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What the next CARES act could mean for Texas cities and counties

Short answer, a lot.

Cities and counties across Texas would get more than $29 billion from the $3 trillion coronavirus relief package House Democrats want to pass as soon as Friday.

That includes more than $1.7 billion to Houston and nearly $1 billion to San Antonio as both cities stare down massive budget holes caused by the outbreak. Harris County’s funding could top $2.6 billion and Bexar could be on tap for more than $1 billion, as well. Texas, meanwhile, could get nearly $35.5 billion from a separate pool of funding to aid states.

That’s all according to estimates compiled by the Congressional Research Service, Congress’ public policy institute. The estimates, which cover the rest of 2020 and 2021, are based on some factors not yet known, such as unemployment and infection rates, so they’re not exact.

[…]

At the top of the Democrats’ list is sending $875 billion to states, cities and counties to help plug huge budget deficits. Cities can’t use the aid that Congress has offered so far to close those budget holes and cities across the country, including Houston and San Antonio, are starting to lay off employees and cut programs.

The bill would also for the first time offer coronavirus relief aide to smaller cities, as past relief packages have only directed funding to cities with 500,000 or more residents, meaning suburbs could get tens of millions. New Braunfels, for instance, could get nearly $30 million. Sugar Land could get more than $58.5 million.

There’s a list of cities and counties in Texas and the amounts they would get here. As noted, it’s broken out over two years, so Houston would get $1.18 billion this year and $580 million next year, while Harris County would get $1.76 billion this year and $881 million next year. That’s way more than the current Houston budget gap, so I presume a lot of that money is intended for other purposes as well, such as perhaps rental assistance and maybe rebuilding public health infrastructure. The main point here is that this is a demonstration that someone has learned the lesson from 2009, which is that massive cuts and layoffs in city and state budgets is a huge drag on any economic recovery effort. (That someone is the Democrats, though for at least a few minutes the Republicans have decided that they need to take whatever steps they have to in order to keep the economy from completely collapsing on Trump.) I don’t know what a final version of this might look like – there are certainly things the Dems could concede on – but if something like this passes and cities and counties and states can “balance” their budgets without taking a chainsaw to them, it would be a bug freaking deal. Daily Kos has more.

Here come the furloughs

We said this was gonna be bad, right?

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, facing an economy hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and collapsing oil prices, on Tuesday proposed to close an upcoming budget gap by furloughing about 3,000 municipal workers, deferring all police cadet classes and exhausting the city’s entire $20 million “rainy day” fund.

The proposals are in response to an estimated $169 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Emptying the rainy day fund “leaves the city in a precarious state for the upcoming hurricane season,” the mayor acknowledged in a message to city council members that accompanied his budget plan. The account holds money in reserve for emergency situations, such as cash flow shortages and major disasters.

The city had just recently replenished the fund after using all $20 million in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. It will not have that option if a storm hits Houston this year.

“The dollars from the economic stabilization fund are gone,” Turner said. “There is no rainy day fund.”

Under Turner’s plan, the city also would draw $83 million from its cash reserves to balance the budget.

The city’s tax- and fee-supported general fund, which covers most basic city operations, would spend $2.53 billion under Turner’s plan, a decrease of about 1 percent from the current budget. Despite the narrow spending cut, the city would be left with a general fund balance that dips below the amount required by city ordinance.

[…]

The proposed spending plan, which is subject to approval by city council, only says that the city would furlough “thousands of municipal employees.” At a news conference Tuesday, Turner said the number would be around 3,000 of the city’s nearly 21,000 employees. The workers would forego 10 days of pay, saving the city roughly $7 million.

Turner did not specify which departments would be required to send workers home without pay, though he said the city would not place anyone on furlough from the police, fire and solid waste management departments.

The city will not implement any cuts until the new fiscal year begins July 1, Turner said.

See here and here for some background. The story mentions the $404 million Houston received in the first cornavirus stimulus package, which it can’t spend on previously budgeted expenses. Maybe the city will be allowed some leeway in that, and maybe the next relief package, which in its current form includes money for cities and states, will arrive in a timely fashion. Mayor Turner says he’d reinstate the police cadet class and un-furlough the other employees as his first priorities if the funding becomes available. In the meantime, this is our reality. All we can do is hang on and hope for the best.

Council goes virtual

About time.

CM Letitia Plummer

Houston City Council will go virtual beginning next week, Mayor Turner said Tuesday, a day after one of its 16 members tested positive for COVID-19.

Turner said the switch to virtual meetings would continue for at least two weeks. All visitors to City Hall will have to wear face coverings and, eventually, there will be temperature checks at entrances, the mayor said.

Councilmember Letitia Plummer tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. She said she started experiencing symptoms last Thursday, a day after the most recent council meeting. Plummer is quarantining and recovering at home, and at least one other member has entered quarantine as a precaution.

The council has continued to meet in person at City Hall each week, though members generally are spread out around the dais, at the press tables, sometimes even in the audience seats. Most wear masks, but they frequently are in close proximity to one another.

Other governmental bodies have been meeting virtually for weeks. Harris County Commissioners Court has been conducting its lengthy meetings online for two months.

See here for the background. I’d be very interested to know which Council member is voluntarily self-quarantining. Be that as it may, I guess I hadn’t realized that Council had been continuing to meet in person up till now. I don’t know what the thinking behind that was, but it wasn’t a great idea, if only because they should have set a better example. Better late than never, but this really wasn’t a good look.

CM Plummer tests positive for COVID-19

Get well soon.

CM Letitia Plummer

Houston City Councilmember Letitia Plummer has tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first elected official in the city to have a confirmed infection of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Plummer, a first-term council member and dentist, has been quarantining at home since Thursday and received her results Monday, she said. She briefly went to the emergency room on Saturday to receive fluids, but otherwise has been at home.

Her staff members will be tested for the virus Tuesday, she said. Her dental office staff have all tested negative, as have her three sons.

Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin said the administration is working to ensure any council member or staff member who wants to get tested can do so Tuesday at City Hall, though they are still are working through the details. Mayor Sylvester Turner is scheduled to unveil his proposed budget Tuesday.

“We have to be careful. This is a great wake-up call for a lot of people,” Martin said. “We think this is over? No. For us, it’s just beginning.”

[…]

The council has continued to meet in person at City Hall each week, though members generally are spread out around the dais and at the press tables in front of the audience seats. Most wear masks, but they frequently are in close proximity to one another.

First things first, I wish CM Plummer all the best for a speedy recovery, and I am glad that no one in her family or office appear to have been infected. I hope that’s true for all of her colleagues and other contacts as well. This is a shock, but it’s not really a surprise. Sooner or later, this was going to happen to someone in local elected office – as we have already discussed, it has happened elsewhere, in some cases with fatal results. We all hope and pray for a better outcome here.

But look, it’s not great that Council has continued to meet in person like this, even with masks. Go back and read this link I posted in th weekend roundup. Even sufficiently distanced, and even with masks, having people in an enclosed space for a long period of time is a high-risk scenario for coronavirus. City Council, and every other elected body, needs to give very serious thought to transitioning their meetings online, like now. If the Lege isn’t working on a contingency plan for this as well, even with their next meeting not scheduled until January, they’re needlessly risking the lives of their members, their staff, their security and other support personnel, and everyone else who crowds into the Capitol every two years. If SCOTUS can handle its business over the phone, these folks can do so as well. The alternative is an outbreak that prevents a quorum or upends the elected balance of power, and that’s without considering how many of these people are in high-risk categories. Let’s not be stupid about this. Hold the meetings online, and don’t delay. I don’t want to hear any excuses.

HISD may seek earlier school year start in the future

No earlier than the 2021-2022 school year, if they can qualify for it.

Students in Houston ISD could start their school year several days earlier beginning in 2021-22, joining peers in other districts who return to class in mid-August, under a plan in the early stages of development.

HISD officials this week said they want to seek a “District of Innovation” status that would grant them flexibility on four state education laws, including one that requires schools to begin their academic year no earlier than the fourth Monday in August. All of the region’s largest traditional public school districts, with the exception of Cy-Fair ISD and Lamar CISD, sought the status in the past few years and changed their start dates to mid-August.

In a presentation to board members Monday, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said her administration wanted to request two exemptions, which would allow HISD to start its year earlier and hire more non-certified teachers in hard-to-staff vocational and technical fields.

The switch to a mid-August start date would create a more balanced schedule between the first semester, which runs 77 days from August until winter break, and the second semester, which lasts 96 days.

HISD students also stand at a disadvantage on state standardized tests, as well as some college-centered tests, such as the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, because they spend fewer days in the classroom before the tests are administered, Lathan said.

“They’re already 10 days ahead of us academically and structurally because they’re starting 10 days in advance, but we’re all required to take the state assessments at the same time,” Lathan said.

Note that this has nothing to do with when schools may reopen this fall, for which the answer right now is “no one can say for sure”. The proposed change seems reasonable enough, and would likely mean a slightly earlier end to the school year as well. The story doesn’t say what HISD has to do to qualify for this status, nor how long it would take to know if it has qualified. I think as long as there’s enough time to let parents make plans for the summer of 2021, it should be fine.

Still trying to avoid total budget disaster

That federal money sure would help.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As the prospect of mass furloughs and severe spending cuts looms over the city’s next budget, Houston officials are sitting on a pile of coronavirus stimulus money that amounts to more than double the shortfall projected by Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The rub, at least for now, is that the strings attached to the $404 million Houston received from the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund — a $150 billion trove sent to states and local governments as part of the roughly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — bar officials from spending the aid on expenses they already had budgeted.

Mayors, governors from both parties, congressional Democrats and even some Senate Republicans have pushed for looser restrictions that would allow sales tax-deprived governments to use the money to plug budget holes, instead of limiting them to expenses tied directly to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, as Congress weighs a second stimulus package for local and state governments that may earmark funds for lost revenue after all, Turner is under pressure to squeeze as much money as possible out of the initial round of CARES Act aid.

Prompting the tension was the Treasury Department’s April 22 guidance that eligible spending includes payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care and other employees “whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding” to the pandemic.

Last week, City Controller Chris Brown penned a letter to Finance Director Tantri Emo and Turner-appointed COVID-19 recovery czar Marvin Odum in which he urged the administration to craft a spending plan for the funds. He told city council members last week that officials in other Texas cities have begun determining how much of their public safety expenses are directly related to COVID-19.

“The potential exists for these costs to be offset by CARES Act funds, which could help alleviate added pressure placed on the General Fund,” Brown wrote, referring to the city’s $2.5 billion tax-supported fund that pays for most day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries.

