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Lina Hidalgo

Still code red

We’ll turn it down a notch when the data says we should.

The counts of coronavirus patients in local hospitals have been falling for two months. Restaurant patios are packed. Houston’s symphony and pro soccer teams are resuming at limited capacity. The state is relaxing restrictions on many businesses next week.

So, why is Harris County still at its highest threat level, urging residents to stay home?

Simple, County Judge Lina Hidalgo says: The metrics her office compiled in forming the threat level system in June have not all been met.

Hospitalization trends met the county’s goals weeks ago. A change to the way new cases were tallied cleared that hurdle on Monday, as did the last hospital target — COVID-19 patients making up less than 15 percent of intensive care beds. The lone barrier to downgrading from red (“stay home”) to orange (“minimize ALL contacts”) is now the county’s test positivity rate, which, at 7.7 percent, exceeds the 5 percent target.

Hidalgo said she understands the public is tired of vigilance, but she loses no sleep over being a holdout.

“What I’m trying to do is have at least one level of government that’s offering research and numbers-based information and consistently refuses to be swayed by political one-liners,” she said. “That continues to be my commitment. When you have folks pretending we can just go back to normal, it puts the community at risk and it gives people false hope.”

[…]

Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president at Baylor College of Medicine, called the county’s 5 percent target reasonable and widely used, but said, broadly, COVID-19 indicators suggest this is an appropriate time to slowly reopen.

Setting goals and then ditching them when the public grows tired of the restrictions they support would be a mistake, McDeavitt said. When Abbott reopened the state in May, Texas had not hit the benchmarks his own advisors had set.

“On the other hand,” McDeavitt added, “if you set metrics and slavishly wait until every single one of those numbers is where it needs to be, that is also problematic. You need to look at the big picture — and I know from talking to the county that’s what they do. Everybody is trying to find the right balance.”

Hey, if Greg Abbott isn’t going to pay attention to his own metrics, someone has to. To be fair, other counties have lowered their threat levels, and Dr. McDeavitt’s point about where the metrics are is well-taken. Positivity rate is a key figure, but it’s also affected by the number of tests that are given, which in turn is affected by test availability. It may be that we need to have a discussion about this, and it may be that we need to reassess what our risks are these days. But still, the fact that Judge Hidalgo is consistent about the metrics we have set for Harris County is a good thing.

Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to create a local government corporation to manage Harris County’s toll road system in a move expected to provide a windfall to county coffers and allow surplus toll collections to be spent on non-transportation purposes.

Approved by a 3-2 vote along party lines, the local government model would allow the Harris County Toll Road Authority to refinance its debt at historically low rates and divert funds to help the county respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, and invest more in flood control, supporters said.

Under the proposal by new Budget Director David Berry, the county will receive a $300 million lump sum in toll revenue and then $90 million annually from the system. The toll road authority collected $901 million in the fiscal year that ended in February.

Peter Key, interim executive director of HCTRA, urged the court in a memo to adopt the new governance model.

“This is an unprecedented situation that presents unique financial challenges for the county and may require additional levels of financial support for the county to effectively respond to these challenges for the foreseeable future,” Key wrote.

The toll road authority’s current bond indenture and state law limit the use of surplus revenues to non-toll roads, streets, highways and related facilities, according to a Q&A created by the county budget office. After refinancing under the new governance structure, HCTRA revenues can be used by other county departments.

The proposal would not affect toll rates, the budget office said, nor would it privatize the system or sell off any assets.

[…]

While Fort Bend, Brazoria and Montgomery Counties use local government corporations to finance and operate their toll roads, Harris County’s will serve as a financing vehicle only. The toll road authority estimates Harris County will save $60 million by refinancing the system’s roughly $2.7 billion debt at lower rates through the corporation.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she supported the idea because the county can “maximize every dollar” in a challenging fiscal environment.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said diverting some toll revenues would be an effective way to boost flood control spending. It also could be used as matching funds to state or federal appropriations on ambitious capital projects like deepening the Houston Ship Channel.

I’m fine with this. If the toll roads are generating more revenue than is needed to operate and maintain the roads, then sure, let’s use some of that money for other necessary purposes. Flood control would be high on my list, but other capital projects make sense, too. Commissioners Court will still be accountable for all this, as they currently comprise the board of this LGC, and they will be responsible for appointing subsequent board members. Let’s put this revenue to some good use.

(You may say, if the toll roads were bringing in such excess revenue, we should have cut toll rates. I say that’s a policy choice, and my preferred policy would be to do something like this instead. Lowering tolls is pretty far down on my priority list. Your mileage may vary.)

In the “Would you like some cheese with that whine?” department:

Both Republican commissioners voted against the proposal. Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 lamented the fact that there had been no public meetings on the topic before Tuesday’s vote, unlike the extensive campaign in the summer of 2018 seeking support for the $2.5 billion flood bond program.

Precinct 3’s Steve Radack derided the idea as a ploy by the court’s Democrats who, in his view, are looking to siphon money from the toll road authority instead of asking taxpayers for more.

“This is a money grab,” Radack said. “They’re going to use it to pay for things that are normally paid for via (property) taxes.”

Hey, remember when Commissioners Radack and Cagle broke quorum to prevent the democratically-elected majority on Commissioners Court from voting on a property tax rate hike that was intended to cover future downturns in revenue resulting from COVID-19 and the state’s rigid new revenue cap? Good times, good times. Maybe let the majority vote on its policies next time, and campaign against them on the places where you have disagreements? Just a suggestion.

Houston to allow some limited events

I dunno, man. I get the impulse, but I don’t think I’m ready.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will allow certain events in what the mayor calls “controlled environments” to resume in the city, marking his most significant move toward reopening as the spread of COVID-19 slows here.

The events still will have limited crowds, with a maximum capacity of 25 percent, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced at a news conference Wednesday. All attendees must wear masks, answer a virus questionnaire, submit to a temperature screening and maintain social distancing.

The events that received the city’s approval so far are: a drive-in tailgate Thursday for the Texans: 100 cars are allowed, with a maximum of four people per car; Houston Symphony concerts: 150 guests will be allowed in the 3,000-seat Jones Hall auditorium; and Houston Dynamo and Dash games at BBVA Stadium: the teams are preparing for up to 3,000 fans, which would be about 14 percent capacity.

The Dynamo averaged 15,674 fans at 17 home games in 2019, and the Dash garnered an average of 4,086 fans, the teams said. The schedule for Major League Soccer’s Phase 2 has not been released yet, so it is not yet clear when fans will return. The teams’ plans for welcoming fans include staggered entry times for the stadium, and “seating pods” that minimize interaction between different groups of fans.

“I think we are all wanting to open up even more,” Turner said, “but we also recognize that it is better to be cautious rather than to be aggressive, and then finding ourselves having to go right back to the very beginning.”

While transmission is decreasing, the virus continues to spread in Houston. The city has driven down its positivity rate — the number of tests that come back positive — to 6.6 percent. Turner had set a goal of getting that number, which peaked above 25 percent in late June and early July, below 5 percent by the end of August.

The national average is 5.3 percent, according to Johns Hopkins University. Some states, like New York and Connecticut, have seen their rates drop to below 1 percent. Houston has reported 66,483 cases of the virus and 906 deaths as of Wednesday.

Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious diseases and tropical medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, said the region has made significant progress, but it has not reached the point where it is in control of the virus.

“Any large gathering where there are people in close contact — particularly if you’re indoors and generating a lot of respiratory droplets, if you are yelling or screaming or singing — it’s going to increase the chance of outbreaks,” she said.

[…]

The city is requiring an extensive list of safety protocols, [Susan Christian, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events] said. The three events approved Wednesday already had adopted most of those protocols.

“We just had to tweak it a bit,” she said. “These producers have been working on these guidelines, as we have, for quite some time now.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office said the county is waiting for its threat index to lower before it considers allowing similarly-sized events. The county remains at the most serious threat level, which “signifies a severe and uncontrolled level of COVID-19.”

“Trends are moving in the right direction right now, but we’re not quite there yet,” said Rafael Lemaitre, Hidalgo’s communications director.

I’ve stared at this draft for some time now, and I still don’t know what to say. I lean towards the county’s view, but I get what the city is trying to do. There’s got to be a lot of pressure for some return to having public events, and of course not being able to have them is a drain on city finances. You can make a risk-based assessment for either position. I just hope this works out.

County’s plan to make in person voting safer is having an effect

So says this poll.

Voters with the highest risk of suffering COVID-19’s worst effects say they’re more likely to vote early this November, according to a Rice University study.

A poll of nearly 6,000 Harris County voters found roughly 80% said they will vote in the presidential election regardless of the threat from COVID-19. That jumped to 90% among African Americans, according to Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who authored the study.

“Among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, there’s a greater fear of COVID-19 – for obvious reasons, they have suffered more,” Stein said. “Yet, they were more likely to vote given what the county clerk has been doing.”

Stein said that’s largely the results of steps Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins took to make voting safer during the July primary runoff – such as providing PPE for poll workers, as well as hand sanitizer and finger coverings for voters.

The study, however, found substantial confusion among voters about how to cast a mail-in ballot – with more than a third wrongly believing they could hand in a mail-in ballot at an in-person polling location.

Stein said that confusion is in no small part because of the legal wrangling over voting by mail. Texas election law allows registered voters to request a mail-in ballot if they meet one of four conditions: if they are older than 65, if they are disabled, if they will be out of their home county during voting, or if they are in jail but otherwise eligible to vote.

The poll data is embedded in the story, so click over to see. In short, if you go all in on expanding voting access, people will respond positively. Funny how that works. I’m not too worried about the confusion over returning mail ballots – there will be a number of dropoff locations as it is, and I expect there will be plenty of messaging over how to return them. The bottom line is, this is how it should be done. Kudos to County Clerk Chris Hollins, County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia for making it happen.

A new COVID testing strategy

Sounds promising.

Harris County wants to implement a program that would look at how and where active COVID infection exists, hoping to better understand how the virus spreads within the region in real time, and use those findings to help shape public health policy.

This commonly used public health strategy involves analyzing representative samples of the population to get a better picture of how the virus is acting rather than just looking at overall infection numbers in the hopes that such data could help single out and address hotspots. By understanding the circumstances, occupations and activities that drive community spread, public health officials and legislators would be better equipped to understand the virus and address high-risk COVID communities.

While Harris County COVID testing currently takes place at a number of fixed drive-through and mobile sites, as well as through private and other healthcare providers, the program, known as surveillance testing, would provide data at the community-level that broadens data collection beyond those actively seeking out testing for possible infection. This type of survey would also help obtain data on asymptomatic cases.

How the county will implement the program has not been determined. A committee has been in the process of reviewing proposals from organizations that submitted applications to conduct the study. Each proposal must outline a plan — including collection strategy, finances and other project details.

Surveillance testing programs generally involve recruiting participants for a medical test as well as having them complete a questionnaire or additional survey, explained Dr. Rebecca Fischer, epidemiologist and assistant professor at Texas A&M’s School of Public Health. This information could be collected by going door-to-door, setting up an outdoor site, or recruiting participants through a website.

“A community surveillance testing program could really be a game-changer if done correctly,” Dr. E. Susan Amirian, epidemiologist at the Texas Policy Lab at Rice University, wrote in an email. The group was approached by County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office to help officials better understand the epidemiological and scientific aspects of such a project. The Harris County Public Health Department has also been involved in an advisory role, said the department’s media specialist Martha Marquez.

With no national community-level COVID surveillance testing program in place, states, counties and universities have taken it upon themselves to conduct these kinds of “surveillance tests” to learn more about how the virus acts and spreads in their communities. Current reporting tactics are considered “passive” surveillance since they rely on people actively seeking diagnosis, said Fischer.

There’s more, and you should read the rest, but stop and focus for a minute on the first sentence of that last paragraph. Why, exactly, is there “no national community-level COVID surveillance testing program in place”? I mean, we know the answer to that question, but the point is that in the midst of the non-stop chaos and sabotage and authoritarianism, we’re still asking the same questions, making the same arguments, and waiting for the same basic things as we were six months ago. We should maybe try not to forget that.

Scrambling to finish the Census

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a related note:

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

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

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

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

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

State appeals court rules (mostly) against Libertarians in filing fee lawsuit

Here’s the story. It gets into the legal weeds, and I’m going to try my best to clear them out.

A state appellate court this week upheld a 2019 law that extended a requirement that candidates pay a filing fee or submit a petition to appear on the ballot to minor party candidates.

A district court found the fee was unconstitutional, siding with nine Libertarians who had sued, saying it was unreasonably burdensome. But the three-justice panel of Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals on Tuesday sided with the state, saying the plaintiffs did not make a strong enough constitutional argument to waive the secretary of state’s sovereign immunity to civil suits.

The law at issue, House Bill 2504, lowered the amount of votes a party needed to get in a statewide election to retain a place on the ballot. But it also added a requirement that candidates nominated at a convention — such as those in the Libertarian and Green parties — rather than through a primary had to pay a filing fee or gather petition signatures in order to be on the ballot. Previously, only major party candidates had to pay those fees.

