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coronavirus

Riddle me this, Governor

Parody is dead.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued a new executive order Wednesday that mandates face coverings for the general public and directs businesses to require employees and customers to wear them in situations where social distancing is not feasible.

The order requires all “commercial entities” in Bexar County to implement a health and safety policy that includes mandatory face coverings in situations involving close contact with others. Failure to implement the policy by Monday could result in a fine up to $1,000, according to the order.

Wolff’s order, which comes amid a surge in positive coronavirus cases and patients hospitalized with COVID-19, seems to clash with that of Gov. Greg Abbott, who said in April that no local jurisdictions would be able to fine or jail people for not wearing a face covering. Download Wolff’s order here.

“Judge Wolff’s order is not inconsistent with the Governor’s executive order,” John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, told the Texas Tribune. “Our office urges officials and the public to adopt and follow the health protocols for businesses established by doctors” that are available online.

Under the new order, an individual couldn’t be fined for failure to wear a mask, but businesses can be penalized for failing to implement face-covering policies. Though the County order is “pushing the legal bounds” against the state order, Bexar County attorneys say they can defend it in court, Wolff said at a news conference.

“We cannot rely on the state to do what needs to be done,” said Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales, who joined Wolff at the news conference.

In an interview with KWTX-TV in Waco, Abbott said Wolff has “finally figured” out what locals can do with masks under statewide order: “Government cannot require individuals to wear masks. However, pursuant to my plan, local governments can require stores and business to require masks.”

“Local governments can require stores and business to require masks. That’s what was authorized in my plan,” Abbott added. “Businesses … they’ve always had the opportunity and the ability, just like they can require people to wear shoes and shirts, these businesses can require people to wear face masks if they come into their businesses. Now local officials are just now realizing that that was authorized.”

State democrats took issue with Abbott’s lack of clarity.

“If only the Governor had been clear all along that his executive order was a riddle for counties and cities to solve,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-San Antonio) said in an email to the Rivard Report. “Earlier today, I urged him to unshackle local leaders by restoring their authority to set rules essential to protecting public health; I hope he continues on this path.”

Apparently, Greg Abbott has been channeling the Sphinx all this time. Who knew? Maybe there’s also some buried treasure out there, waiting for someone to decipher all the clues in his public statements. I can’t do this justice, so let me outsource some of the snark to a conservative talk radio host:

Perhaps if the original executive order – you know, the one Abbott soon after abandoned in a panic following the outcry from disaffected mullet-wearers – had included the instructions to click our heels together three times, we might have figured it out sooner. Lesson learned for the future, I suppose.

Anyway. Now that we have apparently leveled up, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is considering a similar order, which I hope she follows through on. I for one am never going to get over this particular piece of idiocy.

Hotze versus contact tracing

We should have expected this.

Conservative firebrand Steven Hotze has launched another lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus response, joined by current and former lawmakers and several hundred business owners who argue the state’s contact tracing program infringes on their privacy and ability to make a living.

The civil action filed Monday in federal court takes on the disparate operating capacities the governor mandated in his “COVID-19 lottery,” claiming Abbott’s actions have limited restaurants and bars with 25 or 50 percent limits, while bicycle shops, liquor stores, pool cleaners and supermarkets are running at full tilt.

[…]

The lawsuit by Hotze includes nearly 1,500 names. Most are small business owners, but topping the list are state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, former Republican state representatives Gary Elkins, of Houston, Molly White, of Bell County, Rick Green, of Hays County, and former party chair Cathie Adams, of Collin County.

The suit argues that Texas’ $295 million contract tracing program — aimed at tracking down all people exposed to an infected person — violates the first amendment, privacy, due process and equal protection provisions. Such tracking amounts to an illegal, warrantless search, the suit says. While tracing back contacts is supposed to be voluntary, it is enforced through local health departments based on a presumption of guilt for all people in proximity to a sick person, according to the lawsuit. It requires people to turn over names, call in with their temperature readings and assumes a person has COVID-19 unless they can prove otherwise, Woodfill said.

Woodfill said he believes this is the first federal challenge to contact tracing. He hopes it will set the tone for “how we as a government and as a people will deal with diseases that we don’t have a vaccine for yet.”

Yes, of course that’s Jared Woodfill, joined at the hip as ever with Hotze on these things. We had the original lawsuit against Harris County, over the stay-at-home order. That was then followed by the lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton over the statewide stay-at-home order, for which there is now an emergency petition before the State Supreme Court. Another lawsuit against Harris County was filed over Judge Hidalgo’s face mask order, a subject that may soon be relevant again. That one too has a motion before the Supreme Court for an emergency ruling. I am not aware of any rulings in any of these lawsuits, but sooner or later something will happen. Abbott’s contact tracing plan is full of problems, and as I’ve said before there are legitimate questions to be raised about Abbott’s various orders during this pandemic. For sure, the Lege should try to clarify matters in 2021. I would just greatly prefer to have these legitimate questions get asked by legitimate people, not con men and grifters. That’s not the world we live in, unfortunately.

All this got me to thinking: Why doesn’t Hotze announce that he’s running for Governor in 2022? He clearly has some strong opinions about the way the state is supposed to be run, and in doing so he has some stark disagreements with Greg Abbott. Just as clearly, he has some support among the wingnut fringe for those differing opinions. It seems unlikely he could win – among other things, Abbott has a gazillion dollars in his campaign treasury – but he could force a dialogue on his issues, and very likely could bring some real pressure on Abbott. He’s also the kind of preening egotist who’d think he’s got The People behind him. I’m just idly speculating, and maybe trying to stir up some trouble. I can’t help but think that this is the biggest public example of Republican-on-Republican rhetorical violence since Carole Keeton Strayhorn was Rick Perry’s main nemesis. (I’m not counting Kay Bailey Hutchison’s primary against Perry in 2010, since she barely showed up for it.) I don’t really think this is where Hotze is going, but if he does do something like this, would you be surprised? At this point, I would not be.

TDP appeals to SCOTUS on vote by mail

Here we go.

After a series of losses in state and federal courts, Texas Democrats are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to expand voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texas Democratic Party on Tuesday asked the high court to immediately lift the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ block on a sweeping ruling that would allow all Texas voters who are seeking to avoid becoming infecting at in-person polling places to instead vote by mail. Early voting for the July 14 primary runoff election begins on June 29.

The fight to expand who can qualify for a ballot they can fill at home and mail in has been on a trajectory toward the Supreme Court since Texas Democrats, civil rights groups and individual voters first challenged the state’s rules months ago when the new coronavirus reached Texas. Under existing law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

“Our constitution prevents our government from discriminating against voters due to age. Especially during this pandemic, why should we be penalized for being under age 65?” said Brenda Li Garcia, a registered nurse in San Antonio and plaintiff in the case, during a virtual press conference announcing the appeal to the Supreme Court. “To protect a certain group and to give only certain ages the right to vote by mail is arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

[…]

The effect of the Democrat’s request on the upcoming election is uncertain. In their appeal, the Democrats are asking Justice Samuel Alito — who oversees cases coming through the 5th Circuit — to undo the hold on Biery’s order while the runoffs move forward. Democrats are also asking the justices to take up the case on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age. If Alito does not immediately allow the lower court’s ruling to go into effect, the Democrats are asking the court for a full review of the case on an expedited timeline.

“Otherwise, millions of Texas voters will face the agonizing choice of either risking their health (and the health of others) to vote in person or relinquishing their right to cast a ballot in two critical elections,” the Democrats said in their filing.

The court is expected to soon go into recess until October.

In order for someone to vote by mail in the July 14 primary runoffs, counties must receive their application for a mail-in ballot by July 2. A favorable decision for Democrats by the Supreme Court by early October could still allow for a massive expansion in voting by mail during the November general election.

See here for the background. You know how I feel, about the merits of this case. The arguments for the state’s restrictions on voting by mail make no sense, not that that matters. I don’t know what effect, if any, this motion will have on the other lawsuits. I’m not going to make any predictions, or get my hopes up. Rick Hasen thinks this is a “risky” move that has the potential to make bad law. We’ll see what happens. The Chron has more.

Whistling past the ICU

Clap louder!

Gov. Greg Abbott and top Texas health officials on Tuesday responded to growing alarm over hospitals now swelling with coronavirus patients, assuring there is still plenty of space available even as some facilities have neared or surpassed capacity.

Speaking on yet another day of record high hospitalizations from the pandemic, Abbott said he is confident the state can continue reopening while controlling the spread of new infections.

“As we begin to open up Texas and Texans return to their jobs, we remain laser-focused on maintaining abundant hospital capacity,” said Abbott, a Republican. “The best way to contain the spread of this virus is by all Texans working together and following simple safety precautions.”