See here for some background. Let’s be clear, it’s more than just Houston facing this kind of problem. Every city, every county, every state has been affected. Federal funds, and a lot of them, are going to be needed. All this caterwauling you hear from haircut-freedom-fighters and grandma-sacrificers about getting the economy going again, none of it means anything if they aren’t willing to save local and state governments from making devastating cuts, which among other things will cause loads of people to lose their jobs and act as a huge drag on any economic recovery. If we could be sure we’d get this in the next round of stimulus then fine, use this money for whatever other purposes it’s intended for. But really, why wait? Let’s get a bit of certainty to bolster confidence.

Let’s go to the drive-in

Yeah, I’m down with this.

Everything old really is new again.

In the midst of ongoing concerns and restrictions over the Covid-19 pandemic, Houston is going back to the future with a new drive-in movie theater. The Drive-In at Sawyer Yards, a pop-up operated by the Los Angeles-based Rooftop Cinema Club chain, is set to open May 12 with a line-up of classic films for an audience that doesn’t have to leave the car.

Located at 2301 Summer St., right near Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co., The Drive-In at Sawyer Yards will offer two screenings seven days a week. This is the company’s second drive-in venture as it already operates one in London, England.

“Bringing back the nostalgia of the drive-in theater as well as the return of a great American institution, the kings of outdoor cinema want to provide relief through the power of film to Houstonians during this difficult time. Guests of the new drive-in theater can have an away-from-home cinema experience from the security of their own vehicle,” the company said in a statement Wednesday.

The opening films are “Grease” and “Drive” and they will be followed by “Night at the Museum” (May 13), “Silence of the Lambs” (May 13), “The Princess Bride” (May 14), “Romeo + Juliet” (May 14), “The Greatest Showman” (May 15), “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (May 15), “Grease” (May 16), “Moulin Rouge” (May 16), and “The Sandlot” (May 17) and “Brown Sugar” (May 17).

Tickets — at $28 per vehicle regardless of occupancy — can be purchased online beginning today at noon at www.rooftopcinemaclub.com/houston/venue/the-drive-in-sawyer-yards. Moviegoers can bring their own snacks or order concessions from Rooftop Cinema or food and drinks from Buffalo Brewing Co. All orders are made online and guests will be notified for pick-up to avoid unnecessary time spent away from their vehicles.

I just showed this to my 13-year-old, and she was excited by the idea. (She also reminded me that I have not seen “The Greatest Showman”, which she considers a travesty on my part.) So yeah, I think we have a movie night in our future. Anyone know what Joe Bob Briggs is up to these days?

From the “Shit happens” department

I apologize, I couldn’t help myself.

City health officials and Rice University scientists have begun testing Houston wastewater samples for COVID-19, a process they hope will reveal the true spread of the new coronavirus as clinical testing continues to lag.

The city-led effort makes use of studies that show traces of the virus can be found in human feces. By testing samples of sewage collected at the city’s wastewater treatment plants, officials hope to uncover the scale of the outbreak in Houston and, perhaps, locate hotspots undetected by in-person tests.

“It’s an evolving field. We hope that it will help give us just more information on where the virus is and how much of it is out there,” said Loren Hopkins, a Rice University statistics professor who also serves as the health department’s chief environmental science officer.

[…]

For now, plant workers are collecting wastewater samples across a 24-hour period once a week, before sending them to Rice and health department officials who then analyze the samples for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

If successful, the project will reveal COVID-19 trends over a span of weeks and months in certain areas of Houston and citywide, Hopkins said. Though less precise than directly testing people for the coronavirus, the analysis will produce case estimates that include people who lack symptoms, because asymptomatic people still shed the virus in their stool. And because workers at the treatment plants are collecting samples across a 24-hour period, the results may provide a more accurate snapshot than the number of positive in-person test results, Hopkins said, because that data is impaired by days-long delays in receiving results.

Where the data may prove especially useful, experts said, is in locations where wastewater samples indicate the virus has spread more widely than clinical testing has revealed. Officials can then direct more testing to those areas, including through a mobile unit that launched earlier this week.

This is an attempt to address the serious gap between our need for testing and our capacity for testing. We hope it will help identify trends and emerging hot spots more quickly and effectively. It’s something that’s not been done before, and who knows if it will work the way we want. It’s surely worth a try.

Houston’s Climate Action Plan

We have one, with goals for 2050.

Houston’s first Climate Action Plan calls on the city’s 4,600 energy companies to lead the transition to renewable sources, while residents are asked to swap car rides for mass transit and work to cut down on the estimated seven pounds of waste each person discards every day.

The plan also calls for the city to adopt a new building code and develop a long-range plan for its waste collection system as part of a broad-based effort to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The 97-page plan, in the works for more than a year and published online Wednesday, is a strategy, not an ordinance, so it does not enforce any new rules. Instead, it identifies four areas to target emission reductions: transportation, energy transition, building optimization and materials management. It also identifies goals, strategies and targets for residents, businesses and the city to follow in each of those areas.

For example, the section on transportation, which accounts for nearly half of emissions here, includes a goal to shift the regional fleet to electric and low-emission vehicles. It lays out targets to get there, such as converting all non-emergency municipal vehicles by 2030, and increasing incentives and infrastructure for the private sector to do the same.

The section on energy transition includes the production of 5 million megawatt hours of solar power by 2050. It calls for the city to power municipal operations entirely with renewable sources by 2025, and it proposes training private businesses and property owners on how to adopt solar power on their rooftops.

Nearly all of the 34 million metric tons of carbon that Houston emitted in 2014, the baseline year for such calculations, came from transportation and energy that powers homes, businesses and institutions, the plan says.

Those strategies are tailored to Houston, said Lara Cottingham, the city’s chief sustainability officer and lead author of the plan. The city, she said, does not have the same tools as the state or federal governments or even other cities, such as San Antonio and Austin, to combat climate change. It has very little authority to regulate the oil and gas industry, and it does not have a city-owned electric utility.

That means the plan requires buy-in from businesses and residents to take initiative themselves, Cottingham said.

“The Climate Action Plan is a good combination of ambitious goals and common-sense solutions,” she said. “We don’t have all the answers, and that’s OK. We do know that science is behind us and technology is on our side. What is important is that every single one of us does our part.”

You can see the plan here. The story notes that there’s a broad range of support behind the plan, but also a lot of emphasis from supporters that this is just a first step. I agree with the Air Alliance Houston statement on the plan, which urges the city to collaborate with Harris County to expand this into more of a regional initiative. In the short term, I’d really like to see some action on solar power, with options to make financing for home solar panels widely available. This is very much a collective action problem, and I’m glad to see the city commit to doing its part. It’s on the rest of us to make sure they follow through.

Well, they do serve food

Presented (mostly) without comment:

A strip club in Houston has won a temporary order from federal court Friday night allowing it to resume business after a confrontation with police over the governor’s order to allow certain types of businesses to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Club Onyx opened just after midnight, claiming it was a full-service restaurant and that strippers there were merely “entertainment.” The governor’s order allowed restaurants, retail businesses, malls and movie theaters to open at 25 percent capacity Friday.

Houston police officers raided the business within an hour of it opening, saying the business did not qualify under the categories the governor laid out. The officers threatened owner Eric Langan with arrest if he didn’t close. Langan was defiant for hours but ultimately agreed to close the club around 4 a.m.

Then the business he owns, Trump, Inc., filed a federal lawsuit alleging the raid and forced closure violated his civil rights. The suit argued that his business was a restaurant and therefore able to accept customers.

Late Friday night, federal judge Vanessa Gilmore granted the club’s owner a temporary restraining order allowing it to reopen. It also prohibited Houston police from arresting employees for doing so and ordered the agency to produce all records from its investigation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the club had primarily operated and categorized itself as a sexually oriented business before the pandemic and was only claiming to be a restaurant so it could reopen.

No one ever said this was going to be easy. There was a time when strip clubs might have been Houston’s third-biggest industry, following energy and the Medical Center. I don’t even know what I’m doing here.

Reopening roundup

Judge Hidalgo adjusts to the new status that has ben imposed on us from Austin.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday announced plans to significantly expand novel coronavirus case tracing, and maintain reserve hospital capacity, to prepare for a potential virus surge as businesses reopen.

Hidalgo outlined the strategy in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision a day earlier to allow restaurants, malls, movie theaters and other businesses to reopen Friday. Harris County’s government will do its best to adjust, the county judge said.

“Frankly, I think containing this virus will be a tall order given the May 1 timeline,” Hidalgo said. “But we’re going to do everything we can, move heaven and earth to make it work.”

The county plans to recruit 300 “contact tracers” to investigate where infected people may have spread the virus and to whom. Epidemiologists will train existing county employees, volunteers and some new hires on how to track the path of a COVID-19 patient.

[…]

With a finite supply of nasal swabs, the judge warned that the county can only handle up to 100 positive cases per day. A spike would jeopardize the supply.

“If we let our foot off the gas right now, the virus will inevitably come back, and it will come back as much force, if not more force, as before,” Hidalgo said.

“For us to be safe, we need to get keep the new cases below 100 new cases a day,” she said.

I don’t know if those 300 contact tracers in Harris County are a part of the one thousand new contact tracers that Greg Abbott promised or if they are in addition to them. That would be a good question to clarify, in case Abbott meant one thing but was happy to let you believe another. In either case, we’re going to need a lot more testing. Far as I can tell, we have a lot more lip service than testing capability, at least at the state level.

Meanwhile, our local czars have their own plans.

Houston’s new recovery czar Marvin Odum says both the city and the county will eventually unveil plans for businesses in the region to reopen in a “gradual” and a “phased” approach, depending on business sectors.

Odum told Houston Public Media it’s important to first understand the risks around those various sectors returning to business

“And then making sure that we’re building — in cooperation with our medical community, and the state, and others — a monitoring program, which would involve testing strategically applied to those groups, contact tracing where necessary, and being able to bring people back to work.”

Odum says that approach is key to simultaneously getting people back to work and keeping them safe.

[…]

“Everything has to be based on data and science before we open up any businesses,” Walle said.

Odum said there will be some segments of the economy where the risks can be managed easier.

“But as you get into sectors that have more human contact — dealing with customers for example — that may require some additional tools,” Odum said.

Walle is State Rep. Armando Walle, the Harris County Recovery Czar. He will be advising Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court as Odum will be advising Mayor Turner and City Council.

And of course, various things that are now allowed to open may yet take their time in doing so. Museums, for instance:

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston isn’t ready to announce any reopening date, citing the need to establish safety precautions and to communicate with city officials.

