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May 2nd, 2020:

Day One of reopening

Just a reminder, this is where we started.

Texas reported 50 more COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, the most in any one day since the state reported its first deaths in mid-March.

The state also reported it had added more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 to its total of 28,000 — the biggest one-day increase in infections since April 10.

The numbers came out less than 9 hours before Gov. Greg Abbott was set to lift restrictions on many businesses, allowing malls, movie theaters, retail stores and restaurants to begin operating at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Those businesses can only operate at 25 percent of their maximum capacity for the next two weeks under Abbott’s phased re-opening plan. After that, if things are going well, Abbott has said he will increase the limit to 50 percent occupancy.

[…]

“Understand that Texas has either the 3rd or 4th best — meaning lowest — death rate in the United States,” Abbott said in a television interview on KVUE, an ABC affiliate in Austin. “Texas never has had a situation like New York, like California, like Washington, like Louisiana, like New Jersey, like Michigan, like Illinois with deaths. We’ve never had capacity strains on our hospitals like those states.”

But over the last two days, Texas reported more than 90 deaths from the disease, state records show. That number did not include another six deaths from Harris County, according to an independent tally by Hearst Newspapers.

On Wednesday the state reported 42 people had died. In the previous week the total deaths were 25 per day, on average.

Cheerful, I know. To be fair, the total on any one day is not itself that useful – it’s the trend, the rolling average over several days, that really matters. The point here is that we were not on a steady decline to begin with. Looking at the Trib’s chart, we’re still going up. Some of that is because of more testing, though we’re still at a pathetically low level of testing. If we can ever get to an adequate level, maybe then we’ll know how it’s truly going.

In the meantime, just because we can open doesn’t mean we will.

Arrows on the floor show customers which way to walk. Sanitizing stations appear on the walls. Signs advise shoppers to wash their hands.

On the first day that Texas’ stay-at-home order expired and non-essential retailers were allowed to reopen under social distancing protocols, customers, business owners and employees alike braved a new world together — six feet apart and at 25 percent capacity.

Most of Houston’s Galleria Mall, a massive up-scale mall that typically attracts 30 million visitors a year, stood empty. The majority of the mall’s 400 storefronts kept doors locked. Tables and chairs in the food court are missing, since only to-go orders are allowed. Kiosks that normally sell jewelry, perfume and gifts are draped with black cloths.

But lights flickered from some retailers, where masked workers stood anxious as the clock neared 11 a.m., when they would open their doors. Employees went about their business in the minutes leading up to the reopening; at ba$sh, a women’s clothing retailer, workers prepared the store with new inventory, pulling a rolling rack of flower-print dresses for display. Then, a handful of customers began to trickle in.

Mall general manager Kurt Webb said many tenants are anxious to get back to business, but he’s not expecting them to do so all at once.

“Early on, we’re OK with that,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re giving everyone enough space and earning people’s confidence that malls are a place the community can come and feel safe.”

Extra masks and sanitizing wipes are available for shoppers on the mall’s third floor office. But earning consumer confidence back will be a tough sell, particularly in malls. Only about a third of U.S. consumers feel safe going to the store right now, according to a Deloitte survey of consumer behavior.

[…]

Labor advocates and pro-business groups alike largely advised against the re-opening.

The Greater Houston Partnership, a business-financed economic development group, discouraged Houston companies from returning to the office if possible on the first day that the stay-at-home order had expired in Texas. Bob Harvey, the CEO of the GHP, said in a statement that office-based employees have been able to carry out tasks remotely for some time, and there is, “no need to add fuel to the fire,” when it comes to COVID-19 transmission.

Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy criticized the opening as a “premature green light,” if the state does not allow employees to refuse work if their employer does not meet safety standards in the pandemic.

Also not rushing to reopen:

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in late March deemed churches to be “essential” services and superseded bans on in-person religious gatherings in Harris and other counties, many local congregations opted to stick with online services and follow the advice of public health experts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

A month later, Abbott has cleared the way for churches, synagogues and mosques across the state to resume larger gatherings as part of a plan announced Monday to restart Texas’ economy.

But there is far from a consensus among local religious leaders over whether now is the time to throw open church doors, even with Abbott’s social-distancing recommendations. A group of more than 80 Christian churches across greater Houston has signed a statement saying they would not hold in-person services during May.

“We believe that in-person gatherings for worship that are larger than 50 persons should not take place in April or May. We will not have in-person worship but will continue offering worship online,” said the statement. “In making this decision, we have the unanimous support of the leaders of the Texas Medical Center who strongly recommend these actions for all the faith communities of Greater Houston.”

Since the statement went out on Friday, about 25 more churches have added their signatures, according to Scott Jones, as resident bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

“We can see clearly at this time that resumption of larger group gatherings should not happen in the next six weeks,” the statement reads. “Deciding when to resume in-person worship for larger gatherings should be evaluated as new information about the rate of new cases and the availability of testing is available.”

