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Lina Hidalgo

Please stay socially distant this Thanksgiving

It’s what we have to do.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday urged residents to limit Thanksgiving gatherings to immediate family to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The county will send an emergency cell phone alert to all residents urging them to get tested for the virus, regardless of whether they have symptoms, as uncontrolled community spread has driven up new case and hospitalization numbers to a point higher than before Labor Day. Hidalgo and health officials fear a sustained surge like the one in June and July, which pushed Houston-area hospitals beyond their base ICU capacity.

“We reopened too soon,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve seen every indicator move in the wrong direction.”

Hidalgo’s requests is voluntary, since Gov. Greg Abbott in April stripped local officials of the ability to issue their own COVID-related restrictions. The governor rebuffed Hidalgo’s request in June for a new stay-at-home order; she warned during her annual State of the County remarks last week that new restrictions may be needed to combat this most recent wave of infections.

Before we get to the very well-known reasons why we should not be gathering in large quantities in our homes, let’s take a moment to consider this.

An estimated one out of every six Texans — roughly 4.75 million people — has contracted COVID-19, according to a recent statistical analysis by the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. The analysis estimates that the virus is spreading rapidly and so far has infected more than 16 percent of people in Texas, far more than the state’s tally.

“The speed at which things can get out of hand is a lot quicker than people expected,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the consortium.

The consortium’s statistical modeling uses cell phone data to measure mobility and state hospitalization levels to determine where the virus is spreading and how many people have been infected. It is not a perfect predictor of the virus’ spread, Fox cautioned, but it dovetails with state estimates.

The researchers’ approximation of 4.75 million cases is “generally in the ballpark” of what state health officials believe is the true number of infections, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which publishes the state’s official COVID-19 infection figures.

“It varies by condition, but we know and expect that all kinds of diseases are underreported,” Van Deusen said in an email.

In the Houston region, the UT consortium’s projections have worsened recently because of the growing number of new infections and hospitalizations. There’s a 76 percent chance the pandemic is growing here, according to the latest modeling, up from 47 percent on Friday. More than 1 million people — about 16 percent of Houston-area residents — have been infected with COVID-19, the UT researchers estimated.

[…]

The consortium estimated in October that there was at least an 80 percent chance the pandemic was growing in El Paso. That proved to be true. Cases and hospitalizations rose in that border city throughout late October and early November, overwhelming the local health care system. The model estimates that one in every three El Paso residents has contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic.

The modeling also shows the potential danger of letting the virus run rampant to establish herd immunity — a strategy that some critics of lockdowns say is worth trying.

In order for herd immunity to work before a vaccine is ready, roughly 60 percent of the population would have to be infected, or more than 17 million people, Fox said. Given the demand on hospitals in Texas now, with an estimated 16 percent of the population infected or recovered, the health care system would be overwhelmed if the coronavirus was allowed to spread unchecked.

“You can just think about what that would look like,” he said.

So there’s an excellent chance that someone at your Thanksgiving dinner has, or has had, COVID-19. If they are sick, they may not know it, which means they’re out there spreading it without realizing it. Why would you want to take the chance?

Look, the weather forecast for Thanksgiving is beautiful. If you want to celebrate outdoors, with family or friends in a socially-distant manner while masked when you’re not eating, you can reasonably do that. But don’t be part of the problem, and especially don’t be an asshole. Let’s all try to live long enough to be able to get vaccinated for this thing. The Trib has more.

Greg Abbott has no interest in fighting COVID

It is what it is at this point.

On June 26, Texas was reporting 5,102 people had been hospitalized due to the coronavirus, breaking a new record for the state. The positivity rate — the portion of tests that come back positive — had hovered above Gov. Greg Abbott’s “warning flag” level of 10% for more than a week.

Abbott swept into action. For a second time in months, the Republican governor shut down bars and rolled back restaurant capacity. Six days later, he took arguably his most drastic action yet, announcing a statewide mask mandate.

This week, more than 7,400 Texans are hospitalized for COVID-19, and the positivity rate has exceeded 10% for over three weeks.

But the governor’s strategy as the state heads into the holidays is to stay the course, relying on a 2-month-old blueprint to claw back reopenings regionally based on hospitalizations. The mask order remains in place, but last week he ruled out “any more lockdowns,” and tensions are again rising with local officials who want more authority to impose safety restrictions.

“We need the state to step in and lead or get out of the way and let us lead,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told reporters Tuesday.

Public health experts and elected officials acknowledge they are up against a stronger sense of “COVID fatigue” than ever — a malaise that appears to be reflected in the state response.

“The numbers are quite alarming, to be honest, because it’s not showing any sign of slowing down,” said Rajesh Nandy, associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. However, Nandy added, “it seems like at this point, there’s not a lot of will, even among people, for a full-scale stay-at-home [order] like [Abbott] did in March because, of course, it has other consequences.”

