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Potter County

Reopening 3.0

Who wants to go to a water park?

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation Tuesday announcing additional services and activities that can resume under his second wave of reopenings, allowing food courts in shopping malls to reopen immediately and giving the green light for water parks to begin operations with limited capacity starting Friday.

Recreational sports programs for adults can restart Sunday, though games and similar competitions may not recommence until June 15. Abbott also permitted driver education programs to resume operations immediately.

For food court dining areas that choose to reopen, Abbott is encouraging malls to designate one or more people who are responsible for enforcing social distancing and ensuring tables are cleaned and disinfected between uses.

[…]

While indoor and outdoor pools can operate at 25% occupancy, the governor’s previous directives have specifically said people should continue to avoid interactive amusement venues like water parks. Abbott was facing pressure, however, from a Houston-area water park that initially said last week that it would defy Abbott’s orders and reopen Saturday for Memorial Day weekend. Asked about that last week, Abbott told an Austin television station that his office was talking with operators to make sure they complied.

“They subject themselves to potential litigation as well as potential licensing-based issues if they fail to comply, and so it’s a potentially business-dangerous process for them to proceed forward knowing that they are subjecting themselves to litigation if they open up and anybody contracts COVID-19,” he said to KXAN.

The park ultimately decided not to open early, Community Impact Newspaper reported.

If you can maintain social distancing, swimming is fairly low risk. My experience at water parks is that you’d be fine on most of the rides, but the lines to get to the rides will be what puts you in jeopardy. I’m also not sure how financially viable a 25%-capacity water park is, but that’s their problem, and if Schlitterbahn thinks they can make it work, they’re in a better position than I am to judge. I don’t expect to be paying them a visit this year, that much I do know.

Also, too, outdoor sporting events are back on the menu.

In a new proclamation, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that fans will be allowed at outdoor professional sporting events in most Texas counties with limited occupancy, under a new expansion of his most recent wave of economic reopenings.

Starting Friday, all Texans counties — excluding Deaf Smith, El Paso, Moore, Potter and Randall counties — will be able to host in-person spectators for outdoor sports in venues as long as visitors are capped at 25% capacity. Leagues will first have to apply to — and receive approval from — the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Under the revised rule, fans are still banned from attending indoor sporting events in person. The rule does not address college or high school athletics.

[…]

The health agency’s protocols for adult recreational sports participants include a recommendation of wearing face masks during sporting events and practices, screening individuals for symptoms of COVID-19, and using and carrying hand sanitizers.

Spectators, meanwhile, are encouraged to avoid being in groups larger than 10, maintain a 6-foot distance from others when possible and wear cloth face coverings.

Regular COVID-19 testing is also recommended throughout the professional sports season.

I’d say the main effect of this is allowing recreational sports leagues to start up. High school and college sports are exempted, the NWSL will be playing only in Utah, and MLB is still a work in progress. I guess auto racing would be open to fans now as well. I will have a decision to make when the college football season starts, but I wasn’t expecting to see an Astros game any time soon except on TV. Do any of these new options appeal to you? Leave a comment and let us know.

More reopening

Onward we go, whether wise or not.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced his next wave of reopenings designed to restart the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic, saying child care facilities can reopen immediately, bars can open Friday with limited capacity and sporting events can return without fans at the end of the month.

Abbott also said he would permit restaurants to operate at 50% capacity starting Friday, up from 25% that’s allowed now.

At the same time, Abbott exempted two hotspot regions — Amarillo and El Paso — from his latest decisions, saying they would need to wait a week — until May 29 — while the state’s surge response teams work to contain outbreaks in each area.

Abbott’s news conference came 18 days after he began a phased reopening of the state, starting with letting restaurants, stores, movie theaters and malls open up at 25% capacity. He then allowed barbershops and salons to reopen May 8 under certain restrictions. Monday was the first day gyms were allowed to open up, also under restrictions.

Previously, child care was only available to workers deemed essential by the state. Abbott’s announcement Monday allows child care centers to reopen to help all workers returning to their jobs.