The law “imposes reasonable and nondiscriminatory restrictions that are sufficiently justified by the State’s interest in requiring candidates to show a modicum of support to guarantee their names on the general-election ballot,” Justice Meagan Hassan wrote. “These are the same restrictions imposed on major-party candidates with respect to their participation in the primary election.”

The ruling Tuesday will not affect Libertarian candidates on the ballot this year.

There are a couple of active lawsuits challenging the new filing fee/petition signature requirements from HB2504, this one in state court which I had not blogged about before and a federal lawsuit that as far as I know has not had a hearing yet. I gave the state lawsuit a mention at the end of this post, mostly to note that the requirement to pay the filing fees was in effect in Texas despite the original order from Judge Kristin Hawkins, as it had been superseded by the state’s appeal. This lawsuit was partly about that now-not-in-effect injunction that enjoined the collection of the filing fees, partly about whether Secretary of State Ruth Hughs could be properly sued over this, and partly about the constitutionality of the fees in the first place. Let’s go to the opinion to try to unpack things.

The trial court granted Appellees’ request for a temporary injunction and enjoined Hughs from enforcing section 141.041 and the related advisory. The trial court also denied Hughs’s plea to the jurisdiction. Hughs filed separate appeals with respect to these decisions, which were consolidated into a single appeal.

For the reasons below, we affirm the trial court’s temporary injunction in part as modified and reverse and remand in part. We conclude the trial court erred insofar as it (1) denied Hughs’s plea to the jurisdiction with respect to Appellees’ claim challenging the constitutionality of section 141.041 and (2) improperly enjoined the enforcement thereof. We further conclude the trial court (1) properly denied Hughs’s plea to the jurisdiction with respect to Appellees’ claim challenging the advisory and (2) did not abuse its discretion by temporarily enjoining the advisory’s enforcement in part.

First, the appeals court denied SOS Ruth Hughs’ claim that she was immune to being sued for this. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and then-Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman were also sued in their official capacities in the original petition, but they were not party to the appeal.

Second, the appeals court overturned Judge Hawkins’ ruling that the filing fees were unconstitutional. This was covered in the story and is the bulk of the opinion, which gets into some exceedingly mind-numbing detail. I consider myself a reasonably sophisticated layman for the purposes of reading and understanding legal writings, but boy howdy did my eyes glaze over in this part of the document. The bottom line is that the court concluded that the fees did not constitute an excessively burdensome requirement.

The matter of the injunction is where it gets a little tricky. Let’s skip ahead to the end, where that piece of business is addressed.

The trial court’s temporary injunction enjoins Hughs from enforcing section 141.041’s requirements at the time of the Advisory’s December 9, 2019 deadline or “at any other time.” We therefore construe the injunction to enjoin the enforcement of both section 141.041 and the Advisory.

We concluded above that sovereign immunity precludes Appellees’ claim challenging the constitutionality of section 141.041. Therefore, to the extent the injunction enjoins enforcement of section 141.041, the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enter the injunction.

Turning to the enforcement of the Advisory, […]

I’ll spare you a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to say that this means that while the law is constitutional and thus will not be enjoined, the enforcement of the law via the Secretary of State’s advisory that specified the minor parties’ need to collect filing fees or petitions was still in question. Let’s move up to the thrilling conclusion:

When injunctive relief is provided for by statute, we review the trial court’s decision on a temporary injunction application for an abuse of discretion. 8100 N. Freeway Ltd., 329 S.W.3d at 861. We do not substitute our judgment for that of the trial court and may not reverse unless the trial court’s action was so arbitrary that it exceeded the bounds of reasonableness. Id.

As discussed above, we conclude that the Advisory conflicts with section 141.041 in part by impermissibly expanding the section’s requirements to all minorparty candidates seeking nomination at a convention. Considered in conjunction with Texas Election Code section 273.081, this conclusion supports the trial court’s finding that Appellees “are in danger of being harmed by a violation or threatened violation” of the Election Code. See Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 273.081. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by enjoining Hughs’s enforcement of the Advisory insofar as the Advisory required compliance with section 141.041’s fee/petition requirements by minor-party candidates who have not been nominated by the convention process. See 8100 N. Freeway Ltd., 329 S.W.3d at 861. Candidates who ultimately secured their party’s nomination as a result of the convention process, however, must comply with section 141.041. The injunction thus is erroneous to the extent that it relieves candidates nominated by convention of any obligation to comply with section 141.041 at any time. Therefore, we modify the injunction’s language by deleting the bolded text from the following paragraphs:

The Court ORDERS that Defendant Hughs is temporarily enjoined from refusing to accept or rejecting applications for nomination from
third-party candidates on the grounds that the applicant did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or at any other time.

The Court ORDERS that Defendants Hidalgo and Trautman are temporarily enjoined from refusing to accept or rejecting applications for nomination from third-party candidates on the grounds that the applicant did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or at any other time.

The Court ORDERS that Defendant Hughs is temporarily enjoined from refusing to certify third-party nominees for the general-election ballot on the grounds that the nominee did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or at any other time.

The Court ORDERS that Defendants Hidalgo and Trautman are temporarily enjoined from refusing to certify third-party nominees for the general-election election ballot on the grounds that the nominee did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu thereof at the time of filing or any other time.

The bolding is in the original, where the appeals court is quoting from Judge Hawkins’ order establishing the injunction. What this says is that the SOS and Harris County were enjoined from enforcing the filing fee requirements at the time that the candidates were being placed on the ballot, but not forever. These candidates were in fact required to pay the filing fee or collect the petition signatures – again, because the court ruled those requirements were legal. That was essentially the status quo when the Democrats successfully defenestrated the Greens, and it is my interpretation that this means the Libertarians would have been equally vulnerable to such a challenge if the Republicans had timely fashion.

All of this is my reading, and I Am Not A Lawyer, so those of you who know better please feel free to point out my idiotic errors. As to what happens next, the plaintiffs may appeal to the Supreme Court – they did not comment about that in the story – and of course there remains the federal challenge, though based on the Ralph Nader experience of 2004, I would not be holding my breath. Use the next year-plus between now and the 2022 filing period to figure out how to pay the fees or collect the signatures, that’s my advice. The Statesman has more.

Back to school

How’d it go for you and your kids?

On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.

On Tuesday, as many of the state’s biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.

Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn’t under control.

In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio’s North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.

Only about half of Seguin ISD’s students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.

Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.

Here’s the local view.

Students in Klein and about nine districts throughout the region will get their real first taste of the new learning environment on Tuesday as those districts welcome back those who opted to come to school rather than attend online. Among them are Cypress-Fairbanks, Katy, Conroe, Spring Branch, La Porte, Magnolia and Santa Fe ISDs.

It marks the biggest return of students to school campuses in six months, after schools were closed in mid-March to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Already, students in Lamar CISD and Humble, Alvin, Dickinson, Galveston and Barbers Hill ISDs have brought some of their students back in recent weeks.

The districts are forging ahead with plans to reopen campuses despite warnings from regional health authorities and some local leaders who say it still is too early. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah recommended in August that schools remain closed until there are fewer cases of COVID-19 and less community spread. The two set benchmarks for schools to begin reopening, but with current statistics, it would take weeks to reach them.

Hidalgo and Shah only can offer recommendations, after Gov. Greg Abbott said local government officials do not have the legal authority to preemptively close campuses. Instead, he said, those decisions should be left to school districts. In some Houston-area districts, school boards, parents and some educators have argued that the benefits of face-to-face instruction, especially after such a long hiatus, outweigh potential health risks.

“We can provide a schooling online, but we can’t provide an education online,” Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Superintendent Mark Henry said at a July board meeting.

Others have opted to keep their students learning remotely for the foreseeable future, including Fort Bend and Alief ISDs. In Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, students will return Tuesday to online-only classes, which are scheduled to remain in place until mid-October.

District officials estimate that about 18,000 students still lack the computer or internet access needed for online classes. As a result, HISD is directing those students to 36 “learning centers” with adult supervision and available technology. HISD officials said they are not publicizing the learning center locations.

“It just can’t be everyone showing up,” HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “It’s truly assigned locations for students and staff.”

[…]

For those that already have opened classrooms, teachers and students still are adapting.

In Humble ISD, middle and high school students are coming into the buildings in alternating groups, with an A group coming on some days and a B group on others.

Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said she has been surprised the elementary schoolers have not had as many issues with face masks and social distancing as some had feared.

“We’re starting to get our arms around it pretty well,” Fagen said. “Every day there are new metrics to monitor, and we hope we can get to a place for (more) in person in near future.”

For students at Klein ISD’s Mahaffey Elementary who chose in-person instruction, last Wednesday served as a crash course for their new school realities.

Staff practiced funneling students through entrances assigned by grade rather than the main doors in the front. They showed students how to keep their distance in hallways and spent class periods juggling between in-person students and those learning remotely on Zoom calls. They adjusted their cameras, helped parents troubleshoot technology problems and made sure the kids in their classrooms knew the new procedures.

It was a strange day here, as my girls started with remote learning. We’re used to that, in that we had done it before, but it was still strange to just transition from “no school” to “distance learning school”. Didn’t have that usual “first day of school” feel, you know? There were some connection issues on the HISD hub that affected Olivia’s school, but students were redirected to an alternate site that seemed to work, so no big deal. Ask me again in a week how it’s going.

For the schools that are reopening for in person instruction, I sure hope it all goes well. I hope the mask-wearing and social distancing and other protocols that are being adopted to (hopefully) keep virus spread to a minimum works as planned, not just for them but for the rest of us, who will be in the same position in six weeks. Unless it doesn’t go well, of course, in which case they’ll be in the same position as us. I absolutely want everyone to get back to school. I also absolutely want everyone to literally survive the year, with no adverse health effects lingering on. I don’t know that we can do both of those things just yet. I’m glad it’s not my kids’ schools that are the guinea pigs for that experiment, and I sincerely hope that experiment is a ringing success. I figure we’ll know, more or less, by the time it’s our turn to go back.

They just don’t want you to vote by mail

It’s okay if you’re a Republican, of course.

As states across the country scramble to make voting safer in a pandemic, Texas is in the small minority of those requiring voters who want to cast their ballots by mail to present an excuse beyond the risk of contracting the coronavirus at polling places. But the ongoing attempts by the White House to sow doubt over the reliability of voting by mail has left Texas voters in a blur of cognitive dissonance. Local officials are being reprimanded by the state’s Republican leadership for attempting to proactively send applications for mail-in ballots, while the people doing the scolding are still urging their voters to fill them out.

What was once a lightly used and largely uncontroversial voting option in Texas — one even Republicans relied on — is now the crux of the latest fight over who gets to vote and, equally as crucial in a pandemic, who has access to safe voting.

“Ensuring vulnerable populations can vote by mail during a pandemic is designed to protect human life & access to the vote,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said on Twitter this week after the county’s mailing plan was temporarily blocked by the Texas Supreme Court. “Those who stand in the way—using voter suppression as an electoral strategy—are throwing a wrench in democracy. We’ll keep fighting.”

[…]

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick characterized efforts to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic as a “scam by Democrats” that would lead to “the end of America.” In a rolling series of tweets, President Donald Trump has pushed concerns of widespread fraud — which are unsubstantiated — in mail-in ballots. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quoted a local prosecutor saying voting by mail “invites fraud.”

Meanwhile, the Texas GOP sent out applications with mailers urging voters to make a plan to request their mail-in ballots. Fighting in court against Harris County’s plan, Paxton’s office argued “voting by mail is a cumbersome process with many steps to limit fraud.”

Luke Twombly, a spokesperson for the Texas GOP, confirmed the party had sent out ballot applications “like we do every year” to older voters and voters with disabilities that would allow them to qualify. Twombly did not respond to a follow up question on how the party determined voters who would be eligible based on a disability, nor did he respond to questions asking for specifics on the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts tied to voting by mail.

“The cynical explanation is that the intent here is to make it as easy as possible for Republicans to vote by mail but discouraging others and casting doubt over the process following the lead of the president,” said Rick Hasen, an elections lawyer and professor at the University of California-Irvine. “I think that’s a real fine needle to thread.”

It might be in the GOP’s best interest to “encourage voters to vote safely” by mail, particularly as the state’s vote-by-mail rules allow many of their base voters to be automatically eligible for an absentee ballot, but the president is complicating matters for them, Hasen said

“They are caught between a rock and a hard place,” Hasen said.

Some Texas Republicans quietly express frustration that party leaders are casting doubt on a system that they have worked for years to cultivate. West and other prominent Texas Republicans have floated unsubstantiated concerns that increased mail-in voting creates opportunities for widespread voter fraud. In interviews with multiple Republican operatives and attorneys who have worked on campaigns in the state, all suggested privately that the modernized system precludes such a scenario. None of these Republicans would go on the record, for fear of alienating colleagues.

There are some documented cases of fraud in mail-in voting in Texas. But like voter fraud overall, it remains rare.

“This issue … of fraud and voting fraud and all that was brought up years ago, 19 years ago when I was secretary of state,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat who was appointed Texas secretary of state by former Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican. “I looked at it as secretary of state, and it was so rare, so rare.”

