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Interview with Matias Kopinsky

Matias Kopinsky

We wrap up our tour of HISD District I this week with Matias Kopinsky. Kopinsky is the son of Argentine immigrants who grew up speaking Spanish. He attended Herod Elementary, Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School, and Bellaire High School, and got a BS in petroleum engineering from UT. The HISD Board as currently constituted is all female, so if elected he would change that. That wasn’t one of the things we talked about, I just thought about it while writing this intro. Here’s what we did talk about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I

Interview with Janette Garza Lindner

Janette Garza Lindner

We continue with HISD District I, and today’s candidate is Janette Garza Lindner. A native of Brownsville, Garza Lindner has lived in Houston for 20 years. She is a UT graduate with a degree in Management Information Systems, and has served as a Latinos for Education board fellow and as the main community representative on the Arts Connect Houston leadership committee. I discovered her candidacy when doing my post on the July HISD finance reports; she was filed as a candidate but had not done any fundraising then. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I

Interview with Elizabeth Santos

Elizabeth Santos

This week we will meet the three candidates in HISD District I, which happens to be my district. Elizabeth Santos is the incumbent, having been elected in 2017 after Anna Eastman decided to not run again. Santos is a lifelong resident in the district, and spent ten years teaching in HISD, at Sam Houston and Northside, while getting a BA in English Literature from UH-Downtown. You can listen to the interview I did with her in 2017 here – it was one of the first I did following Hurricane Harvey, which as you can imagine had an effect on the questions I was asking. A lot has happened since then, and you can hear about some of those things in this interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII

The electoral dress code lawsuit

Still interesting.

A U.S. magistrate judge this week recommended striking down parts of Texas law that prohibit wearing political apparel within 100 feet of a polling place as unconstitutionally vague — but upholding a narrower provision that specifies that clothing bearing messages related to what’s on the ballot can be banned.

The issue first arose in 2018 when Harris County resident Jillian Ostrewich wore a Houston firefighters T-shirt to a polling place and election workers told her to turn it inside out because it related to Prop B, a pay parity measure for firefighters on that ballot that year. Claiming she was unconstitutionally censored and her right to free speech infringed upon, she sued Harris County and state officials.

The case puts to the test a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from June of that year in which the justices struck down a Minnesota law that banned voters from displaying “issue-oriented” apparel at the polls for being overbroad. The Texas suit was brought by Pacific Legal Foundation, the same California-based libertarian public interest law firm that won the Minnesota case.

[…]

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew M. Edison in his report on Tuesday said the election judge had a constitutional basis for rejecting Ostrewich’s shirt because it had a clear relationship to the ballot measure, even if it did not explicitly say to vote for that measure. Under that law, Edison said, Ostrewich had not been harmed and therefore was not entitled to damages.

Other parts of the law, however, which define “electioneering” as advocating “for or against any candidate, measure, or political party” through “posting, use, or distribution of political signs or literature” leaves room for misunderstanding, he said. Ostrewich would have no way of knowing whether wearing that same shirt in a future election, even if the measure weren’t on the ballot then, could also be considered illegal electioneering.

Those parts of the law “do not give Texas voters notice of what is expected of them in the polling place, and they do not provide election judges with objective, workable standards to rein in their discretion,” Edison wrote. “This is impermissible under the First Amendment and these statutory provisions should be struck down as unconstitutional.”

See here for the background. Seems reasonable to me to say that you can be barred from the restricted area for wearing a shirt that directly addresses the current election, but barring a shirt that’s not about that election may be too broad. The plaintiffs are claiming a victory, even though their main actor was denied any relief; I think the defendants can be reasonably satisfied with this as well. This was a recommendation and not a ruling – the parties have two weeks to hammer out an agreement of some kind, which will then need to be approved by the judge. I’ll be honest, I had no idea that was a thing, but here we are. The lawyers out there, what do you think about this?

COVID rate slows a bit, but ICUs still full

The good news.

So far, the delta variant has fueled a month of Houston-area COVID hospitalizations over 3,000, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

But Texas Medical Center records show positive case rates may be slowly declining. According to TMC’s daily report, 1,939 people tested positive Tuesday in the Greater Houston area, a decline that may be related to COVID testing site closures as a precaution before Hurricane Nicholas.

Also Tuesday, the medical center admitted 310 new COVID-19 patients compared to the average 328 per day last week. Hospitals in the TMC remain at 90 percent capacity.

Dr. Wesley Long, a microbiologist and medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist, has been tracking and analyzing the virus and its variants through the hospital’s COVID-19 genome sequencing operation.

While Long sees the increase slowing, he hesitates to say Houston is passed the peak of the surge.

“It’s like cresting the top of the wave, you don’t know what the backside of the wave is going to look like,” Long said. “In the beginning of this fourth wave, there were some people hopeful it would go up quickly and come down quickly. That’s not the case.”

The fourth wave’s peak has been broader than previous waves, which spiked and declined within about 25-30 days, Long explained. The big question with the delta wave is whether it will plateau at a high rate of hospitalizations or have a slow decline.

“It’s hard to know how other things like holidays and school will affect the case count,” he said. “It’s really important to keep masking, social distancing and staying home if you’re sick because it’s important to bring the fourth wave under control.”

Another way to look at it:

The not so good news.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have been declining across Texas and the Houston region, but the virus is still keeping a high number of people in ICUs, prolonging the strain on patients waiting for critical care beds.

Last week, the number of available adult ICU beds in Texas sunk below 300 for the first time in the pandemic, with 270 beds available on Sept. 8 and 279 available on Sept. 9, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. There were 326 beds available this Wednesday, including 65 in the nine-county region surrounding Houston, the data show.

Texas Medical Center ICUs for weeks have been hovering around 90 percent full with “Phase 2” surge plans — which add 373 ICU beds to the 1,330 available in Phase 1 — activated.

[…]

ICU data is a lagging indicator of the virus’s impact, [Dr. Syed Raza, vice president of medical operations at CHI St. Luke’s Health-The Woodlands Hospital] said, because the sickest patients need care for a longer period of time. He said it is the “natural course of the pandemic” for ICUs to remain high after hospitalizations decline.

Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, said the hospital strain appears to be easing overall. The number of COVID patients in ICU beds likely peaked at the end of August, when they took up 49 percent of all critical care beds, he said. As of Wednesday, that number dropped to 45 percent.

He said he is cautiously optimistic that “we’ll continue to see this trend move in right direction.” He compared the current ICU situation to flooding during hurricane.

“We are no longer stuffing towels under the door” to stop the water, he said. “But the water is still over our threshold.”

I mean, it could be worse. It’s still not good, and it’s going to continue to not be good for awhile, but it could be worse. Keep up with the precautions, they’re our best hope in the short term as more people get vaccinated.

MKT Bridge repairs delayed

Bummer.

Months after a fire closed a key Houston trail link, opening day for the M-K-T Bridge remains up in the air, after workers discovered more repairs are needed to the old railroad crossing.

“They found additional damage caused by the fire that was not visible during the initial assessment,” the Houston Parks Board said in a statement. “Further repairs are needed before the bridge can safely reopen. In addition, there is also damage to the bridge caused by wear and tear that we would like to address while it is closed.”

That leaves the link along the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near Interstate 10 and White Oak Bayou closed for an undetermined period, officials said. Initially parks board officials planned to have the bridge open by the end of summer.

[…]

Officials closed the bridge after an Aug. 19 fire broke out in brush along the north side of White Oak Bayou. The blaze, investigated as an arson, charred the wooden beams that support the trail bridge. Houston Parks Board and city officials spent months assessing and then approving fixes to the span.

Now with more work needed, much of that process starts over again, with engineers designing the repair and the city issuing permits.

“As a result of this new development, and for safety reasons, the bridge will remain closed,” parks board officials said. “We are disappointed that the bridge will not open as originally planned and cannot say for certain when the bridge will reopen to trail users.”

See here and here for some background. No indication yet how much of a delay this will cause, but we’re already at the end of the summer, so we’re surely at least a few months out. As noted in the story, there’s now a project to extend the White Oak Bayou Trail to connect it to the MKT Bridge, which is expected to be done in early 2022. It would be awesome to have both of them done by then, but getting the bridge repair right is the more important consideration.

Interview with Anne Sung

Anne Sung

We continue with HISD candidate interviews, moving over to District VII for a visit with incumbent Anne Sung. I almost wrote “first-term incumbent”, but Sung won a special election in 2016 to succeed Harvin Moore, and was then re-elected for a full term in 2017, so technically she’s in her second term and that makes her the longest-serving incumbent on the Board. Sung is a graduate of HISD schools and Harvard University, and taught for several years at HISD and in the Rio Grande Valley via Teach for America. She serves on the boards of the SPARK Park Program, the Texas Association of School Boards, and OCA-Greater Houston, and is a former Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for Project GRAD Houston. The interview I did with her in 2016 is here, and the interview I did with her this year is here:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V

It could have been worse

Just something to ponder, from Space City Weather.

First of all, if you can remember all the way back to Saturday, I presented three different scenarios for Nicholas’ track and eventual flooding in Houston. The first of these was the “Coast Hugger,” in which the storm remained close to the Gulf, brought 2 to 4 inches of rain to Houston and higher amounts along the coast, while keeping the heaviest rains offshore. This is largely what happened, with Nicholas remaining very close to the coast even after moving inland. If we look at satellite-derived precipitation totals for the last three days, the heaviest swath of 10-20 inches of rainfall came offshore.

A track even 40 or 50 miles further inland would have set up those heaviest rains directly across the Houston metro area, and created a much more serious flood situation. Hopefully this offers you some insight into the challenge of predicting these kinds of rain events. It was a very close call, a matter of miles, between significant inland rainfall flooding in Houston, and relatively clean bayous this morning.

