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The coronavirus doesn’t care about your rugged individualism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro slows its roll on system improvements

Not a surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The difference a week makes

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus and the state budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Games in the time of coronavirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus and the Census

Oh, man, does this have the potential to be devastating.

In some corners of the state, the meticulous planning spanned more than two years.

Detailed maps of Texas communities were pored over. A ground game to knock on doors was worked out, and plans for educational meetings and seminars were set. It was all in service of getting the high-stakes, once-a-decade census of everyone living in the state right.

Then came the coronavirus.

Now, with the count already underway, the contingent of local government employees, service providers and volunteers who had been working to breach the gap left when state officials decided not to fund any census outreach work are scrambling to figure out how to urge Texans to respond to the census amid a pandemic that’s forcing everyone to keep their distance.

The constitutionally mandated count that began in Texas last week is supposed to wrap up by July. While the U.S. Census Bureau has said it’s monitoring the evolving coronavirus situation, it has not changed its deadlines so far, leaving communities to press forward with their efforts to get everyone counted by the summer.

But the pandemic is making what was already a hard-to-count state that much tougher to enumerate and further raising the stakes for the Texans — residents who don’t speak English, people living in poverty and immigrants, to name a few — who were already at the highest risk of being missed.

“From the beginning, we identified this as a ground game. The more people we could physically talk to, the better,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, a planning and development director for the city of Houston who has been leading the community’s census outreach efforts. “We were shaking hands and kissing babies. Well, those two things are not doable right now, so how do we replace that with another ‘high-touch’ circumstance that will convey the message as compelling as a face-to-face conversation?”

I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s one of many that everyone who wants to get an accurate Census count must try to answer. But as the federal government is grappling with many coronavirus-related questions, it also needs to keep in mind that the currently-mandated deadlines may be meaningless, and adjust accordingly. If that means redistricting, and ultimately the 2022 primaries, need to get pushed back a few months, as they were in 2012 due to litigation, then so be it. Getting the count as accurate as we can is the top priority. Everything else is subservient to that. Mother Jones has more.

Astros move to dismiss season ticket holder lawsuits

How about some non-coronavirus baseball-related news? I got some for ya.

Did not age well

The Astros have asked Harris County district judges to dismiss the three lawsuits filed against the ballclub by ticketholders who claim they were defrauded by the sign-stealing scandal in 2017-18.

In each case, attorneys for the ballclub say ticketholders lack standing to file suit, that their claims against the team are barred by the statute of limitations and that plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which a court could grant a judgment against the Astros.

Each answer describes the Astros’ system of electronic sign-stealing as “a source of great disappointment to Astros fans as well as to the Astros organization” and notes that individual players and owner Jim Crane have offered apologies.

“There is, however, no legal standing for season ticket holders … to recover damages for their disappointment over the Astros’ performance for any of the seasons they may have been implicated in the controversy,” the filings add.

“As many courts have held, a ticket holder has only the right to enter a venue and to have a seat for the ticketed game, and cannot complain afterwards that the game should have been played differently.

“The plaintiffs here do not allege that they were deprived of those rights, and they were not. Therefore, defendants deny that the plaintiffs are entitled to any relief in a court of law.”

The Astros seek dismissal of all three lawsuits and ask that they be awarded costs for their defense.

See here for the background, and listen to this episode of Effectively Wild for actual legal analysis of these and other lawsuits related to the banging scheme. As noted in my previous post, each was filed in a different court in Harris County, which may possibly be a complicating factor. I still think these will all ultimately be dismissed, but you never know. The Astros and others still face the fantasy baseball lawsuit, which they have also moved to dismiss. Hey, I didn’t say this was baseball-content baseball news, just that it wasn’t coronavirus-related baseball news. Gotta take what you can get these days.

The Houston/Harris County stay-at-home order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

In the meantime:

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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.

Worrying about the restaurants

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

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

If we’re lucky.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro suspends fare collections

Among other things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Houston have enough hospital capacity?

We sure hope so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Les traffic, easier construction

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

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

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

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

All TxDOT projects remain active, Lewis said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distilling more hand sanitizer

Well done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emergency orders extended

In Houston.