“Our Return to Work Task Force has been actively working to determine how best to safely reopen the MFAH for our 650 staff and our visitors, but we are just now, along with many others, considering the governor’s statement,” the museum said in a statement. “We have not yet had an opportunity to connect with the mayor’s office and the county’ judge’s office to understand what the local requirements will be, as the report notes is needed.”

The Asia Society is also following a cautious path.

“We are not reopening on May 1,” an Asia Society representative said.

The Holocaust Museum Houston “might open, at the earliest, Memorial Day weekend,” said a representative who spoke with the museum’s CEO, though any opening would need “an ongoing sanitization process” to be put in place.

The Menil and the Houston Museum of Natural Science did not respond by press time. However, the Asia Society representative said all of Houston’s museums, led by the MFAH, are communicating with one another.

Movie theaters:

Movie theater chains across Texas, though, seem fairly unified in their decision-making: there’s no point in reopening early. The Plano-based Cinemark, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, and out-of-state chains like AMC and Regal (both of which operate a number of theaters across Texas) all responded to the news that they’re allowed to open as early as this weekend with a resounding, “Nah, not yet.”

There’s a good reason for that, even if theaters, like almost every business that isn’t a supermarket or home improvement store, are hurting amid the shutdown: there’s nothing to watch. Theater chains live and die by the studio release calendar, and studios haven’t released a movie since March 13, with the first new releases not scheduled to debut until mid-July. Theaters may be allowed to open, but they’d be relegated to picking from a slate of repertory releases and indie films that are being simultaneously released on video-on-demand services merely in hopes that they might be able to entice 25 percent of customers to risk contracting the virus in order to watch something they can easily see at home. And while Abbott may have issued an executive order allowing movie theaters to reopen, the ecosystem of the movie business isn’t built around what individual theaters choose to do.

Your various major releases, like Black Widow, which my 13-year-old is gonna demand to see on opening weekend, have either been released on streaming or pushed back into the late summer or fall, when everyone fervently hopes this will be much more behind us. Until then, all the theaters will have to show are oldies and maybe a few small indy films. Good luck with that.

Restaurants are more likely to be available.

No sooner than Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference on reopening the Texas economy had ended, restaurateur Michael Sambrooks was on the phone making calls to servers to come back to work.

Abbott’s announcement Monday that restaurants could reopen Friday for dine-in service at 25 percent of occupancy brings the battered restaurant industry one step closer to resuming traditional operations.

“I’m ready to get 25 percent back to work,” said Sambrooks, owner of Sambrooks Management, whose restaurants include 1751 Sea and Bar, Candente and The Pit Room. “It definitely feels like a step toward getting back to normal. It feels very hopeful to getting open and start serving people again.”

[…]

While resuming dine-in service has been something Houston restaurateurs have been anticipating, 25 percent is nowhere near normal operations, said restaurateur Benjamin Berg of Berg Hospitality.

“In any other time, if you were operating at 25 percent, you’re talking about closing your doors,” said Berg, whose restaurants include B&B Butchers & Restaurant, B.B. Lemon, B.B. Italia, The Annie Café & Bar and Turner’s. “Twenty-five percent isn’t a great business model, but it’s something.”

With the glass-half-empty perspective, that means 75 percent fewer guests; 75 percent less revenue, Berg added.

Still, on Monday he found himself busy planning how to order food, train staff and retool restaurants in hopes that some of his stores could be open on May 1.

“There’s no way we can reopen everything at the same time,” Berg said. “It would be like six grand openings again.”

But for someone like Alex Au-Yeung, who owns the 80-something seat Phat Eatery in Katy, having 19 ¾ customers — as he calculates his 25 percent occupancy — is a move toward getting back to full capacity at his Malaysian street food restaurant.

“It won’t be close to normal operations, but we’ll do what we can,” he said, adding that he also will continue curbside pickup and delivery. “I know there are people who would love to go back out to eat.”

What returning to dining out will look like and feel like will mostly be dictated by guidelines the TRA association laid out weeks ago to assure worker and customer safety as the state strives to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The TRA’s measures include health checks for employees prior to each shift; indoor and outdoor seating with safe distancing guidelines; hand sanitizer or washing stations available to customers and employees; sanitizing common areas and surfaces regularly; and sanitizing dining areas after every use. Expect to see disposable menus, waiters wearing face masks and spaced-out seating in dining rooms — many of which may be operating by reservation-only in order to control the 25 percent restriction.

On Monday the TRA emphasized that no restaurant should reopen until it is ready to do so: “Texas restaurants are experts in safety, sanitation and customer satisfaction, and we know that these values will continue to drive their decision making.”

Dallas Eater lists some good reasons why restaurants shouldn’t rush to reopen, including “Many restaurants aren’t big enough for six-foot table spacing”, “There’s no such thing as social distancing in a kitchen”, and “Servers returning to their jobs will be forced to take a serious pay cut as revenues stay low”, among others. It’s a Dallas-specific list, but I daresay it would apply anywhere else.

Look, I wish them all well, I really hope every single restaurant is able to come back from this catastrophe. I don’t think I’m ready to eat in a restaurant yet, and I’m worried these half-measures won’t do much to help them in the interim. I don’t know what the best answer is. Maybe this will work out fine. I sure hope it does. There’s just no way to know.

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

The city’s vision for I-45

I like the way this is shaping up.

The city of Houston is prepared to ask for major changes in state plans to rebuild Interstate 45 that potentially could scale back the planned widening of the freeway and put a greater focus on transit lanes than making room for more cars.

Getting the Texas Department of Transportation to focus more on moving people than automobiles, city officials believe, could quell some of the rancor over the region’s largest freeway rebuild in decades.

“There is a lot of alignment to TxDOT’s goals and the city’s goals, but they are different,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, Houston’s planning director.

Those differences, however, could have radical effects on the project based on what TxDOT has proposed and elements Houston’s planning department is pursuing as part of a response to the project from Mayor Sylvester Turner. After a year of public meetings, city officials are suggesting further study and consideration of:

  • replacing the four managed lanes in the center of the freeway with two transit-only lanes — one in each direction;
  • keeping I-45 within its current boundaries to limit acquisition of adjacent homes and businesses;
  • bus stations along the freeway so neighborhoods within Beltway 8 have access to rapid transit service;
  • and improved pedestrian and bicycle access to those stations and other access points along the freeway.

City planning officials said the request, likely in the form of a letter from Turner, is meant to continue an ongoing dialogue — city and TxDOT staff speak practically daily — but also clearly state that the project must reflect Houston’s aims if it is to enjoy city support.

[…]

TxDOT officials said that until they receive the city’s written response they cannot comment on the request or its specifics.

“We have no intentions of getting out in front of Mayor Turner, especially given the amount of effort extended to reach this point,” agency spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said in a statement.

During the monthly meeting of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council on Friday, state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said officials are committed to working with the city. Ryan said the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

Critics of the state’s rebuilding plan said they remain optimistic the city can nudge TxDOT toward improvements, but stressed they want Houston leaders to hold steady on some changes.

“I think to be effective the city has to say exactly what it wants,” said Michael Skelly, who organized opposition to the project’s design. “My view is TxDOT needs very explicit guidance from the city.”

See here for the background. Allyn West teased this on Friday, and he provided a link to the Planning Department’s presentation from April 13. It assumes some knowledge of the project and was clearly delivered by someone who was verbally filling in details, but there’s a lot there if you want to know more. It seems highly unlikely that we’re going to get the East Loop alternative to I-45 through downtown, but limiting the right-of-way expansion would be a big win. Metro, which had supported the TxDOT plan due to the addition of HOV lanes, is on board with this vision. The critical piece is the letter from the city. It’s not clear to me what the time frame is for that, but I’d expect it sooner rather than later.

And so reopening begins

I have questions.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that he will let the state’s stay-at-home order expire Thursday as scheduled and allow businesses to begin reopening in phases the next day, the latest ramp-up in his push to restart the Texas economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

First to open Friday: retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls. But they will only be allowed to operate at 25% capacity. Museums and libraries will also be allowed to open at 25% capacity, but hands-on exhibits must remain closed.

Abbott said a second phase of business reopenings could come as soon as May 18 — as long as the state sees “two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19.” That second phase would allow business to expand their occupancy to 50%, according to the governor.

Abbott made the announcement during a news conference at the Texas Capitol, which he began by saying he would let the stay-at-home order expire because it “has done its job to slow the growth of COVID-19.” While the spread of the virus in Texas has slowed down throughout April, the number of cases is still increasing day to day, and it is unclear if the state has yet seen its peak.

“Now it’s time to set a new course, a course that responsibly opens up business in Texas,” Abbott said, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. “Just as we united as one state to slow COVID-19, we must also come together to begin rebuilding the lives and the livelihoods of our fellow Texans.”

Abbott said his new order “supersedes all local orders” saying those businesses must remain closed. He also said his order overrules any local government that wants to impose a fine or penalty for not wearing a mask — something the latest statewide rules encourage but do not mandate.

Speaking shortly after Abbott in Houston, the city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, told reporters that Abbott’s new order “pretty much will take these measures, the ability to [issue] stay-at-home orders and things of that nature, out of our hands locally.” He said he hoped Abbott’s plan works but offered a “cautionary note,” pointing out that there is still no vaccine and statistics show the “virus is still here,” even as local measures have slowed it down.

Abbott stressed that his order “gives permission to reopen, not a requirement,” and businesses can stay shuttered if they would like.

At the same time, Abbott said he is holding off on reopening certain businesses for the time, including barbershops, hair salons, bars and gyms. He said he hopes those businesses can open “on or no later than mid-May.”

[…]

Abbott mostly focused Monday on contact tracing, or the practice of tracking down and isolating all the people someone who tested positive for the virus has come into contact with. Abbott said Texas is already in the second phase of its contact tracing plan, adding 1,000 tracers on top of the existing 1,100 and launching a statewide app and call center to improve the process.

Abbott continued to talk of a coming increase in testing and said the state soon would “easily exceed our goal of 25,000 tests per day.” The state has been adding an average about 14,000 tests per day over the past week, according to figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Still, the total number of tests done as of Monday — 290,517 — remained about 1% of Texas’ nearly 29 million people.

See here for the background, and here for the plan, such as it is. It’s full of guidelines for various businesses and customers and nursing homes and the like, and short on details about things like how we’re going to achieve the testing goal. If you haven’t yet started wearing a face mask you don’t have to, though you really should and in some places you won’t have a choice regardless of what Abbott says.

