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Elsewhere in Houston

“COVID-killing machines”

I like the sound of that.

The George R. Brown Convention Center was built to hold Houston’s biggest crowds, but during the pandemic its halls have grown quieter. In reviving the center, Houston First squared off with a problem facing all local venues — showing the public they’re safe.

To address the problem, the local government corporation created to operate the city’s convention and performing arts facilities launched a public education campaign in August and spent about $30,000 on three mobile air filtration units for the convention center’s general assembly space, which is often used by businesses for presentations. The units, installed in September, add a layer of security for guests, said Michael Heckman, the group’s acting president and chief executive.

“Any level of added confidence that we can give to the public during this time is incredibly important,” Heckman said. “And I think once people understand the level of sophistication of this technology they’d be highly impressed, as we were.”

The filters are the product of Houston’s Integrated Viral Protection, an enterprise formed by engineer and real estate developer Monzer Hourani based on technology developed by researchers at the University of Houston.

[…]

Other pandemic-era inventions, such as UV light devices, require people to leave the room and, while they kill viruses on surfaces, they are not as effective at treating the air, Hourani said. Most HEPA, or high-efficiency particulate air filters, remove particles through holes still big enough to let coronavirus through, he said.

Despite the creation, Hourani said people gathering still need to wear masks. From a clinical perspective, air filtration devices like IVP’s can be used as an added layer of protection in addition to other preventative measures, said Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious disease for Baylor College of Medicine.

“At this point it’s unclear how much benefit it provides,” she said, “and it shouldn’t take the place of mask-wearing and social distancing. And frequent disinfecting.”

Most of what’s in between is technical details about the filters and the company, which you can peruse as you see fit. I think the idea of “making it safer for people to congregate indoors, as long as they wear masks” is a good one, and if it works would allow for a greater resumption of normal activities, without increasing the risk. It’s pretty clear that there are a lot of people who can’t or won’t do the risk-mitigating things we need them to do – and let’s be clear, some of these folks are service and retail workers who have no choice, while some others very much could be making different decisions – and as long as that is the case, the next best thing we can do is improve the odds overall. I hope this works as intended.

Please stay socially distant this Thanksgiving

It’s what we have to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s still not too late to prevent a big spike in COVID infections

But it will be soon.

A rise in COVID-19 cases has health care officials and government leaders pleading with Houstonians: Act now to prevent, or at least minimize, a third wave of infections across Greater Houston.

“This feels a lot like late May, early June when we saw the early warning signs that things were beginning to increase,” Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist, told the Chronicle on Tuesday, “and then things slipped out of our control.”

According to a Chronicle analysis, the seven-day rolling average for newly reported cases was 1,044.2 as of Monday in an eight-county Houston area. That’s the highest since Oct. 8. In the summer, the rolling average peaked July 17 at 2,432.7.

The rate at which the virus is spreading, called the reproduction rate, reached 1.18 across a nine-county Houston area as of Monday, according to the Texas Medical Center. A number below 1, which the Houston area did report for a few weeks, means the virus is burning out. A number above 1 means that virus spread is increasing. During the COVID-19 spike this summer, Houston’s reproduction rate was in the 1.5-1.7 range when things were getting out of control, Boom said.

Finally, the seven-day average for COVID test positivity rate was 4.2 percent for TMC hospital systems as of Monday. It had been 3.4 percent last month.

For the city, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday reported the positivity rate was 6.5 percent as of Oct. 21. Statewide, the positivity rate was 9.42 percent as of Monday.

[…]

Houston-area case increases are not as severe as in other parts of the country and state. In the U.S., 489,769 new cases have been reported since Oct. 20. There are surges in Wisconsin and other Midwest states. In El Paso, state health officials converted a convention center into a makeshift hospital to ease the crush of patients.

Still, Shreela Sharma, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health, knows how quickly COVID cases can climb. And she said the number of new cases in the Houston region is roughly 40 percent higher than when the summertime peak began. That means if a third wave does occur, it would start with a higher baseline.

The time is now to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash your hands.

“Our window is right now,” she said. “We could rapidly lose that window over the next few weeks.”

Yes, that is the one piece of good news. We know how to get a handle on this, and we’ve been doing it all along. Wear your mask – yes, wear it while voting, too – maintain social distancing, and avoid indoor gatherings. This week’s colder weather excepted, we’re in much better shape to handle the winter than the northern climes, because for most of our winter it’s still perfectly amenable outside for activities and dining and whatnot. Again, just don’t be an idiot. Do the things that you know you need to do. The alternatives are so, so much worse.

One more thing:

Researchers with Houston’s Health Department will monitor the wastewater flushed from 60 schools and 15 senior living homes in the city for COVID-19 in hopes of catching outbreaks before they arise in clinical testing.

City council on Wednesday unanimously approved $11.5 million in federal COVID-19 spending. Included in that was $221,000 to buy the sampling equipment needed to expand the city’s existing wastewater testing program into K-12 schools in areas with high positivity rates.

People shed the novel coronavirus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The samplers will be installed in manholes outside the schools, and researchers will analyze them, looking for the virus.

“It’s very granular,” said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the health department’s chief environmental science officer. “We don’t expect to see any positives at all, we expect to see nothing… If we see something in a school and we see it two days in a row, then we know someone in that school is shedding the virus.”

The department would then alert the school and deploy the more traditional, clinical testing, according to Hopkins.

Don’t laugh, this is an effective method of contact tracing. It’s already been used successfully by the city. Now, if there are people who can test wastewater to see if your poop has the COVID virus in it, you can damn sure keep wearing your mask.

The virtual marathon

We’re still not ready for things to be normal.

The 2021 Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon will be virtual due to ongoing public health concerns with COVID-19.

The 2021 Virtual Houston Marathon Running Events will be held over the span of 10 days where runners will have the option to complete the race distance anywhere between Jan. 8-17, according to the Houston Marathon Committee.

Participants who have already registered for the 2021 marathon will be able opt for the virtual race experience, which will include a discounted registration for the Chevron Houston Marathon 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2022; or defer their entry to one of the following two years (2022 or 2023); or donate their entry to the Houston Marathon Committee, which is a 501 c(4) nonprofit organization.

Half marathon registrants and We are Houston 5K runners will receive an email with instructions on how to complete their registration selection, according to a news release.

“At this time, we recognize that there are many unknowns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but the safety and well-being of our runners, volunteers, partners, spectators and local Houston community will always be our top priority,” said Wade Morehead, committee executive director. “While we are unable to celebrate the 2021 event together in the heart of Downtown Houston, we will be cheering for our runners around the world as they participate in a unique virtual race experience, embracing the incredible spirit of our RunHOU community.”

I mean, none of this should be a surprise. The Marathon is an event where everyone is packed together, and even if the spectators and officials and volunteers were all wearing masks, there’s no way that the runners could. Doing it like this, where everyone just picks their own 26-mile course and registers to submit an official time for it, is the only way. This is just a reminder that seeing the calendar turn over into 2021 doesn’t mean anything in terms of the virus or its containment. We’re still in need of an actual federal plan, with actual leadership, to try to contain it, and eventually a vaccine to finally achieve some level of immunity. If we’re lucky, that 2022 50th anniversary marathon will be able to be run like it always has in the past. But as of today, we can’t say for sure that it will.

(You can register for the Marathon here, if that’s your thing.)

We really can track COVID-19 through wastewater

This is terrific news.

Researchers with the city, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine were able to sniff out a potential second outbreak of COVID-19 at a homeless shelter in downtown Houston earlier this year by looking down its drains instead of in people’s noses, health officials said Thursday.

Quashing the resurgence at the Star of Hope Men’s Shelter earlier this year was one of the first successes of an effort to track the novel coronavirus through wastewater, city officials said Thursday. The initiative, one of several occurring around the country, attempts to spot outbreaks by sampling water at city treatment facilities, which could help officials tailor their testing and prevention efforts to specific neighborhoods.

To date, the results from testing wastewater largely have aligned with those from nasal swab testing, said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the city’s chief environmental science officer. That has increased the confidence that the wastewater sampling is accurate. The benefit, she said, is that wastewater tests produce quicker results.

“Ultimately, the goal is to develop an early warning system allowing the health department to identify the city’s COVID-19 hot spots sooner and put measures in place to the slow the spread of this virus,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

People shed the virus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The city was able to detect the virus in the shelter by placing a sampler on the manhole outside the facility after its initial outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

The ability to home in on a single building still is limited, Hopkins said. City officials have deployed that strategy for the shelter and the Harris County Jail, and they are trying to acquire more equipment to expand the effort in the fall. The health department plans to begin testing long-term care facilities, for example.

[…]

So far, there has been a strong correlation between the viral load in the wastewater and the positivity rates by nasal tests, so the method has not unearthed large swaths of the virus that have gone undetected by tests. Still, that correlation has increased confidence that the wastewater analysis is accurate and can be used as a bellwether for future outbreaks.

