle asked for a shorter extension so other elected officials and the public can give input.

The other four members agreed and unanimously extended the declaration, which allows the county to more quickly purchase necessary supplies and services, though March 25. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she hoped Cagle was acting in good faith and not trying to build discord around the declaration.

“There is lives on the line in this thing,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve got to stick together, and this is not the time to be whipping up political opposition.”

[…]

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked Hidalgo to do all her office can to halt evictions. Garcia said many residents are losing income because schools and businesses have closed, and should be given a break.

Cagle said Commissioners Court should not take any action seen as swaying eviction proceedings in favor of defendants or ordering judges how to perform their duties. Garcia said he simply is seeking a delay in evictions so vulnerable residents have a chance to catch up on rent.

“I’m not asking for judges for any ruling,” Garcia said. “I’m just asking for the judge to halt the process until we can see some light at the end of this tunnel.”

The county judge does not oversee independently elected constables and justices of the peace who administer evictions. Assistant County Attorney Barbara Armstrong said emergency powers allow the county judge to close public buildings and allocate resources, which Hidalgo could exercise to prevent hearings from taking place. Armstrong said cases would resume when the crisis subsides.

Hidalgo said she has spoken with several of the county’s 16 justices of the peace, who have indicated they intend to temporarily stay eviction proceedings.

Other counties are taking similar action on halting evictions, and also making fewer arrests for low-level crimes, as is Harris. These are among the things that maybe we ought to continue after the crisis subsides. Just a thought.

Art Car Parade has been canceled

Some inevitable sadness from the inbox:

Dear Friends,

As one of the city’s largest and most iconic annual events, the Houston Art Car Parade has celebrated the artist in everyone for each of the past 33 years, showcasing hundreds of mobile masterpieces designed and created by a vast array of trained and untrained artists, student groups, non-profit organizations, and anyone with a spark of creativity and “the drive to create.” It has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to Art Car artists and artist teams and has become an important and inspiring art program for many schools across the Greater Houston area.

Due to the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 and the restrictions currently in place by the City of Houston and Harris County regarding public events, the Board of Directors of the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art has decided to cancel the 2020 Houston Art Car Parade. This will include all events associated with Houston Art Car Parade Weekend scheduled to take place April 16-19, including the Main Street Drag, the Sneak Peek at Saint Arnold Brewing Company, The Legendary Art Car Ball, The VIPit Experience, and the Houston Art Car Parade Awards Ceremony.

A message from Orange Show Founder & Chairman Marilyn Oshman:

“While canceling this year’s events was a difficult decision, we remain absolutely committed to supporting and highlighting this unique and exciting form of art. To that end, plans are already underway for a city-wide Art Car celebration event to take place this summer, featuring many of the incredible Art Cars that would have participated in this year’s parade.”

The event’s date and location will be announced in the near future, and information will be found at www.thehoustonartcarparade.com.

We wish to thank those those patrons who have purchased tickets to any of the events that will be cancelled. If you are a ticket holder, expect to hear from us shortly regarding your purchase.

In addition, the organization is suspending entry and tours of its two Houston folk art landmarks The Orange Show and The Beer Can House until further notice. Smither Park remains open from dawn to dusk, though we encourage practicing social distance when in public. Up-to-date information about their re-openings will be made available at www.orangeshow.org.

We are grateful for our sponsors, community partners, supporters, and incredible community of artists who have been a part of the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art family over the years, and look forward to bringing back the Houston Art Car Parade Weekend in 2021. If you would like to make a fully tax-deductible donation to the organization and help us to produce this event as well as continue the restoration and maintenance of three of the city’s important folk art environments The Orange Show, The Beer Can House and Smither Park, click here.

I mean, no one should be surprised by this. But we can all be sad. And we can look forward to that the future celebration.

Bars and clubs to be closed

Man, the effect of the coronavirus pandemic is going to be huge even if everything goes well.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday ordered all bars and clubs countywide to close for 15 days, the most drastic step local officials have taken to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

The order, which takes effect 8 a.m. Tuesday, also limits restaurants to takeout and delivery orders. The city and county leaders acknowledged the edict could force restaurateurs out of business and cost waitstaff, cooks and bartenders their jobs, but said that dreadful outcome is better than an outbreak in which local hospitals are overrun.

While Turner insisted the closures are not akin to a lockdown, Hidalgo urged residents to avoid any unnecessary contact with other people, effectively signaling a temporary end to public life for the county’s 4.7 million residents. She said the Houston area is at a pivotal moment in determining the path of the virus.

