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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.

“On the cusp” of another COVID surge

The numbers are already trending up. You know what that means.

Cases of COVID-19 in parts of Texas surged to near catastrophic levels this summer as some hospitals were forced to put beds in hallways, intensive care units exceeded capacity and health officials struggled to stem the tide of the virus.

After peaking in late July and August, cases fell and leveled off in September, and the state’s seven-day positivity rate — or the proportion of positive tests — reached its lowest point since early June.

But health officials are now eyeing a worrying trend: New infections are rising again, and the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 is also ticking upward. The state reported 2,273 new cases Monday, and the seven-day average was up by 862 from the previous week. On Monday, at least 4,319 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, far below the more than 10,000 in July, but that number has steadily risen during the last month.

“I’m no longer pondering if we’re going to see a surge,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, dean of clinical affairs at the Baylor College of Medicine. “We’re already seeing it.”

Eight months since Texas recorded its first case, experts say the state is more prepared to handle another wave, but they fear that if the state fails to control the outbreak, it could quickly spiral out of control.

“The question is whether it’ll be a modest surge, or something like we saw in July, or worse,” McDeavitt said.

[…]

At Houston Methodist, one of the region’s largest health care systems, medical staff were stretched thin this summer, said President Marc Boom. At its peak in July, the system’s staff treated nearly 850 patients with COVID-19 each day. Since then, Boom said, the medical community’s understanding of the virus has evolved, along with how to treat the disease.

Remdesivir, an antiviral medication, has shown promising results in minimizing the severity of illness, especially when administered shortly after symptoms develop. Houston Medical was the first hospital to use convalescent plasma, a therapy in which antibody-rich blood from people who have recovered from COVID-19 is administered to ill patients, Boom said.

“We’ve had tons of experience gained, better outcomes, shorter lengths of stay,” Boom said. “But this is still a serious illness.”

While health authorities are better equipped to deal with new spikes, including an adequate supply of protective gear and sizable quantities of drugs like Remdesivir, a fall surge could still be equally as taxing on hospitals, said Carrie Kroll, vice president of advocacy, quality and public health at the Texas Hospital Association. As colder weather forces people inside and families gather for the holiday season, the chances for transmission increase, she said.

“We certainly have been tested, and we know the beast that it is, and have shown that we were able to make it through those first two spikes,” Kroll said. “But we don’t want to test the limit by putting patients into hospitals.”

See here for the previous update. It’s getting bad all around the country, too. Just a reminder, the July surge was bad, and it took Greg Abbott way too long to react to it. In the meantime, various assholes have decided that it’s a good use of their time to sue everyone in sight to limit the government’s ability to respond to COVID-19. I have one small bit of local optimism in that Harris County has not backed down from being at the top threat level even as the numbers were improving. Our numbers are also trending up, but they’re not as bad as other places. Yet, anyway.

“The trends are going in the wrong direction,” said William McKeon, president of the Texas Medical Center. “You hate to see the sacrifices we made and the successes we achieved lost because people let their guard down.”

Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist, said, “We’ve definitely turned the wrong corner. The numbers aren’t growing in an out-of-control fashion, but there’s no doubt we’re in a significant growth trend that we need to stop before the holiday season.”

[…]

The Houston numbers are well below those in other parts of the country, particularly the Midwest and the West. As of Monday, 16 states had added more COVID-19 cases the past week than in any other seven-day period.

The surge is even greater in Europe. There the total of new cases in the five most-affected countries — France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Spain and the Netherlands — was nearly 42 percent greater than the U.S. increase a week ago.

Nor does Houston’s increase compare to the Panhandle and El Paso. El Paso health officials Monday reported their highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began — 449 in one day — and said just seven of the city’s ICU beds were unoccupied.

Still, increases in Houston area’s key metrics since early October are cause for concern, said local health officials. Those provided by the Texas Medical Center include:

• The rolling average of 497 COVID-19 cases reported the week ending Sunday represents a 33 percent increase from late September, when the number was 373. It increased gradually the weeks in between.

• The number of COVID-19 patients admitted to TMC hospitals exceeded 100 last week, up from the 80s the previous week and 70s the week before that.

• The TMC COVID-19 test positivity rate, 3.4 percent early in October, has been at 3.9 percent the past week, an 8 percent increase.

• The so-called R(t), or reproduction rate, the rate at which the virus is spreading, did drop to 0.99 Tuesday, but that remains a 55 percent increase over the Sept. 29 rate of 0.64, when the spread was decreasing. The rate last week hit 1.14, which means the virus’ spread was increasing.

“We’re in a yellow zone, not a red zone”, is how one doctor put it. “COVID fatigue”, they say this is. I get that, but you can see what happens when we start to take this less seriously. Until there’s a widely available vaccine, wear your damn mask, stay out of crowded indoor spaces, maintain social distancing, and hope for the best. At least our mild winter weather means we can largely stay outside. It could be worse.

Keep fighting, fellas

Primal scream time.

Two of Texas’ top Republicans took part [last] Saturday in a protest of Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus restrictions outside the Governor’s Mansion, a striking display of intraparty defiance three days before early voting begins for a momentous November election.

The “Free Texas” rally featured speeches from Texas GOP Chair Allen West and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, both of whom invoked the governor critically. At one point, Miller turned toward the mansion with a message for Abbott.

“Quite frankly, governor, your cure is worse than the disease,” Miller said.

West, who took over the party in July and has been an open critic of some of Abbott’s coronavirus decisions, read a resolution that the State Republican Executive Committee passed last month. The resolution tells Abbott: “No Exceptions, No Delays….Open Texas NOW.”

“We call upon the governor to do what is right by the people of the great state of Texas so that Texas can continue to be a leader,” West added. “And if the governor did not get this resolution, I’m gonna leave it right here, at the gates of the Governor’s Mansion.”

