Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

local control

Crossing a red line

Will Greg Abbott notice?

North Texas crossed a critical threshold in the number of hospital patients fighting COVID-19 that could trigger bar closings and lower occupancies at stores and restaurants if such cases don’t decrease within a week.

With more than 2,300 patients testing positive for the coronavirus in the 19-county hospital region, 15.05% of all beds were occupied by a person with COVID-19, according to state data.

Hospitals had been approaching the 15% red line — set by Gov. Greg Abbott in October — for several days before the Thanksgiving holiday as the state continued to report record-breaking numbers of new coronavirus cases. On Friday, Texas reported 2,473 new cases and 51 new deaths — a drastic drop compared to recent results likely due to labs being closed for the holiday.

Currently, most businesses in the area may operate at 75% capacity. But under Abbott’s Oct. 7 executive order, businesses will be forced to limit capacity to 50% if they are in a region where more than 15% of hospital patients have tested positive for the coronavirus for seven consecutive days. The rate must drop below the red line for one week before business capacity can rise again.

“As the number of positive cases grows, our health care heroes need your patriotism and sacrifice,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins in a statement Friday. “Please put off get-togethers and avoid crowds to protect public health and the economy.”

The 19-county region includes both Dallas and Tarrant counties as well as smaller counties, including Rockwall, Cooke and Hunt.

A total of 8,518 people were in a Texas hospital Friday with COVID-19, the state reported. That’s about 2,400 shy of the state’s peak, set in July.

Nine of the state’s 22 regions reported at least one day above the 15% threshold this week. And another hovered just below it Friday. The region that includes El Paso was by far the worst, with about 35% of all its hospital patients fighting COVID-19.

Abbott on Friday tweeted a rosier outlook, highlighting that the rate of infected patients at El Paso counties had dropped for two weeks in a row, and the state’s positivity rate has been declining.

Earlier this month, Abbott rejected the idea of once again scaling back the economy statewide. Another shutdown would have a disastrous effect, he said. At the time of his comments — just eight days ago — six of the state’s regions were above the line.

At this point, we’ve basically surrendered. I have no expectation that Abbott will take any action, other than maybe to cheerlead treatment options, for those who will be able to use them. If you don’t want to be complicit in this, do your part – wear your mask, maintain social distancing, avoid public gatherings, and so on. I don’t know why our leadership is so terrible, but it is and it’s up to us to keep our own selves safe.

More on police oversight boards

Ours in Houston isn’t very good. Some other cities do it better. We can learn from them.

Houston’s police oversight board is the weakest among Texas’ five largest cities and suffers from “a complete lack of transparency and public reporting,” a recent study from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research concludes.

The report, released last week, analyzed police oversight institutions in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth, concluding that the agencies in each city need more resources, and fewer legislative hurdles, while its members need more experience and training.

The Independent Police Oversight Board in Houston “has very limited powers to conduct its own investigations, instead being handed completed internal affairs investigations without the ability to independently collect further evidence on the event,” reads the report, co-authored by Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton, a member of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s recent police reform task force.

The group detailed its recommendations in a 153-page report released in late September, about three months after Turner announced his 45 appointees to the board. The group recommended that city officials bolster the police oversight board with paid staffing and facilities outside the police department and by changing policy to allow the board to report some of its findings to the community, which it is currently barred from doing.

Turner has signaled he intends to adopt at least some of those recommendations, saying in early September he is “99.999 percent certain there will be some adjustments” to the police oversight board. The mayor later said he’s “overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas” in the task force’s report, though he said some could be difficult to fund or would require state legislative action.

The task force’s recommendations align with those presented in the Kinder report, which recommends the board be staffed with “people with legal knowledge, police expertise and research skills.” Austin has by far the most paid staff members on its oversight group among Texas’ five largest cities, the report found.

“(M)ost agencies in the state’s big cities have fewer than five employees to oversee forces of thousands of officers,” according to the report. “Houston’s IPOB has no staff or resources.”

See here for more on Mayor Turner and the task force recommendations. For more on the Kinder report, which you can find here, I’ll refer you to this Grits for Breakfast post, which goes into more detail. At this point, we have all the information we need to act. It’s time to act. I’m hopeful we’ll get some at the city level in the upcoming weeks, but as Mayor Turner says, some of this needs to happen at the state level. And there, I fear, we’re more likely to run into obstacles. For instance:

That bill is authored by Rep. Matt Krause, one of the vulnerable Republicans we were unfortunately not able to knock off this election. The problem goes a lot deeper than one State Rep, though. Cities are not going to be able to do what their voters want them to do if the Republican legislature and Greg Abbott have anything to say about it.

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.

Who’s concerned about the state’s coronavirus spike?

Not Greg Abbott, or Dan Patrick, or Ken Paxton, that’s for sure.

The Oregon governor is calling it a “freeze.” In New Mexico, it’s a “reset.”

Across the country, state elected officials are frantically rolling back their reopening plans to slow the burgeoning surge in coronavirus infections.

But in Texas, Republican leaders remain unwilling to change course in the face of soaring hospitalizations and an early uptick in deaths from the virus that has public health experts increasingly alarmed.

Gov. Greg Abbott has yet to impose new restrictions or allow county officials to take additional measures. Attorney General Ken Paxton has intervened to strike down locally adopted restrictions. Other requests to further limit gatherings, close nonessential businesses or impose stricter mask requirements have been blocked.

On Friday, a state appeals court halted a temporary shutdown of nonessential businesses in El Paso County, where cases have skyrocketed and mobile morgues have been rushed in to handle all the casualties. Paxton and a group of restaurant owners had sued to block the order, claiming the governor has final say on any new restrictions.

“I will not let rogue political subdivisions try to kill small businesses and holiday gatherings through unlawful executive orders,” Paxton said in a statement celebrating the appeals court ruling. On Twitter, he added: “We must never shut Texas down again!!”

[…]

Since September, Abbott has relied on a reopening plan that ratchets up restrictions in regions that have growing numbers of people hospitalized with COVID-19; the threshold is now seven continuous days of coronavirus patients filling at least 15 percent of all available beds in that area.

Few if any other states are using a similar threshold, and public health experts have long cautioned against relying on hospitalizations alone because they provide a delayed glimpse into the state of an outbreak — it takes someone several days to be hospitalized after they contract COVID.

Rebecca Fischer, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M, said it’s important to consider multiple factors, including the rate at which people are testing positive for the virus, emergency room visits and infections at nursing and other long-term care facilities. And she said local governments need decision-making power to best respond to their situations, which may differ even within a given region.

“When I see county judges that are trying so hard to work toward the public health of their constituents and then are just cut off and told no, it kills me,” Fischer said. “Everybody in the public health realm is left scratching their head as to why that would be the case.”

Let’s be clear:

1. They don’t care. Abbott doesn’t want to talk about coronavirus. Paxton will sue any local official who tries to take action to save lives. Dan Patrick has never walked back his comments about letting Grandma die so businesses can reopen.

2. They will never give any authority to local officials. If anything, there will be further bills in the upcoming Lege to restrict what local officials can do even more.

3. They will go straight to Defcon 1 the minute the Biden administration attempts to take any action to combat the virus.

How many people get sick and die as a result is not their concern. They could not be more clear about this.

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.

We’re number one (million)!

One million COVID cases in Texas. Hooray?

Texas’ grim distinction as the national leader in terms of COVID-19 infections came as little surprise to some local medical experts, who blamed politicians for conflicting messages about the virus and warned the worst is yet to come.

Texas this week breached a milestone of 1 million cumulative cases since the start of the pandemic, recording more infections than any other state in the U.S. For reference, more people have been infected in the Lone Star state than live in Austin, the state’s capitol.

If Texas were its own country, it would rank 10th in terms of total cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, placing it higher than European hotspots like Italy.

The big numbers are not a shock in a state that’s home to roughly 29 million people. The number of cases per 100,000 residents is lower here than in about half of the states in the country. But Texas also had more newly reported cases in the last seven days — an average of about 8,200 — than other large, hard-hit states such as New York, California and Florida. Only Illinois has a higher seven-day average.