“The decisions we make, and you make, to go out in groups or to stay home will very much determine whether people live or die,” Hidalgo said. “Whether we flatten the curve sufficiently to allow our health care workers to address the influx of cases, or whether our health care system, and community at large, are overwhelmed.”

The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office will enforce the temporary rules, Hidalgo said. Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said her inspectors will focus on ensuring bar and restaurants comply, and promised to issue citations for repeat offenders.

[…]

The bar closures and restaurant restrictions are “unquestionably going to cause a financial and health calamity for working people,” said Hany Khalil, executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation.

He said he agrees with the move because it is based on recommendations from health experts, but called on all levels of government to take “swift action” to help affected workers.

“In the bar and restaurant sector, we’re talking about low-wage workers, often uninsured, with little savings to weather the health and economic storm,” Khalil said. “And we need to make sure that they are provided for. They’re not responsible for the situation.”

After Dallas County announced similar restrictions Monday, the Texas Restaurant Association projected that up to 500,000 of the roughly 1.4 million employees in the Texas restaurant industry would lose their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to TRA chief revenue officer and spokeswoman Anna Tauzin.

There are some 300,000 restaurant employees in Harris County, though Tauzin said it was not clear how many could lose their job as a result of the restrictions. The job loss projections do not account for related industries, such as food suppliers and truckers, which Tauzin said also would be hit hard by the loss in restaurant demand.

The city’s press release is here. Bar and club owners are despondent, and I can’t blame them. There’s never a good time for this to happen, but for it to close down their places on Saint Patrick’s Day is an even bigger hit to their finances. I can’t even imagine what the scene is going to look like when this is over. The one thing you can do is still order takeout from your favorite restaurants, and buy gift certificates online from any place that sells them. It’s not going to be much, and everyone from the owners to the staff and the suppliers will need help from the federal government, but it’s something.

UPDATE: Austin has followed suit.

UPDATE: Galveston follows suit.

All mail ballots for the primary runoffs are being discussed

This is a pleasant surprise.

Texas is not making any moves to delay the May 26 primary runoff as of now, even as other states have opted to postpone elections.
But election officials have had preliminary conversations about the potential of doing vote-by-mail ballots only for the runoffs, which would be a first in Texas history.
“It’s a possible solution,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said Monday.

He said the idea has been kicked around and could work because of how low the turnout typically is for runoffs in Texas. As a former elections official, he said he has no doubt Texas counties could get ballots to voters who wanted to vote by mail rather than risk going to large polling sites.

The Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, would not confirm that it is exploring that possibility, only saying a lot of options are on the table.

[…]

Other states have postponed primaries entirely. In Louisiana, election day has been moved from April 4 to June 20. In Georgia, the March 24 primary is now on May 19.

Absentee voting by mail is allowed in Texas for some people but isn’t very popular. In the March 4 primary, just 52,000 of 516,000 voters in Harris County cast ballots by mail.

In order to vote by mail in the May 26 runoff, voters must submit an application by May 15 to their county elections office.

See here for the background. It’s not clear to me how this could be accomplished without a special session of the Legislature, but perhaps Greg Abbott has the authority to order the SOS to come up with a plan for this based on the declared state of emergency. I’ll want to see an explanation of that, but even if it is a special session that is needed, that should be doable. The bigger question, as I discussed in my post, is whether everyone would have to apply for a mail ballot, or whether one would just be mailed to everyone who cast a primary vote. One can reasonably argue for either – I prefer the latter approach, as noted – and one can also point out that either approach has its share of logistical challenges. Which means that if we’re serious about this and not just dicking around, we need to get a proposal on the table and have at it.

One other issue to contend with:

Voting rights advocacy groups have been leery of Texas pushing vote-by-mail too far because its system makes it too easy for voters’ ballots to be thrown out if elections officials decide a signature on a returned ballot doesn’t look right.

The Texas Civil Rights Project has warned that the ballots are not reviewed by experts but instead by everyday eligible voters who just eyeball signatures for irregularities. Those decisions are final and give voters no chance to prove a ballot was properly signed. The group has pushed for Texas to allow voters a chance to contest ballots rejected for a signature match issue.

That’s a very legitimate concern, and one that needs to be addressed if this moves forward. Plenty of other states do a lot more voting by mail than Texas does, so I’m sure there are ways to handle this, it just needs to be an actual priority and not something left up to individual elections administrators. Again, if we are serious about this, we need to be talking details as soon as possible. We’ll see about that.

The Texas Democratic Party has called for all mail ballots for both the May primary runoffs and the regular May 2 election. I have no idea what is on the ballot on May 2 – as I said in the comments on my earlier post, there are no elections handled by the Harris County Clerk in May of even-numbered years. I’m fine with the concept, but it’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. The possibility of doing more vote by mail in November is also an entirely separate issue, one for which I’ve got a post in the works. For now, I think the primary runoffs are the main concern.