From Sept. 7 to Sept. 14, for example, scientists found the virus was increasing in a statistically significant way in the communities served by the Tidwell Timber, Upper Brays and Forest Cove treatment plants, among others, while decreasing in District 23, White Oak and Homestead.

That information, coupled with the local positivity rate and other factors, helped the health department decide where to send strike teams to test people, conduct outreach and provide education about the virus. The city said the wastewater study has resulted in more testing at several congregant living centers.

See here and here for the background. This method is extra useful because it provides a more focused view of where the cases are clustering, and the testing is faster, so the response to the test results is also faster. If we are ever going to get a handle on this disease, especially before there’s a vaccine but also after one is available, it’s going to come from technology like this that gives a real-time and location-specific view of where the virus is happening. We should be rooting for this to ramp up as much and as quickly as possible. Kudos to all for making this happen. The Press has more.

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.

Mutant mosquito update

Keeping you informed on the news you can really use.

Four years ago, the Zika virus became an issue. More than 300 people were infected in Texas. Zika can cause birth defects and fetal neurodevelopmental abnormalities in pregnant women.

The vector is Aedes (rhymes with ladies) aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. The Aedes mosquitoes transmit Zika, chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever, which prompted state and county health officials to discuss actionable solutions to control the mosquito.

Talks about releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in Houston began in 2018 between Harris County and Oxitec, a United Kingdom-based company that produces sustainable technologies or transgenic methodologies to stem the impact of disease-spreading insects. Talk also began about a similar action in Monroe County, Fla.

However, ecological concerns have been raised about the use of these mosquitoes.

“We had stakeholders there who wanted to use it,” said Kevin Gorman, head of field operations at Oxitec. “We had vector control authorities who were keen to try the technology.”

The Environmental Protection Agency stated in a May 2020 press release that it approved an experimental use permit to Oxitec to field-test its genetically engineered mosquito in the United States.

The genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are males that mate with wild female Aedes aegypti, essentially causing the offspring to die before they can reproduce due to a genetic variation.

Oxitec had two successful years of controlling the Aedes aegypti in Brazil with its current generation of mosquito and had several years of efficacy in Brazil with its first-generation, Gorman said.

[…]

A release in Florida seems imminent, but not in Texas. Despite an established relationship and much communication, it looks like the Florida Keys will be going solo.

“Although we really enjoyed a sort of really great relationship with Houston at the moment we’re in a holding pattern with Houston,” Gorman said. “And we’re unlikely to be releasing there, and there certainly aren’t firm plans to do so in the next year.”

He cited uncertainty due to personnel changes in the county government as the reason for the decision.

A statement sent to Reform Austin by Sam Bissett, a communications specialist with Harris County Public Health, said the choice to not move forward with the release was made last year by both parties.

“At this time, there are no agreements or approval in place for Harris County to work with Oxitec in 2021. While we have had discussions with Oxitec previously about a potential partnership with Harris County Public Health, those discussions were paused last year between both sides.”

See here for my previous post on Oxitec and mutant mosquitoes, from 2017. There’s a lot more to the story and it’s hard to just capture the essence of it, so go read the whole thing. Apparently, the Aedes aegypti mosquito is more abundant in the Rio Grnade Valley than in Harris County, so maybe we’re not the best place to test this out in the US. Harris County also employs mosquito traps and dragonfly armies to control the local skeeter population. Which all seems a whole lot more quaint these days, but Zike and its ilk haven’t gone away just because we’re mostly inside these days. We will be spending more time outside again, and when we do we’d like to not be at significant risk from some other emergent deadly disease, thank you very much. Maybe next time we’ll be able to work something out.

What makes a mural?

I’m kind of fascinated by this.

Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle

For two decades, passersby could easily miss Bud Adams’ vacant midcentury modern building on the Southwest Freeway near Hillcroft.

Not anymore. The low-slung, massive roof over the car dealership, formerly owned by the late NFL Houston Oilers/Tennesse Titans founder, was recently painted yellow with boxy patches of red, Luv Ya blue and white that beam like joyful sunshine.

The design isn’t recognizable unless, maybe, you know the logo of Joyride, the new Houston car leasing company that now owns the building; in which case you could imagine it as one of those magic-eye brain games. That has city sign inspectors seeing red, and it has put the company and popular street artist Sebastien ‘Mr. D’ Boileau in hot water.

The dispute escalated this week after Joyride appealed two citations for violating Houston’s sign codes and the city charged Boileau with not holding a sign painting license, painting an unlawful sign and painting a sign on a roof.

“I’m not a sign painter. I’m an artist,” Boileau said. “It’s a slippery slope for the practice of murals in Houston.”

The trouble began in late January, when a permit to install a sign with Joyride’s logo on its roof was denied. Co-founder and CEO Rick Williams still wanted to do “something fun” with 10,000-square foot surface. “The roof deserves some sort of attention,” he said. “It’s unique, pitched at a low angle, with terrific visibility from the freeway.”

Williams had hired Boileau several years ago to transform a downtown space for his previous company, Texas Direct Auto. “He took this ugly little building and turned it into a ‘colony on Mars,’” Williams said. This time, he asked Boileau to paint a mural that might cleverly incorporate his company’s colors, without text or logos, in a way that would satisfy officials.

Boileau saw an ugly roof and a massive canvas too inviting to resist. “I deliberately, extremely abstracted the imagery with the knowledge that we didn’t want to rub the city the wrong way,” he said. “It’s my artistic interpretation, which had a deliberate goal of not matching the logo — not even a curve of it.”

Inspired by Joyride’s tech-based aesthetic, Boileau pixelated the original four-color imagery, breaking it into blocks of 20 contrasting colors. His execution and materials were strictly street-art driven, he added. “I emptied 100 spray cans that I exploded with screw drivers.”

[…]

Erin Jones, a city Public Works spokesperson, said she couldn’t comment on some aspects of the issue since it goes before an appeals board next month. “I hate for Sebastien to think we’re regulating art,” she said, “but this violates the first commandment of the regulations: No signs on roofs.” Anything with a logo for a business must be done by a licensed sign contractor, she added. “Our sign guys love art. But allowing a logo sets a dangerous precedent for advertising.”

Williams, the Joyride CEO, is not backing down. “It seems obvious to me that it’s art,” he said. “This project took months to develop. It’s not some sign company rolling out vinyl. It was a labor of love.”

The story cites some other examples of murals running into issues because they included logos in them. I get the concern, but maybe there needs to be a bit more flexibility in the code. We’ll see how this shakes out. In the meantime, I feel like I need to do a drive-by and see this for myself. What do you think?

Houston’s hottest neighborhoods

That’s temperature hot, not realtor hot.

This summer, Houston joins 13 other cities in a massive, community-driven, heat mapping project. More than 80 volunteers like Powers and her son, dubbed “street scientists” by the organizing groups, covered roughly 300 square miles in 32 different polygon-shaped areas.

The project, which is taking place when Houston and Harris County are usually at their hottest, will give scientists, public health officials and community leaders the data necessary to try to cool Houston down. Local leaders hope the heat maps will help direct policy and planning within neighborhoods for things like cooling center locations, greenspace, green rooftops and tree planting. Continuously rising temperatures within cities like Houston can usher in a host of health and environmental problems, and may disproportionately affect lower-income neighborhoods that tend to have less green infrastructure.

As the third largest county in the nation, Harris County’s efforts represent one of the biggest single-day community-led heat mapping events ever held. Scientists say Houston heat mapping has been done before, but this appears to be the first that will provide readily available, comprehensive data.

“This is something that, frankly, is a little bit overdue,” said Jaime González, Houston Healthy Cities program director at The Nature Conservancy in Texas, one of organizations participating in the project.

Indeed, last August was Houston’s second hottest on record, and experts predict it will continue to get hotter this year. By 2065, the number of days above a heat index — which is how hot it feels outside with added humidity — of 105 degrees is predicted to septuple. Houston is already at least 13 degrees hotter than nearby rural areas, according to Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science, and increasing temperatures put undue pressure on power grids.

Houston is undeniably hot, but some areas may be hotter than others. Infrastructure — treeless tracts, packed concrete apartment blocks, busy streets — can create conditions that could result in pockets with higher temperatures. Studies show that temperature discrepancies within a city can differ by 15 to 20 degrees, with more extreme heat often occurring in lower-income neighborhoods.

These heat maps will show quantitative data about urban neighborhoods, and specifically, which ones are more directly impacted by extreme heat.