Dr. David Callender, president of the Memorial Hermann Health System, called the 1 million cases “a sobering statistic.”

“It’s not a surprise in the context of all that’s happened,” Callender said. “But it’s a significant number — 3 percent of the population — and cause for worry about the trend continuing as we go forward.”

Callender attributed the high number to “too much division” in the attempt to contain the virus.

“To me, politics entered in an inappropriate way,” said Callender. “People making a political statement with their behavior — that the pandemic is a hoax, that no one can make them wear a mask — really interfered with efforts. It was the wrong mindset.”

To be fair, California is a couple of days behind us, and may have passed one million by the time I publish this. Of course, California also has ten million more people than Texas, so.

The state’s positive test rate is now 11.24%, compared to 7.64% a month ago.

Hey, remember when a 10% positivity rate was considered to be a “warning flag” by Greg Abbott? You know, as part of his famous “metrics” for reopening the state?

Abbott’s office didn’t immediately respond to messages Tuesday.

Too busy propping up Donald Trump’s ego to deal with this kind of trivia, I suppose.

Meanwhile, in El Paso

The number of coronavirus patients in Texas hospitals has nearly doubled since October, and average infections are at their highest point in almost three months — leaving health officials bracing for a potential crush of hospitalizations going into the holidays.

In El Paso, hospitals are so overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients that in early November the Department of Defense sent medical teams to help, and the county has summoned 10 mobile morgues to hold dead bodies. Local funeral homes are readying extra refrigerated storage space, as the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients in the far West Texas city has shot up nearly tenfold since the start of September.

The new wave of infections stands in contrast to the summer surge, when Gov. Greg Abbott held regular press conferences about the virus and mandated that face coverings be worn, earning him the ire of the far-right. Now, state officials seem reluctant to crack down on the virus’ spread by further curtailing economic activity — and are fighting the El Paso county judge’s attempt to impose a curfew and a stay-at-home order in the face of record-breaking cases.

The state will not do anything to help, and you local leaders are not allowed to do anything to help. You’re on your own. If you’re very lucky, maybe you won’t have your health insurance taken away while you recover. Did I mention that disaster and emergency response ought to be a big theme of the 2022 election? Texas Monthly has more.

UPDATE: Nothing to see here.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson files for Speaker

One hat in the ring, who knows how many to go.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving woman and Black person in the history of the Texas Legislature, filed Friday to run for speaker of the Texas House, making her the first to enter what’s been a quiet race so far to replace retiring Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Thompson, a Houston Democrat, has filed ahead of a November general election in which Democrats are confident they will regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades. If elected, she would be the first Black woman to serve as speaker.

Thompson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thompson is not the only candidate expected to enter the race, which has had a different tempo and tone from the last one in 2018. The uncertainty surrounding which party will be in control of the lower chamber in 2021 has kept the race relatively quiet; by this time two years ago, several candidates had already declared that they were seeking the gavel.

[…]

Thompson, known better as “Ms. T” to colleagues and other Capitol goers, has served in the chamber since 1973, making her the second longest-serving member in the House. She has been mentioned repeatedly among both Republicans and Democrats as a potential candidate, with members pointing to her legislative experience and inroads with colleagues as perhaps her best case for a House that has a challenging agenda heading into the 2021 legislative session.

There are many potential Speaker candidates, but as I said in that post, if Rep. Thompson wants this, it’s hard to imagine other Dems opposing her. I’m sure she will be talking to those other potential candidates over the next few days, if she hasn’t been already. It won’t surprise me if they line up behind her.

There are of course a bunch of important things the next Legislature will have to tackle, from COVID response to a crap-ton of election and voting issues to redistricting to the budget to executive authority and the role of the Lege in dealing with crises. But even before we get to any of that, there’s a big question about how the Lege will operate. I mean, maybe you haven’t heard, but the COVID situation isn’t getting any better right now. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in Greg Abbott to impose restrictions again, so I’m not expecting it to be all that different come January. How exactly is the Lege going to conduct its business if it’s not safe for them all to be clustered in a stuffy room for hours at a time? What are they going to do if twerps like Briscoe Cain ignore a rule mandating masks in the Capitol? I don’t mean to be indelicate, but Rep. Thompson is 81. Rep. Alma Allen is 81, Tom Craddick is 77, Doc Anderson is 75, Harold Dutton is 75, and Phil Stephenson is 75. More than a few others are north of 60; not all of them have their age listed when I look them up on the Trib directory of State House members, but you get the point. The health and safety of every Member, as well as their staff and everyone who works at the Capitol is on the line, and as of today we have no idea what they plan to do about it. The next Speaker has some big things to do before a single vote is taken.

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.

On executive power and the role of the Legislature

Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.

1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.

2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.

3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.

4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?

5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.

6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.

(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)

I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.

Win one, lose one at SCOTX

The win:

Early voting in Texas can begin Oct. 13, following the timeline the governor laid out months ago, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, rejecting a request from several top Texas Republicans to limit the timeframe for voters to cast their ballots.

In July, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that early voting for the general election in Texas begin nearly a week earlier than usual, a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But a number of prominent Republicans, including state party Chair Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several members of the Texas Legislature, challenged that timeframe in September, arguing that Abbott defied state election law, which dictates that early voting typically begins on the 17th day before an election — this year, Oct. 19.

Abbott added six days to the early voting period through an executive order, an exercise of the emergency powers he has leaned into during the virus crisis. The Republicans who sued him argued this was an overreach.

The state’s highest civil court, which is entirely held by Republicans, ruled that the GOP officials who sued challenging Abbott’s extension waited until the last minute to do so, when he had already extended early voting in the primary election and announced he would do the same for the general months ago. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted also that the election is already underway.

“To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion,” he wrote in the opinion.

See here and here for some background, and here for the opinion. After noting that Abbott has “issued a long series of proclamations invoking the Act as authority to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a wide range of activities in the State” since his disaster declaration in March, the Court notes that the relators (the fancy legal name for “plaintiffs” in this kind of case) took their sweet time complaining about it:

Relators delayed in challenging the Governor’s July 27 proclamation for more than ten weeks after it was issued. They have not sought relief first in the lower courts that would have allowed a careful, thorough consideration of their arguments regarding the Act’s scope and constitutionality. Those arguments affect not only the impending election process but also implicate the Governor’s authority under the Act for the many other actions he has taken over the past six months. Relators’ delay precludes the consideration their claims require.

The dissent argues that relators acted diligently because they filed their petition in this Court four days after they received an email confirming that the Harris County Clerk intended to comply with the Governor’s July 27 proclamation. But relators’ challenge is to the validity of the proclamation, not the Clerk’s compliance.16 Relators could have asserted their challenge at any time in the past ten weeks. The dissent also argues that the Court has granted relief after similar delays. But none of the cases the dissent cites bears out its argument.17

Moreover, the election is already underway. The Harris County Clerk has represented to the Court that his office would accept mailed-in ballots beginning September 24. To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion.

[…]

Mandamus is an “extraordinary” remedy that is “available only in limited circumstances.”20 When the record fails to show that petitioners have acted diligently to protect their rights, relief by mandamus is not available.21 The record here reflects no justification for relators’ lengthy delay.

The “dissent” refers to the dissenting opinion written by Justice John Devine, who was all along the biggest cheerleader for the vote suppressors. I have no particular quibble with this opinion, which seems correct and appropriate to me, but the grounds on which the mandamus is denied are awfully narrow, which gives me some concern. The Court may merely be recognizing the fact that there are several outstanding challenges to Abbott’s authority to use his executive powers in this fashion, relating to mask and shutdown orders as well as election issues, and they may simply want to leave that all undisturbed until the lower courts start to make their rulings. That too is fine and appropriate, but I can’t help but feel a little disquieted at the thought that maybe these guys could have succeeded if the timing (and their lawyering) had been better.

