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Put a pause on that reopening

At this point, we had no other choice.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday took his most drastic action yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas, shutting bars back down and scaling back restaurant capacity to 50%.

He also shut down river-rafting trips and banned outdoor gatherings of over 100 people unless local officials approve.

“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said in a news release. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”

Bars most close at noon Friday, and the reduction in restaurant capacity takes effect Monday. Before Abbott’s announcement Friday, bars were able to operate at 50% capacity and restaurants at 75% capacity.

As for outdoor gatherings, Abbott’s decision Friday represents his second adjustment in that category this week. Abbott on Tuesday gave local governments the choice to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people after previously setting the threshold at over 500 people. Now outdoor gatherings of over 100 people are prohibited unless local officials explicitly approve of them.

Abbott’s actions Friday were his first significant moves to reverse the reopening process that he has led since late April. He said Monday that shutting down the state again is a last resort, but the situation has been worsening quickly.

I can’t emphasize enough that none of this had to happen. Greg Abbott laid out four metrics for reopening when he first lifted the statewide stay-at-home order: Declining daily case rates, positive test percentages below a certain level (I forget what exactly, maybe seven percent), three thousand contact tracers hired by the state, and sufficient hospital capacity. None of the first three were ever met, even at the beginning, and the predictable result is that now the fourth one is no longer being met. We could have driven the reopening by the metrics, instead of saying “on this date we’ll roll back these things and allow these things to resume”, but we didn’t. Greg Abbott made that decision. What is happening now is on him.

And so, here in Harris County, where our leaders’ efforts to take this pandemic seriously were entirely undercut by Greg Abbott, we are paying the price.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday moved the county to the worst threat level, calling for a return to the stay-at-home conditions of March and April, as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to spike.

She also banned outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people in unincorporated Harris County, while urging mayors to do the same in their cities.

Hidalgo described in dire terms the danger the pandemic currently poses, and said the county is at greater risk than at any other time since the outbreak began here in March.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.”

Her remarks were a rebuke of Gov. Greg Abbott’s phased reopening strategy, which she said allowed Texans to resume normal life before they were safe. They also contradicted the rosy picture Texas Medical Center executives painted a day earlier of the system’s ICU capacity.

Hidalgo unsuccessfully lobbied the governor this week for the power to issue more restrictions, her office confirmed. Abbott’s refusal to let local officials again issue mandatory stay-at-home orders leaves Harris County “with one hand tied behind our back,” she said.

[…]

Though she lacks the power to require compliance, Hidalgo implored all county residents to follow the same rules as her stay-at-home order in March and April. That means residents should stay home except for essential errands and appointments, work from home if possible, wear a mask in public and otherwise avoid contact with other people.

Only a collective change in behavior can reverse the accelerating trend of COVID here, Hidalgo said. The alternative, she warned, is grim.

“If we don’t act now, we’ll be in a crisis,” she said. “If we don’t stay home now, we’ll have to stay home when there are images of hospital beds in hallways.”

Hidalgo and Dr. Umair Shah, the county’s health director, offered no concrete timeline for how long restrictions would be needed. The county judge noted that in some other states, lockdowns of up to three months were needed to bring the virus under control.

A tripling of cases and hospitalizations since Memorial Day have placed intense pressure on state and local leaders to act. With Abbott’s blessing, Hidalgo and other local leaders have issued mandatory mask orders since last week, mandating businesses to require their customers wear facial coverings.

The governor effectively gutted Hidalgo’s original order requiring residents to wear masks at the end of April by preventing any punishments from being levied against violators. Enforcement never was the point, Hidalgo said Friday, but she blamed the governor for signaling to residents that mask-wearing was unimportant.

See here for the background. We can’t know what shape Harris County would be in now if Judge Hidalgo had been allowed to make her own decisions instead of being overruled by Abbott. But it’s hard to say we’d be any worse off than we are now.

Of course, some people still think it’s all sunshine and puppies up in here.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went on national television to declare Texas is not running out of intensive care hospital beds and to assure viewers that the state is “not stepping backward” in re-opening businesses.

Speaking on Fox News Channel on Thursday night, Patrick acknowledged new COVID-19 cases are increasing in Texas, but assured viewers it was expected.

“We have seen a spike in cases. We expected that,” Patrick said pointing to increased testing. “Our hospitalizations are up, but here’s the good news, the good news is we’re not seeing it translate to the ICU unit or into fatalities.”

You can read the rest if you want, but really, what you need to do is CLAP LOUDER!

There is one piece of good news:

The Trump administration reversed itself and extended support for testing sites in Texas on Friday.

The extension followed a public outcry after TPM revealed on Tuesday that federal help was set to end on June 30.

Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir said in a statement that his agency would support five testing sites in Texas for two weeks longer than initially planned.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and John Cornyn (R-TX) sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday requesting an extension of support for the free, drive-through testing sites.

Local officials in Texas have spent weeks clamoring for the sites to be extended. The move comes as cases and hospitalizations in the state have skyrocketed, and as Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has paused the state’s reopening.

