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Galveston

More vaccination hubs

Keep ’em coming.

State health officials Saturday announced 79 hub providers that are expected to receive allotments of COVID-19 vaccines this week, including newly designated hubs in some suburbs of Houston.

The hub providers include two in Galveston County, one each in Fort Bend County, Montgomery County and Liberty County and six in Harris County, according to a list of the hubs that are intended to focus on mass vaccination efforts. Officials plan to distribute 333,650 first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 260 providers across the state. Additionally, the state will order about 500,000 doses expected to be the second ones for people who received their first shot a few weeks ago.

Earlier this month, the Houston region’s three hubs were all in Harris County, making officials in some surrounding counties fear they’d been forgotten. The Texas Department of State Health Services previously said more hubs were likely to be added but that the main obstacle was a short supply of vaccines.

“In the past week, Texas became the first state to administer 1 million doses of vaccine, and vaccine has been administered to residents of all 254 counties,” state health officials said in announcing the allocation breakdown of the week’s doses. “Vaccine remains limited based on the capacity of the manufacturers to produce it, so it will take time for Texas to receive enough vaccine for all the people in the priority populations who want to be vaccinated.”

The vaccine first arrived in Texas on December 14, so that million doses was administered over about five weeks, or less than 30K per day. Things have surely picked up since the first few days, with the emergence of hubs. We’re still working to get to that 50K per day minimum target, which as we have discussed is still a 20-month time frame. Getting the rate higher than that is going to depend on the federal supply, which was very much over-promised and under-delivered by the Trump administration. But today is a new day, and now we have a new President, and things should be looking up soon. Let’s all hope so.

Precinct analysis: Appellate courts, part 1

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions

My next two posts in this series will focus on the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals. These courts are a little strange electorally, as the elections cover ten counties in all, and over the past few elections they have proven to be pretty darned balanced. As we know, turnout in Harris County has gone up a lot in recent years, and the county has gone from evenly split to strongly blue, yet the balance in these ten counties persists. In this post, I’m going to do a bit of a historical review, to look at the trends and see if we can spot the underlying metrics.


2008 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.58%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,111,642  70.74%   585,249  52.65%
Others     459,704  29.26%   209,510  45.57%

2012 - 14th CoA Pl 3 (47.74%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,137,580  69.82%   580,356  51.01%
Others     491,673  30.18%   197,511  40.17%

2016 - 1st CoA Pl 4 (48.95%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,273,638  69.00%   671,908  52.76%
Others     572,258  31.00%   231,702  40.49%

2018 - 1st CoA Pl 2 (50.93%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,187,403  68.63%   647,398  54.52%
Others     542,765  31.37%   233,693  43.06%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.76%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,122  68.23%   856,056  54.35%
Others     733,364  31.77%   314,644  42.90%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 5 (50.10%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,903  68.24%   845,951  53.75%
Others     732,455  31.76%   309,497  42.25%

2020 - 14th CoA Chief Justice (49.97%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,801  68.23%   841,923  53.43%
Others     733,698  31.77%   312,231  42.56%

2020 - 14th CoA Pl 7 (49.57%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,716  68.25%   833,925  52.99%
Others     732,057  31.75%   309,115  42.23%

A couple of points of explanation here. For 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2018, I picked the top Democratic performer among the appellate court candidates. For 2008, that meant the one Democratic winner. In 2018, as every Dem won their race, I went with the candidate with the narrowest victory, since what I’m most interested in is the threshold needed to win. For 2020, I included all four candidates.

In each table, I separated out the total votes cast in that race from Harris County, and from all the other counties. “Share” is the share of the vote that came from Harris County, so in the 2008 race 70.74% of the total vote came from Harris County. “DemVotes” is the total number of votes the Democratic candidate got, in Harris and in the other counties, and “Dem%” is the percentage of the vote that Democratic candidate got.

We see that the share of the vote from Harris County has dropped every year, from over 70% in 2008 to a bit more than 68% this year. That doesn’t appear to be predictive of anything, as Dems swept these races in 2018 and won two out of four this year, with the lowest-performing Dem having (by a tiny amount) the largest Harris County vote share. The rise of Fort Bend County as a Democratic bastion has no doubt mitigated the shrinking contribution from Harris, but that points out again the importance of counties around Harris, as the reddening of Galveston and the smaller counties has kept these races competitive. One thing I hadn’t realized till I went through this exercise was that Waller County was quite close to even in 2008, but gave Republicans a 7K vote edge in 2020. Indeed, Dem candidates in Waller in 2020 were getting about the same number of votes as Dem candidates in Waller in 2008, after two cycles of failing to meet the 2008 number, as the Republican vote steadily climbed. As we have discussed before, Jane Robinson lost her race by 0.06 percentage points, or a bit more than a thousand votes out of over 1.5 million votes cast. In a race that close, you can point to many, many ways in which a small difference would have changed the outcome.

That’s one reason why these races interest me so much. For one, the appellate courts were a place where Dems made numerous pickups in 2020, yet still fell a bit short of expectations – I at least thought we’d win all four of these, given how well we’d done in 2018. But as you can see, it wasn’t quite to be. I don’t want to downplay the races we did win – Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra are both terrific candidates, and they are now the only Latinas on that court – I’m just greedy enough to have wanted more.

What’s frustrating to me is that I can’t tell what I think is the magic formula here. The difference between Guerra, who won by four thousand votes and 0.20 percentage points, and Robinson is tiny enough to be rounding error. The main difference is that Guerra won Harris County by ten thousand votes more than Robinson did, while Robinson did five thousand votes better in the other counties than Guerra did (she lost them by 421K while Guerra lost them by 426K). We know that Latinx candidates generally did better in Harris County this year than their peers, but that wasn’t the case outside Harris County. And even if it was, that’s not much of a lesson to learn. It was a game of inches, and we won one and lost one.

Ultimately, I think the path here is the same as the path I’ve described in the various “key counties” posts. We’re starting to move in the right direction in Brazoria County, and if we can keep that going that could be enough to tip the scales to the blue side on a longer-term basis. Basically, if we keep doing what we’re doing we’ll likely be at least competitive in these races, and if we can step it up a bit, especially but not exclusively in Brazoria, we can do better than that. Maybe not the deepest insight you’ll ever read, but it’s what I’ve got.

(Assuming that the judicial districts don’t get redrawn, which I suppose they could. In 2004, the First and Fourteenth districts included Burleson, Trinity, and Walker Counties plus the current ten. We’d have zero chance of winning these races if those three were added back in. I have no idea what the process or criteria for defining the judicial districts is. I’m just saying that if Republicans decided to do something about this, they probably could.)

Next up, I’ll do the district breakdown for these four races in Harris County. After that, more judicial races and then on to the other county races. As always, let me know what you think.

The regional COVID situation

Not great, Bob.

COVID-19 is surging across southeast Texas, especially in the suburban counties outside of Houston, which have seen a steady increase in the number of new cases, data show. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, Liberty, and Montgomery counties have all had higher COVID-19 cases per capita than at any point during the pandemic. Chambers County leads the region with 463 virus cases per 10,000 residents, followed by Galveston County with 433 cases per capita, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle.

Experts say the latest spike is driven by a combination of factors — public fatigue from basic COVID-19 restrictions such as mask wearing and social distancing, but also more family gatherings in households and larger groups in bars and restaurants. While case counts are consistently much higher than they were in previous weeks and months, they have yet to equal the peak seen during the summer.

Yet the virus’s resurgence in places like Galveston County has put business owners like Railean on edge, owing to an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott that could trigger new restrictions — including the complete closure of some bars — if regional virus hospitalizations exceed 15 percent of hospitals’ total bed capacity for seven consecutive days. At a time when thousands of restaurants — as many as 10,000 across the state, per the Texas Restaurant Association — have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, further closures could be catastrophic for the industry.

“It would be absolutely devastating to lose this holiday season, devastating to our businesses,” said Gina Spagnola, president of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce.

The Texas Department of State Health Services divides each of the state’s 254 counties into 22 “trauma service areas” which coordinate systems of emergency healthcare and preparedness for their respective regions. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, and Liberty Counties are part of a nine-county region trauma service area where COVID-19 hospitalizations have spiked significantly since early November. On Saturday, the region’s rate of hospital beds in use by covid-infected patients eclipsed the 15 percent mark for the first time before dipping back down to 13 percent by Tuesday.

After seven consecutive days above that 15 percent mark, per Abbott’s executive order, the state health agency would notify county judges in all nine counties of the following restrictions: hospitals must suspend elective surgeries; businesses including restaurants, retail stores, offices gyms, and museums would be limited to 50 percent capacity; and bars and other establishments with more than 51 percent alcohol sales must close.

I wish the Chron had included the comparable number for Harris County. I tried computing it myself based on the Chron’s coronavirus page and 2019 Census numbers I found on Wikipedia, but I got higher totals for Chambers and Galveston than what the story gives. The Harris County number I calculate by the same method was lower than those two, but I don’t know how to adjust them, so we’ll leave it at that. I could still probably make a moral comparison between Harris’s more strenuous effort to combat the virus and the more lax attitude of some neighbors, but I don’t know what that would accomplish at this point. The bulk of the blame for all this remains with Donald Trump, Greg Abbott, and the Senate for not passing further COVID relief, which among other things might have helped all these businesses to survive without being open. We can’t wind the clock back and make Trump take COVID seriously, but we could still do the stimulus. Greg Abbott could still tell our Senators to demand that the Senate pass something that would help our state and our businesses. I’m going to keep saying that, every time. On so many levels, it didn’t have to be like this.

Counties of interest, part one: Around Harris

There’s been so much focus in the past couple of years about the suburbs and how their traditional voting patterns have changed. I wanted to use the election results we have to take a closer look at what that means. My approach is to look at the results in the counties that surround the large urban counties in Texas, and see what we can infer from the Presidential election data since 2012. A few things to note before we get started.

– I will be looking at the counties that border Harris, Dallas/Tarrant, Travis, and Bexar. I’m skipping El Paso because there’s only one county in the state that is adjacent to it.

– I’m using Presidential results from 2012, 2016, and 2020. As we have discussed, this is only one dimension to the data, but I want to keep this fairly simple. We can discern direction from these numbers, and that’s good enough for these purposes.

– I’m going back to 2012 to provide some extra context. I could have gone back further, and maybe I will take a look at trends since 2004 in some counties at a later date, but I think keeping this study to after the 2010 election, when rural areas gave up the pretense of supporting Democrats at any level, makes more sense.

– In the chart below and in subsequent posts, “Shift” is the change in net votes from a Democratic perspective, from 2012 to 2020. A positive number means Democrats did better in 2020 than in 2012, and a negative number means Republicans did better. So for example, Obama trailed in Brazoria County by 36,431 votes, but Biden trailed by 28,159 votes, so a shift in the Democrat direction by 8,282 votes. Obama lost Chambers County by 8,997 votes, Biden lost it by 13,346 votes, so a shift of 4,329 away from Dems. Make sense?

All right. Let’s start with the seven counties that border Harris County.


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Brazoria     70,862   34,421   72,791   43,200   89,939   61,780    8,282
Chambers     11,787    2,790   13,339    2,948   17,343    3,997   -4,349
Fort Bend   116,126  101,144  117,291  134,686  157,595  195,191   52,578
Galveston    69,059   39,511   73,757   43,658   93,306   58,247   -5,511
Liberty      17,323    5,202   18,892    4,862   23,288    5,779   -5,388
Montgomery  137,969   32,920  150,314   45,835  193,224   74,255  -13,920
Waller        9,244    6,514   10,531    5,748   14,206    8,130   -3,346

The first thing that should be clear is that just because a county borders a big urban county, that doesn’t mean it’s suburban. For sure Montgomery and Fort Bend and Brazoria and Galveston meet that definition, though all four of those counties also have some very rural areas, but I daresay no one thinks of Chambers or Liberty or Waller that way. Yet while the first four are seen as places of booming population growth, the other three are doing their share of growing, too. Chambers County has doubled in population since 1990. Waller County has more than doubled in that timespan. Liberty County is up by almost 75%.