I said I have questions, so here are a few:

– How many businesses will consider it worth the bother to reopen at 25% capacity?
– What does “confirm no flare-up of COVID-19” mean? As the story notes, the daily number of cases is continuing to rise. If two weeks from now that is still the case, but the rate of the daily increase hasn’t gone up, is that a success under the Abbott plan?
– What happens if there’s a local “flare up”, like say at another meat processing facility, or just in some random part of the state? If Montgomery County has seen an uptick in cases, do they get to re-impose a shutdown order?
– When should we expect to see that statewide app? Will it require some minimum number of people to download and install it in order to work? What metrics will there be for it – number of app downloads, number of people traced, number of infections mapped out, etc? What happens if we fail to meet those metrics?
– What medical experts advised on this? Because clearly not all medical experts are in agreement with it.

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I doubt Greg Abbott knows the answer to most of them. As I said before, the word that comes to mind for this is “half-baked”. Maybe everything will be fine, maybe we’re just easing up on less-risky behavior, maybe that testing and contact tracing regimen will be more robust than I expect, maybe people will continue to take social distancing seriously enough to keep a lid on things. I hope everything does go well. I’d surely like to start going places and doing things again. I’m just concerned that we barely have a Plan A, let alone a Plan B. What will we do if this doesn’t go the way we hope? The Current, the Press, the Rivard Report, and the Chron have more.

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

It’s a bit of a conundrum.

I don’t miss this

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real problem is those uppity local officials

My God, the Republican playbook is so predictable these days.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Local governments have gone too far in issuing emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic and can expect to have those powers whittled down when the Texas Legislature meets again, key state lawmakers say.

State laws give local leaders broad power during emergencies, but state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, a leading Republican in the Texas Senate, said too many local officials have taken it too far.

“We are going to have to look at all these emergency powers and see if they have to be scrubbed down,” Bettencourt said.

In Chambers County outside of Houston, for example, 10 p.m. curfews have been imposed on adults. In other counties, it’s prohibited to have more than two people in a car. In Laredo, people were allowed to exercise, but bicycle riding was barred.

Local governments are accustomed to playing defense against the Legislature. During each of the last two legislative sessions, state lawmakers have tried to curb local authority on myriad issues including tree ordinances, annexations and property tax collections.

Democrats say they’re getting used to this drumbeat of Republicans trying to take authority away from cities and suburbs as they have become more Democratic. They say the cities and counties needed to move quickly because Republican Gov. Greg Abbott waited to issue a statewide stay-home order until 30 other states had done so.

Democratic Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been a consistent target for frustrated Republicans.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said the Republicans should be thanking local leaders such as Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner. While Abbott waited to issue statewide orders closing restaurants or requiring residents to stay home, Turner and Hidalgo were moving far faster and helping keep down the spread of the virus, Wu said.

“It’s our local governments that have had to step up and done an outstanding job,” Wu said. “The reason our numbers are so low is because they took decisive action early.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott was only too happy to let local leaders do the leading, because “What is best in Dallas may not be best for Amarillo or Abilene”? Good times. Have I mentioned that it’s really important that Democrats win the State House this election? Now you have another reason why.

How about an Arizona/Florida/Texas plan for MLB?

Call it the MLB Plan 3.0 for having a season.

With the spread of the novel coronavirus threatening Major League Baseball’s 2020 season, the league and the union continue to seek ways to salvage the year as best they can. Predictably, that has entailed any number of proposals and contingency plans, including those that would see teams either all isolated in Arizona, or split between Arizona and Florida. On Monday, multiple league sources informed CBS Sports about a different idea that has been discussed in recent days.

In this arrangement, the league would have teams stationed in one of three hubs: Florida, Arizona or Texas. The clubs would then make use of the local major- and minor-league (or spring training) facilities and play regular season games behind closed doors without fans.

One source even expressed guarded optimism about the idea’s chances of coming to fruition.

Ballparks in St. Petersburg (Florida), Phoenix (Arizona), and Arlington (Texas) each have roofs, retractable or otherwise, that would safeguard against rainouts and other extreme weather, allowing for multiple games to be hosted at those sites per day. Theoretically, MLB could also ask teams stationed in Florida and Texas to drive three-plus hours to other MLB parks (Houston’s Minute Maid Park and Miami’s Marlins Park).

It’s unclear if MLB would assign 10 teams to each metropolitan area, or if it would opt for an unbalanced approach that would see 12 teams in one area and eight in another.

[…]

“From our perspective, we don’t have a plan, we have lots of ideas,” [MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred] told Fox Business. “What ideas come to fruition depends on what the restrictions are, what the public health situation is, but we are intent on the idea of making baseball a part of the economic recovery and sort of a milestone on the return to normalcy.”

See here and here for the previous iterations of this idea. The DMN adds more details.

While teams would need to drive as much as two or three hours in Florida to visit certain sites, Texas can offer two Major League stadiums: Globe Life Field in Arlington and Minute Maid Park in Houston. There are also numerous minor league facilities such as Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco and The Dell Diamond in Round Rock. There are also numerous top-tier college facilities, if those are made available.

[…]

Among things to be decided if Texas becomes more realistic: How would MLB temporarily realign from two 15-team leagues to three 10-team leagues? Under the Arizona/Florida idea, rather than having teams divided into the National and American Leagues, they would compete in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.

Also, which teams would be asked to give up the relative comforts of their own spring training facilities to temporarily plan in Texas? If MLB moves towards a league that is geared simply to be TV-friendly without fans, it might make sense to have leagues set up based on time zones, with East Coast teams in Florida, teams in the Central in Texas and the rest of the teams in Arizona.

There are eight teams with Central Time Zone home bases: Both Chicago teams, St. Louis, Kansas City, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Houston and the Rangers. Colorado is a Mountain Time Zone-based club, an hour behind the Central. A team from the Eastern Time Zone, perhaps Detroit, might need to be added.

Another question: Would the Rangers be able to use all of the numerous state-of-the-art amenities afforded them in Globe Life Field? Or would teams playing in their home stadiums have to give up some access to major league amenities if the majority of teams are playing in minor league stadiums?

Teams would also need some secondary bases for depth options since the minor league season is becoming more and more unlikely. That’s where minor league and college facilities could become more of a point of conversation.

As the Chron notes, Texas A&M has expressed interest in letting its stadium be used in this scenario. I’m sure other colleges would as well. Normally, even the biggest college stadium would be far too small for an MLB game, but with there being no spectators, that’s not an issue. So who knows? One other obstacle, as the CBS story notes, is that some prominent players, like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, have said they don’t want to be separated from their families for the four months this would take (assuming no return to regular stadium action in the interim). I feel like that is surmountable if this ever gets past the “there are no bad ideas” stage of the discussion. For now, MLB is just making sure that it has something it can try to execute in the event that things have improved enough to move forward with a season.

The next school year is going to be different, too

As with many things, just how different remains an open question for now.

When Houston campuses finally re-open in 2020-21, at a date very much to-be-determined, the region’s million-plus children will experience a school year unlike any other.

Some students may spend more time in the classroom, arriving weeks earlier than usual or staying later in the day. Others may receive added attention from teachers, counselors and social workers. Many will get lessons typically delivered the prior spring.

“They’re going to have so much work to make up that I don’t know how they’re going to do it,” said Angie Tyler, the grandmother of a high school junior in Aldine ISD. “She’s so used to having her teacher on hand, teaching her math or physics she doesn’t get. Is she going to get to learn what she’s missed?”

Amid enormous uncertainty about the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Houston-area school leaders have started mapping out contingency plans for the upcoming school year, one in which students will arrive with learning gaps and significant health needs.

[…]

“We have to look ahead,” Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “We’re looking at instructional time as it relates to programming in the summer, possibly an extended calendar, maybe an extended school day.”

None of the region’s superintendents have suggested wholesale changes in the way students are taught. Rather, multiple district leaders have discussed increasing the amount of time spent in the classroom and adding more mental health support for vulnerable students.

If buildings can re-open in the coming weeks, Lathan said her district may allow more children to enroll in summer school, which normally runs from early June to early July. Typically, HISD only opens summer school to students at risk of failing to advance grade levels or who need to pass state standardized tests to earn promotion.

In Fort Bend ISD, the region’s fourth-largest district, Superintendent Charles Dupre said district leaders will have “serious conversations” about beginning the 2020-21 school year before the planned Aug. 12 start date. Under one possible scenario, Fort Bend students would spend August catching up on missed instruction from the prior year, then start their new grade-level classes after Labor Day.

Aldine ISD Superintendent LaTonya Goffney, who leads the Houston area’s fifth-largest district, also said her district’s calendar “cannot be August to May.”

There’s more, and you should read it with an understanding that this is all contingency planning, with lots of things likely to change between now and whenever. School districts are limited by law in how early they can open, but it’s possible that could get worked around or waived. Basically, if you have a kid in the public schools, pay attention to the communication you get from your district and your schools. This is not going to be back-to-school as usual, and you’ll want to make sure you know what is going on.

Mask up

Time for the next step in virus mitigation.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday ordered residents to cover their faces in public, the latest effort by local governments to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The new rules, which require residents 10 and older to cover their nose and mouth when outside the home, take effect Monday and last 30 days. Acceptable garments include a homemade mask, scarf, bandana or handkerchief. Medical masks or N-95 respirators are not recommended as they are most needed by first responders and health workers.

Under the order, the county’s 4.7 million residents must cover their faces at all times except when exercising, eating or drinking; the exemptions also include when individuals are alone in a separate single space, at home with roommates or family, or when wearing a mask poses a greater risk to security, mental or physical health. Violating the mask rules is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, though Hidalgo urged police to use discretion.

Unlike previous restrictions announced by the city and county executives, Hidalgo’s mask order drew fierce, partisan rebuke, highlighting what has become a national political divide over coronavirus restrictions.

[…]

Employers at businesses deemed essential under Harris County’s stay-at-home order must provide face coverings and training to workers whose jobs require them to come into contact with colleagues or the public. Hidalgo has yet to determine whether to extend the stay-at-home rules, which expire April 30.

Hospitalization data suggests the curve of new cases is flattening here, Hidalgo said at a news conference Wednesday. The region still is susceptible to another wave of infections, she warned.

“If we get cocky, we get sloppy, we get right back to where we started, and all of the sacrifices people have been making have been in vain,” Hidalgo said while wearing a homemade mask. “Let’s not get complacent. Let’s remember that we still have work to do.”

Hidalgo said the mask rules were spurred by her team’s realization the outbreak would require a long-term health response that extends beyond the end of stay-home rules.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner endorsed Hidalgo’s plan. He thanked residents for their sacrifices to date and said he would announce a plan Thursday to distribute 70,000 masks to vulnerable residents.

Masks are a crucial tool to prevent a surge in cases as businesses and public spaces reopen, said Firas Zabaneh, an infectious disease expert at Houston Methodist. He said they also serve as a visual reminder to maintain social distancing.