This is a serious matter of public health, and it’s something that can be addressed by public policy if there’s sufficient data to inform that policy. The simple act of planting trees where they are most needed helps. Let me tell you, as someone who is responsible for walking a dog every day, I am very grateful to live in a neighborhood with a real tree canopy, because it’s the only thing that keeps me from turning into a pile of soot and ash on these brutally hot July and August days. Everyone should have such an amenity available to them. This is also a reality of climate change, in that our failure to address the causes of global warming means we have to take action to try to mitigate its effects, so we can live with them. I hope this effort is a great success.

(I should note that the “Powers” mentioned in the first paragraph of the excerpt is my friend and neighbor Rachel Powers, executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition. Nicely done!)

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.

The rooftop park at the downtown post office

Very cool.

Photo by Houston In Pics

The company redeveloping downtown’s former post office property will open a rooftop venue early next year as part of a five-acre park and organic farm that will top the historic building at 401 Franklin St.

Lovett Commercial said the space will host open-air weddings and other events with a dramatic skyline backdrop. The property sits on the northern end of downtown near the corner of Franklin and Bagby, across Buffalo Bayou from the bulk of the city’s office and residential towers.

Houston-based Lovett purchased the 16-acre site, formerly the Barbara Jordan Post Office, in 2015 and is remaking the space into a coworking, shopping and culinary destination with a concert venue, hotel and rooftop farm called POST Houston.

Jordan was a Houston native who was the first Black woman from the South elected to Congress. Lovett said it intends to incorporate a monument to Jordan, who died in 1996, into the property.

The campus comprises a two-story warehouse with a more than five-acre footprint and a five-story administration building facing Franklin Street.

The rooftop, to be known as the Skylawn, was designed by Hoerr Schaudt, the Chicago-based landscape architects behind Houston’s McGovern Centennial Park. The 6,000-square-foot event space will be able to host up to 300 guests.

See here for the background. The photos that accompany the Chron story look delightful. I just hope we’re all able to actually experience it someday.

In which Houston becomes more walkable

It’s a start.

On 19th Street, one of Houston’s most enduring strips of shops and restaurants, there is a vacant lot tucked between two stores, about a block from the landmark “Heights” sign.

When developers recently expressed interest in putting a new building there, however, they suffered a setback.

Houston’s planning codes, written in the 1990s with automobiles in mind, meant the developers would have to put the new building 25 feet back from the road, set awkwardly behind the street-side strip of storefronts.

The city planning commission granted them a reprieve from the rule, but the episode illustrated how Houston’s code served as an impediment, not a spark, for so-called “walkable” development, said Bill Baldwin, a real estate agent and member of the planning commission.

City council on Wednesday took a first step toward changing that, unanimously approving ordinances aimed at making pockets of Houston more friendly to pedestrians and moving the city away from its car-centric planning code. The new regulations only apply to new buildings and redevelopment in certain parts of the city.

In those areas, the ordinances will bring buildings — not parking lots — closer to the street, widen sidewalks, and reduce or altogether eliminate the number of parking spots developers are required to offer.

[…]

The ordinances create two distinct programs: areas with a ““Walkable Places” designation, where the city seeks to foster pedestrian-friendly development; and areas in the “Transit-Oriented Development” program, where the city hopes to bring the same principles to most streets that fall within a half-mile of a bus or train station.

While the underlying regulations are similar, the Walkable Places” program initially takes shape in three pilot projects along Emancipation Avenue, Midtown, and Hogan and Lorraine Streets in the Near Northside. Other areas can pursue a “Walkable Places” designation if a majority of property owners support it. City council will have final say over all such designations.

The “Transit-Oriented Development” program will apply to city-designated areas across Houston that are close to transit stops.

For the streets covered by either program, the ordinances undo many of the automobile-centered rules adopted in the 1990s. For example, under those rules, all development on major streets must be set back 25 feet from the road, businesses must offer a prescribed number of parking spaces for customers, and sidewalks must be 5 feet wide.

The new rules waive the set-back requirement, bringing buildings closer to the street and pushing parking lots to the side or behind new buildings. The transit-oriented development ordinance cuts or eliminates parking space requirements.

A preview version of the story from Wednesday morning is here. You should follow the links in the excerpt to see more about the program. It will take awhile for the effects to be truly visible, but the potential is great, and there are a lot more places that need this kind of intervention – I for one would put Washington Avenue at the top of the list of corridors to be added to the existing list. Though this story begins with a development on 19th Street in the Heights, as of today none of the Heights is in scope. Which is fine, as most of the commercial parts of the neighborhood – think White Oak, 11th, and 19th/20th – are pretty good with sidewalks to begin with. I guess what I’m saying is, I want to see this spread to more of the city. It’s a little crazy to think that we had these anti-pedestrian rules in the first place, but that was Houston in the 90s for you. Would have been great to do this kind of unwinding a long time ago, but better late than never.

Restaurants may get to use parking lot space for dining

I like this idea.

Restaurants in Houston, currently limited by 50% indoor capacity limits, may soon be able to serve diners in parking lots to accommodate more guests.

Pending a vote by the Houston City Council, a “More Spaces” plan developed by Houston’s Chief Transportation Officer David Fields would allow restaurants to convert 50% of off-street parking spots to dining spaces.

The ability to make such conversions would allow restaurants to serve more guests in an open-air environment that limits the spread of the coronavirus more effectively than dining indoors, according to Centers for Disease Control guidance. The efforts mirror that of other cities, such as Austin and Atlanta.

Restaurant owners would not need to apply for the authority to do so; instead, they would file a notification with the city so that the planning department can track restaurants’ compliance with the new protocols. The proposal prohibits music in the adapted outdoor dining areas and limits closing hours to no later than midnight. Participating restaurants must also ensure that ADA-accessible parking spaces remain available.

If enacted, the policy will only remain in place under coronavirus emergency orders, but it could serve as a test period for future efforts.

“I think we could learn a lot from this pilot in the immediate term and go back out to the industry and the community and show what we have learned,” Fields said.

I know, eating outdoors on a concrete or asphalt surface in July and August may not sound appealing, but fall is coming, plenty of dining hours are as or after the sun goes down, and I’m sure the restaurants themselves can figure out what will work for them. The point here is that outdoor is safer than indoor, and this will add capacity to restaurants that are currently limited to fifty percent of their indoor capacity. Their parking lots are already underutilized, so why not give them some options? It can’t hurt to try.

We’re still not doing great with the Census

There’s still time, but we have a lot of work to do.

Despite an extended deadline, local government cash infusions and grassroots campaigns to improve Houston’s 2020 census response rate, almost half of Houston households are still missing from the official count.

As of July 5, 52.5% of Houston’s estimated 2.32 million residents have completed the decennial survey, according to the most recent census data. In Harris County, the response has been about 56 percent.

But Houston is not alone. Across the country, many other large metropolitan areas are also struggling to get their populations counted, reporting similar self-response rates to Houston’s. In Los Angeles, the household response rate is 51.6%, while Chicago polls higher at 54.5%, and 53.1% in New York City.

Other cities in Texas have slightly greater household response rates so far, with Austin hovering around 60.4%, Fort Worth at 58.9%, and Dallas at 53.4%.

Texas ranks 40th in state census response, according to recent census findings. The state’s response rate of 56.7% lags behind the national rate of 61.9%. In 2010, the response rate was slightly higher at both the state and national levels, according to a recent report from Understanding Houston, which analyzed census data. The state had a 64.4% self-response rate compared with a national self-response rate of 66.5%.

With the deadline extended to Oct. 31, the hope is that more Texans will complete the survey, pulling the response rate up.

[…]

A 2019 study by Lopez Negrete Communications found that one helpful tool for ensuring people participate was through community action— which has become increasingly difficult with stay-at-home orders in place. Traditional forms of influence noted in the report include churches, schools, public events and community health clinics, yet many of these cultural and community centers remain closed.

It’s not hard to see why it’s been a challenge to get people to do the Census. If we can’t go door to door and can’t engage with the community, there’s only so much that can be done. It’s bad enough that the Lege didn’t appropriate any money for Census outreach, now we have Greg Abbott’s lousy handling of the pandemic acting as headwinds. Maybe we’ll be lucky and things will improve enough by October to make some more progress. I sure hope so.

Bike lanes coming to Shepherd/Durham corridor

Nice.

Houston officials with some regional help have nearly solved funding a $100 million rebuild of Shepherd and Durham that adds bike lanes, wider sidewalks, improved drainage and new concrete to one of the most car-centric corridors within Loop 610. Regional officials Friday approved committing $40 million of the cost, using locally controlled federal highway funds.

All those additions, however, come with the loss of a driving lane on each street, reducing them to three lanes each.

Work is scheduled to start on the northern segment in fiscal 2022, from Loop 610 to 15th Street. Construction is expected to move south of 15th about a year later to Interstate 10.

It is the latest major effort by city officials to add cycling amenities along bustling and traffic-logged corridors that officials said will not significantly choke drivers and offer others crucial links to trails and upcoming transit projects.