The protest drew at least 200 people, a virtually maskless crowd, to a parking lot steps away from the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Austin. After hearing from a lineup of speakers that also included state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, the group marched on the streets and sidewalks surrounding the mansion, chanting, “Open Texas now!”

The audience was filled with signs expressing disgust at Abbott’s decisions to institute a statewide mask mandate and shut down certain businesses throughout the pandemic. One sign called Abbott the “#1 Job Killer in Texas,” while another called to “IMPEACH ABBOTT THE RHINO.”

I’ve been sitting on this for a few days in part because there’s so damn much other news that I’ve not been able to fit it in, and in part because it’s hard to add anything to “IMPEACH ABBOTT THE RHINO”. But we carry on.

West’s criticism of Abbott’s pandemic decisions has fueled speculation that he could run against the governor in 2022. As West prepared to start speaking at the rally, there were a couple chants of “West for governor!” which he sought to brush off, saying, “Oh, stop it, stop it, stop it.” Then there was another chant that drew cheers, prompting West to shake his head lightheartedly.

“Paid political announcement by a bunch of knuckleheads,” he said jokingly.

The idea of a carpetbagger like Allen West being a serious primary challenger to Greg Abbott is bizarre, to say the least, but we live in strange times. I do at this point believe someone will challenge Abbott in the primary, but who that might be and how seriously it will be taken remains unclear. Maybe this was Sid Miller’s audition for the job – he’s dumb enough to think he can do it, and clownish enough to appeal anyone who might think Allen West is some kind of savior. There’s plenty of room for this to get dumber, of that I’m certain. Dan Patrick as ever is the wild card, and likely the one Republican than Abbott actually fears. I don’t have any predictions – even if I did, it would be ridiculous to make them this far in advance – but I sure am interested in seeing how this plays out. We have a super consequential legislative session coming up, with redistricting and coronavirus and executive power and who knows what else that will dominate. How much does this kind of dissension affect Republican plans, or can they pull it together enough to support the things they all are supposed to like? Would a Dem Speaker remind them all of their real opponent? I don’t know, but these are the things I’ll be thinking about.

Don’t look now, but COVID numbers are ticking up again

In the state as a whole.

Texas reported more than 4,100 people hospitalized with the coronavirus on Wednesday, its largest total in six weeks and one that comes amid rising infections in El Paso and North Texas.

Hospitalizations hit a low in late September after a summer surge, but have risen incrementally for the past 10 days, reaching 4,133 on Wednesday. Other key metrics were also up slightly from a week earlier, including the reported rolling average of new daily infections and the number of people testing positive for the virus.

Public health officials said the increase is likely due to a combination of factors, including pandemic fatigue and expanded reopenings, especially bars. Bars were only allowed to begin reopening in select counties on Wednesday, but many have already been opened for weeks after reclassifying as restaurants — a loophole that the state created in hopes it would lead to better social distancing.

[…]

The biggest increases appear to be in West Texas and areas in and around Dallas.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins raised the county’s pandemic risk level back to red on Wednesday, and earlier this week Gov. Greg Abbott sent medical staff and supplies to El Paso to help respond to a wave of new COVID-19 cases.

“With a new and quickly escalating wave of COVID-19 cases hitting North Texas, it is more important than ever that we make good decisions,” Jenkins tweeted.

And here in the Houston area.

Houston-area COVID-19 numbers, trending in a positive direction for the last couple months, have taken a turn for the worse.

Four key coronavirus metrics all show an increase in the past week, according to the Texas Medical Center, which tracks the data for the complex’s seven major hospital systems. Those numbers had started trickling up the previous week in daily reports produced by the center.

The latest numbers from Wednesday’s report:

• The number of COVID-19 cases reported Tuesday, 671, represents a 62 percent increase over last week’s daily average of 412 cases per day.

• The number of COVID-19 patients admitted to TMC hospitals Tuesday, 102, represents an 18 percent increase over last week’s daily average of 86 patients per day.

• The TMC COVID-19 test positivity rate of 3.8 percent represents an 8 percent over last week’s daily average.

• The so-called R(t), or reproduction rate, the rate at which the virus is spreading, hit 1.16 Tuesday, an 18 percent increase in the past week. On Sept. 29, the number was 0.64, which meant the virus’ spread was then decreasing significantly.

The latest metric is probably the most concerning to health officials. A number below 1.0 means the virus is burning out in the area; a number above 1.0 means the spread is accelerating. After 32 consecutive days in which the metric showed the virus was burning out in the Houston area, it now shows the virus is again picking up steam.

And as was the case in the month of June, it’s already too late to stop this. The best we can do now is go back to what we had been doing before to bend the curve back in the downward direction. First and foremost, wear your goddamn masks, and practice social distancing. Don’t be this guy.

As for bars, I want them to survive, and I’ve been up front about the arbitrariness of the state’s definition of what a “bar” is versus what a “restaurant” is. I support the various ways that have been suggested to help bars survive by being more like restaurants, and by enabling to-go and outdoor service. And we really need a federal rescue bill for bars and restaurants and theaters and music halls and other public-gathering businesses that have been so devastated by this pandemic. But we have to be real and recognize that there are no circumstances under which crowding a bunch of people into indoor spaces is a good idea. How many times are we going to have to learn this lesson? The Trib has more.

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.

When Republicans fight

Such a sight to see.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s most exasperating allies sure chose an awkward time to act up.

In the face of a momentous election, with an array of issues that includes the pandemic, the recession, climate change, racial justice, law enforcement and the next appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, the chairman of the Texas GOP and a gang of lawmakers and activists have instead picked a fight with Abbott, who isn’t even on the ballot, over his response to the pandemic.