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County took similar action.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art Car Parade has been canceled

Some inevitable sadness from the inbox:

Dear Friends,

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

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

A message from Orange Show Founder & Chairman Marilyn Oshman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bars and clubs to be closed

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Austin has followed suit.

UPDATE: Galveston follows suit.

The Houston healthcare community is preparing for COVID-19

I sure hope it’s enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

School could be out for awhile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

District B lawsuit drags on

Double ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

It could be another four to five months before voters in Houston’s District B can select a new city council member, extending a delay that has held up a runoff there since December.

The Houston-based First Court of Appeals previously denied requests from top vote-getters Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey to expedite the appeal process of the legal case that has held up the runoff. On Tuesday, the appellate court also denied a request to dismiss the case outright.

Doug Ray, assistant Harris County attorney, said the two sides now will exchange briefs on a standard schedule, a process he said could take four or five months.

The runoff was supposed to be in December with a dozen other city contests, and the winner would have taken her seat in January. It was pulled from the ballot amid the ongoing litigation. Now, it will miss the May 2 ballot, as well.

“Who knows when there will be an election?” said Larry Veselka, the attorney representing first-place finisher Jackson. “It’s ridiculous.”

[…]

Oliver Brown, attorney for Cynthia Bailey, said Jefferson-Smith’s team is just “beating a dead horse.”

“That’s all they’re doing now,” Brown said. “They’re costing these candidates money, because they keep trying to ramp up their campaigns, and then they have to stop.”

See here and here for the previous updates. This week is the deadline for printing mail ballots, so the absence of an expedited ruling or a dismissal of the appeal means we continue slogging our way through the process. There’s a calendar date for the case for March 23, so the May election is right out at this point. Next up, barring an expedited election date granted by the state, is November. I don’t even want to think about what could happen to that possibility. What a freaking mess.

Thus endeth this year’s Rodeo

Surely not a surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Meet your bail reform overseers

They’re where the buck will stop.

A federal judge Tuesday approved the choice of a Duke University law professor to oversee Harris County’s historic bail reform agreement that governs what happens to thousands of people arrested on low-level offenses.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered Brandon L. Garrett, from Duke’s Center for Science and Justice, to serve as monitor for implementation of the seven-year consent decree. The judge also approved Sandra Guerra Thompson, a former New York prosecutor who teaches at University of Houston Law Center, as deputy monitor for the settlement.

[…]

Garrett has a background in criminal justice, policy-making and reform, according to a biography on Duke’s website. His research and teaching has focused on criminal justice outcomes, evidence and constitutional rights. He has also studied DNA exoneration, eyewitness identification and corporate crime.

Guerra Thompson, a native of Laredo, is an award-winning professor who directs the university’s Criminal Justice Institute for the UH law program, according to the UH website. Her scholarly work includes articles on wrongful convictions, eyewitness identification, forensic science, civil asset forfeiture, federal sentencing, discrimination in jury selection, prosecutorial ethics, police interrogations and immigration-related crimes.

She has played a key role in the transition to office for Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2016 and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg in 2017. She was a founding board member for the Houston Forensic Science Center and was tapped in 2009 by Gov. Rick Perry to serve on the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions.

Sounds like two good people for the job. It’s not totally clear to me what exactly their responsibilities will be, but I assume if things are not going the way they should, we’ll hear about it from them.

Please fill out the Census

I mean, come on. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know damn well it’s your civic duty.

Texas loses more than $2,300 per year for every person who doesn’t get counted in the U.S. Census, according to a recent study by George Washington University.

With stakes in the billions for the once-in-a-decade event, Houston and Harris County officials Monday announced a vigorous joint effort to get an accurate headcount of every person in the region. The “Yes! To Census 2020” campaign, fueled by $4 million in county funds and $2 million from the city, includes outreach through community groups, key influencers and public art along with real-time data collection on responses from historically undercounted communities so that outreach workers can be deployed strategically.

Census forms will be mailed on March 12 and participants may respond online for the first time, or complete the form in writing or by phone, with assistance available in multiple languages. For those who don’t respond, the Census will send out enumerators later this year to attempt door-to-door data collection in some portions of the country, but many people will be missed, Census officials say.

[…]

Texas’ biggest counties and cities, including Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, are shouldering that burden on their own, officials said during a launch event at the Children’s Museum Monday.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure that folks participate, said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. She called Census 2020 a crucial moment “to live up to that right that we have…to be counted.”