That ruling also settled the question of counties being able to accept mail ballots at dropoff locations during the early voting process – the relators had demanded that mail ballot dropoff be limited to Election Day only. None of this is related to the issue of how many dropoff locations there may be, which is being litigated in multiple other lawsuits, four now as of last report. We are still waiting on action from those cases.

On the negative side, SCOTX put the kibosh on County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Harris County.

The state’s highest civil court ruled Wednesday that Hollins may not put the applications in the mail. The documents can be accessed online, and are often distributed by political campaigns, parties and other private organizations. But for a government official to proactively send them oversteps his authority, the court ruled.

“We conclude that the Election Code does not authorize the mailing proposed by the Harris County Clerk,” the court wrote in an unsigned per curiam opinion.

The Republican justices sent the case back to a lower court in Harris County to issue an injunction blocking Hollins from sending the mailers.

The county has already distributed the applications to voters who are at least 65, who automatically qualify for absentee ballots, and has also begun sending out the applications to other voters who requested them. An attorney for Hollins estimated last week that the county would send out about 1.7 million more applications if the court allowed.

See here and here for some background, here for a statement from Hollins, and here for the unanimous opinion, which is longer than the one in the first case. The Court goes into the many ways in which the Legislature has expressed its intent that most people should vote in person, and then sums up its view Clerks getting creative:

Hollins’ mass mailing of ballot applications would undercut the Secretary’s statutory duty to “maintain uniformity” in Texas’ elections, the Legislature’s “very deliberate[]” decision to authorize only discrete categories of Texans to vote by mail, and its intent that submission of an application be an action with legal gravity.43

Authority for Hollins’ proposed mass mailing can be implied from the Election Code only if it is necessarily part of an express grant—not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any reasonable doubt must be resolved against an implied grant of authority. Mass-mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters ineligible to vote by mail cannot be said to be necessary or indispensable to the conduct of early voting. Even if it could be, doubt on the matter is certainly reasonable and must be resolved against recognizing implied authority. We hold that an early voting clerk lacks authority under the Election Code to mass-mail applications to vote by mail. The State has demonstrated success on the merits of its ultra vires claim.

I’ve discussed my views on this before, when the appeals court upheld the original order, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I agree with Michael Hurta that this case will be cited in future litigation that aims to limit what Texas localities can do to innovate, which is what Hollins was doing here. It’s basically another attack on local control, and as I replied to that tweet, it’s another item to the Democrats’ to do list when they are in a position to pass some laws.

I hate this ruling for a lot of reasons, but that right there is at the top of the list. The Court based its ruling in part on the fact that Hollins was doing something no one else had thought to try – “all election officials other than Hollins are discharging this duty in the way that they always have”, they say as part of their reasoning to slap Hollins down” – and while I can see the logic and reason in that, we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic, and sometimes you have to step outside the box a bit to get things done in a manner that is safe and effective. I get where the Court is coming from, and I admit that allowing County Clerks to experiment and freelance has the potential to cause problems, but it sure would have been nice for the Court to at least recognize that Hollins’ actions, however unorthodox they may have been, did not come out of a vacuum. Clearly, the fact that the arguments in this case were heard via Zoom didn’t sink in with anyone.

On a practical level, I don’t know how many people would have voted via absentee ballot who would not have otherwise participated. Some number, to be sure, but I really don’t think it’s all that much. It’s the principle here, one part making it harder to vote and one part keeping the locals in line, that bothers me. As has been the case so many times, we’re going to have to win more elections and then change the laws if we want some progress. You know what to do. The Chron has more.

And so the re-reopening begins

Are we really ready for this?

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that most of Texas will be able to loosen some coronavirus restrictions, including letting many businesses increase their capacity to 75%, as soon as Monday.

Retail stores, restaurants and office buildings, which have been open at 50% capacity, will be permitted to expand to 75% capacity. Hospitals will be allowed to offer elective procedures again and nursing homes can reopen for visitations under certain standards.

The new reopening stage applies to 19 of the state’s 22 hospital regions. The three hospital regions excluded are in the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Victoria. Abbott said those regions’ hospitalizations are still “in the danger zone,” which he defined as places where coronavirus patients make up 15% or more of all hospitalizations.

At the same time, Abbott said the state was not yet ready to reopen bars, saying they are “nationally recognized as COVID-spreading locations.” He stressed, though, that the state is looking for ways to let bars reopen safely.

[…]

“Gov. Abbott’s press conference today was notable for what he didn’t say,” state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “There was no mention of a contact tracing program, no mention of improving the state’s unreliable data and no mention of expanding Medicaid to increase access to health care for the millions of Texans who are uninsured.”

The Texas Democratic Party said Abbott is “basing his decisions on dirty data.”

Abbott began the news conference by hailing the state’s progress in the fight against coronavirus, saying the “biggest reason” for improvements has been that Texans are taking the pandemic seriously and exercising personal responsibility.

The governor reminded Texans that doctors have said the goal is not to eradicate the virus but to “contain the disease, to limit its harm and to maximize the health care system’s ability to treat both COVID patients as well as other medical needs of the community.”

When it comes to further reopenings, he emphasized the state will consider all data but “rely most heavily” on hospitalizations, calling that metric the “most important information about the severity of COVID in any particular region.” It is also the “most accurate information available on a daily basis,” Abbott said.

To that end, the regions that will be allowed to further reopen must have seen coronavirus hospitalizations make up less than 15% of all hospitalizations for seven consecutive days, according to the governor. If coronavirus hospitalizations rise above the 15% threshold for seven consecutive days in a region, a “course correction is going to be needed,” Abbott said, suggesting the solution would be a reversal of the area’s latest reopenings.

Given that many other countries have essentially eradicated the virus, one could certainly disagree with Abbott’s assertion about what the goal should be. Though to be fair, it does seem impossible to set such a goal while Donald Trump is President, so perhaps this is just Abbott acceding to that reality. The Chron adds some details.

The new regional threshold marks a significant shift for the Republican governor as the state’s pandemic response moves into the fall, with flu season arriving and many schools about to reopen for in-person instruction. He previously resisted committing to a regional approach, and said he would rely on a range of metrics — not just hospitalizations — to determine policies.

But the state’s health agency has been dogged by data backlogs, and some counties said they had lost confidence in state metrics such as the number of new daily infections and the percent of positive COVID tests, also known as the positivity rate. While the state has remedied at least some of the issues, hospitalization data have been more reliable throughout the pandemic.

Other large states, including New York and California, are currently using regional reopening plans based on several criteria, including new cases and test positivity. Public health experts caution against relying on hospitalizations alone, since they lag behind infections and therefore provide a delayed glimpse into the community spread of the virus.

All but two of the state’s 22 hospital regions have previously surpassed the new 15-percent threshold, according to the state’s calculation. The governor did not provide the methodology for how they calculated the percentages, and a spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about how the benchmark was selected.

The state has reported nearly 700,000 infections since March and nearly 14,500 deaths, a toll similar to that in other large states, including California and Florida. New York has reported fewer infections but more deaths, stemming from a surge earlier this year.

Texas has been below 10 percent test positivity for at least two weeks now. Earlier this week, state health officials unveiled a new method of calculating the rate, which shows it first dropped below 10 percent in mid August. Abbott has said before that he would consider further reopenings once the state remained below that threshold for two weeks.

Yes, our lousy data quality is an issue. I get that there’s a lot of pressure to let businesses get back to “normal” again. But let’s be real here: One, plenty of people will still not change their habits to what they were in the Before Times until they feel confident that the pandemic is truly under control. Public opinion is clear that most people do not feel this way, and as such this greatly limits the upside of any reopening scheme. Two, we have been down this road before, and the last time we went this way Abbott basically ignored all the metrics that he himself set and just went about loosening restrictions even though none of his own stated criteria were being met. There’s no reason to believe he has learned this lesson. Three, even if we had complete clarity on hospitalizations, that’s a lagging indicator, meaning that by the time the hospitals have started to fill up again, it’s already too late to stop it. Four, see above about the lack of our data quality, which again strongly suggests that even if Abbott is sincere about turning the car around at the first sign of trouble, that first sign may not be at all apparent when it’s happening.