In addition to bars, Abbott is letting a host of other establishments reopen Friday, including bowling alleys, bingo halls, skating rinks, rodeos, zoos and aquariums. In the lead-up to Monday, however, the fate of bars had drawn the most attention, especially after Abbott began allowing restaurants to reopen May 1. All the businesses opening Friday will only be allowed to operate at 25% capacity.

For bars that reopen Friday, the state is recommending that customers remain seated at tables of no more than six people, among other restrictions. Dancing is discouraged.

Insert Baptist joke here. On the one hand, the daily case numbers keep rising, with no clear indication that we were approaching a peak even before we started loosening things up, and without achieving the Abbott-stated benchmark of 30,000 tests per day. It’s not that we’re reopening per se, it’s that Abbott himself laid out conditions and requirements and penalties for people who failed to comply, then dropped it all like a hot rock the minute some grifter hairstylist in Dallas threw a hissy fit. It just doesn’t inspire confidence that Abbott has any idea what he’s doing or any plan to retreat if things start to get worse. That said, the rate of growth in the state is fairly slow, hospital capacity is in good shape – both of these are no doubt helped by the solid results in Harris County, for which Abbott owes Lina Hidalgo a big thank you – and to his credit Abbott paid attention to the places that needed and asked to be excluded from this round of reopenings.

The next round of reopenings will come May 31, when Abbott allow permit summer youth camps to reopen — as well as let certain professional sports to resume without spectators. The sports include basketball, baseball, car racing, football, golf, softball and tennis. Leagues will first have to apply to — and receive approval from — the Texas Department of State Health Services.

[…]

Notably, Monday marked the first time that Abbott singled out specific regions as not ready to take part in the latest reopenings.

Amarillo has been a hotspot due to outbreaks at its meatpacking plants, and earlier this month, the state dispatched one of its Surge Response Teams to the city to try to get things under control. Of the 1,801 new cases that Texas reported Saturday, over 700 were linked to the Amarillo meatpacking plants, according to Abbott’s office.

In El Paso, the situation has deteriorated enough that the county judge, Ricardo Samaniego, and other local officials asked Abbott last week to exempt the county from the next reopenings until the county sees a two-week downward trend in the number of positive cases or positive test rate. Abbott said Monday that El Paso’s hospital capacity is “too close for comfort at this particular time.”

The one-week delay “will give those communities and our surge team response the time needed to slow the spread and maintain hospital capacity,” Abbott said. “It will ensure those communities safely move into phase 2.”

The counties subject to the delay are El Paso, Randall, Potter, Moore and Deaf Smith. The latter four are all in the Amarillo region.

I have my doubts that the Abbott Strike Force will make any difference in these places, unless they find the will to shut down the meatpacking plants that have been such hotspots, but at least he’s not ignoring reality, unlike some other state officials I could name. He’s still wishy-washy, and in the end if this works out reasonably well I’ll believe it’s because he was more lucky than smart, but it could be worse. In this state, that’s often the best you can hope for. The Chron, the Press, the Current, the Rivard Report, and the Dallas Observer have more.

Federal response to coronavirus spike in Panhandle

Variations on the theme.

A federal strike force is headed to Amarillo in response to a surge of coronavirus cases tied to meatpacking plants in the area.

Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson announced on Saturday that a team of federal officials would arrive in the Texas Panhandle as soon as Sunday to help “attack” outbreaks in the plants and take over testing and investigations of people contracting the new coronavirus.

“They will bring resources and most importantly they will bring strategies that they’ve been using in other beef packing plants to slow the spread, to get control of it,” Nelson said in a video posted to her Facebook page.

The latest figures reported by the state put the number of people who have been infected in Potter County at 684, giving it an infection rate of 5.66 per 1,000 residents. That’s roughly four times higher than the infection rates in Harris and Dallas counties.

[…]

In her video update, Nelson said that community spread of the virus in the area had “started from” meatpacking plants in the area. There is also a Tyson Foods meatpacking plant in Amarillo.