That much is true, as far as it goes. There are economic consequences for shutdowns. There are also economic consequences for letting the virus rage out of control – restaurants and bars and gyms and so forth may be open now, but lots of people don’t want to go to them because it’s not safe, and no amount of puffy-chested posturing from our Republican leaders will change that. At any time in the past six months, Abbott could have asked one or both of our Republican Senators – publicly or privately – to support another COVID relief bill, so that businesses and their employees that have been affected by COVID could safely shut down and not go bust. You would have to ask him yourself why he hasn’t done that, if he ever deigns to answer questions from the public or the non-sycophantic media again.

I mean, maybe we’ll get some kind of relief package from the lame duck session. Maybe the Dems will win both Georgia Senate runoffs and will have the ability to pass a real relief bill. Maybe enough people will stop doing dangerous things like attending indoor events and going about their lives un-masked, and the infection rate will drop again. Maybe we’ll manage to not die before the vaccines get circulated. Anything can happen, I guess.

Of course, one thing that could happen is that our hospitals get so overwhelmed that the death rate for non-COVID sufferers also spikes:

Since Abbott announced the 15% threshold, it has been the subject of some scrutiny. Abbott initially defined the threshold as 15% of “all hospitalized patients” in a region, though he later changed it to 15% of “total hospital capacity” — or total beds — in a region. That redefinition is problematic, according to hospital administrators in parts of Texas that have seen the most infections.

“They’re assuming that all those licensed beds can somehow be utilized for a COVID-19 surge, and that’s simply not true,” Dr. Brian Weis, chief medical officer at Northwest Texas Healthcare System, said last month during a coronavirus briefing for the city of Amarillo. “By using that number, that overestimates our capacity to handle COVID-19 patients.”

[…]

Exhibit A in the state-local tensions is hard-hit El Paso County. Attorney General Ken Paxton has gone to court to stop the shutdown order that County Judge Ricardo Samaniego issued late last month, saying it oversteps Abbott’s statewide rules. A state appeals court blocked the order for a second time Friday.

Abbott blasted the order shortly after it was issued, saying Samaniego “failed to do his job” enforcing existing rules to slow the spread of the virus “and is now illegally shutting down entire businesses.”

In an interview, Samaniego said the criticism from Abbott felt politically motivated and failed to address the biggest issue El Paso faces — that people are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying at staggering rates. Samaniego said he did everything within his power to limit the spread of the virus. He, like other local officials, wants more authority to take precautions in his county.

“It was about saving lives, not about whether I was right or wrong or he was right or wrong,” he said.

He also noted that El Paso’s share of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients is several times Abbott’s 15% trigger, but it’s still artificially low because the county added 580 spots to its hospital capacity.

“This is a governor that issued a stay at home order,” Samaniego said. “And now he’s upset that I did when my numbers are 10 times worse than when he issued it. It’s just a political approach to our community.”

It’s not just El Paso County, though, where local officials are pushing for more latitude from Abbott. In Lubbock County, where cases have ballooned to more than 400 per day on average in the last week, the county judge, Curtis Parrish, said he is grateful for the state’s help with hospital capacity — the state has provided three large medical tents and personnel to go with them — but that he wants more enforcement power.

“My hands are tied,” Parrish said. “We operate under the governor’s order. We can’t do any detaining.”

In Laredo, the City Council voted Monday to limit private gatherings to 10 people plus household members. City Council member Marte Martinez said he would have liked to do more, such as implement a curfew and beef up enforcement for businesses that violate state rules.

“I felt powerless in my plight to save people’s lives,” said Martinez, a doctor. “You’re going to be in a full shutdown within a few weeks unless the state allows municipal governments and county governments to make more firm action.”

There is especially an urgency in Laredo and its hospital region, where the number of coronavirus patients has exceeded 15% of the capacity for the past three days. That means the state’s reopening rollback will kick in in four days if the figure remains above 15%.

What’s happening in El Paso right now is grotesque and disgraceful. Maybe what happens is that we begin to see death and misery like Italy had in the spring, at such levels and in so many places that even Greg Abbott will not be able to ignore it. I really hope it doesn’t come to that, but I don’t know what short of that will make him take this seriously.

Harris County reaches bike trail deal with CenterPoint

Nice.

CenterPoint rights of way

Biking between bayous in Harris County is closer to reality, now that local leaders and the monopoly that manages local power lines have inked a deal.

Harris County officials Tuesday approved an agreement between the county and CenterPoint Energy outlining the use of utility easements as hike and bike trails.

“Part of what we are doing is expanding the view of transportation in the county,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

Utility easements crisscross the Houston region, with many being ideal north-south connections to the existing trail systems along area bayous. Local cyclists said that is what makes them popular as possible new trails.

[…]

County officials are working on a comprehensive transportation plan, scheduled for release in February, Hidalgo said. With the CenterPoint agreement in place, part of that plan will include outlining the first easements where the county can make critical connections to area bayous.

“We have a lot of promise here,” the judge said, noting she is hopeful that with better trails to beautified bayous Harris County could become “the Venice of our area” by building on efforts by others, including the Houston Parks Board and local management districts.