“The public will be safer with masks on,” Zabaneh said. “As we ease the restrictions, more and more people are going to be interacting with each other.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends wearing masks when social distancing is not possible, such as at a grocery store. Many people who have coronavirus do not show symptoms, and the disease can be spread through speaking, coughing or sneezing.

I omitted all the partisan criticism, which included a particularly whiny response from the police union president, because sniveling is pathetic and life is short. As the story notes, Laredo and Dallas and San Antonio have issued similar orders without any of the fuss; I’ll leave it to you to decide why the same thing from Judge Lina Hidalgo inspired such vitriol. The police guy went running to AG Ken Paxton to ask if she was allowed to do that, and he demurred, while reminding the cops that they do have the discretion to not issue citations.

Anyway, look. The way forward with this pandemic, certainly until we have an effective treatment regimen and eventually a vaccine, is going to include things like masks, plus continued social distancing and universal testing and a whole lot more hand sanitizer and bleach wipes. This is the new normal, whether we like it or not. It would be nice if everyone went along with this willingly, but we’ve already seen that a significant portion of the population doesn’t take any of this seriously. This is where we are.

Galveston and Montgomery Counties have not followed suit. For what it’s worth, they were behind the curve in issuing stay-at-home orders, too. With Greg Abbott’s forthcoming order to “reopen” the economy, it’s possible that Hidalgo’s order will be quite short-lived, since Abbott seems to have remembered that he doesn’t like letting local governments do things. As is so often the case lately, I have no idea what happens next. Buckle up, it’s gonna be bumpy. The Press has more.

Turner to ask feds for some relief

Can’t hurt to ask.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner is asking the federal government to let Houston use an estimated $400 million in aid to help close its ballooning budget gap and reduce the number of expected furloughs in the fiscal year that begins in July.

Turner said the CARES Act, part of the $2 trillion stimulus passed by Congress last month, will give the city much-needed resources, but the rules accompanying those funds prevent the city from using the dollars where they are most needed: the budget.

“You don’t have to appropriate us more dollars, just allow us to have flexibility with regard to those dollars that have already been awarded,” Turner said he told lawmakers. The mayor said the request was made in a letter to Congress signed by 110 other Texas mayors.

There are three rules for the federal aid, according to Turner: expenditures must be directly related to COVID-19, it cannot previously have been budgeted, and it must be spent by the end of this year.

That helps, Turner said, but it would help more to use the funds as a budget stopgap. Southwestern cities like Houston have incurred fewer direct pandemic expenses than northeast cities because they took earlier social distancing actions, Turner said. The real brunt for governments here is the projected drop in sales taxes, which is expected to punch a massive hole in the Houston’s already cash-strapped budget. Sales taxes are the city’s second largest revenue stream, after property taxes.

It’s that or budget catastrophe, and there’s no good reason why we should have to have the latter. Which doesn’t actually matter, since I’m sure the Trump administration will say No, and even if somehow they say Yes or the Turner administration tries to find some clever way around the obstacles in their path, state Republicans will turn fire and fury our way. Because, obviously, being able to stave off massive cuts from a budget shortfall that was unforeseen and no one’s fault is totally irresponsible. That’s just math. Anyway, this is the process before us. May as well see where it leads.

Did we mention that the next city budget is gonna suck?

Because it is, in case we hadn’t mentioned it before.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday that the coronavirus crisis will impact “every facet of city governance” and require furloughs of city workers, though he declined to say how many employees would be forced to take unpaid leave.

Even before U.S. oil reached a lowpoint of minus-$40 a barrel Monday, city officials were preparing for Houston’s tightest budget ever, thanks to a precipitous drop in sales tax revenue and an already sharp plummet in oil prices.

The fresh collapse of the oil market prompted Turner for the first time to acknowledge that city employees would be furloughed, and the city would defer a number of payments, for the fiscal year that begins in July.

“It’s not any more unique than what other cities are facing across the country. But it’s real in the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I’m not trying to hide it. These are the realities. This will be the worst budget that the city will deal with in its history.”

Turner declined to provide further details about the scale of the furloughs or what level of budget cuts he expects city departments to undergo. He did say cadet classes would be deferred due to the economic crisis but did not specify whether he was referring to fire cadets, police cadets or both.

Houston Controller Chris Brown said the city’s budget situation likely will prove “equal to or worse than” the Great Recession in the late 2000s. In the fiscal year that began in July 2011, then-mayor Annise Parker laid off 764 city employees to close a $100 million budget gap.

We’ve known this is coming. We won’t have a starting point for exactly how bad it is until the Comptroller releases the March sales tax data, but I think we can all agree that it will be Very Bad. We need sufficient testing so we can begin to reopen things in a safe manner, but the only way out of the hole we’re in is going to be help from the federal government. Which, if we learned anything from the 2009 recession, should be obvious, in that the resulting deep cuts to state and local governments in the years following the initial downturn acted as a huge drag on the economic recovery, offsetting stimulus efforts to a large degree. There’s still hope for that to happen in another round of coronavirus response money, if only because keeping the economy from completely capsizing is in the Republicans’ interests in a way it wasn’t in 2009-2010. But until then, expect there to be a whole lot of doom and gloom.

Meet your recovery czars

For Harris County:

Rep. Armado Walle

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday named state Rep. Armando Walle the county’s COVID-19 recovery czar as local leaders determine how to eventually ease restrictions on public life meant to slow the spread of the disease.

Walle, a Democrat, has represented the Aldine-area House District 140 since 2009. He serves on the appropriations, higher education and redistricting committees and was a state budget conferee in 2019. Hidalgo said Walle understands the needs of the more than 2 million residents of unincorporated Harris County.

“We need someone who will be laser-focused on helping families right now and combating the long-term economic effects and the long-term human impacts of this crisis,” Hidalgo said at a news conference.

[…]

Walle echoed Hidalgo’s pledge to base decisions to remove restrictions on data rather than arbitrary deadlines. He vowed to work with business, nonprofit, philanthropic and faith-based leaders as well as elected officials across Harris County.

“We need to work together on an inclusive recovery that responsibly ensures the economic health and well-being of the people of Harris County,” Walle said. “We need to save lives and also save livelihoods.”

And for the city of Houston:

Going for the tried and true, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner Monday named former Shell president Marvin Odum to the position of Houston COVID-19 Recovery leader.

Odum was also the first Hurricane Harvey recovery leader appointed by Turner in 2017. Saying Odum had performed to “rave reviews” the last time he led the city’s recovery efforts, Turner said Odum will be working with a number of groups including business leaders , non-profit groups, members of the mayor’s exectuive team, as well as just-announced Harris County COVID-19 Recovery Czar Armando Walle.

Critical issues, the mayor said, include how to restart the economy, specifically how to send people back to work and the need for robust testing. Odum is also charged with coming up with a plan if the area starts to see an increase in the number of positive cases and developing some way to implement contact tracing so the city knows where the virus is traveling.

Another area of importance will be making sure at-risk, vulnerable populations are not left behind, the mayor said, as well as: “How do we prepare for the next pandemic?”

In turn, Odum pledged to “act as quickly as possible.” He said collaboration with other governmental units was key because “We don’t want to duplicate work or waste any time.”

Both task forces will work with each other. I would expect there to be more of these, perhaps from other cities within the county, and perhaps they will work with other task forces from other counties. Lord knows, there will be plenty to do, and right now no one knows what a lot of this looks like. Both men are good choices – Odum has the experience with Harvey, and of course is very well-connected in the business world, which will need to buy into whatever the plan is. Walle is a terrific member of the Legislature, so he has that going for him, and he’ll be a voice for working people and their needs. They, and whoever they work with, will have a lot of responsibility, and may very well run into obstacles at both the state and federal levels, especially if their ideas of when and how “reopening” should occur are in conflict. I wish them a lot of luck, and I think they will need it.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the Chron story that includes the Odum appointment.

Coronavirus and delivery workers

There’s a very obvious answer for this.

Couriers delivering online orders of household essentials have become a lifeline for Houstonians hunkering down at home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But a growing number of workers responsible for getting packages to consumers are falling sick, leaving those remaining on the job worried for their lives.

“When I’m walking into work, it’s nerve-wracking,” said a truck driver for FedEx Freight in Cypress who wished to remain anonymous because the worker feared retaliation from the company. “I don’t want to miss work because I’m a single parent, but I’m afraid I’m gonna catch something.”

Package delivery workers have been thrust into the front lines of the global fight against the coronavirus as millions of Americans under stay-at-home orders turn to online shopping to get canned goods, medicine and household supplies. Workers who fulfill these online orders and deliver them say they are risking their lives to ensure consumers’ home shelves are well-stocked.

At least 24 package workers in the Houston area — including 19 Amazon, three UPS and two FedEx workers — have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to internal company communication obtained by the Chronicle, interviews with employees and media reports. COVID-19 is the respiratory illness caused by the new strain of coronavirus.

Representatives of Amazon, FedEx and UPS declined to disclose the number of employee cases, citing company policies and employee privacy concerns. Each of the companies insisted they are taking steps to protect workers.

This story would have been a lot more useful if we had any idea how many total employees we were talking about, so we could compare the rate of infection of this group of people to the Harris County population as a whole. (Which, to be sure, we are undercounting, but it’s the best we can do.) I don’t say this to cast any doubt on the seriousness of the problem or to downplay the concerns of the workers, but because knowing where the virus is more prevalent is valuable and can help with the fight against it. Identifying and isolating localized hot spots is going to be a key part of the next phase of mitigating this pandemic. Everything we can learn that will move that forward is huge.

The glaringly obvious point to make here is that workers like these who have no choice but to be out in public are exactly the people that we need realtime, universal testing for. The scariest thing about this virus is that you can’t tell who has it, and anyone (yourself included) could be out there spreading it without knowing it. But if we can test for it, that goes a long way towards ensuring the safety of the people who cannot socially distance themselves. If you have to show up somewhere to work, you need and deserve to know that everyone else who is there with you is virus-free. The fact that I have to point this out more than a month into this pandemic is just mind-boggling, and as clear a sign of the federal government’s complete unpreparedness and failure to respond that you can get. It’s beyond appalling that the people we are all counting on to keep us fed, healthy, safe, and otherwise taken care of cannot be cared for themselves in this most basic way. I don’t know what else there is to say.

The local plea to reopen

I have a lot of sympathy, but I don’t think this is a great idea.

A coalition of 350 local businesses is urging Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo to begin May 1 to ease stay-at-home restrictions meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, warning many firms cannot survive additional weeks of forced closures.

The impromptu association, calling itself the Houston Coronavirus Business Group, said in identical letters to the leaders Wednesday that a balance must be struck between the medical community’s desire to keep cases and deaths down and the need to limit damage to the economy.