The second factor is wind. Nicholas turned out to be a fairly nasty storm in terms of wind gusts, and pushed a larger storm surge—as high as 6.1 feet into Clear Lake—than predicted. This is a reminder of the power of a hurricane, even one that was “only” a minimal Category 1 storm. The truth is that the track of the storm was very nearly a worst-case one for Houston in terms of winds and putting a maximum storm surge across Galveston Island and into Galveston Bay.

It is September 14, the absolute peak of hurricane season in the Atlantic, and a time when sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are at their warmest of the year. So this morning I’m thinking about what would have happened if we had not had some wind shear over the western Gulf of Mexico yesterday, or if Nicholas had been able to consolidate a more well defined and consistent center of circulation. It would have been much, much worse for all of us had a significantly stronger hurricane made landfall last night. So while we pick up the pieces this morning, realize Nicholas could have been much more of a terror.

Not the first time this year that we averted a disaster by dumb luck. We’re four years out from Harvey, 13 years out from Ike, and we’ve had plenty of non-hurricane catastrophic floods in between, so it’s not like we’ve been living a charmed life here in Houston. Lots of people here have been hit very hard, and there’s a whole lot of talk about the trauma and stress that so many folks have experienced and still experience. This is life under climate change. There are things we can do to keep it from getting worse, and there are things we can do to make it better for those who have had the hardest time. But we can’t wish it away or ignore it, and we absolutely can’t deny it. It’s up to all of us.

Interview with Sue Deigaard

Sue Deigaard

Hey, remember how there are elections this fall? It’s true! Not for the city of Houston, but for HISD and HCC, and you know what that means – candidate interviews. As you may imagine, there are a few topics of interest this year. We begin our quest with District V incumbent Trustee Sue Deigaard, elected in 2017 to succeed Mike Lunceford. Deigaard is a longtime education advocate, having served as as a parent representative on HISD’s District Advisory Committee, a board member on the Houston Center for Literacy, and a founding board member of the Braeswood Super Neighborhood Council prior to her election. She served as Board president in 2020, and is a graduate of Rice University, where she was the first member of her family to attend college. My interview with her from 2017 is here; as noted, I knew her at Rice as we were both members of the MOB. Here’s the interview:

I expect to have interviews with HISD candidates over the next four weeks, then HCC interviews after that. As always, please let me know what you think.

The final Ike Dike plan

It’s taken a long time to get to this point.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released the final version of its Coastal Texas Study, which examines a proposed coastal barrier to protect the Houston region against storm surge. The report’s completion marks a significant step for a concept that has taken years to develop. It began with the early imaginings of a Texas A&M professor, who designed a so-called “Ike Dike” to protect against devastating surge such as that seen on Bolivar Peninsula from Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Environmental advocates, regional planners and concerned residents are among those who have offered feedback on various project drafts. The details and big picture have been argued every which way. Now begins a years-long process before it can be built, leaving the region and the Houston Ship Channel still vulnerable to hurricanes as the design is sorted out and funding secured.

Here’s what you need to know now:

You can click over to read the report itself and the Chron summary. A few things have changed along the way, but the basics are still all there. The study also includes a final environmental impact statement, if you want to know more about that. The Army Corps of Engineers will sign off on the plan and send it on to Congress on or before October 12, at which point the question of funding this project, which has a $29 billion price tag, can begin in earnest. I have no idea at this point if Ike Dike funding will be part of the budget reconciliation process – I don’t think it was in the Senate’s infrastructure bill, but I could be wrong about that. I can’t wait to hear what excuse Ted Cruz will come up with to vote against this.

Hospital systems have no excuse for not mandating COVID vaccines now

So get on with it already.

Local hospitals reacted Friday to President Joseph Biden’s sweeping vaccine mandates directed at the health care workers, who make up much of the Houston workforce.

In a move that overrides Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring public institutions from issuing their own COVID-19 restrictions, the administration said it would require vaccinations for employees at health care facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

Baylor College of Medicine’s dean of clinical affairs, Dr. James McDeavitt, said Thursday he supported the new measures.

“It is the right thing to do,” he said.

Still, he wished the plan had come sooner. “It is not going to help us with the current delta surge,” he added.

[…]

Five Houston hospital systems already require a vaccine. In June, Houston Methodist became the first hospital in the nation to announce it would require its staff to be fully vaccinated, a move that met months of resistance, including a lawsuit by some employees. Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine enacted their own vaccine mandates in July; St. Luke’s Health and Texas Children’s Hospital announced similar plans in August.

Thursday’s executive order will bring similar mandates to the city’s remaining health systems.

Until now, Harris Health System and UTHealth had encouraged worker vaccinations but were unable to require it under the governor’s order.

But on Friday, Harris Health System said it “fully intends to embrace the vaccine mandate” for workers at its two hospitals, 18 community health centers and 10 clinics serving the greater Houston area. The system has not yet set a date.

UT Health said it would wait for guidance from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service, expected in October. It had not instituted a mandate as of Friday afternoon.

St. Joseph Medical Center and UTMB Galveston said they are still evaluating Biden’s plan.

While Kelsey-Seybold Clinic said in August it was waiting for full vaccine approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before asking employees to provide proof of immunization, the clinic has not announced a mandate since the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine gained full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval late last month.

See here for the background. I agree that the mandate coming out now will have little to no effect on the current surge, given that it takes a few weeks to get both shots and the full effect of them, and that it will take time for these hospital systems to get their programs going. It would still be nice if some of them had more of a sense of urgency about it. This is still by far the best thing we can do for the medium to longer term, and at the very least these hospital systems should be setting a better example. Get it done already, y’all. The Trib has more.

A bit of good news in the wastewater

I’ll take it where I can get it.

Community spread of coronavirus is on the decline from its recent summertime high, but experts warn that Labor Day gatherings and kids’ return to classrooms could bring a rash of new infections in the coming weeks.

The latest samples of Houston’s wastewater — a highly sensitive method for tracking coronavirus — show diminishing traces of the virus across the region, said Loren Hopkins, the Houston Health Department’s chief environmental science officer. The results indicate a slight drop in person-to-person spread.

“The positivity rates are still alarmingly high, the wastewater rates are still alarmingly high, but it may be trending down,” Hopkins said Wednesday.

The decline could be short-lived.

The holiday weekend and the start of school, which spurred record infections among children, will likely keep the Houston area in “plateau mode” for the foreseeable future, said Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center.

On Tuesday, the Texas Medical Center reported that the rate of transmission across the Houston area was 0.87; the average for the previous week was 0.99. Both figures landing below 1.0 is a good sign; any number above 1.0 means the virus is spreading through the community.

Still, McKeon urged caution. Tuesday’s low daily transmission rate of 0.87 could be artificially deflated due to low testing rates, he said, which commonly occur over holiday weekends.

“We are just coming out of the Labor Day weekend and we typically do not see the impact of holidays for one to two weeks,” McKeon said.

[…]

Houston’s coronavirus hospitalizations slowed by 2.3 percent in the past week, but remained only slightly lower than August’s record peak. As of Tuesday, 3,370 people were in area hospitals for COVID-19, down from the record high of 3,500 on Aug. 24, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Ballooning school transmissions are another concern, experts said, especially in districts that do not have mask mandates. Student infections are rapidly rising across the state, with the total number of positive cases among public school students surging by 90 percent just a few weeks into the new school year.

“We need mask mandates to protect our school children from getting infected and bringing it home to Mom and Dad,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at Texas Medical Center’s School of Public Health.

The wastewater had documented to surge, and it will be the leading indicator when there is a real decline. I hope people were cautious over the Labor Day weekend, but we’ll know soon enough what if any effect that had. As for mask mandates in the schools, it seems to be working pretty well for HISD. I keep saying, none of this is a mystery, we know what we need to do, we just have to do it.

The Census and gentrification

Some population trends of interest in Houston.

People of color led Houston’s growth over the last 10 years, but that trend wasn’t reflected across all the city’s historic Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Census data released earlier this month paints a changing map of Houston’s racial demographics. In some neighborhoods, such as the historically Black Third Ward, the changes are stark — a byproduct of ongoing gentrification. In other neighborhoods, such as Sunnyside and the Near Northside, the shifts are subtle but hint at the beginnings of a similar process.

The data confirms what residents have known for a long time: The changes are nothing new, and the stakes are high, experts say.

“This is a crisis of enormous proportions,” said Assata Richards, director of the Sankofa Research Institute. “It’s not just that people have lost their communities, communities have lost their people. Housing rates have increased, opportunities have decreased and the protections for naturally occurring affordable housing aren’t there.”

Black people now make up just 45 percent of Third Ward, a drop from 71 percent in 2010, according to the census bureau. Both numbers increase about 10 percent if you remove the census tract that houses the University of Houston.

Third Ward saw its Black population drop about 15 percent to 8,045 residents, though the neighborhood’s overall population grew about 35 percent, census data shows. The white population rose about 170 percent, from 1,283 residents in 2010 to 3,465 in 2020. White people make up about 20 percent of the neighborhood’s 17,706 residents.

“It’s like a flood. A hurricane has hit the city, and the flood has washed away African Americans from historic neighborhoods,” said Richards, who lives in Third Ward. “I’ve seen the disappearance of Black people at the parks, at the post office, at the corner store. The places in our community are being reshaped and are beginning to become foreign to me. It has a very disorienting effect. These are my neighbors and family members and people I love.”

The gentrification occurring in Third Ward is happening in other racial and ethnic enclaves throughout the city. Second Ward saw its Latino population drop about 25 percent, from 10,802 residents to 8,111 over the last 10 years. The white population rose to 2,572 from 1,711 residents in 2010, an increase of about 50 percent.

Despite Houston adding nearly 94,000 Latinos over the last decade, almost none of that growth occurred in the East End, Near Northside or Northside, traditional Latino strongholds. Nearly every census tract in those areas lost at least some portion of its Latino residents, regardless of whether there was an increase in white residents.