Amid heightened tensions for immigrants under the Trump administration, Hidalgo made an impassioned plea, in the Spanish version of her remarks, to prospective participants to set aside any fears about filling out the form.

“The Census is very safe, I want to make that very clear, that under penalty of prison or fine, nobody can share your personal information from the Census — not ICE, the FBI, no organization or federal agency can access your personal information about the Census,” she said in Spanish.

As we know, the state shirked its responsibility and left the heavy lifting to the cities and counties, who will definitely feel the brunt of any undercount. It’s not just the big urban and suburban areas that are scrambling to do the work that the state refused to do – plenty of rural counties are doing their best, too. So please make it a little easier on them and fill out your damn form when you get it. It’s the least you can do.

Coronavirus comes to town

It was just a matter of time.

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

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

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

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

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

Improved bus corridors are coming

Sounds promising.

Metropolitan Transit Authority is set to upgrade a pair of Houston bus routes, hoping that raising the quality of bus service will prove the key to increasing transit use.

The 54 Scott and the 56 Montrose/Airline routes will be the first put to the test of as part of Metro’s “Bus Operations Optimized System Treatments” — aka BOOST. The corridors will be decked out with spruced-up bus stops and shelters, bike racks and better sidewalk and trail access where practical. Digital signs at bus stops will give real-time information about when the next bus is coming.

Some of the most striking improvements, however, will be less about what riders can see and more about the technology that will provide buses an advantage by communicating with traffic signals. That could in some locations give the bus extra time to make a changing green light, or hurry through the red-light cycle to decrease the time the bus spends at an intersection.

“Getting through that intersection, if we can hold the green light a little longer, improves our travel time,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

Less time sitting at stoplights could make transit more attractive.

“What they are trying to do is drive bus ridership,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director for Houston Public Works, which is working with Metro along the corridors.

Construction along the corridors is expected to start in the coming months and take 18-to-24 months to complete, transit officials said.

[…]

The Scott and Airline routes were chosen as the first of 17 BOOST routes because both follow bustling commercial corridors, have high ridership — both typically average around 6,000 daily boardings — and development along the routes is walk-able by Houston standards, officials said. Both lines also cross other core routes in the Metro system, such as the Red and Purple light rail lines and the Route 82 Westheimer, Route 2 Bellaire and Route 4 Beechnut bus lines.

We first heard about this last January as the first details of the MetroNext referendum started coming out. Traffic lights are a big variable in bus travel times, so adding some predictability, which in turn should allow for more frequency, is welcome. I used the 56 a lot when I was working downtown, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing this in action.

The people who oppose the high speed rail line still oppose the high speed rail line

In case you were wondering.

In the same room where many mobilized against the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor freeway project 15 years ago, critics of a proposed Houston-to-Dallas bullet train promised to shoot that down, too. No matter how long that takes.

“Unfortunately, we are five years in and I can see five more years,” said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail.

At a Wednesday night town hall organized by the group and attended by local and state officials along with U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, elected leaders promised the crowd a fight starting in Washington, where regulators are expected to release safety requirements for high-speed trains and consider whether the Texas Central project is a federally-recognized railroad.

“After we stop them again in Washington, this battle shifts back to Texas,” Brady told the crowd of landowners, mostly from Grimes, Montgomery, Waller, Harris and Madison counties.

[…]

In a statement, Texas Central said it remains committed to the project, noting the support of more than 100 groups and organizations.

“It is not surprising that those few detractors would also attempt to be vocal as progress is being made,” the company said.

I don’t think anything has changed recently. Either Texas Central can get to a point in their construction where they’re basically unstoppable, or the opposition may be able to put up a roadblock they can’t overcome. At this point it looks like they may have to survive one more legislative session, and who knows where that may go. I think as long as the US House stays Democratic it’s fairly unlikely that such an obstacle will come from there, as the Democrats from Houston and D/FW are not going to support anything to kill this. The courts remain a wild, but they may also be too slow-moving to be a factor. One way or another, the race is until construction really gets started.

FBI raids HISD official’s home and office

Well, this is never good.