But they’re still small. None has a city with more than ten thousand people in it, so they don’t have much in common with the other counties. Maybe it’s different for you, but while I personally know plenty of people in Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Montgomery Counties, I know all of one in the other three. I drive through Waller now and then on my way to Austin or to Camp Allen when my daughters were going there, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I was in Chambers or Liberty.

I say all this to note that while Montgomery is the driving force behind the Republican strength in this area, with Galveston right behind it thanks to places like Friendswood and League City, the other three counties have increased the Republican bottom line over the past few elections by a significant amount as well, with far fewer people in them. Jane Robinson would be the incoming Chief Justice of the 14th Court of Appeals if Chambers County had had the same numbers in 2020 as they had in 2016. It makes a difference.

Part of the reason I’m doing this is just to highlight the places where we’re losing ground, if only so we can be aware of it. We’ve got our arms around Fort Bend County, and Brazoria is starting to head in the right direction. Montgomery and Galveston are problems, but we have infrastructure in those places, and just by virtue of being suburban I have some reason to think we’ll get to a turning point. I have no idea what exists in the other three counties to promote Democratic policies or candidates. We need a strategy for these places, and the resources to carry it out. We don’t need to win them – we’re no more likely to win Chambers than we are to win Montgomery any time soon – but we at least need to keep up with Republican voter growth.

That’s a theme I’m going to return to more than once a I proceed through these. I don’t pretend to know what the right answers are, I’m just trying to make sure we know there are problems that need to be addressed. I hope you find this helpful.

Harris County posts updated election results

From Twitter:

You want to get my attention on Twitter, that’s a good way to do it. For comparison purposes, the unofficial final election night returns that the Clerk’s office sent out are here. The still-unofficial (because they haven’t yet been certified by Commissioners Court) results are here, though that URL may be temporary. A couple of highlights:

– Final turnout is now given as 1,656,686, an increase of 7,113 over the originally given total of 1,649,573. Turnout was 68.14% as a percentage of registered voters.

– Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump grew from 212,152 total votes to 217,563 total votes. The final score is now 918,193 to 700,630 for Biden.

– A couple of the close races changed by tiny amounts. Lizzie Fletcher’s margin of victory grew from 10,217 to 10,475 total votes. Jon Rosenthal lost 17 votes off his lead to Justin Ray to finish exactly 300 votes ahead, while Gina Calanni fell an additional 59 votes behind Mike Schofield.

– The two appellate court races cited by Adams-Hurta were of great interest to me. Amparo Guerra is leading on the SOS election night results page over Terry Adams by 1,367 votes out of 2.3 million votes cast. Meanwhile, Jane Robinson trailed Tracy Christopher by 4,311 votes. Could either of these races be affected? I had to check the other county election results pages as well, to see what final results were now in. This is what I got:


County       TC EN      JR EN      TC fin     JR fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,440      2,680      11,606      2,698     -148
Brazoria    91,378     57,684      91,378     57,684        0
Chambers    17,200      3,720      17,200      3,720        0
Colorado     7,351      2,281       7,351      2,281        0
Fort Bend  161,423    176,466     161,532    176,662       87
Galveston   94,759     54,178      95,355     54,623     -151
Grimes       9,305      2,647       9,318      2,650     - 10
Harris     734,315    838,895     733,878    841,923    3,465
Waller      14,245      7,501      14,302      7,556     -  2
Washington  12,852      3,905      12,852      3,905        0

Total    1,154,268  1,149,957   1,154,772  1,153,702

County       TA EN      AG EN      TA fin     AG fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,468      2,632      11,632      2,649     -147
Brazoria    91,430     57,174      91,430     57,174        0
Chambers    17,180      3,656      17,180      3,656        0
Colorado     7,393      2,217       7,393      2,217        0
Fort Bend  162,238    175,460     162,338    175,664      104
Galveston   95,057     53,375      95,643     53,820     -151
Grimes       9,351      2,570       9,364      2,572     - 11
Harris     728,402    842,905     727,952    845,951    3,496
Waller      14,303      7,459      14,364      7,508     - 12
Washington  13,043      3,784      13,043      3,784        0

Total    1,149,865  1,151,232   1,150,339  1,154,995

The first table is Tracy Christopher (TC) versus Jane Robinson (JR), the second is Terry Adams (TA) versus Amparo Guerra (AG). The first two columns represent the Election Night (EN) numbers as posted on their SOS pages, the second columns are the final numbers now posted on the county sites. Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, and Washington still have their Election Night results up, so those have no changes. The Change column is from the Democratic candidates’ perspective, so a negative number means the Republican netted more votes.

Not surprisingly, the Harris results had the biggest effect, but in the end the winners were the same. Robinson now trails by an even smaller 1,070 vote margin, while Guerra has a bit more room to breathe with a 4,656 vote lead. Given the deltas in the other counties, my guess is that both Dems will see a small net loss. A real nail-biter in both cases, and it wouldn’t have taken much to change the outcomes. For what it’s worth, the two Dems who won these races this year were both Latinas, the two Dems that lost were not. Both Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra had larger leads in Harris County than Jane Robinson and Tamika Craft had, and that was what ultimately propelled them to victory. Maybe that would be different in a different years – Dems won all these races in 2018, remember – but this year it was consequential.

I suppose it’s possible there could be recounts in some of these races, but honestly, nothing is close enough to be changed. It’s a rare year that has no recounts, though, so we’ll see. Commissioners Court will certify the Harris County results on Tuesday, the statutory deadline.

Followup omnibus Election Day post

Wanted to clear up some loose ends from the late night/early morning post and add a couple of things I’d missed the first time around. I’ll have a longer “thoughts and reactions” post probably tomorrow.

– The district results from last night appear to be the same this morning, which means: No Congressional flips, Dems flip SBOE5 and SD19, Dems flip HD134 but lose HD132, for a net one seat gain the the Senate and zero seats in the House. I don’t know how many people would have bet on no net changes to Congress and the State House.

– One other place where Dems made gains was the Courts of Appeals. Dems won the Chief Justice seats on the Third (anchored in Travis and Williamson counties) and Fourth (anchored in Bexar but containing many counties) Courts of Appeals, plus one bench on the First Court (anchored in Harris, won by Veronica Rivas-Molloy) and three on the Fifth Court (Dallas/Collin, mostly). Dems fell short on three other benches, including the Chief Justice for the 14th Court, though the other result on the First Court was really close – Amparo Guerra trails Terry Adams by 0.12%, or about 3K votes out of over 2.25 million ballots. The key to Rivas-Molloy’s win was her margin of victory in Harris County – she won Harris by 133K votes, while Guerra won Harris by 114K, Jane Robinson (Chief Justice 14th Court) won Harris by 104K, and Tamika Craft (14th Court) won Harris by 90K. With Galveston, Brazoria, and Chambers County all delivering big for the Republicans, that big lead that Rivas-Molloy got in Harris was enough to withstand the assault.

– Final turnout was 1,649,457, which was 67.84%. That fell short of the loftier projections, but it’s still over 300K more votes than were cast in 2016. The new Election Night returns format at harrisvotes.com does not give the full turnout breakdown by vote type, but the PDF they sent out, which you can see here, does have it. The breakdown: 174,753 mail ballots, 1,272,319 in person early ballots, 202,835 Election Day ballots. Note that these are unofficial and un-canvassed numbers, and will change by some amount when the vote is certified, as some late overseas and military ballots arrive and some provisional ballots are cured.

– Another way to put this: 10.6% of all ballots were mail, 77.1% were early in person, and 12.3% were cast on Election Day. Just the early in person votes is a higher percentage of “before Election Day” tallies than any previous year. Will this be a new normal, at least for high-turnout even-year elections? I have no idea. Those extra days of early voting, plus all of the sense of urgency, surely contributed to that total. I don’t know that we’ll match this level going forward, but it won’t surprise me if the standard is now more than 80% of all votes are cast before Election Day (again, in even-year elections; who knows what will happen in the odd years).

– For what it’s worth, the closest countywide race was decided by about 76K votes; the next closest by about 90K, and the rest over over 100K. What that means is that if somehow all 127K of those votes cast at drive-through locations during the early voting period were suddenly thrown out, it’s highly unlikely to affect any of those races. I suppose it could tip a close non-countywide race like HD135, and it could reduce Veronica Rivas-Molloy’s margin in Harris County to the point that she’d lose her seat on the First Court of Appeals. I can’t see that happening, but I wanted to state this for the record anyway.

I’ll have more thoughts tomorrow.

UPDATE: The SOS Election Night Returns site now shows Amparo Guerra leading by about 1,500 votes, or 0.06 points, in the First Court of Appeals, Place 5 race. Not sure where the late votes came from, but they helped her, and they helped Jane Robinson, who is still trailing but by less than 5,000 votes, or 0.18 points.

Scrambling to finish the Census

It’s a hell of a job, and it’s so important.

With a deadline looming for local governments to complete a population count for the 2020 Census, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is warning that the city could miss out on billions in federal funding for services such as road repairs and school lunches.

The reason? Less than 57 percent of the city’s residents have filled out the census form, a nine-question survey that can be completed by mail, phone or online. The city of Houston was planning a major outreach effort to avoid an undercount among young and poor people, immigrants and communities of color. The pandemic and economic insecurity from shuttered businesses, however, hampered outreach efforts and hobbled participation, officials say.

“September is the final month to respond to the Census,” Turner tweeted this month. “Over 40% of Houstonians have yet to answer 9 questions @mycensus2020.gov which could cost Houston $1500 person per year for 10 years. Please do so now.”

Sasha-Joi Marshall Smith, a city planner who has been coordinating outreach efforts, attributed low participation to political interference, civil unrest and the coronavirus pandemic. She is “terrified” about the economic and social reverberations of an undercount that’s now running about 15 percentage points behind 2010.

Every 1 percent of the population that’s not counted means $250 million in federal funding that the city is entitled to will be directed to another city, she said. “It’s that serious.”

“I tell people, ‘It’s our federal tax dollars… God forbid it goes to Dallas,’” she said. “Whether you were born here or not, it’s our job to make sure people here have basic services.”

Harris County faces a similar predicament, with just under 61 percent of residents having participated.

“There are so many pockets in Harris County where we haven’t heard from most people — perhaps a fraction of the people have responded but most have not responded,” said Tazeen Zehra, a senior census staffer in Houston.

Galveston County has had such a low return rate — 58 percent — that census workers have sought helpers from neighboring counties. Montgomery County is doing slightly better with just under 66 percent reporting. Fort Bend County has the highest participation rate in the state with more than 73 percent responding overall, including nearly 80 percent in Sugar Land.

The current deadline for local governments to complete their counts is Sept. 30. But outreach workers are hoping a federal judge will extend that deadline to Oct. 31 for the entire country at a court hearing in California next week. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined as plaintiffs in the California case because they’re concerned that their districts will be undercounted without an extension. The Trump administration previously offered an extension, then withdrew the offer.

We’ve discussed the challenges of the Census many times. The undercounting issue is so pervasive that even our retrograde state leadership has been forced to try to do something about it. There’s a temporary restraining order in that California lawsuit to which Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are parties, with a hearing scheduled for the 17th. I think the odds are good that the plaintiffs will prevail since “arbitrary and capricious” is the standard operating procedure for this administration, but even with those extra 31 days it’s going to be tough to get an adequate count. As with so many other things these days, this did not have to happen.

On a related note:

A three-judge federal panel in New York has ruled that the Trump administration cannot keep undocumented immigrants from being counted when lawmakers reapportion congressional districts next year — an effort that could have potentially cost Texas several seats in Congress.

In a significant departure from the way representation is typically divided up, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum in July directing Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to exclude undocumented immigrants from the base population used to distribute seats in Congress. But in its Thursday ruling, the panel of judges deemed the memo an “unlawful exercise of authority granted to the President.”

The constitutionally mandated count each 10 years of every person residing in the country is used to determine congressional representation from each state. Excluding undocumented residents from the counts used to parcel out congressional districts would likely lead to a drastic realignment of political power throughout Texas.