On Tuesday, the Department of State Health Services reported just over 2,500 COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began and nearly 67 percent more than on Memorial Day in late May. State and local leaders have pointed to the holiday weekend as one likely cause for the increase.

Statewide, there are still thousands of hospital beds and ventilators available. But in some of the largest cities, including San Antonio and Houston, the surge is pushing new limits. In Harris County, some hospitals said late last week that their intensive care units were near or above capacity.

Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center, said their number of COVID-19 patients has nearly doubled from its previous peak in late April. Many of the patients admitted now are younger and generally healthier, but are still susceptible to serious illness or death from the disease.

“If it continues to grow at this rate, we’re going to be in real trouble,” McKeon said of the admissions. He added that while it may not be feasible to reimpose lockdowns or other restrictions, state leaders should consider slowing the reopening if the uptick continues.

The official death count is past 2,000 now, though everyone knows that’s an undercount. On a per capita basis that’s still pretty low, but we’re doing our best to catch up. The idea that we’re “controlling the spread” in any fashion is laughable, except there’s nothing funny about what’s happening. And then we get this:

Abbott remained unwilling Tuesday to allow local officials to enforce their own mask ordinances, even as he acknowledged that many Texans are not wearing them. He instead accused Democratic county judges of not having done enough to punish businesses that fail to comply with other protocols, such as limits on public gatherings.

While they have the authority, Abbott said, many “haven’t lifted a finger.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott cravenly flip-flopped on consequences for not following his own executive orders? Good times, good times. What would you like the county judges to use, harsh language? Let’s not forget who’s in charge here.

But local officials are still trying, at least:

The mayors of nine of Texas’ biggest cities urged Gov. Greg Abbott in a letter Tuesday to grant them the “authority to set rules and regulations” mandating face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb in Texas, an executive order from Abbott bans local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public. The mayors wrote that many people in their cities continue to refuse to wear face masks and that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option” when it comes to regulating the issue.

The letter is signed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere and Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen.

The letter asks Abbott to consider allowing each city’s local officials to decide whether to require the use of a face covering in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Mayor Turner’s press release is here, and a copy of the letter sent to Abbott is here. There was no response as of Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, let’s not forget that even as businesses may want to reopen, coronavirus may not let them. It’s almost as if an unchecked pandemic is a hindrance to having your economy run at full capacity. But don’t worry, Greg Abbott has everything under control. Now keep clapping!

The plan for the runoffs

Early voting for the primary runoffs starts in less than two weeks. Here’s what to expect.

Chris Hollins

Interim Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins is hoping to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor in the chaotic March primary election for July’s runoff balloting through a series of improvements he announced Monday.

Hollins said he would allocate polling machines to locations based on turnout, extend voting hours and improve a website showing wait times at polling places.

“This office will do everything it can to give every Harris County voter an equal say at the ballot box,” Hollins said.

The clerk’s office announced a 23-point plan Monday to ensure the July 14 primary runoff and November general elections are “safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient.”

The runoff features 19 races between both parties, seeking to nominate candidates for seats in Congress and the Texas Legislature, well as such local posts as county commissioner, constables and state district judges. Early voting begins June 29.

[…]

Hollins, who said his team is “learning from the past,” said he has increased the number of voting machines. The clerk’s office also will open more polling sites for the runoff, 57 for early voting and 112 on Election Day.

Historical patterns suggest turnout is likely to drop significantly for next month’s runoff, especially among Democrats, who had a contested presidential primary on the March ballot. In 2016, the last contested presidential primary, Democratic turnout dropped 87 percent between the primary and primary runoff.

Yes, but as we’ve discussed before, context matters. There will be significant dropoff, no doubt about it, but the contested Senate primary runoff suggests that the floor for statewide turnout is higher than usual. Prepare for there to be more people than usual for a primary runoff, that’s my advice. Of course, some higher percentage of that turnout may come from mail ballots.

You can see the Clerk’s S.A.F.E initiatives here. Protecting the poll workers was given a high priority, as it should. The Clerk’s office says they’re doing well in recruiting poll workers for November, which will be the real test. Early voting starts June 29, and you can find all the locations here. Note that some are new, and some have changed, so be sure you check before you head out. Houston Public Media and KHOU have more.

A few bumps in the road for the NBA

How’s that season restarting going?

A month ago, superstar players got on a Zoom call and reportedly created a united front to support a safe return to play. A lot has changed since. Last week, the 28 NBPA player representatives all voted in favor of the league’s proposal (which was approved by the board of governors the day before). But a closer look at the NBPA statement shows that the vote was strictly an approval of “further negotiations” with a caveat that “various details” were still to be negotiated.

Now that we’ve arrived at those various details, different parties have started to speak up with dissenting opinions. Last week, commissioner Adam Silver was fielding concerns about whether older coaches would be allowed to sit on the bench. On Wednesday, ESPN reported that a faction of players is hesitant to restart the season because of a policy that wouldn’t allow visitors until the first round of the playoffs, as well as a lack of motivation for teams unlikely to compete for the championship. Yahoo Sports reported Friday that a “significant” number of players were upset about not having a vote in approving the proposal and that some were reluctant to express their opinion to star players who want to play. Kyrie Irving, who is a vice president of the players union, was reported to be pushing for players to reconsider the planned restart.

[…]

One of the main concerns is that some players believe a return to play would detract from the current protest movement prompted by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Some players have already participated in the nationwide protests, and many have spoken out against police brutality on social media, including LeBron James, who yesterday announced plans to form a voting rights group with other athletes and celebrities. Malcolm Brogdon said on The JJ Redick Podcast that there are players who are interested in sitting out the rest of the season as part of a protest. Garrett Temple, meanwhile, told The Ringer that he believed going to Orlando was the right move and that being there a month before tipoff would give players the opportunity to come up with a plan to send a message.

“When you take a stance on things, you do that to bring attention,” said Temple, who is also an NBPA VP and represented the Nets in the player vote. “Then, after that, you have to actually do something to cause change … so whatever we do, it needs to be something that can cause tangible change in our community, in our game, in our country.”

That initial agreement was reached almost two weeks ago. Players were also surprised to find that the Disney/ESPN quarantine “bubble” doesn’t include Disney/ESPN employees, who will come and go from the site as before. Sure looks like a bit of a risk factor there. Even Commissioner Adam Silver is saying there are still issues to work out, and maybe this won’t be for every player. It still seems likely that the NBA will restart, but (no pun intended) it’s not a slam dunk. Things change fast, and time is limited. Until the teams actually start practicing and games get put on the schedule, it’s not a done deal.

Since I mentioned MLB in that earlier update, which at the time looked to be providing a “don’t be like this” contrast to the NBA, here’s one more Fangraphs article to read about how much the players were willing to negotiate versus how much the owners were willing to negotiate. That forthcoming grievance is gonna be something else.

Meanwhile, the jail is filling up again

We really need to do something about this.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Harris County Jail population has been steadily rising since late April and is now approaching its pre-pandemic capacity despite early efforts to curb crowding, according to the sheriff’s office.

With an influx of inmates anticipated during the summer months, the jail is facing a “serious crisis,” according to a report Tuesday that a sheriff’s representative classified as “sobering.”

The update about the jail population came in a study the county commissioned from the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that works with government agencies to make their courts and jails more efficient.

“The justice system has been struggling since Hurricane Harvey,” Tom Eberly, the organization’s program director announced in video testimony before Harris County Commissioner’s Court. “Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the justice system is on the verge of collapse in your county.”

If the anticipated pace of bookings follows previous patterns, the county could reach 10,000 inmates by Labor Day, according to the nonprofit group’s calculations. And the courts were already backed up before the virus, officials said.

[…]

The lawyers challenging the county’s bail system, who lost a bid for an injunction to order coronavirus releases, said thousands of felony defendants are stuck at the jail awaiting trial simply because they can’t pay cash bail. The vast majority of the population is made up of up pretrial felony detainees.

“Their constitutional rights are being violated, and their health and safety are being jeopardized by COVID-19, which is rampant at the jail,” said Neal Manne, of Susman Godfrey, who works pro bono on the bail cases. “Though Sheriff Gonzales wants to solve the problem, he can’t solve it by himself. No one else is doing anything other than talking about it, week after week, month after month, as COVID-19 surges.”

In the meantime, coronavirus infections have continued to increase, with 993 inmates testing positive since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has cramped the jail’s holding capacity, which changes day to day depending upon how many people are quarantined and how much the jail staff must space them out on the cell blocks to help prevent the spread of the virus. For example, 835 inmates who have had the virus and remain in custody have now recovered. But 778 are being kept in observational quarantine, meaning they are not showing symptoms, but they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Another 600-plus people are housed in what the jail calls “buffer quarantine” because they are new to the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. And nearly 300 convicted inmates are ready to be transferred to state prison but Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not accepting them during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the jail population is increasing by 115 inmates per week and as of May 1, the county had more than 36,000 pending felony cases, Eberly said. If no new felony arrests were made in the coming months, it would still take 13 months to dispose of the backlog, he said.