That’s why experts say the issue is larger than just a matter of white people moving into a neighborhood historically occupied by a particular racial or ethnic group.

In fact, the white growth in Third Ward and other areas inside Loop 610, such as the East End and the Heights, is mostly an anomaly. The white population in Houston decreased by about 30 percent over the last decade, though Houston’s overall population rose by 10 percent. That growth was driven almost entirely by people of color and not limited to neighborhoods in the urban core.

“What happens when it becomes more profitable for a landowner to sell than it is to rent is that the people who were long-term renters end up displaced,” said Dr. Quianta Moore, of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “Some look at gentrification as neighborhood revitalization and say that’s not a bad thing, but regardless of the definition you use, it’s always problematic when people are forcibly displaced from their neighborhood.”

“When you have economic factors that drive and uproot people out of a neighborhood … there’s a negative psychological harm and increased morbidity and risk of death,” Moore said, citing “Root Shock,” a 2004 book by Dr. Mindy Fullilove.

The main problem here is real estate prices rising at too fast a rate, which makes a lot of older and historic neighborhoods, including and especially Black and Latino neighborhoods, unaffordable for current residents. I’d love to see more stories that go into the policy changes that could be made to try to reverse, or at least slow down, these trends. Denser development and more investment in transit would surely help, but I don’t claim to be smart enough to know the particulars. I’ve seen much of Inner Loop Houston transform from a place where anyone could live to a place where most people can’t afford to live in my thirty-plus years here. There’s been a lot of positive change, in terms of food and amenities and arts, but we need that to be the reality for all of Houston.

Mayor Turner orders unvaxxed city employees to get tested twice a week

So maybe get vaccinated, and avoid all the hassle.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Unvaccinated city workers must get tested for COVID-19 twice a month and report their results to the human resources department, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Wednesday.

Turner signed an executive order implementing the policy,which takes effect Oct 8. It will allow some exemptions for religious and medical reasons.

The plans come as the city regularly has had more than 300 active cases of the virus among its workforce, Turner said. The latest numbers showed 342 workers with the virus, including 129 police, 161 municipal and 52 fire department employees.

Those cases hamper city operations, the mayor said.

“When you have 129 police officers with COVID, they’re not able to perform their jobs. Same thing with municipal workers, and, for example, permitting, that slows things down,” Turner said. “Simply don’t want them to get sick and don’t want anybody, anybody to die.”

[…]

The policy will apply to all police, fire and municipal staff who have not been fully vaccinated. It will not apply to elected officials or appointed members to the city’s boards and commissions.

The fire, police and municipal workers unions did not respond to requests for comment on Turner’s plan.

Turner said staff will face disciplinary action if they do not comply.

“It could even cost you your job,” the mayor said.

The mayor in recent weeks had teased a policy to encourage vaccinations, saying many city workers have not gotten their shots.

Mayor Turner implemented a mask mandate for city employees in early August. As far as I know, that executive order has not been involved in any of the lawsuits over mandates and Greg Abbott’s ban on them. This is a step up from that – it’s not a vaccine mandate per se, but it’s pretty close and I doubt Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton will split hairs. (They already have a reason to be whipped into a frenzy about this.) Whether or not cities can issue vaccine mandates is on the agenda for the next special session. What I’m saying is, I don’t know how long I expect this policy to last. And that’s before we hear of the inevitable resistance from the police and firefighter unions – police unions around the country have been staunch resisters of vaccine mandates, and we know how well the Mayor and the HPFFA get along. I support what the Mayor is doing here – if anything, I’d want to see the testing be more frequent – I just doubt he’ll be able to fully implement it. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

Bike trail connections news

Here’s something nice and simple and good, because we could use that.

The White Oak Bayou Greenway and MKT Trail will soon be connected.

The city announced Thursday that the two trails will be linked by a 850-foot connection, which was described as “one of the last critical pieces needed” for the trail systems.

Councilmember Abbie Kamin said the project creates safe access and greater connectivity between two popular trails in her district, according to a news release. Carol Haddock, Houston public works director, said the connection is “progress toward creating a safer and equitable transportation network for all users.”

The new MKT Spur will branch off from the MKT trail north of White Oak Bayou toward the east, connecting it to the White Oak Bayou Trail, which currently dead ends under Studemont.

There’s a similar story in CultureMap. Construction should begin “in the fall” and be done in early 2022, which I had noted in this post about the repairs to the MKT Bridge. This is all right in my neighborhood and it makes me happy, but a whole lot of people use these trails.

For purposes of illustration, this is the endpoint of the White Oak trail:

There’s a branch-off right before there that takes you into Stude Park. When this is extended, it will continue on along this part of the bayou:

That’s a view from the Studewood overpass. You can see the MKT Bridge up ahead in the distance. Here’s another view, from the Studewood side of the MKT Bridge:

The continuation of the trail would be on the far side of the bayou in this picture, going either over or around that little culvert there. It would end up on the other side of the MKT Bridge:

I assume they’ll do something to ease the downward slope, to minimize the odds of someone losing control and ending up in the bayou. From there, you cross the bridge and can access the rest of the bayou trail, from the access to it on the other side.

Interestingly, there are a couple of trail maps around where I took those pictures that show “before” and “after” versions of the trails. This is from the “trail detour” map on the south end of the MKT Bridge:

Note the disconnect in the trail from Stude Park to the bridge. Now here’s what you see on the trail map at the new parking lot on Studewood, just south of I-10 where the trail crosses over Studewood and approaches the MKT Bridge:

There’s your map of the near future. It took me a minute to realize what this meant and where the extension would meet up with the existing trail – at first, I thought it meant somewhere on the far side of the bridge, and I spent a little too much time trying to figure out where that might be. But you can see the whole thing in these pictures above. And in a few months, you’ll be able to traverse it. I’ll do an updated photo set when it’s all open. Gail Delaughter has a few photos of her own on Twitter.

Zombie trees

We are still experiencing the effects of the freeze.

Never turn down an opportunity to reference a Rush song

Zombies are in your yard, in parks and along roadsides and other green spaces throughout Texas.

They’re trees that are partly dead and partly alive, struggling to move forward and waiting for the next big thing — even hotter temperatures, a drought, a hurricane — to seal their fate.

Count zombie trees as one more lingering effect of February’s winter storm.

Arborists and other tree experts say that in the months to come, the state could lose thousands if not millions of trees ranging from tall Mexican or California fan palms to a wide range of hardwoods such as lace bark elm, Chinese tallow and water oak. This would be the most dangerous threat to Texas’s tree inventory since the 2011 drought.

Trees with lots of dead branches and new green sprouts shooting out of the center are likely zombie trees. Even tall palms with new green fronds on top could be zombies, because you can’t see the potential damage inside of their lanky trunks.

Matt Petty, assistant district manager and a certified arborist at the Davey Tree Expert Co., said that the International Society of Arboriculture is calling for a two-year watch on trees damaged in the freeze.

“The zombie tree concept comes from trees that, from a distance, appear to be normal or healthy and as you get closer, you see the differences. They’re dead and we don’t know it yet,” Petty said, noting that the trees could have been struggling before the freeze. “Trees that lost their leaves from the freeze have sprouted out and, in many cases, look like they have recovered. As temperatures heat up, though, we’ll have trees that die.”

Petty said that he’s seen sycamores, rain trees, Chinese tallow, elms and water oaks suffering damage, but live oaks and magnolia trees — both popular shade trees in the Houston area — are doing well.

[…]

David N. Appel, a Texas A&M professor and a specialist in tree pathology noted that “zombie tree” isn’t a horticultural or agricultural term and showed restraint in using it.

He said that most trees with dead-looking branches and new shoots coming from the center could be zombie trees, but not all are. They’re certainly damaged trees, some of which will live and some of which will die, and it’s fairly obvious which branches should be pruned back.

“I’ve been from the Rio Grande all the way up to Wichita Falls, and I have talked to a lot of arborists and one thing is clear: The damage was remarkably similar, it’s just that the species were different depending on where you are,” Appel said. “In one place you hear a lot about lace bark elms, but in another place it might be some of the oak species. In Wichita Falls it was the Japanese black pine and Mondell pine.”

Appel said Texas will lose hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of trees.

“The picture has become much clearer than it was two months ago, but we still (won’t know the fate of) a lot of these trees for a long while,” he said. “We aren’t out of the woods yet, and that’s not a tree joke.”

The story references the 2011 drought, which was hell on trees in Houston and around the state, and Hurricane Harvey, neither of which is a great comparison for arborial life. Some trees, like palms, were recognizably dead following the February freeze, but for others it may not be certain for another year or two. For those of us who live in neighborhoods with older trees, it is worth the time and expense to have an arborist look at the trees around your house, because dead branches are a real threat in a big storm. Hope for the best, and do what you can to take care of the trees on your property.

I-45 remains in the funding plan

For now. Ask again in 90 days.

Interstate 45 still is on a road to rebuild after Texas transportation officials on Tuesday kept the controversial project in the state’s 10-year construction plans, but warned that failing to get federal highway officials to remove their hold on it could halt the plan altogether later this year.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday approved the state’s 2022-2031 unified transportation program, keeping the I-45 project listed in it. The unified program is the guidepost for freeway construction in Texas, as only projects included can receive state funding.

That approval, however, is contingent on settling a dispute between the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. Federal officials told TxDOT in March to stop work on the project until concerns related to its impacts on minority and low-income communities and how TxDOT addressed those effects is completed.

“It is not the local support that’s the problem. It’s Washington, D.C., (that) is the problem, impeding our ability to go forward with this project,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said.

Federal officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We will give FHWA 90 days and we will come back and revisit this,” Bugg said. “After the 90 days have expired we will discuss what to do with the project.”

He said if the issues have not made progress, the commission could start the process of removing the project from the long-term plan. TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams said removing the project would require another 60-day public comment process.