Trump pursued the change by arguing that the U.S. Constitution does not define “which persons must be included” in that base population. But the New York panel of judges blocked Ross, who oversees the census, from providing any information on the number of undocumented people in each state.

See here for the background. This would almost certainly cost the state of Texas at least one if not two of the Congressional seats that it’s otherwise likely to get. Not that any of our state leaders care, going by their utter lack of any reaction to that memorandum. The courts can’t save us from everything, but they have been there at times like this.

No, seriously, what are we going to do to prepare for the next Hurricane Laura?

I mean, the next one is coming whether we’re ready or not. We just don’t know when it will be here.

Though the storm ultimately tracked east, sparing Houston, the problem remains: The region is disastrously unready to handle any of the three main threats of an intense hurricane: a high surge, damaging winds and — even three years after Hurricane Harvey — flooding.

While Harvey’s devastating stall over the Houston area has resulted in billions of dollars of investment in flood control infrastructure and new regulations, Laura reminded the region of what a different kind of storm could do.

In its wake, leaders have made impassioned pleas about preparing for when — not if — that storm does arrive. Most notably, they have ramped up calls for federal funding on a so-called “coastal spine,” a system of levees, gates and dunes first proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008, to protect the region from a storm surge.

Those plans, though, remain mired in the slog of the federal approval process. The kind of political will and cohesion needed to fast-track such infrastructure typically only forms after disasters, not before.

[…]

There are signs the region has reached an inflection point on the need to protect against that threat. A growing consensus among local officials around the effects of climate change has shifted the public policy debate to figuring out which infrastructure projects will help stave off its worst effects, and at what cost.

The proposed coastal spine, a 71-mile-long barrier system to protect the southeast Texas coast, has received the most attention since it was taken up by the Army Corps of Engineers in October 2018.

The plan is an outgrowth of the “Ike Dike” concept first pitched more than a decade ago by William Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston. It includes a series of gates that stretch the two-mile length of Bolivar Road, twin rows of 14-foot-high sand dunes across Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, a ring levee around Galveston’s city center and investments in ecosystem restoration.

The price tag has been put at $23 billion to $32 billion, with the dunes and sea gate at the ship channel alone costing up to $18 billion of that. It is in the midst of a five-year design and study process and is on track to be sent to Congress for final approval in May 2021.

“Quite frankly, we need it yesterday,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week. “We’re running out of lives, so to speak.”

Even on the most optimistic timeline, the coastal barrier is 10 to 15 years from becoming a reality. With the Houston-Galveston region a perennial target during the Atlantic hurricane season, there is a growing urgency to find a more expedient, cheaper solution.

The Galveston Bay Park Plan, first proposed by the Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the coastal spine, but adds a mid-bay barrier island system with a 25-foot wall that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney and co-director of the SSPEED Center, says the plan could provide vital protection a lot sooner than the coastal spine, but that it also could complement that barrier. He estimates that if allowed to use dredging spoils from the planned widening of the Houston Ship Channel to build the barrier islands, the project could be completed by 2027 at a fraction of the cost of the coastal spine — an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion.

“You have a coastal defense and that’s your first line of defense and then you come in with your in-bay defense, that is really the one that can protect against your bigger storms,” Blackburn said. “It’s very much almost like thinking in a military sense of how do you defend against an enemy invasion?”

See here and here for some background. I’m of the opinion that we just need to start building something, and that the price tag is a mirage, because the federal government can absolutely afford this. What we can’t afford is to sit around on our asses until the devastating storm we’ve been warned about for years comes and wipes our unprepared selves right off the map.

Coronavirus and hurricane shelters

Two things we have to be thinking about today.

Houston officials and public health experts are expressing concern that Tropical Storm Laura could amplify the spread of COVID-19 by displacing residents to public shelters or residences outside the area, increasing opportunities for transmission.

With that scenario in mind, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Sunday encouraged Houstonians to get tested for COVID-19 before the storm makes landfall. Forecasters have predicted it will come ashore late Wednesday or early Thursday, though the path remained uncertain by Monday evening.

Officials from Harris County and the American Red Cross began preparing for potential shelter needs months ago, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday. At Red Cross shelters, officials will provide face coverings, conduct health screenings and follow federal social distancing guidance, the organization announced in a news release. It also will operate more shelters with a reduced capacity in each.

“This is not a situation where we would have the same kind of shelters we’re used to, where it’s completely open space and no division between folks,” Hidalgo said.

Turner, who urged people to get tested on Monday or Tuesday, tweeted, “You need to know your status for yourself, family members and friends.”

[…]

Dr. Peter Hotez, an immunologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, said that while disaster officials may come up with creative solutions to help contain the spread of COVID, public shelters would be “a nightmare even under the best circumstances.”

The effect may be especially pronounced, Hotez said, because those most likely to seek shelter in a public setting come from low-income communities where people are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID due to the prevalence of underlying health conditions.

It also would be difficult for contact tracers to follow the spread of the virus during an evacuation, he said.

“If you think about it, without a vaccine, what do we have? We have masks, we have contact tracing and social distancing — which are not great, but it’s all we have,” Hotez said. “With a hurricane, we’ve knocked out two of our three pieces of artillery equipment.”

These are obviously not the best of circumstances. Tropical Storm Laura is now officially Hurricane Laura, and it’s already a pretty strong one. Jefferson County, Chambers County, Orange County, and Galveston County are under mandatory evacuation orders, with parts of Harris County issuing a recommendation that areas in the storm surge zone evacuate as well.

Harris County officials urged residents of some coastal areas to evacuate Tuesday as Hurricane Laura could strike the Houston region Wednesday evening.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a voluntary evacuation order Tuesday afternoon for zones A and B and urged residents to leave immediately. She warned of a storm surge of three to five feet and high winds that could knock out power.

“All of us need to be prepared for the very real potential of a direct hit from this storm,” Hidalgo said. “Of course, we hope for the best, but we don’t want to find ourselves unprepared for the worst case scenario.”

These zones include part or all of Deer Park, La Porte, League City, Friendswood, Seabrook, El Lago, Morgan’s Point and southeastern portions of the city of Houston.

[…]

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned residents of congested traffic on freeways heading away from the coast and urged non-evacuating residents to avoid traveling if possible. Residents in the evacuation zone should not delay, he stressed, because Laura could change course unexpectedly.

“At this point in time, if it veers further to the west and becomes more of a direct hit on Houston-Harris County, we don’t really have a lot of time,” Turner said.

The mayor urged residents to be prepared for extended power outages, and noted that some households were without electricity for two weeks after Hurricane Ike in 2008. He said people should be off the streets by 8 p.m. Wednesday, but stopped short of calling for a curfew.

Immediate safety concerns take precedence over more theoretical longer-term safety concerns. In the meantime, we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. As of last night, it looks like the worst will probably (though not 100%) miss Houston, but that means Beaumont and Port Arthur are directly in its crosshairs. We’re going to need to mobilize a strong response, because it’s going to be bad.

As a programming matter, it is certainly possible that power and/or Internet outages will have an effect on my publication schedule. That’s a pretty minor consideration, but I wanted to note it just in case. Stay safe, everyone.

Here comes Laura

Be prepared.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo urged residents to prepare for a hurricane as the track and intensity of Tropical Storm Laura remains uncertain.

She said the greatest threat posed by Laura likely would be high winds and a storm surge, and urged the public not to make comparisons to historical storms.

“This is not Harvey, this is not Imelda, this is not Allison. This is Laura,” Hidalgo said. “Every storm is different, and we urge folks not to use any prior storm as a template for what could or will happen.”

Laura is expected to strengthen to a hurricane Tuesday, possibly as strong as Category 2, before making landfall in southeast Texas or southwest Louisiana on Wednesday, the National Weather Service predicted Monday afternoon.

Hidalgo said residents should prepare hurricane kits and check which evacuation zone they live in.

The mayor of Port Arthur ordered an evacuation beginning Tuesday morning for the 55,000 residents of that city on the Texas-Louisiana border. City of Galveston leaders issued a voluntary evacuation for residents in low-lying areas and on the west end of the seawall.

Houston and Harris County have no present plans to order an evacuation. Hidalgo said residents in coastal areas should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, as an evacuation order likely would come sometime Tuesday.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said residents should be prepared for high traffic on freeways heading away from the coast. He asked residents to stay off the roads if possible to keep evacuation routes clear and secure anything outside their homes that could blow away in high winds.

Generally speaking, you run from flooding and you shelter from winds. Unless you’ve been told to evacuate, you should probably prepare to shelter in place. In the meantime, stay calm and check Space City Weather for the most up to date forecasts.

Revisiting the May elections

I’m ambivalent about this.

Most cities in Texas — from Galveston to Lubbock — moved their May elections to November under a pandemic-era decree by Gov. Greg Abbott.

But the choices facing voters will remain limited to candidates who filed for office months ago — at least for now.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton, a Galveston County Republican, wants to reopen the filing period for candidates to lead cities and other political jurisdictions, including school boards. He believes voters may have soured on incumbents facing little or no competition.

Middleton is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton whether the state should give candidates who want to run in a postponed local election until mid-August to file for a spot on the ballot.

“I think it’s also only fair that this occur because there are a lot of people that have been frankly unhappy with how some of the decisions… have been made in local government during this pandemic,” Middleton said.

The legal rub: Abbott’s March 18 order was silent on the filing deadline. But Abbott’s secretary of state, Ruth Hughs, wrote local officials that “the postponement does not have the effect of reopening candidate filings.”

Middleton believes that guidance is not supported by election law and Abbott’s order. Middleton, who chairs the arch-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, contends in his July 2 letter to Paxton that Texas law clearly states that if the election day is changed or moved, the filing period rolls forward with it.

He said the ripple effects of a legal opinion by Paxton go well beyond proving greater scrutiny for elected officials who have issued shutdown orders or mask requirements, which have drawn the ire of many conservatives. Some local officials believe that tax rates adopted by cities for the coming fiscal year could greatly exceed what voters have the appetite for amid curtailed local tax revenues due to the pandemic.

I mean, I don’t agree with Mayes Middleton on much, and I think his motives for this action are screwy. But I confess that a part of me thinks that an election held in November, even if it was supposed to have been held in May but had to be postponed for whatever reason, should have a filing deadline that’s standard for a November election. On the other hand, the original filing deadline for the May 2 elections was February 14, more than a month before Abbott’s order that rescheduled the thing. As such, it’s hard to argue that people may have been unfairly excluded from filing. Obviously, conditions have changed, and I think there’s a valid case to be made that if these elections had been scheduled for November in the first place, there would be a very different lineup for them than what exists now. I think you can also make a valid case that the voters have it in their power to persuade the candidates they do have to prioritize the things they want now, as opposed to the things they would have wanted then.

On the related question of whether we should have regular elections in May at all, I’m also ambivalent. No question, turnout would be much greater in November elections, and as a general principle I think that’s preferable. But November elections, especially November elections in even-numbered years, are full of races with a lot more money and noise-making ability, which combine to drown out whatever local issues would be heard in a quieter context. It would be so much better if people simply took a greater interest in their local and school board elections, so that they could be held at any time and didn’t need the boost of a Presidential or gubernatorial election to get even semi-decent participation. I’d like to have a robust debate about this, but I fear that only the hardcore, vote-in-every-election types would be tuned in for it, and that would miss the point entirely. I don’t know what else to say.

One more thing:

Republican Cheryl Johnson, the Galveston County tax assessor, wrote Paxton in support of Middleton’s position. She said the pandemic has “opened the eyes” of Texans to potential government overreach, namely local tax rates that could soar as cities try to bridge budget shortfalls. Johnson wants officials considering tax hikes to feel the pressure of a campaign challenge.

Johnson noted that Senate Bill 2, signed into law by Abbott during the 2019 legislative session, requires cities to receive voter approval before levying taxes that would result in collections 3.5 percent higher than the previous year. But the bill contains a disaster provision that permits a city to collect more than twice as much for at least two years if any part of the city is declared a disaster area during the current tax year.