However, if the system keeps shuffling along as is, it will take 4½ years to catch up, the study found.

Statewide, jail populations also decreased in the first months of the pandemic and have begun rising going into the summer, a normal trend outside of the unusual circumstances this year, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Population spikes at county jails largely stem from backlogs in the courts, he said.

“It’s going to be incumbent on Harris County to manage its jail population properly,” Wood said.

You have to wonder how much worse this would be if there were a bunch of misdemeanor inmates awaiting trial because they couldn’t make bail as well. There’s basically three things we can do here. One is to release a bunch of the low-risk inmates who couldn’t come up with the cash for bail. That’s on the judges and the District Attorney, and while there’s been some movement on that, there could be a lot more. Two is to get the courts to the point where they can make a dent in that backlog, which is going to be a hell of a challenge given the fact that the court buildings are still suffering from Harvey, and oh yeah, that global pandemic. Maybe just consider dropping a bunch of low-level charges, divert as many drug charges as possible, and offer as many deferred adjudication deals as possible. There’s some risk to this approach, but what we’re doing right now is not sustainable. And three, maybe now is a good time to just stop arresting people on low-level drug possession charges. Turn down the incoming spigot, and stop adding to the problem. I don’t know where this ends, but the direction we’re going right now doesn’t lead anywhere good.

What kind of college football season will there be?

News item: Governor says to expect half-full stadiums for college football.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told athletic directors from the state’s largest schools to expect 50 percent capacity at football games this fall, USA Today reported, but Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork is remaining optimistic.

With more than 80 days to Texas A&M’s first scheduled game against Abilene Christian at Kyle Field, Bjork said this is no time for absolutes when determining college attendance in the late summer and fall, based on the global pandemic.

“As of today, we still have time on our side,” Bjork said Saturday. “And we will not make decisions based on incomplete information.”

USA Today reported that Abbott met with the dozen athletic directors from the state’s Football Bowl Subdivision programs via teleconference Friday, and “told them not to expect capacity at their stadiums to be above 50 percent this fall.”

“The governor was very gracious with his time and provided us with insights into the current situation,” Bjork responded Saturday. “It’s disappointing that information from the meeting leaked since the discussion was meant to be confidential, and I will not disclose the details of the conversation and violate Gov. Abbott’s trust.”

Bjork, hired by A&M a year ago from the same position at Mississippi, added: “As we’ve learned throughout this unprecedented situation, everything remains fluid, and there are a number of scenarios for attending upcoming pro and college sporting events.”

Bjork has expressed confidence this month that Kyle Field might be near its capacity of more than 100,000 as the fall schedule presses on. The Aggies are scheduled to host ACU on Sept. 5 in coach Jimbo Fisher’s third season.

Emphasis mine, and the Chron has a separate story expanding on Bjork’s rather optimistic hypothesis. Abbott had previously stated that he expected college football to be played, though he didn’t specify at what capacity the stadia might be. I will remind you that at this point, all of the professional sports leagues, from the ones that are now playing to those that are still planning their comebacks, are playing in empty arenas. It’s impossible for me to square that with the likes of Kyle Field at full capacity. They can’t both be right.

And on that note, we have this:

The University of Houston abruptly halted voluntary workouts Friday after six student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19.

In a release, UH said it was suspending workouts – which began June 1 with football and men’s and women’s basketball – “out of an abundance of caution.” The school said the six symptomatic student-athletes had been placed in isolation and contract tracing procedures have been initiated.

The announcement comes nearly two weeks since voluntary workouts began and as the Houston area has seen a recent surge in positive tests for COVID-19.

UH becomes the first school to suspend athletic activities since the NCAA cleared the return of student-athletes back to campus following a nearly three-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

UH only tested student-athletes that showed symptoms or came from areas that had a high number of positive cases, a person with knowledge of the protocol told the Houston Chronicle earlier this week. Athletic officials have declined comment.

In other words, there are others they didn’t test that might possibly be positive as well. The story lists fourteen other schools that have reported athletes with positive COVID-19 tests, including three in the SEC. It is very likely that all of these athletes will recover fully – I certainly hope they all do – and now that they have been tested they can be quarantined so as not to pass the virus on to anyone else. UH is the only school in this story that actually stopped its voluntary workouts as a result of this, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. My point here is that whatever the likes of Greg Abbott and Ross Bjork may say or do, they ultimately have very little control over this virus. And as I keep saying, they don’t seem to have much of a plan for it, either.

UPDATE: Welp.

Several Texans and Cowboys players have tested positive for COVID-19, including Dallas star running back Ezekiel Elliott, according to the NFL Network.

The players who tested positive reportedly weren’t in attendance at their team facilities, which have remained closed due to NFL restrictions limiting their use only to rehabilitating injured players during this global pandemic. Both teams have followed medical protocols.

[…]

NFL teams, including the Texans, have taken steps to ensure the safety of players, coaches and staff. The Texans created a new position, hiring a facility hygiene coordinator earlier this offseason. The Texans are believed to be the first professional sports team to add this type of specialized position.

The intention is to minimize the risk factor of getting or spreading COVID-19 and supervise the custodial staff, which is provided by Aramark.

I know, that’s NFL, not NCAA. My point is, it’s not just a question of whether or not it’s safe to have fans in the stands. There’s still the little matter of whether it’s actually safe to have the players practice and play together.

We’re going to get the default MLB season

Ugh.

The Major League Baseball Players Association asked MLB to set a schedule for the 2020 season rather than counter the latest return-to-play proposal by the league, setting the stage for MLB to implement a significantly shortened schedule and deepening the labor strife between the parties.

In a statement Saturday night, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark rejected MLB’s latest proposal and said: “Further dialogue with the league would be futile. It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”

A March agreement between the parties allows MLB to set a schedule, and the league has suggested that in the absence of a negotiated agreement with the union it could impose a schedule of somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 games and pay players full prorated salaries worth a total of around $1.25 billion.

MLBPA lead negotiator Bruce Meyer, in a letter sent to deputy commissioner Dan Halem on Saturday night and obtained by ESPN, said: “We demand that you inform us of your plans by close of business on Monday, June 15.”

In a statement on Saturday night, MLB said in part: “We are disappointed that the MLBPA has chosen not to negotiate in good faith over resumption of play after MLB has made three successive proposals that would provide players, Clubs and our fans with an amicable resolution to a very difficult situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Upon any implementation of a schedule, players wouldn’t necessarily report to a second spring training immediately, sources told ESPN. The parties still do not have an agreement on a health-and-safety protocol and would need one before players arrive. Any season would be scheduled to start after a three-week spring training, though a coronavirus outbreak could change the league’s plans. Multiple players on 40-man rosters have tested positive for the virus recently, according to sources.

If MLB does implement a season, both parties could file grievances to be heard by an arbitrator, though neither would necessarily delay games being played, sources said. The union could file a grievance that the league did not fulfill its obligation to play the most games possible, sources told ESPN. The March agreement says the league should use “best efforts to play as many games as possible, while taking into account player safety and health, rescheduling needs, competitive considerations, stadium availability, and the economic feasibility of various alternatives.” The league could likewise file a grievance over a lack of good faith negotiations regarding salary by the union, sources said.

Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN this week that “unequivocally we are going to play Major League Baseball this year,” placing the chances at “100 percent.”

Here’s the full statement from the MLBPA:

Buster Olney puts most of the blame for this impasse on the owners. I’d make it at least 90-10 in that direction. The owners do have one legitimate complaint, which is that their revenue model depends a lot more on game attendance and associated items like parking and concessions than other sports, where national TV is the bulk of the income. As such, games with no fans will indeed eat into their bottom lines. The problem is that they basically never changed their initial offer, which would have slashed player pay by about a billion dollars, and any claim on their part about their actual financial situation is completely muddled by the secrecy of their accounting. Ben Clemens goes through a very simple exercise in financial engineering to show how owners can make lots of money while showing zero cash balances every year. Even a cursory study of MLB history would cast a large amount of doubt on any financial claims the owners would make.

We’re still not out of the woods here. Safety protocols for the players and everyone who works at the games still need to be established. The NBA has agreed in principle to restart their season, but even they still have player concerns to address before anyone laces up a pair of sneakers. And of course, none of this bodes well for the next round of collective bargaining agreements between MLB and the players. After a long and generally prosperous time of labor peace, it looks like it’s about to get tumultuous. Hold onto your hats.

We’re about to find out what school might look like this fall

Brace yourselves.

Education leaders across Houston say they are working to welcome students like Alexis and Jayden back in the fall, but if guidelines released by the Texas Education Agency for in-person summer school are any indication of what’s to come, little will feel familiar.