Finally, the reason why people finally started to take the pandemic seriously is because Greg Abbott finally started taking it seriously, and conveying a message that we all needed to be wearing face masks and social distancing and avoiding large gatherings, especially indoors. We certainly haven’t gotten that message from Donald Trump or his biggest toadies like Dan Patrick. If you want to praise everyone for their personal responsibility, then you need to emphasize that they have to continue being personally responsible, which means wearing masks and so on. If that makes the rock-filled heads of Steven Hotze and his ilk explode, then so be it. Abbott loves being in front of the parade, but he does a crappy job of leading it. As I said the last time we re-opened, I really hope this works out. And I really hope Abbott is serious about backing off at the first sign that it isn’t. A statement from Mayor Turner is here, and the Dallas Observer, Reform Austin, the Texas Signal, and the Houston Press have more.

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?

Why wouldn’t Dems attack Abbott for his COVID response?

I am puzzled by the premise of this article.

As the Democratic National Convention opened on Monday, former First Lady Michelle Obama condemned President Donald Trump for having downplayed the coronavirus pandemic and scenes flashed throughout the night from Houston, an epicenter of the crisis.

“Too many are struggling to take care of basic necessities like food and rent,” Obama said. “Too many communities have been left in the lurch to grapple with whether and how to open our schools safely.”

In Texas, Democrats have seized on similar attacks, targeting Gov. Greg Abbott and his ties to the Trump Administration during the pandemic to undermine Republicans down ballot, especially in diverse suburban districts around Houston and Dallas.

While the governor is not on the ballot this year, Democrats have long believed that their best path to retaking the state House this cycle goes through Abbott, a close ally of the Trump Administration and a fundraising juggernaut who has consistently wielded his name and campaign war chest to help struggling GOP candidates cross the finish line in crucial electoral contests.

The pandemic has given them some of the most forceful attacks in years.

Abbott’s “complete and utter mismanagement of this from day one has made this a completely different calculus for us than it was before,” said Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party. He added, “Everyone is seeing firsthand just how dismal Republicans are at managing a crisis.”

[…]

Whether the criticism against Abbott lands this fall will depend in part on how the health crisis evolves in the coming weeks. Despite his initial haste to reopen businesses, the governor heeded calls to halt further openings and issued a statewide mask mandate, which drew stiff condemnation from his party’s far-right flank.

Abbott has still declined to issue temporary lockdowns or allow officials in the hardest hit regions, especially the Rio Grande Valley, to issue their own. Statewide, new daily infections and hospitalizations are falling, though more slowly than public health officials would hope, especially as schools begin reopening this month.

The governor has allowed school districts to delay in-person instruction, meaning in some counties, students may not return until a week before the election. Public health experts have warned that returning to in-class learning before infections are largely contained could lead to new surges in hospitalizations and deaths.

Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University who is tracking the most competitive Texas House races, said Abbott’s response to the surge this summer was “the most he’s ever bucked the conservative wing of his party.”

“And that’s because he maybe knows that if he hadn’t, Republicans may have lost more in November,” Jones said, adding, “I think for Abbott, a lot will depend on whether the pandemic becomes less severe in the next two months.”

The governor’s approval ratings are the lowest they’ve been since he took office, though he remains well liked by Republicans, according to polls. And Abbott has worked to shore up support within his core constituency of white, older Texans by appearing almost nightly on local TV news outlets.

I mean, obviously the Dems are going to attack Abbott’s response to the pandemic. Even if he had done everything in an objectively optimal manner, even if he wasn’t so closely tied to the dismal failure that is the Trump response to the pandemic, even if there were no complaints about the proper amount of executive power being wielded, there would always be things that could have gone better and could be subject to legitimate criticism. Besides, what other option would Dems have? Largely agreeing with him wouldn’t get them anywhere. You may say well, if he was handling this brilliantly then they shouldn’t be attacking him. I say there’s always room for an opposing perspective, and the critique of this aspect of Abbott’s performance as Governor fits well into other avenues the Dems would like to razz him on.

Attacks aren’t necessarily a positive thing for the attackers. People do generally get a sense for when an attack is unfair and based on lies, so whatever the Dems will be saying needs to be grounded in some valid basis or else it just won’t land. Abbott is also perfectly capable of defending himself and launching his own offensives, thanks to his gazillions of dollars in his campaign treasury. Will Democratic criticism of Abbott’s performance vault someone else into the Governor’s mansion? Maybe, though no matter what happens next that will depend as much on who that person will be as anything else. Nothing is guaranteed, and until Dems win a statewide race it’s all theoretical anyway. But really, what else would they do? It would be political malpractice to not be all over this, and that’s even without all the material Abbott has provided. You’re going to be hearing about this for a long time, so just get used to it.

COVID executive order lawsuit update

Hard to keep track of all these, I know.

The state of Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott have denied a Dallas salon owner’s allegations that COVID-19 emergency orders suspending state laws are unconstitutional.

Abbott and the state specifically denied allegations that the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 “improperly delegates power to the governor and local executive officials,” said the defendants’ answer, filed Tuesday in Dallas County district court.

It’s a constitutional attack that the state of Texas is now defending in multiple courts, as business owners file lawsuits against the government over COVID-19 shutdown orders, or the definitions of essential versus nonessential businesses.

Litigants in multiple cases have gone to the Texas Supreme Court with disputes that arose because of the pandemic, but the high court hasn’t yet accepted an appeal to decide the dispute. But one justice, John Devine, signaled in a concurring opinion that Abbott’s practice of suspending Texas laws during the pandemic was a violation of the Texas Constitution.

“We are going to amend our claims to ask for a temporary injunction, which we are certain will be denied. Then we will start marching it up the ladder to the Texas Supreme Court,” said Warren Norred, who represents Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner. “All these cases that have hit the Supreme Court, the high court has said, ‘We’re waiting patiently for you guys to get us a case in the proper channels.’ … They’re watching, but they’ve been very reluctant to act, until we on the litigation side do it right.”

This particular case involves Luther, who made international headlines when she was jailed for contempt of court because she violated a judge’s temporary restraining order. Luther had opened her salon during a time a government shutdown order didn’t allow it, and so the city of Dallas sued her and won the order that said she had to close down again. When a Dallas district judge jailed her for violating his court order, she filed a writ of habeas corpus to the Supreme Court and won an emergency stay that released her from jail. Her habeas writ appeal is still pending.

Later in the litigation, Luther brought the state and Abbott into the case by filing a counterclaim. It alleged that the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, the law that underlies the Dallas emergency rules, is void because it unconstitutionally delegates legislative power that belongs to the governor, county judges and city mayors. She argued that the emergency rules violate separation of powers, are void for vagueness, violate due process and equal protection, and more.

Far as I can tell, the original lawsuit was filed in April. I didn’t blog about it at the time (though I have been following other litigation about coronavirus and executive power pretty closely), and Google searches for a lawsuit in Dallas County involving coronavirus and Greg Abbott run into a wall at May 7, when there were a million stories about Shelley Luther totally pwning Abbott and his shutdown order. Anyway, the state’s response is what you’d expect – the plaintiffs have no standing, the court has no jurisdiction, the law in question is totally legal, etc. This is just in the district court, and we all know it’s going to end up at the Supreme Court, so settle in and get comfortable. We’re just getting started, and there’s a long road ahead.

Wait, you can’t cut that spending!

This is the sort of thing you come up with when you’re out of other ideas.

Property tax revenue would be on the line for cities that choose to defund their police departments under a new legislative proposal pitched Tuesday by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen.

“Any city that defunds police departments will have its property tax revenue frozen at the current level,” Abbott said, flanked by the other two Republican members of the “Big Three” in Texas state government. “They will never be able to increase property tax revenue again if they defund police.”

The proposal comes after the city of Austin last week unanimously voted to cut at least $20 million from the city’s police budget and earmarked an additional $130 million to potentially be reallocated to other departments. The Austin Police Department, with over 2,600 sworn law enforcement and support personnel, has had an annual budget of more than $400 million for the past two years.