The group said business leaders should have an equal influence in extending restrictions beyond April 30 as doctors, who they said fail to grasp the severe economic damage wrought by the “draconian” stay-at-home order.

“These good folks aren’t business or economic experts, and they don’t see or understand the economic spiral that we are currently experiencing and the human toll a complete shutdown will ravage in terms of lives, mental health, physical wellbeing, crime, poverty, etc.,” the letter states.

The letter is the first organized push by members of the business community against restrictions of movement and commerce since the pandemic reached the Houston area.

The virus is expected to peak in the Houston area in late April or early May, health experts say, calling it a potentially disastrous time to permit residents to again congregate in restaurants, offices and playgrounds.

“The virus will and should dictate when we lift restrictions,” said Baylor College of Medicine CEO Dr. Paul Klotman. “It makes no sense to artificially pick a date based on what we wish to happen.”

Let me say first that however you feel about this effort, I’m glad these guys didn’t resort to crap like this or this. I don’t have a good answer for them. Ideally, the federal government would have fully stepped in to ease the burden on these businesses, but the first round of assistance is already gone, with a lot of it not going to the businesses that needed it the most, and who knows what will come next or when it may come. There are some local efforts to help restaurants, like this one Mayor Turner just launched, which I consider to be a very high priority. But ultimately, until there is sufficiently widespread testing and the ability to track the movements of those who catch the virus, anything we do to loosen restrictions now is just a huge risk. I mean, a much wider pandemic with a much higher death rate isn’t going to be good for anyone’s business, either. I wish there were something more we could do.

Are we near the peak yet?

We sure hope so, but it’s still a little soon to tell.

After weeks of grim, ever-worsening statistics, Houston medical and public health leaders say the area has begun to flatten the COVID-19 curve, the rate at which the disease is spreading through the community.

The start of such flattening, seen in testing and hospitalization data, represents the turning of a significant corner for an area that has been shut down for more than a month to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The virus has infected more than 2 million people globally and killed more than 33,000 in the U.S.

“We haven’t peaked yet, but we’re seeing very encouraging signs that the curve is flattening,” said Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist. “The number of people testing positive has slowed and hospitalizations have also leveled off.”

Dr. Paul Klotman, president of Baylor College of Medicine, added that the trend is “definitely positive — we’re getting closer to the peak.” But he noted that “the peak is not a good place to be. The only safe place is when we’re going toward the valley.”

Texas Medical Center leaders told Mayor Sylvester Turner this week that the rate of the virus’s spread, exponential early, has definitely slowed. But they were quick to warn again complacency and stressed that now, more than ever, people need to keep aggressively practicing social distancing.

[…]

Despite the measures, the Houston area’s COVID-19 numbers continued to spike — expected, experts said, because of the virus’s incubation time of two to 14 days, the sometimes slow disease progression, the lack of access to testing and the often lengthy delays in lab results.

But in recent days, public health officials said, the signs such measures are working have become evident.

According to new research by two Harvard scientists and a Baylor doctor, for instance, the rate at which the virus is spreading dropped from nearly 30 percent a week and a half ago to almost 5 percent as of Wednesday. That means the time it takes to double the size of the outbreak has gone from every three days to 20 days now.

“It’s too early to really tell — the next week or two will be crucial — but Houston’s social distancing appears to be doing enormous good,” said Dr. Mark Siedner, a Harvard professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The trend over the last week is really positive.”

The next two weeks are when a number of models project Houston’s cases will peak.

“The peak is not a good place to be”, and “The next two weeks are when a number of models project Houston’s cases will peak” are the quotes you should keep in mind when you hear people talk about “reopening the economy” and things like that. Two weeks from now is when the current stay-at-home order for Harris County expires. That order will certainly be extended, and if we’re lucky then by then we will be seeing the numbers decline. But we’re not there quite yet. Keep doing what you’re doing, we will get there.

Texas Central opponents see an opportunity

Never waste an opportunity.

Examination of a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas should be halted as the country addresses the new coronavirus pandemic and the company rethinks its financial shape, 30 elected officials in Texas told federal regulators.

In two separate letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, 28 state lawmakers and two members of Congress said work by the Federal Railroad Administration on the Texas Central Railway project — which has faced stiff opposition for six years even as Dallas and Houston officials showed support — should stop entirely.

“It has become clear Texas Central simply does not have the financial resources required or expertise employed to continue with this project,” state lawmakers, led by state Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson, wrote. “To proceed otherwise would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizes the integrity of the rules making process.”

Leman, a long-time critic of the project which rural residents have assailed as a boondoggle that will ruin the Texas countryside and never be financially sound, said the aim of the letter is to stop all analysis of the project’s safety procedures and environmental effects, which the FRA has been working on since 2014 with Texas Central. Federal regulators must approve the safety of the trains — unlike any other trains in the United States — and apply federal soil, air, noise and species protection rules to the construction and operations.

Texas Central last month said COVID-19’s effect on financial markets could impact the project, tightening its ability to secure the $15 billion or more necessary to build a 240-mile sealed corridor along a utility alignment between Houston and Dallas. Global response to the pandemic hits every sector of the company’s plans, which rely on Japanese trains, a Spanish rail operator and engineering from Italy. Within Texas, the company has laid off 28 employees.

It was also last month, right before the coronavirus shit hit the fan, that Texas Central was expressing hope they would begin construction this year. That sure seems like a no-go at this point, regardless of what effect this may have on their finances. As far as that goes, I would expect the process would take into account the financial solvency of the firm in question – certainly, Metro’s finances were closely scrutinized during its journey to get funds for the light rail expansion – so I don’t see why this would carry any more weight than that. This seems more like a signal from the prominent bullet train opponents to their supporters that they’re still out there fighting the good fight than anything else, but you never know.

Speaking of which, the signers of this epistle are for the most part the usual suspects who have opposed the high speed rail line all along. The two names on there that caught my eye are Rep. Tom Oliverson, whose HD130 in northwest Harris County would be on the path of the train, and Sen. Joan Huffman, the one legislator in there from a mostly urban area. I’d think at least a few of her constituents might actually want to ride this thing some day, so my eyebrows went up a notch upon seeing her name. Make of that what you will. The DMN has more.

Goodbye, Greenlink

Another version of Metro’s downtown trolley system is shut down due to coronavirus, and likely won’t come back, at least not in that format.

Downtown Houston’s free shuttle may have hauled its last passenger, a victim of the central district’s stop-and-go traffic, as well as changes in how residents and visitors move around town.

GreenLink, shuttles that pick up and drop off at Metropolitan Transit Authority bus stops along various streets in the downtown district, stopped March 23 as transit officials and the downtown district reduced service because of the COVID-19 crisis.

The timing could accelerate what already was a planned discontinuation of the service on May 31, said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District, which owned the shuttles that started circling the city’s center in mid-2012, operated by Metro with funding from the downtown district.

Eury said given the weeks of isolation orders likely ahead, it is possible GreenLink shuttles never get a green light ever again, at least in their present form.

[…]

Metro on March 24 agreed to buy the seven buses used on the route for $264,439, their estimated value due to depreciation.

Officials said it is possible they will not go far, however. Metro board member Jim Robinson said the transit agency is exploring quick routes across the central business district to connect workers on the eastern side to the park and ride service largely focused on the west side.

“I’ve had a number of people who live in northern or western park and ride areas tell me they would use the service if they didn’t have to walk from the west side of the (central business district) to the east side in Houston weather,” Robinson said.

Robinson said a decision will come within a comprehensive look at the entire commuter bus system, and how it can serve jobs spreading across the downtown area and into EaDo and Midtown.

That makes sense. The Greenlink buses were low-capacity to begin with, and to some extent they were an alternative to walking, which when downtown streets were jammed was often at least as quick a way to go. Uber and Lyft also competed with Greenlink. I worked two different stints downtown, for two years in the mid-90s when the previous trolley system was in place, and for four years in the 2010s with GreenLink. I never used either service, mostly because I’m a fast and impatient walker who doesn’t mind a little recreational jaywalking. In my second time downtown, I made use of B-Cycle when I had to take a trip that was just a bit too far to walk. As Metro redesigned its local bus system a few years ago, it makes sense to rethink what GreenLink is about, and to ensure that it’s providing the kind of rides that most people really need. After we’re all able to get out of the house and use it again, of course.

We still have no idea how many people have been infected

There’s just a real lack of testing being done.

Six times in three weeks, Marci Rosenberg and her ailing husband and teenage children tried to get tested for the new coronavirus — only to be turned away each time, either for not meeting narrow testing criteria or because there simply were not enough tests available.

All the while, the Bellaire family of four grew sicker as their fevers spiked and their coughs worsened. They said they fell one by one into an exhaustion unlike any they had felt before.

By March 18, Rosenberg was desperate and pleaded with her doctor for a test. Dr. Lisa Ehrlich, an internal medicine physician, told Rosenberg to pull into her office driveway. But Ehrlich warned Rosenberg, “I can only test one of you.” She swabbed her throat through an open car window. The result came back the next day: positive.

The rest of her family was presumed to be positive but untested – and thus excluded from any official tally of the disease.

As the number of confirmed cases of the potentially deadly virus continues to explode across the Houston region – tripling from 1,000 to more than 3,000 in just the past week – there is mounting evidence that the true scope of the disease here could be far worse than the numbers indicate.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of testing data collected through Wednesday shows that Texas has the second-worst rate of testing per capita in the nation, with only 332 tests conducted for every 100,000 people. Only Kansas ranks lower, at 327 per 100,000 people.

In cities across Texas — from Houston to Dallas, San Antonio to Nacogdoches — testing continues to be fraught with missteps, delays and shortages, resulting in what many predict will ultimately be a significant undercount. Not fully knowing who has or had the disease both skews public health data and also hampers treatment and prevention strategies, potentially leading to a higher death count, health care experts say.

[…]

As the pandemic’s march quickened, Texas was slow to ramp up testing.

The first confirmed case in Texas, outside those under federal quarantine from a cruise ship, was March 4, striking a Houston area man in his 70s who lived in Fort Bend county and had recently traveled abroad. By month’s end, the Houston area had more than 1,000 confirmed cases. A week later, the number had pushed past 3,000.

Yet it was not until March 30 that the rate of testing per 100,000 people in Texas topped 100. As of Wednesday, the state was testing 327 per 100,000, according to a Chronicle analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, which collects information nationwide on testing primarily from state health departments, and supplements with reliable news reports and live press conferences.