Strict limits on class sizes and the number of students on school buses could mean children come to campus in shifts, with some days dedicated to online-only learning from home. Students may start their days in school with temperature checks and handwashing. Lunch may have to be eaten in classrooms instead of cafeterias to maintain physical distancing.

The full contours of safety mandates could become clearer Tuesday, when Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is expected to unveil state guidance to superintendents for the 2020-21 school year.

The new rules likely will look different than those issued for hosting in-person summer school, which initially included a mandate of no more than 11 students in a typical classroom and a recommendation that districts consider the use of face masks for students and staff. TEA officials relaxed the classroom size limit this week to allow 22 people in a classroom, provided each person has 45 square feet of space and desks remain 6 feet apart.

Still, many questions remain unanswered: What will daily and weekly schedules look like? What happens if a teacher or a student tests positive? What will it take for restrictions to ease? How will districts afford some potentially costly changes to meet the new safety rules.

In Spring ISD, Superintendent Rodney Watson is planning four scenarios for the upcoming school year: campuses reopening with minimal social distancing; in-person classes resuming with stringent social distancing; returning to school with rolling closures in the event of an outbreak; and hosting all learning remotely.

[…]

If classrooms reopen in August, school schedules also could look much different.

Amid the push for social distancing, many districts are considering a “hybrid model,” in which some students attend in-person classes for part of the week while remaining home for the rest.

In Spring Branch ISD, district officials are considering three hybrid scenarios: bringing in the youngest students in each school daily while limiting face-to-face instruction to one or two days for other students; hosting in-person classes for half of the students two days per week, with the other half attending two different days; and bringing half the students into school for four consecutive days, with the other half rotating in for four days the following week.

Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre also is examining how to provide as much in-person instruction as possible to students transitioning to new campuses, who he said need a solid foundation before they move on to higher grades. Under one scenario, those students would be on campus every day, while older students would go to campuses only two or three times a week.

My workplace is moving towards a hybrid-style return to the office, with some people remaining at home, and others alternating days or weeks in order to limit the number of people present. A longer school year with more breaks built in, to allow for some schedule flexibility in the event school has to be closed for a period of time due to an outbreak is possible. I suspect something like a model where only about half of the students are present any given day, and which ones they are depends on the day or the week, is likely, but this is a situation where one side won’t fit all. We’re going to have to live with a higher level of uncertainty than we like, and as one person quoted at the end notes, we will probably be doing something similar in the 2021-22 school year as well. Hang in there, y’all.

Threat level orange

Not great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Rating summertime risks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plaintiffs move for dismissal of state lawsuit over mail ballots

Not a surprise.

The fight over expanding voting by mail in Texas during the coronavirus pandemic appears to be coming to an end in state courts, but a lawsuit continues at the federal level.

Following a Texas Supreme Court ruling that closed the door to expanded mail-in voting, the individual voters, state Democrats and civic organizations that sued to expand voting by mail based on a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus asked a state appeals court on Tuesday evening to dismiss their case.

[…]

Legal challenges to the state’s voting by mail rules continue in federal courts though a panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last week extended its order blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. The panel cited in part the proximity of the upcoming July primary runoffs. It’s possible the issue will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court after the runoffs.

This was more or less expected after that State Supreme Court ruling, which directly addressed the question of what the state law on “disability” meant in this context. At the federal level there remains the age discrimination lawsuit and the undue burdens lawsuit, neither of which has had a hearing yet, as well as the TDP/LULAC lawsuit for which there is a block of the lower court’s ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor. (This Daily Kos elections lawsuit tracker may be useful for you.) If there’s going to be any change in the status quo, it will be for the November election, though at this point I’m dubious even if the age discrimination claims have merit. Ultimately, the sure path forward is winning enough elections to change the state law. We’re talking 2023 at the earliest for that, so in the meantime this is where the fight is. It’s all up to the federal courts now.

Tell HISD what you think about their proposed school year calendar

It’s different.

Students in Houston ISD would return to campus in mid-August, spend up to 10 additional days in the classroom and end their school year in mid-June under a 2020-21 calendar option published by the district Monday.

HISD officials are seeking feedback on the potential changes as the district debates how to add more flexibility to its calendar and increase instructional time amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Some Texas districts are approving extended calendars with more mid-year breaks, which could be used as make-up days if campuses are forced to close due to COVID-19, while others are standing pat.

HISD leaders are not yet formally proposing an extended calendar, which must be approved by the district’s school board.

Under the option unveiled Monday, HISD’s school year would start on Aug. 13 for students, about a week and a half earlier than normal, and end on June 15, about 2 1/2 weeks later than usual. The district would add two week-long breaks, in early October and mid-February.

[…]

The option also includes extending the school day by five minutes, which would help the district exceed the 75,600-minute state requirement for the academic year.

“This would ensure the district has a bank of minutes to use for emergency weather events or closures, in lieu of make-up days and further adjustments of our calendar in the future,” district officials wrote in the survey.

That survey is here. As the story notes, some other area districts have already adopted this schedule, which is designed to allow for disruptions in the calendar due to flooding or (god forbid) coronavirus. It’s easier and less likely to result in high absenteeism if weather days have to be made up in October or February rather than on actual holidays or in June. I don’t know how much of a disruption the week-long holidays in the middle of the semesters would be, and I know some people (I raise my hand here) will lament the head start HISD’s early summer vacations have given us on trip planning, but you can’t have everything. Plus, all of this is still open to debate, because no one really knows yet what the fall will look like, let alone the winter and spring. Take the survey, give HISD your honest feedback, and we’ll keep the discussion going.

We keep hitting the wrong marks

Up, up, and up.

For the second day in a row, Texas has reported a record number of patients hospitalized with the new coronavirus, a metric Gov. Greg Abbott has said he’s watching as businesses continue reopening and limits on their operations are loosened.

Data released Tuesday by the Texas Department of State Health Services shows 2,056 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, up from 1,935 the day before. The previous high was May 5, when 1,888 people were hospitalized.

The figures come a little more than a month since Abbott’s statewide stay-at-home order ended and he began a phased reopening of businesses. It also comes about two weeks after Memorial Day.

[…]

“I’m concerned but not yet alarmed,” Abbott told a North Texas television station. “I look at Amarillo that was a hot spot zone a couple of weeks ago, where they had a lot of concerns. We had surge response teams that addressed it, and now their hospitalizations are going down.”

Texas has 15,400 available hospital beds and 1,700 available ICU beds, the data shows. There are 5,900 ventilators available. The number of available beds is seen as a key gauge for the state’s ability to handle a potential surge in coronavirus cases, and Abbott has said the hospitalization rate — the proportion of infected Texans who are requiring hospitalization — is a benchmark he’s closely monitoring. He cited it as an encouraging metric as the state’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April.

In Houston, Dallas and other areas that have seen increased hospitalizations, “we need to drill down and find out exactly why that is,” Abbott said.

Yeah, I’m closely monitoring the hospitalization rate, too. We’re now at three straight days of record numbers there, for those of you playing along at home. It’s happening locally, and it’s mostly been happening since Memorial Day. I’m going to keep asking the same question I have every time I do one of these posts: What’s our plan for when we start getting into the “dangerously full” zone for hospitals? If it turns out to be localized rather than everywhere in the state, will Greg Abbott let local leaders have more discretion to take action as they had back in March? I really really hope it doesn’t come to that, but hope seems to be all we’ve got.

UPDATE: From the Trib: “Texas reports largest single-day increase in coronavirus cases”. Insert shrug emoji here.

DA dismisses charges against most protesters

Good.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday dismissed almost 800 cases filed against protesters arrested during the George Floyd demonstrations last week in Houston.

In total, prosecutors dropped 796 charges filed against 654 protesters, District Attorney Kim Ogg said. Many of those cases were cited in court filings as being dismissed “in the interest of justice.”

Charges still remain against 51 adults and one juvenile accused of 35 misdemeanors and 19 felonies, Ogg said. Those include weapons offenses and charges of aggravated assault of a peace officer.

Prosecutors made their decisions by looking at “people who sought to do harm (to) others and property vs. those arrested for simple civil disobedience,” according to a news release.

“The job of the prosecutor is to seek individualized justice in every case,” Ogg said. “While probable cause existed for the arrests of those people who refused to disperse after being ordered to do so by police, our young prosecutors worked hard to identify the few offenders who came to inflict harm on others and intentional damage to property.”

The dismissed cases were nonviolent misdemeanors, mostly obstructing a highway and trespassing.

[…]

Monique Sparks, of the Houston Protestors’ Defense Team, commended the DA’s office for dismissing some charges. She said her group, which is representing protesters for free, is now focused on expunging charges from their clients’ records.

“What it shows is that our DA’s office is on board with what the Constitution says,” Sparks said. “We think this is a good start.”