Agents with the FBI and IRS spent hours Thursday searching the administrative offices of the Houston Independent School District and the Cypress-area house of its chief operating officer, but they remained tight-lipped about what they were seeking.

At least a dozen federal agents made their way in and out of HISD’s Hattie Mae White building on 4400 West 18th Street Thursday morning, at one point carrying several boxes and containers to vehicles parked nearby.

The bureau called the search a “court authorized law enforcement activity,” but did not elaborate.

The district issued a statement saying it was fully cooperating with the FBI, adding there was no danger to students or staff.

Federal agents also were at a Cypress-area home listed in county property tax records as the residence of HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby and his wife, HISD Officer of Special Populations Courtney Busby. Security refused to allow news media inside the gated neighborhood.

A voicemail and text message left on Busby’s phone, as well as a message sent via Twitter, were not returned Thursday. It was unclear whether Busby still had access to the phone, which may have been issued by HISD.

An Internal Revenue Service spokesman, in response to questions, said the agency could neither confirm nor deny any involvement, citing federal privacy laws. Agents with “IRS” on the backs their jackets were visible at the administration building and Busby’s home.

“We were notified first thing this morning of the FBI’s presence by the administration,” HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said. “I don’t have any additional information at this time, but I certainly share the community’s concerns.”

Not much to do but wait and see what happens. If there’s something there, we’ll know about it soon enough.

City responds to busking lawsuit

And I’m not thrilled with it.

Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Lawyers argued in a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit Friday that the city is beholden to keeping its streets and sidewalks safe, and that striking down the decades-old ordinance limiting where buskers — musicians who play in public places — can set up shop is not in its best interest. The law became the target of a lawsuit in January when Houston musician Anthony Barilla contended it violates the First Amendment.

While busking — the performing of music in public places — is mostly unrestricted in cities, such as Seattle, New York City, lawyers argue Houston is not that kind of town.

“Houstonians have a noted tendency to congregate in areas indoors, or even underground, to ‘avoid the heat of the summer, traffic, and inclement weather,’” the motion states.

Another worry to Houston is that loosening the ordinance would condone “unregulated competitors, obstructions of access, or objectionable noise.”

[…]

The city’s lengthy response to Barilla’s lawsuit goes as far to suggest how he could make money outside the Theater District — without soliciting tips, such as encouraginh pedestrians to “subscribe to his podcast or YouTube channel, asking them to purchase his music online, or asking them to attend upcoming concerts for which he will be compensated.”

See here for the background. The bit about “obstructions of access, or objectionable noise” I can understand, though surely those could be addressed by less-restrictive means. The rest, I don’t quite get what point the city’s attorneys are trying to make. For that matter, I don’t quite understand the principle that is being defended by the city here. What is the harm the city is trying to mitigate? I really don’t see how allowing street musicians to set up in non-downtown locations is going to cause chaos. Let’s please work towards a settlement and an amendment of that 1991 ordinance. We have better things to do than fight this.

2020 Primary Early Voting, Day Ten: Come hell or high water

Yesterday was quite the day, wasn’t it? People did still vote, which is nice. Here’s the Day Ten report for 2020, and here are the totals from 2012, 2016, and 2018. The totals after Day Ten:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2012   6,772   23,384   30,156
2016  12,152   53,302   65,455
2018  16,532   53,744   70,276
2020  21,658   82,365  104,023

2012  16,164   48,239   64,403
2016  18,878   79,276   98,154
2018  18,848   46,560   65,408
2020  21,340   65,783   87,123

Despite the ginormous water main break that shut down much of the city, including four early voting locations, people did still vote. Maybe not quite as much as they would have without the East Loop turning into a river, but they did still vote. At this current pace, we’re well ahead of 2016 but sufficiently behind 2008 that I’m not sure we’ll make it to that level. But maybe still a lot of folks waiting till Tuesday, perhaps to see what happens in South Carolin first. I’ll have the final results tomorrow, and I’ll do some deeper analysis on Sunday or Monday. Have you voted yet?

District B ruling appealed

Ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

The date of Houston’s stalled city council District B runoff is again in question after the third-place finisher in the race moved forward with an appeal of a court order earlier this month that the runoff go on without her.

The runoff, currently scheduled for May 2, could be delayed if a ruling is not final by March 9. The election was pulled from the Dec. 14 ballot, when a dozen other city runoffs were decided, because of the litigation.