Williams said discussions with federal officials are constructive and continuing, but he would not speculate whether it is practical or possible for federal officials to operate on the commission’s timeline.

[…]

As part of the UTP public comment process, TxDOT received 12,700 comments, 8,170 of them related to the I-45 project. The response, which included an online poll, was a record-breaking amount of public engagement for a TxDOT program, officials said.

Of those comments related to I-45, TxDOT said 5,529 — around two-thirds — supported keeping the funding in place.

Critics, however, questioned the process TxDOT used to solicit comments. The online poll, opponents said, set up a “take it or leave it” choice of either TxDOT’s vision or nothing at all.

“It is your responsibility as stewards of taxpayer dollars to engage the public in productive ways and you have failed to do so,” said Ines Siegel, interim executive director of LINKHouston.

See here, here, and here for some background; the version of this story from before the meeting is here. I might suggest that the issue here is not with the FHWA and its timelines, but if we had agreement on that point we probably wouldn’t be here right now. Not much else to say here, we’ll see where we’re at after we catch up with that can we just kicked.

Here come those electric buses

Here comes the commitment to buy them, anyway.

Local transit officials no longer are blowing hot air about the emissions coming out of Metro buses.

Board members Thursday approved a plan for all new Metropolitan Transit Authority buses to produce zero emissions by 2030, setting one of the largest bus fleets in the nation on a path to pull away from diesel engines and toward electric, hydrogen or some other alternative.

“It could not be more vital to take this step forward,” Chairwoman Carrin Patman said. “We have the capability to do it and the expertise to do it.”

The commitment came with the board’s approval of the purchase of 20 electric buses — part of a pilot to further test battery-driven buses and how well they perform in the heat of a Houston summer. Setting a goal is part of Metro’s work to create an agency climate action plan, which will be written by a committee led by former Harris County Clerk and Metro board member Chris Hollins.

[…]

The change will not happen overnight, transit officials acknowledged. Metro, with a fleet of more than 1,200 buses, typically buys about 100 new buses a year.

Board members said in the interim they expect Metro to move aggressively but deliberately to new engines, either more natural gas, which is cleaner than diesel, or hundreds of new electric or hydrogen buses.

“Every step in that direction will be helpful,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said last week during a discussion of agency’s goals.

See here for the background. A bit of wiggle room in that commitment, which is more about phasing out diesel than onboarding a particular technology, but that’s fine. I look forward to seeing which way they wind up going.

What about City Council and redistricting?

Of interest:

The embedded image is a table of population figures for Houston City Council by district, broken down by race and ethnicity. The “target” population for each district, which is to say basically the total city population as enumerated by the Census (2,304,580) divided by 11. That number is 209,507, and as former County Clerk numbers guy Hector DeLeon observes, it’s the mostly Black and Latino districts that would need people added to them to meet that.

Note that the red negative numbers are in relation to the target population. If you want to know how each district has changed since 2011, when City Council was expanded to 11 members, part of a court settlement from some years before, you can review the actual population totals that the districts had at that time here. There’s some variation in there, with a range of 180K to 199K and a target of 190,859. A little variation, up to about five percent in either direction, is tolerated to accommodate other factors like communities of interest.

With that, you can see that districts H and I actually lost a little bit of population, while J is basically the same. To the extent that there was an undercount in Houston, due to COVID and Trump malfeasance and whatever else, those are the districts where you would expect it to manifest. District C grew by about 46K, districts D and G by about 40K each.

The big question is whether or not City Council is required to redistrict. It’s my understanding that the charter mandates a review of population figures to ensure that the districts are not “materially unbalanced”. As you may suspect from that kind of wording, there’s some discretion in there. There’s also some time, since the next city elections are in 2023. HISD has elections in 2021, but their filing deadline has already passed, and there wouldn’t be time to review and redraw their boundaries for this November in any event. So, it’s 2023 for them as well.

Metro moving forward on new BRT line

As they should.

Even with fewer riders hopping aboard and a more dour financial outlook, Metro officials say the agency is full steam ahead on a host of projects aimed at adding buses to scores of routes and neighborhoods.

That includes an approval scheduled for Thursday by the Metropolitan Transit Authority board to commit $40 million to development of a planned bus rapid transit line from around Tidwell and Interstate 69 to Westchase, via Denver Harbor, downtown, Midtown, Greenway Plaza and Uptown.

The project, similar to the Silver Line along Post Oak that opened a year ago and uses dedicated bus lanes to deliver service to stations akin to light rail, is one of dozens in Metro’s $7.5 billion long-range plan. That plan, approved by voters in November 2019, relies heavily on federal grants, which could come quickly if Washington lawmakers approve budget and infrastructure bills in the coming weeks or months.

“If we can get our ducks in a row on as many corridors as we can, that is good for the agency,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

Metro submitted a preliminary application for funding related to the so-called University Line bus rapid transit project to the Federal Transit Administration in late July. Houston transit officials heard back from their federal counterparts in one week, a quick turnaround for a first series of questions, said Shri Reddy, executive vice-president of planning, engineering, and construction at Metro. Among the issues raised by federal officials was more assurance that Metro had committed money for developing the project, prompting Thursday’s vote.

That story was published on Wednesday; on Thursday, the board approved the money as planned, while giving me a bizarre sense of deja vu.

Seriously, Afton Oaks? After all this time? I mean, it’s all residential on that stretch of Richmond, so I doubt any stops there would be busy, but geez. Anyway, Metro is projecting less revenue now than it had originally planned for and that could lead to some uncomfortable decisions about service levels down the line if actual revenue is in line with that, but that’s a concern for later. For now, this is a good start.

More fourplexes

I am in favor of this.

Houston is mulling changes to its planning rules that could encourage a broader variety of housing types, such as triplexes and fourplexes, that developers and the city say could create more affordable options and help fill an unmet niche in the local housing market between single-family homes and larger apartment complexes or townhouses.

The current rules discourage those “middle” forms of development by allowing no more than two units on a single-family residential plat. The code allows for a duplex, or a home and one “accessory dwelling unit,” such as a garage apartment.

If owners want develop a project with more units, they have to get a commercial multifamily designation, which triggers higher financing costs and more regulations — such as the number of parking spaces, or the width of the driveway — that make the projects less feasible. The city did not approve a single new permit for three-, four- or five-unit structures in 2019 or 2020, an indication that it can be cost prohibitive for developers to pursue them.

“All of these requirements discourage such developments,” said Suvidha Bandi, principal planner for the city Planning Department.

The city has released a survey seeking public input on the rules, and whether they should be changed. The survey has garnered roughly 500 responses to date, and the Planning Department recently extended its deadline to Aug. 16. The potential changes are part of the Livable Places initiative, a bid to make the city more walkable, affordable and equitable.

[…]

Any changes would not supersede local deed restrictions, which could limit such developments in certain neighborhoods, Planning Director Margaret Wallace Brown said.

If the city were to loosen the planning restrictions, it could encourage more development in what housing experts call the “missing middle,” the dearth of housing supply between single-family homes and larger complexes. Daniel Parolek, an urban designer who coined the term, has said those developments typically have been illegal or discouraged in many parts of the United States since the 1940s.

That is when many of the existing triplexes and fourplexes in Houston were built, according to city planning officials. Since then, city planning rules have made it more difficult to build them.

As the story notes, this is the start of a long process, as a proposal has yet to be drafted and would need approvals from the Planning Commission and City Counci. Houston used to have a lot of three- and four-plexes. Montrose had a ton of them, usually those foursquare brick buildings that I’ve always liked, in the 90s when I was living there. They were definitely the affordable places to live, and they could be again. It just makes sense to me to revise the rules that are now preventing their construction. Really, we need to have a conversation about doing this in neighborhoods that have deed restrictions prohibiting them as well, which includes the neighborhood I live in now. The fact is that Houston is a much more expensive place to live now than it used to be, despite the vast amount of open space we have to build more housing, and we need to take action to make more affordable housing available. This would do that, and I support it.

HISD starts its year

Good luck, kids. You too, parents.

For the second straight year, Houston ISD is set to welcome back nearly 200,000 students in the midst of a pandemic.

The similarities between last year and Monday’s reopening end there, however.

HISD entered the 2020-21 school year with COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in Harris County on a downward slope. Nonetheless, the district began the year online and did not open its campuses until October. Nearly half its students finished the school year learning remotely even as case numbers had waned toward the end. Those who returned to campus remained masked up, socially distanced, and in some cases, behind plexiglass.

This year, the district is plunging right in, offering limited remote learning to vulnerable kids, requiring face masks but relaxing social distancing requirements while the number of COVID cases and hospitalizations are rising higher than ever, driven by the highly contagious delta variant and a lagging vaccination rate in Harris County.

Many of those cases involve young people, including some under 12 unable to be vaccinated. Eighteen percent of all the new cases in the Texas Medical Center this month have been children, President and CEO Bill McKeon said.

A look at COVID numbers in the surrounding districts, most of which have been open for less than two weeks, provides a glimpse into what the largest school district in the state could face when it opens its doors Monday.

A week and a half into the school year, Conroe ISD reported 1,487 students and 143 employees were isolated with symptomatic or test-positive COVID-19. Fort Bend ISD disclosed 536 total cases among students and staff. At Spring ISD, officials had 139 active student cases on the seventh day back.

On Friday, HISD had 157 active cases. The district finished last year with 2,037 total cases among students and another 1,600 among staff, according to state figures.

“We are really shoveling water out of the boat as we go because the cases are going up. The cases are jumping into the boat while we are shoveling them out of the boat,” HISD Superintendent Millard House II said of the region’s surge. “We are doing the best job we can, being as strategic as we can — keeping students and staff first in every decision that we make.”