Twenty-six states in the U.S. are testing at least double the number of patients per capita as Texas, in some cases six times more. New York, for instance, is testing 1,877 per 100,000 people while neighboring Louisiana is testing 1,622 per 100,000. Even smaller states, such as New Mexico, are testing triple the rate of Texas.

Texas officials defended the state’s response.

“We’ve consistently seen about 10 percent of tests coming back positive, which indicates there is enough testing for public health surveillance,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Department of State Health Services, in an email, “If we saw 40 or 50 percent or more of test coming back positive, we’d be concerned that there could be a large number of cases out there going unreported, but that has not been the case.”

It is unclear if that is a reliable measure. Nearly 41 percent of New York tests were positive, the second-highest rate in the country. In Texas, about 9.4 percent of tests were positive — roughly the same as Washington state, where one of the largest outbreaks of coronavirus has occurred.

Not the first time we’ve talked about this, and it won’t be the last. This also means that the official number of deaths attributed to coronavirus is likely too low. This has been the case globally, especially in the hardest-hit places, where the difference between the normal daily mortality rate and the observed mortality rate during the crisis is a lot bigger than the official count of COVID-19 deaths. The good news is that as yet our hospitals have not been overwhelmed, but we can’t say with confidence that that will continue to be the case.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Houston area is continuing a steady climb, not close to crisis levels but unnerving enough that experts still aren’t sure when the area’s grand experiment in social distancing will start showing up in daily counts.

After a week in which COVID-19 hospitalization numbers more than doubled in Harris County, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists said it likely will be another week to 10 days before they know if the stay-at-home orders and closures are reducing the rate at which the coronavirus is spreading and keeping health care facilities from being overwhelmed.

“Even though we’ve been social distancing for three weeks, it’s too early to know when we’ll be on the downward slope,” said Catherine Troisi, a professor of epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health. “The numbers we’re seeing now reflect people who were exposed to the virus up to four weeks ago.”

Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, said the social distancing has paid off in terms of keeping hospital volumes under control so far but added that the pay-off in terms of ending the pandemic is unclear. He said that “we need to continue stay-at-home orders until the end of the month, then reassess whether to extend them longer.”

Hotez and others said that aggressive social distancing is more important now than ever, given modelers are projecting that the number of COVID-19 cases in the Houston area should peak in the next few weeks. They said people venturing out during the peak period will put themselves at high risk of contracting the virus.

[…]

The study, released on March 24, originally said the virus’ spread in the Houston area would peak April 7 and burn out by mid-May if stay-at-home orders are continued until May 12. It was not clear Tuesday when the study projects the virus will burn out now.

Eric Boerwinkle, the lead researcher, could not be reached for comment Tuesday and UTHealth officials had no update on the study. Boerwinkle, who did not make the original modeling publicly available, has briefed top local government officials on the work.

Another modeling study, conducted by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, now projects that the Texas peak use of hospital resources for COVID-19 will be April 19, some two weeks earlier than it previously projected. The study, reportedly relied on by the Trump administration, foresees no bed shortage in the state, including in intensive care.

“That’s why you shouldn’t place too much weight on any one model,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, Baylor’s dean of clinical affairs. “They depend on assumptions plugged in and can show everything from Houston being able to handle the surge to a New York City-like situation.”

McDeavitt noted the wild cards that go into modeling — the number of people admitted to a hospital, the percentage that need intensive care, how long it takes to get patients off ventilators, how long they need to recover in a regular bed once they move out of intensive care. Those are the assumptions that drive models, he noted.

McDeavitt said he doesn’t think the number of cases will come down in the Houston area until the end of the month.

That story was from earlier in the week, so all of the numbers are a bit out of date by now. But the bottom line remains that we don’t know where we are on the curve because we don’t really know how many people are or have been sick. Models all rely on data, and we’re also not good with the data.

The information Texans are working with is too damn thin.

Where to start? Not enough tests have been completed, or taken, to really know who has or doesn’t have the disease, where the Texas hotspots are, or whether people who have died of respiratory problems had COVID-19. The relatively small number of test results also means we don’t know which people had the disease and recovered (and how many people have recovered) and whether the projections being made with that skimpy data are accurate enough to guide our public health decisions.

It’s not enough to say that the testing is getting better, that we know more than we knew just a few days ago. What we still don’t know overshadows what we do know.

We’re like pilots flying in clouds without instruments. We know a little bit, but not enough to make really solid decisions or to figure out what’s next. We’re learning as we go. As of Thursday, Texas was reporting 10,230 cases and 199 deaths, 1,439 hospitalized COVID-19 patients and 106,134 tests conducted.

Given the level of testing right now, it’s hard to know how many cases Texas really has. Because the best way to get tested for the new coronavirus is to show symptoms that a medical professional finds troublesome, it’s probably safe to say we’re not testing many people who are carrying the virus but don’t have symptoms.

It’s easier — because it’s more obvious — to map the institutional cases. When someone in a nursing home or a state supported living center or a prison tests positive, testing everyone in that location is simple and smart. It’s simple to figure out that everyone in a given building or campus might have been exposed.

Even that data isn’t always available. The state of Texas initially wasn’t sharing details about the data it has collected from nursing homes where COVID-19 cases have been found. But a few days after The Texas Tribune’s Edgar Walters and Carla Astudillo wrote about it, the state revealed 13% of nursing homes have at least one confirmed case.

We’re doing a lot of flying blind. If we want to make good decisions about things like when and how to restart the economy, we need a much better understanding of where we are, and where that means we’re likely to be going.

Coronavirus and crime

It’s down around the country. Turns out having everyone stay inside has a salutary effect, for the most part.

Crime rates plunged in cities and counties across the U.S. over the second half of March as the coronavirus pandemic drove millions of residents to stay inside their homes.

Police logged dramatically fewer calls for service, crime incidents and arrests in the last two weeks of March than each of the previous six weeks, a USA TODAY analysis of crime data published by 53 law enforcement agencies in two dozen states found. The analysis is among the largest studies measuring the impact of the coronavirus on crime and policing.

Massive drops in traffic and person stops – as much as 92% in some jurisdictions – helped drive sharp declines in drug offenses and DUIs. Thefts and residential burglaries decreased with fewer stores open and homes unoccupied, and some agencies logged fewer assaults and robberies. Bookings into each of nearly two dozen county jails monitored by the news organization fell by at least a quarter since February.

At the same time, calls for domestic disturbances and violence surged by 10% to 30% among many police agencies that contributed data. Several also saw increases in public nuisance complaints such as loud noise from parties. The Baltimore Police Department, for example, received 362 loud-music complaints in the last two weeks of March, nearly matching its total for all of February.

The trends reflect both a purposeful reduction in police activity and officer-initiated stops and the effect of stay-at-home orders that have closed huge swaths of Main Street and pushed people into their homes and out of traditional crime hot spots, such as bars, clubs and social events.

The Marshall Project did a similar look at a smaller number of cities in late March, and this AP report is fresh off the presses, and both saw the same basic thing. DUI arrests are down for the obvious reason that fewer people are driving, but that same decline in driving means a decline in traffic stops, which in turn means a big drop in drug possession busts. Some cities have stopped arresting people for low-level offenses anyway, as a coronavirus risk mitigation. Burglaries are a more interesting case – home burglaries are on the decline since most people are now mostly at home, but more businesses are closed, which does increase the target surface. HPD Chief Art Acevedo claims burglaries of businesses in Houston are up 18.9% – this KTRK story, which is based on the tweet in which Acevedo made that claim, just says “burglaries” are up, which is a misrepresentation of the Chief’s words – but he didn’t provide numbers or a time frame for that. And as the Marshall Project story says, crime can fluctuate quite a bit over a short time span for any number of reasons, so all this should be seen as very preliminary and not necessarily predictive. Let’s see what we’re seeing after another month of staying at home.

One crime that is definitely on the rise, in Houston and around the country, is domestic abuse, including child abuse. A spike in gun sales is unlikely to help with that. Being at home is safe for most of us, but not all of us. For people trapped at home with an abuser, there is no safety and now no escape. I don’t know what to do about that now, but as with so many other things, we need to give it a lot of thought, and more resources, so we are better prepared for the next time.

One more thing:

Many police departments say they are intentionally arresting fewer people to avoid the potential spread of the coronavirus in jails. Police in Delray Beach, Florida, are reducing proactive policing, such as drug busts. In nearby Gainesville, Florida, officers are increasingly issuing summons instead of making arrests for minor offenses, Police chief inspector Jorge Campos said.

“It’s not that we’re not enforcing (the law),” Campos said. “It’s that we’re finding alternative ways of dealing with the issue rather than make physical arrests.”

Huh. What if – stay with me here – we kept on doing that even after the coronavirus pandemic is over? It’s so crazy it just might work.

Coronavirus and driving

There are a lot fewer cars on the road now, though the decrease may not be quite as much as you’d think.

I don’t miss this

Traffic around the country has plummeted since governments began enacting stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus outbreak, but data from vehicle navigation systems and other monitors shows many of us are still out of our homes and on the road.

Nationwide, traffic analytics firms say, daily traffic remains at about 60% of normal levels, even as the vast majority of Americans tell pollsters they’re staying home more.

In California, where a stay-at-home order took effect March 19, daily trips statewide remain at 58% of normal levels, according to Wejo, a British company that collects data from sensors in some passenger vehicles.

On Wednesday – two days after the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland enacted stay-at-home orders – daily car trips in the region remained at 51% of normal in D.C., 53% in Maryland and 59% in Virginia, according to Wejo, which does not include trucks or other commercial vehicles.

The figures are similar in parts of the country at the forefront of the U.S. covid-19 outbreak and where people have been under shelter-in-place orders longer.

[…]

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted March 22-25 found that 91% of Americans reported staying home as much as possible due to the coronavirus outbreak, and nearly 9 in 10 said they had stopped going to restaurants and bars.

But plenty of Americans are still on the road, even if they have curtailed their travel.

Some of the remaining traffic, experts say, stems from motorists heading to and from the many worksites that have been deemed “essential”: health-care facilities, supermarkets and liquor stores, construction sites, banks, dry cleaners, hardware stores, pet stores, government facilities, and auto and bicycle repair shops, among others. The Washington region’s orders also exempt plumbers, electricians and others needed for home repairs.

Some workers who previously might have taken mass transit or carpooled might now be driving alone in an attempt to distance themselves from others, experts say. Public transportation service hours also have been curtailed dramatically.

And though many of us have greatly reduced our travel, we usually can’t eliminate it. Activities deemed essential to carrying on daily life include fetching food, going to a doctor’s appointment or picking up a prescription. In The Post-ABC News poll, 6 in 10 people said they had stocked up on food and household supplies.