Lawyers for Renee Jefferson-Smith previously indicated they had not decided whether to pursue an appeal of Visiting Judge Grant Dorfman’s ruling that the runoff between the top two vote-getters in the November election, Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey, should go forward.

On Thursday, however, Jefferson-Smith’s legal team filed what is called a docketing statement with the appeals court, indicating they were moving forward.

“We will request that the Court stay the City of Houston Election for City Council Member for District B pending appeal pursuant to” the Texas Election Code, the filing said. It listed a lawyer not previously involved in the case, Dorsey Carson, Jr., as lead attorney.

[…]

Jackson said she thinks Jefferson-Smith and her backers are just trying to delay the election at this point, and she called on leaders to do something to stop the delays.

“This appeal is not fair to the people of District B, it’s not fair to me and the other 12 candidates who ran to represent District B,” she said.

See here for the previous update. I suppose leaders could try to pressure Renee Jefferson-Smith into dropping the appeal, but you’d think if that might have worked she wouldn’t have filed it in the first place. At this point, a fast ruling from the court is the best bet. What a freaking mess this has been.

Please don’t freak out about coronavirus

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

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Cable franchise fees lawsuit heard

Rooting for the cities, because this is a mess.

Lawyers representing 59 cities, including Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, on Wednesday asked an Austin district court judge to temporarily block a Texas law passed last year that cuts government fees for telecommunications and cable companies.

Senate Bill 1152, which took effect Sept. 1 and started to apply to payments starting Jan. 1, allows companies that offer both cable and phone services over the same lines to only pay the lesser of the two charges to local governments for using their rights-of-way. No physical change is required to add new uses of a line.

C. Robert Heath, one of the attorneys who represents the cities, said the law amounts to an unconstitutional gift of public resources to private corporations and said estimates show it would cost cities at least $100 million a year.

The cities argue that the Texas Constitution forbids cities, counties and other political subdivisions from giving away public money or things of value to private groups or individuals. The companies are not required to pass on savings to consumers because the state can’t regulate cable rates.

“It’s like ‘buy one, get one free,’” Heath said. “So we’re saying, ‘No, no, you can’t do that. You’re giving away the use of the right-of-way.’”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had pushed legislators to oppose the measure and has said it cost the city about $17 million in annual revenue this year and has hurt its ability to offer services to residents.

“Given the fee would fluctuate with the number of cable customers, what is not changing is the significant impact this has had on our city budget,” Bill Kelly, Houston’s director of government relations, said Wednesday. “Anyone asking the cable companies why no one has lowered their bills?”

[…]

Assistant attorney general Drew Harris, who represents the state, argued that the reduced fee is not the same as a gift, making the analogy of toll roads that charge per car, not per passenger. Harris added that Texas law says the state owns rights-of-way, meaning the cost of using them is a matter for the Legislature to decide.

See here and here for the background. I must have missed the actual filing of the lawsuit, but never mind. We all know this will get to the Supreme Court eventually, and we know they love to rule in favor of businesses. The question is whether they’ll be overturning a lower court verdict or not. The judge has promised a quick ruling after the state files a response to a late plaintiffs’ motion, so we won’t have to wait too long to see where we start out.

More Astros lawsuits

This one was filed by a dissatisfied customer.

Did not age well

An Astros season ticket holder has filed suit in Harris County District Court against the ballclub, accusing the team of negligence, breach of contract and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act in conjunction with the 2017-18 electronic sign-stealing scandal.

The suit, filed Friday by Beaumont attorneys Mitchell A. Toups and Richard L. Coffman on behalf of season ticket holder Adam Wallach of Humble, seeks class action status for Astros full and partial season-ticket holders from 2017 through 2020 and damages in excess of a million dollars.

The Astros are accused of “deceptively overcharging (fans) for season tickets while defendants and their employees and representative knowingly and surreptitiously engaged in a sign stealing scheme … and secretly put a deficient product on the field that could result (and now has resulted) in severe penalties” from Major League Baseball.

As a result of the scheme, the lawsuit claims, season ticket holders are owed refunds of what attorneys say were inappropriate increases in ticket prices for the last four seasons. The suit also seeks treble damages for the Astros’ “knowing, willful, intentional, surreptitious, wrongful and unconscionable conduct.”