“It is critical we have inter-modal transportation,” said Houston District C Councilwoman Abbie Kamin.

She said the rebuilds of Shepherd and Durham — planned since 2013 — were among her priority projects when she took office in January because of the rapid redevelopment happening along the two streets. Car sales lots, warehouses and other businesses are being replaced by mid-rise apartment buildings and new commercial centers between I-10 and Loop 610.

“We have so many great places coming in but people can’t walk or ride to get there,” Kamin said.

[…]

The southern segment is vital because I-10 at Shepherd/Durham is also where Metropolitan Transit Authority plans a new stop on a future bus rapid transit line along the freeway from its Northwest Transit Center near Uptown to downtown. A completed bike lane would provide a direct link so someone could bike to a bus depot where they could hop on transit that would connect them to the two largest clusters of jobs in the region.

“It gives people a way to get to transit without driving their cars,” said Maureen Crocker, deputy director of transportation planning in the Transportation and Drainage Operations Department of Houston Public Works.

Support for funding the street redesign came from a wide swath of elected officials. Texas Republicans Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, whose zig-zagged district includes the Shepherd-Durham corridor as well as Kingwood, wrote letters of support along with Houston-area Democrats led by Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“It just shows the importance of this project,” Kamin said.

Aside from the bike benefits, officials said the rebuild restores streets that have waited years for repairs, including cross streets such as 20th that are riddled with chipped-away pothole patches. By eliminating the fourth lane of traffic, federal officials said in their grant award last year, the street project also improves safety by shortening the distance drivers and pedestrians must travel to safely cross the streets.

With phase two funded, Kamin said that leaves a small segment from I-10 south to Washington unpaid for, but she said officials are optimistic they can work to get the final pieces in place.

I’m glad to see this. CM Kamin is exactly right about the changing nature of this corridor. Among other things, there are a lot of new restaurants in that area, which should draw customers from the immediate area. Ideally, those folks would be able to walk or bike there, as they would in other neighborhoods that don’t have what are basically four-lane freeways running through them. This is a big step towards making that happen, and that will be a real boon for the area. It’s also important to remember that even in Houston there are a lot of folks who don’t have cars, and a project like this is going to make how they travel, whether by foot or bike or bus, safer as well.

I feel compelled at this point to confess that fifteen years or so ago, during an earlier phase of the “rebuild and expand I-45 south of Beltway 8” project, I advocated for turning this corridor into a better and faster automotive alternative to I-45 – basically, using the Shepherd/Durham corridor as extra capacity for I-45, so we could maybe get away with adding less capacity to that freeway. I’m sure there’s a blog post to that effect somewhere in my archives, because I definitely remember writing something along those lines, but I don’t feel like spelunking for it. Point is, that was a bad idea that I’m glad no one took seriously. I was myopically concerned about one thing, and didn’t consider how it would affect other people and places. It’s crazy to think what this area might look like now if Shepherd and Durham had been modified to be even more highway-like. What we have now is so much better and about to be even more so. It’s good to remind myself sometimes that I’m as big an idiot as anyone else.

Is it time to step back?

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The hidden toll

Another reason why the reported death count from COVID-19 is too low: People who didn’t know they were infected and die at home may never be tested or counted.

As coronavirus cases surge, inundating hospitals and leading to testing shortages, a rapidly growing number of Houston area residents are dying at home, according to an NBC News and ProPublica review of Houston Fire Department data. An increasing number of these at-home deaths have been confirmed to be the result of COVID-19, Harris County medical examiner data shows.

The previously unreported jump in people dying at home is the latest indicator of a mounting crisis in a region beset by one of the nation’s worst and fastest-growing coronavirus outbreaks. On Tuesday, a record 3,851 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus in the Houston region, exceeding normal intensive care capacity and sending some hospitals scrambling to find additional staff and space.

The uptick in the number of people dying before they can even reach a hospital in Houston draws parallels to what happened in New York City in March and April, when there was a spike in the number of times firefighters responded to medical calls, only to discover that the person in need of help had already died. These increases also echo those reported during outbreaks in Detroit and Boston, when the number of people dying at home jumped as coronavirus cases surged.

While far more people died of COVID-19 in those cities than have died so far in Houston, researchers and paramedics say that the trend of sudden at-home deaths in Texas’ largest city is concerning because it shows that the virus’s toll may be deeper than what appears in official death tallies and daily hospitalization reports.

Many people who die at home are not tested for COVID-19, said Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In New York City, for example, only 16 percent of the 11,475 at-home deaths between February and June have been attributed to COVID-19, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s no reflexive testing,” Faust said, noting that medical examiners are selective about the cases they take. “There’s no pressure to call it a COVID death.”

The rise in at-home deaths may also reflect people who are afraid to go to the hospital because of COVID-19, and who die of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and other conditions not tied to the coronavirus, Faust said.

Ultimately, Faust said, public health experts trying to assess the toll from COVID will need to study how many excess deaths there are in a particular region and whether the demographics of those who died are different from what one might expect. “If there’s a huge spike in at-home deaths but no real spike in overall deaths, it’s just sort of rearranging deck chairs.”

There’s more, so go read the rest. I don’t have anything to add other than the usual disclaimer that none of this had to happen. We could have had a federal government that actually prepared for COVID-19. We could have had a state government that cared about reopening in a safe and scientifically-driven manner. We have neither of those things – yet – and so here we are. Keep that in mind, today and every day, not just through this November, but through November of 2022.

How it’s going at the hospitals

In a word, it’s bad.

At Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital on Sunday, the medical staff ran out of both space for new coronavirus patients and a key drug needed to treat them. With no open beds at the public hospital, a dozen COVID-19 patients who were in need of intensive care were stuck in the emergency room, awaiting transfers to other Houston area hospitals, according to a note sent to the staff and shared with reporters.

A day later, the top physician executive at the Houston Methodist hospital system wrote to staff members warning that its coronavirus caseload was surging: “It has become necessary to consider delaying more surgical services to create further capacity for COVID-19 patients,” Dr. Robert Phillips said in the note, an abrupt turn from three days earlier, when the hospital system sent a note to thousands of patients, inviting them to keep their surgical appointments.

And at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, staff members were alerted recently that the hospital would soon begin taking in cancer patients with COVID-19 from the city’s overburdened public hospital system, a highly unusual move for the specialty hospital.

These internal messages highlight the growing strain that the coronavirus crisis is putting on hospital systems in the Houston region, where the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has nearly quadrupled since Memorial Day. As of Tuesday, more than 3,000 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus in the region, including nearly 800 in intensive care.

“To tell you the truth, what worries me is not this week, where we’re still kind of handling it,” said Roberta Schwartz, Houston Methodist’s chief innovation officer, who’s been helping lead the system’s efforts to expand beds for COVID-19 patents. “I’m really worried about next week.”

What’s happening in Houston draws eerie parallels to New York City in late March, when every day brought steep increases in the number of patients seeking care at overburdened hospitals — though, so far, with far fewer deaths. But as coronavirus cases surge in Texas, state officials here have not reimplemented the same lockdown measures that experts say helped bring New York’s outbreak under control, raising concern among public health officials that Houston won’t be able to flatten the curve.

“The time to act and time to be alarmed is not when you’ve hit capacity, but it’s much earlier when you start to see hospitalizations increase at a very fast rate,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology who leads the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “It is definitely time to take some kind of action. It is time to be alarmed.”

[…]

Although hospital executives in Houston stress that they have the ability to add additional intensive care beds in the region to meet the growing demand — for a few more weeks, at least — the strain on hospitals is already being felt in other ways.

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said his paramedics sometimes have to wait for more than an hour while emergency room workers scramble to find beds and staffers to care for patients brought in by ambulance — a bottleneck that’s tying up emergency medical service resources and slowing emergency response times across the region.

Part of the problem, Peña said, is that when his crews arrive at a hospital with a patient suspected of having COVID-19, the hospital may have a physical bed open for them, but not enough nurses or doctors to staff it. That’s a problem that’s likely to deepen as a growing number of medical workers have been testing positive for the virus, according to internal hospital reports. Just as New York hospitals did four months ago, some Houston hospitals have posted on traveling nurse websites seeking nurses for “crisis response jobs.”

“If they don’t have the nursing staff, then you can’t place the patient,” Peña said. “Then our crews have to sit with the patient in the ER until something comes open. It has a huge domino effect.”

There’s more, so read the rest. If you’re thinking that the death rate is low and that that’s a small blessing, that is true, but it’s also a bit illusory. For one thing, the sheer number of deaths will increase as the infection rate rises, not all deaths for which COVID-19 is a factor are recorded as COVID-19 deaths, and it is already the case that people are avoiding going to the hospital now for other reasons because of COVID-19, and that some of them will also die as a result. The official death count numbers have always been underestimated, and there’s no good way to spin it. Even if we were to go into total lockdown right now, we won’t begin to see the positive effects of that for another two weeks. We really need masking and better social distancing to have an effect or it’s going to get much worse. Oh, and the Texas Medical Center is above 100% ICU capacity. So we’ve got that going for us.