STAAR testing waived

This had to happen, given everything else.

In an unprecedented move, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday he would waive testing requirements for this year’s STAAR exam, as many schools expect to be closed at least through the April testing window, due to the new coronavirus.

He also said he would ask the federal government to waive this year’s federal standardized testing requirements, which apply to all states. According to the state, as of Sunday afternoon, 569 school districts had announced closures due to coronavirus concerns. Texas is not alone, since more than 30 states have closed schools due to coronavirus, affecting at least 30 million public school students nationwide.

The federal government has previously said it might give out targeted waivers from testing for areas where the COVID-19 disease has had significant impact.

The state will not mandate that districts offer the exam, but some superintendents may want the test data to see how their students are doing, according to the TEA. Agency officials are working to support those school districts, if necessary.

[…]

State leaders are giving schools more leeway than they have in the past, showing the increasing seriousness surrounding the COVID-19 disease.

When Hurricane Harvey decimated Houston-area and Coastal Bend communities in 2017, [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath hesitated to give them a break on testing or accountability requirements, arguing that doing so would harm student learning. He argued that getting rid of state testing requirements would violate federal requirements and put federal funding at risk.

Eventually he agreed not to hold poor STAAR results against schools and districts, though he did not waive the requirement that they test students.

“Accountability results have been waived for Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Harvey. But never has testing itself been waived,” said Dee Carney, a longtime school accountability consultant in Texas. “It’s absolutely an unprecedented event requiring extraordinary measures of our schools and our teachers and our communities.”

It is not clear exactly what the implications are for students who need to take certain state tests in order to graduate from high school or move on to the next grade. Morath said he would send more specific guidance on student testing and school accountability this week, likely before Thursday.

So three things here. One, given the likely closure of schools through the rest of the academic year, this was basically inevitable. There’s too much disruption, and the test results would be essentially meaningless. Which was the same argument lots of people made following Harvey in 2017, but this time the message was received. Two, this is going to be a months-long, if not years-long, experiment in unprecedented actions and figuring things out as we go, because what else can we do? And three, we just may find out that some of the things we’d been doing all along we can do without, or do differently, and some things we’d never done before become new habits. That’s what happens with big disruptions. Maybe one result of all this is we’ll completely re-evaluate the need for high-stakes testing like we have now. Or maybe we’ll decide we need even more of it. I don’t know what will happen, but I’ll bet that five years from now when we look back on all this, we’ll be amazed at how different things became.

Schools could be closed for the rest of the academic year

Lots of school-related news on Monday.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told school superintendents and lawmakers Sunday to be prepared for long-term school district closures, potentially through the end of the school year, especially in areas where the new coronavirus has spread.

According to individuals who participated in two separate conference calls with the commissioner, Morath said he would still leave the decision up to local superintendents. This comes as hundreds of school districts announced they would suspend classes for at least a week, with concerns about COVID-19 spreading through their communities.

Morath suggested superintendents consider telling parents sooner rather than later that closures would stretch beyond a few weeks. The extended school closures would be a burden for low-income and working parents, who would more likely struggle to keep their children home for long periods of time.

The state has already said school districts with prolonged school closures due to coronavirus concerns may avoid financial penalties, as long as they can prove they are teaching students remotely. But not all school districts have the experience or resources needed to offer remote instruction, and many students lack access to consistent internet at home.

This is not unexpected. At this point, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen, though obviously if that’s the case then there will be wildly disparate effects on the students, between those who will have access to online instruction, and those who will not. Maybe – stay with me here – that should be something the Legislature addresses going forward. You may now be thinking “How can they possibly do the STAAR test if no one is at school?” I say to you, keep reading.

The Houston healthcare community is preparing for COVID-19

I sure hope it’s enough.

With last week’s new certainty that the novel coronavirus is loose and being transmitted in Houston, the region’s medical providers are bracing for the current handful of known cases to blaze into an outbreak like nothing in modern memory.

“We had been saying, ‘It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,’” said Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health. “That’s not the case anymore. It’s now.”

By shutting down events and closing schools, officials aim to “flatten the curve” — to stop too many people from getting sick at the same time and overwhelming the region’s hospitals and medical providers.

Much about the highly contagious new virus remains unknown, and projections of its future behavior vary wildly.

Based on scenarios from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York Times estimated that anywhere from 2.4 million to 21 million people in the United States could require hospitalization, “potentially crushing the nation’s medical system, which has only about 925,000 staffed hospital beds.”