State and local officials are at odds over whether the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a “disaster” to trigger this provision.

“I’m of the opinion that COVID-19 is not the type of disaster that would warrant the disaster provision of Senate Bill 2,” she said.

The Texas Municipal League says it conducted a survey of cities recently and found the “vast majority” plan to keep increased collections below the 3.5 percent threshold allowed by Senate Bill 2.

Yeah, sorry, if you don’t think what we’re in now counts as a “disaster”, then I’m afraid I just can’t take you seriously. SB2 was a terrible bill for many reasons, and this is one of them. But look, if you don’t want cities and counties to try to deal with their massive revenue shortfalls on their own, then there is a simple alternative, and that’s to push the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, which the House passed months ago, to provide fiscal relief to local governments for precisely this purpose. If you’re not down for that either, then I think we know all we need to know about your priorities.

Who gets to be on the I-45 panel?

I’m not thrilled about this.

Houston will have a say in a regional response to design differences in the planned widening of Interstate 45 within the city — and so will Sugar Land, Montgomery County and Waller County.

After voting last month to establish a working group focused on improving the plans by the Texas Department of Transportation for rebuilding I-45, members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council approved the members of the panel Friday over the objections of critics and Harris County officials.

“I do take exception that those who are going to be most impacted are not as represented,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

[…]

Houston, via a letter from Mayor Sylvester Turner to TxDOT officials, has sought changes to the project north of downtown to ease those effects. City officials want frontage roads in some areas eliminated or reduced to two lanes, and a greater reliance on transit instead of carpools by making the center lanes bus-only rather than HOV. TxDOT has said it is studying the proposal, but said that after years of discussion it is committed to moving its designs along to keep construction on track while addressing possible changes later.

Regional officials with the transportation council ultimately will decide whether $100 million or more of locally-controlled federal money is spent on the project as phases begin over the next five years, a sum that while small in comparison of the $7 billion-plus cost, significantly affects TxDOT’s ability to leverage state-controlled dollars. That leaves the council to support or not support the changes as a condition of its funding, or allow TxDOT to move forward with its own plans.

The 16-person working group approved Friday includes some Houston-centric officials — including At-Large Councilman David Robinson, Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman and Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther. Half of the members, however, hail from outside Harris County, including Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, Waller County Commissioner Justin Beckendorff and Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, chairman of the transportation council, said his aim in appointing people to the group was to reflect the entire region’s interest in the project.

“Their commuters are driving their freeway roads all over the place,” Clark said. “I thought it was important we had a group that had that … a critical working group if you will.”

Zimmerman, who last month argued Houston-area officials needed to put the project “in a positive light” noted that the regional body’s role was to reflect the entire eight-county area.

“The intent was to keep politics out of this,” Zimmerman said.

Critics, who have said for two years that their concerns have been heard by TxDOT with little progress toward resolving the issues, said a regional group that includes no members from the project area speaking directly for residents and neighborhoods indicates their concerns are being ignored.

“This proposal is inequitable and unacceptable,” said Jonathan Brooks, director of policy and planning for LINK Houston, a local advocacy group that has organized some of the opposition to the project.

First of all, you can never “keep the politics out” of an inherently political process. I cringe at this because the implication here, one that is widely made and shared, is that by keeping “politics” out of this process you are somehow keeping it “clean” and “fair”, because “politics” is dirty and tainted. But “politics”, as a process, is all about engaging communities and getting consensus. You can’t do that if key communities are being excluded while others that have a lesser stake in the outcome are given power over the process. The people whose homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and lives are going to be directly affected by the I-45 project need to have a seat at that table. It’s just wrong that they don’t.

Second, maybe the reason Houston-area officials haven’t been putting such a “positive light” on this project is because we don’t see it as being all that positive. Certainly, plenty of people who live in Houston don’t see it that way. Maybe the problem isn’t branding but the product itself.

And look, none of this would be a problem now if the people who will be the most affected by this project had truly been heard along the way. They’ve been airing the same complaints about the I-45 rebuild because so many of their key concerns are still there. You may say there’s no way to do this project without setting aside most of those concerns. We would say that’s exactly the problem, and should call into question the fundamental assumptions about this project in the first place. If you can’t do it without causing significant harm, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

Harris County issues school closure order

This was expected.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County and Houston health authorities on Friday ordered all public and non-religious private schools to delay opening for in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8 — a date likely to be extended unless the region sees a significant reduction in its COVID-19 outbreak.

Flanked by their respective health authorities, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the region’s novel coronavirus outlook appears too dire to allow the restart of face-to-face classes before Labor Day. Most Houston-area public school districts already had pushed back their in-person start dates to Sept. 8, though a few remained on track to hold on-campus classes in August.

“The last thing I want to do is shut down a brick-and-mortar representation of the American dream,” Hidalgo said Friday. “But right now, we’re guided by human life.”

With the decision, officials in all five of the state’s largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — have ordered the closure of public schools through at least Labor Day.

None of the Greater Houston region’s other large counties — Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria and Galveston — have issued closure orders. However, Montgomery County public health officials recommended this week that their school districts delay their start dates or remain online-only through Labor Day.

The Harris County order comes four days after Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah issued a non-binding recommendation that campuses stay closed until October at the earliest. While county and city officials held off Friday on mandating closures through September, Hidalgo said reopening buildings immediately after Labor Day “is still likely too soon.”

County and city officials said they will need to see a significant decrease in multiple measures, including case counts, rate of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths, before they OK the reopening of campuses. Local health officials, however, have not set specific COVID-19 outbreak benchmarks that must be met.

“If we want our schools to reopen quicker in person, it’s going to take all of us pulling together to do that,” Shah said.

See here for the background. This was done in part so that HISD would be in compliance with the TEA’s current guidelines. We all want our kids to get back to school in a safe manner as quickly as possible. That means not flattening but crushing the curve, getting coronavirus infections way down to much more manageable levels. We have the month of August to make that happen. Are we going to take this seriously – face masking, social distancing, self-quarantining as needed – or not? The choice is ours.

How bad is it going to get in Houston?

I’m worried, y’all.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Texas continued to reach record highs over the weekend while new cases also climbed in the Houston area.

The new figures come as County Judge Lina Hidalgo and leaders in other urbanized counties have issued orders mandating that businesses require customers wear face masks. Hidalgo’s order goes into effect Monday, though the latest local trends indicate masks “won’t be enough,” said vaccine researcher Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

“My observations if this trajectory persists: 1) Houston would become the worst affected city in the US, maybe rival what we’re seeing now in Brazil 2) The masks = good 1st step but simply won’t be enough 3) We would need to proceed to red alert,” Hotez said Saturday on Twitter.

[…]

Texas on Sunday reported a 5 percent increase in hospitalizations, bringing the cumulative total to a record 3,409 patients — a figure that has more than doubled since Memorial Day. Also on Sunday, a batch of 2,726 new cases became the sixth-highest single-day increase in Texas, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis. Over the previous two days, the state reported its largest and third-largest single day increases, respectively.

The Houston region has experienced a similar trend with rising case figures. Houston Chronicle data shows that Harris County is averaging 610 new cases per day over the last week, compared to 313 new cases per day the previous week.

That’s also more than triple where we were in May. The new face mask order should help, but we may need to go into lockdown again. What are the odds Greg Abbott will acknowledge that? Even if he did, would people be willing to go along with it? This was the problem with “reopening” when we did and the way we did. We didn’t have the pandemic under control. We were moving in the right direction, but we weren’t there yet. And now we’re worse off than we were before. Who could have seen this coming?

There’s also this:

Hidalgo noted an increase in county hospitalizations last week when she issued her face covering order. Leaders of other Houston area counties continue to stay away from similar measures, despite concern from local health officials.

“Galveston County will not be issuing such an order,” Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said Sunday in a lengthy Facebook post. “Individuals and businesses need to take personal responsibility in following the recommended best practices in slowing the spread of COVID-19… If you find that a business doesn’t appear to have taken steps that have been recommended in Governor Abbott’s reopening plan, then don’t reward them by doing business with them. It’s that simple.”

Galveston County reported its highest single-day case increase on Saturday with 142 new cases, followed by 83 new cases on Sunday. More than half of its new cases have been reported after June 1, health officials say.

In a news release, the Galveston County Health Department said the “alarming” increase is related to a lack of social distancing, not wearing face coverings and spreading the virus in families and households.

“Galveston County is at a critical juncture,” the release said, adding, “The health district strongly recommends Galveston County businesses require patrons and employees to wear a face covering, and to make face coverings available for those customers who do not have one.”

Brazoria County also has seen a major uptick in new cases, reporting three of its largest single-day increases over the last four days. Health officials reported 52 new cases on Sunday, bringing the overall total there to 1,215.

Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta as of Sunday had not issued a mandatory mask order for businesses.

We went through this back in March, too, where suburban areas around big urban centers had a very different response to the early stages of the pandemic. Please tell me we’ve learned something since then.

But don’t worry. Greg Abbott is right on it.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday struck a newly urgent tone about rising coronavirus numbers in Texas but said “closing down Texas again will always be the last option.”

“To state the obvious, COVID-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas and it must be corralled,” Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol in Austin.

However, he stopped short of introducing any new policies or pulling back on the reopening of Texas businesses, instead emphasizing long-established voluntary guidelines encouraging people to stay home if they can, use hand sanitizer, keep six feet of distance with others and, if they cannot, wear a mask. He also promised Texas has strategies to address the rising numbers “without having to return to stay-at-home policies.”

Those strategies include stepping up enforcement of current guidelines in places like bars where large crowds have gathered, “surging testing in areas that may be hotspots” and working with hospitals to ensure they have capacity for coronavirus patients. He continued to describe hospital capacity as “abundant.”

At the same time, Abbott held open the possibility that Texans could see new restrictions to get the virus under control. He said so while speaking in front of three poster boards showing the rapid rise of daily new cases, hospitalizations and the positivity rate, or the ratio of confirmed cases to tests.

“In each of these three categories, there’s been pretty much a doubling of the numbers in those three categories,” Abbott said. “If we were to experience another doubling of those numbers over the next month, that would mean we are in an urgent situation where tougher actions will be required.”

[…]

At the same time, Abbott continued to resist the idea of a statewide mask mandate, saying there needs to be flexibility for different parts of the vast state. He has restricted local governments from mandating individuals wear masks but recently clarified that they can order business to requires customers to wear masks.

Whatever. You had your chance to allow local governments to enforce your own orders, and you blew it. We’re still cleaning up after that. See Zeach Despart on Twitter for more.

Reopening the beaches

Galveston has opened its beaches again.

Galveston beaches were reopened to pedestrians Monday from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. after being closed for nearly a month due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. The Galveston City Council voted 4-3 on the partial reopening on April 23, allowing people to surf, swim, fish and access the jetties during these hours. The beaches will remain closed all other hours. Vehicular traffic and the setting up of chairs, tents or beach picnics will still be prohibited, with beachgoers required to maintain at least 6 feet of social distancing.

Ever since the city of Galveston closed its beaches on March 29, many residents have complained about no longer having a vital outdoor recreational space, especially since the city also shut down local parks and playgrounds in an effort to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. The fact that the city acted to close beaches independent of coastline managed by Galveston County or other localities like Jamaica Beach created scenarios where Galveston residents who wanted a day of surf and sand could still hop the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula or drive across San Luis Pass to Brazoria County, where beaches also remained open.

The staggered beach openings came to a head on Saturday and Sunday, when traffic for the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula extended from the ferry landing all the way to the seawall and peninsula beaches were significantly more crowded as a result.

Darrell Apffel, a Galveston County commissioner whose precinct includes Bolivar Peninsula, said local law enforcement had eight two-person teams patrolling the peninsula and enforcing social distancing. He said he was not concerned about keeping peninsula beaches open while Galveston beaches are closed because law-enforcement officers are well- equipped to handle crowd control on beaches.

“These large crowds are still not to the tune of Jeep Weekend or Memorial Day,” Apffel said. “They’re large crowds in the sense that people got out and enjoyed the beautiful weather.”