And as you ponder all that, ponder also this.

Despite Texas’ surge of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Tuesday evening that he doesn’t need the advice of the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci.

“Fauci said today he’s concerned about states like Texas that ‘skipped over’ certain things. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Patrick told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in an interview. “We haven’t skipped over anything. The only thing I’m skipping over is listening to him.”

Patrick also said Fauci has “been wrong every time on every issue,” but did not elaborate on specifics.

Dan Patrick does not care if you live or die. You and everyone you know mean nothing to him.

Can we make it past July?

That’s when it looks like we’ll hit the peak of the pandemic here. And it could be ugly.

A surge in COVID-19 cases since Memorial Day could set the Houston area on track for a peak of 2,000 daily hospitalizations by mid-July, according to a model from a Baylor College of Medicine epidemiologist.

The region’s intensive care units would be overwhelmed by that number of patients, a nearly 50 percent increase from current levels, though thousands of general hospital beds remain available, said Dr. Chris Amos.

City of Houston Health Authority David Persse said several area hospitals already are at or over capacity, and warned that shifting patients to facilities in other cities, a common practice in natural disasters, may no longer be possible.

“The difference this time is the hurricane, if you will, is infecting the entire state,” Persse said.

With government restrictions on business and travel removed, the epidemiologist and hospital executives from the Texas Medical Center said the only hope for the Houston area to avoid that outcome is for residents to practice social distancing, wear masks and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

Too many residents, they said, appear to have mistaken the end of Harris County’s stay-at-home order as a cue to resume normal life, while the virus poses a greater threat today than it did on May 1.

“The alarming situation could be that we have rampant COVID spreading throughout our society,” Houston Methodist CEO Dr. Marc Boom said. “If we don’t take control, it takes control for us.”

See here for some background. Hey, remember that May projection from the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that was based on social distancing data? It suggested we would get up to over 2,000 hospitalizations per day, right around where we seem to be headed now. Their graph had us hitting that mark in early June, while Baylor is suggesting July. Never would have been much better than late, but here we are anyway.

Elected officials and their public health experts are grappling with the idea that Harris County may have squandered much of this spring’s success in slowing the growth of the virus during the six-week stay-home period.

The shutdown dealt severe damage to the economy, including half a million lost jobs. Since Gov. Greg Abbott began reopening the state in May, however, the Houston area has set new records for cases and hospitalizations.

“All of the good work that we did, shutting down, closing conferences and conventions … we’re wiping away the success that we collectively achieved, and the sacrifices that people made in March, April and in May,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

The mayor lamented that local officials have had little authority to issue restrictions since Abbott has implemented his phased reopening plan, and urged residents, at a minimum, to follow County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, which went into effect Monday. The order mandates that Harris County businesses require their customers to wear face coverings.

Abbott defended his strategy during a news conference in Austin, saying it achieved its primary goal of preventing hospitals from being overrun. He said the rate of new cases across the state was unacceptable, however.

See here for more on that mask order, which we could have had weeks ago had it not been for Abbott’s ridiculous, cowardly refusal to talk straight. This is all on you, Abbott. I hope the knowledge of your craven behavior haunts you for the rest of your days. I hope even more it’s what finally forces you out of office in 2022. May we all end up being overly panicked about this, because if not this is really going to suck. The Chron editorial board has more.

How bad is it going to get in Houston?

I’m worried, y’all.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Texas continued to reach record highs over the weekend while new cases also climbed in the Houston area.

The new figures come as County Judge Lina Hidalgo and leaders in other urbanized counties have issued orders mandating that businesses require customers wear face masks. Hidalgo’s order goes into effect Monday, though the latest local trends indicate masks “won’t be enough,” said vaccine researcher Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

“My observations if this trajectory persists: 1) Houston would become the worst affected city in the US, maybe rival what we’re seeing now in Brazil 2) The masks = good 1st step but simply won’t be enough 3) We would need to proceed to red alert,” Hotez said Saturday on Twitter.

[…]

Texas on Sunday reported a 5 percent increase in hospitalizations, bringing the cumulative total to a record 3,409 patients — a figure that has more than doubled since Memorial Day. Also on Sunday, a batch of 2,726 new cases became the sixth-highest single-day increase in Texas, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis. Over the previous two days, the state reported its largest and third-largest single day increases, respectively.

The Houston region has experienced a similar trend with rising case figures. Houston Chronicle data shows that Harris County is averaging 610 new cases per day over the last week, compared to 313 new cases per day the previous week.

That’s also more than triple where we were in May. The new face mask order should help, but we may need to go into lockdown again. What are the odds Greg Abbott will acknowledge that? Even if he did, would people be willing to go along with it? This was the problem with “reopening” when we did and the way we did. We didn’t have the pandemic under control. We were moving in the right direction, but we weren’t there yet. And now we’re worse off than we were before. Who could have seen this coming?

There’s also this:

Hidalgo noted an increase in county hospitalizations last week when she issued her face covering order. Leaders of other Houston area counties continue to stay away from similar measures, despite concern from local health officials.

“Galveston County will not be issuing such an order,” Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said Sunday in a lengthy Facebook post. “Individuals and businesses need to take personal responsibility in following the recommended best practices in slowing the spread of COVID-19… If you find that a business doesn’t appear to have taken steps that have been recommended in Governor Abbott’s reopening plan, then don’t reward them by doing business with them. It’s that simple.”

Galveston County reported its highest single-day case increase on Saturday with 142 new cases, followed by 83 new cases on Sunday. More than half of its new cases have been reported after June 1, health officials say.

In a news release, the Galveston County Health Department said the “alarming” increase is related to a lack of social distancing, not wearing face coverings and spreading the virus in families and households.

“Galveston County is at a critical juncture,” the release said, adding, “The health district strongly recommends Galveston County businesses require patrons and employees to wear a face covering, and to make face coverings available for those customers who do not have one.”

Brazoria County also has seen a major uptick in new cases, reporting three of its largest single-day increases over the last four days. Health officials reported 52 new cases on Sunday, bringing the overall total there to 1,215.

Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta as of Sunday had not issued a mandatory mask order for businesses.

We went through this back in March, too, where suburban areas around big urban centers had a very different response to the early stages of the pandemic. Please tell me we’ve learned something since then.

But don’t worry. Greg Abbott is right on it.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday struck a newly urgent tone about rising coronavirus numbers in Texas but said “closing down Texas again will always be the last option.”

“To state the obvious, COVID-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas and it must be corralled,” Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol in Austin.

However, he stopped short of introducing any new policies or pulling back on the reopening of Texas businesses, instead emphasizing long-established voluntary guidelines encouraging people to stay home if they can, use hand sanitizer, keep six feet of distance with others and, if they cannot, wear a mask. He also promised Texas has strategies to address the rising numbers “without having to return to stay-at-home policies.”

Those strategies include stepping up enforcement of current guidelines in places like bars where large crowds have gathered, “surging testing in areas that may be hotspots” and working with hospitals to ensure they have capacity for coronavirus patients. He continued to describe hospital capacity as “abundant.”

At the same time, Abbott held open the possibility that Texans could see new restrictions to get the virus under control. He said so while speaking in front of three poster boards showing the rapid rise of daily new cases, hospitalizations and the positivity rate, or the ratio of confirmed cases to tests.

“In each of these three categories, there’s been pretty much a doubling of the numbers in those three categories,” Abbott said. “If we were to experience another doubling of those numbers over the next month, that would mean we are in an urgent situation where tougher actions will be required.”

[…]

At the same time, Abbott continued to resist the idea of a statewide mask mandate, saying there needs to be flexibility for different parts of the vast state. He has restricted local governments from mandating individuals wear masks but recently clarified that they can order business to requires customers to wear masks.

Whatever. You had your chance to allow local governments to enforce your own orders, and you blew it. We’re still cleaning up after that. See Zeach Despart on Twitter for more.

Confederate monuments to be removed

From the inbox:

Today, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the City of Houston plans to relocate the Dowling and Spirit of Confederacy statues, which are currently both located in two City of Houston parks.

The statues will be removed by Friday, June 19, in commemoration of the Juneteenth holiday, which memorializes the day slaves in Texas learned the Emancipation Proclamation granted their freedom.

In August 2017, Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed a task force of historians, community leaders, and department directors to review the City’s inventory of items related to the confederacy and recommend appropriate action.

The task force recommended that the statues be removed from Houston public property and not be destroyed. (Click the links for the final report and final appendix).

After the task force submitted its findings, the City began working on a plan with partner organizations and funders to identify new locations to place the statues permanently.

The two relevant statues in local public parks will be relocated, at no public expense, to separate sites that provide greater historical context for public viewing.