On the surface, they’re asking the courts to tell the governor that adding six more days of early voting to the calendar was outside of his powers. Abbott made the move under emergency powers he has claimed during the pandemic — the same powers he has used at various times to shut down schools, limit crowd sizes and limit how many customers businesses can serve at a time, or in some cases, to close businesses altogether.

The timing is connected to the Nov. 3 general election; even with the arguments over emergency powers, opponents of the governor’s action would be expected to grab for a remedy before early voting starts on Oct. 13. One might say the same about other lawsuits challenging the governor’s orders — that they’re tied not to politics, but to current events. Bar owners want to open their bars, for instance, and are not in the financial condition or the mood to stay closed until after the elections just to make the current set of incumbents look good.

What’s unusual is to see so many prominent Republican names on the top of a lawsuit against the Republican governor of Texas this close to an election.

In a gentler time, that might be called unseemly or distracting. Speaking ill of another Republican was considered out of bounds for a while there. Those days are over. What’s happening in Texas illustrates how the pandemic, the economy and other issues have shaken political norms.

As the story notes, this is also playing out in the SD30 special election, where Shelley Luther – supported by a million dollars from one of the Empower Texans moneybags – is busy calling Abbott a “tyrant”. There’s talk of various potential primary challengers to Abbott in 2022 – see the comments to this post for a couple of names – but I don’t see any serious threat to him as yet. If Dan Patrick decides he wants a promotion, then we’ve got something. Until then, it’s all talk.

But let me float an alternate scenario by you. What if the nihilist billionaires behind Empower Texans decide that Abbott and the Republican Party have totally sold out on them, and instead of finding someone to take Abbott out in a primary, they bankroll a petition drive to put some pet wingnut on the November ballot, as an independent or the nominee of some new party they just invented? It’s crazy and almost certain to hand the Governor’s mansion over to the Democratic nominee, but no one ever said these guys were strategic geniuses. It’s been said that there are three real political parties in Texas – the Democrats, the establishment Republicans, and the far right whackadoo Republicans. This would arguably be an outgrowth of that, and in what we all hope is a post-Trump world, there may be similar splits happening elsewhere.

How likely is this? As I said, it makes no sense in the abstract. It’s nearly impossible to see a path to victory for either Abbott or the appointed anti-Abbott. It’s instructive to compare to 2006, where Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman were taking votes away from both Rick Perry and Chris Bell. Nobody who considers themselves remotely a Democrat is going to be wooed by whoever Empower Texans could vomit onto the ballot. Maybe they would consider a victory by Julian Castro or whichever Dem to be preferable to another Abbott term, in their own version of “the two parties are the same, we must burn down the duopoly to get everything we want”. Just because it makes no sense doesn’t mean it can’t happen. For now, if I had to bet, my money would be on some token but not completely obscure challenger to Abbott in the primary – think Steve Stockman against John Cornyn in 2014, something like that. But a lot can happen in a year, and if the Dems do well this November, that could add to the pressure against Abbott. Who knows? Just another bubbling plot line to keep an eye on.

Lots of HISD students will stay remote for now

The people have spoken.

If the state’s largest district follows through with reopening campuses to students on Oct. 19 — the tentative plan, still based on public health conditions — more than half of the district’s nearly 200,000 could remain at home for at least one grading period, HISD officials said this week.

Newly released data shows that 80 percent of the district’s families committed in recent days to a back-to-school option. Of those, about 40 percent chose in-person instruction and 60 percent opted to stay in virtual classes. HISD officials are unsure whether the remaining 20 percent of families will send their children back to classrooms, but district staff are planning as if they will show up on campus.

With those totals in hand, HISD officials are using the next few days to finalize arrangements for Oct. 19, which marks the start of the district’s second grading period. Key decisions are expected to land next week, including whether to limit attendance at some high school campuses and shuffle students’ already-assigned teachers.

“Based on the enrollment data breakdown, campus principals will create schedules to accommodate students returning for face-to-face instruction and those continuing remotely,” HISD’s administration said in a statement.

[…]

Nearly all of the Houston area’s largest districts resumed in-person classes for families that want it in recent weeks, though a few remain in the early stages of reopening, including Alief and Fort Bend ISDs.

To date, only Crosby ISD has reported more than 10 active cases of COVID-19 at a single campus. The district temporarily closed Crosby High School this week and Crosby Middle School last week for cleaning.

HISD will be the region’s last district to offer face-to-face instruction, though the district has operated learning centers at 36 campuses and churches for students without at-home technology access since the 2020-21 school year started virtually in early September.

If HISD reopens classrooms in mid-October, the district likely will bring back thousands of employees who remain fearful of returning to work.

A survey of roughly 7,400 teachers conducted between mid-June and early July found that 35 percent were more comfortable staying in online-only classes, while 14 percent were ready to return to the classroom. About half of respondents said they were open to a hybrid model, in which students wanting in-person instruction spent part of their week on campus and part in at-home classes.

“There have been numerous concerns about the size of the classrooms,” said Scott Parker, a science teacher at Navarro Middle School. “You have literally thousands of students coming back, and they’re all within a closed, confined area.”

Nearly all of the district’s 280 campuses are expected to host all students wanting in-person instruction for five days each week. HISD officials did not release a campus-by-campus breakdown of expected in-person attendance rates Friday.

Our girls will be among those who continue to do remote learning for the next six weeks. Both their schools will have the teachers do in-person and remote instruction simultaneously, which means they will stay with the same teachers and on the same schedule. We’ll figure it out for the next six weeks after that. I am hoping that the initial return to campus will be safe and successful, because I know we need to get students back into their schools. We’re getting by and making do for now, but this is not ideal, and there will be long-term negative effects for many students. As to what happens if the return of students (and teachers, and support staff, and whoever else) to campuses is not successful, I have no idea. I just hope HISD and the TEA do. If you have kids in HISD or other district’s schools, what decision have you made about in-person versus remote learning?