“Federal public health officials have been in continuous contact with our public health leaders in Texas, and after receiving yesterday’s request for an extension, have agreed to extend support for five Community-Based Testing Sites in Texas,” Giroir said in a statement. “We will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 diagnoses and assess the need for further federal support of these sites as we approach the extension date.”

See here for the background. It’s two weeks’ worth of good news, which isn’t enough but is better than nothing. Now let’s extend that out to infinity, or whenever we don’t need testing at scale, whichever comes first.

One more thing, just to hammer home the “it didn’t have to be this way” point:

Texas is also a wee bit larger than Taiwan, with less density and public transportation. They’re already playing baseball in Taiwan, have been for a few weeks now. I’m just saying.

Who needs testing?

Not a great idea.

The Trump administration is planning to end federal support for some coronavirus testing sites across the nation at the end of the month — including seven in Texas, where confirmed cases of COVID are spiking.

An array of Texas officials from the city to the state House and Congress are urging the White House to rethink the move, warning of “catastrophic cascading consequences” of pulling federal support for testing sites, four of which are in Houston and Harris County and administer thousands of tests per day. City officials say the sites won’t close, but keeping them open without federal help will drain much-needed resources as the city works to expand testing and build a contact tracing network.

A Trump administration official said the sites are part of a “now antiquated program” the federal government is moving away from as it works to expand testing options. But Houston officials consider two of those sites — the largest in the city, administering up to 500 tests each per day — the backbone of its testing efforts.

Texas has seen a 146-percent increase in lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations since Memorial Day and Houston could soon be the country’s worst-hit city, health officials have warned.

“Now is the time to be ramping up our testing capabilities, not slowing it down,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat who led a letter to the heads of FEMA and Health and Human Services on Tuesday. Houston Democratic U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher also signed the letter.

Also pushing back on the plan is a group of 20 members of the Texas House and Senate representing Harris County and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican.

[…]

The Trump administration has long planned to end federal support for the sites and transition them to state and local control. It has pushed back the plan at least once, in April, when it extended support for the sites until the end of June at the urging of local lawmakers including Houston Democrats and the state’s Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Cruz.

Officials are asking the administration to to push the deadline back to the end of August, saying ending federal support for the sites now could hinder attempts local attempts to build up contact tracing networks and other efforts to control the outbreak.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Wednesday that the city will keep the testing sites open, but it will strain the city’s resources to do so. The city’s health department is working on a transition plan as officials push for the federal government to reconsider.

The federal government should be paying for this. It’s not even a question. This is not something that should be competing for city financial resources. Turn on the federal spigot, and keep it on until we don’t need testing at scale anymore. I can’t believe we are having this discussion.

Credit to Talking Points Memo for breaking the original story, which has been picked up by national media, and which apparently led to an epic meltdown by the spokesperson for HHS on a conference call with reporters. The Trib has more.

Who cares about women, anyway?

The state of Texas certainly doesn’t.

If there was any hope that the state was seeking a compromise with the federal government over Texas’ Women’s Health Program, it’s fading fast. At the direction of lawmakers and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Texas Health and Human Services commissioner signed a rule on Thursday that formally bans Planned Parenthood clinics and other “affiliates of abortion providers” from participating in the program — something the Obama administration has said is a deal-breaker for the nearly $40 million-per-year state-federal Medicaid program.

“The Obama administration is trying to force Texas to violate our own state laws or they will end a program that provides preventative health care to more than 100,000 Texas women,” said Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry. “This boils down to the rule of law — which the state of Texas respects and the Obama administration does not.

The rule, signed by Commissioner Tom Suehs on Thursday, takes effect March 14. Unless some last-minute agreement is brokered, the program, which receives $9 in federal funds for every $1 in state funds, will be either phased out or cut off by the end of March. At least 130,000 poor Texas women will lose access to cancer screenings, well-woman exams and contraception.

“No one’s politics should interfere with a woman’s access to health care,” said Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast President and CEO Peter J. Durkin. “It is shameful that Governor Perry and Commissioner Suehs continue to politicize lifesaving breast cancer screenings and birth control access for low-income women.”

Republican lawmakers worked overtime last legislative session to design language that would keep any Planned Parenthood-affiliated clinics from receiving state family planning and women’s health dollars, despite the fact that taxpayer-funded clinics may not perform abortions. They got the backing of Abbott, who said their efforts were legal, and gave the state’s health commissioner the go-ahead to implement the new language.

But when Texas was faced with renewing the Women’s Health Program this year, officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the state’s plans violated the Social Security Act. They gave the program a three-month extension, but said they had no intention of renewing if Planned Parenthood, which provides 44 percent of the program’s services, was blacklisted.

The stalemate appears unbreakable — Republican lawmakers have made clear they’d rather forgo the program and the federal money than allow Planned Parenthood to participate.