For most people, the virus is expected to be mild. But up to 20 percent of cases — mostly people over 60 or with underlying medical conditions — may require hospitalization.

If everyone gets sick more or less at once, area hospitals almost certainly would not have enough rooms, critical care or ventilators. In Italy, where officials waited to control the outbreak, an extraordinary surge of cases has left the medical system on the verge of collapse.

Based on Harris County estimates, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said recently that if 30 percent of Harris County residents were to become sick at the same time and 20 percent of those people needed hospital care, medical infrastructure would be overloaded.

“We simply do not have enough hospital capacity to assume all of those people,” Hidalgo said. “We can’t afford to have a sudden spike in cases.”

Even the best case — a slowed outbreak that continues for months — is almost certain to pose significant challenges to the area’s hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices.

[…]

The virus poses particular threats to hospital personnel, who will be working long hours under stressful conditions — and facing coronavirus-related personal problems such as a lack of child care due to school closures. In the worst scenario, seen in China, medical personnel become ill themselves, and their colleagues have to take care of them.

Testifying before Congress earlier this month, Dr. Peter Hotez, a Baylor College of Medicine vaccine researcher and infectious disease specialist, urged that special attention be paid to hospital workers.

“If health care professionals are out of work because they’re sick, or if they’re being taken care of by other health care professionals in ICUs, that’s a disaster,” he said.

And just this weekend, two ER doctors, one in New Jersey and one in Kirkland, Washington, have tested positive for coronavirus. Even with the best preventative measures, this thing is going to spread. All we can do – all that we must do – is take every action we can to try to limit how quickly it spreads. That’s our best hope.

School could be out for awhile

We got the news on Thursday that HISD schools were going to be closed until March 31 due to coronavirus. (This week is spring break, so the kids got an extra day off before the start of break, then a week and a day after it.) But there’s a very real possibility that schools will remain closed well after that.

Houston schools could remain closed well beyond the end of March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, requiring unprecedented efforts to deliver meals and educational materials to hundreds of thousands of children, several local superintendents said Friday.

One day after nearly all Houston-area districts canceled classes through at least next week, local education leaders said their staffs were crafting contingency plans under the assumption that schools will remain closed long-term. Public health experts have said the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is expected to last months with the potential to infect millions of Americans.

“We’re planning as if we’re going to have to do school remotely for the remainder of this (school) year,” said Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre, whose district serves about 78,400 children.

For now, no area school districts have canceled classes past March 30, the date when Houston and Fort Bend ISDs are scheduled to return to school. Many district leaders said they plan to reassess their calendars next week, when updates about the virus are available.

However, several education officials said they expect the continued spread of COVID-19 and growing public awareness about its potentially devastating effects likely will prompt extended cancellations.

“If we’d had this discussion two days ago, I think we’d have said (school closures) would last a couple weeks, maybe to the first week of April,” said Curtis Culwell, executive director of Texas School Alliance. “I think the reality that’s beginning to sink in is, this could be longer than that.”

[…]

The Texas Department of Agriculture received a federal waiver Friday allowing districts to serve school meals off-site and to small groups, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement.

On the academic front, districts are grappling with multiple challenges in providing high-quality instruction, including lack of access to technology among lower-income and rural students, inexperience with remote learning tools, concerns about attentiveness among elementary-age children and the delivery of special education services.

The Texas Education Agency told district leaders Thursday evening that they must commit to “supporting students instructionally while at home” to avoid extending the school year.

Here’s the HISD announcement, in case you missed it. I have to say, I have no idea what to expect at this point. I don’t see any way that the overall coronavirus situation is better or noticeably under control by March 31, so I do believe schools will be closed longer than that. How much longer, and what the schools do about it, that’s the big question. This could wind up being a mostly lost year from an educational perspective, which is another scary thing to contemplate. And with all this disruption, does it make sense to proceed with STAAR testing as if nothing else were happening? State Rep. Jon Rosenthal thinks we should cancel the STAAR for this year, and I’m hard pressed to see the argument against that. How can that test mean anything in this context? Again, I have no idea what to expect. It’s going to be a super bumpy ride, and we’ll have to do it in our own spaces. Hang in there.

Abbott declares a state of emergency

Seems like it’s called for.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday declared that the new coronavirus is a statewide public health disaster and said that Texas is on the verge of being able to significantly ramp up its testing capacity.

At the same time he announced that he was directing day cares, nursing homes and prisons to limit visitations.

He said San Antonio is opening on Friday the first state drive-through with testing capabilities that will initially prioritize health care workers and high-risk patients.