[…]

In an effort to combat confusion among voters, Harris County said it intended to send the applications for mail-in ballots with “detailed guidance to inform voters that they may not qualify to vote by mail and to describe who does qualify based on the recent Texas Supreme Court decision.” In its mailers, the Texas GOP instructs voters to “take immediate action” by confirming they meet the eligibility requirements and filling out an application proactively sent out by the party.

[Derek] Ryan, the Republican voter data expert, suggested that a past Republican campaign emphasis on vote-by-mail lends credibility to the objections Republicans are raising in Harris County.

“Voting by mail is our bread and butter,” said Ryan, the Republican voter data expert. “I kind of dismiss that more ballot by mail votes automatically favor the Democrats over the Republicans. That might not necessarily be the case. I think that kind of says the Republicans who are opposed to it aren’t necessarily doing it because they think it benefits the Democrats. They’re doing it because of election integrity.”

But in light of those objections, the Texas Democratic Party painted the GOP’s mailings to voters who did not request them as “a shocking display of hypocrisy.”

“It seems if Republicans had their way, the only requirement for Texans to cast a mail-in ballot would be ‘are you voting for Donald Trump?’,” Abhi Rahman, the party’s communications director, said in a statement this week.

I don’t know that I have anything to say here that I haven’t said multiple times already. There’s no valid principle behind the Republicans’ zealous objections to vote by mail, which is something they have used and still use but apparently cannot believe that anyone else would dare use against them. The screeching claims of fraud are just the usual shibboleth, packaged for today’s needs. We know that national Republicans have largely given up on their ability to win a majority of the vote. It’s just kind of morbidly fascinating to see Republicans in Texas adopt the same stance. Who knew they had so little faith in themselves?

Politico profile of Lina Hidalgo

Good stuff.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

In late April, Lina Hidalgo stood at a microphone in the Harris County emergency operations center in Houston and pushed up the teal fabric face mask that had slipped off her nose. Her voice was slightly muffled as she spoke. Next to her, an American Sign Language interpreter translated for an audience that couldn’t see her lips. But there was no need to worry her message would be lost. Soon it would become the subject of debate across the country—and so would she.

Hidalgo, the county judge of Harris County—the top elected official in the nation’s third-largest county—announced that millions of people in the Houston area would be required to wear a face covering in public to slow the spread of the coronavirus. People who didn’t comply would risk a fine of up to $1,000. Behind her, charts and graphs told the statistical story that had led Hidalgo to this moment. Since early March, when the state’s first case of Covid-19 had been identified in Houston, the urban heart of Harris County, the number of infected people in the county had climbed to 3,800. That day, the death toll stood at 79 and Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, warned that number could “exponentially increase.”

Hidalgo had been bracing for the disease for weeks. She had sought advice from officials in King County in Washington state, the nation’s first hot spot. Armed with their insight, she rallied her own emergency management and public health officials to prepare a response and on March 16 ordered the closure of bars and restaurant dining rooms. Initially, state officials followed suit. Three days after Hidalgo’s order, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a public health disaster for the first time in more than a century. Texans huddled indoors. But by early April, pressure was mounting on Abbott to end the lockdown. Hidalgo was pulling the other way.

You know what happened from there. You should read the whole thing, it’s mostly stuff you already know but it’s deeply satisfying to see someone who’s been right about the virus in all the ways that matter and who’s been the target of some vicious, racist insults as a result of her being right about it get her due. I’m going to highlight two other bits here:

“The perils of straight-ticket voting were on full display Tuesday in Harris County,” the Chronicle’s editorial board clucked. “Longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, a moderate Republican who’s arguably the county’s most respected official, was ousted by Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old graduate student running her first race.”

“We hope she succeeds,” the editorial continued, “but residents can be forgiven for being squeamish about how Hidalgo will lead the county and, by extension, the region’s 6 million people, through the next hurricane.”

I can understand the initial apprehension about a political newcomer taking over as County Judge, and I can understand some unease at it happening as part of a partisan wave. But I guess I’m just going to die mad about all the pearl-clutching over straight-ticket voting, which casts a whole lot of people as mindless automatons instead of individuals who made a choice. That choice in 2018 was to vote for change, and to vote against Donald Trump. One can admire Ed Emmett for his competence, his compassion, his deep concern for Harris County and its residents, and still disagree with him on principles and priorities, and want to see our county government move in a different direction. The sheer condescension in that first paragraph will never not annoy the crap out of me.

“I expect for some Texans it’s a little hard to take that a young Latina who earned her citizenship, as opposed to being born here, has the level of authority that she has,” one of her advisers, Tom Kolditz, told me. “She absorbs every criticism, she listens to every racial dog whistle, she puts up with ageist comments about what her abilities are or are not.”

[…]

Re-opening schools has emerged as another battleground. Hidalgo has taken a position that is consistent with her aggressiveness throughout the pandemic. On July 21, she ordered all school districts in Harris County to delay opening schools for in-person learning for at least eight weeks. Wearing a floral face mask at a recent press conference, her curly hair longer than normal due to the pandemic, she urged the community to work together “until we crush this curve.”

“Then, we can responsibly bring your kids back to school,” she said. “Right now, we continue to see severe and uncontrolled spread of the virus and it would be self-defeating to open schools.”

A familiar chorus of criticism from state and federal Republicans followed quickly. Rep. Crenshaw, among others, has beat the drum that schools must open. And a week after Hidalgo’s announcement, the Texas attorney general said that local health authorities can’t close schools to preemptively prevent the spread of Covid-19. The Texas Education Agency, which oversees public education in the state, announced it wouldn’t fund schools that closed under such orders.

Kolditz, Hidalgo’s adviser and a retired Army brigadier general, has framed the pandemic like a war that can’t be won without a common objective and unity. When Hidalgo was empowered to call the shots in Harris County the pandemic was relatively under control, he said. Since Abbott undermined that, “it’s been a disaster.”

“We’re going to wake up from this pandemic and be stunned by how many lives were wasted by bad leader decisions, and she is not a part of that,” he said.

Hidalgo has largely tried to avoid making the pandemic into a political fight, but she is not naïve about the political implications of every decision. “If we do the best we can and, politically, that wasn’t appropriate for people and I’m not re-elected in two years, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll be able to sleep at night.”

I mean, we could listen to the person who’s been consistently right, or we could listen to the people who have been consistently wrong. Seems like a clear choice to me, but what do I know?

From the “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” department

Who’s ready to re-reopen Texas?

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled he may be preparing to roll back some emergency restrictions put in place this summer at the height of the state’s coronavirus surge.

Responding to concerns from the battered restaurant industry, the governor tweeted Monday night that new infections and hospitalizations from COVID-19 are receding, and added, “I hope to provide updates next week about next steps.”

“Since my last orders in July, COVID numbers have declined—most importantly hospitalizations,” said Abbott, a Republican.

The governor gave no indication about what steps he might take, and a spokesman did not respond to questions. Abbott has previously said he would consider allowing bars to reopen and restaurants to open further if positive trends continue.

Statewide, new daily infections and hospitalizations are declining, though they remain well above where where they were when Abbott began reopening the state in May — hospitalizations are now double, and average new daily infections are four times as high. It’s also unclear whether the rate of people testing positive, a key metric, is anywhere near where public health experts recommend before opening more businesses and allowing children back into schools.

What could possibly go wrong? See here for a statement from Mayor Turner, who unsurprisingly urges caution. You should also read this Politico profile of County Judge Lina Hidalgo, which I will blog about separately, and remember that at every step of the way in this crisis, Lina Hidalgo has been right and Greg Abbott has been wrong.

Harris County goes all in on voting access

Wow.

Harris County voters this November will have more time and more than a hundred additional places to cast ballots in the presidential election, including drive-through locations and one day of 24-hour voting, under an expansive plan approved by Commissioners Court Tuesday.

With the additional polling locations, an extra week of early voting and up to 12,000 election workers, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is pledging a smooth November election.

On a 3-2 vote, the court agreed to spend an additional $17.1 million — all but about $1 million to come from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund Hollins’s ambitious election plan. The money is on top of the $12 million the court approved earlier this year to expand mail-in voting amid fears that in-person balloting could spread the coronavirus during the ongoing pandemic.

The clerk’s plan includes extended early balloting hours, including multiple nights to 10 p.m. and one 24-hour voting session, drive-through options, as well as new equipment to process an expected record number of mail ballots.

“The County Clerk’s office has made it our top priority to ensure a safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient election for the voters of Harris County this November,” Hollins told court members. “And to ensure this outcome, our office has … executed a robust set of 24 initiatives, many of which were piloted in the July primary runoff election.”

Hollins’ plan is among the boldest unveiled by a Texas elections administrator to improve a voter’s experience and increase turnout in a state with historically low participation, said University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus.

“These changes would rocket Harris County to the top of the list as the most progressive approach to voting,” Rottinghaus said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said the plan could inadvertently undermine a push by Democrats to expand mail voting for voters under 65 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hollins is making sure that voting in person is safer than going to the grocery store,” Jones said. “To the extent to which other county clerks follow his lead, it’s more and more difficult to make the case that voting in person represents a risk to someone’s health.”

In previous elections, Harris County operated about 40 early voting and 750 Election Day sites. The additional funding, Hollins said, will allow the county to operate 120 early voting and 808 Election Day locations.

He estimated 1.7 million voters may turn out, a record in any Harris County election and an increase of 361,000 since the 2016 presidential contest.

The two Republican commissioners voted No to this, one complaining that it cost too much and one complaining that there were too many voting locations inside Precinct 1, which is where the city of Houston is. Remember how Commissioners Court was 4-1 Republican before last year? Apparently, elections do have consequences.

See here and here for some background. I had mentioned Hollins’ assertion of 120 early voting locations following the HCDP precinct chairs meeting, where he addressed us after we voted for County Clerk and HCDE nominees. It’s still kind of amazing to see this all actually move forward. There’s also another piece to mention:

Doubling down on increasing the use of voting by mail in November, Harris County will send every registered voter in Texas’ most populous county an application for a mail-in ballot for the general election.

The move, announced Tuesday by the county clerk’s office, puts Harris County — which has more than 2.4 million residents on its voter roll — ahead of most other counties when it comes to proactively working to bump up the number of voters who may request mail-in ballots. Election officials expect a record number of people to vote by mail this year, but not all of Harris County’s registered voters will ultimately qualify.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has said he was encouraged by the county’s return rate ahead of the July primary runoff election when it sent applications to every registered voter who was 65 or older. Typically, voters must print out or request applications for ballots by mail from the county or the state and deliver or mail them to their local elections office. In between the March primary election and the July primary runoff, the county saw a more than 100% increase in vote-by-mail applications, Hollins said.

“If you’re eligible to vote by mail, we want you to vote by mail. It’s safest for you. It’s safest for all your neighbors,” Hollins said in a previous interview, arguing that every additional mail-in voter would make the election safer for those voting in person because they’d have to stand behind one less voter who could potentially infect them. “Voting by mail is the safest way to vote, and all those who are eligible to vote should strongly consider casting their vote in that manner — not only for themselves but as a service, a duty to other residents.”

Wow again. The county will purchase mail-sorting equipment and hire a bunch of temporary workers to deal with all the mail. We definitely saw a lot of people who had not voted in the March primary return mail ballots in the runoff. That certainly suggests that sending out the mail ballot applications in such a universal fashion helped boost turnout, though without a deeper study of other runoffs I can’t say that for sure. The Texas Democratic Party is also sent out mail ballot applications, though of course they sent them just to Dems. I don’t know how many registered voters in Harris County are 65 and over, and I don’t know how many people will apply for a mail ballot under the disability provision, but the potential certainly exists for there to be a lot of voting by mail this fall. Just remember to send everything in as early as you can, and consider using the mail ballot dropoff locations at the County Clerk annex offices.

You may think that this is a lot of mail ballot applications being sent to people who can’t or won’t use them, and you may think this is a lot of money being spent to conduct this election. I got a press release from usual suspect Paul Bettencourt complaining about how the County Clerk was making it too darn easy for people to vote. (Remember when he was in charge of voter registration in Harris County as Tax Assessor? Remember how voter registration totals lagged well behind population growth during his term, and never started to catch up until after he was gone? Good times, good times.) My scalding hot take is that what County Clerk Chris Hollins is doing this year should be the norm going forward. Open up a ton of early voting sites, have really convenient hours for them, send mail ballot applications to everyone, and more. All of us expect, every day, a level of ease, convenience, and time-savings in the things we do. I can’t think of any reason why “voting” shouldn’t be on that list. Maybe starting with this year, it finally will be.

We are finally making progress in getting COVID-19 under control

Good news is always welcome, but be aware of the context.

Houston-area hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients dropped below 900 Sunday, the lowest amount since the summer surge peaked in mid-July.

Some 893 people confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 were admitted to hospitals in the nine-county area around Houston Sunday, the fifth straight day under 1,000, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle. The latest number represents a 67 percent decline since July 14, when hospitalizations hit a high of 2,694.

The last time the number was under 900 was June 15. The number hospitalized then was 820.

COVID-19 related patients in intensive care units also hit a post-surge low Sunday. There were 402 such patients in ICUs Sunday, down from a high of 1,057 July 18. Sunday’s amount was the lowest since June 17, when Houston-area hospitals reported 398 ICU patients.