And the PAC12 flip flops, too

Everyone’s playing football again.

The Pac-12 will play a seven-game conference football season beginning Nov. 6, the league announced Thursday.

The decision, voted on by the Pac-12’s CEO group on Thursday, represents an official reversal after the conference announced in early August it would postpone all sports until at least Jan. 1, citing health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This has been the result of what we said back in August — that we’d follow the science, follow the data, follow the advice from our medical experts,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said, “and that we know how badly our student-athletes want to compete, as student-athletes for the Pac-12, but that we would only do so when we felt that we could do so safely.”

In a release, the Pac-12 said men’s and women’s basketball can begin Nov. 25 while other winter sports can begin in line with their respective NCAA seasons. Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said other fall sports, such as cross country, soccer and volleyball, will continue to plan for a spring season.

[…]

In August, the Pac-12’s CEO group, which includes a president or chancellor from each university, voted unanimously to postpone the season. The explanation for the postponement included the need for daily rapid turnaround tests for COVID-19. At the time, there wasn’t a belief that would be possible during the fall.

However, that changed less than a month later when the conference reached an agreement with a company to provide daily tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration that are expected to be operational in early October.

Along with daily antigen testing, athletes will take at least one polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test per week.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports remains our guiding light and number one priority,” Pac-12 CEO group chair and Oregon president Michael Schill said in a statement. “Our CEO Group has taken a measured and thoughtful approach to today’s decision, including extensive consultation with stakeholders on the evolving information and data related to health and safety.”

The conference faced additional pressure after the ACC, Big 12 and SEC remained set on playing in the fall. There was a common belief in the Pac-12, sources said, that after the Big Ten postponed its season, the other Power 5 conferences would eventually do the same. When that didn’t happen and the Big Ten faced significant pressure to change course, and eventually did, the Pac-12 was left to find a way not to be the only Power 5 conference idle in the fall.

After the Big Ten’s announcement last week, Scott quickly pointed to governmental restrictions in California and Oregon that prevented the six Pac-12 schools in those states from practicing. By the end of the day, governors from both states publicly indicated that nothing at the state level would prevent the Pac-12 season from taking place.

See here for the background, and here for the PAC 12’s statement. No one will be allowed at on campus games until at least January. It does indeed seem inevitable that once the Big Ten came back, the PAC 12 would follow. Now even some non-Power Five conferences are also returning, as the Mountain West Conference made a similar announcement. Just because they’re back doesn’t mean they’ll end up playing all the games they intend to play – just ask the University of Houston, which has had four games against four different opponents get cancelled for COVID reasons. And if you think all this is weird and perhaps ill-advised, just wait till basketball starts.

UPDATE: And the MAC is back, too, meaning that all FBS conferences will be playing some form of a football schedule this fall.

Bar owners still mad at Abbott

Can’t blame them, but the situation is complicated.

As Gov. Greg Abbott outlined his latest reopening plan this week, bar owner Greg Barrineau watched in disbelief. Abbott, who announced that Texas restaurants could expand dine-in service to 75% capacity, said bars must remain closed.

“Some bars and their associations have offered some very helpful ideas,” Abbott said of reopening, “and we will continue to work with them on that process.”

But Barrineau, who has laid off his 12 staff members and suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses at Drink Texas, a bar with locations in San Antonio and Boerne, said that assertion of collaboration is “insanity — he doesn’t care about small businesses.”

Michael Klein, the head of Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance, which represents thousands of bars, said that Abbott’s statement about working together was “incorrect,” carefully choosing his words. The TBNA laid out a six-point plan to reopen in August, but Klein said the governor, whom he referred to strictly as “anti-business Abbott,” has not responded to the plan.

“We’ve never heard back from them,” Klein said. “We believe that he is disingenuous.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

While restaurant owners applauded Abbott’s move to allow them to increase operations, Klein said Thursday’s ruling was “completely unacceptable” for many bars and other facilities where alcohol sales make up more than half of the revenue. It could leave 30% of Texas bars and 39% of distilleries permanently closed within six months, industry leaders said.

[…]

Spread from conventional bars and nightclubs has been widely documented throughout the U.S., and infectious disease experts caution going inside establishments that don’t follow social distancing protocols.

Kristin Mondy, chief of the infectious disease division in the University of Texas at Austin’s medical school, said there is increased risk in spreading the virus if strangers mingle in a tight, closed space, especially as drinking could cause bar customers to loosen their inhibitions.

Klein said the industry’s plan would reduce those issues by complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements.

Some of the requirements in TBNA’s plan include ensuring all patrons are seated at their own tables, barring dance floors and mingling among groups, requiring face masks for all servers and customers when not at their tables, and conducting temperature checks upon entry. Mondy said these procedures could help as long as mask-wearing and social distancing are enforced.

[…]

Cord Switzer, who has helped run Fredericksburg Winery for almost 25 years with his family, said he has been able to technically and legally become a food server — but no one that comes is actually eating the food. That’s not why they go to a winery, he said.

“It makes no sense to me,” Switzer said. “We have never been interested in being in the food service business. We have no intent of doing that in the future, but it was our only choice.”

Switzer started wine tastings on Saturday for the first time in two months and hopes to begin recouping his losses after making 30% of last year’s revenue. But he doesn’t understand the governor’s categorization, and industry advocates share Switzer’s confusion.

“Texas winery owners continue to be perplexed by Governor Abbott’s steadfast refusal to recognize that the lion’s share of Texas alcohol manufacturer’s tasting rooms have little, if anything, in common with bars and nightclubs,” said Patrick Whitehead, the president of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, in an email. “Governor Abbott’s arbitrary, and frankly unfair, act of lumping our tasting rooms into the category of bars is like a surgeon operating with a chainsaw rather [than] a scalpel.”