Abbott also finally clarified the state’s testing history so far and current capabilities. In total, he said there have been 220 Texans tested by either a state public lab or by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are another 75 Texans being tested currently.

On Friday, the state’s testing capacity was roughly 270 people per day, but he said next week that capacity will expand into the thousands as private labs come online.

The Chron adds some more details.

The governor didn’t provide details on where and when the lab would open. But he credited Mayor Ron Nirenberg and his team for leading the way on the issue.

The facility will initially be only for first responders, health care workers, operators of critical infrastructure and key resources and certain high-risk patients, Abbott said.

He said the state has tested 220 Texans so far for the virus and he expects public and private labs to exponentially increase the capacity next week. The labs will be able to test several thousand people a week.

It’s a good and necessary start, but there’s a lot more that can be said and done. What about paid sick leave, which the state is fighting tooth and nail in court, for one? What about the millions of people with no health insurance, including all those who would have benefited from an expansion of Medicaid? It may seem crass and opportunistic to bring up heated political points like these right now, but we’d be in a much stronger position now if Abbott and his fellow Republicans hadn’t so fiercely opposed these things. Policy and politics matter. We shouldn’t let Abbott off the hook for these things just because he did his job today. WFAA and the DMN have more.

Coronavirus and the courts

More things that will be shut down for the time being.

Courts in the Houston region are announcing measures to reduce or suspend some operations in response to the new coronavirus outbreak and local declarations of emergency.

Harris County’s court system announced Thursday that jury service will be suspended from Friday through March 20, another move by local authorities as they grapple with the spread of the new coronavirus.

Local Administrative Judge Robert Schaffer said that the Board of District Court Judges met and decided to suspend service. “Jurors who have received a summons for these dates do not need to appear and do not need to schedule,” he said in the order released Thursday.

In addition Harris County Civil Administrative Judge Michael Gomez said earlier that civil trials will be canceled through the end of the month, and individual judges would determine how to handle bench warrants.

Brazoria County also announced suspension of jury duty because of the coronavirus outbreak for the week of March 16 and the week of March 23. “Residents that have received a jury summons for the week of March 16th or the week of March 23rd will not need to report for jury duty,” the county said in a release.

The federal courts have also announced some adjustments to civil matters in the wake of the public health pandemic, although federal courthouses across in the massive Southern District of Texas – which stretches from near the Louisiana border to the Mexico border — will remain open. Civil jury trials in Houston and Galveston have been postponed until April 1 or thereafter. Judges have the discretion to postpone bench trials.

The federal clerk’s offices will become a virtual operation, with aides available to the public by phone and responding to snail mail. The intake desks will process electronic court filings.

On the criminal side, juries are still being called. In addition, all hearings before a district, bankruptcy or magistrate judge will remain as scheduled unless the presiding judge in the case makes a change.

There’s more, involving civil, criminal, and family court, so read the rest, and check in with your court or your attorney if you have any legal proceedings in the near future. Texas Lawyer has a more comprehensive roundup of court actions around the state. As Alex Bunin, the head of the Public Defender’s office says in the piece, once there’s a confirmed case involving someone in a courtroom, whatever their role may be, it’s going to snowball from there.

Let’s also not forget the prisons and jails, which could be a major vector for the spread of the disease. The Harris County jail is doing screenings and can do quarantines, but maybe the short term answer is to arrest fewer people and let asylum-seekers and others out of detention. There’s lots of ways to do social distancing.

What should we do about the runoffs?

With coronavirus concerns now shutting down all kinds of public events and other large gatherings, it’s more than fair to wonder what the risks are of conducting the primary runoffs in the usual fashion. This post on Indivisible Houston suggests a path forward.

Runoff elections are coming soon, and while I understand commercial events being cancelled, I am absolutely opposed to the cancellation of democracy. Unfortunately, if people are stuck inside for the next month or two, we may have either public health issues or fear weighing down voter turnout by keeping people from going to the polls unless they are eligible to vote by mail.

One approach we may be able to take as a state to ensure people can vote is to demand access to vote by mail for all residents. The Governor of Texas can likely make that happen by a state of emergency or special session. Harris County and other counties can also advocate for such a solution or similar solutions; our county clerk, county attorney, and commissioners court are capable of coming up with a game plan, too.

I understand this is not the foremost concern for everyone in the county because we’re all trying to make sure our county is healthy and that people have their basic needs met. But I also think it’s important to protect democracy. The ballot is too important to be denied, even amidst chaos.

If you agree with me, please call the Governor’s office, your state rep, and your county level officials to demand a solution to the issue.
Below is a script and some of their information. You can call, email, tweet, or preferably do two or all three.