[…]

The decline in hospitalizations continue a trend of improving COVID-19 numbers in the Houston area. Other key metrics include a TMC COVID-19 positive test rate of 6.7 percent over the past seven days, down from 8.6 percent a week ago and 16.8 percent a month ago; and the 14th straight day in which the rate of the disease’s spread was below 1.0, meaning those infected are passing it on to an average of less than one person each.

That’s all very good, and you should click over to the story to see the embedded charts. I would just note that on the first chart, which shows the daily count of COVID-19 patients in hospitals affiliated with the seven healthcare systems based in the Texas Medical Center, the total daily hospitalizations due to COVID are way down from the peak in July, it’s also more than fifty percent higher than it was in early to mid-June, at the start of the rapid increase in infections. For example, on June 5th the total number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 (ICU plus general beds) was 537, very close to what it was in mid-April. On August 22, the total number was 908. That is indeed way better than the mid-July peak that topped 2,400, but we still have a way to go and we can’t afford to loosen up just yet.

The story is similar in San Antonio.

The coronavirus positivity rate in Bexar County dipped to 9.9 percent on Monday, a measure that officials consider “very good news” when it comes to efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus.

The positivity rate – the percentage of those tested for the novel coronavirus who test positive – is considered a key indicator of how localities are faring against the coronavirus. Calculated on a weekly basis, it was at 11 percent last week, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Monday marked “the first time the positivity rate has been below 10 percent since early June.”

The positivity rate in Bexar County was as high as 25 percent in early July, he said.

With 109 new coronavirus cases reported Monday, the total stands at 45,364 since the pandemic began.

[…]

Local hospitalization rates continue to improve, with 473 people currently being treated at area hospitals, down five from Sunday. Of those, 207 are in intensive care and 139 are on ventilators. However, officials said the hospital system continues to be under high stress.

Four more deaths were reported Monday, raising the overall death toll to 725.

The seven-day moving average (the average number of positives within a 7-day period) in Bexar County increased only slightly to 148 on Monday, but continues to trend in the right direction, officials said.

Again, good news, but again look at the chart. This one shows the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in Bexar County, which on June 5 was 74 and on August 22 was 137. That’s way down from the peak of 1,600, but still almost double what it once was.

I don’t want to underplay this, these numbers are so much better than they were a month ago, and the trend is clearly going in the right direction. We may get to those April/May/June levels in another week or two at this rate, and that’s excellent. But remember, April is when we were under the strictest shutdown orders, May is when the numbers were at their absolute lowest and also when we started reopening, and June is where it all started to fall apart. We can cautiously start to reopen again once the numbers are back down to these levels, but only if we stay committed to wearing masks and social distancing and avoiding large indoor gatherings. I would like to think that this time we really did learn the lessons we needed to learn to keep this virus at a manageable level, but it would be very easy for us to forget it all again, and repeat this cycle as if we knew nothing. The choice is ours.

Coronavirus and hurricane shelters

Two things we have to be thinking about today.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The state of the Democratic bench

It’s deeper now, and it could keep getting deeper after this year.

Rep. Victoria Neave

The speaking turns may have been brief and the spotlight not as bright, but Texas Democrats got a glimpse at their national convention this week of their emerging bench — beyond, notably, the usual suspects.

While names like Beto O’Rourke and Julián and Joaquin Castro continue to dominate the conversation — and O’Rourke had two roles in the convention — the virtual gathering also put on display at least four Texas Democrats who could have bright futures, too, either in 2022 or further down the line.

There was Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the 29-year-old leader of the state’s largest county, who appeared in video montages Monday and Thursday nights. There were U.S. Rep. Colin Allred and state Rep. Victoria Neave, both of Dallas, who spoke Tuesday night as part of a 17-person keynote address showcasing the party’s rising stars nationwide. And there was U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, who announced the Texas delegate count for Biden on Tuesday night while delivering a solemn reminder of the 2019 Walmart massacre in her home city. The next night, Escobar appeared in a compilation video about women’s suffrage.

The pared-down online convention meant the Texans may have not gotten as much time — or overall prominence — as usual, but for politicos watching closely, their inclusion alone was notable.

“As we know, for the last two decades, it’s been slim pickings for Democrats in Texas,” said Keir Murray, a Houston Democratic strategist. “I think Allred, Neave, Hidalgo — some of these up-and-comers who are likely not familiar at all to audiences outside their respective districts — even within the state of Texas is my guess — does show a sort of young and growing bench in the state of potential candidates who may move on to do bigger and better things in the future.”

The emergence of such rising leaders speaks to an obvious truth in politics, Murray said: “Winning is what creates stars.” Neave unseated a Republican in 2016, while Allred and Hidalgo took out GOP incumbents in 2018, and that same year, Escobar won the election to replace O’Rourke in the U.S. House.

None is actively entertaining plans to run for higher office, but they are part of a new wave of talent that is giving state Democrats hope that they no longer have to tie their fortunes to a singular figure like a Castro or O’Rourke. Plus, while the Castros have undoubtedly spent years helping the party, they have repeatedly passed on one of its greatest needs: running statewide.

I agree with Keir Murray, in that winning turns candidates into stars. Sometimes that’s because you’re new and interesting and the media loves new and interesting things to talk about; Dan Crenshaw is a good example of this. Sometimes it comes from being a first to win something, like Lizzie Fletcher being the first Democrat to win CD07 in however many decades. I guarantee you, the next Democrat to win a statewide race in Texas, even lower-profile races like Railroad Commissioner or Court of Criminal Appeals justice, is going to get a lot of attention. Obviously, accomplishing things and performing well in high-profile situations does a lot for one’s career as well.

But first you have to win, to get into position to do those things. And having a bench is about having more than stars, it’s about having people with knowledge, experience, connections, fundraising ability, and the desire to move up the ladder. The fact that there are more offices that a Democrat can run for and plausibly win – and then win again, in the next election – means more people who may have these qualities will put themselves in that position. It’s a lot harder to build a bench if there’s only a few things that are worth running for, as was the case earlier in the decade, in part because there’s no incentive to give up what you have when the next thing you try is so unlikely to be yours. We’ve moved from a world where Dems had a third of the Legislature, less than a third of the Congressional caucus, and nothing statewide, to a world where Dems have a plausible path to a majority in the State House and maybe half or even more of the seats in Congress from Texas. That’s naturally going to draw a lot more talent.

What’s ironic is that one needn’t be seen as a “rising star” necessarily to move up in the political world. Just look at the current Republican officeholders in Congress or statewide slots who got there from the State House. Sid Miller and Wayne Christian were State Reps before moving up. Hell, they had lost a primary for their State House seats before winning their statewide races. No one saw them as up-and-comers back then. Lance Gooden was a perfectly normal State Rep before winning the open seat primary in CD05 in 2018. Ken Paxton was a fairly bland State Rep who lucked into an open State Senate seat that he held for two years before winning the primary for Attorney General. Van Taylor, then a two-term State Rep, then stepped into Paxton’s Senate seat and was there for one term before moving up to Congress in CD03. All three seats were open at the time he ran for them, and he was unopposed in the primary for Senate and had token opposition in the primary for Congress. Timing is everything in this life. And as Texas moves from being a Republican state to one that anyone can win, that timing will help the newcomers on the scene.

Here comes Laura

Be prepared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some superintendents disagree about school opening delays

It takes all kinds.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Superintendents leading 10 Houston-area school districts penned a letter this week opposing Harris County’s recommendations for reopening campuses, arguing that face-to-face instruction should resume earlier than health officials suggest.

In their two-page letter, the superintendents say guidance released last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah will keep campuses closed too long, denying valuable in-person class time to students. Superintendents are not required to follow the county recommendations, though the guidance serves as a key document in the debate over when to restart in-person classes.

“It is clear that we all have the same goal, which is to return students to in-person instruction as safely as possible, the superintendents wrote to Shah on Monday. “We thank you for the continued efforts of your departments on behalf of Harris County. With that said, we believe that the metrics outlined in the plan you have provided are not attainable to resume in-person instruction in the foreseeable future.”

The superintendents represent Clear Creek, Cy-Fair, Deer Park, Huffman, Humble, Katy, Klein, Pasadena, Spring Branch and Tomball ISDs. Combined, the districts serve about 457,000 students.

In response to the letter, Harris County Public Health officials said in a statement that the organization “has made it abundantly clear that current indicators are not safe to resume in-person activities in Harris County due to COVID-19.”

As the new school year approached and superintendents debated when to resume in-person classes, some education leaders called on county health officials to offer guidance on reopening campuses.

Hidalgo and Shah followed through by producing several public health benchmarks that should be met before in-person classes resume at the lesser of 25 percent capacity or 500 people in a campus. The metrics included cutting the 14-day rolling average of new daily cases to under 400, bringing the test positivity rate under 5 percent and ensuring less than 15 percent of patients in ICU and general hospital beds are positive for COVID-19.

Harris County likely remains at least several weeks away from meeting those metrics. For example, the county recently reported a rolling daily average of about 1,250 new cases and a test positivity rate of 16 percent.

In their letter, the superintendents only mentioned two specific health benchmarks with which they disagreed. The school leaders wrote that the recommendations would “essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction while awaiting a widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure or greater staffing capacity at Harris County Public Health for contact tracing.”

However, the guidance specifies that districts could start to reopen and ramp up to the lesser of 50 percent building capacity of 1,000 people on campus even without a “widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure.” County officials did not detail what qualifies as a medical countermeasure in their written guidance, and they did not respond to written questions Tuesday.

See here for the background. As a reminder, Judge Hidalgo and Harris County have limited authority here – ultimately, if these districts decide to open, they can. It’s only when outbreaks occur that the county will have more power to step in. Humble ISD has already opened, the others have plans to have at least some students back by September 16. As the story notes, other districts including HISD, Aldine, Alief, and Spring did not sign this letter, but it was not clear if they had been invited to sign it or not.

I get the concern from these districts, and there’s room for honest disagreement. I don’t have any particular quarrel with their approach, though I personally prefer the more cautious path. As Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter notes in these two Twitter threads, the county now meets three out of seven criteria for reopening, and is trending in the right direction for the others. There’s no accepted national standard for what is “safe” to reopen – that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, of course – so one could argue that Harris County is being overly restrictive. Of course, we’ve also seen plenty of schools and universities that brought in students and then immediately suffered outbreaks that forced closures. Bad things are going to happen until this thing is truly under control, and it is not going to be under control any time soon while Donald Trump is President. That’s the reality, and all the choices we have are bad. Which ones are the least bad is still an open question.

Time for another COVID roundup

Let’s start with some good news, which comes wrapped in a warning.

The number of coronavirus patients crowding hospital wards in the Houston area is now in its sixth week of steady decline, a welcome reversal of the virus’ alarming surge in June and July.

The headcount of COVID-19 patients has fallen by half since its mid-July peak in hospitals affiliated with the seven systems based in the Texas Medical Center. And the number of intensive care patients at those facilities has dropped by a third.

The subsiding wave has merely shifted civic leaders’ concerns, however — and not only because hospital headcounts, new cases, and other metrics remain well above their levels before the spike.

Worried that Houstonians will invite another crisis by concluding it is safe to attend cookouts or crowd onto restaurant patios, public officials and medical leaders are stressing that the best measures of success are not empty intensive care beds but an absence of widespread infections.

“I do worry about people listening to this news and taking it the wrong way, saying, ‘Whew that’s over, now let’s go back to life as normal,’” said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, CEO of Harris Health, the county’s public hospital district. “This is not the time.”

[…]

In every case, these metrics suggest the Houston region remains well short of containing the virus. The testing positivity rate, for instance, is about 15 percent in the city and county, and 10 percent among TMC institutions.

What about case counts? Harris County over the last week has averaged more than two and a half times as many daily cases as the 400 it would take to step down from Hidalgo’s top threat level. And the nine-county Houston region is averaging almost nine times as many new daily cases as the TMC goal of 200.

Another of Hidalgo’s metrics calls for the share of intensive care patients who have COVID-19 to not exceed 15 percent; the share of ICU patients in the county who have COVID-19 remains more than double that.

We’re headed in the right direction, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Stay home. Maintain social distancing. Wear a mask. Wash your hands.

And while case numbers may be coming down, fatality numbers are higher than we’ve counted.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, the state’s death toll from all causes has soared by thousands above historical averages — a sobering spike that experts say reveals the true toll of the disease.

Between the beginning of the local pandemic and the end of July, 95,000 deaths were reported in Texas, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data. Based on historical mortality records and predictive modeling, government epidemiologists would have expected to see about 82,500 deaths during that time.

The CDC attributed more than 7,100 deaths to COVID-19, but that leaves roughly 5,500 more than expected and with no identified tie to the pandemic. The CDC’s chief of mortality, Dr. Bob Anderson, said these “excess deaths” are likely from a range of pandemic-related problems, including misclassifications because doctors did not initially understand the many ways that COVID-19 affects the circulatory system and results in a stroke or a heart attack.

“It can cause all sorts of havoc in the body,” he said.

The CDC data offers an opaque but important estimate of how deadly the virus has been in Texas, which suffered from testing shortages for weeks as COVID-19 case counts climbed.