Switzer’s money troubles are not unique; nearly half of distilleries surveyed by the Texas Whiskey Association have experienced revenue losses greater than 60%. Spence Whelan, the head of the association, which represents distilleries across Texas, said continued restrictions could be disastrous for the industry, which normally relies on a big fourth quarter in holiday sales to stay afloat. This fall, with little or no visitors, that could be wiped out. Under Texas law, whiskey distilleries cannot ship or deliver whiskey directly to customers, nor can they sell more than two bottles of whiskey per person.

At the very least, Whelan said, those rules should be relaxed. Many places don’t want to open yet anyway, and there are other ways to bring in money. He said the industry has sent more than 15,000 letters to the governor’s office asking to waive those restrictions and has received no response.

Let’s acknowledge that bars are a high-risk environment for COVID-19, and the reopening of bars in May was a significant contributor to the subsequent outbreaks that swept the state in June and July. We should also acknowledge that there’s evidence that the reopening of restaurants, even at lower capacities, is also a risk factor in spreading COVID-19. The bar owners’ complaint – and wineries’, and distilleries’, and craft breweries’ – is that Abbott has been particularly rigid about how these risks are categorized, and has been unresponsive to any input that would allow these entities to operate in a lower-risk fashion.

I have a lot of sympathy for these complaints. Some bars have been able to reopen by creative interpretation of the 51% rule, by incorporating to-go service, and by a recent rule change that lets them have food trucks on their premises. But this doesn’t work for every bar, it imposes extra costs on them, and it doesn’t change the fundamental nature of their business. The only good thing that may come out of it is the expanded allowance for to-go service, and maybe if we’re very lucky a broader rethinking of our antiquated regulatory scheme for alcohol. I don’t know how effective the risk-mitigation strategies that have been proposed by the various industry groups would be, but we could study them and try the ones that comply with known best practices. We could surely let the places that have ample outdoor space like wineries and craft breweries with beer gardens take advantage of those spaces (to some extent we already are permitting this), and we could make allowances for those that have large and well-ventilated indoor spaces where social distancing would work. And, you know, Abbott and Dan Patrick could put a little pressure on the two Republican Senators to support a relief bill in Congress that included funds for bars and other places that rely heavily on alcohol sales (such as music halls) that just can’t be allowed to reopen right now. Abbott has done none of this, and as noted in the story has been repeatedly unwilling to engage in any discussion about it.

So this is both a legitimate set of concerns by members of a significant sector of the Texas economy, and a real opportunity for Democrats going forward. Dems don’t need to pander or reverse course on their properly-held principles about minimizing COVID risk. They just need to be willing to consider the various risk-mitigation strategies that have been proposed, and to continue to push for a response from Congress that truly addresses the broad economic pain that much of the country is still experiencing. Good policy is so often good politics, and the opportunity to do both here is enormous.

Still code red

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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.

We suck at COVID data, the continuing story

Would have been nice to have known this when it was happening.

State health officials published new data this week that showed the state’s positivity rate was higher in the spring that originally disclosed, even as public officials cited the data to justify business reopenings during the pandemic.

The Department of State Health Services on Monday announced a new method for calculating the positivity rate, or the proportion of positive tests, and conceded the previous method obscured the extent of viral transmission by combining old and new cases. The new formula relies on the date a coronavirus test was administered, rather than the date it was reported to health officials and verified as a case.

As Texas prepared for the first phase of reopening in late April, Gov. Greg Abbott repeatedly pointed to the state’s positivity rate, even as the number of new cases and deaths continued to rise. Announcing his initial reopening order on April 27, Abbott declared that the “COVID-19 infection rate has been on the decline over the past 17 days.”

The following week, the governor downplayed a new single-day record in new COVID-19 cases by again pointing to the positivity rate.

“Despite concentrating on areas where we think there may be a high level or number of people who could test positive, the fact remains that more than 95% of the people who were tested test negative,” Abbott said during a May 5 news conference.

State data at the time placed the seven-day average positivity rate at 5.84%, near the 5% benchmark recommended by the World Health Organization before governments ease restrictions. The actual rate, however, was higher. According to the new method employed by DSHS, Texas’ seven-day average positivity rate was actually 8.4%, near the 10% threshold Abbott had called a “warning flag” indicating a high level of community spread.

Following the reopening of bars, restaurants, stores and child care centers throughout May, Texas saw a surge in cases beginning in June. The state’s reported seven-day average positivity rate under the old method jumped from 4.27% at its lowest point in late May to 17.4% at its peak in mid-July. After revising the data, the state’s new chart shows that the positivity rate jumped from 5.81% in May to a peak of 21% in early July.

See here, here, and here for earlier entries in this chronicle. This stuff is hard, I don’t want to minimize that. Doctors and scientists have made mistakes and have changed their tune on COVID-related matters over time, as new data has come in and revised our understanding of what we thought we knew. Maybe no one could have known this at the time, I’m not in a position to judge. But as we’ve said before, the state rushed to reopen on Greg Abbott’s orders even as the Abbott-defined metrics for reopening were not being met. Now we know we were even further from the desired levels than we thought, and many more people have gotten sick and died or are suffering from long-term effects of the virus. We can have some level of sympathy for Greg Abbott, we can recognize that anyone would have made bad decisions if they were given bad data, and still hold him responsible for the outcome. His decision to reopen as he did was risky at the time, and it’s so much worse now. That’s all on him.

Houston to allow some limited events

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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?

How are things at college these days?

About as can be expected.

Students at a Baylor University dormitory are required to “reside in place” after a spike in positive coronavirus cases in a campus dormitory.

Baylor officials wrote in a letter to the community that the number of positive COVID-19 cases within Martin Hall increased from five to 21 cases within three days. All Martin Hall residents on the two affected floors — about 80 of 250 students — were notified about the next steps and university officials asked students to not leave their respective floor for four days.