Harris County’s arrangement with CenterPoint follows a similar agreement with Houston six years ago. Houston’s agreement became a template for changes in state law to make deals easier after the city and utility plodded through various legal issues. Hidalgo said the county also faced slow-going despite a streamlined process, as lawyers haggled over insurance specifics.

As a result of those various delays, opening some of the new trails in Houston and beyond along utility corridors remains a work-in-progress. Some in western Houston, notably the Westchase district and near Sims Bayou, are open and efforts continue to build more via local management districts or the nonprofit Houston Parks Board.

See here and here for some background, and here for a more recent update. The right-of-way that goes from Memorial Park down to Beltway 8, just inside 610 for the northern half of it, passes through some well-populated areas, and should be a huge boon for the residents nearby. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t realized that the county wasn’t already on board with this – as noted, the city of Houston struck this agreement with CenterPoint way back in 2014 – but I’m glad they’re on board now. Anything we can do to bring this to completion is worthwhile.

The state of the county 2020

Mostly, COVID is bad and we’re not getting much help, and we’re also not allowed to do the things we know we need to do. Other than that…

Judge Lina Hidalgo

The worsening COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, which this week became the first state to exceed 1 million cases, demands a more aggressive response that may include more restrictions, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Thursday.

Hidalgo used her annual State of the County address to criticize what she views as a half-hearted state and federal response that has led to unnecessary deaths and a laggard economy stuck in a cycle of halted reopenings.

She called for the adoption of science-based shutdown thresholds, similar to the county’s threat level system, and lamented that Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year stripped local officials of the ability to issue enforceable COVID-19 restrictions on travel and commerce. The recent, sustained increases in cases and hospitalizations will lead to new shutdowns, she predicted.

“Inevitably, another pullback is necessary,” Hidalgo said. “We see the numbers in El Paso. Our hospitals were almost overwhelmed in June and July, and now our numbers are again ticking up. We have to get this under control.”

Houston region hospitals reported 1,079 admitted COVID patients on Thursday, the highest figure since Sept. 7, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. Hospitalizations peaked in mid-July just below 4,000 and had been steadily declining until October.

The percent of ICU patients who are COVID-positive again has grown beyond 15 percent, the warning threshold used by health officials.

Harris County has been at its highest threat level since mid-June, which urges residents to stay home when possible and avoid unnecessary contact with others. Though some have criticized Hidalgo for sticking to the recommendation, even as most people have resumed some form of normal life, Hidalgo said the county never met all the criteria for downgrading to Level 2. Those include a test positivity rate of 5 percent and a daily new case average of 400.

Hidalgo did not mention the governor by name, but her message to his administration was clear: adopt a set of metrics, stick to them and let science rather than politics guide Texas through a potentially grim winter before a vaccine is ready next year.

Abbott told a Dallas-Fort Worth television station on Wednesday that businesses will be able to remain open so long as Texans “return to those safe practices” that helped the state defeat the summer surge in cases.

I mean, she’s right. Abbott, who never paid much attention to the metrics his own people recommended way back in May, has basically lost interest in COVID. Remember, bars and gyms are open, restaurants can operate at 75% capacity, and there’s no statewide mask mandate. The state of Texas is suing El Paso for attempting to impose a shutdown as cases there go through the roof. I don’t know how bad it has to get for Abbott to care again, and I’m afraid we’re going to find out. And I strongly suspect that when President Biden and his all-star task force try to take action to get this pandemic under control, he’s going to bitch and moan and resist, because he just doesn’t care and would rather play politics. I don’t know what else to say.

Judge Hidalgo did talk about other things, including criminal justice reform, establishing a defense program for immigrants facing deportation, and supporting the Ike Dike. All good things, but all in the back seat until we crush COVID. You can see the video of her address here.

Looking ahead to 2022

Continuing with the brain dumps, which are my post-election tradition. This is a collection of thoughts about the next big election, in 2022.

As I said earlier, I take no position on the question of what effect the disparity in door-to-door campaigning had. I can buy there was some effect, but we have no way of how much of an effect it was. The good news is, whatever the case, this isn’t a trend, it’s a one-time effect of an election in a pandemic. I feel pretty confident saying that barring anything extraordinary, traditional door-knocking will be a big component of everyone’s 2022 campaigns. Perhaps Democrats will have learned something useful from this year’s experience that will enhance what they can do in 2022; admittedly, what they have learned may be “this sucks and we never want to do it this way again”.

There are a couple of things that concern me as we start our journey towards 2022. The first is that after four long years of hard work, with one rewarding election cycle and one disappointing cycle, people will be less engaged, which needless to say will make keeping the ground we have gained, let alone gaining more ground, that much harder. I think people will be focused on bringing change to our state government, but we can’t take this for granted. People are tired! These were four years from hell, and we all feel a great weight has been lifted. I get it, believe me. But we felt this way following the 2008 election, and we know what came next. We cannot, absolutely cannot, allow that to happen again. We know what we need to do.