“It has shocked me to see people think that there’s overcounts of the COVID deaths, because I can’t even imagine that that’d be the case,” said Mark Hayward, a professor at the University of Texas who studies mortality trends. “The undercount is so dramatic.”

And there is a clear racial disparity in the undercounts. Between March and the end of July, Texas recorded more than 21,000 deaths of Latinos — more than 5,000 higher than epidemiologists predicted. Of those, about 2,100 were attributed to COVID-19. That leaves more than 3,000 deaths in excess of the expected number, many of them in border counties that lack resources for testing.

This is a phenomenon we’ve seen literally around the world. We’ve certainly known that it’s happening in Texas. The expert opinion is that we’ve already passed 200K deaths nationally, or about 25% more than the official count. If you could read one of the names of those 200K dead Americans every second, it would take you over 55 hours, nonstop, to read them all. Think about that for a minute. Or for 55 hours.

Also, too, we still suck at testing.

After plummeting for days, the number of COVID-19 tests reported in Texas suddenly jumped by 124,693 on Thursday, which state health officials said was a result of coding errors and a system upgrade.

Backlogs at a hospital lab and a commercial lab accounted for most of the tests, which could not be added to the state’s official tally until the coding errors had been fixed, said Lara Anton, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Of the 124,000 tests reported on Thursday, approximately 95,000 were from a lab that served several hospitals, Anton said, adding that the lab sent files containing an error in one of the data fields, which DSHS’ electronic system could not read.

DSHS doesn’t know when the tests were actually conducted and is working with local health departments to find out, she said.

[…]

Whether because of human error, shifting benchmarks or bureaucratic changes, it’s not the first time that Texas officials have corrected their data since the beginning of the pandemic. Almost every major data point has come with caveats, sometimes blurring for days the big picture of the pandemic in Texas.

It is what it is. I don’t know what else to say.

Finally, the coin shortage is real, y’all.

Some retailers have started posting signs notifying customers that they might not be able to provide exact change for their purchases, and instead ask for them to pay with a credit or debit card or exact payment.

“It’s not like coins are not there,” said Venky Shankar, professor and director of research at the Center for Retailing Studies in Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School. The coins are just being used less as business has slowed and more people stay home.

Another hurdle for coin usage, Shankar said, is the fear that money could carry the novel coronavirus, even though experts don’t know definitively whether cash actually poses a threat.

In order to keep coins circulating, the U.S. Mint has asked people to pay with exact change. “We ask that the American public start spending their coins, depositing them, or exchanging them for currency at financial institutions or taking them to a coin redemption kiosk,” the mint said in a news release. A new task force — the U.S. Coin Task Force — has also been charged with determining how to reinvigorate the supply chain.

[…]

According to Shankar, roughly 45 to 50 percent of sales in smaller stores — places such as convenience stores — are made in cash. But big grocers such as H-E-B, Kroger and Walmart have also faced a shortage of coins.

In response to the shortage, some retailers and restaurants have started to pay or reward customers for their coins.

The U.S. Mint has also increased production from 1.2 billion coins in June to 1.35 billion coins per month for the rest of 2020, according to a Statista review.

But that doesn’t solve everything.

“That still will not unlock the coins that are already in the drawers and the banks,” Shankar said.

Laundromats, which rely heavily on coins to function, are among the businesses directly impacted by the coin shortage.

Yeah, that would suck if no one has any damn quarters. This is a problem all over, and offhand I have no idea what to do about it. I normally like paying for things in cash, but have barely used any since March. This is a teeny tiny reason for saying this, but we live in very strange times.

Harris County issues guidance for opening schools

They can’t issue mandates, so this will have to do.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday unveiled the county’s guidance for school reopenings, recommending based on a handful of COVID-19 metrics that schools offer only virtual instruction in the coming weeks until the virus is further curbed.

County officials are issuing the guidance as families and education officials continue to grapple with the idea of resuming in-person classes in the coming weeks, and after Gov. Greg Abbott barred local officials from ordering campus shutdowns to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Under the non-binding guidance, Hidalgo and county health officials recommended that school districts offer only virtual instruction as long as Harris County, across a 14-day span, records more than 400 new COVID-19 cases per day, remains above a 5 percent test positivity rate or continues to devote more than 15 percent of hospital beds to COVID-19 patients.

School districts are advised to reopen with reduced capacity as those metrics improve and Harris County hospitals see a 14-day average flattening or decrease in their general and intensive care unit bed populations. At that point, school officials can consult with Harris County Public Health officials on their plans to reopen.

“We simply cannot responsibly reopen schools to in-person instruction right now,” Hidalgo said, acknowledging the frustration of parents, teachers and others. “But we can’t ignore this. We can’t tap our heels together and wish the current numbers away.”

Harris County officials are recommending schools remain closed longer than some other organizations.

[…]

County officials have not yet publicly released the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive, though Umair Shah, the director of Harris County’s public health department, announced Tuesday that the rate is between 15 and 16 percent. The Houston Health Department and Texas Medical Center on Monday reported positivity rates of 14.6 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively. The city’s 14-day average has continued to decline since peaking at nearly 30 percent in early July, but remains above the county roadmap’s 5 percent threshold.

Hidalgo and Shah lack the authority to order compliance with the roadmap before the school year begins. Abbott said July 31 that local school boards and state education officials can limit the reopening of buildings in the first eight weeks of the school year, but county officials may not shut down campuses preemptively.

The governor said local health authorities may shut down campuses in response to confirmed outbreaks in a building, but Texas Education Agency leaders said public school districts risk losing state funding if schools remain closed for longer than five days.

You know how I feel about this, so I’m mostly going to peace out here. Judge Hidalgo had ordered schools closed for in-person instruction until at least September 8, back when that was a thing the locals could do. HISD is beginning remote learning only on that date now, and even as a parent of two HISD students, I have no freaking idea when they will be ordered back to the classroom. You can see the Ready Harris roadmap here and the metrics for success here. Maybe if Greg Abbott took this stuff half as seriously as Judge Hidalgo does, we’d be in a better position to reopen schools with some confidence.

An analysis of that Paxton opinion about schools and county health authorities

Short version: That’s just, like, his opinion, man.

Best mugshot ever

The law should mean what it says. Rule §97.6(h) of the Texas Administrative Code says: “The health authority is empowered to close any public or private child-care facility, school or other place of public or private assembly when in his or her opinion such closing is necessary to protect the public health; and such school or other place of public or private assembly shall not reopen until permitted by the health authority who caused its closure.” This law was invoked by the Harris County Health Authority this month , directing that K-12 schools in the county start operations entirely online until at least Sept. 7.

On Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote an opinion that effectively invalidated Harris County’s control order and others. The Texas Education Agency accepted the opinion, and said it will defund schools that follow the orders. On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott added his backing.

While the attorney general’s opinions are non-binding, they are entitled to some respect. So too, though, is the plain language of the law. I believe Paxton has it wrong and that his opinion is likely to kill people.

[…]

The law appears to be clear. The provision of the administrative code cited above gives the power to local health authorities. Despite this, Paxton concludes the law doesn’t mean what it says. He argues if read literally, the law would undercut limitations on the power of local health authorities he believes exist elsewhere in Texas law .

I wouldn’t give that argument a high grade. The “limitations” he cites would cripple local health authority’s power to effectively manage dangerous diseases that cannot survive on surfaces. More importantly, Paxton really can’t explain why Texas couldn’t give local health authorities, who have the authority to take steps such as quarantining an entire county, the (supposedly) limited powers that exist elsewhere and, just as the law says, the explicit power to close schools.

The factual assumptions underlying Paxton’s reading of Texas law are flawed. He writes before closing schools as a form of “area quarantine” (which isn’t the part of the statute the Harris County order relied on), the local health authority must demonstrate “reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease.”

That condition will exist the instant schools reopen.

See here, here, and here for the background. This too is one person’s opinion, in this case a law professor named Seth Chandler. What any of it actually means is uncertain until either someone sues or the counties and school districts all concede. Given his track record and the political stakes here, it’s quite rational to believe that Paxton is not the most trustworthy authority on this, but until a court gets involved he’s what we have. I hope the various county attorneys, as well as the counsel for the affected school districts, are reviewing this carefully and considering all their options.

Enforcing the mask order

Those of you who haven’t been wearing your mask when out in public, shame on you. And also, there may now be consequences for your dumb refusal to do the right thing.

Houston law enforcement officials will begin issuing fines and citations to people who do not comply with the state’s mask order, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Monday.

The mandate from Gov. Greg Abbott requires nearly all Texans to wear face coverings in most public settings and has been in effect since early July.

Turner’s announcement comes as Houston experiences a slight dip in its COVID-19 hospitalization levels and a decline in the rate of positive tests, despite a sustained number of daily new cases. The mayor said police would continue to issue warnings at first, as Abbott’s order requires, before fining people $250 for a second offense.

“For months, we have been focusing on education and not citations, but now I am instructing the Houston Police Department to issue the necessary warnings and citations to anyone not wearing a mask in public if they do not meet the criteria for an exemption,” Turner said.

Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is appointed by Turner, agreed with the mayor’s order, saying it would help limit the spread of the coronavirus. He said HPD’s tally of infected and quarantined officers has grown “very rapidly,” with 108 testing positive and 64 awaiting test results.

[…]

The mayor in April instructed police not to issue fines or citations for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, winning favor among some of Hidalgo’s critics. Before Monday, he had told police to largely issue warnings when enforcing the governor’s order.

On the one hand, it’s a bit puzzling that the order hadn’t had the threat of a fine behind it before now. On the other hand, given the wishy-washy nature of Abbott’s order, it’s easy to understand why the city wouldn’t be all that interested in putting police resources into “enforcement” of that order. Certainly, the police union was not interested in enforcing the mask order (and yes, that was motivated by the HPOU president’s ridiculous animosity towards Judge Hidalgo), to whatever extent you give their preference weight. I honestly don’t know what difference this is going to make, but I welcome the change. We are moving in the right direction, it would be very nice to move a little faster in that direction, and whatever reasonable step we can take to advance we should take. And boy, do I wish we didn’t have to have debates like this. How much better it would be if people just understood what they need to do and did it.

SCOTX rejects multiple Hotze petitions

Some good news.

The Texas Supreme Court has refused to hear several challenges by a Houston conservative power broker to emergency orders on coronavirus issued by Gov. Greg Abbott and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

Without comment, the nine Republican justices on Friday denied a request that they review a trial court that upheld Hidalgo’s April 22 mask order.

The order required residents to wash hands before leaving home and wear masks, stay 6 feet away from each other and avoid touching their faces in public. For a time, Abbott, a Republican, prevented Hidalgo, a Democrat elected in 2018, from enforcing it. The governor later reversed course and issued his own mask order.

Experts said Friday they weren’t surprised that in five recent lawsuits, the state’s highest civil court has declined Dr. Steve Hotze’s demands that it step in and overturn Abbott and Hidalgo’s COVID-19 orders. Each time, the court ruled on procedural grounds.

Hotze, a staunch conservative who for decades has wielded influence with his “slate cards” telling Harris County voters whom to back in Republican primaries, said his bid to protect Texans’ state and federal constitutional rights will continue.

“We fight on,” he said. “It’s obvious to me some members of the Supreme Court just don’t want this case to come up. They don’t want to go against Abbott. Six of them were appointed by Abbott.”

See here for the background, and here for the one-line denial. This follows on the heels of an earlier denial over Abbott’s statewide mask order.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a lawsuit disputing Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s executive orders closing nonessential businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, but one justice expressed concern he is improperly taking the role of state lawmakers.

The Republican-controlled high court dismissed without comment the lawsuit filed by lead plaintiff and Republican activist Dr. Steven Hotze for a lack of jurisdiction.

Justice John Devine agreed with the dismissal, concluding a lawsuit against the governor is the incorrect vehicle. Nonetheless, Devine said Abbott’s emergency actions are not “categorically immune” from review by the courts and he finds it “difficult to square” the governor’s orders and state law.

“I share relators’ concern in what they describe as ‘an improper delegation of legislative authority’ to the executive branch,” his five-page concurring opinion states. “During declared states of ‘disaster,’ the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 bestows upon the governor the power to issue executive orders that have ‘the force and effect of law.’ Disaster or not, the Texas Constitution doesn’t appear to contemplate any circumstances in which we may condone such consolidation of power.”

Devine, a Republican, said the constitution’s ban on a branch of government exercising another branch’s powers “is not simply a suggestion.”

“In the first article, it states: ‘No power of suspending laws in this state shall be exercised except by the Legislature,’” he wrote. “This provision means what it says. The judiciary may not suspend laws. Nor may the executive. Only the Legislature.”

The Texas Legislature is only in regular session once every two years for 140 calendar days beginning in January. Abbott has so far ignored calls by state lawmakers to call a month-long special session to replace his executive orders during the pandemic.

Devine wrote the court’s dismissal “should not be misperceived as a judicial kowtow” to Abbott, saying there is no “pause” button to the Texas Constitution. He expressed worry that more executive orders will come when a second wave of the virus hits, resulting in “short-term orders could continually escape” the court’s review.