“Hello, my name is ________. I am a constituent and I want to encourage you to find solutions for our May runoff election that would allow all voters to vote by mail and otherwise ensure access to the polls in a way that accounts for the public health crisis.

Please tally my opinion.

Thank you.”

-Governor Greg Abbott – (512) 463-2000
https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx
@gregabbott_tx

-Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo
713-274-7000
Twitter: @Lina4HC

-Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis
713-274-1000
@RodneyEllis

-Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia
713-755-6220
@adriangarciahtx

-Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack
713-755-6306

-Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle
713-755-6444

-Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman
713-274-8600
@dtrautman

Find your state rep and senator here and call them.

I should note up front that primary runoffs have much, much lower turnout (see item 4) than regular primaries. There won’t be any lines to vote in the runoffs. You’ll breeze in and out and may not see anyone but the election workers. That said, those election workers will see and interact with plenty of people over the course of the day, and of course we’ll all be using the same voting machines. Neither of those is a great idea in the time of pandemic, and it’s not at all hard to imagine that turnout could be suppressed even more than usual just from people’s natural fear of going to the polling places.

So given all that, switching to an all vote-by-mail primary runoff seems like an excellent way to mitigate the risk. Greg Abbott would have to call a special session to amend the existing law to allow for this, and I would hope that would be a notion that anyone could get behind. I mean, these are primary runoffs, so there’s no question of partisan advantage, just of public health. As a practical matter, this would have to be done by April 11, as that day is the deadline for sending out mail ballots to overseas voters. There’s time, but let’s not dilly-dally.

(And yes, there would be legit health concerns about getting all 181 legislators plus their staff and journalists and whoever else into the Capitol at this time. I don’t know what they can do to mitigate that. At least they can minimize the amount of time they’d have to all be in one room.)

Assuming that could be done, the next question would be how to get the mail ballots out. Normally, people have to request a mail ballot, if they are eligible. Both parties have programs to help people with that, but this is a much bigger scope, and also a more complex one since anyone who voted in March can only vote in the same party’s runoff. I would advocate that this law mandate that anyone who voted in Round One automatically be sent a mail ballot for the runoff, with anyone who didn’t vote in Round One being eligible to request whichever ballot they might want (as they are allowed to do). That would likely serve as an experiment in how much an all-vote-by-mail election would affect turnout, because I’d expect a lot of people who otherwise might have ignored the runoff would fill in their ballot and send it back. That might cause some heartburn in the Lege, especially (but maybe not exclusively) on the Republican side, and would likely be the biggest point of contention other than whether or not to do this at all. Also, counties might reasonably ask for some funding to cover all those mail ballots, as they would be expected to send out far more than they normally would, and someone has to pay for the postage and handling. I would argue the state should at least kick something in for that – there’s plenty of money available – but again, this would surely be a sore point for some.

(It may not be entirely up to us. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced a bill that would require all states to offer voters a vote-by-mail option, or to allow for the drop-off of hand-marked paper ballots, once 25 percent of states and/or territories declare a state of emergency related to the coronavirus. The bill would kick in $500 million in federal funding to help states make this happen. It likely has no chance of passing, though, and even if it did it’s hard to imagine it happening in time for our May 26 runoff. But at least someone else is thinking about it.)

Anyway. I’m convinced this is a good option – you should feel free to tell me in the comments why I’m wrong about that – and should at least be up for discussion, if not action. And I agree, if you think this is a good idea, now would be the time to make some calls and express that opinion to Abbott and your legislators. Time is short, so get to it now or forever lose the chance.

Let’s not play ball

Not just yet, anyway.

Major League Baseball has cancelled the remainder of its Spring Training games, also announcing that the start of the 2020 regular season will be delayed by at least two weeks due to the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision was announced following a call with all 30 Clubs and after consultation with the Major League Baseball Players Association. Opening Day was originally scheduled for Thursday, March 26.

MLB said the action “is being taken in the interests of the safety and well-being of our players, Clubs and our millions of loyal fans.”

The league will continue to evaluate ongoing events leading up to the start of the season. Guidance related to daily operations and workouts will be relayed to Clubs in the coming days.

MLB and its Clubs have been preparing a variety of contingency plans regarding the 2020 regular-season schedule. The league plans to announce the effects on the schedule at an appropriate time, though MLB also said it “will remain flexible as events warrant, with the hope of resuming normal operations as soon as possible.”

“Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our players, employees and fans,” the league said in its announcement. “MLB will continue to undertake the precautions and best practices recommended by public health experts. We send our best wishes to all individuals and communities that have been impacted by coronavirus.”