Nelson shared details of a phone call with Gov. Greg Abbott during which the governor told her it was best for Amarillo residents to stay indoors. Abbott last week allowed his statewide stay-at-home order to expire and allowed for the reopening of some businesses that limit their capacity.

So, would Abbott allow Amarillo to impose (or reimpose) its own stay-at-home order if Mayor Nelson thought it was the best way to bring this outbreak under control, or nah? Asking for a friend.

We’ve talked about meat processing plants and their role in spreading coronavirus before. The story doesn’t say whether that Tyson plant in Amarillo is one of the places where the community spread of COVID-19 started, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s that once there is a hot spot in your area, whether it’s a meant processing plant or a nursing home or, you know, a prison, it’s going to affect people outside that hot spot, too. Maybe if we put a little more focus and emphasis on minimizing the risks at these places, we’d be in a better position to back off the restrictions on other places.

Montgomery County issues a stay-at-home order

It’s getting real, y’all.

After initially announcing he would not issue a stay-at-home order regarding the new coronavirus, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough is following other area counties and a stay-at-home order will go into effect at midnight Friday.

The 19-page restrictive order will be in place through April 12.

Additionally, Keough is putting all residents under a curfew beginning each night at 11:59 p.m. through 6 a.m.

“Given the most recent information concerning the virus and the potential for loss of life for our county and our region, I am amending my original order to become the Montgomery County Stay at Home, Stop the Spread order,” Keough said in a statement. “Having surrounded myself with a team of experts, in health district, homeland security and emergency management, law enforcement, our district attorney, and many others, whose council I value, I have made decisions that have been patient and measured.”

Keough said all non-essential business must close at 11:15 p.m. Friday and remain closed through April 12. The order allows for businesses to remain open if employees can work from home.

Keough called his order “crystal clear” with information on what are essential businesses and services and confirming all grocery stores will remain open.

“Read this order,” he said. “We are not urging you; we are telling you; you must comply with CDC social distancing guidelines. Stay home if you don’t need to be out. This is not a time for vacation or social gatherings. Take this virus seriously.”

Keough initially issued a disaster declaration March 12 following the first COVID-19 case in Montgomery County. In the last week, the number of cases in the county increased to 41. The coronavirus, according to the Montgomery County Public Health Department, has spread to all parts of the county.

As recently as Tuesday, the day that Harris County shut down, Montgomery County Judge Keough was holding firm against a stay-at-home order, though he had taken some steps. Keough is a former State Rep who ousted the incumbent county judge in 2018 in the Republican primary with tea party backing. I wonder if anyone has asked Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt what they think about this obvious betrayal of their bedrock principles.

I kid, only slightly, but the reality is that Keough is a latecomer on this train:


And indeed, Jefferson and Smith and several other counties have joined in. To update:

In case you’re wondering, Ector County is Odessa, Taylor is Abilene, Potter is Amarillo, Tom Green is San Angelo. Guadalupe (Seguin) and Comal (New Braunfels) are neighbors of Bexar County. We’ll see how long they hold out. This also means that Lubbock County has one of these orders as well; that wasn’t clear from the earlier story I blogged about. In some sense, it will soon be irrelevant if Greg Abbott orders a statewide shutdown or not. You still mad, Dan?

Early voting in the “next” 15 counties

As you know, there’s been a lot written about primary turnout in the top 15 counties by voter registration in Texas. Much has been said about the large increase in Democratic turnout, accompanied by the much milder increase – and in some counties, decrease – in Republican turnout when compared to 2014 and 2010. This is great, but Texas has 254 counties, and there are a lot of decent-sized metro areas that are not represented in the coverage we’ve seen, Moreover, while the top 15 counties include many blue and purplish counties, the next 15 are much more tilted to the red side. Here, by my reckoning, are those counties:

Bell (Killeen/Temple/Belton)
Lubbock
Jefferson (Beaumont)
McLennan (Waco)
Smith (Tyler)
Webb (Laredo)
Hays (San Marcos)
Brazos (Bryan/College Station)
Ellis (Waxahachie)
Guadalupe (Seguin)
Comal (New Braunfels)
Johnson (Cleburne)
Parker (Weatherford)
Randall (Amarillo)
Midland

Webb is strong Democratic; Hays and Jefferson are quasi-Democratic; the rest are varying shades of red. I wanted to know how voting was going in these counties, so off to Google I went. The best story I found in my searches came from Smith County:

Early voting ticked up among Smith County voters for the March primary, and about half of the increase came from people casting ballots for Democrats.