Not every church leader agrees. Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop for Galveston-Houston, which includes 1.7 million Catholics, announced Wednesday evening that masses would resume this weekend with social distancing.

Second Baptist Church, which counts tens of thousands of Houstonians as members, said it will resume services at its campuses — again with social distancing — on May 9. The church said it may add new services to allow congregants to worship while remaining 6 feet apart.

And then there’s restaurants:

Dozens of Houston restaurants will reopen for dine-in service on Friday, May 1.

This list includes almost exclusively locally owned establishments from across a variety of price points and parts of Houston. That’s not necessarily the case in other parts of Texas; our sister site in Austin declined to publish a similar list of restaurants because “our story would largely consist of mega-chains or restaurant groups based in other cities.”

Those who choose to dine out this weekend will find restaurants to be different places than they were in February. Per regulations from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, diners will not be able to use valet parking. They will be expected to wash their hands upon entering a restaurant. Once seated — at parties no larger than six and at least six feet away from other tables — they’ll find that shared condiment dispensers such as ketchup bottles and salt shakers have been replaced by single-use, disposable items.

Picos has installed plexiglass partitions at the bar and in between some tables to separate both staff from diners and diners from each other. Many restaurants are limiting restroom occupancy to one person at a time, with a staff member monitoring the area to enforce social distancing. Contactless payment via Venmo or another app may be strongly encouraged.

Similarly, most restaurants have not only explicitly endorsed the Texas Restaurant Association’s Texas Restaurant Promise that recommends daily health screening of employees and frequent sanitizing of common areas but have also told CultureMap that their employees will be wearing masks and gloves when they interact with customers. Patrons should also strongly consider face coverings when they’re not eating to help prevent spreading the virus.

While the decision to reopen or patronize a restaurant’s dining room is controversial — one Instagram follower got blocked for a message that simply read “restaurants = death” — many people are ready to dine out. Representatives tell CultureMap that both Tony’s and Steak 48 are mostly booked for both Friday and Saturday, and Federal Grill had no trouble filling its available tables when it reopened last weekend.

I’m not, at least at this point, going to judge any business that felt they needed to reopen, or any person who wanted to patronize them. We are going to have to figure this out one way or another, and maybe at least we’ll get a better handle on how to do this by actually doing it, however risky or ill-advised it may be. I reserve the right to judge the hell out of anyone or any business that doesn’t reel it back in if it becomes clear that’s what we need to do, or who refuse to consider how their actions may affect others. I judge the hell out of these people, for example.

Speaking of which

Gov. Greg Abbott moved Friday to open up parts of the Texas economy, but he continues to get pressure from many Republicans to move faster even as Democrats have warned him to slow down.

Several conservative state legislators began a letter-writing campaign calling on Abbott to reopen other sectors of the economy — notably hair salons, barbershops, and bars.

“It is confusing to Texans that they have been allowed to congregate en masse at grocery stores and other big box stores since this crisis began, yet they are barred from patronizing a local barber shop or salon, for example, where they are served individually by professionals trained in sanitation and where they can social distance from other customers,” State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Thursday.

She’s not alone. Other lawmakers from around the state have been sending in letters as well and taking to social media to prod the governor to open more businesses.

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, took to Facebook to post a story about a Dallas salon that tried to open in defiance of Abbott’s orders to remain closed but was later forced to shut down.

“Greg Abbott Respectfully, ENOUGH!!! You are the only one that can STOP this!!! ENOUGH!!!” White wrote.

Abbott has said he, too, wants to see barber shops and hair salons open “as quickly as possible.” In an interview on KSAT in San Antonio on Thursday, he said he’s working with health officials to determine when those businesses can reopen safely. He said in those settings, workers and customers are in such close contact that they have to get the precautions right to prevent a flare-up of coronavirus infections.

“The decisions we make are based upon data as well as input from doctors,” Abbott said.

The hills some people pick to die on, perhaps literally. I do not understand.

Let’s close on a better note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday announced a fourth step to the mitigation plan she unveiled earlier this week to help reopen and restart Houston’s economy.

The mitigation plan announced earlier this week calls for expanding testing, contact tracing and treatment options. The fourth step announced Friday, what Hidalgo called the fourth “T”, is teamwork from residents to continue practice social distancing, wear face coverings and to remain vigilant of the virus, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift the stay-at-home order and reopen some businesses.

“We can’t ignore what is right around the corner,” Hidalgo said of a possible resurgence of the virus. “Some see today as a day of celebration…my message to them is not so fast.”

[…]

“Reopening doesn’t mean mission accomplished, it doesn’t mean the virus goes away,” Hidalgo said.

At least someone is keeping her eye on the ball.

Down go the sales tax receipts

It’s bad. Expected, but bad.

Texas collected $2.58 billion in state sales tax revenue in April — a roughly 9% drop from what the state collected the same month last year, Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Friday. That drop, from $2.8 to $2.58 billion, marked the steepest decline since January 2010, Hegar said.