The Houston Endowment has provided a grant to transfer the Spirit of The Confederacy in Sam Houston Park downtown to be displayed at the Houston Museum of African American Culture in the Museum District.

A statue of Richard W. “Dick” Dowling in Hermann Park is expected to be moved to a permanent display at the Sabine Pass Battleground State Historic Site in Port Arthur, TX. The Executive Committee of the Texas Historical Commission voted to accept the statute and the full Commission will consider the item at its quarterly meeting on June 17.

“While we have been working on a plan for some time, I have decided to move forward now considering the events of the past several weeks, Mayor Turner said. “Our plan for relocating confederate statues from public parks to locations more relevant to modern times preserves history and provides an opportunity for our city to heal.”

“Houston Endowment is proud to support the relocation of the Spirit of the Confederacy to the Houston Museum of African American Culture, where it can be interpreted in a way that promotes an inclusive and anti-racist community, said Ann Stern, President and CEO.

“This is a huge step forward in the Museum’s history of hosting difficult conversations, underscoring our multicultural conversation on race geared toward a common future. We have an opportunity to learn from our history, the good and the bad, to truly forge one nation,” said John Guess, HMACC CEO Emeritus.

The City of Houston’s General Services Department (GSD) will begin relocating the statues next week. The City will place them in temporary storage until the partner organizations are ready to receive the delivery.

“I’m grateful for the City of Houston Confederate Items Task Force’s guidance and the generosity of the Houston Endowment for their crucial roles in the plan,” Turner added. “And I’m proud of how this plan formed with input from many sectors of the city and deep consideration of all sensitive factors involved.”

See here for the background. Note that it took almost three years to get to this point, which is why having a firm (and short) deadline for the criminal justice task force is important. I personally would have been happy to see these things thrown in the trash, but at least they’ll be put someplace where there will be some context for them. It’s better than leaving them in place.

On a related note:

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn expressed resistance to the idea of changing the name of Fort Hood, a massive Texas military base named after a Confederate military leader, as calls mount nationwide to remove monuments and rename bases memorializing Confederate leaders.

“There’s no question that America was an imperfect union when we were founded, we obviously betrayed our ideals by treating African Americans as less than fully human,” he said on a conference call with reporters. “And we’ve been paying for that original sin ever since then, through the Civil War, through the civil rights struggles in the ’60s.

“And I believe that we’ve made tremendous progress, but I don’t think we obviously are where we need to be.

“One of those most important things about our history is that we learn from it,” he added. “You can’t learn from our history if you try to erase it, because it’s hard to see where this leads. Now I could see efforts at the state and local levels to move, let’s say, move a monument to a state capitol to a history museum or the like, but I’m just not sure where, where this leads. And to me, one of the most import things about history is what we learn from it and how how we learn to not repeat our mistakes.”

Cornyn, however, refused to directly address Fort Hood in this context.

“I am for looking forward, not looking backward,” he said when pressed.

Cornyn similarly addressed the issue of whether to take down Confederate statues. The comments come as the nation is taking a fresh look at Confederate historical markers in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, swiftly responded to the comments.

“Erecting a statue that glorifies a confederate leader is not the same as documenting that period in history books,” she wrote on Twitter. “Cornyn knows that. He simply can’t muster up the courage to do the right thing — even when it’s this easy.”

I dunno, I feel like we’ve managed to learn about history without erecting statues of or naming military bases after Benedict Arnold or Robert Hanssen. You can mark me as being on Rep. Escobar’s side. And also on the side of renaming this fort after a true hero, Roy Benavidez.

The local view of COVID hospitalizations

More numbers.

Three weeks after it stood out as the urban exception to the state’s spiking COVID-19 crisis, the Houston region has begun seeing a significant increase in cases and hospitalizations.

The upturn, which began two weeks ago and accelerated this week, comes a month after Gov. Greg Abbott began allowing businesses to reopen and a week and a half after the Memorial Day weekend, both of which health officials think led people to let their guard down and come into closer contact with others. The hike followed a roughly month-long plateau the area had settled into.

“This is a trend we’re definitely keeping an eye on,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “If the numbers keep up in this direction, we could be headed to a place where we run out of hospital space, which obviously would be a problem.”

COVID-19 patients have occupied hospital intensive-care units in the nine-county Houston area at higher levels the first three days in June than they did on any single day in May, according to date compiled by the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, a state group that coordinates the region’s emergency response to disasters. In Harris County, hospital admissions have increased at statistically significant levels the past two weeks.

[…]

Despite public health admonitions reminding people of the need to continue practicing social distancing, many didn’t seem to get the message, said public health officials.

“I am afraid the public interprets lifting ‘government-mandated shelter in place” and closure of non-essential business that the pandemic is over and community and individual mitigation measures are no longer necessary,” said Gerald Parker, director of the pandemic and biosecurity policy program at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government Service. “But the virus is still in our communities and can hit the most vulnerable hard.”

Parker, who said “time will tell whether or not the increase in case becomes dangerous,” urged people to still wear masks, limit numbers in gatherings and maintain six feet of separation from others.

See here for the state view. Again, this may wind up being a small and temporary bump, and it may be that we have the capacity to absorb the increase with no problems. (If you don’t consider the larger number of people getting and dying from this virus a problem, I suppose.) But again my question is, what happens if we can’t handle it? What happens if the hospitals do begin to become overwhelmed? What’s our plan at that point? To be more specific, what if it’s just a problem here in Harris County? Will Judge Hidalgo have the authority again to impose a stay-at-home order, or are we all at Greg Abbott’s mercy? (Not to mention the whims of the State Supreme Court.) What we have now looks like hope and not a plan. And I hope I’m wrong about that.

The George Floyd March

Impressive.

Sixty thousand people joined the family of George Floyd as well as elected officials and religious leaders today in a peaceful Houston march from Discovery Green to City Hall organized by rappers and civic activists Trae tha Truth, Bun B, and Floyd’s nephew Brandon Williams.

Floyd, 46, a native Houstonian from the Third Ward, died in handcuffs last week after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Chauvin, who was fired immediately after the incident was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter four days later.

It was released Monday that both a private autopsy done by Dr. Michael Boden and Dr. Allecia Wilson hired by Floyd’s family as well as the Hennepin County Medical Examiner ruled Floyd’s death a homicide though both reports differed on cause of death. The medical examiner ruled it was heart failure, while the private autopsy ruled asphyxiation. Both reports agreed Floyd died on site, and not later in an ambulance.

The march began and ended with a prayer as well as Floyd’s family’s wishes that the day remain peaceful—and it did. It is reported that prior to the march the Houston Police Department removed bricks and artillery that had been stashed around downtown and a Houston Alert asked everyone to be on the lookout for suspicious activity.

A family member of Floyd spoke deliberately stating, “This is our home, we will find justice on the streets of Houston, we are going to march in peace and show the nation, show the world what George Floyd is all about.” She thanked Bun B and Trae tha Truth for helping to organize the event.

Although this was not a city-sponsored march, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner turned out and addressed the crowd, once again applauding them for standing up for George Floyd and the need for change, but again warning that violent actions undermined their cause.

I assume the Chronicle will have a full story on this, but as of when I wrote this post, what they had was a liveblog of the event, which you have to read from the bottom up. The question that always accompanies mass protests is what actions should come of it? Tarsha Jackson, who is still awaiting a court ruling to allow the runoff in City Council District B to proceed, posted on Facebook nine specific items to address in the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the police union. Seems to me that if you believe the problem is mostly “a few bad apples”, then you should want to make it easier to pluck those apples out of the barrel, or at least make it so they have a harder time advancing in their career. These ideas have been out there since 2018. Do we have the will to fight for them?

Three other things. One, you can make a contribution to support bail funds around the country here. Two, William Barr needs to be arrested at the first opportunity. And three, our two US Senators really suck. You can do something about one of them this November.

How about some antibody tests?

That would be good.

After months of emphasis on diagnostic screening, contact tracing and research into possible treatments, Houston is about to deploy a new tool in the effort to contain COVID-19: antibody testing.

Baylor College of Medicine researchers last week presented evidence to school leadership that the blood test it developed to detect whether an individual has been infected with the coronavirus is highly accurate and ready for use in studies assessing the virus’ reach in the area. Such studies would provide the answer that hasn’t been ascertainable because of the shortage of diagnostic testing.

“This will tell us the severity of the disease based on prevalence, the number of people who have had the virus but do not show up in case counts because they were asymptomatic and weren’t tested,” said Dr. Paul Klotman, president of Baylor. “That’s needed to better understand how infections impact different Houston communities, the variations in those communities and the numbers in certain high-risk environments, like prisons and nursing homes.”

Klotman said he anticipates Baylor will partner with local health departments to determine optimal resource allocation — such as where to focus testing and contact tracing — based on the prevalence the studies find in communities.