Second, and very much in line with the above, the national environment matters. What President Biden will be able to accomplish in the next two years depends to a significant extent on the outcome of those two Georgia Senate runoffs, but however they go we need to remember that there are significant obstacles in his way. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans were greatly rewarded for their all-out obstructionism throughout the Obama presidency. We can’t control what McConnell et al do, but we can control our reaction to it. Do we get discouraged and frustrated with the lack of progress, or do we get angry with the people whose fault it really is? How we react will be a big factor in determining what the national mood in 2022 is.

I’m already seeing people give their fantasy candidate for Governor. They include the likes of Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro (my choice), Cecile Richards, Lina Hidalgo, and others. I don’t know who might actually want to run – it is still early, after all – but we just need to bear in mind that every candidate has their pros and cons, and we need to worry less about matters of personality and more about building coalition and continuing the work we’ve been doing.

For what it’s worth, four themes I’d like to see our eventual candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor emphasize: Medicaid expansion, marijuana legalization, emergency/disaster preparedness and response, and improving the voter experience, with a focus on online voter registration. The first two have proven they are popular enough to be adopted by voter initiative in deep red states, the third is obvious and should include things like hurricanes, flooding, and drought in addition to pandemics in general and COVID-19 in particular, and the fourth is something there’s already bipartisan support for in the Lege. Let Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick defend the status quo here.

(Increasing the minimum wage was also a ballot initiative winner in states like Florida, and it generally polls well. I very much support raising the minimum wage, but don’t have as much confidence that it would be an electoral winner here. I’m open to persuasion otherwise.)

Here are some numbers to contemplate as we look towards 2022:

I’d attribute the regression in performance in the biggest 15 counties to Republican improvement more than Democrats falling short – as noted multiple times, Democrats hit new highs in the big urban counties, but so did the GOP. There’s still room for growth here, especially in an environment where turnout level is much more volatile, but the marginal growth is smaller now. Putting that another way, there’s no longer a deficit of voter registration in these counties. We need to maintain and keep up with new population growth, but we’re not behind where we should be any more. If we do that, and we prioritize maximizing our own base, we’ll be fine.

It’s the bottom two groups that we need to pay some attention to. A lot of these counties have medium-sized cities in them, and that’s an obvious place to focus some effort. (I’ve been beating that drum for months and months now.) But we really need to do something about the small rural counties, too, or face the reality of huge vote deficits that we can’t control and have to overcome. I know this is daunting, and I have no illusions about how much potential for gain there is here, but I look at it this way: If Donald Trump can convince some number of Black and Latino people to vote for him in 2020, after four years of unrelenting racism and destruction, then surely nothing is impossible. I think marijuana legalization could be a good wedge issue here. Remember, the goal is to peel off some support. A few points in our direction means many thousands of votes.

It’s too early to worry about legislative and Congressional races, because we have no idea what redistricting will wrought. I think we should be prepared for litigation to be of limited value, as it was this decade, and for the Republicans to do as much as they can to limit the number of competitive districts. They may be right about it in 2022, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be right in subsequent years.

In Harris County, we should expect competitive primaries for all of the countywide positions, and for many of the judicial spots. Judge Lina Hidalgo has done an outstanding job, but we know there are people who could have run in 2018 who are surely now thinking “that could have been me”. Don’t take anything for granted. We need to keep a close eye on the felony bail reform lawsuit, and news stories about how the current judges are handling bail hearings, because we are going to have to hold some of our folks accountable. We need to make sure that all of the Republican justices of the peace have opponents, especially the ones who have refused to do same-sex marriages.

Overall, there’s no reason why we can’t continue to build on what we have done over the past decade-plus in Harris County. Complacency and disunity will be our biggest opponents. The rest is up to us.

Harris County approves early childhood development funds

Nice.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a $10 million fund to invest in early childhood development programs proposed by County Judge Lina Hidalgo, her chief policy goal for 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the county government to shift its priorities.

The first-of-its-kind county initiative will provide seed investments over two to three years in programs and strategies aimed at improving health and educational outcomes for young children and their families, Hidalgo wrote in a memo to Commissioners Court. Those include reducing health disparities at birth, promoting responsive and nurturing parent-child relationships, reducing adverse childhood experiences and maltreatment and expanding access to high-quality childcare.

“Early childhood development is a fundamental determinant of long-term and societal health and wellbeing,” Hidalgo wrote.

Hidalgo pledged during her State of the County address last November to make significant investments in improving the lives of children. Since March, however, the pandemic has occupied much of Commissioners Court’s time.

The $10 million will be distributed among entities that provide services to children and at least one firm tasked with evaluating their effectiveness. Requests for proposals would be due Jan. 29, with the goal of launching programs by the end of March.

Hidalgo cited the effectiveness of similar programs in other metro areas, including a Chicago effort aimed at steering teens away from gun violence.