The protesters will be informed of avenues to take if they want to file civil lawsuits, Sparks said. The district attorney’s office will work to help expunge the cases from the protesters’ records, although they might need representation to do so, Ogg said.

They might also need cash to do that. As Sarah Wood, policy director at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, noted in the story, an expunction can cost hundreds of dollars in fees, including attorney’s fees. It would have been much better all around if these folks had been not arrested in the first place. Which, again, is a big part of the point that the protesters have been trying to make – far too much police activity is geared towards behavior that doesn’t actually threaten public safety, but does put a lot of ordinary people into the criminal justice system, and all of the harm that brings with it. Consider how many of these protesters might be in jail right now and for who knows how much longer if the DA had been willing to press charges and if Harris County was still requiring cash bail for even the most low-level offenses. And then consider the risk they would be in from COVID-19 in that scenario. We made significant progress on bail, but most of the problem is upstream from there. We can, we should, we must change this.

The local view of COVID hospitalizations

More numbers.

Three weeks after it stood out as the urban exception to the state’s spiking COVID-19 crisis, the Houston region has begun seeing a significant increase in cases and hospitalizations.

The upturn, which began two weeks ago and accelerated this week, comes a month after Gov. Greg Abbott began allowing businesses to reopen and a week and a half after the Memorial Day weekend, both of which health officials think led people to let their guard down and come into closer contact with others. The hike followed a roughly month-long plateau the area had settled into.

“This is a trend we’re definitely keeping an eye on,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “If the numbers keep up in this direction, we could be headed to a place where we run out of hospital space, which obviously would be a problem.”

COVID-19 patients have occupied hospital intensive-care units in the nine-county Houston area at higher levels the first three days in June than they did on any single day in May, according to date compiled by the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, a state group that coordinates the region’s emergency response to disasters. In Harris County, hospital admissions have increased at statistically significant levels the past two weeks.

[…]

Despite public health admonitions reminding people of the need to continue practicing social distancing, many didn’t seem to get the message, said public health officials.

“I am afraid the public interprets lifting ‘government-mandated shelter in place” and closure of non-essential business that the pandemic is over and community and individual mitigation measures are no longer necessary,” said Gerald Parker, director of the pandemic and biosecurity policy program at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government Service. “But the virus is still in our communities and can hit the most vulnerable hard.”

Parker, who said “time will tell whether or not the increase in case becomes dangerous,” urged people to still wear masks, limit numbers in gatherings and maintain six feet of separation from others.

See here for the state view. Again, this may wind up being a small and temporary bump, and it may be that we have the capacity to absorb the increase with no problems. (If you don’t consider the larger number of people getting and dying from this virus a problem, I suppose.) But again my question is, what happens if we can’t handle it? What happens if the hospitals do begin to become overwhelmed? What’s our plan at that point? To be more specific, what if it’s just a problem here in Harris County? Will Judge Hidalgo have the authority again to impose a stay-at-home order, or are we all at Greg Abbott’s mercy? (Not to mention the whims of the State Supreme Court.) What we have now looks like hope and not a plan. And I hope I’m wrong about that.

Here comes high school football

Surely you didn’t think that Texas’ favorite sport would stay on the sidelines for long?

More focus will be on instruction, caution and care than nailing the perfect squat rep when University Interscholastic League athletic programs return to in-person strength and conditioning training Monday.

Teams won’t be crawling, walking and then running through coronavirus-altered training this summer. North Shore football coach Jon Kay said “we’re really going to be sitting first, then crawling and then walking and then jogging.”

They have no choice, considering the thorough safety precautions.

The UIL’s outlined requirements for in-person weight training and sport-specific skill instruction include a maximum of 25 percent capacity at indoor workout facilities. It means approximately 36 people — including coaches and athletes — will be allowed in Dickinson’s weight room. Masks and face coverings aren’t required by the UIL but will be by Dickinson ISD inside buildings.

Social-distancing measures of at least 6 feet are required, and workout stations will be at least 10 feet apart. That has required some interior redecoration in places like Cleveland, where football coach Jason Fiacco said he and his staff have spaced out stations inside the current weight room and marked spots where players should stand during workouts.

“It’s going to be unlike any other lifting program anybody has really every devised,” Fiacco said.

The UIL is allowing one staff member per 20 athletes during workouts. Hand-sanitizing and washing stations are required, and every weight and bar will be disinfected before each use.

[…]

Coaches must be strict “because we’ve got to get this right,” Dickinson football coach John Snelson said. Coaches believe football in the fall hangs in the balance, as does, more importantly, the health of the athletes.

Kay mentions the University of Alabama, where reports say at least five football players tested positive for COVID-19 after a player-led workout session last week.

Teams must adapt on the fly because, as Snelson said, “there is no playbook.” What happens if an athlete gets sick or someone a coach has been around is sick? What happens if a coach misses a session? What happens if participation numbers are larger than expected? All UIL teams regardless of sport can open training Monday, but football is usually a behemoth of a production. Snelson expects approximately 250 football players in Monday morning sessions for ninth through 12th grade alone.

The UIL requires participation to be optional. Snelson expects some parents will be eager for their son or daughter to be somewhere other than home. Some parents will be conservative, which is understandable.

I mean, we’re all just taking it on faith that this will be fine. If we had better testing and contact tracing, I’d feel more confidence. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be a spike in COVID cases as a result. I just hope – that word I have to keep using since we don’t have a plan – it isn’t as bad as I fear it could be.

That’s a lot of mail ballots

The new County Clerk isn’t messing around.

Harris County this week sent mail ballot applications for the July primary runoff to every voter 65 and older, interim County Clerk Christopher Hollins announced.

The move comes as Harris County is preparing for a significant expansion of mail voting during the novel coronavirus pandemic as some residents are wary of voting at potentially crowded polling sites.

Hollins, who started Monday after being appointed to replace former clerk Diane Trautman, said he wants to provide a safe avenue for voting amid the pandemic. Hollins sent applications to 376,840 voters, about 16 percent of the voter roll.

“Our goal is to keep our voters 65 and up safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home,” Hollins said in a statement Thursday.

This is the first time the clerk’s office has sent mail ballot applications to voters. unsolicited. Previously, voters had to request one on their own. The mailer cost $210,000, Hollins spokeswoman Rosio Torres-Segura said.

You can see a copy of the Clerk’s statement here. There’s a prissy quote in the story from Paul Bettencourt, who Does Not Approve of spending money to make it easier for people to vote. That’s really what this is. That $200K is small potatoes compared to the $12 million the Clerk’s office was allocated for November election prep. At the very least, we’ll get some idea of who has an undeliverable address, who wound up voting that likely wouldn’t have otherwise, and just how hard it is to pull something like this off. That’s a useful thing to know for November, when the pressure will be much higher.

To me, if there’s any objection in sending a mail ballot to every over-65 person in the county, it’s that you can’t do something similar for everyone else. This highlights the age discrimination aspect of Texas’ absentee ballot law. The point of voting by mail is that it’s a convenience. It makes voting easier. Not everyone will want or need to use it – like I said, I plan to vote in person in July and (barring anything unforeseen at this point) in November as well. I like voting in person, and I believe I can do it in a fairly low-risk manner, based on time and location. There are legitimate concerns about voting by mail as an entire replacement for in person voting, and doing a mass change like this without a ton of prep work is extremely risky. But there were around 100K mail ballots returned in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, so going from that to sending out 376K ballots isn’t much of a stretch. This is about making it easier for people to vote. The objections should be seen in that light.

Coronavirus and Professional Bull Riding

Here’s how Professional Bull Riding managed to keep doing what it does during the pandemic.

The PBR went on hiatus March 15 at the conclusion of an Unleash The Beast event in Duluth, Ga., that was closed to the public. A COVID-19 protocol was then developed and implemented during three weekends of made-for-TV events at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla., that began April 25. CEO Sean Gleason said his team worked tirelessly on that plan, which has since been shared with over a dozen other sports leagues.

“The PBR team rose to the occasion, took a lot of common sense, thought through a lot of issues and have been able to get back to work and keep our riders earning some money,” Gleason said.

“The whole industry is dependent on PBR events, so to not have them would have been devastating to a lot of people.”

COVID-19 testing, RVs and the concept of “functional groups” have been the keys to the PBR’s stringent protocol.

RVs essentially became quarantine pods; each person stayed in one on the grounds of the Lazy E. Everyone was also tested for coronavirus and had to isolate in an RV for 24 hours while awaiting results. The PBR reported all tests were negative during the three events in Oklahoma.

Separation was created by functional groups. Each person was assigned to a group of less than 10 people, usually six or seven, and interaction was permitted only for members of the same group. Each group wore different colored wristbands and ate at separate locations.

Individuals were screened before entering the arena. Every person on site had to practice social distancing and wear masks.