A Baylor prevalence study based on antibody testing would put the Houston region among a handful of U.S. communities to conduct such research, which has found that more than 20 percent of people in New York City but only 4 percent of those in Los Angeles County have been infected. Klotman said he thinks Houston’s rate will be closer to the California number.

Such antibody testing, repeated over time, also would show the area’s progress toward herd immunity, the protection from a contagious disease that occurs when a high percentage of the population has either had the infection or been vaccinated. Experts say that percentage — there is no vaccine for the coronavirus yet — needs to reach at least 60 to 70.

There’s more, and you should read the rest. As a reminder, viral tests are to see who has the virus now, and antibody tests are to see who has had it in the past. Do not mix the two if you want to know the current case count. I would note that the Texas Tribune case tracker showed 10,921 infections in Harris County as of May 25. If that four percent guess is accurate, then given a county population of 4.7 million, the actual number of cases would be more like 188,000. That’s consistent, even a bit under, the typical antibody test experience, which winds up estimating the real infection count at about ten times the “official” count. And note that we’d have to have more than ten times that number to get close to the minimum threshold for herd immunity.

Anyway. I look forward to seeing what this can tell us. In conjunction with the wastewater testing, maybe we can finally get a clear local picture of this pandemic.

Nothing but gray skies ahead

You want a small sign that things are returning to “normal”, here you go.

Houston’s air pollution is returning to normal levels, following a period of cleaner skies during the stay-at-home orders put in place to slow the spread the coronavirus.

As Gov. Greg Abbott moves to reopen Texas’ economy, vehicles are back on the roads and with them come emissions from the burning of gasoline and diesel.

Ozone levels have now surpassed legal limits five times since April 20 after staying unusually low for more than a month. Nitrogen oxide emissions — a key contributor to smog — are back near where they were before the coronavirus shutdowns began, said Daniel Cohan, an environmental engineering professor at Rice University.

“It looks like most of the reduction in nitrogen dioxide over Houston has now faded,” he said. “There appears to be a partial bounce back in travel.”

Hope you enjoyed the breathable air while it lasted.

Are we headed towards a coronavirus spike?

One set of researchers thinks we may be.

Houston is one of several cities in the South that could see spikes in COVID-19 cases over the next four weeks as restrictions are eased, according to new research that uses cellphone data to track how well people are social distancing.

The updated projection, from PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, found that traffic to non-essential businesses has jumped especially in Texas and Florida, which have moved aggressively to reopen.

In Harris County, the model predicts the outbreak will grow from about 200 new cases per day to more than 2,000 over the next month.

“Some areas—particularly in the south—that have moved more quickly to reopen are showing a higher risk for resurgence,” the researchers wrote in a blog post. “If people in Houston and Palm Beach, Fla., for example, aren’t being cautious with masking in indoor crowded locations and with hygiene and disinfection, local governments may need to intervene again should they lose control of the epidemic.”

[…]

The PolicyLab research is tracking 389 large counties across the country with active outbreaks. It found that projections are best in places that are relaxing restrictions selectively in areas with fewer cases and less transmission.

“Given these cautious actions by our governments, we have already seen that the predicted resurgence has not occurred in most places that are beginning to reopen—rather, daily cases are either plateauing or falling,” the researchers wrote. “But the picture our models are painting for Texas and Florida provide ample evidence to others who would choose to move too quickly. We see these concerns even as we adjust for additional testing capacity that might have inflated our forecasts.”

See here and here for more on the predictions, and here for an earlier press release about their model. As far as I can tell, their model depends on “social distancing measures, defined by travel to non-essential businesses”. They say their data comes from a variety of publicly-available sources, but that’s about as much detail as I can find. I’m not an expert in any way, so I’m in no position to critique this. Fortunately, Dr. Peter Hotez is an expert, and he shared some thoughts about this in Friday’s Chron.

I understand the importance of opening up the economy. The worry that I have is that we haven’t put in place a public health system — the testing, the contact tracing — that’s commensurate to sustain the economy.

Some models show fairly dire predictions for Houston. I’m referring to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia model that shows that by the summer, if we’re only at about 50% of the social distancing, we’re doing now, Harris County could see a steep surge in the number of patients coming into the hospitals and intensive care units.

It’s a model. It’s only as good as the assumptions that it’s based on, and we know the assumptions are not robust. But it gives me pause for concern that unless we have that health system in place, we could be looking at an epidemic that’s far greater than the one we’ve gone through.

Let’s say we’re opening up as as we are now. The way a surge works is, it’s not as if we’re going to see a gradual increase in cases. The models say things will look good for weeks. At first, it’s a flat curve, then it’s flat, it’s flat, and only after all that do you start seeing a steep, steep increase.

That’s what worries me. In those flat weeks we’ll get this sense of complacency, and then people are going to start going into the bars. Forget about one quarter occupancy in the bars. Poison Girl, on Westheimer, is going to be full. And so are all the other places all across Houston.

So: How do we fix that? I think it’s having a health system that’s larger and more extensive than what’s being proposed. We’re going to have to do extensive testing in the workplace so that you’d know if your colleagues have COVID-19 — especially asymptomatic COVID-19.

The number of contact tracers has to be far greater than the numbers that I’m seeing. Gov. Abbott says that Texas has around 2,000 and plans to hire 2,000 more. But consider that Gov. Cuomo in New York State is hiring 17,000 contact tracers. A state that’s quite a bit smaller is hiring a much larger number.

We also still don’t have that syndromic-monitoring system in place that you and I have talked about — an app that would allow Houstonians to report how they’re feeling, or that would track temperatures, like the Kinsa electronic thermometer app.

We should be bringing in our best engineering minds out of the oil and gas industry, out of NASA, out of the Texas Medical Center to put in place an app-based system — maybe make a hybrid between the kinds of things being put out there by Apple or Google or Kinsa, or the kinds of things they’re doing in Australia. We can design one that works for our culture, works for our system. But we’re not assembling the engineers to put that in place.

We don’t even have an epidemiological model for the city of Houston. There’s one for Dallas, put out by UT Southwestern and the University of Texas. Austin’s put out one. But I haven’t seen one for Houston.

So I’m worried that if people are going to start piling into bars and restaurants, and we don’t see the numbers going up, within a couple of weeks from now, it’ll be business as usual. Everybody will feel good, will be saying, “Hey, I’m not seeing the cases go up.”

And it’s going to really accelerate starting in the fall. This is not only true of Houston; it’s true of cities across the U.S. It would happen right before the 2020 election, so I worry about a lot of instability and how we mitigate that.

So there you have it. Keep it up with the social distancing and staying at home, avoid crowds, and wear a mask. We all have a role to play.

The 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey

We were a pretty optimistic bunch earlier this year, in the Before Times.

Houstonians are expressing a deeper sense of mutual trust, compassion, and solidarity than ever before, with many also calling for policies that will reduce inequalities and improve public schools, according to a recent Rice survey. Houston Area Survey.

“We’re a different population. We see the world differently than we did five to 10 years ago,” said Stephen Klineberg, founding director of the Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and an emeritus professor of sociology.

The Kinder Area Survey, which was conducted between Jan. 28 and March 12, got responses from 1,001 Harris County residents, and results were released Monday during the Kinder Institute’s annual luncheon which was held virtually for the first time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Klineberg, who has conducted the survey for the past 39 years, said this year’s survey has been one of the most remarkable — coming just days before the novel coronavirus jolted the Houston community and the world, and showing that Houston residents were hopeful for their city, but ready for a change.

[…]

More Houstonians than ever are also calling for government programs to address inequality, according to the survey. Sixty-one percent said government should take action to reduce income differences, 72 percent favored federal health insurance for all Americans, and 79 percent said the government should ensure residents who want to work can find employment. The numbers have increased from a decade ago, when they stood at 45 percent on income differences, 60 percent on healthcare for all, and 64 percent on employment.

Klineberg said the responses indicated the growing inequalities when it comes to health care and economic opportunities, which disproportionately affect the city’s black and Hispanic communities.

Houstonians are also more trusting of those around them, less fearful of crime and have shifted their views on what constitutes a crime. Seventy percent rejected the suggestion that possession of small amounts of marijuana should be treated as a crime — up from 44 percent in 2003 and 34 percent in 1995.

You can see the 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey data here. I have to wonder what the data would have looked like if the survey had been conducted a month or so later, but that’s not important now. This survey is a treasure, and even if the timing was a bit weird this year it’s still a wealth of knowledge about our region. We’re so lucky this has been a thing for so long. Check it out.

Still not enough tests

We know, we know. Don’t ask what we’re gonna do about it.

The vast majority of even those Houston-area residents experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 are not getting tested, according to initial results of a Rice University survey, the latest evidence of the lack of screening for the deadly pandemic.