See here for that background, and here for that denial. This recapitulates what I’ve been saying all along – there are serious questions to be asked about the Governor’s powers at this time and what the role of the Legislature should be, questions that I sincerely hope are addressed by the next Lege, but Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill and their shambling evil Lawsuits R Us clown car is absolutely the wrong way to examine those questions. I would also add that SCOTX’s loopiest Justice John Devine is exactly the wrong person to be setting the outlines of this debate, but at least he did so in a concurring opinion. I’ll take what I can get at this point.

On a side note, in that first article Rice poli sci professor Mark Jones is quoted saying that in a 2015-2017 context, Greg Abbott very likely would have given more weight to the demands of the fringiest wingnuts in the Republican Party, because there would have been no political counterweight to them. But now, at a time when Donald Trump is at best running even with Joe Biden in the polls of Texas and the Democrats have a legitimate shot at taking the State House and knocking off a bunch of GOP members of Congress, some discretion on his part is the better part of valor. In other words, elections do have consequences.

Finally, since all news of bad things happening to Steven Hotze is good news, I was recently sent some relevant court documents by a very helpful reader that I will chare with you here. First, is this by a Harris County judge, issued on his own volition (the fancy Latin legal term for this is “sua sponte”), chiding Hotze and Woodfill for not properly serving all parties of his various lawsuits the relevant pleadings he’d been filing with SCOTX in a timely manner. Even more interesting is this one, filed by the Harris County Attorney on behalf of County Judge Lina Hidalgo and County Fire Marshal Laurie Christianson, accusing Hotze of filing multiple bullshit lawsuits against the county as a harassment tactic and asking for sanctions. Here’s a taste:

Hotze filed five lawsuits and two appeals against Judge Hidalgo in the last four months. Many of these cases are based on fabricated facts, and they all make identical constitutional challenges to the Texas Disaster Act. Based on Hotze’s own statements and actions, it is clear that he brought these duplicative suits for the improper purpose of harassing Judge Hidalgo.

Not only are these duplicative suits made for an improper purpose, but Hotze litigates them in a manner orchestrated to be as harassing as possible. Hotze presents all of his cases as urgent matters requiring emergency temporary restraining orders and emergency petitions for writ of mandamus to the Supreme Court. However, these cases are never urgent, have typically been pre-filed for days or weeks, are often set for hearing long after the orders they complain about have expired, and have nothing to do with science, liberty, or the Constitution. Their “urgency” is manufactured to deny Defendants due process by preventing them time to respond.

Hotze’s five lawsuits were designed to maximize delay and cost and create a never-ending conveyor belt of litigation using a six-step formula: (1) Hold a rally and generate negative media attention toward Judge Hidalgo, (2) solicit plaintiffs for a choose-your-own-adventure style lawsuit, (3) file a lawsuit, never serve it, then email opposing counsel about a hearing on a few hours’ notice, (4) make false claims, (5) amend, dismiss, or appeal before the court considers sanctions, and (6) start over with a new lawsuit and repeat the cycle.

It goes from there. It was filed in the 189th Civil Court, the same one whose judge issued that sua sponte order, and it requests “$10,000 in attorney’s fees and a conditional $10,000 in attorney’s fees if this matter is unsuccessfully appealed” on behalf of Hidalgo and Christianson in their official capacities. I have no idea what the odds of success of this motion are, but you do love to see it.

Abbott finally speaks about schools

Of course, he mostly says weasel words.

Gov. Greg Abbott clarified Friday that Texas schools will be required to provide in-person instruction this fall, but that some districts may be eligible for extended waivers on a “case-by-case basis.”

In a letter signed jointly with fellow Republican state leaders, the governor said local health authorities do not have the power to shut down schools solely to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The guidance, which does not appear to be legally binding, is the first detailed instruction from Abbott in the reopening plans. Earlier this week, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Education Commissioner Mike Morath said districts would not be able to close campuses for prevention purposes alone, and in fact could lose state funding should they try.

Currently, districts are allowed to delay in-person instruction for up to eight weeks.

“If any school district believes they need an extension beyond eight weeks due to COVID-19 related issues, the (Texas Education Agency) will review that request on a case-by-case basis,” the statement says.

The remarks do not give details about the requirements school districts must meet in order to suspend in-school learning. Even if districts reopen campuses, children in public schools across the state can remain at home, continue online-only classes and still receive course credit.

See here and here for the background. Basically, we don’t know anything today that we didn’t already know. Counties and school districts maybe have some flexibility to make their own decisions, but there are no objective criteria by which those decisions can be judged. Paxton’s opinion still doesn’t have the force of law, because Abbott still hasn’t updated his executive order, but it will take either a lawsuit or open defiance of the opinion to test that proposition. In the meantime, we have this deluded fantasy that in person classroom learning will be like it has been before while the pandemic is still raging. Meanwhile, other school employees fear for their health and safety, with no assurances that anyone is looking out for them. And oh yeah, it’s a lead-pipe cinch that people will die as a result of this. Good luck sorting it all out, fellow parents.

One more thing:

An Abbott spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the governor plans to follow-up with an executive order.

That should be carved into his goddam tombstone some day. What a feckless coward. The Trib has more.

The school situation remains a big ol’ mess

You can blame Greg Abbott for all this confusion.

After weeks of confusion and conflicting signals, Texas has settled into policies that effectively compel schools to reopen their classrooms this fall no later than eight weeks after the academic year begins, whether they want to or not.

Teachers, parents, school administrators and public health officials have been seeking clarity for weeks on how the state will approach reopening schools safely as coronavirus infections and deaths rise across Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott has not responded directly to questions from reporters about who has the authority to order schools closed in areas hard-hit by the virus, and the Texas Education Agency has sent mixed messages on reopening guidelines.

But despite the lack of any formal announcement from the governor, the die was cast in in a rapid two-step process Tuesday. First, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released nonbinding legal guidance saying local public health officials do not have the power to preemptively require all schools in their jurisdictions to remain closed, even as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in many Texas hotspots.

Then, state education officials reversed an earlier decision by announcing they will not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed for longer than the state allows even if ordered to do so by a local health mandate. Taken together, the actions put school districts in the position of reopening classrooms on the state’s timetable or losing funds and risking potential litigation.

Educators and families must now once again rethink their back-to-school plans this fall. The education agency has given school districts up to eight weeks to limit the number of students permitted on their campuses, after which they must open classrooms to all students who want to attend.

That ninth week is looming large for superintendents who are not sure what the public health landscape will look like at that point. Now, they can’t depend on their local health officials to give them more time, without losing money.

“Starting in the ninth week of our respective school years, regardless of the status of the virus in our communities, as the guidance is written today, we would be faced with two options,” said Northside Superintendent Brian Woods in an interview with the San Antonio Express News editorial board Wednesday. “One would be to ignore a local health order, and in doing so likely put our students and staff and families at risk, or lose funding, which is essential to teaching and serving our families.”

At a school board meeting Tuesday night, Woods indicated he and other superintendents would consider filing a lawsuit seeking to keep their classrooms closed longer if necessary. Paxton’s decision to step into the fray weeks before the school year begins has prompted more questions than answers, including whether a deluge of lawsuits is expected to hit Texas courts demanding health mandates be revoked or enforced.

Emphasis mine, and see here for the background. The Chron’s Jacob Carpenter tries to make sense of this hash.

What is the impact of Paxton’s letter?

Paxton’s letter is not legally binding. The only way the local health authority orders can be negated is through an executive order issued by the governor or a judge’s ruling in a lawsuit.

As of now, Abbott has not issued an executive order declaring that local health authorities cannot mandate school closures, and nobody has filed a lawsuit challenging the local closure orders.

As a result, at this time the school closure mandates issued by local health authorities are legally valid and enforceable.

What did Morath do Tuesday?

Hours after Paxton published his letter, Morath issued new guidance saying public school districts risk losing state funding if they keep campuses shuttered solely as a result of a local health authority closure order.

Districts still can require students with at-home technology access to remain in online-only classes for up to the first eight weeks of the school year. School boards also can push back their school start dates.

If local school closure orders are legally valid, why did Morath say districts risk losing state funding if they follow closure orders?

Morath cited Paxton’s letter in issuing the new guidance on school funding.

“As a state agency, we will follow the Attorney General’s guidance,” Morath said in a statement. “Consequently, a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction for an indefinite period of time.

However, another section of TEA guidance says the agency will continue to provide funding to districts that are forced to close campuses by an entity “authorized to issue such an order under state law” — and as of now, local health authorities have issued legal orders.

Essentially, the TEA has provided two potentially conflicting pieces of guidance.

Who can clear up this conflict?

The simplest answer: Abbott.

At any time, Abbott could issue an executive order that negates all local health orders, or he could announce he will allow the orders to stand.

Abbott has made no move in either direction.

Asked multiple times by the Houston Chronicle earlier this month whether he planned to allow local health officials to order school closures, the governor’s office never directly answered the question. Abbott’s staff also did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday following the release of Paxton’s letter.

Yes, our Governor continues to be basically useless. At this point, the best advice seems to be just wait and see what happens. Maybe Abbott revises his executive order. Maybe all the school districts and county health authorities cave. Maybe someone (or multiple someones) files a lawsuit – unfortunately, one of those someones is gonna be Jared Woodfill, so prepare yourself for the stupid – and a judge makes a ruling that forces the issue one way or another. It’s still the case that schools don’t have to open till September 8, which is what HISD is doing, and the first six weeks after that can be online-only. It’s after that it gets dicey. So sit tight and wait to see how it gets sorted out.

Paxton overrides county health orders on schools

So much concern for the children here.

Best mugshot ever

Local health officials do not have the authority to shut down all schools in their vicinity while COVID-19 cases rise, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in nonbinding guidance Tuesday that contradicts what the Texas Education Agency has told school officials.

Shortly after Paxton’s announcement, the Texas Education Agency updated its guidance to say it will not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed because of a local health mandate, citing the attorney general’s letter. Districts can receive state funding if they obtain TEA’s permission to stay closed, as allowed for up to eight weeks with some restrictions.

The change represents an about-face for the agency, which previously said it would fund districts that remained closed under a mandate. It will impact schools in at least 16 local authorities, many in the most populous counties, that have issued school closure mandates in the past month.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, whose county is among those with a mandate to close schools, said local officials will continue to make decisions to keep students safe “regardless of what opinion General Paxton comes up with.”

“The only way that it would really screw things up is if Abbott tried to take away the control from the local groups,” Jenkins said.

The guidance is non-binding, but local health authorities could face lawsuits especially now that Paxton has weighed in. Paxton’s office declined to comment on whether it would sue local health officials that don’t retract mandates, saying it could not comment on hypothetical or potential litigation.

[…]

The governor’s executive order allowing all school districts to operate overrules local mandates to close, Paxton said. Local health officials have some authority to order schools closed if people in it are infected by COVID-19, but not as a preventive measure.

See here and here for the background. I don’t know what happens next – maybe the counties fold and rescind their orders, maybe someone files a lawsuit to force the issue, maybe we wait and see what happens when schools are supposed to start in a non-pandemic world – but it is clear that one person could end the confusion. The head of the TEA is hand-picked by Greg Abbott, after all, and one presumes Mike Morath would not have let the TEA issue that directive if Abbott was not aware of it. Plus, as noted in the story, Abbott’s own executive order is part of the reason the counties don’t have this authority, at least according to Ken Paxton. So we just need Greg Abbott to come forward and clarify things and

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to a request to clarify this earlier this month.

Yeah. You know, whoever runs against Abbott in 2022, they need to make a video montage of all of the “Abbott did not respond to a request for comment” lines in every damn story about coronavirus. If there’s a single defining trait of his reign of error, that’s it. Reform Austin has more.

UPDATE: This says a lot:

Truly, we have a weak and feckless Governor.

The contact tracing debacle

Let us never forget about this.

Just as coronavirus infections began rising a few weeks ago in Texas, contract workers hired by the state to track down exposed Texans were spending hours doing little or no work, received confusing or erroneous instructions and often could not give people the advice they expected, interviews and records indicate.

Health authorities around Texas also say they are running into technical snags with new contact tracing software the state has deployed, known as Texas Health Trace, saying it isn’t ready for widespread use in their counties.

The chaotic beginning and technical glitches — combined with exploding case counts and widespread testing delays — have undermined the goals of boosting COVID-19 monitoring statewide and the state’s massive deal for a privatized contact tracing workforce.

“I know that a lot of local health departments are still trying to figure out how to utilize that contract and some have decided to do the work on their own,” said David Lakey, chief medical officer at the University of Texas System and former commissioner of the Department of State Health Services (DSHS). “There is concern with local health department individuals I’ve talked to related to how they are going to benefit related to this large investment from the state.”

DSHS said problems identified by the Houston Chronicle have since been fixed and that “every week” more counties are using its software.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office said months ago that robust contact tracing capacity would help Texas “box in” the coronavirus. But after the state reopened its economy, infections, hospitalizations and deaths skyrocketed, making it impossible for many health departments to keep up with contact tracing.

“When you kind of jump the gun a little bit and open too soon, and you skip the processes that need to be in place, this kind of thing happens,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “You might have the most successfully designed contact tracing program or you may not, but honestly it’s not gonna make a difference because you’re setting yourself up to fail.”