You can get a peek at what Bolivar looks like here. As with eating in restaurants, I’m not ready to hit the sands any time soon. However, I have sympathy for the people who want the outdoors outlet, especially if other parks are closed at this time. Henry Grabar makes the case for beaches as a low-risk way to let people be outside again, with the mental and physical health benefits that brings.

Until we are able to halt widespread community transmission and begin testing and contact tracing, it’s too soon to “reopen” the economy in the way Donald Trump envisions. But we can get more Americans—and even businesses—safely outdoors.

Those Florida beaches aren’t so different from Central and Prospect parks in New York City. Frederick Law Olmsted’s two “green lungs,” the American city’s quintessential public health infrastructure, are offering New Yorkers critical physical and mental respite during their city’s darkest hour. And why not?

“I would not worry about walking by someone,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University. “Even in a health care setting, contact is defined by being near someone for a certain amount of time. I would not worry about these fleeting encounters. The virus isn’t airborne—droplets need to get from one person to another.”

The issue, Adalja added, is that beaches tend to be places where people don’t keep their distance. Any additional open spaces where people interact even in passing, he added, create the potential for new cases.

But what little we know about the coronavirus suggests you have little to fear from brief encounters with other human beings outside. Dr. Edward Nardell, an airborne-infection specialist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said outdoor transmission was “possible but improbable.”

“It bugs me to see these restrictions on people being outside,” Nardell said. “Mental health means something as well, and I can’t imagine you’re in a better place than outside if you’re going to have any contact anywhere.” Nardell, who survived a recent battle with COVID-19, said that if he were in Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s shoes, he would go ahead with opening the state’s beaches—but with strong signage reminding people to keep their distance and under park ranger supervision.

Nardell’s colleague Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist, wrote a more general case for public spaces in the Washington Post last week.* “Closing parks and public gardens should be a temporary, last-resort measure for disease control,” he and his co-authors wrote. “The science could not be clearer: The benefits of getting outside vastly outweigh the risk of getting infected in a park.” Wear a mask, keep your distance, have a ball.

Grabar spoke about this and added some more data on a recent episode of The Gist. What stood out to me was his statement that contact tracers basically ignore people’s encounters with passersby on the streets, in part because they have no way of tracking them down short of ubiquitous cellphone location tracking, and in part because they deem the risk of transmission to be negligible. As I said, it’s not for me at this time, but I buy the idea that this is worthwhile, as long as social distancing is still being observed.

Driving may be down, but traffic fatalities are not down as much

It’s a bit of a conundrum.

I don’t miss this

COVID-19 can keep millions of Texans at home and cut vehicle travel roughly in half in many cities, but cannot keep hundreds from dying on state roads — continuing a stubborn trend of carnage unabated for nearly two decades.

With many reports likely still finding their way into the state’s crash recording system maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation, police last month logged at least 241 fatalities on state roads as of Monday. That is a decline of 21 percent from the 305 in March 2019, at a time when people are driving only about half as many miles.

“I would have expected the number to go down more,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said. “But we tend to have a bad driving culture in our region and less traffic doesn’t mean safer drivers are out, sadly. We still see people taking unnecessary trips, and the fact we are still seeing high numbers (of fatalities) is worrisome.”

In Harris County, 32 people died on roadways last month, 14 more than killed by the new coronavirus, based on crash reports to the Texas Department of Transportation and health department statistics.

As is typical, most deaths occurred in urban counties, according to the tallies to date. Dallas County, which reported 29 fatalities, surpassed its 2018 and 2019 totals for the month. Harris County’s 32 reported deaths was more than the 31 in March 2018, but below the 37 in the same month last year. The five deaths so far in Galveston County represent increases over March totals in 2018 and 2019.

[…]

Among those deaths, pedestrians are becoming a larger share, with both Harris County and Bexar County surpassing 2018 and 2019 deaths for March. In Harris County, the 11 pedestrian deaths reported is four more than March 2019, something Gonzalez attributed potentially to bad habits along mostly desolate roads.

“Everybody that takes to the roadways thinks there is nobody out there and there are bicyclists and pedestrians,” he said.

Crashes overall, however, have declined for the Harris County sheriff’s department, internal department statistics show. The previous two Marches, the agency responded to 3,035 and 2,574 crashes. Last month, deputies handled 1,725.

Freed from stop-and-go traffic, Gonzalez said he worries speed — already a major problem along Houston area roads and a contributing factor to crashes — is worsening.

“Some of the habits do not break whether there is a pandemic or not,” the sheriff said.

See here for some background. I too would assume that fewer vehicles on the road means the ones that are out there are driving faster than usual, because that’s what we do. I’ve taken advantage of the lesser traffic to let my elder daughter do some driving practice, and many cars whiz past us on the highways; to be fair, my daughter likes to stick to the speed limit, which as we know is for chumps in this town. It would be nice if we could reap the full benefit of fewer cars on the road, but it’s clearly not realistic.

That was a statewide stay-at-home order

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

Be like Hank, except inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Younger people get coronavirus, too

Because that’s how viruses work.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the H-GAC region

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

Austin County says the following on its website:

UPDATE 02.24.2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s up, Waller County?

Meet the lone holdout county in the Houston area.

Trey Duhon

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

Many of Texas’ biggest cities and counties are ordering residents to shelter in place whenever possible.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on Monday evening ordered residents to stay in their homes as the state grapples with the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. The move came one day after Dallas County issued a similar order. Meanwhile, the Austin City Council and Travis County will team up Tuesday to issue a stay-at-home decree, Austin Mayor Steve Adler told The Texas Tribune on Monday. And Fort Worth city officials said Mayor Betsy Price and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley will do the same at a Tuesday morning press conference.

By lunchtime Tuesday, residents in at least four of the state’s five biggest cities are expected to be under such orders. The only possible holdout is Houston, the state’s most populous city, which hasn’t publicly announced any plans. But the Houston Chronicle has reported Harris County officials began drafting a shelter-in-place order over the weekend.

“Our message is simple: You must stay at home,” Nirenberg said at a press conference in San Antonio on Monday evening. “The best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus is through strict social distancing.”

San Antonio’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order is effective 11:59 p.m. Tuesday through 11:59 p.m. April 9.

You can add in Galveston County and some other places as well. If Greg Abbott isn’t going to do it, then it looks like everyone else will. As for Houston, here’s that Chron story:

Harris County officials over the weekend began drafting an order to place further restrictions on public activity in order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to sources with direct knowledge of the discussions.

Doctors and health experts across the country have said such orders are necessary to prevent COVID-19 from spreading so rapidly that it overwhelms the nation’s health care system. Texas Medical Center president and CEO William McKeon said Monday morning the presidents of TMC hospitals and other institutions were “unanimous in our strong recommendation to move to shelter in place.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference Monday morning “it may be that we issue a stay-at-home order or something of the sort.” She said county officials are still assessing whether to do so, and seeking the advice of other local leaders including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner are holding a joint press conference with local health leaders this morning “for a COVID-19 related announcement”, which sure sounds like the prelude to a shelter-in-place announcement, but we’ll see.

What this means is that most businesses are ordered to shutter, minus “essential services” like grocery stores, pharmacies, and of course health care facilities. You’re either working from home, or you’re on a break, likely for two weeks initially (what Bexar County ordered), though it could get extended. You can go outside to exercise as long as you maintain social distancing, and there may be civil enforcement for violations. I’m making some assumptions here – who knows, maybe Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner have something else to say, though I can hardly imagine what it could be – but this is what we have seen in cities that have already gone down this road. So, on the likelihood that this is what’s in store, get ready to hunker down a little harder. It’s what everyone thinks is our best hope right now.

UPDATE: The shelter in place order for Harris County is now in effect, effective tonight at midnight through April 3.

Primary precinct analysis: Who did what in the RRC race

The Railroad Commissioner primary was a bit like the Senate primary – multiple candidates (though not nearly as many), not a whole lot of money, but the candidate who did best in fundraising was also the leading votegetter. Here’s a look at the top 25 counties in terms of votes cast for the Railroad Commissioner’s race:


County    ALONZO   CASTAÑEDA    STONE   WATSON      Total
=========================================================
All        503,666   592,770  380,236  277,578  1,754,250
HARRIS      77,618    85,166   59,552   40,428    262,764
DALLAS      56,824    57,822   48,718   36,255    199,619
TRAVIS      30,199    97,284   37,641   20,290    185,414
BEXAR       50,228    62,708   22,880   16,583    152,399
TARRANT     35,318    36,767   28,238   25,021    125,344
COLLIN      15,227    22,793   18,487    9,250     65,757
EL PASO     25,353    21,426    6,750    7,065     60,594
FORT BEND   12,550    14,895   16,826   12,685     56,956
DENTON      10,804    21,541   14,966    6,851     54,162
WILLIAMSON  11,031    19,375   10,852    9,924     51,182
HIDALGO     24,057    15,382    6,617    3,699     49,755
CAMERON     11,849     9,267    3,691    3,558     28,365
WEBB        13,080     7,841    2,455    1,850     25,226
HAYS         5,161     6,451    6,152    4,059     21,823
MONTGOMERY   4,820     5,963    5,248    3,898     19,929
NUECES       7,364     5,914    3,146    2,424     18,848
BRAZORIA     4,643     4,659    4,961    4,502     18,765
GALVESTON    4,020     5,225    4,914    3,127     17,286
BELL         4,818     4,619    4,056    3,577     17,070
JEFFERSON    4,640     3,132    3,704    4,813     16,289
LUBBOCK      3,462     3,858    2,741    2,081     12,142
MCLENNAN     2,308     3,078    3,623    2,290     11,299
SMITH        2,536     2,512    2,466    2,985     10,499
BRAZOS       3,000     3,429    2,571    1,488     10,488
ELLIS        2,524     2,266    2,410    1,737      8,937

Chrysta Castañeda

Chrysta Castaneda, who led the pack with nearly 34% of the total vote, also led the way in 13 of these 25 counties, including the top six and eight of the top ten. That’s a pretty good recipe for success in the runoff as well. She led in Dallas County, which is the home of runnerup Roberto Alonzo, who represented a State House district in Dallas County for 26 years. Alonzo led in the five big predominantly Latino counties – El Paso, Hidalgo, Cameron, Webb, and Nueces – plus Bell and Ellis Counties. Castaneda leads Alonzo by five points going into the runoff, which is hardly insurmountable, and other than Travis County her lead over him in the biggest counties was small. I feel like Castaneda’s big lead in Travis County is a significant advantage for her for the runoff. It’s hard to project anything based on past primary runoffs because the data set is so small, but given that there will be a Senate runoff as well, and given that Travis County was also a strong performer for MJ Hegar, it could deliver a decent margin for Castaneda in May. If that happens, it may be hard for Alonzo to make up the ground elsewhere.

Of the other candidates, Kelly Stone led in Fort Bend, Brazoria, and McLennan Counties, while Mark Watson topped the field in Smith and Jefferson. There’s another similarity to the Senate race – everyone got to be a leader of the pack. I have no idea how their voters might go in the runoff – neither has made any endorsement, as far as I can tell, and in all honesty that likely would be just a marginal factor. Turnout always drops quite a bit in primary runoffs, and with the coronavirus situation happening now, who knows what effect that may have. I see Castaneda as the solid favorite in this race, but Alonzo can pull it off if he can get his own message out.

Primary precinct analysis: Everyone did something in the Senate primary

MJ Hegar

So while we wait for actual precinct data from the primary, I thought I’d take a look at some county-level data from the non-Presidential races, as they have the county-by-county breakdown on the SOS election night pages. The US Senate primary, with its twelve candidates overall and five topping ten percent seemed like a good spot to do a deeper dive. The main problem is just presenting that much data, as my usual style of doing a table of numbers isn’t going to work well – it’ll be much too crowded and will be hard to spot the interesting bits. So what I thought I’d try was to focus on the counties with the most voters, and to see who did the best in them. I put everything in a spreadsheet, and sorted by total number of voters for each county. I settled on the top thirty to report on, which gave me a good geographic spread and included some big counties that don’t have many Democrats and some smaller counties where nearly everyone voted Democratic. From there, I pulled out the five top performers in each county, to see what story that could tell me.