As noted, this was something Judge Hidalgo discussed in the State of the County address last year, and it was also something she campaigned on. She had and has a vision of county government that is more involved, and with the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court, she is acting on it. Speaking of which:

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the proposal, which they said is beyond the scope of county government.

I first heard the name Jack Cagle about thirty years ago. I was pretty active with Planned Parenthood back then. I reached out to the main clinic, which was then on Fannin, in early 1990 in advance of the economic summit that was held that year at Rice (I was still a grad student there at that time), because I had heard about various anti-abortion groups coming into town for the summit to picket and disrupt things at the clinic, and I wanted to do something about it. So I wound up spending the week of the summit as a clinic defender, where a bunch of other folks and I formed a human barrier on the sidewalk to keep those jackasses away from the front door. Got yelled at a lot on their one big day of protest, which was cool, but we succeeded in keeping the clinic running without disruption.

I was back for more in 1992 when the GOP held its convention in Houston, at the Astrodome. Clinic defense that year was a lot more fraught, and a lot more tense, as the threat from the national anti-abortion groups that poured into Houston felt a lot more real. We were boosted by a court ruling that kept them across the street from us, but it was a tense couple of weeks, let me tell you.

It was during this time that I encountered an attorney named Jack Cagle, who was representing those anti-abortion agitators as they sought the right to harass our staff and volunteers and especially our patients in an unfettered manner. He even had the cheek to show up at a reception the clinic held for its defenders. He got his start in Houston politics as a staunch “pro-life” activist, and within a couple of years had been elected to a misdemeanor court bench, from which he was eventually plucked by then-County Judge Ed Emmett to fill a vacant seat on Commissioners Court.

And now here he is, this champion of “the unborn”, one of the most powerful people in Harris County, and when presented with the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of actual born living children, he declines, on the grounds that it’s not his job. That’s some kind of “pro-life” philosophy, isn’t it? May he be haunted every day by the images of children that he could have helped but couldn’t have been bothered to care about.

Meet your new Election Administrator

Solid choice.

Isabel Longoria

The Harris County Elections Commission on Friday appointed Isabel Longoria as the county’s first election administrator, who will assume the voter registration and election management duties that currently fall to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector.

Longoria, a 32-year-old currently serving as a special adviser to the county clerk on voting rights, will lead the new elections administration office created by Commissioners Court in July. Most of the large urban counties in Texas already had adopted the administrator model, which allows one official to be responsible for all election-related duties.

County Clerk Christopher Hollins, who is running the current general election, will step down from his role next month. He previously told the Chronicle he had no interest in the administrator job.

[…]

An obscure five-member body called the county election commission selected Longoria on a 3-2 vote. County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Hollins and Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schecter voted in favor; Harris County Republican Party Chairman Keith Nielsen and Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett were opposed.

Nielsen and Bennett previously had objected to appointing an elections administrator who is not accountable to voters.

Harris County will still have an elected county clerk and tax assessor-collector. However, they no longer will be responsible for any election-related duties. Historically, the roles were bifurcated because the tax assessor until the 1960s was responsible for collecting a poll tax.

See here for the background, and give my interview with Commissioner Ellis a listen to understand why he pushed for this. I was at best ambivalent about the idea, but he did a lot to persuade me. Picking Isabel Longoria, who is smart and accomplished and will for sure be a force for good with respect to voting rights and expanding access to the vote, does even more. I know that the ideal was to have someone in place before the election, so that person could get familiar with Harris County’s elections operations, but Longoria is already there, so that’s also a plus. Here’s an interview I did with Longoria last year when she was a candidate for City Council District H. I think she’ll do a great job, and I have high expectations.

SCOTX rejects challenges to drive-through voting

Halle-fricking-lujah.

Voters in the state’s most populous county can continue casting their ballots for the fall election at 10 drive-thru polling places after the Texas Supreme Court Thursday rejected a last-minute challenge by the Texas and Harris County Republican parties, one of many lawsuits in an election season ripe with litigation over voting access.

The court rejected the challenge without an order or opinion, though Justice John Devine dissented from the decision.

[…]

Though the program was publicized for months before the ongoing election, it was not until hours before early voting started last week that the Texas Republican Party and a voter challenged the move in a state appeals court, arguing that drive-thru votes would be illegal. They claimed drive-thru voting is an expansion of curbside voting, and therefore should only be available for disabled voters.

Curbside voting, a long-available option under Texas election law, requires workers at every polling place to deliver onsite curbside ballots to voters who are “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Posted signs at polling sites notify voters to ring a bell, call a number or honk to request curbside assistance.

The lawsuit also asked the court to further restrict curbside voting by requiring that voters first fill out applications citing a disability. Such applications are required for mail-in ballots, but voting rights advocates and the Harris County Clerk said they have never been a part of curbside voting.