Gleason said it was a challenge to sync up all the moving parts and to meet constantly evolving guidelines at all levels of government. The riders helped make it easier, though. All bought in to make it work.

“Every guy was more than willing to go through those protocols, just to have the opportunity to do what we love to do,” said Cody Teel, PBR rider and College Station resident.

It’s a good story, and kudos to PBR for figuring out something that worked. I don’t know how well this model can translate to other sports leagues, but I’m sure there’s something in their experience for others to learn from.

Anti-vaxxers gonna anti-vaxx

Every step of the way, they are an obstacle to public health.

The Texas group that lobbies against vaccine mandates is now launching a campaign against COVID-19 contact tracing, the public health measure used for decades around the world to contain disease spread.

Texans for Vaccine Choice this week called on its members to contact Gov. Greg Abbott and let him know they “do not wish to be monitored or surveilled for any reason” in response to a new state program hiring and training workers to identify people who’ve come into close contact with those who recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Such people are then asked to quarantine until testing shows they don’t have the disease.

“The government should stop thinking its job is to keep everyone healthy and instead focus on protecting our rights,” says a post on the organization’s website. “We here at TFVC will remain vigilant as our government expands greatly and the threats to our members grow.”

The campaign drew an immediate rebuke from Dr. Peter Hotez, the Baylor College of Medicine infectious disease specialist who has led public health’s fight against the anti-vaccine movement, which he holds responsible for the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough.

Thanks to the movement’s efforts, some 60,000 Texas parents currently obtain non-medical exemptions for school vaccines, some 25 times higher than 2003, the first year such exemptions were allowed. A 2018 study by Hotez found Houston and three other Texas cities rank among the 15 metropolitan “Shotspots” of such exemptions.

“Awful to see the #antivax lobby in Texas now going the extra measure to halt #COVID-19 prevention,” Hotez tweeted Tuesday in reply to a Texans for Vaccine Choice tweet alerting people to the campaign. “In the name of fake ‘health freedoms’ slogans, they aspire to land thousands of Texans in our hospitals and ICUs.”

John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, noted that a contact tracing program was part of the guidelines laid out by President Donald Trump in order to reopen the state and has been used in Texas and the country for decades. He said the program is “completely voluntary” and that the state health department has “taken steps to ensure it protects individuals’ liberty and privacy.”

There are certainly questions to be raised about the state’s contact tracing plan, though those questions should mostly be about competence and cronyism. I can sort of see the rationale behind the anti-vaxx movement, if I squint and do some deep-breathing exercises. The point of contact tracing is to find and notify people who may have come into contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. I’m really hard-pressed to see what the problem is with that, beyond the usual tinfoil-hat paranoia about RFID chips, UPC codes, and our precious bodily fluids. We already know we have a long fight ahead over an eventual coronavirus vaccine, which is now a partisan issue as well as another thing for these people to froth about. The rest of us need to recognize this for what it is, which is a direct threat to our health. What are you going to do about that, Governor?

So how’s that reopening going?

Well, there’s more of it.

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds lovely. However:

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She said technical issues are not common.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin’s sick leave ordinance is officially dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro’s long road

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The long-term outlook is less certain.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nuro expands its service in Houston

First groceries, now prescriptions.

Nuro’s fleet of autonomous vehicles is expanding its footprint in Houston, partnering with CVS to deliver prescriptions in a delivery service that is expected to begin as early as next month.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Nuro’s autonomous fleet made its Houston debut last year when it partnered with Kroger to deliver groceries. It later added Walmart to the list. The delivery vehicles to-date were staffed with operators to monitor the service, but Nuro announced earlier this year its plans to introduce a human-free product, the R2, to Houston roads.

The new prescription delivery service will start with a pilot in three ZIP codes surrounding the CVS pharmacy at 5430 Bissonnet St., Bellaire, according to a news release.

[…]

The service comes at a time when, due to the spread of the coronavirus, people are avoiding physical contact with one another. Especially those with underlying health conditions.

“We are seeing an increased demand for prescription delivery,” said Ryan Rumbarger, senior vice president of Store Operations at CVS Health. “We want to give our customers more choice in how they can quickly access the medications they need when it’s not convenient for them to visit one of our pharmacy locations.”

See here for the background. Nuro began its automated grocery deliveries in March, just as everything was starting to shut down. I’d had a lot of question prior to its launch about how popular that would be versus human-driven deliveries. How many people would prefer having their groceries unloaded and brought into their house – or at least to their front door – for them, versus having to walk out to the car and haul them in themselves? One presumes the pandemic has had some effect on that calculation, though we don’t get any insight into that from the story. Be that as it may, this does seem like a propitious time for this kind of service to debut. I would have been more skeptical of this a few months ago, but not so much now.

Fifth Circuit extends block on vote by mail expansion

Not unexpected, unfortunately.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals extended its order Thursday blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

With early voting for the primary runoff elections starting later this month — and the Texas Supreme Court also blocking expanded voting by mail in a separate case —Thursday’s ruling effectively eliminates the possibility that Texas voters will be able to legally request mail-in ballots solely because they fear a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus will put them at risk if they vote in person.

The issue is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued a preliminary injunction in late May expanding mail-in voting, but the appellate panel almost immediately put it on administrative hold while awaiting legal briefings from both sides. Thursday’s ruling keeps Biery’s ruling on ice while Texas appeals it.

[…]

Siding with Paxton, the 5th Circuit panel in part found that requiring Texas officials to institute voting by mail for all against their will would present “significant, irreparable harm” to the state. The panel pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s standing that lower federal courts should “ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.”

See here and here for the background. As noted in the State Supreme Court ruling, there’s still nothing to prevent someone from requesting and receiving a mail ballot if they claim a disability. It’s just the risk they take if someone like Ken Paxton or a GOP activist charges that their claim is illegal because it’s based on coronavirus concerns. It’s hard to assess that risk, but so far at least nearly all of the people who have requested a mail ballot so far in Harris County are people 65 years old and older.

Rick Hasen breaks down the ruling.

Judge Smith’s opinion simply excoriates the sloppy and poorly written district court decision; it was the most unhelpful way for the district court to have written a decision to be reviewed by a much more conservative 5th circuit.

Judge Smith’s opinion helpfully rejects the argument, which was advanced by a federal district court in Georgia, that these cases raise nonjusticiable political questions. But on the merits, the opinion rejects a challenge to Texas’s absentee voting rules, which allow voters over 65 to vote by mail without an excuse but everyone else must present an excuse (and lack of immunity to Covid-19 does not count under Texas law) to do so. The court held the equal protection challenge was rejected by the Supreme Court in the McDonald case, which rejected a challenge to failing to give pre-trial detainees in Illinois the right to cast an absentee ballot. (I explain why I do not believe McDonald controls in the Covid situation in footnote 171 of this draft.) The court then takes McDonald and applies it directly to reject a 26th amendment age discrimination argument, despite the fact that the 26th amendment was not an issue in that case. The court drops a footnote recognizing that there is a large dispute over the full scope of the amendment.

Judge Ho joined the majority opinion, but spent some pages trying to explain the supposed great risk of voter fraud with mail-in ballots.

Judge Costa concurred only in the result, noting that the district court did not wait for the state courts to first interpret the meaning of Texas’s absentee ballot law. Judge Costa would have said the district court should have abstained, and he would have remanded the case back for reconsideration now that the Texas courts have interpreted the statute in light of Covid. He would not have reached the merits.

There are still the other two federal lawsuits in the works, one of which directly challenges the age restriction on 26th Amendment grounds. I don’t know where they are on the calendar and I’m not sure how to evaluate that bit in Judge Smith’s opinion that Hasen cites, but it’s probably irrelevant for these purposes anyway. We’re too close to the July election for the courts to allow a major change in procedure at this point. There may still be time for that for November, but every day that passes makes that schedule a little bit tighter. For now, proceed as you see fit. Mark Joseph Stern has more.

The reopening metric we should be heeding

From Twitter:

Here’s that link:

Abstract

We report a time course of SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary sewage sludge during the Spring COVID-19 outbreak in a northeastern U.S. metropolitan area. SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in all environmental samples and, when adjusted for the time lag, the virus RNA concentrations were highly correlated with the COVID-19 epidemiological curve (R2=0.99) and local hospital admissions (R2=0.99). SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations were a seven-day leading indicator ahead of compiled COVID-19 testing data and led local hospital admissions data by three days. Decisions to implement or relax public health measures and restrictions require timely information on outbreak dynamics in a community.

Introduction

The most common metric followed to track the progression of the COVID-19 epidemic within communities is derived from testing symptomatic cases and evaluating the number of positive tests over time.1 However, tracking positive tests is a lagging indicator for the epidemic progression.2, 3 Testing is largely prompted by symptoms, which may take up to five days to present4, and individuals can shed virus prior to exhibiting symptoms. There is a pressing need for additional methods for early sentinel surveillance and real-time estimations of community disease burden so that public health authorities may modulate and plan epidemic responses accordingly.