Other Texas campuses also saw an increase of positive cases following the return to campus in mid-August.

Two people living in on-campus dorms have tested positive at the University of Texas at Austin, according to UT spokesman J.B. Bird. Since the beginning of August, 37 positive cases have been reported at UT.

[…]

Since dorms opened on Aug. 20, eight students and five UT faculty and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, but it is unclear how many of those individuals live in on-campus facilities or are working on campus.

The UT flagship has reported 493 COVID-19 cases since March 1 on its dashboard, which tracks the number of cases of the virus.

Baylor now plans to conduct daily rapid testing and assessment of symptoms and complete contact tracing. All positive cases have been isolated and are no longer in the dorm, university officials said. And residents on other floors were asked to not visit any of the upper floors and to contact Baylor Health Services to schedule COVID-19 testing.

In the meantime, Baylor also hopes to “tailor its response” to the outbreak without requiring a full quarantine for the residence hall. The university launched “weekly surveillance testing” Monday, which will conduct ongoing testing of 5 percent of the campus at random.

Additionally, officials reminded its campus community to wear face coverings, maintain social distance, upkeep hygiene and hand sanitizing, and to monitor for any COVID-19 symptoms.

The outbreak is just a fragment of the 645 positive cases at Baylor since the beginning of August, according to the university’s dashboard. The dashboard, updated daily at 3 p.m., showed that of those cases more than 450 are still active, and about 400 of those cases were produced in the last week.

It’s just two schools, so we shouldn’t rush to conclusions, but other schools around the country have had major outbreaks and caused all kinds of disruptions. The fact is, you’re bringing a lot of people into a relatively small geographic area, into mostly indoor spaces, with loads of opportunities for in-person gatherings. What did you think was going to happen? To be sure, if I were a college student, I’d rather be on campus with my friends and hope for the best, rather than continue to quarantine somewhere and pay tuition for online classes. As with everything else, if we’d done a better job – or, really, any job at all – combatting the virus at the national level, we’d be in a much better position today than we are. Ain’t happening with the current President, or the current Governor. Someday, hopefully soon, but not now.

We are not ready to re-reopen

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but…

Texas COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined the most significantly — 4,144 Tuesday, down from 10,893 on July 22 — but new cases, positive test rates, daily deaths and viral spread are all dropping. They are dropping enough that one Texas modeler, Spencer Fox of University of Texas at Austin, went so far as to say he thinks that Texas may have seen the worst of the pandemic — as long as people continue to wear masks and keep their guard up.

A number of other health experts warned against lifting restrictions, noting that the coming Labor Day weekend, the expected resumption of schools and seasonal weather changes have the potential to cause a resurgence like Texas experienced earlier in the summer. They also said the amount of transmission, although improved, is still way too high.

“I don’t want to be Debbie Downer, but we’ve been surprised before,” Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the UTHealth School of Public Health, said last Friday. “It’s a double-edged sword when things start looking better. The virus is still out there, but people think things can go back to normal.”

Troisi added that some experts are hesitant because of the state’s data reporting problems, because it’s possible some other issue will surface. Those problems include under testing, coding errors that caused backlogged results and combining positive diagnostic and antibody tests.

Chris Amos, a Baylor College of Medicine quantitative scientist, said “the timing could not be worse for rolling back.”

“Given the number who test positive reflect perhaps 10 times as many individuals who have not been tested but are positive,” said Amos, “there remains a large pool of individuals who can spread COVID-19 if they begin interacting with many others, and particularly if we allow large groups to start coming together again.”

Amos acknowledged that optimism about opening up is natural given the slowing of COVID-19’s spread. The spread is measured by a value, known as reproductivity, that suggests a slowing or growing of the virus. Over 1 means each infected person transmits it to an average of more than one person and the epidemic grows; under 1 means the virus is transmitted to less than one person and the epidemic won’t sustain itself.

The value for the state overall has been under 1 since July 20.

According to Amos’ calculations, if the state maintains the current trend, with the number around 0.87, it would take 38 days to reduce the COVID-19 burden by another 50 percent.

It’s important to keep reducing that burden before students resume in-person classes, Amos said. He and others advised against a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Not every community or county in Texas is experiencing the same burden of disease,” said Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist with the Texas A&M School of Public Health. “In some places, it may be justified to roll back some restrictions whereas in others, it’d be ill-advised to do so. It will be critically important that rolling back restrictions does not send the message that we are somehow ‘all clear.’”

See here for the background. The basic fact remains that we are still at levels well above where we were in early June, when we first re-opened. There’s no question that if we re-reopened like we re-opened the first time around, we will get the same result. To me, three things are clear. One we shouldn’t change anything until we are back at early-June levels. Two, we should have sensible objective metrics that we can actually measure with accuracy and that we stick to, unlike the first time around. And three, give some discretion back to local jurisdictions so that the counties with a sufficiently low infection rate can be more open (though still within state guidelines) while those that aren’t ready for that kind of openness can continue to do what they need to do to get there. All of this should be screamingly obvious after what we just went through, but I see no reason to believe that Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick have learned anything from that experience.

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

Who’s ready to re-reopen Texas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can downtown survive COVID-19?

So depressing to read.

When Understory opened last summer, the stylish food hall in downtown’s Bank of America Tower quickly became the go-to lunch spot for throngs of office workers who stood in line for poke bowls, gourmet burgers and fancy coffee drinks.

Across the street, a row of taxis idled in front of Chase Tower, waiting to shuttle well-dressed business travelers to their hotels or back to the airport.

At night, lights twinkled from inside Perbacco, the glass-walled Italian restaurant across from the city’s symphony hall that had become a pre-theater staple.

But that was all so 2019.

This corner of downtown Houston, once a thriving hub of commerce and culture, has become a shadow of its former self. The food hall crowds are gone. The taxis are nowhere to be found. And the restaurants that are still open are struggling to hang on. Aside from construction projects, which have continued to move forward during the coronavirus pandemic, the Central Business District is a ghost town.