At the state level, Texas moved to ramp up and modernize contact tracing in May, when the Texas Health and Human Services Commission quietly awarded a $295 million contact tracing deal to little-known MTX Group, a tech startup that has a headquarters in North Texas. Abbott’s office has staunchly defended the emergency expenditure, but it’s been controversial from the get-go.

The bid for the work, which was never publicly posted, was awarded to MTX without input from top state leaders, and more than a dozen legislators subsequently called for the state to cancel the contract.

More recently, four people who performed contact tracing work for MTX or one of its partners raised questions about the tech company’s performance. They spoke to the Chronicle on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record about their employment. Three said they fielded only a handful of phone calls during several weeks in May and June.

You can read on for details of the various failures of the program as implemented, and you can see here for more on Texas Health Trace. My point is that having a certain number of contact tracers in place, a number that was never met, was one of the four conditions of reopening set by Greg Abbott. The real failure here, as has been the case with everything else, was the complete lack of effort to meet those metrics that were set out. The failure to do so led directly to the situation we’re in now. The fact that MTX was given a no-bid contract on Abbott’s say-so and no one else’s input is a separate issue, one that deserves a fuller exploration, but not necessarily a main cause of the failure. It’s possible to imagine a scenario in which a legitimate and fully-resourced company could have gotten this contract in a similar fashion and done a better job with it. The process would have still been a problem, but at least the result was okay. Here we had both a bad process and a bad outcome, and both of those need to be investigated. They also need to be hung around Greg Abbott’s neck from now until November of 2022.

Harris County issues school closure order

This was expected.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a lot of COVID litigation out there

Texas Lawyer surveys the landscape.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a growing subset of new business litigation in Texas: companies suing the government over shutdown orders or definitions of essential versus nonessential businesses.

One of the latest examples to make headlines was a large group of bar owners who sued Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over his order that closed bars again because of the rising infection rate in the Lone Star State.

But Texas Lawyer’s research revealed that the bar litigation was at least the 15th similar lawsuit filed in the state since the onset of the pandemic in early March. It’s likely that there are even more cases filed in small or mid-sized cities in Texas.

One of the most interesting legal claims raised by this type of litigation is whether the governor has exceeded his authority under the Texas Disaster Act to suspend laws in the state, said Brad Nitschke, partner in Jackson Walker in Dallas, who has been tracking COVID-19 litigation.

“The executive is given a large toolbox to respond to emergency situations. To some extent, at least, it sort of has to be that way,” Nitschke said. “I think we are more accustomed in Texas to what that looks like for a hurricane or tornado, or a catastrophic drought.”

Using the same statute to respond to a pandemic is sort of like trying to put a square peg into a round hole, he added.

“It’s clear the governor has significant authority to act in the case of a disaster,” Nitschke said. “I think the unique circumstance of a pandemic like this one is going to give courts a chance to figure out what the outer limits of that authority may be.”

[…]

It will be tough for plaintiffs to win these sorts of cases, said Christy Drake-Adams, assistant general counsel of the Texas City Attorneys Association and the Texas Municipal League.

Drake-Adams noted that the league’s insurance risk pool has seen eight similar lawsuits against small and mid-sized Texas cities, which generally argue about the definition of essential versus nonessential businesses.

“They think they should have been allowed to continue operating, because they were an essential business,” explained Drake-Adams.

She said that government defendants who are fighting these types of lawsuits have a strong defense: That governmental immunity protects them from the claims.

“To the extent that plaintiffs are throwing in constitutional claims, I would say it’s pretty clear that the government has broad authority to act to protect the public health and to regulate in times of emergency, and that authority is expressly provided in law. It’s not clear that anyone’s constitutional rights have been violated as a result of those regulations,” Drake-Adams said.

There was a quote in there from Jared Woodfill about why the plaintiffs are right, but 1) screw that guy, and 2) we’ve heard from him plenty in the stories about each individual lawsuit he’s filed. This was the first time I’d seen an analysis from someone not connected to any of the lawsuits, though since cities or counties are the defendants in some of them, the perspective given here isn’t fully objective, either. Texas Lawyer reviewed the Hunton Andrews Kurth COVID-19 Complaint Tracker for the basis of this story; you can see media coverage of that tracker here. About half of the lawsuits involve the state (two), a state agency (one), or local governments (five), the rest are between private entities. I feel like it will be multiple years before there’s little to no litigation of interest of this nature to continue tracking.

Is it time to step back?

It’s not a question of whether we want to do this, it’s whether we need to.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston leaders are calling for another two-week shutdown as dozens of Army personnel are set to arrive Monday to help fight a virus that continues to set record hospitalizations and deaths in the Texas Medical Center.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it’s time for the city of Houston to “step back,” as regional cases rose to 63,864 on Sunday — up 1,596 from the day before. There have been 646 deaths in the Houston area. Positive results are coming back for about 16 percent of Texas test-takers.

“Let’s look at the numbers, look at the data, see where things are,” Turner said over the weekend. “And then gradually, move forward again.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo advocated an immediate stay-home order.

“We need to stick with it this time until the hospitalization curve comes down, not just flattens,” she tweeted Sunday. “Many communities that persevered in that way are reopening for the long haul. Let’s learn from that & not make the same mistake twice.”

[…]

While Hidalgo issued a stay-at-home order in March, Abbott has since taken over decisions on whether to open or close businesses and has refused to allow local officials to make decisions on the matter. Hidalgo’s office has unsuccessfully petitioned the governor for power to issue more restrictions as COVID-19 hospitalizations spiked.

But on Friday afternoon, Abbott, too, said that he could consider expanding which nonessential businesses would shut down should the pandemic continue to worsen.

“If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown,” the governor told KLBK-TV in Lubbock.

Let’s be clear, nobody wants to do this. It will be devastating to the businesses that have been able to reopen (whether they should have been allowed to or not), and people will lose jobs as a result at a time when extended unemployment benefits and other fiscal stimulus to help people tide themselves over are being held hostage by the Republicans. The problem is that we are at the point that we thought we’d been able to avoid when we shut down the first time, with the death rate spiking and the hospitals overloaded. There may be no other way to try to slow this thing down, short of building a time machine and going two months in the past to force Greg Abbott to allow local face mask orders and a more deliberate reopening strategy. But here we are, and unless there’s a sudden flattening or downward trend in the numbers real soon, I don’t know what other choice there is. Say it with me now: This didn’t have to happen. It’s Greg Abbott’s fault that it did happen.

Harris County will hire an elections administrator

Just like that.

Harris County became the latest in Texas to adopt an independent administrator model to run elections when the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to create the new department.

Court members voted 3-2 along party lines to create an election administrator’s office, which will assume the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector and the election management role of the county clerk.

Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who are both Democrats, opposed the move. Bennett in a letter to court members said her office successfully was registering voters, and she expressed doubt an independent administrator would be an improvement.

“Checks and balances will be lost with elections and voter registration managed by one office only,” Bennett wrote. “In counties with election administrators, the lack of accountability between voter registrars and election clerks has caused the type of problem that erodes public trust.”

Trautman, who was elected in 2018 but resigned in May because of health issues, said such a move should come only after a robust community engagement process next year.

The court plans to hire an elections administrator as soon as next month, though the office would not begin official operations until Nov. 18. County Clerk Chris Hollins, who supports the adoption of the elections administrator model, will remain in charge of the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

In its vote Tuesday, the court ordered a study of the budget, facilities, equipment, and personnel needed for the elections administrator office, and to seek input from the public. The court will need to vote to approve that final report, which is due within 30 days, before hiring an administrator.

This had been discussed before by Commissioners Court, in May shortly after Trautman’s resignation. I went through the previous history of this idea – it came up in 2010 and 2012 as well, with then-Judge Ed Emmett being its proponent. Commissioner Ellis was the driving force this time, and I’ll quote from the email he sent out Tuesday night that explains his reasoning:

Preserving our democratic process must be a priority for Harris County. I’m proud that Harris County Commissioners Court has approved moving our electoral process away from a system that is based on the racist disenfranchisement of communities of color and embraced a contemporary system that reflects our county’s values and diversity.

By creating the Harris County Elections Administrator office, the county is appropriately elevating the importance of elections and demonstrating the vital need to have those elections expertly overseen. Splitting our county’s election duties between two offices – the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor-Collector – as we have previously done, eliminates the ability to streamline the electoral process and does not allow for our elections to be a year-round priority.

“Given how critical voter registration and the administrations of our elections are to our democracy, we need an independent, non-partisan office that can focus entirely on these duties and guarantee our residents equal access to the ballot box,” said Commissioner Ellis.

“Generations of people have fought for the right to vote and our community entrusts us to carry out elections that uphold these values. In the midst of this national reckoning on the legacy of racist systems, we have to examine them all.”

Assigning the tax assessor’s office to also serve as the voter registrar began in 1902 when the Texas Legislature amended the constitution to require anyone who wanted to vote to pay a poll tax. After Texas’ poll tax ended in 1966, the tax assessor remained in charge of voter rolls.

“Today there are Harris County voters who must submit their registration to the same office they previously had to pay a poll tax. The current system we have is a relic of Jim Crow and is as much of an insult to voters as having to walk into a polling center named for Robert E Lee,” Ellis said.

Although Commissioners Court approves the creation of the position, the elections administrator is appointed by the county’s bi-partisan Election Commission, which is comprised of the county judge as chair; the county clerk as vice-chair; the county tax assessor-collector as secretary; and the county chair of each political party.

The Elections Administrator office is strongly supported by national voting rights experts, community-based organizations, and has been successfully adopted by local governments throughout the nation. With today’s vote, Harris County is joining Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant Counties in establishing county elections administrator positions.

As noted in the Chron story, not everyone liked this – here the post Ann Harris Bennett made on Facebook asking fellow Democrats to oppose this. I’d say I’m ambivalent about it. I definitely see the perspective of other Dems who argue that we worked hard to elect people like Bennett and Trautman in part on their promises to do elections better, and it feels wrong to take that away from them. On the other hand, most other big counties in Texas, like Bexar and Dallas, have elections administrators, and they’re doing fine. I can’t say I’m excited about this, but I understand Commissioner Ellis’ reasons, I trust what he and Commissioner Garcia and Judge Hidalgo are doing, and I see no reason to be up in arms about this. I’m willing to give this a try, especially since it won’t happen until after this year’s election.

I’m working to set up an interview with Commissioner Ellis about this, so if there’s a question you’d like to ask him about this, let me know. The Texas Signal has more.

AG sides with Mayor Turner in GOP convention litigation

But only in a limited and technical way, so cool your jets.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas Attorney General’s Office on Saturday sided with Mayor Sylvester Turner in a legal dispute over the state Republican Party’s in-person convention, arguing that the Texas Supreme Court should reject the party’s attempt to proceed with the event.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins — the state’s top appellate lawyer — said that despite the party’s “troubling factual allegations,” the court should deny its petition for failing to “properly invoke [the court’s] mandamus authority.”

The legal proceedings began earlier this week after Turner ordered Houston First Corp., the city nonprofit that manages the convention site, to cancel the event over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. The Republican Party sued Turner and Houston First, but a Harris County judge denied the party’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked Turner from canceling the event. The party then filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Texas Supreme Court.

In its petition, the party invoked a section of Texas’ election code that allows the court to issue orders that “compel the performance of any duty imposed by law in connection with the holding of an election or a political party convention.” In his brief, Hawkins argued that the party’s convention contract with Houston First does not apply, because the convention was to be held under a contract, not a law.

Prior Supreme Court rulings have “distinguished ‘a duty created under [a] contract’ as legally distinct from ‘a duty imposed by law,’” Hawkins wrote.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the AG’s brief. A copy of the original writ is here. As the story notes, the AG similarly opposed Steven Hotze’s petition on the matter, arguing Hotze has no business in this matter. The Court also has the matter of the motion for four of them to recuse themselves to sort out. I presume that has to happen first, since we have to have the question of who is ruling on the write of mandamus settled before the ruling can happen. Gonna be a busy couple of days at the SCOTX. Oh, and Paxton also opposed Hotze’s petition for a TRO against Judge Hidalgo’s latest face mask order, on the grounds that Hotze’s multiple challenges to the Texas Disaster Act may cause “irreparable harm” to the state’s sovreignty. I presume there will be a similar filing against Hotze’s lawsuit challenging Abbott’s face mask order, too. And yes, the correct response to all this is exasperation and exhaustion.

Greg Abbott has no one to blame but himself

Let’s be very clear about this.

Gov. Greg Abbott is under increasing political fire from fellow Republicans as well as Democrats as he responds to a sharp rise in coronavirus deaths — a record 112 on Wednesday and 106 on Thursday — by implementing more restrictions on Texans and increasingly warning of another shutdown if people fail to wear masks.

Prominent Democrats are blasting Abbott for reopening too quickly and shrugging off early warning signs. On the other side, county Republican Party committees are passing censures of Abbott for some of his latest orders, including one requiring people to wear masks in counties reporting at least 20 people infected with COVID-19. Those who violate the order face $250 fines, but no possibility of jail time.

On Wednesday, the Montgomery County Republican Executive Committee voted 40-0 to censure Abbott, joining at least three other county executive committees that have taken similar steps.