The National Hockey League and Major League Soccer also announced Thursday that they have suspended their seasons. The National Basketball Association suspended its regular season on Wednesday night for at least 30 days, a move which came after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for coronavirus. Thursday, a second Utah player — Donovan Mitchell Jr. — also tested positive.

Additionally, the NCAA announced that all winter and spring sport seasons have been cancelled, meaning that there will be no men’s or women’s NCAA basketball tournament this year, and no men’s and women’s College World Series.

These are scary times, and we won’t have a lot of familiar comforts to get us through them. But get through them we will, eventually. Stay strong and wash your hands.

Thus endeth this year’s Rodeo

Surely not a surprise.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Wednesday the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will close due to concerns about coronavirus after a Montgomery County man with no recent travel history tested positive for COVID-19.

The case is the first example of community spread in the Houston region and was directly responsible for the decision to cancel the Rodeo, Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference early Wednesday afternoon. Officials also announced that the man likely attended a barbecue cookoff for the Rodeo late last month, though it was unclear if he had symptoms at the time.

Turner said he will sign an emergency health declaration Wednesday that will remain in place for seven days, at which point City Council will decide whether to extend it. Under the declaration, all events produced or permitted by the city will be canceled through the end of March, Turner said. That includes Sunday’s Tour de Houston fundraising bike ride, which officials will attempt to reschedule, according to the mayor.

Rodeo officials said they were “deeply saddened” but agreed with the city’s move to cancel the livestock show and rodeo.

“As hard as this is to do, it is the right thing to do,” said Joel Crowley, president and chief executive of the Rodeo.

It’s a tough choice to have to make, and there’s a real cost to doing it.

The Houston rodeo generated $227 million in total economic impact last year, directly supporting nearly 3,700 jobs in 2019, according to a study by Economic Analytics Consulting commissioned by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo last year. The study measured new spending in the Houston region generated by outside visitors and spending by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Inc.

[…]

The cancellation of CERAWeek, which was expected to bring 5,500 attendees from some 80 countries downtown, cost businesses an estimated $7 million in lost hotel, dining, rental and other direct spending, according to Holly Clapham, chief marketing officer for Houston First Corp., the city’s convention arm.

The rodeo’s cancellation is expected to be more costly for the local economy. It’s known as as the world’s largest entertainment livestock exhibition, and it’s one of Houston’s largest tourist events of the year, lasting for nearly the entire month of March and requiring the efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers.

Last year, the event attracted 273,000 out of town attendees during that time.

Economic projections like this, especially when sourced to the event in question, are unreliable. I don’t think anyone would doubt that the city, and especially the people who work at these events, will suffer for not having them. Still, this was the right thing to do, and will be less costly by any measure than continuing on with business as usual. Let us hope that the need for such drastic action will be short term and not longer. The city of Houston’s press release, which declared a public health emergency along with Harris County, is here. Texas Monthly and the Trib have more.

SXSW canceled

Wow.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared a local disaster Friday in response to the new coronavirus and issued an order canceling South by Southwest for the first time in its 34-year history. The 10-day event was scheduled to begin next Friday and expected hundreds of thousands of attendees to fly in from around the globe.

The decision was prompted by a recommendation from an expert advisory panel made up of 13 medical professionals. Major sponsors and companies had already pulled out of the event, including Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Apple, and a petition to cancel the event had garnered over 50,000 signatures.

“We looked at the options for mitigation, we looked at other opportunities to decrease the threat to an acceptable level that would allow us to continue,” Dr. Mark Escott, Austin’s interim medical director and health authority, said at the press conference. “However, after careful deliberation, there was no acceptable path forward that would mitigate the risk enough to protect our community.”

There have been no known cases of the virus being spread through the community in Texas. By Friday afternoon, at least 17 people had tested positive for the virus, and all of them were exposed overseas. Eleven of those cases were among people who were repatriated and quarantined at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. At least six more were people from the Houston area who had recently traveled to Egypt. Escott said there are no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus in Austin, though there are tests pending.

SXSW organizers are “devastated,” but they “honor and respect the City of Austin’s decision,” according to a statement released on Twitter.

You can see the SXSW statement here. South By and the city of Austin will be fine, this will eventually be rescheduled, and while the short term effect will be devastating, they will recover. But please spare a thought for the folks who work in the hospitality industry – hotels, restaurants, bus and cab and rideshare drivers, and so on – who will really take it on the chin and may not have the capacity to recover. Go eat out for a few nights in the next couple of weeks, whether you live in Austin or anywhere else. Let’s not find that when things have returned to normal, so many of these places had to go out of business in the meantime.