It’s not just the private sector feeling the pain. With tourists and business travelers staying home, hotel occupancy tax collections, a significant source of revenue for the city, were off 28 percent through July compared with the same period in 2019.

“You’ve got to understand,” said Tilman Fertitta, who owns Vic & Anthony’s, the high-end steakhouse near Minute Maid Park, “downtown is dead. There’s nobody in the buildings. There’s no business traveler.”

While some white-collar workers have trickled back to their jobs, the office population has plunged to less than 10 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to a survey by Central Houston, a downtown business group. Major conventions and virtually all business travel, the lifeblood of downtown hotels, have been canceled. The performing arts are on hiatus and professional sports are being played elsewhere or without fans in their seats.

The strides developers, business leaders and city officials have made in transforming the city center from a mostly commercial district into a more vibrant neighborhood with new housing, parks and schools are being threatened by the pandemic, whose economic and societal tolls may take years to undo.

I’ve lived in Houston long enough to remember when no one went downtown unless they worked there or had some limited one-off reason, like jury duty or to see a show. I’ve seen the various efforts to bring new life into downtown, from big ticket items like Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center to Discovery Green and the resurgent restaurant scene. As a four-year downtown employee, I dodged a lot of construction and saw the culmination of many longer-term projects that made downtown a vital and thriving place. And now we see the devastation caused by COVID-19 and the lives and careers and businesses it has wrecked, and I wonder if I’ll live to see a downtown like the one I remember again. I’m hopeful by nature, but boy is this going to be rough.

We’re trending in the right direction, but…

Still a ways to go.

The number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in the Houston area have improved significantly since July, but the pandemic remains a serious threat here.

The Houston region added 1,957 cases on Saturday, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis, bringing the total to 104,650.

Texas as a whole added 4,988 cases and added 138 deaths. The Chronicle has tallied a total of 12,664 virus deaths in the state, though the true figure is likely higher.

The positive test rate fell slightly, from 12.3 percent to 12.2 percent. A troubling sign, however, was a jump in the state’s rolling average of new cases, from 4,997 to 5,369.

Statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations declined for the 11th straight day, to 4,273.

I last posted about this a few days ago, so things aren’t that much different. This story doesn’t have any charts in it, but you can go to Ready Harris and see what they have. (There’s a large blip in the Harris-not-Houston numbers for the past two days, which I’m going to guess is an artifact of test results coming in as a cluster.) As with San Antonio and Dallas and the state as a whole, the numbers are down from the peak but still well above where they were before they began that massive increase in late June. The thing that has made the difference is wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and avoiding indoor crowds. If we can keep this up, we can get to a point where maybe having kids back in school doesn’t seem like a crazy idea. It’s just that the last time we thought we were making progress, we declared victory and totally let our guard down. Can we please not do that this time? Thanks.

Food trucks and bars

I approve of this.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission approved rules Tuesday intended to make it easier for bars to legally operate as restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state agency greatly expanded rules that had already offered a limited lifeline for some bars to temporarily reclassify themselves and generate a sliver of sales during the coronavirus crisis. The goal is to provide more ways for businesses to qualify as restaurants under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order GA-28, which prohibits bars from reopening but allows restaurants to remain open at 50% capacity.

TABC’s amendments to Rule 33.5, which deals with food and beverage certificates, go into effect immediately.

The amended rules mean that bars can now reopen whether or not they have commercial-grade kitchens. Off-site food will also be allowed to be sold at the bars. This would include packaged items.

Additionally, bars will be able to more easily partner with food trucks. Sales from these food orders will be able to count toward the TABC’s rule that alcohol must account for less than 51% of the establishment’s gross revenue in order for it to open as a restaurant.

As we have discussed before, the 51% rule is more than a little arbitrary, and bars have deserved more flexibility to operate. I don’t want to downplay the risks here – you are still much better off avoiding indoor spaces and taking any food or drink to go if there isn’t an outdoor seating arrangement. If they comply with the limited capacity rules that apply to restaurants, then I favor approaches like this that let more bars be classified as restaurants, because they need the help. In the absence of federal help, this is the best we can do at this time. (To be fair, not all bar owners agree with this approach. A more serious review of the TABC’s 51% formula is still needed.) Reform Austin, the Dallas Observer, and the Current have more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

The story is similar in San Antonio.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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.

It’s still hard out here on bars and restaurants

I continue to worry about our once-thriving hospitality industry.

Hundreds of Texas bars and restaurants are scrambling to change how they operate, maneuvering through loopholes that will allow them to reopen after being closed by Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest shutdown targeting bars.

Abbott has shut bars down twice since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in Texas. The first time bars were swept up in a total lockdown of statewide businesses. But the second time, on June 26, Abbott singled bars out while allowing virtually every other kind of business in Texas to stay open.

But other operations such as restaurants that sell a lot of booze, wineries and breweries were ensnared in the same order and also forced to close because alcohol sales exceeded 51% of total revenue, meaning they were classified as bars.

“Generally everyone has a common sense understanding: ‘What is a bar? And what is a restaurant?’ I think that 51% rule is so broad that it actually picks up or encompasses businesses that we would normally think of as really being restaurants,” said State Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie, one of more than 65 lawmakers who signed a letter asking Abbott to update his order’s definition of a restaurant.

Wray gave the example of a burger restaurant, where a patron might buy a burger and two beers. Oftentimes, the beer will cost more than the food, but that doesn’t make the restaurant a bar, he said.