I don’t know how much more evidence you need to conclude that the state’s jihad against Planned Parenthood is about much more than abortion. It’s rich to see Perry and Abbott try to direct what the feds can do with their money, since they get their noses so far out of joint when it’s the other way around. Ironically, this happened on the same day that the state joined a lawsuit challenging the rule that would require all employers to include coverage for contraceptives in employees’ health care benefits. That charge is being led by the Catholic bishops, all of whom as far as I could tell were silent on the prospect of 130,000 women losing access to health care in Texas. As State Rep. Garnet Coleman points out, nearly half of all births in Texas are paid for with Medicaid. What will happen to these women and their babies? The state of Texas and the Catholic bishops don’t care. They have an ideology to pursue.

In related news, a number of people suddenly noticed last week that Texas’ sonogram law is pretty much the same as the one in Virginia that got derailed after drawing national attention. Texas’ law, on the other hand, got little to no national notice despite fierce resistance here from those who saw this law as the degradation and humiliation of women that it is. We can stare at our navels all day trying to figure out why that is, but it’s really not so hard to understand. It’s about winning elections. Until Democrats start winning more of them, and in particular until they win a high profile one because of an issue like this, this is what we’re going to get. As with every other issue we talk about here, nothing changes until the people we elect to our government change. Neil, Rachel, and Burka have more. Be sure to read through the comments for a pained defense of his legislation by Sen. Dan Patrick and some good responses to him.

Here come stimulus money

The first batch of funds is arriving.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated more than $500 million to Texas cities and counties on Monday, part of a wave of stimulus money expected to flow into the state.

Federal officials released $14.4 million more to support 12 Texas health centers, many of which provide care to people with no health insurance. The federal money is expected to create more than 400 jobs in the state, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

[…]

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs received the biggest chunk of money — about $148.4 million for affordable rental housing projects that rely on low-income housing tax credits.

More than 350 public housing authorities in Texas received $119.8 million for public housing projects, including energy-efficient modernization, capital improvements and critical safety repairs. San Antonio and El Paso received the most public housing assistance with about $14.6 million and $12.7 million, respectively.

There’s more, and I’m glad to see it. I suspect most of the agencies that will benefit from these monies haven’t exactly been flush in recent years, if ever. Hopefully, we can get a lot of good done.

Of course, there’s still a fight looming over how much Governor Perry wants the state to accept. Towards that end, a group of Democratic legislators will be calling on Perry to take everything that has been allocated for Texas. From their release:

Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston,) Representative Jim Dunnam (D-Waco), Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin), Senator Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso), Senator Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) and Senator Mario Gallegos (D-Houston) will hold a press conference to urge Governor Perry to accept all available stimulus funds on Tuesday, March 3, 2009, beginning at 9:00 AM, in the Lieutenant Governor’s Press Room.

The press conference will call on state leaders to invest the stimulus funding in programs and priorities which will give a hand-up to as many Texans as possible. The legislators will particularly focus on plans to shore up Texas’ rapidly dwindling Unemployment Insurance System.

While Texas does not yet face double digit unemployment, as Michigan does, the economic forecast is not rosy. According to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, the Texas economy will lose 111,000 jobs in 2009, and the unemployment rate is expected to rise from 6 to 8.2 percent. The recently passed Economic Recovery Act offers $555.7 million to Texas to shore up its shaky unemployment fund, but the state must first pass a series of reforms to be eligible. Unfortunately, even as Texas accepts stimulus funds, some continue to say the state should reject unemployment funding, simply because it requires small changes to the program.

It would be nice to have some Republican legislators doing this as well, but this is a good start. That press conference will be at 9 AM in the Lt. Governor’s press room in the Capitol.

Finally, on a related note, a group of transportation activists will be making a call of their own to TxDOT tomorrow regarding that agency’s plans for its federal stimulus funds.

In February, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allocated $2.25 billion in federal transportation funds to Texas. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) will allow states up to one year to decide which projects to build.

But the Texas Transportation Commission is poised to ram through $1.7 billion of new stimulus-funded projects at their meeting Thursday. The project list is chock full of controversial projects, including the Grand Parkway in Houston, the US-281 toll road across the Edwards aquifer in San Antonio, roads to nowhere, and sprawl highways through environmentally-sensitive areas. Further, many Texans object to spending stimulus on toll roads.

On Tuesday morning, Texans from across the state will converge at the capitol to demand that Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) slow down and do this right. We must ensure our federal stimulus isn’t wasted on boondoggles!

What: Joint citizen press conference

Who:

* Texans United for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Terri Hall, http://texasturf.org
* Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, Brandt Mannchen, http://texas.sierraclub.org
* Environment Texas, Alejandro Savransky, http://environmenttexas.org
* IndependentTexans, Linda Curtis, http://indytexans.org
* Houston Tomorrow, Jay Crossley, http://houstontomorrow.org
* Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC), Robin Holzer, http://ctchouston.org

When: Tuesday, Mar 3, 2009 at 9:15 am

Where: East steps of the Texas Capitol, Austin, TX

That would be just like TxDOT, wouldn’t it? I hope they listen to the call to slow down.

UPDATE: The Observer has more about TxDOT and the fast one they’re trying to pull.