The Harris County clerk argued its drive-thru locations are separate polling places, distinct from attached curbside spots, and therefore available to all voters. The clerk’s filing to the Supreme Court also said the Texas secretary of state’s Office had approved of drive-thru voting. Keith Ingram, the state’s chief election official, said in a court hearing last month in another lawsuit that drive-thru voting is “a creative approach that is probably okay legally,” according to court transcripts.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for County Clerk Chris Hollins’ attempt to get the Secretary of State on record about this. The decision came down a couple of hours after County Judge Lina Hidalgo (among others) called on Greg Abbott to do the same. This would have been a monumental middle finger to the voters of Harris County, and an utter disgrace for the Supreme Court, had they upheld the Republican challenge. I don’t know what took them so long, but if they’re going to be slow about it, they’d better get it right, and this time they did. Exhale, everyone.

We shouldn’t leave this item without giving Hollins the victory lap he deserves:

There’s a bit more on Hollins’ Twitter feed. When he says that every county should do it like this, he’s absolutely right. You can see all the SCOTX denials here, and the Chron has more.

(Oh, and let’s please do remember this when John Devine is up for election next. The rest of the court may have done the right thing, but that guy has truly got to go.)

How hard it is to vote is a policy choice

Harris County tried to make it easier. The state GOP, various other Republican contingents, Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton, and others fought that choice every step of the way.

Much of the Democrats’ dream of turning Texas blue is pinned on ramping up turnout in Houston and other Texas cities where voters, many of whom are people of color, trend heavily their way.

In a bitterly contested election, overlaid with the fears and risks of an uncontrolled pandemic, Harris County has become a case study in raw politics and partisan efforts to manipulate voter turnout. Republican leaders and activists have furiously worked the levers of power, churning out lawsuits, unsubstantiated specters of voter fraud and official state orders in their bid to limit voters’ options during the pandemic.

Their power hemmed in by state officials, Houston Democrats have launched a robust effort to make voting as easy as possible, tripling the number of early and Election Day polling locations and increasing the county’s election budget from $4 million in 2016 to $33 million this fall. They reject GOP claims that making voting easier carries inherent risks of widespread voter fraud.

The battle lines were acknowledged in one of the many lawsuits Republican leaders and activists filed in the past few months attempting to rein in Harris County’s efforts to expand voting access.

“As Texas goes, so too will the rest of the country. As Harris County goes, so too will Texas,” the GOP lawsuit read. “If President Trump loses Texas, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to be reelected.”

Local political observers agree the writing is on the wall: Most of Houston’s residents are people of color, its local leaders are Democrats, and it is the fastest-growing county in the state, according to recent census data.

“This county looks like what Texas is going to look like in 10 years, and they know that if Harris County can become solidly entrenched in the Democratic Party, it’s just going to disperse from there,” said Melanye Price, endowed professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University and a Harris County voter. “I think in some ways they’re going to have more of an influence, and the governor knows that, and the attorney general knows that, and that is why they’ve decided to hobble them at every turn.”

It’s no coincidence, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said, that GOP efforts to tightly enforce Texas voting laws — among the nation’s most restrictive — target an important Democratic stronghold and one of the country’s most diverse cities.

“If you look at [election results] for Harris County, you see a very clear trend,” Hollins said. “If I were in the business of trying to suppress Democratic votes, I know where I would target.”

The piece will be largely familiar to anyone who has been following along, but go read the rest for a review. Again, I want to emphasize, Harris County – by which I mean Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia and County Clerk Hollins – made a choice to invest the time and money to make it easier to vote. They did things that I think were revelations to all of us, who have been so used to the old ways for so long. “Wait a minute, we can have a lot more early voting locations? And more voting by mail, with options to drop off ballots instead of waiting on and worrying about the postal service (but we can also track our ballot if we do mail it), and with drive-through service? Who even knew any of this was possible?” Just spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook and see the many selfies and videos people have posted with their enthusiastic reaction to all this.

And then remember that every step of the way, Republicans of all stripes have tried to stop any of this from happening. From the two Republican Commissioners voting against that money that was budgeted for the election, to the Governor (who, to be fair, did extend the early voting period, and did extend the period during which mail ballots could be dropped off to all of early voting, even if he did later limit it all to one location) and the Attorney General and the Steven Hotze/Allen West minions filing lawsuit after lawsuit, every single innovation was opposed with a barrage of lies about “vote fraud” and not much else. Thanks to a batch of sympathetic Republican judges, though, they have been quite successful at it.

I’ve made this point before, but this is a long-term loser for the Republicans. People like ease and convenience. They want new ways to do things that take less time and require less effort. The Democrats, in Harris County and elsewhere, want to give it to them. The Republicans want to take it away or make sure they never get it in the first place. What side of that argument do you want to be on in the next election, or even before that in the next legislative session? Texas is a lousy state in which to vote, with obstacles everywhere you look. That’s a policy choice, enabled by the Republicans who run the state. The only way to change that is to change who runs the state. Look at Harris County’s vision for how voting could and should be, and then look at what the Republicans have done about it. What happens when the voters want something to be done about this?