Even Republican state lawmakers are beginning to press Abbott to call a special session to cede some of the decision-making to them. State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said in a Fox News Channel interview that it’s time for the Legislature to be more involved and not just leave it all up to the governor.

“We have information and a lot of misinformation out there, honestly, that needs to be vetted by a legislative body,” Perry said.

It’s all coming as Abbott warns the daily number of deaths is going to keep rising.

“I think the numbers are going to look worse as we go into next week,” Abbott told Fox 26 in Houston during an interview Thursday night. “We need to make sure there are going to be plenty of hospital beds available in the Houston area.”

[…]

The criticism from Democrats comes days after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Sunday on ABC’s This Week that she and other county and city officials need Abbott to give them the authority to issue stay-at-home orders again, calling it the surest way for them to get out of the crisis. She said leaders need to be taking bold aggressive steps because of how serious things have become in Houston and Texas overall. Abbott has so far declined.

“We don’t have room to experiment,” Hidalgo said. “We don’t have room for incrementalism, when we’re seeing these kinds of numbers, nor should we wait for all the hospital beds to fill and all these people to die before we take drastic action.”

I have many thoughts about this.

– The original sin in all this, from whence all other bad decisions and unenforceable actions flow, was the inexcusable, unfathomable, and completely self-inflicted Shelley Luther saga, which the Chron’s editorial board correctly identifies as a primary failing. It’s not just that Abbott took the teeth out of his own executive orders the very first time they ran into resistance, taking Luther off the hook like that – hell, turning her into a goddam folk hero, paying her court fees, bowing and scraping to her – it’s that this sent a very clear message that there are no consequences for violating any laws or orders related to coronavirus. You can draw a straight line from this to sheriffs saying they can’t or won’t enforce the current mask order, even as Abbott is now practically begging everyone to wear a mask. Turns out undermining the rule of law is a bad idea. Who knew?

– The problem with the Shelley Luther incident wasn’t just the undermining of the rule of law, or the evisceration of any consequences for pro-COVID behavior. It was the message it sent, from the top, that the people who didn’t feel like doing their part to fight the virus, who felt that their feelings and personal definition of “liberty” mattered more than anything else, were legitimate and needed to be handled as special and exceptional. Abbott could have very reasonably expressed empathy for Shelley Luther, said words to the effect of “I know this is hard, I know small businesspeople like her are suffering, but we have to bear down and really beat this virus back so that we can get back to normal life and business like we all want”. The fact that he didn’t is a clear and ongoing failure of leadership on his part.

– Yes, I know, that same message about “my feelings are bigger than your face mask” as well as pressure to “reopen the economy” came from Donald Trump as well, and Abbott had to be concerned about the heat he was getting from his fellow Republicans. I will note that other Republican governors, like Mike DeWine in Ohio, managed to figure this out. No one ever said that being Governor was going to be easy. If Greg Abbott didn’t have the fortitude to withstand the carping from the Steven Hotze wing of his party, then he has no business being Governor.

– Another self-inflicted wound in all this has been Abbott’s abrogation of the executive powers that Mayors and County Judges had exercised in the early days of the pandemic. Remember when cities and counties were issuing stay-at-home orders, and Abbott used that as justification for him not doing the same statewide because different counties have different needs? Abbott eventually and correctly bowed to pressure to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, but in doing so he basically took away all of the local decision-making power that Mayors and County Judges had. That has come back to bite him, as the big urban counties have been complaining for weeks about their need to respond to local conditions. The capper to this was the utterly ludicrous “you solved my riddle”, in which Abbott revealed that County Judges had the power all along to order businesses to require masks for their employees and customers, but he wasn’t going to tell them that, they had to figure that out on their own even though they had been loudly saying that getting more people to wear masks was the main thing they could do to help with the pandemic. Letting local authorities have more power to make local decisions was not only the better call for fighting the virus, it would have shifted a lot of the heat Abbott now feels from him to them, with “them” mostly being Democrats. When Abbott took their power away back in April, it was seen as him coming in to take credit for their work. Too bad for him that work wasn’t finished, because it’s all on him now.

– Let’s also not forget the fact that when Abbott announced his intent to reopen, he announced four criteria that were supposed to guide the reopening timeline. Those were declining case rates, declining positive test rates, enough contact tracers, and sufficient hospital capacity. Only that last one was ever met, and because the other three were completely ignored, the hospitals are now overwhelmed. A more far-sighted leader would have counseled patience, saying we need to reach these benchmarks before we get to do the things we want to do. But as established, Abbott isn’t a leader at all, and so here we are.

– Finally, and I have said this before as well, I do agree that at some point Abbott should have called a special session, partly to clarify his own executive powers and thus blunt some of the lawsuits that have been filed over stay-at-home and face mask orders, and partly to share the responsibility with the legislative body. Abbott has repeatedly shown that he likes to operate in a bubble, where he does his thing and no one gets to ask him any questions unless they’ve been pre-approved and invited to do so. I get that hating on the mainstream media is a standard part of the Republican playbook, but I think Abbott’s self-imposed isolation isn’t serving him well simply because he’s not hearing from anyone who isn’t in his inner circle. The Lege can serve as a foil, or at least a partner in taking the blame, but not when you’re a one-man show.

Every step of the way, Greg Abbott could have made better decisions. It was clear at the time he was making those decisions that he was choosing poorly. Now we are all facing the consequences of those bad decisions. Greg Abbott bears the responsibility for what happened. Never forget that.

Abbott’s approval rating

This has gotten a bit of chatter, so let’s take a closer look.

We released the remaining results of the June 2020 UT/Texas Politics Project Poll today. This post focuses on Texans’ assessment of the state’s political leaders, the state of the economy in Texas, and the direction the state is headed.

The poll also included results on attitudes on the coronavirus and the ongoing response; race, policing, and recent protests; and the national economy and political landscape. There are links to a summary of all results and a crosstab file at the top of this page. As always, these files are available in the Texas Politics Project polling data archive, along with a data file and codebook. All the graphics in this post as well as hundreds of others from the June poll are available at the archive and at our “latest poll” page.

Governor Greg Abbott’s job approval rating dropped just below 50% approval – though at 49%, just below – for the first time in two years, an 7-point decline since the April UT/Texas Tribune Poll, while disapproval of his job performance increased from 32% in both February and April polling to 39% in June.

Abbott’s 56% overall job approval in April represented the highwater mark of his governorship, seemingly buoyed by relatively high approval from Democrats, 24% of whom approved of the job he was doing in the early stages of the state’s attempts to grapple with COVID-19. In the meantime, Abbott reopened Texas, but has since been forced to batten down the hatches when the opening contributed to a resurgence of the virus. His approval numbers among Democrats sagged to 13%, with 74% disapproving – 51% disapproving strongly – the highest disapproval rate among Democrats of his governorship.

Abbott’s approval rating among Republicans decreased from 88% to 83% over the same period, remaining within a long established band, and a sign that carping from far-right opinion leaders, grass tops groups, and a small handful of state legislators does not seem to be rampant among his base.

Approval of Abbott’s handling of the coronavirus/COVID-19 was approximate to his overall job approval rating: 49% approved and 41% disapproved. However, this represented a significant decline from his April ratings in which 56% expressed approval compared to only 29% who disapproved.

You should click over to see the charts. Oddly, Abbott registered a 48% approval rating, against 34% disapproval, in their February poll, so that sentence about “first time in two years” is not accurate, but whatever. If you look at the trend lines, Abbott’s approval rating in this poll was remarkably stable, either 51% or 52% all through 2018 and 2019, before dipping to 48% then jumping to 56% and sliding back to 49% in the three polls so far this year. If you look at it that way, over the longer term, 49% isn’t really out of line – the 56% result is the outlier – though the 39% disapproval is a new high. The last two results have the lowest “don’t know/no opinion” responses, which may also be driving these extremes for him.

You know my mantra about polls: This is just one result. What have the other polls said about Abbott’s approval rating lately? I’m glad you asked:

UT/Trib, July 2

Trump 46 approve, 48 disapprove
Abbott 49 approve, 39 disapprove

Fox, June 25

Trump 50 approve, 48 disapprove
Abbott 63 approve, 32 disapprove

Quinnipiac, June 3

Trump 45 approve, 50 disapprove
Abbott 56 approve, 32 disapprove

Emerson, May 13

Trump 46 approve, 44 disapprove
Abbott 54 approve, 32 disapprove

There have been several PPP polls of Texas in this time frame, but alas, none of them have asked about Greg Abbott, so this is all we have. This will I hope reinforce my point that the UT/Trib poll is but one result, and we’re going to need more data points before we can draw any conclusions. It would be nice to think that Abbott is justifiably suffering for his crappy response to coronavirus, but it’s too soon to tell.

That said, Ross Ramsey makes a good point.

If Abbott were on the ballot this year, he’d face real competition — even in a Republican Party primary. Former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas has been on the speaking circuit since before the pandemic, telling crowds about what he sees as a fake conservative government dominated by Republicans in Austin.

The new conservative phenom, Shelley Luther of Pilot Point, is still on the hustings months after her protest of Abbott’s business shutdowns, her jailing and the opening of her Dallas salon — the reasons that we know her name. She recently said at an Austin rally that she’s thinking about a run for office.

And there’s always Patrick, the lieutenant governor whose strength with small government and social conservatives has always worked as a restraint against Abbott siding with the party’s moderates.

All that is to say nothing of the Democrats, who, amid a generational change in top talent, have built a bench of candidates in local government, a crew that includes officeholders like Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, both of whom insisted the governor was too quick to relax his efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus, and both of whom have been at odds with him about pushing for tougher measures to slow it now.

[…]

It’s too early to handicap 2022; we don’t know what’s going to happen in the elections four months from now. But it’s not too early to scan the field, to see whether the issues are bending to the advantage of incumbents or potential challengers.

Change comes fast, too: At the beginning of this year, Abbott looked strong, with a great economy, a sound state budget and only the early rumblings of a worldwide pandemic.

And now? That early stability has evaporated, and the politics have become more treacherous.

It’s a long way to 2022, and in between is a legislative session where Abbott can woo back the crazies or try to get stuff done to bolster his image with everyone else. A lot can happen, and Abbott has a smart political team who are seeing the same things we are. But at least there’s hope. The Texas Signal has more.

(If you scroll down a little further on that UT/Texas Politics Project page, you’ll see that Dan Patrick’s approval rating has been headed towards negative territory, and is considerably worse than where it was just before the last election, which he barely won. So we have that going for us, which is nice. But again, always be wary of single data points.)

GOP declines Turner’s invitation to cancel their convention

The ball is back in your court, Mr. Mayor.

The Texas Republican Party is proceeding with an in-person convention next week in downtown Houston, a rejection of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s formal request Monday to move the event online amid a local escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

James Dickey, chairman of the Texas GOP, in a statement Tuesday said the party has been “proactive in implementing safety measures” and had “extensive conversations” with Houston First, the public nonprofit that serves as the city’s convention arm and operates the George R. Brown Convention Center. The convention is set to take place there from July 16 to 18.

“With these precautions currently in place, the Republican Party of Texas intends to proceed with an in-person convention next week in Houston,” Dickey said.

The chairman also responded to the list of conditions Turner, a Democrat, said the GOP would need to follow if it holds the convention. Those guidelines include denying entry to anyone who has tested positive for COVID or come in contact with a COVID patient between July 2 and July 15, requiring attendees to wear masks, and providing touchless hand sanitizing stations throughout the convention center.

“Mayor Turner must not have had the information about the measures being voluntarily implemented,” Dickey said. “The Republican Party, delegates, and guests are looking forward to a safe and productive Convention next week.”

Turner said he was “incredulous” that the GOP is moving ahead with an in-person convention, and reiterated that health department officials would shut down the event if they find people are not following COVID-19 guidelines.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, the Greater Houston Partnership has also implored the GOP to cancel the in person convention.

The Greater Houston Partnership has called on the Texas GOP, along with state and local officials, to cancel the in-person Texas Republican Convention in downtown Houston next week.

Citing the health and safety of event-goers, staff and volunteers, the group of Houston business leaders said an indoor event as large as the convention — which is expected to draw thousands of people — would be unsafe.

In a letter sent Tuesday afternoon to Gov. Greg Abbott, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and state GOP Chairman James Dickey, the GHP asked “those with the authority to cancel” the event to do so.

“In normal times we would welcome an event that was expected to draw some 6,000 delegates from across Texas to the George R. Brown Convention Center,” the letter read. “Unfortunately, these are not normal times.”

You can click over to see their letter. Of course, the modern Republican Party of Texas doesn’t really represent business interests any more (see: the bathroom bill, for one), so I would not expect this to have any effect. But at least you know, it’s more than just Mayor Turner versus the state GOP.

The one person who could (maybe) put an end to this is Greg Abbott, but I think we all know that ain’t gonna happen. So for now we have this game of chicken, and we hope there’s no significant collateral damage. And if it does come down to the city health department, well, there’s this:

Those “face mask legal exemption” cards are complete BS, in case you were wondering. Not that anyone who has printed out one of those cards for themselves will believe that, of course. If there’s a better definition of “shit show” right now, I don’t want to know what it is.