It is what it is at this point. I forget where I saw it, but I came across the observation that HISD and other school districts were planning over the summer to emphasize making up for lost ground this year, and instead they’re having to deal with another form of the pandemic. The school year starts as the case rate is as high as it’s been since February, young kids still can’t be vaccinated, and the district is fighting to be able to enforce its mask mandate. I’m happy with the way Superintendent House has handled this so far, and I’m cautiously hopeful that we can get through the worst of this and be in a good place when we do. If you have schoolkids like I do, good luck and stay safe.

Yes, the wastewater is also pointing to a COVID surge

In case you were wondering.

There is more COVID-19 in the city’s wastewater system now than at any time in the pandemic, city officials said Wednesday, the latest warning that the virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate.

Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, said there is more than three times as much virus in the system as there was last July. The volume also is higher than in January, during the most recent spike. Persse said that wastewater data, a precursor to other data points, show the surge will only grow worse in the coming weeks.

“We are at a level of virus in the wastewater that we have never seen before,” Persse said. “The wastewater predicts what we’ll see in the positivity (rate) by two weeks, which predicts what we’ll see in hospitalizations by about two weeks.”

[…]

The findings came during a news conference in which the city announced it will partner with Harris County and up to 17 school districts to vaccinate students over 12 and their families every Saturday in August, an effort they are calling “Super Saturday.” The inoculations will occur in school buildings throughout the region.

Persse described the state of the surge in stark terms, pointing to dire situations in area hospitals and rising cases and hospitalizations. The Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital declared an “internal disaster” Sunday night amid a nursing shortage and an influx of patients, circumstances officials said are occurring in other area hospitals, as well.

Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon earlier this week said the region is “headed for dark times,” and the hospital system has exceeded its base intensive care capacity, opening unused wards to care for new patients.

“If you are currently unvaccinated, you need to consider that you represent a potential danger to yourself, and others, and most particularly your own family,” Persse said. “If you are not vaccinated… your chances getting through this without having to become either vaccinated or infected, is essentially zero.”

Just over 64 percent of Houstonians over 12 have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to city data, and 54.3 percent are fully vaccinated. The numbers among youth residents are more paltry, though: 28.1 percent of 12-17-year-old Houston residents are fully vaccinated, and 38.5 percent have received their first dose.

“If your child is 12 or older, stop and get them the shot,” said Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II. “Increasing vaccination rates among our communities will help ease the worries of our families and their children returning to school.”

This is another one from earlier in the month, as things were really starting to get bad. We are familiar with this project, and it has been a big success. I just wish it had better news for us, but this is where we are. Getting more of those 12-and-older kids vaccinated would make a big difference as well, so I hope that effort is successful. We’re on our own, so we’d better act accordingly.

A few words from the CEO of the Medical Center

From an interview he did with Lisa Gray.

What we’re seeing, sadly, is more of the same, only with more intense numbers. The number of people who are testing positive in our community continues to escalate month over month. The test positivity rate is now at 15.1 percent.

But probably the most accurate reflection is our hospitalizations. We just reached an all-time high: 421 people were admitted to our hospitals for COVID yesterday.

Step back for a second and look at that relative to the entire pandemic. Back in June and July, we had two weeks where the average number of hospital admissions was over 300. That was in the second wave.

Fast forward to wave three: We had four weeks that averaged over 300.

Now we are into our second week with no slowing the pace. At 421 today, we are seeing the highest peak of all of the pandemic going back 18 months now.

It’s largely a pandemic of the unwilling — people unwilling to be vaccinated. Now 44% of Houstonians are unvaccinated. Those are the vast majority of the people that are showing up in our emergency rooms and and in our ICUs. They’re very sick.

Many people thought that they were young, and therefore their immune system would be strong enough to protect them. That is not the case with this deadly delta variant, which is three times more transmissible than the earlier alpha variant.

Our hospitals’ staffs are 18 months into this. They’re exhausted.

And we have far fewer nurses than we used to have. They’re being recruited to other states, like Florida, that are even worse off than Texas.

The saddest fact is, 18 percent of all the new cases so far in August are children.

With the alpha variant, everyone thought, “OK, it’s 65 and older.” So we went after the nursing homes, and we did a brilliant job at protecting the elderly population and those who are immunocompromised.

But now, that vulnerable population is children under 12, who are not able to be vaccinated. We are predicting a mess in our schools. With nearly 20 percent of new cases being children, now we’re going to huddle them together in schools? Some may have masks. Some may not. It’s a recipe for disaster.

You can read the rest or give it a listen, but his answer to the first question tells you most of what you need to know. Hospitals around the state have been facing a similar crisis. I keep harping on this because it needs to be harped on, as we have a governor who can’t follow his own dictum about “responsible behavior”, a felonious Attorney General who’s soliciting snitches so he can go after rogue mask mandates, and a Legislature that wants to ban mask mandates forever. This is what we’re up against.

I don’t know if I’d call this “good news”, but the projections say we can see the beginning of the end from here.

While hospitalization numbers are nearing the heights they reached during the state’s most fatal surge in January, public health projections indicate that the latest wave will result in fewer deaths — mostly because senior citizens are widely vaccinated and hospital patients are now much younger. Still, state health officials are preparing for the worst, preemptively ordering a fleet of five mortuary trailers from the federal government in case infections spiral.

Public health experts still expect at least some increase in coronavirus deaths over the coming weeks, as fatalities are a lagging indicator — cases rise first, then hospitalizations, then intensive care usage, then deaths.

Now, the state is averaging about 100 daily deaths, a number not expected to exceed 150 over the next month before tapering off. That’s nowhere near the 350 COVID deaths per day that the state saw in January.

“We’ll go up some, but again, not to the levels that we saw back in January,” said Dr. David Lakey, the vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer at the University of Texas system, referencing the forecasts.

Still, the precipitous rise in hospitalizations is a cause for concern. More than 12,000 Texans were in the hospital with the virus on Wednesday, with dozens of Texas hospitals running out of ICU beds (during the winter surge, hospitalizations peaked at just over 14,000). Patients are younger than they were in the first two waves of the virus, and almost everyone facing severe illness is unvaccinated.

[…]

Projection models following Texas’ daily COVID case and hospitalization counts anticipate a rise in deaths in the near future. By mid-September, a model offered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the Lone Star State will see about 790 deaths per week, or roughly 113 per day.

Another model, produced by researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, projects about 125 deaths per day by mid-September in a worst-case scenario. In both forecasts, it appears that the state has already seen the brunt of its COVID deaths.

That’s largely because the vast majority of Texas’ over-65 population — those most vulnerable to the coronavirus — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, experts said.

“Those that were most at risk of having severe disease have some protection, and that’s good protection because of the vaccine,” Lakey said.

While a spike in hospitalizations and ICU bed usage does portend fatalities, the relationship between those data points will be less “linear” during the third wave, he said. It remains to be seen whether young patients will have other, long-term side effects of the virus — what some are calling “long COVID.”

Deaths will also decrease as more people become vaccinated or recover from the illness, said Dr. Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metric science at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The institute’s researchers estimate that about 74 percent of Texans will be immune to the delta variant, either through infection or vaccination, by Dec. 1.

“The virus is running out of people to infect,” he said.

The forecasts should not be interpreted as an assured outcome, though. Public buy-in on safety precautions, including mask-wearing, will ultimately determine the trajectory of the third wave.

In other words, don’t expect a best-case outcome, because we’re not allowed to do the things we need to do to make this less awful. Note also that while extensive vaccinations among older folks will help to limit fatalities, there will still be an excess of deaths in the coming weeks because of the overfilled hospitals – people with other serious conditions will die as a result, as was the case in the previous waves. Now is a very bad time to have a heart attack or be in a car crash.

At least there is a rise in the rate of people getting vaccinated, now that the threat is so much higher. Some of that is the result of mandates and restrictions on unvaccinated people, some is due to pressures and enticements from employers, and some is due to straight up financial rewards. Whatever it takes, whatever it takes.

FBI involved in Deshaun Watson case

Never a good sign, though there might be a wrinkle in this one.

The FBI is looking into sexual assault allegations against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, according to opposing legal parties in the player’s civil court cases.

The extent of those probes remains unclear. Defense attorney Rusty Hardin on Wednesday declined to call any federal interest in the sexual assault allegations part of an “investigation,” but he said he knows definitively that one FBI investigation is underway into claims that a woman extorted Watson for money.

The high-profile defense attorney held a 20-minute news conference in direct response to recent statements by his opponent, Tony Buzbee, who said that he spoke to representatives of the federal agency.

Buzbee told the website League of Justice that the FBI appeared interested in Watson’s alleged use of the internet and interstate travel to solicit sessions from massage therapists.

Hardin said he learned Tuesday that the FBI was checking into some claims presented in the 22 civil suits filed earlier this year against Watson. He said he welcomes those federal investigations, but he simultaneously denounced Buzbee for bringing them to the media.

“He wants to leverage his civil lawsuits,” Hardin said. “He knows those lawsuits have no future in the long run. But he wants to be out there and promote himself and the lawsuits and try to get Deshaun to settle them and pay him money so he can ride into the sunset.”

Buzbee, who is representing the women suing the 25-year-old for sexual assault and harassment, denied that any of his clients were being investigated.

“I think Rusty is reaching for straws and that’s kind of silly,” Buzbee said. “God bless him, the FBI, is, not as far as I know, is not investigating the women who have been victimized. They’re investigating Deshaun Watson.”

Buzbee later clarified that he does not know whether there is an official “investigation” into Watson, but that he did speak with federal agents.

[…]

Hardin on Wednesday focused on claims that one of those women extorted Watson for money before filing a lawsuit alleging he forced oral sex. He read text messages that appeared to show the woman apologizing for her own behavior during a session.

The attorney said the FBI approached his team in April about those allegations, and Watson later spoke to the bureau about them.

Buzbee said he detected irony in Hardin’s statements about his client.

“He’s doing the best he can do, but it’s kind of sad that he’s turning it around on the women,” he said.