Rather than try to present that in some form of table here, which would have taken a lot of tedious text formatting on my part, I just put the result into its own spreadsheet, which you can see here. For each of these counties, I reported the top five candidates and gave their vote totals and vote percentage. The top five performers change from one county to the next, so the five selected are listed above each county’s numbers. I think it makes sense, but have a look and let me know if it’s confusing. I’m now going to summarize what I found from this exercise.

MJ Hegar finished first 15 times and second seven times. Only in Webb and Maverick counties did she not finish in the top five. She was especially strong in the Central Texas area as expected, but also finished first in places like Harris, Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, and Montgomery. To me, her performance versus everyone else’s is the difference between having a campaign that has sufficient funding to actually do advertising and other voter outreach, and not having it.

Sen. Royce West

Royce West finished first five times and second four times. He finished outside the top five ten times, including in such large counties as Bexar and El Paso. He won big in Dallas and won Tarrant, but he trailed Hegar in Collin and Denton and finished fifth in Travis. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what his path to winning the runoff is.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez had five firsts (Bexar, El Paso, Cameron, Nueces, Brazos) and five seconds (Travis, Webb, Guadalupe, Maverick, Bastrop), but finished outside the top five ten times, including in places like Harris and Hidalgo where you’d think she’d have done better. She finished behind Sema Hernandez at least nine times, and behind Annie Garcia at least ten times. (I say “at least” because there were a few instances in which neither was in the top five, and I didn’t go back to see where they fell.) I thought Tzintzún Ramirez had the potential to be a force, and I still hope she runs for something in the future, but someone who can’t consistently top no-money, no-organization candidates like those two is not exactly encouraging. Tzintzún Ramirez was the Bernie candidate, and you have to ask what good that did her. Actually, if you’re a Bernie person, you really should ask why it is that the larger Bernie movement didn’t provide any noticeable fundraising support for her, and clearly didn’t give her much of a boost in the polls. If you want to see candidates like that actually win races, you really ought to think about those questions. She has endorsed Royce West in the runoff, but I’m not sure how much that will matter.

Did I mention that Annie Garcia, a candidate who had raised less than $22K as of February 12, finished fourth in this race, ahead of people who had run and won elections before like Chris Bell and Amanda Edwards? I have to think that being called “Annie ‘Mama’ Garcia” on the ballot probably helped her in places where people didn’t know that much about the slate. It also makes me wonder why she got to be “Mama” but Carole Keeton Strayhorn didn’t get to be “Grandma”. What exactly are the rules for that, anyway? Be that as it may, Garcia won Webb, Lubbock, and Maverick counties, while finishing second in El Paso, Williamson, Cameron, Hays, and Nueces. She finished in the money in 22 of the 30 counties, more than either West or Tzintzún Ramirez. If you had bet me that a month ago, you would have won my money.

Sema Hernandez won Hidalgo County and Chris Bell won Brazoria, so there are all your first place winners. Hernandez, for those few people who insisted her showing in 2018 made her a legitimate candidate this time around despite raising even less money than Garcia and failing to file any finance reports until Q3 this year, shows up in 18 of these 30 counties, but was mostly shut out of the top ten, finishing fifth in Harris, fifth in Bexar, and fourth in El Paso, failing to break ten percent in any of them. She did finish second in Brazoria County, while Bell was runnerup in Harris, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Lubbock. Amanda Edwards (Montgomery, Bell, Comal) and Michael Cooper (Jefferson) also had second place finishes. Edwards had ten third-place finishes, three fourths, and four fifths, while Cooper also finished fourth in Webb and Maverick, and fifth in Smith.

So that’s six candidates with at least one first place finish, and eight with at least one first or second place finish. Believe it or not, the other four candidates – go ahead, name them right now, I double dog dare you – also had at least one top five finish:

Victor Harris – Hidalgo County, third
Adrian Ocegueda – Cameron County, fifth
D.R. Hunter – Nueces County, fifth
Jack Daniel Foster – Maverick County, fifth

Let’s just say we’ll probably never have an election quite like this one again. I’ll have more of this analysis/trivia for you in the coming days. I’m still waiting for a canvass from Harris County.

Primary early voting: Comparing 2020 to 2016

The Chron looks into the early voting numbers around the state.

Experts cautioned that early voting data should be taken with a grain of salt — for one because the subset of people who vote early aren’t necessarily representative of the entire state.

Texans who vote early tend to be older, economically well-off and better educated and tend to live in urban and suburban areas as opposed to rural ones, according to a 2010 study by Austin Community College.

A lot could change by Super Tuesday, March 3 — in particular how South Carolina’s primary on Saturday might affect undecided Democratic voters in Texas. An untold number of Texans declined to vote early as they held out for those results; others who may not have voted otherwise may be spurred into action by a shift in the race.

“Let’s put it this way: So much happens every day in politics, voters want to wait until the last minute to decide,” Rottinghaus said. “So we could see turnout bigger on election day because you’re going to see more things happen between the end of early voting and election day.”

Voting has also become more accessible for a wider swath of Texans after four of the top five largest counties in 2019, including Harris and Bexar, moved to allow countywide vote centers, meaning polling places are open to all voters no matter where they live. That switch could also boost turnout.

Republican strategist Derek Ryan said the high numbers of voters casting Republican ballots early surprised him, especially with a noncompetitive presidential primary.

“There isn’t really anything necessarily motivating people at the top of the ticket,” Ryan said. “But turnout right now on the Republican side is above what it was in 2008 and 2012. It’s actually closer to what turnout was at this point in 2016 with a contested presidential primary.”

Ryan said he attributes that to the strength of Trump supporters who are “trying to send a message that they’re behind him,” as well as the number of competitive congressional races across the state.

While Democrats’ numbers are high, Ryan said he expected to see the presidential race propel even greater turnout, and he noted that they are still nowhere near the explosive turnout of 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were going head-to-head for the presidential nomination. That year, turnout in the primary was at about 23 percent for Democrats, with 2.8 million casting ballots, compared to about 11 percent for Republicans, or 1.3 million votes.

Rottinghaus, however, said that year may not be the best comparison point, considering that an unknown number of Republicans were said to have voted in the Democratic open primary as part of “Operation Chaos” to hurt Obama’s chances. Obama and Clinton were also much different candidates, both very well-known and with strong establishment support, compared with the assortment of candidates available to 2020 voters, he said.

With all due respect, I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in a 2010 study of early voting patterns, as we’ve had quite a bit more data since then. Remember, in the November 2008 election, projections of final turnout in Harris County and statewide were wildly optimistic because early voting wound up being a much bigger percentage of final turnout than expected, and that was because we had been used to it being a small share of the electorate. That’s no longer the case, though as we’ve discussed here which type of election it is factors greatly into the calculation. I would expect that a 2020 version of that 2010 study would find different patterns now.

As for the claims about Republican voting in the 2008 Democratic primary, surely by now we can approach a more objective answer to this question. How many people who had a previous Republican primary history but voted Democratic in 2008 then went on to vote in the Republican primary again, in 2010 or 2012? My guess is that it’s a relatively small number, but my point is that someone can actually calculate that number, so no one has to guess any more. In his final email on the primary early vote, Derek Ryan takes a crack at it. I think there’s still work to be done there, but at least he made the attempt, which I appreciate.

We know two things going into Tuesday. One is that overall, nearly as many people voted in the Democratic primary as the Republican primary: 1,085,144 on the Republican side and 1,000,288 Democratic, in each case with a few small counties not having reported yet. And two, where each party’s votes come from is very different.

Let’s take a closer look at that latter statement. Here’s how the top 15 counties performed in 2020 primary early voting:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      104,787     139,256
Dallas       40,996      94,048
Tarrant      68,485      69,508
Bexar        47,101      90,162
Travis       22,901     108,721
Collin       41,400      40,664
Denton       41,366      33,672
El Paso       9,119      33,071
Fort Bend    37,812      34,146
Hidalgo       7,093      46,327
Williamson   23,555      29,621
Montgomery   35,936      10,673

Total       480,551     729,869

Democrats got 73.0% of their total early vote from these big 15 counties. For Republicans, it was 44.3% from the big 15. That’s a significant difference, and I’d say a continuation of the trends we saw that began in 2016 and really blossomed in 2018 where the vote shifted very heavily in the cities and suburbs towards Democrats and in the rural areas towards Republicans. We don’t have early voting information for the other counties in 2016 so we can’t say how big this effect is for the primaries, but we certainly saw it in action in November of 2018.

Now here are the same top 15 counties in 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Harris      131,145      85,793
Dallas       64,274      57,436
Tarrant      95,088      44,308
Bexar        61,139      54,651
Travis       32,350      61,014
Collin       59,739      17,662
Denton       46,298      13,420
El Paso       8,242      17,799
Fort Bend    28,999      14,518
Hidalgo       9,542      43,458
Williamson   31,745      12,981
Montgomery   41,491       4,606

Total       610,052     427,946

It’s important to remember that Republican primary turnout in 2016 was 2.8 million, and for Democrats it was 1.4 million, so we should expect to see bigger Republican totals in almost any subgroup from 2016. To me, the most interesting bit is the big increases in Democratic early voting numbers in Tarrant and the big, historically red suburbs. I would not call what we are seeing here as a clear indicator of continued Democratic growth in these places, but it sure beats the alternative of being stagnant from 2016. I’ll take a much closer look at these numbers after the election.

For grins, I looked at nine more counties, mostly larger, mostly Republican though Dems made gains in 2016 and especially 2018. Many of these feature at least one competitive State House race for November. Here are the EV numbers for these counties in 2020:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     24,318      10,163
Nueces        7,865       9,531
Bell         10,964       7,668
Lubbock      18,848       7,047
McLennan     11,430       5,213
Hays          9,315      12,818
Brazos        8,333       4,571
Comal        12,156       4,879
Guadalupe     9,759       4,356

Total       112,988      66,246

Here are those same counties from 2016:


County   Republican  Democratic
===============================
Brazoria     18,313       4,882
Nueces       11,234      11,344
Bell         14,398       3,554
Lubbock      22,919       5,120
McLennan     12,282       2,624
Hays          9,213       6,629
Brazos        9,535       2,328
Comal        13,067       2,370
Guadalupe     8,704       2,321

Total       119,665      41,172

Again, some growth on the Democratic side, with a small decline for Republicans, as before with the caveat about overall turnout. I don’t really have a point to make here, I just got curious and wanted to see this for myself. If nothing else, it’s given me some things to look at again once all the voting is over.

2020 Primary Early Voting begins today

We don’t have a long primary season in Texas – the filing deadline was barely two months ago, though to be sure some candidates have been running for much longer than that – and the first part of it is drawing to a close, as early voting officially begins today. For those of you in Harris County, you can find the schedule and locations here. Please be aware that there are new locations, and some old locations are no longer in use. For example, if you live in the Heights area, the SPJST Lodge location is not being used any more, but Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church (Room 106) at 2025 West 11th Street is available. You can find a map and get directions to any location here. There are 52 early voting locations in the county, every one open from 7 AM to 7 PM each day except this Sunday (1 to 6 PM as usual for Sundays) through next Friday, the 28th. You have plenty of time, so be sure to go vote.

For other counties:

Fort Bend
Montgomery
Brazoria
Galveston
Waller

This Chron story has the basic facts about voting – if you’ve done this before it’s nothing new, but if you know a newbie, it would help them.

Also new, here in Harris County: Virtual translators.

Harris County residents who primarily speak Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese or 26 other languages now will have access to a virtual translator at the polls, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced Friday, part of a series of initiatives aimed at improving the county’s voter participation rate.

In a nod to Harris County’s diversity — more than a third of its 4.7 million residents are native speakers of a language other than English — elected officials want to eliminate communication barriers at voting sites.

“With this innovative technology, interpreters can communicate with the voter and poll worker in real time via video chat to make the voting process easier and more accessible,” Trautman said.