SARS-CoV-2 RNA is present in the stool of COVID-19 patients5-7 and has recently been documented in raw wastewater.8-10 Thus, monitoring raw wastewater (sewage) within a community’s collection system can potentially provide information on the prevalence and dynamics of infection for entire populations.11 When municipal raw wastewater discharges into treatment facilities, solids are settled and collected into a matrix called (primary) sewage sludge, which has been shown to contain a broad diversity of human viruses including commonly circulating coronavirus strains.12 Primary sludge provides a well-mixed and concentrated sample that may be advantageous for monitoring SARS-CoV-2. As viral shedding can occur before cases are detected, we hypothesize that the time course of SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary sewage sludge is a leading indicator of outbreak dynamics within a community served by the treatment plant.

So in plain English, if you know what the level of SARS-CoV-2 is in your municipal wastewater, you will have a very accurate predictor of the new COVID-19 case rate in your community. And guess what? The city of Houston is tracking this very data. I don’t know if it’s being published anywhere, but it sure could shed some light on how things are really going around here. Other cities should be doing this as well – if they aren’t doing it already, they need to start – and that information should be collected and published at the state level as well. What are we waiting for?

MLS agrees on its restart, WNBA still considering options

More sports coming.

The MLS Players Association voted Wednesday to approve a revised collective bargaining agreement with the league. The new deal will run through 2025 and clears the way for Major League Soccer to resume its 2020 season via a single-site format in Orlando, Fla.

“I can’t give any further specifics on that Orlando concept,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a video conference with media. “That was a very, very big part of our discussions with our players. …We were fortunate to be able to finalize an agreement, as the union announced early this morning.”

Garber said details regarding the competition in Orlando, including format and dates, will be released later, but it is expected to be a tournament lasting no longer than 35 days. It will be conducted at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex, which is where the NBA is planning to finish its season.

The commissioner also reiterated his commitment to finishing the season, even if that means pushing the MLS playoffs into 2021.

See here for the background. As noted, the NWSL is already set to return, on June 27. The NBA will be using the same ESPN facility, and I have yet to see how the logistics of that will be handled. I’m sure someone has a plan for it.

Meanwhile, the WNBA is still figuring things out.

The WNBA is considering playing its season at an MGM Resorts International property if it has a season this year, according to a report from The Associated Press.

The other location under consideration is IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

The league announced the suspension of its season in April amid the coronavirus pandemic and has not decided on a start date. Operational details of a possible start are not clear, but the league would use a single site — much like the NBA.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told the AP on Tuesday that the league has discussed a variety of options but did not confirm whether Las Vegas or IMG Academy were possible locations.

“We’re looking at the pros and cons of a number of different locations,” Engelbert told the AP.

The WNBA hadn’t actually started its season yet – like MLB, it was still in its preseason when it suspended activities. If the WNBA chooses to play its games in Las Vegas, they may have some company in the form of the National Hockey League, which is considering Vegas among a list of other cities to play its games; like the NBA, the NHL season was suspended just before playoffs were to begin. Again, I’m sure someone will figure out how to handle multiple leagues and all their people sharing the same facility. I’m just trying to stay on top of the news here.

Quinnipiac: Trump 44, Biden 43

Nice.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are locked in a very tight race in Texas, with Trump receiving 44 percent of the vote and Biden receiving 43 percent in a general election matchup, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. Democrats go for Biden 90 – 5 percent, independents do the same 45 – 36 percent, and Republicans go for Trump 87 – 6 percent.

Voters say 54 – 40 percent that Trump would do a better job handling the economy, but say 49 – 43 percent that Biden would do a better job handling health care. Voters are split on who would do a better job handling the response to the coronavirus, as 47 percent say Biden and 45 percent say Trump.

“Too tight to tell in Texas. As the country confronts chaos and COVID-19, perhaps one of the most important states of all is a toss-up,” said Quinnipiac University Polling Analyst Tim Malloy.

FAVORABILITY AND JOB APPROVAL RATINGS

In terms of how voters view the candidates, they give both Trump and Biden negative favorability ratings. 38 percent of voters view Biden favorably, while 45 percent view him unfavorably. That compares to a February 2019 survey when 48 percent viewed him favorably and 38 percent viewed him unfavorably. 42 percent of voters view Trump favorably, and 50 percent view him unfavorably. That compares to a February 2019 survey when 47 percent viewed him favorably and 49 percent viewed him unfavorably.

President Trump receives a 45 – 50 percent job approval rating, unchanged from September of 2019.

Governor Greg Abbott receives a 56 – 32 percent job approval rating, compared to 56 – 27 percent in September of 2019.

Senator Ted Cruz receives a 45 – 42 percent job approval rating, compared to 49 – 40 percent in September of 2019.

Senator John Cornyn receives a split 37 – 36 percent job approval rating, compared to 41 – 34 percent in September of 2019.

MAIL-IN VOTING

About six in ten voters (59%) in Texas say voters in the state should be allowed to vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic, while four in ten (40%) say they should not. There are wide partisan gaps, as Democrats 91 – 9 percent and independents 61 – 39 percent say “yes” to voting by mail, while Republicans 68 – 31 percent say “no” to voting by mail.

“‘Mail it in,’ say a majority of virus wary Texans, with Democrats far more willing to let the Post Office deliver their vote,” added Malloy.

Looking ahead to the presidential election in November, 60 percent say they would feel comfortable voting in person, while 38 percent say they would feel uncomfortable. Republicans 84 – 14 percent and independents 60 – 38 percent say they would feel comfortable. Democrats 67 – 31 percent say they would feel uncomfortable.

Here’s a Chron story on the poll result. The disparity in comfort about voting in person is something we’ve seen before, and clearly correlates to the relative partisan positions about voting by mail. I don’t think it will matter that much in the end – let’s just say that people are highly motivated to vote against Donald Trump – but it’s worth keeping in mind. Democrats will need to give some thought about informing their voters about how they should vote to alleviate any anxieties.

There are crosstabs farther down in the linked article, and they don’t have any surprises. Biden actually led Trump 48-44 in a Q-poll from a year ago, which I thought was a tad bit optimistic at the time. Note that while Biden lost a few points from that sample, Trump remains at 44 percent. Add this to the previous four results and the poll average is 46.0 to 43.6 for Trump. If this isn’t a close race, I don’t know what is.

There won’t be furloughs after all

A slightly confusing bit of good news.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will not need to furlough roughly 3,000 city employees nor cancel its police cadet classes in the upcoming budget year, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin announced during a city council budget committee meeting Tuesday.

Instead, the city will use federal coronavirus relief funds to help bridge its projected $169 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“No employee in the (City of Houston) will be furloughed,” Martin said.

The administration has updated Mayor Sylvester Turner’s initial budget proposal, eliminating many of the most dire consequences attributed to the revenue gap. The revised budget plan eliminates furloughs and adds back five cadet classes for police, Martin said.

It also adds another fire department cadet class, giving that department four classes. The new proposal also adds $15 million back into the city’s rainy day fund as hurricane season gets underway; Turner’s original spending plan would have exhausted that fund entirely.

The changes comes as the city has weighed how it can spend $404 million in federal funds it received through the CARES Act, part of a stimulus package approved by Congress.

The administration plans to use roughly $19 million of those funds to cover expenses for redeploying city employees from their normal duties to address the coronavirus pandemic, freeing some budgetary space. It is not clear if the city plans to use additional federal funds to cover the remaining costs of the budget revisions.

See here, here, and here for some background. I’ve said all along that the city could avoid all of the issues for this year if it could use that federal money for previously budgeted items. Apparently, they have decided that they can, or at least that there’s enough of the money available to fill other needs to make the math work. I can’t tell from this story what may have changed to go from apocalyptic warnings about layoffs and furloughs to this – maybe the city got clarity from the feds, maybe they came to this conclusion on their own, maybe there was enough wiggle room to allow for budget items to get moved around, who knows? This is the outcome that should have been from the beginning. Remember, a large part of budgeting is determined by the calendar – if these federal dollars had been allocated earlier, there wouldn’t have been so many “previously budgeted items” to worry about. I’m a little worried that someone is going to come along and try to stop the city from doing this, maybe by lawsuit or some other decree, but until then, I’m glad they worked this out. There are plenty of things to worry about going forward, like sales tax revenues, but buying a year’s time before that reckoning allows for another CARES Act or other positive development to occur. Sometimes kicking the can down the road is all you need to do.

NBA sets a plan, MLB still working it out

Happening today.

The NBA is finalizing details of a plan which is expected to be approved by the league’s Board of Governors on Thursday, paving the way for a return from the coronavirus shutdown.