Coronavirus comes to town

It was just a matter of time.

After months of fear, preparations and cancellations, the new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has officially come to the Houston area.

One day after a Fort Bend man in his 70s was “presumptively confirmed” to have the deadly disease, officials confirmed two more cases, this time in Harris County. Although 11 coronavirus cases had been transferred from foreign countries to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, the Fort Bend case was the first in Texas not to be imported to the state.

As of March 5, the disease, which resembles pneumonia and originated in China in late December, has infected more than 90,000 people, killed 3,000+ in 65 countries and seen more than 150 patients be treated for the disease in 16 U.S. states, 11 of whom have died.

The Chron has a coronavirus landing page with all their coverage of the pandemic, so check that out. In the meantime, don’t panic, stick to reliable information sources, and for crying out loud wash ur hands. Oh, and don’t use vodka as a hand sanitizer except in a dire emergency.

UPDATE: Mayor Turner’s statement is here, and the City of Houston Health Department’s statement is here.

The state responds to coronavirus

Like it or not, we need to be prepared.

Texas officials are scrambling to remain prepared for a major outbreak of a pneumonia-like disease whose global spread one expert says is now moving into “the next phase.”

From the governor’s office to hospitals to state agencies, Texas officials are intensifying efforts to plan for scenarios that could unfold now that the coronavirus is no longer relatively contained to China and surrounding countries and the number of cases is soaring in countries in Europe and the Middle East.

“I think we need to call an audible,” said Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. “We need to refresh the algorithms about who’s at risk and when we should suspect someone has the virus. We’re not calling it an epidemic yet, but we should start operating as if it were.”

Hotez said the disease’s spread — the number of cases in Italy and Iran, now about 900, more than doubled in two days, for instance — has made basing screening on the individual’s travel history less relevant. He also noted some recent cases have been characterized by gastrointestinal symptoms rather than respiratory symptoms.

[…]

There are 10 patients with the coronavirus in Texas, including six confirmed by the CDC and four who tested positively in Japan but whose results have not yet been confirmed by the U.S. agency. Of the 10, two came from Wuhan on a State Department-chartered flight and eight came from the Diamond Princess cruise.

There are 15 cases in the U.S. — none in Texas — that weren’t imported.

But CDC officials warned this week that it’s a matter of “when, not if” the virus arrives in the U.S. in larger numbers. The officials said people should start preparing for significant disruptions to daily life.

Noting the alarm that caused in some people who rushed out to buy water or face masks, Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health Authority, said the remarks glossed over the timeline at which the U.S. cases are likely to significantly ramp up. He said that likely won’t be soon.

“The containment strategy in China was effective for giving everyone more time to prepare for the virus,” said Shah, noting the realistic hope was always to delay the virus’ spread, not stop it. “Governments were able to get information out and alert people to be on guard, just as they should be for the everyday flu.”

Three basic things: One, don’t panic. Two, be extra careful about what you read and especially what you share regarding coronavirus. Don’t be one of those idiots who passes along rumors and lies because you couldn’t be bothered to do a little vetting first. And three, practice good hygiene. Cough and sneeze into your elbow, wash your hands frequently, and if you do get sick, stay home. We can all do our part to make a difference.

Please don’t freak out about coronavirus

If you are freaking out or think you may be on the verge of freaking out, or you know someone who is, Harris County is here to help.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday announced the creation of a web page to combat disinformation about the coronavirus that is sparking health fears around the world.

There are no reported cases of the flu-like virus in the Houston area or Texas, though Hidalgo said online rumors suggesting otherwise have caused unnecessary fear in the community.

“We’ll continue watching social media, and debunking myths, because we don’t want falsehoods to spread,” Hidalgo said. “It causes unnecessary concern and it’s just wrong.”

She said the page on the county’s readyharris.org website would help residents separate facts from fiction about the virus. Developed with the help of the county health department, she said the web page would be a trusted source of health information.

[…]

Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, said local Asian businesses have experienced severe drops in customers, which he attributed to an unfounded panic around coronavirus.

“There have been some specific, very hate-drive, offensive comments driven toward the Asian community,” Shah said. “In Chinatown and southwest Harris County, they reported to us grocery stores and restaurants have seen 50, 60 70 percent decreases in traffic.”

Shah said he wants to combat fears of coronavirus so residents who worry they may have the disease will seek medical treatment and report their cases to the county.

The coronavirus info is touted on the Ready Harris webpage, with a link that takes you here. There have only been a few cases of coronavirus in the US so far, but fear and panic about it are having a measurable negative effect on the economy, including right here. You can help with that, by the way. Support Chinatown, don’t panic. Easy-peasy.