We need a better word than “controversial”

From the Chron: Meet Al Hartman, the controversial Houston CEO who is suing Hidalgo, Abbott over COVID orders.

Al Hartman is not shy about his beliefs.

As a guest on a Christian radio show, he spoke about a faith so strong that he heads to a mall after Sunday services to proselytize among the shoppers. He once handed out “Make America Great Again” hats to employees during an outing sponsored by his commercial real estate company. He is an active member and generous contributor to conservative groups, candidates and causes.

The latest cause for Hartman, the founder and CEO of Houston-based Hartman Income REIT Management, is masks, recently joining a suit against Harris County’s top elected executive, Lina Hidalgo, for ordering businesses to require employees and visitors to wear masks. This was two months after joining a suit brought by conservative activists against Gov. Greg Abbott over shutdown orders.

In August, he was further thrust into the public eye when the website Buzzfeed reported — and the company confirmed — that an employee was asked to leave a meeting by Hartman for refusing to take off his mask. The meeting, according to Mark Torok, Hartman’s general counsel, took place before the government recommended that everyone wear masks.

Hartman and his company, which owns directly or through affiliates some 60 buildings across Texas, present another example of how politics and ideology are shaping the response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 people in the United States and at least 16,000 in Texas. Hartman’s company has not required employees to wear masks, and, until a few weeks ago, signs posted throughout the company’s buildings stated tenants and visitors were not required to wear them, either.

Hartman declined to be interviewed. But by the end of the summer, his workers were falling ill from COVID-19, as first reported by Buzzfeed. Torok confirmed that at least two employees who work in the 43-person corporate office at 2909 Hillcroft Ave. tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Employees practice social distancing and handwashing, Torok added. Many do wear masks.

I’m going to be concise here.

1. If your “freedom” or your “beliefs” rest on the need for other people to be harmed, then your freedom is a sham and your beliefs are bad, and neither the legal nor political system should accommodate you.

2. Along those lines, and as someone who was raised in a Christian faith, I do not understand this version of “Christianity” that regularly advocates for the harm of other people. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus was teaching.

3. As noted in the title of this post, we need a better word for our newspaper headlines than “controversial” to describe people like Al Hartman. “Nihilistic” would seem to me to be a better fit, but I’m open to other ideas.

Abbott to allow bars to reopen

Sort of. It’s kind of the most Abbott thing ever.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that bars in Texas can reopen for in-person service next week — as long as their county governments choose to allow it.

Effective Oct. 14, bars in counties that opt in will be able to resume in-person service at 50% capacity, though all customers must be seated while eating or drinking. The governor will impose no outdoors capacity limits on bars or similar establishments.

“It is time to open them up,” Abbott said in a Facebook video. “If we continue to contain COVID, then these openings, just like other businesses, should be able to expand in the near future.”

But soon after Abbott’s announcement, the state’s two most populous counties indicated they would not go along with the reopening plan. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said on Twitter that he “will not file to open them at this time,” noting that “our numbers are increasing.” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement that “indoor, maskless gatherings should not be taking place right now, and this applies to bars, as well.”

In addition to bars being allowed to reopen, businesses currently limited to 50% capacity may now expand to 75% capacity — including establishments like movie theaters, bowling alleys, bingo halls and amusement parks.

But Abbott said in his order that bars in regions of the state with high hospitalizations for coronavirus won’t be able to reopen. He defined those regions as areas where coronavirus patients make up more than 15% of hospital capacity.

“It is time to open up more, provided that safe protocols continue to be followed,” Abbott said. “If everyone continues the safe practices, Texas will be able to contain COVID and we will be able to reopen 100%.”

The announcement drew mixed reviews from bar owners. Some applauded the step, while others complained that Abbott left the power in the hands of counties.

“The truth is we remain closed until someone else makes the decision to open us up based on whatever parameters they deem appropriate — data, politics, personal animus, you name it,” said Michael Klein, president of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance. “Abbott has forced 254 other people to make this decision for him with no guideposts as to how to make that decision. He’s officially passed the buck.”

Klein predicted that most urban counties, where the majority of his organization’s members are located, will not reopen.

You can add Bexar County to that “no bars yet” list as well. There’s a very good reason why most counties will likely decline this invitation from Abbott:

You have to admire Abbott’s consistent strategy of making local officials be the ones who have to make the tough decisions – when he lets them – and otherwise grabbing the power and glory for himself. Naturally, Republican-led counties are all over this, so be sure to keep an eye on the infection rates in places like Montgomery over the next month. To be sure, many bars have been able to operate with various workarounds as restaurants. And for things like outdoor service and to-go service, I support all that. It’s not enough for most bars, and the best thing we could have done about that is allocate a bunch of federal money to help them all – bars, breweries, wineries, distilleries, restaurants, music clubs, hotels, you name it – get through this, to the point where the disease is under control and it is safe for everyone to gather again. Abbott and his buddies were never really interested in any of that, though, so here we are. I feel like I’ve said this before, but I sure hope this works out. I don’t expect that it will, but I hope so anyway.