The board is poised to give the green light to commissioner Adam Silver’s return of basketball which would begin July 31 with a 22-team format, and end in mid-October with a champion being crowned, ESPN reported.

The plan requires support from three quarters of the league’s 30 teams in order to be approved.

The NBA suspended its season on March 11 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Nets and Orlando Magic currently hold the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies occupy the postseason positions in the Western Conference.

Under the plan, each of the 22 teams will play eight regular-season games for seeding purposes for the postseason.

The 16 teams currently in the playoff picture will be joined by the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference.

In the East, the Washington Wizards are also included.

[…]

All games are expected to be within the confines of Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando Florida, with all teams remaining on site to minimise risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.

See here for the background. ESPN adds a bit more:

Life in the NBA bubble will be governed by a set of safety protocols. While players and coaches will be allowed to golf or eat at outdoor restaurants, they will also need to maintain social distancing, sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.

The NBA is planning to have uniform, daily testing for the coronavirus within the Disney campus environment, sources told ESPN. ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Company.

If a player tests positive for the virus, the league’s intent would be to remove that player from the team to quarantine and treat individually — and continue to test other team members as they play on, sources said.

Employees at the Disney resort will have to maintain similar protocols. For example, no staff will be allowed into players’ rooms, and hallways will be carefully managed to avoid crowding, sources told Shelburne.

Weird, but the NBA had played the bulk of its season anyway, and the playoffs are always a different thing entirely. I just hope those employees at the Disney resort had someone thinking about their welfare as this deal was being hammered out. The Chron has more.

And then there’s MLB:

Major League Baseball has rejected the players’ offer for a 114-game regular season with no additional salary cuts and told the union it did not plan to make a counterproposal, sources confirmed to ESPN.

Players made their proposal Sunday, up from an 82-game regular season in management’s offer last week. Opening Day would be June 30, and the regular season would end Oct. 31, nearly five weeks after the Sept. 27 conclusion that MLB’s proposal stuck to from the season’s original schedule.

MLB told the union it had no interest in extending the season into November, when it fears a second wave of the coronavirus could disrupt the postseason and jeopardize $787 million in broadcast revenue.

While management has suggested it could play a short regular season of about 50 games with no more salary reductions, it has not formally proposed that concept. Earlier this week, multiple players told ESPN that they would not abide a shorter schedule, with one saying, “We want to play more games, and they want to play less. We want more baseball.”

See here for the previous update. If this sounds dire to you, let me refer you again to Eugene Freedman, who’s been around this block a few times.

Basically, it looks like the sides have agreed to the March deal, and now need to work out the safety and testing details, plus what to do if a player wants to opt out. Maybe the NBA getting set to start at the end of July will inspire them to agree on some version of their July 4 Opening Day season. Fingers crossed. The Chron has more.

How low can sales tax collections go?

If we’re lucky, no lower than this.

Texas collected about $2.6 billion in state sales tax revenue in May, leading to the steepest year-over-year decline in over a decade, Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Monday.

The amount is 13.2% less than the roughly $3 billion the state collected in the same month last year.

A majority of the revenue collected last month was from purchases made in April and reflect the state’s first full-month look at how the novel coronavirus impacted businesses. That is when Texans lived under a statewide stay-at-home order and Gov. Greg Abbott, like leaders across the globe, ordered businesses across several sectors to close to combat the spread of the virus.

“Significant declines in sales tax receipts were evident in all major economic sectors, with the exception of telecommunications services,” Hegar said in a news release. “The steepest decline was in collections from oil and gas mining, as energy companies cut well drilling and completion spending following the crash in oil prices.”

[…]

Monday’s numbers are also reflective of the lag in data as revenues are collected and then reported by the state. Last month, for example, Hegar announced that the sales tax revenue collections for purchases in March dropped roughly 9% — which at the time was the steepest decline since January 2010.

Other major tax collections were also down in May, Hegar said Monday. Motor fuel taxes, for example, were down 30% from May 2019, marking the steepest drop since 1989. And the hotel occupancy tax was down 86% from May 2019, marking the steepest drop on record in data since 1982.

See here for the background. The presentation here is a little confusing, so let me clarify by quoting from the Chron:

Though the revenue totals are for May, they mostly represent transactions in April, when a statewide lockdown was in place to slow the spread of the virus. March sales were down 9.3 percent, state records show.

OK, so basically retail and other activity that leads to sales tax collection was down 13.4% in April after being down 9.3% in March. March was when the shutdowns began, though people had already slowed their activity before the official orders started happening later in the month. Pretty much all of April was in lockdown, while May is when things have begun to reopen. The hope would be that while May will be down compared to last year, it will be a lesser drop from 2019 than April and March were. That’s the hope, anyway. Maybe motor fuel taxes will inch up somewhat, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on hotel occupancy taxes. Check back in a month and we’ll see.

Chris Hollins sworn in

We have a County Clerk again.

Chris Hollins

Christopher Hollins on Monday became the third Harris County clerk in three years, appointed to the post after the incumbent, Diane Trautman, resigned after 17 months because of unspecified health concerns.

He has pledged to hold the job only in an interim role, avoiding the potential distraction of running a campaign this fall. Still, the 33-year-old lawyer faces a difficult task in running the July primary runoff and November general elections — the latter likely to be the highest-turnout contest in county history — during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Hollins said he grasps the scope of the challenge and is up to the task. Though he has no experience in elections administration and has never run for office, he said his background in government consulting will serve him well in his new role.

“Elections already are a really large task under normal circumstances,” he said. “And you add to that the concerns and complications that come with a global pandemic, and we have this massive undertaking ahead of us to make sure all the residents of Harris County are able to vote safely, conveniently, and with the confidence their vote is going to be counted.”

See here and here for the background. I doubt he’ll make any major changes in the short time he’ll have in the position – he’s retained Trautman’s elections staffers, which is good to hear – but I’m sure he’ll have a few ideas to implement. He also has to deal with the vote by mail issue:

Hollins said he lacks expertise in Texas election law, and will defer to the county attorney on mail voting. Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said the county will let voters choose whether they qualify for a mail ballot.

“It’s up to the voter to decide,” Ray said Monday. “We’re not going to require any proof. We’re not going to require any explanation.”

This is consistent with the State Supreme Court ruling. The federal cases may change things, but for now this is where we are. If Chris Hollins can be a steady hand on the till for the next seven months, that will be plenty. I wish him all the best of luck.

RIP, Engage Texas

We hardly knew ye.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Engage Texas, the massive Republican super PAC focused on voter registration, is shutting down, citing challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.

The group began last year with the support of some of the biggest Texas GOP donors and raised $12.7 million while building a staff in the hundreds. Yet the group says that the months-long pandemic has made clear that “person-to-person contact voter registration is going to be challenging for an indeterminate amount of time.”

“Leadership has determined that the highest and best use of supporter and donor energies at this point is to phase out person-to-person voter registration, close Engage Texas and encourage our supporters to engage with candidate and party activities ahead of the November election,” Engage Texas said in a statement to The Texas Tribune on Friday. “Engage Texas is proud of our highly successful voter registration efforts and believes that conservative voter registration will successfully continue through the Republican Party of Texas Volunteer Engagement Project.”

Engage Texas, which had $6 million cash on hand at the end of March, is in the process of redistributing its remaining funds to other GOP groups with similar goals. The reallocations are expected to be detailed on its next quarterly report to the Federal Election Commission, which is due July 15.

The shuttering of Engage Texas leaves the Texas GOP’s Volunteer Engagement Project as Republicans’ chief registration effort this election cycle at the state level. The project is aiming to register 100,000 likely Republicans by Oct. 5, the registration deadline for the November election. Party chairman James Dickey said Thursday the project has surpassed 85,000 registrations.

“Republicans are finally paying major attention again to voter registration,” Dickey said during a tele-town hall about the party’s 2020 convention. “It’s back in our DNA, and we are ceding no turf.”

Still, the shutdown of Engage Texas is a major blow to one of the lessons that state Republicans took from their setbacks in the 2018 election — that they needed to grow their pool of voters and hone in on registration after years of neglect.

[…]

In shutting down, Engage Texas pointed to data that it said showed that for the first time in a decade, “Republican registrations have outpaced Democrat registrations in Texas, and have done so for nine consecutive months.” As of today, the group said, Republicans have registered 18,677 more new voters this year in Texas than Democrats have.

I would not take their claims very seriously. I’m sure they registered some voters, but without knowing their exact metrics it’s hard to take any such claims, especially such specific claims, as anything more than self-aggrandizement. (How would they know how many voters Democratic-aligned organizations have registered, for example?) I would also note that if this mission was that critical, this would be a funny time to abandon it. I’m sure the rest of that money will go to only the most deserving consultants and operatives. See you on the other side, Engage Texas.