A total of 12,926 early ballots were cast in Smith County, according to the county’s elections division. By party, there were 10,994 ballots cast for Republicans and 1,932 cast for Democrats.

Overall, the numbers represent a 9.5 percent increase in early voting overall as compared with 2014, the last time there was a primary election for local and statewide offices but no candidate for president.

By party, the 2018 early voting numbers represent a 5.6 percent increase for Republicans, who cast 10,409 early ballots in 2014, and a 38.5 percent increase for Democrats, who cast 1,395 early ballots in 2014.

Early voting lasted approximately two weeks, from Feb. 20 through Friday. Polling places were open in five locations in Tyler, Lindale, Whitehouse and Noonday. The primary election is Tuesday.

Mark Owens, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Tyler, said much of the increase in early voters in 2018 could be attributed to an increasing population in Smith County.

The number of registered voters in Smith County is 131,007 in the 2018 primary, a 5.8 percent increase over the 123,867 registered voters at the time of the 2014 primary, according to Owens.

Owens called the early voting turnout “just on par for a growing area.” However, he credited Democrats for having an impact on the increase in early voters in conservative Smith County.

In raw numbers, 1,122 more Smith County residents voted in 2018 over 2014. Republicans accounted for 585 of those ballots, and Democrats accounted for 537 of them.

“To the Democrats’ credit, the voter mobilization efforts are stronger in the fact that this isn’t a primary with as many leading elections at the top of the ticket, so they would see it, from their perspective, of people wanting to vote for (their candidates),” Owens said.

“A really big part of it is candidates coming out to East Texas to listen and encouraging people to go vote,” Owens said. “I think if you look at the numbers, that means something to people.”

I’d call that encouraging. Dems are still vastly outnumbered, but they showed up and increased their totals over 2014. Indeed, the total number of votes cast in the Democratic primary in 2014 was 2,328, so early voting turnout there came close to matching that by itself.

That’s about as good as it gets in terms of being specific. This Lubbock story is pretty representative:

Heading into the last day of early voting for the 2018 primaries, the Associated Press reported that Texas had already set a non-presidential cycle record for the number of people turning out. Before Friday, more than 583,000 Texans in the 15 largest counties had cast early ballots in person, which was already more than the then-record of nearly 510,000 who did so during early voting for 2014′s midterm election.

In Lubbock County there were 15,430 total ballots cast during the 11 days of early voting. That means about 9 percent of registered voters took advantage of the early voting period.

About 400 more votes in Lubbock county were actually cast this year than during early voting in 2014, the last midterm election. This year’s total is about 8,700 votes less than in 2010. During the last primary in 2016, more than 25,000 votes were cast in early voting.

[…]

The Lubbock County Elections Office hasn’t yet released the separate vote totals for the Republican and Democratic primaries.

Some of these places make you downright wistful for Stan Stanart. Here’s Hays County:

As of Feb. 26, 4,658 early votes have been accounted for at seven different locations spread across the county. This does not account for the nearly 2,000 votes submitted to the county by mail.

In total, around 6,600 have been counted for, shattering the numbers from previous election cycles in 2014 and 2016.

According to Hays County numbers, roughly 4,500 people voted early in the November Presidential 2016 election, while only 1,768 early votes were counted in November 2014 race.

“We’ve had a very high turnout considering the political season we are in,” said Jennifer Anderson, elections administrator for Hays County. “Democratic turnout has been good and that is to be expected considering the national swing we had with the Presidential election.”

[…]

So far, roughly 53 percent of the early voting population voted in the Republican Primary, while 46 percent of the early votes took part in the Democratic Primary.