[…]

It’s unclear how the legislation will define defunding police; Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen did not respond to questions requesting clarification. In Austin’s case, most funds will stay within city coffers but will address different needs.

Yeah, I’ll bet. This was the equivalent of the three of them ripping open their shirts and shouting “HULK SMASH!”, and it should be taken as such. Here’s what Scott Henson had to say.

Grits finds this bizarre on several levels. First, I thought conservatives believed revenue caps were a good thing, not a sanction applied to liberal cities for doing something they don’t like.

Indeed, I’m old enough to remember when conservatives favored less spending and smaller government. Now the governor wants to punish cities that reduce spending. We’ve passed all the way through the looking glass, it seems.

Austin cut its police budget by less than five percent. By contrast, Gov. Abbott, the Lt. Governor and the House Speaker recently told state agencies they all must cut their budgets by 5% because of declining tax revenue in the COVID era. Isn’t what’s good for the goose good for the gander?

Finally, cities around the state face budget shortfalls because of COVID combined with revenue caps the Legislature already approved. “Austin bashing” is one thing – folks in the capital city have come to expect that – but are you really going to punish every small town that must cut its police budget because tax revenue declined thanks to the virus?

Ten years ago, Texas Republicans were all about “less government” and “local control.” Now Abbott wants to micromanage municipal budgets to keep spending high. This debate is becoming downright surreal.

That’s one word for it. If you read that second link, you’ll find that most of what Austin did was move some functions out of the Police Department, thus requiring less money to be budgeted in that way, and deferred a cadet class until they revamp their training curriculum. That will likely have the effect of reducing headcount a bit in the short term through attrition, as they cut positions that are currently unfilled. It’s the most basic thing cities do, and they do it with other departments all the time.

But hey, it’s Austin, and thus Something Must Be Done, because [insert primal scream here]. I’m sure if Abbott proposed having the state fund the Austin Police Department as a way of ensuring that it never goes without ever again, Austin City Council would be willing to listen. Until then, my advice is for Abbott to resign his current position and run for Mayor of Austin. It’s clear that’s the job he really wants. The Current has more.

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.

Who needs testing?

It’s the surest way to see the infection rate decline, am I right?

The number of Texans being tested for the coronavirus has fallen sharply in recent weeks, a trend that has worried public health experts as officials consider sending children back to school while thousands more Texans are infected each day.

In the week ending Aug. 8, an average 36,255 coronavirus tests were administered in Texas each day — a drop of about 42% from two weeks earlier, when the average number of daily tests was 62,516.

At the same time, the percentage of tests yielding positive results has climbed, up to 20% on average in the week ending Aug. 8. Two weeks earlier, the average positivity rate was around 14%.

On Saturday, the state set a record for its positivity rate, with more than half of that day’s roughly 14,000 viral tests indicating an infection.

Taken together, the low number of tests and the large percentage of positive results suggest inadequacies in the state’s public health surveillance effort at a time when school reopenings are certain to increase viral spread, health experts said.

“Opening the schools is a really complicated problem, and the best thing we can do is get the number of cases down so kids can go back to school safely,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “There are so many reasons why kids need to be in school, particularly younger kids, but we’re finding out more and more they can get infected, and the concern is them bringing it home and spreading in the community and spreading to teachers.

“I think the worst thing would be for schools to open, then close,” she said. “That really makes it hard on parents, that unpredictability, and there’s a lot of costs associated with opening the schools safely.”

[…]

The number of tests performed in Texas has “never been great,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, but “it’s extremely troubling” that the numbers have dipped since last month.

“It’s troubling because we can guess at some of the reasons, but we’re not sure,” she said.

She suggested that some people may have been discouraged by long wait times for test results, or less concerned about the virus’ toll in Texas after a frightening peak in July began to flatten out.

A declining number of tests is a particularly thorny issue for schools, Ho said. “No public school has the resources to do testing under the current circumstances. There are huge class sizes and crowded hallways,” she said.

Does any of that sound good to you? Because none of it sounds good to me. Again I say, remember when Greg Abbott’s plans for reopening included sufficient testing capacity and a positivity rate under ten percent? Boy, those were the days. Oh, and as the story notes, the TEA still hasn’t yet released any specifics on which districts will be able to receive waivers to limit in-person instruction beyond eight weeks or under what circumstances. So, you know, the school situation remains a mess. Isn’t this fun?

No eviction moratoriums

So opines Ken Paxton, and we all know what an unimpeachable source he is.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton advised Friday that local Texas governments’ attempts to delay evictions for renters grappling with the COVID-19 recession amounted to rewriting state law — something they can’t do, he said in nonbinding legal guidance.

“While local officials do possess certain emergency powers … statewide eviction procedures far exceed the requirement that those powers be exercised ‘on an appropriate local scale,’” Paxton said in a letter. “Government Code does not authorize local governmental entities operating under a declared disaster to independently rewrite state law as it applies to their jurisdiction to prohibit, delay, or restrict the issuance of a notice to vacate.”

Paxton’s letter, issued in response to a question from Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, seems to chide local officials like Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who last month extended the eviction moratorium in the city until Sept. 30. Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe extended his ban until the same date. In other counties, like Harris and Dallas, some justices of the peace have decided to not hear evictions. It is unclear if Paxton’s opinion will influence those judges.

Adler said in a statement that his orders were lawful and “do not amend statewide eviction procedures,” but rather aim to “reduce person-to-person contact to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Hector Nieto, a spokesperson for Travis County, said officials there are reviewing the opinion.

Paxton’s opinion could have weight if someone were to sue a local government over its eviction moratorium.

“I can’t say I’m shocked that the state attorney general would side with landlords. Nothing he has done to date shows us that we could expect something different,” said Sandy Rollins, executive director of the housing advocacy group Texas Tenants Union. “A lot of tenants are facing eviction in Texas by zero fault of their own, and putting protections that are normal in almost every other state should be allowed in this pandemic.”

As we know, AG opinions don’t carry the force of law, but they are an obstacle. As with other contentious matters on which Paxton has opined, someone will have to take this to court to force the issue. Of course, this is also something the Legislature can review and revise, and I’d say it needs to be on the ever-increasing list of things the Lege very much needs to do at its first opportunity. On a side note, this adds some context to the city of Houston’s rental assistance program, which has been offered instead of an eviction moratorium order, which a number of people advocated for. A moratorium would certainly have been a more comprehensive tool to keep people who have been affected by the pandemic and the economic devastation that resulted from it in their homes, but not if it could not be enforced. Whatever you think of Mayor Turner’s approach, it was not affected by this action.

The school situation remains a mess

It’s a mess of Greg Abbott’s making.

Some superintendents say that despite Abbott’s statements to the contrary, their ability to respond to the pandemic is still limited, and many of their questions have gone unanswered even as school is slated to start in the coming weeks. They are worried their decisions could result in consequences from the state, including cuts to funding, and some say they would prefer high-stakes decisions affecting student and employee health to stay with medical experts.

“We’re going to make our decisions based on local scientific data, and we’re working with the health authority. That’s our guide,” said Juan Cabrera, superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District. “Nobody on our board, including myself and my administration, are medical doctors, so I’m going to try to take their advice.”

After about 18 local health authorities issued orders delaying in-person instruction because of coronavirus concerns, Abbott said last week that those health officials cannot issue blanket orders preventing all schools in their jurisdictions from opening classrooms before the academic year begins. His statement backed nonbinding guidance from Attorney General Ken Paxton released earlier that week.

Abbott also said school districts could ask for more time to limit the number of students learning in classrooms, on a case-by-case basis, beyond the current eight-week maximum set by the Texas Education Agency. And he reminded school officials that they could move their start dates later in the year with a school board vote, as long as they make up the time. This, he said, gives local school boards the most authority to determine when and how it’s safe to have kids back.

The Texas Education Agency has not yet released any specifics on which districts will be able to receive waivers to limit in-person instruction beyond eight weeks or under what circumstances. But it said it will not fund school districts for unlawful school closures, worrying superintendents who want more certainty of state support while handling an unpredictable pandemic.