Hard to know what to make of this. I’m loathe to believe any claim Tony Buzbee makes, but I’d say he’s more likely to be right about what the FBI is doing than Rusty Hardin is in this case. But who knows? The FBI said nothing as per their usual policy, and whatever it is they may be doing, they’ll be done when they’re done. So we wait.

HISD warns of “consequences” for not complying with their mask mandate

Consequences are, well, a natural consequence of non-compliance.

Houston ISD students and employees who refuse to wear masks when the school year begins could face discipline and be forced to temporarily learn online under new guidelines released by the district.

With exceptions and reasonable accommodations made for people with a “documented medical disability,” the district’s updated back-to-school plan, released Friday evening, says that those who refuse to comply with the mask mandate will face consequences.

HISD Superintendent Millard House II implemented a mask requirement on all students, staff and visitors to all campuses and facilities last week, with the support of the board of trustees.

Under the new rules, laid out in the district’s “Ready, Set, Go” plan, if a student is not wearing a mask, one will be provided. Students who refuse to wear masks will be “placed in a separate area” and their parents or guardians contacted. Students who continue to refuse to use face masks will be directed to stay home, marked absent and offered temporary online learning. Kids who refuse to wear face coverings on buses also may have their transportation privileges suspended.

An employee who refuses to wear a mask will be sent home for one day on administrative leave. A second occurrence will result in the employee being sent home and his or her personal time docked. If an employee violates the mandate a third time, he or she will face discipline, be sent home and personal time docked.

[…]

Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said she thinks HISD Superintendent Millard House is making the right move with the new rules.

“I feel that he’s trying to do what is best for staff and students,” she said. “Employers have a right to do what they think is best for their employees.”

However, like all disciplinary actions, the union will defend its members who face consequences for not wearing masks.

“We would defend any member facing any disciplinary action,” she said. “We have an obligation to do that.”

See here for some background; I missed the story where HISD approved the proposal. I agree completely with this approach. Put the burden on the people who refuse to comply. There’s no better way to maximize compliance. We’ll see what the legal situation looks like on Monday, but I fully support this approach.

The alternative looks something like this:

With the official return of students to campuses in Katy ISD slated for Wednesday, Aug. 18, the district reports it currently has 100 reported cases of COVID-19 throughout the district.

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, the hardest-hit campuses are among the biggest in the district including:

Katy High School with six cases, including three staff members and three students.

[…]

While not mandated, the district encourages students and staff to wear face coverings when indoors, particularly for kindergarten through sixth-grade students until a COVID-19 vaccine is approved for students those ages.

Social distancing is encouraged, when possible.

Or this:

A small school district in West Texas has apparently become the first in the state this school year to temporarily shut its doors due to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community.

An official of the Iraan-Sheffield Independent School District, with fewer than 400 students, announced Monday that it will close as of Tuesday and aims to reopen Aug. 30.

“This decision was made to ensure the safety of our students and staff as well as to make certain that we have appropriate staff available for each campus,” Superintendent Tracy Canter said in the statement.

Two small East Texas school districts — Bloomburg and Waskom — also planned to cancel classes at some schools this week due to the coronavirus, The Dallas Morning News reported.

[…]

The district’s back-to-school plan said masks were not required but were strongly encouraged.

Over the last week, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Pecos County, where Iraan is located, have risen from 9.5% to about 14.5% of hospital capacity, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

This is what “voluntary compliance” will get you. Give me mandatory compliance, if you want better results.

Fired Methodist employees file another lawsuit

In state court this time, in what should be one of the friendliest venues available to them.

A new lawsuit filed Monday in Montgomery County against Houston Methodist claims the hospital wrongfully terminated 62 employees over their COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

The suit, filed by attorney Jared Woodfill, alleges the hospital’s COVID vaccine mandate goes against Gov. Greg Abbott’s statement that the government can’t mandate vaccine passports in Texas, that breakthrough infections pose a problem with the current COVID-19 vaccines available and that there was no exception for people who have not been vaccinated because they previously caught COVID-19 as a result of their employment.

In June, a federal judge tossed a lawsuit filed against Houston Methodist Hospital over its COVID-19 vaccine requirement, finding that the mandate “was not coercion.”

Houston Methodist became the first hospital in the nation to require a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment. The health system’s human resources policy required employees to be fully vaccinated by June 7, or risk suspension and eventual termination.

[…]

Woodfill, the former Harris County GOP chairman who is representing the 62 plaintiffs, noted in an interview that Abbott has repeatedly said vaccines will not be mandated by the state.

Specifically, he noted Abbott’s most recent order, in which the governor said Texans “have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses and engage in leisure activities.”

Woodfill said Abbott’s order “articulates or identifies a public policy for the state of Texas, that you can’t just force people to comply with.”

In the first lawsuit filed against Houston Methodist, Woodfill and more than 100 plaintiffs argued the vaccine requirement was unlawful. The complaint likened the vaccine requirement to a violation of the Nuremberg Code, the set of medical ethics created following World War II in response to Nazi atrocities.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes called the comparison “reprehensible” in his June ruling tossing the lawsuit. Woodfill and the plaintiffs have appealed the ruling.

More than 170 employees at Houston Methodist were fired after not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine by the June deadline, according to the hospital.

Houston Methodist CEO Marc Boom said Monday he was “not surprised” by the complaint.

“It just seems to completely rehash the other lawsuit, which was very clearly and definitively overturned and dismissed by Judge Hughes,” Boom said. “We would expect the same thing in this case.”

See here, here, and here for some background on the federal lawsuit. While Montgomery County is likely to be as pro-COVID a location as Jared Woodfill could find for this nonsense, the fact remains that Texas is a strongly pro-employer state, and that will be a high hurdle to overcome. As the story notes, multiple other hospital systems including (finally) Texas Children’s and St. Luke’s have initiated similar mandates, so there doesn’t seem to be any fear of the legal risk on their part. I expect this will get swatted back, but with Montgomery County you can never be too sure. We’ll keep an eye on it.

There actually is still a court order that allows for mask mandates in place

Hey, remember that other lawsuit filed against Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy? I noted it in passing in this post, and then like you I forgot about it. And then on Sunday afternoon, this happened:

As of Monday morning, I had not seen any news coverage of this. As discussed before, that Supreme Court ruling only applied to Dallas and Bexar counties, and the affected school districts in those counties appeared to be interpreting it in a way that said it didn’t apply to them. Other jurisdictions like Harris County and Austin were not covered, so their mandates were also not affected.

Later in the day, there was this story:

After the Texas Supreme Court’s decision, several Dallas County school districts started backtracking, making masks optional once again, though Dallas ISD held firm.

But that same evening, a Travis County judge granted a new restraining order that temporarily blocks Gov. Greg Abbott from prohibiting mask mandates in Texas public schools.

The restraining order was granted in a case involving The Southern Center for Child Advocacy. Officials from the center did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday but noted on the group’s Facebook page that the restraining order — issued by Judge Jan Soifer in the 345th Judicial District — was in effect statewide.

“It was not one of the TROs blocked by the Texas Supreme Court yesterday afternoon,” the group wrote.

Richardson [ISD] Superintendent Jeannie Stone said the order allowed her district to keep a mask mandate in place as the school year is set to start on Tuesday.

“This ruling, at least temporarily, puts this decision where it should be — at the local level,” Stone said in a video announcement. In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Stone said Richardson is committed to following the law and would adapt its decision making if the law changes.

The restraining order essentially allows individual districts the leeway to set their own mandates independent from their counties. Officials with the attorney general’s office asked the Supreme Court of Texas to block this order as well. The Texas Supreme Court did not grant the attorney general’s request on Monday for an immediate block based on the day before’s decision.

Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote to the Southern Center for Child Advocacy on Monday, asking the group to acknowledge on Monday that their temporary restraining order is “void and of no effect” because of the Texas Supreme Court decision.

Henry Green Bostwick II, an attorney representing the center, countered that he would withdraw the lawsuit against the state if Gov. Abbott altered his order to allow school districts to enforce mask mandates.

Paxton has vowed to take all school districts that violate Abbott’s mask mandate ban to court. Paxton falsely claimed Sunday evening that the Supreme Court’s decision ordered Dallas County and Dallas ISD to follow the governor’s order.

However, the decision did not mention Dallas ISD. A spokesman for Paxton did not return a request for comment on whether the attorney general planned to sue DISD over its mask requirement.

“Until there’s an official order of the court that applies to the Dallas Independent School District, we will continue to have the mask mandate,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said late Sunday.

[…]

Other school districts are signaling their intentions to jump into the legal fray, too.

DeSoto ISD trustees are scheduled to meet tonight to discuss authorizing their legal counsel to file a lawsuit against Abbott in order to allow the districts “to make local decisions regarding the health and safety of its students and employees,” according to the board’s agenda. Arlington ISD is expected to take up a similar vote later this week.

So, safe to say that for now, as of Monday afternoon, school districts that wanted to keep a mask mandate in place could do so. And then there’s this:

Here’s the DMN story if you can read it. Again I ask: Who is actually bound by that Supreme Court order? Far as I can tell, no one is paying it any heed, and now there’s the second court order that would seem to invalidate it, or at least contradict it. I can’t see this as anything but a temporary situation, and yet here we are. Until something else happens, it’s what the counties and school districts are saying that is in effect. I for one prefer it that way.

July 2021 campaign finance reports: HCC

PREVIOUSLY: Congress, Harris County, Houston, HISD

Last but not least, we have the HCC Trustees, three of whom are on this year’s ballot. HCC trustees serve six-year terms, so one-third of them are up each time around.