At least that’s something to go on. In 2014, 8,521 votes were cast in the Republican primary for Governor (this isn’t the same as turnout, since people do undervote in individual races, but I can’t get to the Hays County elections page as I write this, so it will have to do), compared to 3,131 votes in the Dem primary for Governor. If the split this year is something like 53-46, then the Dem share is up by a lot. That’s very good to see.

From Comal County:

Registered voters in Comal and Guadalupe counties have their last chance to cast early ballots today for candidates competing in Tuesday’s Republican and Democratic primary elections.

Voters in both counties flocked to the polls during the 12-day early voting period, which began Feb. 20. Through last Tuesday, 5,654 Comal County residents — about 6 percent of the county’s 95,353 registered voters — had cast early ballots, running ahead of the number and percentage of registered voters who turned out in the 2014 midterm elections.

The rest is behind a paywall. Comal is deep red – think Montgomery County-deep red – so this will be worth watching. In 2014, there were 14,458 Republican primary gubernatorial votes, and 1,647 Democratic votes, so you can see what I mean. Neighboring Guadalupe County has a bit more detail:

Guadalupe County Elections Administrator Lisa Adam said area residents have slowly begun increasing their presence at the polls.

“Our numbers this week have already been higher than in the 2014 gubernatorial primary,” she said. “The first week’s numbers for this year were a little lower than they were in 2014. This week we are actually ahead than the second week of early voting in 2014; not by leaps and bounds, but we are ahead.”

[…]

“In the 2014 primary, we had 81,217 registered voters,” she said. “Right now, as of Feb. 1 we have 95,717. We’ve come a long way. We’re adding 300 to 400 registered voters a month. The growth our county is experiencing is incredible.”

In that election cycle, the county saw 14.2 percent of the voting population turn out for the Republican Primary and 2.1 percent for the Democratic Primary, Adam said.

1,688 Dem gubernatorial primary votes, 11,196 Republican. Again, there’s lots of room to grow here.

Brazos County:

Early voting before the March 6 primaries wrapped up Friday with 5,933 Brazos County voters casting ballots.

Most of those, 4,144, came from Republicans, and 1,789 Democrats voted early. The total for the two-week early voting period was helped by a push of 1,467 voters Friday. There are about 105,000 registered voters in the county.

That’s burying the lede here. In the 2014 gubernatorial primary there were 1,927 total Dem votes, and 10,665 total Rep votes. In other words, Dems are way up. Republicans, not so much.

For McLennan County, I turn to my friend Carmen Saenz:

Final numbers for 2018 early voting in McLennan County primary:
Dems: 3054 – 28% of total
GOP: 7778 – 72% of total

Relative to 2014 early voting in the McLennan County primary:
Dems 1085 – 18% of total
GOP 4940 – 82% of total

Although there is a 181.5% increase in the number of Dems voting and only a 57.5% increase in GOP, with an overall increase of 80% these numbers say a lot about the McLennan County Democratic Party.

In a lot of the counties, we’ve seen Dem numbers up a lot with Republican numbers not up much if at all. Both are up here, which makes McLennan a bit of an outlier.

The city of Amarillo is in both Randall and Potter counties. I didn’t find a good story for Randall County, but I did find this for Potter:

In Potter County, there have been 4,940 votes in-person and mail-in since Feb 27. That number is expected to increase by seven tonight, at the end of early voting.

In the 2016 Presidential Primaries, there were 5,284 early votes cast in Potter County.
Breaking down the numbers even further, 4,128 Republicans cast their vote in Potter County, during early voting.

That has surpassed the numbers from the 2016 election, which topped out at 4,031 votes. The Democrats have cast 821 votes, slightly less than 2016 early voting at 988.

That’s 2016. If you look at 2014, there were 810 total votes cast in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. So yeah, it’s up.

Last but not least, Midland County:

The elections offices in Midland and Ector County has seen a dip in voter turnout this early voting season.

As of Friday afternoon in Ector County, election officials counted 5,300 voters.

There are over 74,000 registered voters in Ector County.

[…]

As of Friday morning in Midland County, the total number ballots counted was a little over 6,200.