The survey, taken at Rice’s new COVID-19 registry, found that testing has been conducted in just 10 percent of respondents with a fever, 11 percent of those with a cough and 13 percent of those with shortness of breath — the foremost symptoms associated with the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

“This continues to make the case that health departments have been making about the need for greater testing resources and capacity,” said Marie Lynn Miranda, a Rice professor of statistics and the director of the COVID-19 registry. “Given that we know many asymptomatic people are spreading the disease, that so many people with symptoms are not getting tested is a concern.”

The survey also found that four of 10 households have lost income as a result of the crisis and that it is causing moderate to severe anxiety in one of four people.

The Rice COVID-19 Registry is modeled on its Texas Flood Registry, established in 2018 to measure the long-term health and housing impacts of Hurricane Harvey. Some 20,000 people have provided information to that registry, which was expanded to include the impact of a May 2019 storm that battered the region and Tropical Storm Imelda in September of the same year.

Some 4,300 Houston-area residents thus far have taken the COVID-19 survey, which Miranda calls an attempt to better understand how the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing policies are impacting people’s lives, livelihoods and mental well-being.

The registry is here, the initial findings are here, and you can take the survey by clicking here. This is not a representative sample, since people are choosing to participate, but it’s interesting anyway. Anything that calls attention to the need to do more testing is worthwhile.

Still trying to avoid total budget disaster

That federal money sure would help.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As the prospect of mass furloughs and severe spending cuts looms over the city’s next budget, Houston officials are sitting on a pile of coronavirus stimulus money that amounts to more than double the shortfall projected by Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The rub, at least for now, is that the strings attached to the $404 million Houston received from the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund — a $150 billion trove sent to states and local governments as part of the roughly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — bar officials from spending the aid on expenses they already had budgeted.

Mayors, governors from both parties, congressional Democrats and even some Senate Republicans have pushed for looser restrictions that would allow sales tax-deprived governments to use the money to plug budget holes, instead of limiting them to expenses tied directly to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, as Congress weighs a second stimulus package for local and state governments that may earmark funds for lost revenue after all, Turner is under pressure to squeeze as much money as possible out of the initial round of CARES Act aid.

Prompting the tension was the Treasury Department’s April 22 guidance that eligible spending includes payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care and other employees “whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding” to the pandemic.

Last week, City Controller Chris Brown penned a letter to Finance Director Tantri Emo and Turner-appointed COVID-19 recovery czar Marvin Odum in which he urged the administration to craft a spending plan for the funds. He told city council members last week that officials in other Texas cities have begun determining how much of their public safety expenses are directly related to COVID-19.

“The potential exists for these costs to be offset by CARES Act funds, which could help alleviate added pressure placed on the General Fund,” Brown wrote, referring to the city’s $2.5 billion tax-supported fund that pays for most day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries.

See here for some background. Let’s be clear, it’s more than just Houston facing this kind of problem. Every city, every county, every state has been affected. Federal funds, and a lot of them, are going to be needed. All this caterwauling you hear from haircut-freedom-fighters and grandma-sacrificers about getting the economy going again, none of it means anything if they aren’t willing to save local and state governments from making devastating cuts, which among other things will cause loads of people to lose their jobs and act as a huge drag on any economic recovery. If we could be sure we’d get this in the next round of stimulus then fine, use this money for whatever other purposes it’s intended for. But really, why wait? Let’s get a bit of certainty to bolster confidence.

From the “Shit happens” department

I apologize, I couldn’t help myself.

City health officials and Rice University scientists have begun testing Houston wastewater samples for COVID-19, a process they hope will reveal the true spread of the new coronavirus as clinical testing continues to lag.

The city-led effort makes use of studies that show traces of the virus can be found in human feces. By testing samples of sewage collected at the city’s wastewater treatment plants, officials hope to uncover the scale of the outbreak in Houston and, perhaps, locate hotspots undetected by in-person tests.

“It’s an evolving field. We hope that it will help give us just more information on where the virus is and how much of it is out there,” said Loren Hopkins, a Rice University statistics professor who also serves as the health department’s chief environmental science officer.

[…]

For now, plant workers are collecting wastewater samples across a 24-hour period once a week, before sending them to Rice and health department officials who then analyze the samples for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

If successful, the project will reveal COVID-19 trends over a span of weeks and months in certain areas of Houston and citywide, Hopkins said. Though less precise than directly testing people for the coronavirus, the analysis will produce case estimates that include people who lack symptoms, because asymptomatic people still shed the virus in their stool. And because workers at the treatment plants are collecting samples across a 24-hour period, the results may provide a more accurate snapshot than the number of positive in-person test results, Hopkins said, because that data is impaired by days-long delays in receiving results.

Where the data may prove especially useful, experts said, is in locations where wastewater samples indicate the virus has spread more widely than clinical testing has revealed. Officials can then direct more testing to those areas, including through a mobile unit that launched earlier this week.

This is an attempt to address the serious gap between our need for testing and our capacity for testing. We hope it will help identify trends and emerging hot spots more quickly and effectively. It’s something that’s not been done before, and who knows if it will work the way we want. It’s surely worth a try.

Houston’s Climate Action Plan

We have one, with goals for 2050.

Houston’s first Climate Action Plan calls on the city’s 4,600 energy companies to lead the transition to renewable sources, while residents are asked to swap car rides for mass transit and work to cut down on the estimated seven pounds of waste each person discards every day.

The plan also calls for the city to adopt a new building code and develop a long-range plan for its waste collection system as part of a broad-based effort to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The 97-page plan, in the works for more than a year and published online Wednesday, is a strategy, not an ordinance, so it does not enforce any new rules. Instead, it identifies four areas to target emission reductions: transportation, energy transition, building optimization and materials management. It also identifies goals, strategies and targets for residents, businesses and the city to follow in each of those areas.

For example, the section on transportation, which accounts for nearly half of emissions here, includes a goal to shift the regional fleet to electric and low-emission vehicles. It lays out targets to get there, such as converting all non-emergency municipal vehicles by 2030, and increasing incentives and infrastructure for the private sector to do the same.

The section on energy transition includes the production of 5 million megawatt hours of solar power by 2050. It calls for the city to power municipal operations entirely with renewable sources by 2025, and it proposes training private businesses and property owners on how to adopt solar power on their rooftops.

Nearly all of the 34 million metric tons of carbon that Houston emitted in 2014, the baseline year for such calculations, came from transportation and energy that powers homes, businesses and institutions, the plan says.

Those strategies are tailored to Houston, said Lara Cottingham, the city’s chief sustainability officer and lead author of the plan. The city, she said, does not have the same tools as the state or federal governments or even other cities, such as San Antonio and Austin, to combat climate change. It has very little authority to regulate the oil and gas industry, and it does not have a city-owned electric utility.

That means the plan requires buy-in from businesses and residents to take initiative themselves, Cottingham said.

“The Climate Action Plan is a good combination of ambitious goals and common-sense solutions,” she said. “We don’t have all the answers, and that’s OK. We do know that science is behind us and technology is on our side. What is important is that every single one of us does our part.”

You can see the plan here. The story notes that there’s a broad range of support behind the plan, but also a lot of emphasis from supporters that this is just a first step. I agree with the Air Alliance Houston statement on the plan, which urges the city to collaborate with Harris County to expand this into more of a regional initiative. In the short term, I’d really like to see some action on solar power, with options to make financing for home solar panels widely available. This is very much a collective action problem, and I’m glad to see the city commit to doing its part. It’s on the rest of us to make sure they follow through.

Well, they do serve food

Presented (mostly) without comment:

A strip club in Houston has won a temporary order from federal court Friday night allowing it to resume business after a confrontation with police over the governor’s order to allow certain types of businesses to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Club Onyx opened just after midnight, claiming it was a full-service restaurant and that strippers there were merely “entertainment.” The governor’s order allowed restaurants, retail businesses, malls and movie theaters to open at 25 percent capacity Friday.

Houston police officers raided the business within an hour of it opening, saying the business did not qualify under the categories the governor laid out. The officers threatened owner Eric Langan with arrest if he didn’t close. Langan was defiant for hours but ultimately agreed to close the club around 4 a.m.

Then the business he owns, Trump, Inc., filed a federal lawsuit alleging the raid and forced closure violated his civil rights. The suit argued that his business was a restaurant and therefore able to accept customers.

Late Friday night, federal judge Vanessa Gilmore granted the club’s owner a temporary restraining order allowing it to reopen. It also prohibited Houston police from arresting employees for doing so and ordered the agency to produce all records from its investigation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the club had primarily operated and categorized itself as a sexually oriented business before the pandemic and was only claiming to be a restaurant so it could reopen.

No one ever said this was going to be easy. There was a time when strip clubs might have been Houston’s third-biggest industry, following energy and the Medical Center. I don’t even know what I’m doing here.

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.