Emily Williams Knight, Texas Restaurant Association president, estimates that about 1,500 restaurants ranging from steak houses to coffee shops that sell wine were “inadvertently” forced to close when Abbott shut down bars, translating to about 35,000 lost jobs in the state.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission responded to outcry from the service industry with new guidance in a July 30 notice allowing businesses to either demonstrate that they recently had less than 51% alcohol sales or use alcohol sales projections and apply for a Food and Beverage Certificate, documentation that allows them to reopen as a restaurant.

The certificate workaround requires the business to have a permanent kitchen. It allows bars and restaurants to use projected sales numbers instead of requiring past sales to determine if alcohol sales exceed food sales.

The TABC received more than 600 requests from existing businesses for Food and Beverage Certificates since Abbott’s order took place and granted about 300, according to commission spokesperson Chris Porter. Almost 90 businesses have also requested to update their alcohol sales numbers in an effort to reopen.

The Texas restaurant industry is already struggling, with Knight projecting that up to 30% of restaurants in the state could go out of business.

For those forced to shut down due to the bar order, it can be a death sentence and business owners see these changes as their last hope.

[…]

Breweries also found themselves forced to shut down by Abbott’s order, with two-thirds of Texas craft brewery owners predicting that their businesses could close permanently by the end of the year under the current closures, according to a July survey by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.

Hopsquad Brewing Co., an Austin brewery, reopened as a restaurant using a Food and Beverage Certificate with an onsite food truck serving as its kitchen, General Manager Greg Henny said.

He was lucky, because the brewery already had a food truck on site, Henry said. But he thinks breweries and wineries should have their own classification separate from bars, because they operate differently.

Henny said the guidance from the TABC has been confusing and harmful to breweries. To help other businesses survive the pandemic, the agency allowed “retail and manufacturing businesses” to serve and sell alcohol in a patio or outdoor area that wasn’t part of its original designated premises, which some brewery owners took as being able to reopen.

However, the TABC later released a clarification saying that businesses with more than 51% alcohol sales were not eligible.

“The circumstances are constantly changing as a result of which way the winds are blowing with [the TABC],” he said. “It makes us feel frustrated. We’re fighting tooth and nail just to stay open, and we’ve shown time and time again that we can operate safely,” he said.

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, and Texas Legislative Tourism Caucus chairman led the efforts behind the letter sent to Abbott asking for an updated restaurant definition.

“You’ve got a lot of these establishments — these restaurants — that are kind of in limbo just because of how much alcohol they sell,” he said. “Restaurants that have already been decimated by the first initial shutdowns with the pandemic [and] by some people’s reluctance to want to come in and eat.”

I’ve beaten this drum before, and I continue to believe that to-go food and drink rules should be as liberal as possible, the 51% rule should be greatly relaxed, all avenues for outdoor seating should be explored, craft breweries and wineries and distilleries should get a break. But let’s be real, the problem won’t be truly solved until we get the damn virus under control, and that means taking mask wearing and social distancing seriously. It would be nice if we had a functional, non-evil federal government that tried to do something to help, but that ain’t happening till January, and we don’t have that kind of time. It would also be nice to get a rescue bill for bars and restaurants passed – there are some bipartisan proposals out there – but, well, see the previous point. We have to hold on for now.

And lord knows, that ain’t easy.

Bars that offer food service are scraping by with booze to-go operations. Their counterparts without kitchens, bound by state rules, can do little but watch their coffers wither.

“We’re all looking at our bank accounts like you would at the life bar in a video game,” said Michael Neff, owner of the Cottonmouth Club downtown. “All of us are just watching that life bar everyday trying to predict how long we have until it disappears.”

The industry had barely got its legs back following the limited reopening that went into effect on May 22 when on June 26 Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the state’s roughly 5,500 bars closed indefinitely. Bar owners, feeling they have been targeted, have decried what they describe as a lack of support from leaders as they square off with the coronavirus. Some have gone as far as filing suit against Abbott seeking to have the closure order overturned.

“Financially it’s just the worst you can imagine,” said Scott Repass, owner of Poison Girl in Montrose.

To be clear, Repass said, he agrees that people should not be drinking in bars right now. But he said there’s little difference between what would be happening at bars if they were open and what continues to happen at cafes and restaurants.

“If you shut down a bar, people are just going to go to a restaurant with a bar,” he said. “There’s just no logic to it, that that is safer than a bar operating at 25 percent capacity. We feel like we were scapegoated.”

I don’t agree with that. Clearly, many more people can be packed into a bar than a restaurant. Again, I’m up for drinks to go and outdoor seating, and maybe bars at 25% capacity with social distancing once we’ve got the numbers down some more, but the bars needed to be closed. Maybe if we’d stayed closed a little longer we wouldn’t have had to close them again, but it was right to close them. All that said, I do agree with this:

Lindsay Rae Burleson, who opened Two Headed Dog with her business partner before the pandemic hit, has been working since March at a Houston distillery making hand sanitizer to make ends meet.

The bar’s fate is uncertain, she said. Government-backed loans have run out, and she decided not to renew her insurance, which would require a substantial downpayment on Aug. 1.

Losing the bar for good would strap her with a debt so large, “it doesn’t even feel like a real number.”

“I worked nine years to get this bar,” the longtime bartender said. “I put everything I had in. I haven’t got a cent of salary, yet.”

Artisan bars and neighborhood ice boxes are part of Houston’s fabric, she said. But now the city is barreling toward a reality in which only the chains may survive.

“That’s not a city I want to live in,” she said. “That’s not a city I want to be a tourist at.”

We’ve gotta beat the virus. We can’t have our nice things until we do. Tell the Senate to pass that $3 trillion bill the House passed back in May to ease people’s financial burden until then, and then work on a bill specifically to help bars and restaurants. It’s a whole lot easier if we let it be.

Some superintendents disagree about school opening delays

It takes all kinds.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for another COVID roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, too, we still suck at testing.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

But that doesn’t solve everything.

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

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

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

Harris County issues guidance for opening schools

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

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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?

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.