There are over 81,000 registered voters in Midland County.

2014 gubernatorial primaries:

Ector County – 1,320 Dems, 7,778 Republicans
Midland County – 960 Dems, 12,640 Republicans

If there’s a downward trend in these places, it’s probably not because of the Dems.

I’ll return to this later in the week. For now, this is where we stand.

We’re still growing

The collapse of the oil boom has not slowed down Texas’ rapid population growth.

The Houston area added more people last year than any metropolitan region in the country, continuing its exceptional growth of the last decade and a half, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data released Thursday.

Combined, the greater Houston metropolitan area, which includes Houston, The Woodlands and Sugar Land, grew by about 160,000 people between July 2014 and July 2015. Even in a year when the region was rocked by falling oil prices, the population gain was still bigger than the two previous years, when the boom appeared never-ending.

As a whole, the so-called Texas Triangle of Houston, Austin/San Antonio, and Dallas-Fort Worthadded more people last year than any other state in the country, growing by more than 400,000 residents, or roughly the population of Minneapolis. Harris County alone added nearly 90,500 residents.

“Our growth has been so exceptional that we are out-competing” the rest of the nation, said Steve Murdock, a former Census Bureau director who heads the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University.

Not only has the region grown more in absolute numbers than the rest of the country – it is also growing at a faster rate.

Of the country’s 20 fastest-growing counties, eight were in Texas, including Fort Bend County, which added nearly 29,500 people last year and expanded by more than 4 percent. Of the nation’s 20 fastest-growing metro areas, Houston is by far the biggest city on the list, with growth of 2.4 percent.

The reason people keep flocking here: Jobs, lots of them, and a cheap cost of living. But even within the period measured by the Census – which started at the beginning of oil’s decline and ended before prices bottomed out last month – there were signs that growth was slowing, though just slightly. Oil prices peaked in June 2014 at about $105 a barrel and have tumbled more than 50 percent since.

“We’re starting to feel the impact,” said Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development organization.

He said the Houston metro area created 57,300 jobs during the period tracked by the Census, compared with 97,500 new jobs the year before. About 22,000 new jobs are forecast for this year, a significant drop.

Although the number of people moving to Harris County from other cities and states had been surging upward for years, it dropped by 20 percent in the period covered by the Census. The greater metro area saw a more gradual decline of 6 percent, to about 62,000.

“The word is getting out there nationally and internationally that we’re not booming like we used to,” Jankowski said. “We’re still going to have people moving here, but not at the rate when the economy was booming.”

Still, he noted that the Houston region has added nearly 737,000 people since the 2010 census – growth of about 12 percent – while many other cities like Chicago are losing residents en masse.

“As far as absolute numbers, we’ve added more population than New York, more than Los Angeles, more than Dallas in the last five years,” he said. “That’s the sort of numbers other places would kill to have.”

The slight cooling “gives us a chance to catch our breath,” he added.

The Houston area also has a fair amount of growth from natural causes, which is to say more people being born than people dying. It will be interesting to see what these numbers look like in another two years, especially if oil and gas prices remain low. I don’t expect the area to lose population, but there’s a lot of room still for its growth to decelerate.

There’s a map embedded in the story that shows the growth of each county. Every major metro area, including places like Tyler (Smith County), San Angelo (Tom Green County), and Abilene (Taylor and Jones counties) grew. The one sort-of exception was Amarillo, which is split between Randall (grew by 1,575) and Potter (lost 474) counties. Some grew more than others – El Paso, which has 835,593 people, only added 48 more. The only counties of any size I could find that didn’t grow were Coryell (population 75,503; lost 4 people) and Wichita (population 131,705; lost 1,250). Wichita, home of Wichita Falls, was the only county in Texas to lose more than 1,000 people. And if you’ve ever wondered why traffic on I-35 is as bad as it is, every county along I-35 from Bexar to Bell grew by at least 5,000 people. So there you have it. The official Census Bureau press release is here, and Texas Monthly, Reuters, Bloomberg, CultureMap, the DMN, and the Trib have more.