UPDATE: At least initially, only Denton County among the ten most populous counties will go forward with bar reopenings.

Abbott moves to stop mail ballot dropoff locations

I don’t know about you, but this reeks of fear to me.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday declared that counties can designate only one location to collect completed mail ballots from voters, forcing Harris County to abandon 11 sites set up for that purpose.

Abbott’s proclamation said counties must also allow poll watchers to “observe any activity conducted at the early voting clerk’s office” related to the delivery of marked ballots. He said the measure was designed to improve ballot security.

“The state of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our election,” Abbott said in a statement. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”

Abbott did not cite any examples of voter fraud, which election law experts say is exceedingly rare.

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins had set up 12 locations — 11 of them county clerk annex offices — throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collet mail ballots. The county now will only be able to accept ballots only at its election headquarters at NRG Arena.

This new executive order is here. This is of a piece with the Hotze mandamus to limit mail ballot dropoffs to Election Day itself. It’s telling that Abbott is just now issuing orders about the use of multiple locations for mail ballot dropoffs, because County Clerk Chris Hollins announced his intention to use the 11 County Clerk Annex offices for this purpose in mid-July, which is to say two and a half months ago. And Abbott is just now taking action? I mean, come on.

It’s really hard to escape the conclusion that this is a desperation move by Abbott, in part to try to curb Democratic voting, and in part to quell the wingnut rebellion that’s been brewing against him. And let’s be clear, the Texas GOP as recently as the runup to the 2018 election would have laughed at the Dems’ efforts to get their voters out. “Oh, the Dems think they can boost their turnout and win some elections, aren’t they adorable.” They’re taking it all quite seriously now, that much is for sure.

It’s transparent and it’s ridiculous, and it makes no sense as anything but a pure partisan power move.

Now to be sure, people don’t have to use a dropoff location. They can just use the mail as always, and now there’s a nifty mail ballot tracker to ensure that your ballot gets received and processed. I feel reasonably confident saying that most people were planning to vote by mail as they had done before. But that’s not the point. The point is that this was a simple and innovative way to make voting easier for people, something Chris Hollins has excelled at in his brief time as County Clerk. Greg Abbott’s move is the exact opposite of that, and it serves no good purpose.

And I remind you, it was done at the last minute, after weeks and weeks of people being told they could use these annex locations. What have Texas Republicans had to say about last-minute changes to the voting process?

I hope they have a lawsuit filed before I get to publish this post. (Per the Trib, one may indeed be filed today, perhaps more than one.) And I can’t wait to see how the Fifth Circuit applies its own jurisprudence to this question.

(On a side note, I will note that while I have heaped all kinds of scorn and contempt on the multitudinous Hotze vote-suppression lawsuits, I have also repeatedly agreed that there is a serious debate to have about the extent of Abbott’s executive powers and the proper role of our extremely part-time Legislature in all this. Because Hotze and company are a bunch of rancid clowns, they are a terrible vehicle for posing those questions. Perhaps by opening this war on a second front, Abbott will finally have a worthy opponent putting them before a judge.)

For a bit of variety, and to provide a summary of all this, here’s a press release from All on the Line, a national campaign to restore fairness to our democracy and ensure every American has an equal say in our government.

“This last minute order is another link in a very long chain of voter suppression and intimidation in Texas,” said Genevieve Van Cleve, All On The Line state director. “Governor Greg Abbott is working to make it harder for grandparents to vote and allowing so-called poll watchers to glower at them while they do it.”

In preparation for the November general election, counties with large populations including Harris and Travis have designated and staffed satellite drop off locations to make it easier for those not comfortable sending their completed ballots through the mail.

Texas has 254 counties. Loving County has a population of 160 people. Harris County has a population of 4,713,000 people. Governor Abbott’s order allows each county, regardless of size, the same number of drop off locations for mail-in ballots: one. Further, he has sanctioned citizens to “observe” people delivering their ballots.

Gov. Abbott’s order is meant to suppress turnout and intimidate voters. Those most likely to be impacted are seniors and Texans living with disabilities who rely on mail-in-ballots. The very same people who are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.

Further, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled days before Gov. Abbott’s order that reinstating straight ticket voting was impossible due largely to the close proximity to the election. Yet, he’s changing the rules of the election with just days to go.

“These last minute changes to the rules will not deter Texas voters from casting their ballots, despite the Governor’s intentions. Texans are energized, well-informed, and will demand that their voices be heard and respected at the ballot box,” Van Cleve said.

Early Vote begins in Texas on October 13th. The last day to register to vote in Texas is October 5th. Mail-in Ballots that are not postmarked must be received by 7pm on Election Day; Mail-in Ballots postmarked by 7pm on Election Day must be received by 5pm the day after Election Day.

Next stop, the litigation. I’m sure I’ll have a post about it tomorrow. The Statesman, the Current, and Reform Austin have more.

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.