And if you want to hit the road to avoid climbing the walls? Washington-area officials say it’s OK to drive for “leisure” or relaxation – a pastime not typically associated with the region’s roads.

It turns out that a lot of driving is not just for going to and from work, but for things like errands and shopping, which people are still doing albeit not as often. And of course there are a lot of people who still have to go to work, for those essential services. My team was ordered to start working from home on March 9, and I’ve barely been on the road since then. I don’t miss it at all. It has been a good opportunity to give my elder daughter some road experience with her learner’s permit, since we’re much less likely to encounter nasty conditions. This was a national story from the Washington Post, so there was no Texas-specific information in it, but an earlier Chron story suggests we’ve seen the same effect here, so much so that conditions have been great for road construction projects. It wouldn’t surprise me if one result of all this is more people working from home for the long term, which in turn would mean a permanent dip in traffic. We can all hope.

Coronavirus and beer

Houston’s craft breweries are adjusting to life with closed taprooms and beer-to-go sales.

The team at Saint Arnold Brewing sat down to taste some test beers one Wednesday morning, as its members do when they work on new releases. But their meeting didn’t happen in the usual conference room. Instead, the 10 staffers each sat at a separate table in the brewery’s 10,000-square-foot taproom, with ample social distance between them.

There was another difference from normal times, of course: The vast taproom, typically bustling with people, had not seen a single customer inside since the coronavirus-related stay-at-home order. Across Houston, craft brewers have shut off their taps and closed their beer halls, gardens and patios. But they want Houstonians to know that they’re still brewing.

“Our production side is operating at full strength,” says Brock Wagner, founder and brewer of Saint Arnold.

The team has stopped kegging, but has shifted to canning and bottling more beer than usual in order to ramp up to-go sales, something they had never really focused on before, being a destination brewery. They have also seen an uptick in grocery and liquor store sales as more people hunker down at home.

“Everybody’s consumption of alcohol has probably gone up a little bit,” says Wagner. “I know that mine has.”

These new sources of revenue aren’t even close to making up for the loss of business usually generated from Saint Arnold’s taproom being open, their bar and restaurant orders, and other big buyers such as the Minute Maid stadium. But every little helps, a sentiment many local brewers echo. As taprooms — a major source of revenue for these businesses — lay empty, to-go and off-premise sales, even if a drop in the bucket, have become crucial to the survival of the industry.

Brody Chapman, founder and CEO of Spindletap Brewery, says big stores like H-E-B, Kroger and Spec’s have moved a lot of inventory, which has helped local breweries immensely. He’s also been amazed at how many loyal customers have been supporting their business by taking advantage of Spindletap’s new curbside and drive-through beer sales.

“Without the local support, honestly, we would be dead in the water,” he says.

[…]

There are also efforts to lobby state and local governments for relief, spearheaded by the Texas Brewers Guild. While Gov. Greg Abbott issued a temporary waiver last month relaxing liquor laws for bars and restaurants, breweries are still not able to offer services like direct-to-consumer delivery.

“When breweries are fighting for their lives, it would be nice to have more opportunities to get product out to people,” says Chapman. However, he says that a Houston-based start-up called HopDrop, a craft beer delivery service, has been instrumental to propping up local breweries during this time.

The craft brewing boom in Houston, with its lively on-premises social scene and great dining options, has truly been one of the best things to happen in my thirty-plus years in this town. These guys are huge supporters of school and charitable/non-profit fundraisers as well, which we’re going to need a lot more of in the coming months. There are many good reasons to stock up on your favorite brews at this time, which you can do via curbside pickup at the breweries – It’s Not Hou It’s Me has a handy guide to what’s available – or at the grocery store. As with so many other things, let’s make sure this part of our lives is still there when we get to have a life again.

Oh, and for sure let’s remind the Legislature again that the existing laws we have regarding beer distribution were ridiculous in the best of times and super anti-business in the worst. Let’s hope that our archaic and bizarre beer laws are among the things we learned we could do just fine without when this crisis is over.

(Turns out I was a little skeptical of home beer delivery in general and HopDrop in particular when it first came out. Shows how much I know.)

Metro will get some stimulus money

Good.

Transit agencies in southeastern Texas are set to receive more than $300 million to stem revenue losses linked to COVID-19, federal officials announced Thursday, most of it coming to Houston.

As part of the first round of Congress-approved stimulus funding, $25 billion will go to transit agencies nationwide, doled out by the Federal Transit Administration. The money “will ensure our nation’s public transportation systems can continue to provide services to the millions of Americans who depend on them,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a release.

Money will be distributed by urban areas, with most of Houston’s $258.6 million going to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which has seen ridership to drop to less than half its normal workday use. Bus and rail ridership Wednesday was 129,000, a 55 percent decline from the same day last year, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

[…]

Fewer riders means less money coming in from fares, but that pales in comparison to the expected drop in sales tax collections Metro relies on for most of its funding. With various businesses closed and most of the Houston area hunkered down, collections from Metro’s 1 percent sales tax are expected to nosedive.

We’ve talked about the effect of the sales tax revenue decline before. This should help a bit, and there may be more coming. Having a fully functional transit system for when everyone gets to go back to work is going to be a big deal, so this is very encouraging.

The digital divide

Online learning is great, if you can get online.

The lack of access to technology among students — commonly referred to as the “digital divide” — has come into sharper focus in recent weeks as school districts across Houston transition to online-based learning amid widespread school shutdowns.

Districts throughout the region are scrambling to equip tens of thousands of children with computers and internet access, jockeying with each other to secure coveted devices in high demand during the pandemic. In the meantime, many districts are providing those students with rudimentary paper materials, asking families to return completed coursework to their schools or take pictures of completed worksheets and send them to teachers.

“This has been on the education docket for, gosh, probably at least 20 years,” said Alice Owen, executive director of the Texas K-12 CTO Council, an association that supports school district chief technology officers. “It’s been a struggle for people to realize that this is an important piece of learning for students if we want to keep them competitive on a global scale.”

Educators and advocates long have warned about the digital divide facing American children, with the nation’s most impoverished children suffering most. The ubiquity and declining cost of computers and internet access has helped shrink the gap, but stark disparities remain.

In the Houston area’s 10 largest school districts, about 9 percent of households — nearly 142,650 — do not have a computer, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates. Nearly twice that number — about 267,250 households — lack broadband internet access.

Three of the region’s largest and most impoverished districts — Alief, Aldine and Houston ISDs — face the greatest shortages, according to Census data and estimates from district leaders.

[…]

Despite extensive warnings about the digital divide, state and federal legislators have not allocated nearly enough funding to schools to cover costs associated with providing laptops, wireless internet devices and broadband services to all students at home.

Districts can obtain some technology and internet access at steep discounts through a federal program known as E-Rate, but the benefit does not extend to take-home computers or wireless hotspots for students.

“If we want our kids to be competitive and stay up-to-date with tech, we need to be investing in our students for the future,” Owen said. “We’ve got to get over the way school used to be run, and we need to think about the ways that schools are run in the future.”

In a letter sent last week to the top four ranking members of Congress, 35 Democratic senators called for providing $2 billion in E-Rate funds that would allow schools and libraries to deliver wireless internet devices to students without connectivity at home.

“Children without connectivity are at risk of not only being unable to complete their homework during this pandemic, but being unable to continue their overall education,” the senators wrote. “Congress must address this issue by providing financial support specifically dedicated to expanding home Internet access in the next emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education.”

Maybe addressing this could be part of Infrastructure Week, or maybe it can be its own item. As the story notes, HISD and some other districts issue laptops to high school students – my daughter has one – which helps with those students, but obviously only goes so far. Charters are not exempt – KIPP reports a similar issue with its students. This is, plain and simple, an issue of poverty. If fixing the underlying issue is too hard, then maybe we can agree that all students need to have the equipment required for an education, and provide them all with laptops and Internet access. The choice is ours – are we going to learn from this crisis, or are we going to face the same problems the next time, without the excuse that we didn’t know any better?

Coronavirus is taking its toll on the Census

The timing of this pandemic really sucks.

The nonprofit Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston had more than 15 tabling events planned over the next several weeks where volunteers were going to post up at festivals, fairs and other community gatherings and educate people about the value of filling out the census.

Then the coronavirus crisis hit. One by one, gatherings were canceled, and Texans increasingly became subject to stay-at-home orders.

“This is a very challenging census,” said Ana Mac Naught, census coordinator of the Houston in Action coalition, a collaboration between the city of Houston, Harris County and more than 50 local organizations, including Interfaith Ministries. “We are focusing on what we’re able to do at this moment.”

Local governments and nonprofits knew they already had their work cut out for them when Texas — in keeping with many other Republican-led states — declined to approve funding for grassroots census outreach.

Initial returns show Texas is already behind the rest of the nation: The self-response rate statewide is 31.3 percent compared to 36.2 nationally, as of Monday, the most recent data available. Most households have responded online. After the last census in 2010, Texas tied for the 7th lowest response rate in the country at 64.4 percent.

Now, leaders of groups helping with the count say they’re facing a whole new set of challenges as the coronavirus crisis thwarts their efforts to engage people face-to-face, and they’re forced to quickly pivot to digital and phone-based alternatives.

[…]

Harris County trails the rest of the state with a 30.7 percent response rate while Bexar County is ahead at 32.7 percent. So far, the more affluent, suburban parts of both metropolitan areas are participating at higher rates than the urban cores. That’s something local leaders say they are watching closely, as they try to target the large Hispanic and other hard-to-count communities in both cities.

It’s too early to tell whether the decline is related to coronavirus, but Texas has faced an uphill battle.

According to the Center for Urban Research, one in four Texans belong to a hard-to-count population, which includes racial and ethnic minorities, people experiencing homelessness, immigrants and refugees, renters, college students, children under the age of 5, and the LGBTQ community.

This time period of self-response is especially important, local leaders say, because the more households participate now, the fewer people that stand to be missed later and the fewer households that will require a visit from a census taker.

“People definitely understand that the census is not on the top of people’s priority list,” said Katie Martin-Lightfoot, coordinator of Texas Counts, a statewide initiative from the left-leaning Center for Public Policy. “We are trying to look for these very non-intrusive ways to get the message out there about the census.”

See here for the background. As I said before, the most obvious answer is to do to the Census what has been done with the primary runoffs, the Olympics, and so many other things – push the deadlines back by however long you think it may take to get past the worst of this, and adjust from there. There’s no reason at all why we have to be slaves to the original schedule, given the life-altering event that has disrupted literally everything else on the planet. If that pushes back the 2021 redistricting process and the 2022 primaries, then so be it. The only impediment is our own willingness to recognize the truth. Houston Public Media, which interviews County Judge Lina Hidalgo about this, has more.