In addition, attorneys seek an order that would prevent the Astros from increasing season ticket prices for at least two years.

There were already two other lawsuits against the Astros over the whole sign stealing thing; this story notes yet another, a hand-written (!) lawsuit from a guy in Nevada who lost money in both 2017 and 2018 betting on the Dodgers to win the World Series. The day will come when this sort of story will end, but today is not that day. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have my doubts that this will survive a motion to dismiss, but the Chron asked some actual lawyers, and maybe it can.

With three potential class action lawsuits pending against the Astros in Harris County courts, the scene is set for what attorneys say is a multi-layered, landmark legal battle that could test the wits and knowledge of lawyers, judges and jurors and perhaps extend beyond information disclosed in Major League Baseball’s report.

“This is a complicated mess,” said Talmage Boston, a Dallas attorney who has written two books on baseball’s history and is a member of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. “We have never seen anything like this before. There will be nothing easy about this case.”

Two additional lawsuits were filed against the ballclub Tuesday, bringing to at least seven the number of cases in state and federal court stemming from the electronic sign-stealing scheme in 2017-18 that resulted in Major League Baseball sanctions against the ballclub.

In the two latest suits, filed by the Hilliard Martinez Gonzales law firm in Corpus Christi, attorneys will seek authority to collect testimony that could go beyond details collected by the MLB probe that led to the firing of Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow by team owner Jim Crane.

John Duff, an associate with the Hilliard firm, said attorneys for the ticket holders will attempt to question not only current and former Astros players and management but also MLB executives and players and managers from other teams, extending the boundaries of the MLB probe.

[…]

Sports-related lawsuits are not uncommon, with examples including the NFL’s “Spygate” affair with the New England Patriots and cases filed by disgruntled New Orleans Saints fans over officiating decisions that affected playoff games.

None of those cases proceeded to trial. Boston, however, said he believes the three Harris County cases, each of which seeks to represent season ticket holders who say they were defrauded by the Astros’ misdeeds, have a chance to proceed.

“The Astros will try to get them dismissed, but I think they will get teed up in front of a jury,” Boston said. “There are some compelling facts, and the evidence discovery will go deeper than anything we know in terms of what (MLB commissioner Rob Manfred) had in his investigation.

“It really is a can of worms.”

So who knows what might happen. Each case is in a different court, and there may be an effort to move them to federal court, which the plaintiffs will resist. I still have my doubts, but it sure would be interesting to see what the discovery process might uncover.

Resilient Houston

It’s good to have a plan.

No traffic deaths on Houston streets, 4.6 million new trees, and no more homes in the floodway. All by 2030.

Those are some of the lofty goals set in the master resiliency plan, “Resilient Houston,” that Mayor Sylvester Turner and city officials unfurled Wednesday, a 186-page document that spells out how the city and its residents can orient themselves to best prepare for future disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

The plan addresses resiliency at five scales — people, neighborhoods, bayous, the city and the region — and sets 18 targets, along with a corresponding set of 62 actions to make those happen.

“There’s a lot in there,” said Marissa Aho, the city’s chief resilience officer, who has spearheaded the production of the plan over the last 18 months. Aho was hired from Los Angeles, where she developed a similar framework.

About a third of the actions are initiatives the city already has in the works. Another third build on existing city projects, and the remaining actions are new.

They range from the immediate term, such as the appointment of resilience officers in each city department this year, to the more distant future, such as reaching complete carbon neutrality by 2050.

As noted in the story, the Resilient Houston plan document is here. It’s 186 pages, so I hope you’ll forgive me that I’ve only skimmed the beginning of it. The eighteen goals of the plan are laid out in the table of contents on page 3, and they include items that ought to have wide consensus like “We will support Houstonians to be prepared for an uncertain future”, “We will live safely with water”, and “We will modernize Houston’s infrastructure to address the challenges of the future”. I’d encourage you to look and get a feel for what it’s about. This is part of a worldwide effort called 100 Resilient Cities, of which Houston is now a member. It’s going to take me some time to process all this, and now I feel like I want to do an interview with Marissa Aho once primaries are over. At a high level, I think this is a good and necessary thing, and I think the goals are both desirable and achievable. How we get there will very much be the tricky part.