“After the eight weeks, there’s a threat to withhold funding if schools don’t have in-person learning. They’ve offered a waiver opportunity … but it takes it out of the hands of the local school district beyond the eight weeks, and that is not local control,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators and former superintendent of Alamo Heights ISD in San Antonio.

A spokesperson for Abbott, when reached for comment for this story, referred to the governor’s previous statements on the issue. Abbott has said that school boards are welcome to consult public health authorities as they make their decisions. And he said local health officials could shut down schools that have COVID-19 outbreaks after they reopen.

Some superintendents, especially in areas where the virus is rampant, balked at the idea of waiting for kids and teachers to get sick before shutting down their campuses in the middle of the year, instead of working with local health officials to close classrooms if cases spike again. And some still wondered: What options do they have if cases are still high after eight weeks?

“Districts, I think, are very concerned about creating these rolling situations where people come back on campus and then get sick and then everybody has to leave again,” said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards, on a recent podcast explaining the state’s guidance.

See here, here, and here for the background. Basically, school districts are being told they cannot prioritize safety until they have proof that their schools are unsafe. If they take action that doesn’t conform with regulations that are not currently documented, they risk losing funding. Greg Abbott is the sole decider on these matters, and he has nothing new to say at this time. Any questions?

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.

SCOTX rejects multiple Hotze petitions

Some good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott finally speaks about schools

Of course, he mostly says weasel words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

The school situation remains a big ol’ mess

You can blame Greg Abbott for all this confusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the impact of Paxton’s letter?

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

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

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

What did Morath do Tuesday?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who can clear up this conflict?

The simplest answer: Abbott.

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

Abbott has made no move in either direction.

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

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

Paxton overrides county health orders on schools

So much concern for the children here.

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: This says a lot:

Truly, we have a weak and feckless Governor.

A very early glimmer of some possibly good news

We may be finally bending the curve, thanks to people finally taking seriously the need to wear face masks in public.

Three weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott required Texans to wear masks, epidemiologists and disease modelers say they are cautiously optimistic that the mandate is helping the state turn a corner in its efforts to contain an outbreak that has killed more than 4,500 Texans.

Throughout the summer, Texas’ coronavirus outbreak became grimmer by the day and by almost every metric: case counts, hospitalizations, deaths. But in the past week or so, Abbott and some of the state’s public health officials began to see hope in the daily case counts as they appeared to stabilize.

A growing body of evidence points to widespread mask-wearing as an effective strategy for containing the virus, and one North Texas researcher’s statistical analysis published this week argued that local mask orders in the region reduced viral transmission enough to avoid a lockdown. The governor, who has faced blistering criticism for his handling of the pandemic from members of his own political party, immediately seized upon those findings in defense of his statewide order.

“A community lock down is not needed as long as masks & other distancing strategies are used,” Abbott wrote Monday on Twitter, citing the analysis by Rajesh Nandy, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

But public health experts warn that more restrictive lockdowns may still be appropriate in the state’s hardest-hit regions, as the disease continues to infect about 10 times as many people each day compared with two months ago, ravaging some parts of the state more severely than others.

State data now appears to show new daily infections leveling off, albeit at nearly record highs. There were around 9,100 daily new cases of the virus on average over the past week. The state recorded its largest number of daily new cases July 15, at 10,791. On Thursday, that number was 9,507.

“The downside is even though we are approaching another plateau, we are at a much higher level than in May,” Nandy said.

Yes, it would be good news if the case rate stops going up. But it won’t truly be good news until the number of infections starts to go down, and then continues to go down. You know, like it has in New York and Europe and Asia and other places with generally functional governments. It’s when we get the virus down to levels at or below where we were when we first shut down back in March that we can truly contemplate things like safely sending kids back to school and reopening the economy. You’d think this would be something that would be better understood by the elected officials who have been so resistant to taking basic measures to fight COVID-19 – poll data consistently shows that the public understands this, even if they’re not always great about doing it in the absence of leadership – but clearly for some people, these things have to be learned the hard way. And as they are learning this, the hospitals are still at capacity, and could get overwhelmed at any time.

The irony there is that it may take another broad, mostly national shutdown to get to the point we want to get to. That won’t happen under this President, and if it’s still a necessary thing under the next one, then my god have we effed this up beyond all comprehension. In the meantime:

Now Starr County is at a dangerous “tipping point,” reporting an alarming number of new cases each day, data show. Starr County Memorial Hospital — the county’s only hospital — is overflowing with COVID-19 patients.

The county has been forced to form what is being compared to a so-called “death panel.” A county health board – which governs Starr Memorial – is set to authorize critical care guidelines Thursday that will help medical workers determine ways to allocate scarce medical resources on patients with the best chance to survive.

A committee will deem which COVID-19 patients are likely to die and send them home with family, Jose Vasquez, the county health authority, said during a news conference Tuesday.

“The situation is desperate,” Vasquez said. “We cannot continue functioning in the Starr County Memorial Hospital nor in our county in the way that things are going. The numbers are staggering.”

That’s the same Starr County that was once lauded for its low infection rate and ability to keep the virus under control. That was back when local officials had the authority to make and enforce shelter-in-place orders, before Greg Abbott took that authority away. Starr County now plans to issue a new shelter in place order, though of course they won’t be able to enforce it. Greg Abbott could let them enforce it, and he could let other local governments that want to take a step back in an effort to get their numbers down do so, but that’s not something he has any interest in doing. And so here we are.

There’s a lot of COVID litigation out there

Texas Lawyer surveys the landscape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it time to step back?

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Who wants to enforce Greg Abbott’s mask order?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Gov. Greg Abbott called on police across Texas to step up enforcement of his mask order amid the mounting pandemic, explaining Thursday that they can either “be part of the problem or part of the solution.”

Facing a revolt over the mandate within his conservative base, the governor acknowledged in a new round of interviews that masking is inconvenient, but said the alternative of locking the state down again is far worse.

“We have a short period of time in the next couple of weeks to bend the curve of this explosion in cases and hospitalizations,” he said in an interview on KSAT in San Antonio. “If we can enforce this, we will be able to keep the state open and reduce hospitalizations.”

Some local law enforcement officials, including the sheriffs in Montgomery and Gillespie counties, have refused to enforce the new order, citing personal liberties or enforcement logistics. On Wednesday, the Montgomery County Republican Executive Committee voted 40-0 to censure Abbott, joining at least three other county executive committees that have taken similar steps.

It’s more than just a few.

When Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide executive order requiring Texans to wear masks in public, he gave counties the opportunity to opt out if they have a low number of active coronavirus cases.

A week later, 78 counties have taken him up on that offer. And a handful of other local governments have insisted that they won’t enforce the order even though they don’t qualify for the opt-out provision. Officials cited a desire to preserve personal freedoms or concerns about enforcement.

“I think it’s an insult to Texans to be required to do something they should have discretion for,” said Hugh Reed, the top administrator for rural Armstrong County, near Amarillo, which opted out.

In a press release announcing the order, Abbott said that “wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19.” Public health experts broadly agree that masks slow the spread of the virus, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend face coverings for anyone 2 or older in public settings.

The order came as coronavirus cases have grown quickly in the state. As of Thursday, more than 9,600 people were hospitalized with the virus.

In order to opt out of the requirement, the counties need to have 20 or fewer active COVID-19 cases. Given the spread of the virus in recent weeks, only counties that are sparsely populated and rural tend to qualify. Most are in conservative areas of the state.

Rex Fields, the top elected official in Eastland County, said Abbott’s option for counties with low coronavirus case counts “gives people some personal freedom.”

But a few local officials without that freedom are also choosing not to enforce the order. In Montgomery County, which has a population of over 600,000 and has reported more than 2,700 coronavirus cases so far, the sheriff’s office said July 3 that it would not take action on the mask rule.