Monica Flores Richart – Dist 1
Rhonda Skillern-Jones – Dist 2
Adriana Tamez – Dist 3
Reagan Flowers – Dist 4
Robert Glaser – Dist 5
John Hansen – Dist 6
Cynthia Lenton-Gary – Dist 7
Eva Loredo – Dist 8
Pretta VanDible Stallworth – Dist 9


Dist  Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
==========================================================
3         Tamez          0        127        0       2,694
6        Hansen          0          0    5,000       8,136
8        Loredo          0         76    7,000       2,731

1       Richart          0          0        0       2,608
2       S-Jones          0        198        0          27
4       Flowers     12,895      1,824        0      13,410
5        Glaser          0          0    5,000       8,292
7   Lenton-Gary          0          0        0           0
9    Stallworth          0          0        0           0

As with HISD, the table is separated by those who are on the ballot and those who are not. The search tool for their reports does include non-incumbent candidates when they are present, but at least as of when I checked there weren’t any. I’m told there’s at least one potential opponent for someone out there now, and I’m sure someone will post a link in the comments as they did for the HISD reports. I don’t have a good way of knowing about that situation, so I just limit myself to what I can reasonably know, and that’s who has filed what. (*)

And that means just the incumbents, and what they have filed doesn’t amount to much. Not a big surprise, as HCC trustee races are among the lowest-dollar races out there. Other than Reagan Flowers, no one raised a dime this past period. I’m sure things will look different on the 30-day reports, but for now this is what you’ve got. And that completes our tour of the July finance reports. Hope you’ve enjoyed it.

(*) As before, I should take this opportunity to note that I can claim some measure of credit for these reports being publicly available at all. Someday, when I am asked what I managed to do with my life, I will be able to include that on the ledger.

Census data is out

Get ready, there’s about to be a whole lot more legislative activity.

Setting the stage for what is expected to be a bruising battle over political representation, the results of the 2020 census released Thursday showed that Texas’ explosive growth over the past decade was again powered by people of color.

And it is the state’s cities and suburbs that are booming, with Texas home to three of the country’s 10 largest cities and four of the fastest-growing.

Texas gained the most residents of any state since 2010, and its Hispanic population is now nearly as large as the non-Hispanic white population, with just half a percentage point separating them. Texas gained nearly 11 Hispanic residents for every additional white resident since 2010.

Texans of color accounted for 95% of the state’s population growth. The 2020 census puts the state’s population at 29,145,505 — a 16% jump from 25.1 million in 2010. Hispanic Texans were responsible for half of that increase.

Non-Hispanic white Texans now make up just 39.8% of the state’s population — down from 45% in 2010. Meanwhile, the share of Hispanic Texans has grown to 39.3%.

The Hispanic population’s approach to becoming Texas’ largest demographic group marks a significant milestone ahead of this year’s redistricting, during which state lawmakers will draw new political maps divvying up seats in Congress and the state House and Senate in what will no doubt be an intense and protracted fight over political control of the state for the next decade.

Texas Republicans hold every lever of power to try to lock in or even expand their majorities at the state Capitol and in Congress. But they will be working to redraw the state’s political maps while confronting the demographic reality that the state is growing in ways that put the party’s stranglehold in question.

[…]

The state’s growth has been concentrated in diverse urban centers that serve as Democratic strongholds and suburban communities, several of which have either already turned blue or are trending in that direction. Since 2010, 44% of the state’s growth took place in its five largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis. All 10 of the state’s fastest-growing counties in the last decade were suburban.

Hays County — between Austin and San Antonio — experienced the most growth, doubling its population in the last decade.

You can click over and look at the charts and the interactive map, but the key to all this is the growth in the cities and suburbs, which have been the drivers of Democratic strength as well. I have no doubt the Republicans will have some tricks up their sleeves, but this is the big challenge for them. Remember, even as 2020 is cast as a Democratic failure for not gaining more seats, the map went from 95-55 in 2012, with a lot of stability over the first three elections of the decade, to a big shift in 2018 and a realistic vision of Democratic control, even if that turned out to be illusory.

I’ve said before, I don’t know yet what the Republicans’ risk appetite will be. The more they are comfortable with drawing themselves 53-47 districts instead of 60-40 districts, the more seats they can draw for themselves. The downside to that strategy is obvious, but that’s the decision they have to make.

Meanwhile, Houston did some growing this past decade as well.

Houston’s population grew nearly 10 percent in the last decade, fueled by large gains in the number of Latino and Asian residents that will shape the political future of Texas for years to come.

With 2,304,580 residents as of April 1, 2020, Houston remains the fourth-largest city, still lagging behind Chicago’s 2,746,388, according to 2020 census data released Thursday after a grueling, unprecedented effort to collect comprehensive data on the nation’s population in the midst of a global pandemic.

Houston’s 9.8 percent growth rate from 2,099,451 residents in 2010, however, was only second only to Phoenix’s 11.2 percent among the top 10 largest cities in the U.S. The Bayou City was also second in terms of raw population growth, adding 205,129 residents in the last decade. Only New York City ranked higher, adding 629,057 people.

One of the only areas in the region that shrank was the white population. Notably, Houston’s white population fell about 30 percent in the last decade, from 1,060,492 people in 2010 to 739,873 in 2020. The decline was smaller —5 percent — in Harris County as a whole.

“There’s a net out-migration of non-Hispanic whites from urban cores like Houston and Dallas and moving out into suburban rings, and at the same time you have this international migration occurring, and a lot of that is going to be people who are Hispanic and also Asian,” Texas Demographer Lloyd Potter said.

The story didn’t cite numbers for Harris County, but the map in that Trib piece tells me that it increased by 15.6%, from just under 4.1 million to over 4.7 million. Among other things, we will see if Harris County gets its 25th legislative seat back. We will have some answers soon:

T-minus 18 days and counting. The San Antonio Report has more.

Harris County sues Abbott and issues a mask mandate

Quite the busy day yesterday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday issued a mandatory mask order for Harris County schools and daycares, joining the chorus of elected officials in the Texas’ larges cities in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting local COVID-19 restrictions.

Hidalgo’s order requires students, teachers, staff and visitors to K-12 schools and daycare centers to wear face coverings. Schools also are required to notify parents when a student has close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.

“There’s an unwritten contract between parents and their schools — and it’s that when our children are under the care of their schools, they do everything they can to keep them safe,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents.

Houston ISD’s board of trustees already is expected to vote Thursday on a mask mandate proposed by Superintendent Millard House II. House announced he would bring such a proposal to the board last week.

Earlier on Thursday, County Attorney Christian Menefee filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local authorities from issuing COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask and vaccine mandates.

Menefee told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday evening that he believes the July 29 order violates the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which he said grants the governor the power limited authority to suspend laws.

“In his orders, he’ll suspend two to three laws specifically by name, and then he’ll say ‘any other laws that could allow a local official to do something inconsistent with what I’m doing,’” Menefee said. “That’s not how a democratic society works. You have separation of powers.”

Commissioners Court had previously authorized Menefee to file suit.

The move came at the end of a whirlwind day where local officials in Dallas and San Antonio prevailed — at least temporarily — in their own legal challenges to the governor’s order.

In Houston, the three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted to allow County Attorney Christian Menefee to bring his own case, over the objections of the two Republican members.

Menefee said he is undecided but leaning toward filing suit; he said the county would seek a temporary restraining order preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s July 29 executive order prohibiting local governments from issuing local COVID-19 restrictions.

Abbott is exceeding his authority under the state Disaster Act of 1975, Menefee argued, which the county attorney said allows the governor to suspend laws in only narrow circumstances.

“What he’s doing is not helping in furtherance of coping with the disaster,” Menefee said. “Instead, he’s basically taking this power and turning it into a mechanism to tie local officials’ hands. The problem is none of the justifications he’s providing make any sense.”

See here for the background. Obviously, County Attorney Menefee made up his mind since then. Filing this suit, in the same manner as several other jurisdictions, was I think a straightforward choice. Winning it will be another matter.

If the past is any guide, the local governments are unlikely to prevail in court, said University of Texas School of Law Adjunct Professor Randall Erben. Governors have broad power under the Disaster Act, he said, noting that the state Supreme Court sided with Abbott when Travis County attempted to enact a New Year’s Eve curfew for restaurants.

“Given the precedent and given the broad discretion the governor has under that act, he’s probably on pretty solid ground,” Erben said.

The San Antonio Report consulted another expert with a similar opinion.

Political science and law experts agree that the local governments’ mask mandates have an unfavorable path forward, ending with the Texas Supreme Court; all nine justices are Republicans and have shown little appetite for ruling against the governor.

[…]

Despite the crisis, St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Michael Ariens believes the lawsuit’s ultimate success is a “long shot.”

Attorneys for the city and county relied on a dissenting opinion from a judge on the 8th Court of Appeals in a mask mandate case involving El Paso County, Ariens said: that Texas law does not allow the governor to suspend laws giving local governments the ability to respond to public health crises as they see fit.

“A decision by a dissenting [opinion] of the court, while sometimes correct,” Ariens said, “is not as helpful as a decision from a majority of the court.”

But getting the temporary restraining order granted in the first place puts San Antonio and Bexar County in a stronger position, he said, as it allowed the city to get a mask mandate in place in public schools and public facilities. That means “the ball is in the state government’s court,” he said, which will have to make a move “if it wants to change the status quo before Monday.”

A hearing is scheduled Monday morning; lawyers representing San Antonio, Bexar County, will ask to extend the temporary restraining order into a temporary injunction. If granted, the mask mandate would remain in place until trial or until the decision was appealed.

[…]

Abbott’s swift action to get a temporary restraining order lifted was expected, as the governor would not want to be seen as weak while school districts and local governments defy his executive order, said Jon Taylor, professor of political science and chair of the department of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But no matter the ultimate outcome, Taylor said, Abbott’s political standing will likely remain unaffected.

“A week is a lifetime in politics and this can radically change, but if the governor wasn’t hurt by what happened with the electric grid and the winter storm in February — and for the most part, he seems to have not been hurt by it — it’s probably the same kind of calculations here when it comes to the masking order and mandatory versus voluntary vaccinations,” Taylor said.

Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, had a slightly different take. He believes the collective force of school districts, county judges, and mayors could push the weather vane in the opposite direction.

“He’s playing a tough game with everybody, but if enough people stand up to him and cause enough of an uproar, he’ll back down, I think,” Flores said. “And that might be the safe investment for him to make. … It’ll become too much of a political annoyance for him, and it could end up costing him dearly. He’s going to have to weigh all that.”

If the case moves quickly, and the Texas Supreme Court vacates the temporary restraining order, “chaos” could ensue, Taylor said. Not only would the back-and-forth cause further confusion among parents of schoolchildren, but leaders of Bexar, Dallas, and Harris counties could simply refuse to stop requiring masks.

“This is not some sort of radical rebellion,” he said. “You’re talking about school districts that are following CDC guidelines on masking. The other thing is this: because there’s enough prosecutorial discretion that’s involved, it takes time — obviously justice takes time — and any sort of delay in court action could be months from now, long after, hopefully, the crisis and the spike in delta has passed. It could all be a moot point by then anyway.”

I would quibble with the assertion that Abbott took “swift” action – as you know, I’ve been marveling at how long it took him to respond. Be that as it may, the point about the counties just not moving to undo what they have ordered is an interesting point. Abbott may win in court, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get his way, at least not right away. And I’d bet none of those county judges suffer for any of it politically, either. We have a ways to go before this is truly settled.

UPDATE: The HISD Board approved the mask mandate that Superintendent House requested.

The charter referendum will be in 2023

So be it.

The organizations and residents who petitioned the city to give City Council members more power will have to wait until 2023 to vote on the measure, after the council declined to put it on this year’s ballot.

Council voted unanimously to set the election in 2023 instead of this November, despite the objections of several council members and the groups that pushed for the charter amendment. An amendment to put it on this year’s ballot failed, 13-4, before the 2023 vote. Councilmembers Amy Peck, Ed Pollard, Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh supported the earlier date.

The measure would give any three council members the power to place an item on the weekly City Hall agenda, a power almost entirely reserved for the mayor under Houston’s strong-mayor format.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who opposes the measure, said pushing off the election was prudent so the city could include other pending charter amendments, which would lower the cost by hosting one election instead of several. He also argued an off-cycle election would have low turnout.

“If any of you have problems getting something on the agenda, I’d like to hear that,” Turner told council members. “So, we’re going to spend $1.3 million in a very low-turnout (election) on an issue that doesn’t really pertain to this council?”

[…]

At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh likened a delay to voter suppression, a suggestion that irked several of his colleagues. He referred to Democrats in the Legislature who fled to Washington, D.C. to stop a voting restrictions bill.

“If we don’t vote to put this on the ballot, we are doing the same thing (as the Legislature): We are suppressing the vote,” Kubosh said. “I believe voting delayed is voting denied.”

District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas said he deserved a “Golden Globe for drama,” arguing the later election date would improve access to the polls by encouraging higher turnout.

Kubosh said it does not matter whether officials like the content of the charter amendment; their duty is to put it on the ballot.

I’ve said before that I believe this referendum, as well as the firefighters’ referendum (the petitions have not yet been certified, which is another issue altogether), should be on this November’s ballot. I do think the right thing to do is to be prompt about these things, even though the law allows for the discretion to put the vote on the next city election. But CM Thomas has a point, which is simply that at least twice as many people and maybe more will vote in 2023 than in 2021, and as such having this referendum in 2023 will be closer to a true reflection of the public will. I mean, even with a heavy GOTV effort by the pro- and anti- sides this year, we might be looking at 100K in turnout. Turnout in 2015, the last time we had an open Mayor’s race, was over 270K, and turnout in 2019 was 250K. Turnout in all of Harris County in 2017, with no city of Houston races, was 150K; I can’t calculate the exact city component of that, but based on other years it would have been in the 90-110K range. There’s just no comparison. Is the tradeoff in turnout worth the two-year delay? People can certainly disagree about that, and I sympathize with those who wanted it this year. But putting it in 2023 is legal, and can be justified.

(No, I still have no intention of voting for the “three Council members can put an item on the agenda” referendum. Its proponents may have a point, but their proposition is still a bad idea. I remain undecided on the firefighters’ item.)

Judges in Harris County implement mask mandate

It’s what all the responsible public officials are doing.

State judges in Harris County voted unanimously Tuesday to implement a mask mandate in courthouses that will supersede Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on such mandates, according to three judges who participated in the meeting.

The anticipated courthouse ban comes as Dallas County officials and school officials in districts across the state have begun bucking up against Abbott’s latest coronavirus ban, which prioritizes Texans’ right to make their own choices over the health emergency.

The local judges’ order comes amid a surge of COVID-19 infections boosted by the delta variant. The judges, who asked to remain anonymous because the order was not yet official, said the mandate should go into effect imminently, as soon as it is signed by an administrative judge.

The new rule calls for masks to be used by everyone — vaccinated or not — inside civil, criminal, family and juvenile court buildings. County Attorney Christian Menefee said it would also apply to county judges if they are in a shared building with district judges.

The state judges’ mandate follows a memo Friday from the Office of Court Administration that informed judges, clerks and court staff that the infection, hospitalization and death rates have recently spiked and that they have power to enact rules independent of the executive branch. This delineation of executive and judicial power derives from the Texas Constitution, but also the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution, according to judges, lawyers and law professors interviewed by the Chronicle.

The state courts take their direction on operation orders from the Texas Supreme Court, which allows judges to continue holding hearings remotely and to “modify or suspend any and all deadlines and procedures, and take any other reasonable action to avoid exposing court proceedings and participants to the threat of COVID-19,” according to the Friday memo from court administration in Austin.

[…]

“My understanding is that judges have been free to handle this whatever way they want,” said Menefee, the county attorney. “The Supreme Court has allowed judges to retain their authority to set conditions for their own courts. The Texas Supreme Court has not politicized the issue by issuing a rule.”

Menefee declined to comment on whether the county is contemplating a mask mandate for employees.

This has come up before, with Williamson County implementing a similar mandate last week, following Dallas and Bexar counties. I noted it in passing here, as it happened at the same time as the city of Houston mask mandate for its employees. So far, no pushback from Abbott or Paxton on either of those, and as such it is reasonable to assume this will pass by without fallout as well. Until it does draw a response, I guess – I can’t figure out what those guys are thinking right now. Maybe they’re too busy with all the lawsuits. I expect this will come up at the next Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, and I look forward to seeing what they do given the current set of facts on the ground.

Overflow COVID tents

This is fine.

Harris Health System’s intensive care units are nearly full as the delta variant sends more COVID-19 patients into hospitals, prompting the safety-net health system for the county’s indigent communities to construct tents for triaging patients.

As of Monday afternoon, Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital’s ICU was 100 percent full, and 63 percent of patients were being treated for COVID-19 complications. Ben Taub Hospital’s ICU was 95 percent full, with 27 percent of patients sickened by the virus.

“The trend line is vertical,” said Bryan McLeod, a spokesperson for Harris Health.

The tents apparent outside the hospital in northeast Houston could be used for COVID-19 overflow patients, but officials may also choose to use it for patients who come in with other illnesses. Last summer, they were used to diagnose coronavirus cases, McLeod said.

This year, they may just be used to treat non-COVID patients, or those with less severe infections. Staff are still installing operational and diagnostic equipment in the overflow area, which will take patients from the emergency room.

While LBJ is the only hospital currently using such tents, Memorial Hermann is creating additional space for overflow patients by converting beds in their pre- and post-anesthesia units into ICU beds.

[…]

Statewide, hospitalizations have been increasing rapidly; on Saturday 9,462 people were hospitalized, an increase of 30 percent over the previous Saturday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. This weekend’s hospitalization figures were the highest Texas has seen since Feb. 6.

Not just in Houston.

Dozens of Texas hospitals have run out of intensive care unit beds as COVID-19 surges faster than any other time during the pandemic, propelled by the new delta variant.

The state is divided into 22 trauma service areas, and half of them reported 10 or fewer available ICU beds on Sunday. As more than 9,400 COVID-19 patients fill the state’s ICUs, which are reserved for the patients who are the sickest or most injured, the trauma service area that includes Laredo reported no available ICU beds, while the area that includes Abilene reported having one.

At least 53 Texas hospitals have no available ICU capacity, according to numbers reported to the federal government during the week ending Aug. 5. In Austin, five hospitals were at or above 90% of their ICU capacity during the same period, with two reporting no available ICU beds.

“This surge is by far the fastest and most aggressive that we’ve seen. Almost all of our hospitalizations are due to unvaccinated patients developing severe illness,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County’s health authority, told reporters last week. “ICU staff are seeing a younger population in our hospitals. Patients in the ICU are sicker and stay in the hospital longer than with prior surges, putting more strain on hospital resources.”

Around 87.1% of all hospital beds in Texas are in use — the highest level since the start of the pandemic — with 14.1% of those beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. When Gov. Greg Abbott began to relax some COVID-19 restrictions on businesses in October, his order maintained reduced restaurant capacity and kept bars closed in regions in which 15% or more of hospital beds were filled with COVID-19 patients.

This week, COVID-19 hospitalizations reached higher levels across the state than when Abbott imposed a statewide mask mandate in July 2020. Abbott has maintained that he will not be reviving the mask mandate and has barred local authorities from issuing their own.

No, really, NBD.

More than 10,000 Texans are hospitalized for COVID-19, according to data released by the Texas Department of State Health Services Tuesday afternoon.

According to Tuesday’s report, 10,041 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state of Texas on Monday, the highest rate since Feb. 4, as the delta variant continues to dominate new COVID-19 infections.

[…]

Monday’s figure represents a 37 percent increase over the number of hospitalizations one week prior.

But don’t worry, Abbott has asked for more nurses to move to Texas, so we’re going to be fine. Really, what more do you need him to do?