Flanked by county Elections Director Michael Winn, Trautman offered a demonstration of the machines at the West Gray Multi-Service Center. The tablet devices, which previously stored electronic poll books and were set to be discarded, allow a poll worker to make a video conference call to a translator in the desired language. The translator then can help the poll worker and voter communicate.

[…]

Trautman said the virtual translators will be available at all 52 early voting locations for the March primary elections.

Dozens of Korean-speaking voters were frustrated when then-County Clerk Stan Stanart barred translators from operating inside a Spring Branch polling site in 2018. Stanart said he had to follow the Texas Election Code, which limits who can operate inside a 100-foot buffer zone at polling places.

Korean American Voters League President Hyunja Norman, who helped organize the Spring Branch voters, welcomed the virtual translation devices.

“I think they can be very beneficial,” she said. “Still, the human factor cannot be ignored.”

Norman said many of the Korean-American residents in Houston who need language assistance are elderly immigrants who are new to voting and often intimidated by technology. She said she still would like to see real-life translators gain more access to polling sites.

Pretty cool. And if I’m reading this correctly, the virtual translator will be working with a poll worker at the site, so there will be some human involvement. Hopefully this will help the folks who need it.

I’ve talked about turnout before, and as is my habit I will be following the daily EV reports to see how that is progressing. I have the daily EV reports from other years to serve as points of comparison: 2012, 2016, and 2018. Sadly, I don’t have a daily report from 2008 – looking back at my posts from then, I made the rookie mistake of linking to the report on the County Clerk website, which was the same generic URL each day. Alas. Here’s my blog post after the last day of early voting, and here’s the cumulative report from the Dem primary. Note that back in those early days of early voting, most people still voted on Election Day. For the 2008 Dem primary, there were 170K early in person votes (plu 9K mail ballots), and 410K total votes. That’s one reason why the subsequent predictions about November turnout were so off the charts – in November, unlike in March that year, a large majority of the vote was early, which is the norm now in even-numbered years. But because we had been used to less than half of the vote being early up to that point, we way over-estimated the November numbers. We have a better handle on things now.

So that’s the story. I’ll aim to post daily updates, which will depend to some extent on when I get the reports. When are you planning to vote?

Galveston ordered to provide counsel at bail hearings

Sure seems like the proper thing to do.

Add Galveston to the list of Texas counties that have been court ordered to change their bail practices.

A federal district judge on Wednesday issued a temporary injunction in a 2018 lawsuit where attorneys for inmates have called Galveston County’s money bail system discriminatory against poor criminal defendants. The court’s order doesn’t target the entire pretrial system — which has largely changed since the suit was filed after federal rulings against Harris County. But it requires poor arrestees to have a lawyer at their first court appearance, where their bail is set to determine the monetary or other conditions under which an arrestee can be released from jail before trial.

The ACLU of Texas, which represents Galveston County inmates in the lawsuit, said in a statement after the order that it was the first court in the country to conclude that the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a right to counsel, requires defense attorneys to be provided at initial bail-setting hearings.

“It’s a matter of basic fairness that you should get a lawyer before a judge decides whether to lock you in jail,” said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Unsurprisingly, without lawyers to advocate for their release, many people wind up in jail who shouldn’t be there. And even a short time in jail can have devastating repercussions on someone’s life.”

[…]

Since the lawsuit was filed — and as the two most populous counties in the state were repeatedly slammed by federal judges for their bail practices — Galveston County has transformed its pretrial practices. The district attorney’s office still recommends bail amounts from a schedule, but the judicial officer setting bail now has financial information the defendant provided before the first court appearance. Defendants who want to request a lower bond amount for financial reasons can get a second bail review hearing, typically within 12 hours of their first court appearance, where a defense attorney is present to represent all the defendants before the judge in that time slot.

U.S. District Judge George Hanks Jr.’s injunction, however, said the county needs to have a lawyer not just at the review hearings, but at the initial court appearance. He clarified that the order applies to those arrested without warrants and that are first seen in court through Galveston County jail. Hanks adopted the recommendation of magistrate judge Andrew Edison, who said having a defense attorney at a hearing where the court determines how, if at all, to release a defendant before trial, is “a no-brainer.”

See here and here for the background. A copy of the ruling is here and a copy of the magistrate’s recommendations is here. I have to say, I don’t know what the argument against providing an attorney for defendants at bail hearings is, but we’ll find out if there’s an appeal. The Chron has more.

The Harris County bail lawsuit effect on Dallas County

The Trib looks to see if the recent Harris County bail lawsuit settlement might affect the bail lawsuit in Dallas County.

“Anytime one county settles, it could possibly provide a roadmap for another county, but I can’t say that it will,” said Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, whose county’s bail practices have also been slammed by a federal judge. “The landscape of this lawsuit is different.”

A big piece of that is because Dallas’ lawsuit, like another in Harris and one in Galveston, targets bail practices not only for misdemeanor defendants, but for felony cases, too.

[…]

“I’ve been studying very closely what’s happening in Harris County, and I think that it’s a step in the right direction and something that we should … modify or use as a blueprint for felony cases,” said State District Court Judge Brandon Birmingham, a Democrat and defendant in Dallas’ lawsuit. He was especially interested in the idea of an open-hours court.

Adding felonies to the lawsuit against bail practices in Dallas brought a new complication, however. The judges work for the state, not the county, and are being represented by the Texas attorney general’s office, which claims they have no jurisdiction over early bail decisions. County officials, who are largely Democratic, have said the attorney general’s office, run by Republican Ken Paxton, has stalled settlement talks and reform efforts.

“The fact that felony judges are part of the lawsuit complicates resolution,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat. “The AG office’s public positions on criminal justice reform and bail reform are not the same as the Commissioners Court or most of our elected judges.”

The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a court filing last month, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins wrote that the Dallas lawsuit goes too far by including felony judges. He said bail decisions are set by county judicial officers before felony judges assume jurisdiction over criminal matters.

“Despite tens of thousands of words spilled in this case so far, [the plaintiff] has yet to articulate just what she expects the felony judges to do, going forward, to remedy her alleged harm,” Hawkins wrote.

But things appear to be moving toward resolution. Two district judges, including Birmingham, recently began conducting their own bail hearings every morning and hired a lawyer to represent them instead of the attorney general. Jenkins and Creuzot confirmed that the parties are now headed to mediation to hopefully come up with a settlement proposal or consent decree.

See here for more on the second Harris County lawsuit, the one involving felony cases. It was filed in January and I haven’t seen any updates as yet, nor do I know if the AG’s office has gotten involved. Be that as it may, it seems to me that the underlying principle is the same, and should be viewed through a similar lens by the federal court. This time, Harris will follow behind Dallas, so we’ll see where they lead us.

The Ike Dike debate continues

There’s more than one way to mitigate against flooding, and it may be best to adopt more than one of them.

For about a decade, two of Texas’ top universities have pushed dueling plans to protect the Houston-Galveston region from hurricanes.

A concept championed by Texas A&M University at Galveston appears to be winning out as the federal and state governments pursue a plan similar to one proposed by A&M oceanographer Bill Merrell in early 2009, months after Hurricane Ike smashed ashore at Galveston Island.

But that project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas General Land Office, which calls for the installation of beachfront sand dunes and massive storm surge barrier gates, won’t become reality for at least 15 years — and probably much longer. That leaves plenty of time for a worst-case hurricane to devastate the densely populated, highly industrialized region — a reality that’s coming into sharper focus as sea levels rise and the ocean warms.

The so-called coastal barrier system also carries a significant price tag — as much as $20 billion — and a significant part of the system may guard against only a modest 100-year storm.

In the meantime, Rice University is pushing a plan that it says could become a reality faster and more cheaply than the coastal barrier system. While the Galveston Bay Park Plan isn’t designed to protect as much land as the coastal barrier system, the chief spokesperson for the university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center — known as SSPEED — says it would offer a significantly higher level of protection than the coastal barrier system for the most populated and industrialized areas in Houston and Galveston.

The park plan, conceived in 2015, calls for the use of clay dredged from the Houston Ship Channel, where a $1 billion deepening and widening project is in the works to accommodate more and larger ships, to create a 25-foot-tall levee along the shipping lane, which is the nation’s busiest. Additional dredged material would be piled behind it to form parkland. The dike would connect to an existing levee at Texas City, which would be raised to 25 feet from 17 feet.

A significant amount of dredged material has already been disposed of along the channel, forming marshy islands and a wildlife management area. That means it would not have to be built entirely from scratch.

A large storm surge gate — much like ones called for in the coastal barrier system — also would be installed and would be closed only when big storms threatened the area. Like the coastal barrier system, the park plan also calls for a “ring” levee around the city of Galveston to protect it from incoming and outgoing storm surges, the deadliest effects of hurricanes. The new north-south levee, which would cut through Galveston Bay, would be punctuated by smaller gates to allow boats to pass through.

See here for some background on the SSPEED plan, and here for more on the plan that has been selected as the preferred plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The SSPEED alternative is touted by Jim Blackburn, who has been a critic of the Corps’ Ike Dike study. Blackburn says this plan could be done as early as 2027 for $3 billion to $6 billion, which means it could be locally funded; that would also speed up the process, as it would not need to go through so much federal review. It could also be done as a complement to the Ike Dike. The Corps disputes SSPEED’s cost estimate and argues their plan would have a significant environmental impact. I’m not qualified to sort that out, but I do like the idea of having a more nimble plan in place that could get some mitigation going right now, rather than a decade or more from now. Read the story and see what you think.

The Dutch way to mitigate against floods

We can learn a lot from this largely-below-sea-level country.

David Zacek for The Texas Tribune

On a sunny Friday in late May, a jubilant wedding party scrambled to the top of a colossal sand dune in this tiny Dutch beach town for a photoshoot, bridesmaids’ arms flailing as their high heels sunk in. The wedding ceremony had just ended at an outdoor venue nestled behind the six-story mountain of sand, which blocked the view of the North Sea.

At the town’s main strip nearby, a mostly older crowd sipped beers and wine and nibbled on ice cream cones. No one seemed to mind that they couldn’t see the water.

Unlike in the United States, such obscured ocean views are common in the Netherlands, where people aren’t allowed to build homes or businesses directly on the coast — and for good reason. Three of Europe’s major rivers run through the compact country on their way to the ocean, and almost one-third of it lies below sea level, making it extremely vulnerable to deadly storm tides.

The dunes in Noordwijk are part of a world-renowned storm defense system that covers the entirety of the Netherlands’ coastline — much of it hefty enough to protect against a monster, 10,000-year storm. The system has become a beacon for Texas as it looks to guard the eastern flank of the low-lying Houston-Galveston region — home to millions of people and the nation’s largest petrochemical complex — from hurricanes. Despite its vulnerability to deadly storm surges, the upper Texas coast has no comprehensive storm protection system.

That vulnerability became apparent after Hurricane Ike in 2008, when scientists warned that the storm — the costliest to ever hit Texas at the time — could have been much worse for the Houston-Galveston region if it hadn’t changed course at the last minute. And although 2017’s Hurricane Harvey made landfall much farther down the coast, its torrential rains put large swaths of Houston underwater and drove home the widespread damage a hurricane could inflict on the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The Netherlands experienced a similar reckoning after a freak storm in 1953.

That North Sea flood, which the Dutch simply call “the disaster,” breached neglected and war-battered dikes, inundated an area bigger than the city of Houston and drowned more than 1,800 people — a death toll nearly identical to that of Hurricane Katrina after it swamped New Orleans and parts of Mississippi. Within weeks, a special Dutch commission initiated a sweeping public works program that it vowed would keep the country dry forever.

“The 1953 flood was a wake-up call,” said Marcel Stive, a hydraulic engineering professor at the Delft University of Technology. “While the economy was resurrecting and doing well [after World War II], the public and politicians realized our vulnerability.”

The Delta Works, later declared one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, surrounded a fifth of the country’s population with an ingenious combination of dams, dikes, locks and first-of-their-kind storm surge barriers. It took decades to finish it all — much longer than expected — but the first project was complete just five years after the storm.