“This order includes specific language prohibiting law enforcement from detaining, arresting, or confining to jail as a means to enforce the order,” the agency wrote in a press release. “This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law.”

Yeah, so maybe undermining the rule of law was not a great idea. Greg Abbott could be in a position to insist that his order be enforced, if only Greg Abbott hadn’t so clearly demonstrated that Greg Abbott’s executive orders regarding COVID-19 are just suggestions.

That said, some places are more serious about trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled his encouragement Wednesday to Austin city leaders to move forward on “additional enforcement mechanisms” related to a recent order Abbott issued requiring Texans to wear masks in most public spaces.

In a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Abbott said the city’s consideration of new enforcement measures “to ensure compliance with my Executive Orders is an important step toward reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).”

“As you know, these Orders were created and adopted based on advise from medical experts, and if these Orders are followed, we will be able to protect both public health and the livelihoods of our citizens,” he added.

The Austin-American Statesman reported Wednesday that the City Council will meet Thursday “to vote on a resolution that would allow for a fine of up to $2,000 for anyone violating a ‘health authority rule’ like not wearing a mask” and to take “civil action against any person who maintains a business or site that does not comply with minimum health standards.”

Another riddle solved, apparently. That resolution passed unanimously on Thursday. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the Hotze contingent files a lawsuit against this, but in the meantime it’s something. (Hey, Greg! Now do letting counties issue stay-at-home orders.)

Now to be fair, if I’m going to advocate for letting local authorities have some of their authority to make local decisions back, I’m going to be circumspect about criticizing a small rural county with a still-low infection rate for not wanting to enforce a mask order. But let’s be clear that all parts of the state are vulnerable, and those lightly populated places also tend to be many miles away from hospitals, so their residents are in greater jeopardy should they get sick. The approach I’m looking for here is one that says “this is the minimum that counties must do – they can go above and beyond it within reason, but they have to do at least this much”. That philosophy has been distinctly lacking in recent years in this state.

But here we are, and here we once again face the worst case scenario, at least as far as Greg Abbott is concerned.

With Texas continuing to break records for new coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations this week, Gov. Greg Abbott reiterated Friday afternoon that things will continue to get worse. And if people keep flouting his new statewide mask mandate, he said, the next step could be another economic lockdown.

“Things will get worse, and let me explain why,” he told KLBK TV in Lubbock. “The deaths that we’re seeing announced today and yesterday — which are now over 100 — those are people who likely contracted COVID-19 in late May.

“The worst is yet to come as we work our way through that massive increase in people testing positive.”

Texans will also likely see an increase in cases next week, Abbott said, and people abiding by his face mask requirement might be the only thing standing between businesses remaining open and another shutdown.

“The public needs to understand this was a very tough decision for me to make,” Abbott told KLBK of his face mask mandate. “I made clear that I made this tough decision for one reason: It was our last best effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown.”

And then when sheriffs in heavily Republican counties refuse to enforce that, then what? Say it with me now: None of this had to happen. But it did, and it’s Greg Abbott’s fault.

Greg Abbott has no one to blame but himself

Let’s be very clear about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

I have many thoughts about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how’s Greg Abbott doing post-mask order?

Greg Abbott consistently polls as the politician with the highest approval rating in the state. He was basking in adulation a few weeks ago when things were reopening and the coronavirus numbers still looked good. How are things going for him now that he’s had to shut down the bars and require masks and we’re all worried about the hospitals overflowing? Well, there’s this:

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office says it will not enforce Gov. Greg Abbott’s order requiring most Texans to wear masks when they’re in public.

In a statement, the agency said it “will take NO actions to enforce” the order, arguing that it is unenforceable because it doesn’t allow law enforcement to detain, arrest or jail violators.

“This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law,” the agency said.

[…]

The sheriff’s office argued the order could subject it to civil liability if deputies stop someone for failing to wear a mask and it is misconstrued as a detention. The agency said “holding someone for the purpose of issuing a citation related to a fine is a legally defined detention under current Texas law.”

“We are in a public health crisis and we will use this opportunity to educate our community while still respecting individual liberties,” the sheriff’s office said.

They did say they would respond to a call from a business who had a customer who refused to wear a mask upon entering. Sheriffs from a couple of other Republican counties have made similar statements as well. I mean, I can kind of see their point here, and as we know Greg Abbott basically destroyed the legitimacy of any kind of enforcement mechanism for mask and stay-at-home orders in the Shelley Luther debacle. It’s still a bit stunning to see a Republican sheriff say publicly that they won’t do what Abbott wants them to do. They appear to have no fear of political blowback.

Which leads us to this:

The Ector County Republican Party voted Saturday to censure Gov. Greg Abbott, accusing him of overstepping his authority in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, while state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, called for a special session so lawmakers could have a say in how Texas proceeds amid soaring caseloads.

The party executive committee in Ector County, home to Odessa, passed the censure resolution 10-1, with one abstention and three voting members who were not present, according to the chairperson, Tisha Crow. She said she was among those who supported the resolution, which accuses Abbott of violating five party principles related to his exercise of executive power during the pandemic.

While the resolution asks that delegates to the state convention later this month consider — and affirm — Ector County’s action, Crow said consideration is “not guaranteed,” and one precinct chair, Aubrey Mayberry, said the resolution “doesn’t have any teeth” for now — but that it was important to send a message about what they consider Abbott’s overreach.

Mayberry, who voted for the resolution, said he was working with precinct chairs in other Texas counties to get similar resolutions passed ahead of the convention.

That’s a pretty direct slap in the face, and with the state GOP convention almost upon us, the potential for this to become A Thing is substantial. Will that represent some steam that has been blown off, or will it be the first step towards a serious rebellion? That’s an excellent question.

[State Sen. Charles] Perry wrote Saturday on Facebook that he is “deeply concerned about the unilateral power being used with no end in sight.”

“This is why I urge Governor Abbott to convene a special session to allow the legislature to pass legislation and hold hearings regarding the COVID-19 response,” Perry said. “It should not be the sole responsibility of one person to manage all of the issues related to a disaster that has no end in sight.”

In the upper chamber, state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, has also called for a special session, as have several House Republicans.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer had previously called on Abbott to work with the Legislature on COVID response instead of acting so unilaterally, though he’s a Democrat and I didn’t see the words “special session” in that article. As I have said repeatedly, the extent of the Governor’s emergency powers is a subject that really demands further discussion, and so far all we’ve gotten is a bunch of Hotze/Woodfill lawsuits, which is the worst possible way to come to a decision about what Abbott and whoever succeeds him can and cannot do. Among other things, I think this is exposing a real weakness in our 20-weeks-every-other-year legislative calendar, precisely because there’s a lot of things that the Lege can and should be doing right now, but is unable to because they’re not in session. The same was true in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey, though at least there everyone understood what the emergency actions were for and there was a clearer metric for when they would be lifted.

I would argue that legislators need to think about proposing some constitutional amendments to 1) more clearly define the parameters of the Governor’s executive power, and 2) maybe automatically trigger a special session under certain crisis conditions. I obviously haven’t thought this all through, and I don’t want to see legislators rushing forth with half-baked ideas, but I am serious that we need to take a look at this. The current model of “Governor hands down orders from on high that no one knew were coming and then gets sued by a couple of crackpots from Houston so that the courts can eventually sort it all out” doesn’t seem like it’s sustainable.

How Texas screwed it all up

That’s a more succinct headline for this story about how Texas went from having a low COVID-19 infection rate to one of the worst in the country. And the vast majority of the responsibility for this is on Greg Abbott.

In Houston, the largest medical campus in the world has exceeded its base intensive care capacity. In the Rio Grande Valley, elected officials pleaded this week for military intervention to avoid a “humanitarian crisis.” And in several major cities, testing sites are overrun, with appointments disappearing in minutes and hundreds waiting in line for hours.

Eight weeks ago, the White House lauded Texas as a model for containing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen the economy has unraveled as the state struggles to contain one of the worst outbreaks in the country.

“We’re on the verge of a nightmarish catastrophe,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and the Baylor College of Medicine. “On May 1, I thought we actually had a chance to get this virus under control and get the economy opened up safely. I’m not sure we can get it under control anymore.”

Public health experts say the worst of the crisis was avoidable in Texas, where Abbott stripped local officials of the ability to manage their own outbreaks and until Thursday refused to mandate masks and other basic mitigation practices. The governor reopened before the state could adequately monitor the virus, health experts said, then ignored signs in late May that infections were beginning to run rampant.

“That is the point at which you say hang on a sec, we’re staying where we are, and are probably taking a step back to understand the scale of the problem here,” said Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Without the tools in place to test quickly for infections and track those exposed, authorities believe the state was left blinded as the virus spread among younger Texans, who are less likely to develop symptoms.

Spokesmen for Abbott and state Health Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstadt did not respond to requests for comment. Asked at a televised town hall Thursday why he had not mandated masks sooner, the governor said the “data was only recently bad.”

“It was only in the past couple of weeks that we saw this spike in people testing positive,” Abbott said.

[…]

On April 27, Abbott said he would reopen the state in phases based on data and guidance from medical professionals, pledging not to simply “open up and hope for the best.”

His advisers laid out four criteria to guide the reopening: a two-week reduction in cases, hospital capacity for all patients, the ability to to conduct 30,000 daily viral tests and hire 4,000 contact tracers.

Abbott, however, did not commit to following them. Only in mid-June would the state begin meeting its testing goal. It has yet to hire enough contact tracers or see a sustained drop in infections.

He said the plan was designed to be applied regionally, with lighter restrictions imposed in areas with few cases, then overruled officials from large counties who tried to enact more restrictive edicts.

Abbott punctuated that point by effectively gutting Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s April 22 mask order when he stripped the ability of local governments to punish residents who violated such mandates.

Several prominent Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, had condemned Hidalgo’s order and its potential $1,000 fine as an abuse of power. They have continued to argue that the severity of the virus is being embellished, and some have even questioned whether masks are effective at stopping it from spreading.

The mask debate — which took another turn Thursday when Abbott issued his own statewide mandate — has sent mixed messages that may have left residents with the impression that face coverings are unimportant, said Dr. Gregory Tasian, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

“Without a clear direction from the state level, some of those masking policies become much less effective,” Tasian said.

There’s more, but you get the idea. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Abbott never made any effort to meet those four metrics that he himself and his vaunted “Strike Force” laid out. (By the way, when was the last time you saw a news story about COVID-19 in Texas refer to the “Strike Force”?) Each time he relaxed another part of the previous restrictions in order to push reopening further, I pointed out that we had no plan and no reason to proceed as if everything was going to plan. All we had was hope and distraction, and look where that has gotten us. The extremely “mixed messages” (to put it lightly) about masking and social distancing was another huge problem, one that also didn’t have to happen. I get that Abbott felt pressure from Donald Trump and from the screaming howler monkeys of our state like Dan Patrick, but for Christ’s sake he’s the Governor, he’s got a gazillion dollars in his campaign treasury and by far the highest approval ratings of anyone in the state, and it’s his fucking job to be a leader. He failed at that at every step of the way.

What’s even more appalling is that he already had a model that was working for him, and that was to get out of the way of the local leaders, who were uniformly ahead of him on all the mitigation steps we first took back in March. It would have been perfectly consistent with his stated belief that some parts of the state needed more restrictions than others to let Lina Hidalgo and the other county judges impose face mask orders and keep a tighter rein on businesses as they saw fit. I believe it would have been politically expedient for him as well, since the raging assholes would have aimed all their fury and lawsuits at them instead of at him. It was when he caved in the most cowardly way possible to Shelley Luther, who was being held accountable to HIS OWN EXECUTIVE ORDER by a Dallas County judge that we all should have known what was coming next. Sure is funny how the cries for “law and order” get silenced when it’s a white suburbanite being taken to court.

I also want to note the bit in this story about nobody on Team Abbott responding to requests for comment. Another hallmark of this crisis, which has been a recurring theme of the Abbott reign in general, has been the way he operates in a closed and non-transparent fashion. He does the things he does, on his own and in consultation with no one outside his bubble, with no mechanism for feedback or consideration of other perspectives. I can’t help but think that this style has not done him any favors lately, and I expect it will result in a Legislature that doesn’t feel much need to defer to him or his priorities in 2021, and that’s even if the Republicans manage to hang onto the House. And, as some people have speculated, he could be headed for a challenge from the right in the 2022 primary. I doubt that my own preferences here would do anything to dissuade such a challenger. But a better outcome from the pandemic might go a long way towards shoring up his political position.

So here we are, and as bad as things are right now, they are certain to get worse in the short term, because that’s the way this virus operates. If we’re very lucky, the mask order and mild dialing back of reopening might make things be less bad. But it’s going to be bad. And it didn’t have to be. It’s Greg Abbott’s fault that it is.

Abbott finally issues a mask order

Better late than never, but it’s pretty damn late.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a nearly statewide mask mandate Thursday as Texas scrambles to get its coronavirus surge under control.

The order requires Texans living in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while inside a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. But it provides several exceptions, including children who are younger than 10 years old, people who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking and people who are exercising outdoors.

The mask order goes into effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday.

The order represents a remarkable turnaround for Abbott, who has long resisted such a statewide mask requirement, even as the coronavirus situation has gotten worse than ever over the past couple weeks in Texas. When he began allowing Texas businesses to reopen this spring, Abbott prohibited local governments from punishing people who do not wear masks. As cases began to rise earlier this month, he clarified that cities and counties could order businesses to mandate customers wear masks.

In recent days, though, Abbott had held firm against going further than that, saying he did not want to impose a statewide requirement that may burden parts of the state that are not as badly affected by the outbreak.

Abbott on Thursday also banned certain outdoor gatherings of over 10 people unless local officials approve. He had previously set the threshold at over 100 people. The new prohibition also goes into effect Friday afternoon.

[…]

Abbott’s announcement came a day after the number of new daily cases in Texas, as well as hospitalizations, reached new highs again. There were 8,076 new cases Wednesday, over 1,000 cases more than the record that was set the prior day.

Hospitalizations hit 6,904, the third straight day setting a new record. The state says 12,894 beds are still available, as well as 1,322 ICU beds.

Abbott has been particularly worried about the positivity rate, or the share of tests that come back positive. That rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has jumped above its previous high of about 14% in recent days, ticking down to 13.58% on Tuesday. That is still above the 10% threshold that Abbott has long said would be cause for alarm amid the reopening process.

First-time offenders of Abbott’s order will receive a written or verbal warning. Those who violate the order a second time will receive a fine of up to $250. Every subsequent violation is punishable also by a fine of up to $250. The order specifies that no one can get jail time for a violation.

Remember that PolicyLab projection from May that said Harris County would go from 200 cases a day to over 2,000 by now? Thankfully, we’re still not close to that – the ReadyHarris dashboard has mostly shown us in the 600 to 800 cases per day range recently, though I suspect there’s some lag in the data because there’s no reason why this week would be lower than the two previous weeks. Point being, we most certainly could have seen this coming, and we could have done a lot to protect ourselves before this happened. You know, like having mask orders in place all along, and letting local governments have more leeway to control crowd sizes. Note here that Abbott’s order targets outdoor gatherings, but not indoor gatherings. You know, like this one. I don’t understand the logic here, but whatever.

The real question is after all this time and all that bullshit from Republicans like Dan Patrick, how much resistance do you think there will be to this new order? Like, remember when Dan Patrick called Judge Hidalgo’s mask order “the ultimate government overreach”? Also, too, Jared Woodfill and Steven Hotze are suing to basically stop emergency orders, and had previously sued to stop Judge Hidalgo’s mask order, before Abbott overruled it himself. Our state has plenty of people who will perform their rage over being asked to take the health and well-being of their neighbors into consideration. I’m curious, and more than a little afraid, to see how that segment of our population reacts to this. The Current, the Press, and the Dallas Observer have more.

UPDATE: My God, but Dan Crenshaw is a hack.