In the 66 years since the disaster, no Dutch citizen has died in a flood. In Texas, hundreds of citizens have perished in floods and hurricanes just in the past two decades.

Flood risk has remained so low in the Netherlands that homeowners don’t buy flood insurance and building codes behind the flood barriers are virtually nonexistent.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? The Ike Dike is based on the Dutch storm surge system. Go read the rest of the story and see what that means.

Schlitterbahn sold

End of an era, as another iconic family-owned Texas business is sold to a non-Texas firm.

Schlitterbahn Waterparks and Resorts — which has dealt with a gruesome death, indictments and financial troubles in recent years — is selling a chunk of its holdings.

Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. has an agreement with the owners of Schlitterbahn to purchase the company’s New Braunfels park and resort property as well as their Galveston park for $261 million, subject to certain adjustments.

“It’s important to know that Cedar Fair values Schlitterbahn’s character and brand promise,” the Henry family — Schlitterbahn’s owners — said in a statement. “They have committed to not only keeping Schlitterbahn awesome but helping us grow!”

Richard Zimmerman, Cedar Fair’s president and CEO, said the company is “very excited about the opportunity to bring these two award-winning Texas water parks into the Cedar Fair family.”

“These properties represent new markets for us with attractive demographics in the growing Central Texas region, and they align with our strategy to identify compelling opportunities to accelerate our growth and profitability,” he said in a statement.

That’s Schlitterbahn and Whataburger all in the same week, y’all. As we know, the Schlitterbahn has had some trouble in recent years, though at least the criminal charges that were filed have been dismissed. It sounds like the family had been looking to sell for awhile, as they were having cash flow problems that caused some planned new parks to not happen. They are retaining the South Padre park, which will be rebranded. I hope the new owners can get everything back to its old glory, and I hope the Henry family can get themselves back on their feet. The Current has more.

Another big flood would be bad

Breaking news, but this is worth paying attention to.

Housing sales would drop, gasoline prices would increase and Texas would lose hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output if a major storm struck an unprotected coastline, according to a new study.

The joint study by Texas A&M University at Galveston and the Texas General Land Office assesses the storm surge impacts on the three counties along Galveston Bay — Galveston, Harris, and Chambers — and explores how flooding from a severe storm would impact different sectors of the local and national economies.

The study finds that a 500-year storm would result in an 8 percent decrease in Gross State Product by 2066, an $853 billion loss. (A 500-year flood has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Hurricane Harvey was the third such event in the Houston area in three years.)

With a coastal barrier in place, the study found, economic losses would be significantly less harmful. Gross State Product would still decline after a 500-year storm, but only by 2 percent. Housing sales would decrease by 2 percent, while petroleum and chemical output would decline by 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

[…]

The economic outlook for an unprotected Houston-Galveston region ravaged by a storm surge is bleak, the report shows.

Housing sales would decline by nearly 8 percent, a $39.5 billion loss. Revenues in the petrochemical sector would decline by 19 percent, a $175.4 billion loss, while prices on petroleum products would increase by 13 percent.

Nationally, following an unprotected, 500-year surge event in Galveston Bay, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product would be 1.1 percent lower by the end of the 50-year period, an estimated $863 billion dollar economic decline.

The GLO press release is here, and the website showing the result of various scenarios is here. The Army Corps has recommended a particular plan for a coastal barrier, though some people disagree with the option that was selected. Be that as it may, the point here is that however expensive an Ike Dike may be, the cost of doing nothing is potentially much greater, with long-lasting effects. We have seen very clearly that the “500 year” part of “500 year storm” doesn’t mean what it once did. How much are we willing to risk remaining unprotected when the next one hits?

An overview on bail reform

From Mother Jones, a look at how bail reform is progressing in Harris County. I’m going to focus on the part about the second bail-related lawsuit, which covers felony arrests.

A federal judge in Harris County is currently considering a case that would transform the way bail is set for people charged with felonies, a population that comprises the vast majority of people in jail awaiting trial.

The lawsuit, filed in January by civil rights groups against the county and its sheriff, argues that detaining felony defendants simply because they can’t afford bail discriminates against the poor and often forces them to take guilty pleas just to get out faster. The suit asks the court to stop the practice of jailing people who aren’t a threat to public safety prior to trial only because they can’t pay. According to the suit, in 2017, up to 85 percent of those arrested for felonies were booked into jail because they couldn’t make bail.

[…]

The settlement [in the misdemeanor case lawsuit] was a watershed moment. “I don’t think we can understate the cultural significance,” says Alec Karakatsanis, who was a lawyer with Equal Justice Under Law when the case was settled and is now an attorney with Civil Rights Corps. Although other counties and states have similarly reformed their bail systems—California abolished cash bail last year, and Washington, DC, largely did away with the practice decades ago—Harris County’s size makes the victory particularly significant.

And while the settlement details were being ironed out, the same lawyers from the misdemeanor case filed the felony suit.

“Once we were having very constructive, productive discussions with the new misdemeanor judges about a final settlement, we realized it was time now to move on to the next piece of the problem,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in both lawsuits.

The felony case, a class action, was filed on behalf of three men who had been charged with nonviolent felony offenses, including driving under the influence and drug possession. The men were assigned bail amounts between $15,000 and $30,000. None of them could pay, and two of them remain detained since being brought into custody in mid-January. (The other made bail after about two weeks in jail.) Like the misdemeanor case, lawyers for the plaintiffs are arguing that such a bail system discriminates against poor inmates who are otherwise low risk.

But if the misdemeanor case was a big deal, the case currently in front of the court will be a game-changer. As of March 2016, misdemeanor defendants comprise only about 8 percent of the county jail’s pretrial population—felony defendants, meanwhile, account for the rest. In fact, 77 percent of the entire county jail population, or approximately 6,000 people, at any given time are felony defendants awaiting trial, most of them for nonviolent offenses. And like people charged with misdemeanors, most of the defendants in jail for felony charges are stuck there because they can’t afford a bond. Although there are no national figures available on how many people are in jail because they can’t pay, data from the Prison Policy Initiative says that every day, 465,000 people are held in jail pretrial, and the organization estimates that hundreds of thousands of these people are there because they can’t afford bail.

If the district court sides with Karakatsanis and his clients, Harris County would be one of the largest in the country to severely limit the use of cash bail. The parties will be negotiating a settlement over the next several weeks, and Manne said he’s optimistic those talks will result in a similar outcome as the misdemeanor suit.

See here and here for some background. The story does not note that there are bills filed in the Legislature that would implement much of the reforms from the Harris County lawsuit statewide. Harris County was a watershed here not just because it’s the biggest county, with the biggest jail population, but also because for the most part, the other big counties have not taken similar action yet. The precedent this lawsuit set will certainly affect any future and current lawsuits in other counties, whether or not the proposed bills pass. There of course remains some resistance to the whole thing, but that is by this point a diminishing position. I look forward to seeing how the negotiations over the felony bail lawsuit turn out.

The red wolves of Galveston County

Very cool.

Photo from the linked article

The coyotes Ron Wooten spotted on Galveston Island’s west end had eye-catching dark, reddish fur and long, slender builds. In the golden dusk of that July evening in 2013, about a dozen of the animals rested in what appeared to be a wetland dried by a seasonal drought.

These canids — mammals of the dog family — looked different. Most coyotes that inhabit this region have gray or pale-brown fur. And while coyotes typically scavenge alone or in pairs, these appeared to be traveling and interacting as a pack.

Wooten had a hunch he had stumbled onto something more important than satisfying his hobby as a wildlife photographer.

“They didn’t look like coyotes at all. I thought they actually looked like a big Great Dane or something like that,” Wooten said. “I looked at some images of red wolves and it kind of looked like they might have been leaning more towards red wolves than coyotes, so that’s when I started pursuing somebody to take a look at these animals.”

Nearly six years later, Wooten learned that his photographs played a significant role in a groundbreaking genetic study released in December by a group of scientists led by biologists from Princeton University. The study suggests that canids native to Galveston Island carry DNA elements of the red wolf, an animal declared extinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago but whose ancestry has endured in parts of the eastern United States and Gulf Coast, including southern Texas and Louisiana.

Red wolves inhabited the southeastern United States before being declared extinct in the wild in 1980 due to habitat loss, predator control programs, disease, and, ironically, interbreeding with coyotes. A captive breeding program developed in the 1970s helped stave off total extinction, with 14 red wolves able to reproduce.

[…]

Several months after spotting the pack of coyotes in Galveston, Wooten, a regulatory specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, spotted two dead coyotes with similar reddish fur on his commute along FM 3005. Intrigued, Wooten scooped up the remains, hoping the carcasses might pique the interest of someone who studied wolves and coyotes professionally. He preserved the tissue samples the only way he knew how — in his freezer.

“Of course, my wife loved that,” Wooten said.

Several wildlife agencies rebuffed Wooten before he finally connected with a group of wolf biologists who put him in touch with Bridgett vonHoldt, a biologist at Princeton University. VonHoldt had been studying genetics shared between North American canids for a number of years, and Wooten’s tissue samples and photos presented possible evidence of “ghost alleles” — surviving red wolf genes different from those of the red wolves in zoos or those in the wild in North Carolina.

VonHoldt, in an interview conducted via email, said it was “phenomenal” that Wooten had both pictures and tissue samples of the canids found in Galveston. The eye-catching photos he took of the pack of coyotes with reddish fur caught her her interest.

“Coyotes have a wide range of variation in colors and markings,” vonHoldt said. “But the photo from Ron just somehow caught my interest as being unique in a very specific way.”

VonHoldt and her team extracted and processed the DNA from Wooten’s samples and compared it to each of the legally recognized wild canid species in North America, including samples from 29 coyotes from Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas; 10 gray wolves from Yellowstone National Park; 10 eastern wolves from Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario; and 11 red wolves from the captive breeding program.

They found that the Galveston Island animals were more similar to captive red wolves than to typical southeastern coyotes — one of Wooten’s samples was 70 percent red wolf, while the other was 40 percent red wolf.

The study is here if you want to know more. I don’t have anything to add, I just love stories like this.

Measles comes back to Houston

We all vaccinated our kids, right?

Five cases of measles have been confirmed in the greater Houston area, a regional cluster that makes Texas the eleventh state this year to report the highly contagious disease until recently thought virtually eliminated in the U.S.

The cases, all announced Monday, include three in Harris County, one in Galveston County and one in Montgomery County. They involve four children, all under 2 years of age, and a woman between the ages of 25 and 35. All are doing well now.

“This is a reminder for people to be on guard and be up to date on their vaccinations,” said Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director for Harris County Public Health. “Measles, a serious disease, is in our community.”

Measles, caused by an airborne virus, is particularly dangerous, capable of causing serious neurological disorders and death in infants and the developing fetus in pregnant women. It is spread through direct contact with discharge through the nose and mouth as well as coughing and sneezing.

Shah said it was too early to say whether the five cases might be the start of a local outbreak. The counties are monitoring anyone exposed to the measles patients while they were contagious to see if they develop symptoms. None has so far.

Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, said he’s concerned because in the pre-vaccine era, measles typically peaked in the late winner and early spring. He said “a perfect storm could be coming.”

[…]

It was unclear Monday if a lack of vaccination played a role in any of the Houston-area cases. All four children had received the first of the two shots — the second is given between the ages of 4 and 6 — and the woman said she’d been vaccinated, though the county is still working to confirm that through records.

Shah noted that the first dose of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is fully protective in 85 percent of those who get it, but there’s no way of knowing if a child is in that group or the 15 percent who need the second shot to receive full protection.

Shah also noted that the person or persons who originally transmitted the virus may have been unvaccinated, he said.

The good news is that this outbreak is limited. This story said that Houston’s vaccination rate is above the national average, while this other story says just the opposite; I’m not sure what to make of that. It’s still a lot of cases at one time, and we’re already close to the nine cases total in Houston from last year. It could be worse, as the people in the greater Portland area can attest, but there’s no reason at all why it should be. You can listen to a short but timely interview with Dr. Hotez about the resurgence of measles here, and Texas Monthly has more.