April’s revenue, which the state collected from purchases made in March, is among the first official glimpses at the dramatic blows state and local budgets will take from widespread social distancing measures first taken last month to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. And Hegar warned that the state’s largest single source of funding will continue to “show steeper declines” in the coming months compared with a year ago as the economy continues what will likely be a slow crawl out of a weekslong virtual shutdown due to the pandemic.

“The steepest declines in tax remittances were from businesses most quickly and dramatically affected by social distancing,” Hegar said in a statement. “However, those losses were, to a degree, offset by increases from big-box retailers, grocery stores and online vendors. Remittances from oil and gas-related sectors also fell significantly as oil and gas exploration and production companies slashed capital spending in response to the crash in oil price.”

Hegar’s been sounding the alarm for awhile, it was just a matter of what the exact number was. If we’re lucky, April will be no worse. Whether things get better in May and beyond, which is the intent of the reopening scheme, won’t be known for a couple of months. How the population as a whole acts, and whether or not the virus comes roaring back, will be the keys to that.

All beaches are now open

Again, ready or not.

Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough isn’t worried about Texas beaches reopening to the public on Friday. He’s worried about where people will go after they leave the beach.

“If Houston people want to come and congregate on the beach and do their thing and go back to Houston, with or without whatever they might have contracted, that’s fine,” Yarbrough said. “But the volume of people that come, they’re not just going to the beach and getting in their car. There’s restaurants, there’s gas stations, there’s grocery stores … it’s all the little dominoes and ramifications of people coming to Galveston.”

Galveston had begun a soft reopening of its beaches on Monday — open from 6 to 9 a.m. to pedestrians — that is now null and void as part of Texas’s phased reopening when the state’s stay-at-home order expired at midnight. The Texas General Land Office, which governs beach access across the state, informed coastal cities like Galveston that they no longer had the authority to close beaches due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The city of Galveston announced the land office’s decision in a news release Wednesday, noting the agency’s guidance “rescinding its approval for local governments to close beaches due to COVID-19.” The order effectively opened all of Texas’s coastline to the public beginning at 12 a.m. Friday.

The basis for the land office’s green light to open beaches was Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order encouraging outdoor activities “so long as necessary precautions are maintained” to minimize transmission of the virus and in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.

[…]

While Yarbrough said enforcement would be “minimal,” the Galveston City Council passed an ordinance Thursday mandating social distancing rules on beaches, outdoor venues, and entertainment venues. Violators will be subject to a $500 fine.

See here for some background. I can’t wait for some local Hotze to file a lawsuit claiming that Galveston has no authority to impose such a fine on beaches within its city limits. I’ve said that there’s value in reopening public spaces like beaches, which not only give people a needed place to go outside their homes but also represent a low risk of infection, at least as long as people aren’t crowding too close together. Skirmishes about opening beaches are happening in California as well, and probably in every other state that borders an ocean. We should recognize that this does place a larger burden on the towns where the beaches are, and give them a bit of space to handle it. And really, if there are alternative ways to go outside and get some fresh air, that don’t involve driving an hour or more down to Galveston, maybe consider that, at least for the time being.

The NBA takes a baby step towards coming back

This may not amount to much, but it’s a potential sign that there may be more like it coming.

The NBA is reopening team practice facilities beginning on Friday for players in states and municipalities that are loosening stay-at-home restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic, sources told ESPN.

Players can return to team facilities in states such as Georgia for voluntary individual workouts as soon as next week, which allows for NBA organizations to start allowing players to return to training in a professional, safe environment.

Teams will remain prohibited from holding group workouts or organized team activities, sources said.

In markets in which more restrictive governance of stay-at-home orders remain in place, the NBA is telling teams the league will work with franchises to help find alternative arrangements for their players, sources said.

The NBA’s decision to reopen facilities based on the loosening of local governmental policies isn’t reflective of a new timetable for a resumption of play this season, sources said. Commissioner Adam Silver and owners still believe they need more time for a clearer picture on whether, when or how they could possibly resume the season, sources said.

Many team executives have been clamoring for the chance to get players back into their facilities, which they believe to be among the safest possible environments around the pandemic. On a conference call with general managers and Silver on Thursday, some GMs said they had players asking about the possibility of traveling to Atlanta to work out in fitness centers with gymnasiums, an idea that concerned many team executives, sources said.

“If our players can travel and play at a 24-Hour Fitness in Atlanta, they should be able to have access to our facilities,” one GM told ESPN on Saturday.

With Greg Abbott’s announcement about a plan to “reopen the economy” coming today, we might see the Toyota Center among those facilities. As noted before, the NBA is still sounding a lot of caution about when or if it might be able to resume its season. Unlike MLB, they have not been floating various games-in-a-bubble scenarios. As such, I don’t think this is necessarily anything more than just the teams trying to provide a (hopefully) safe way for players to work out. It’s not hard to imagine how that could lead to something more, however. It’s also not hard to see how that could lead to more players getting sick. For right now, it’s a bit of news, and we’ll see where if anywhere it goes.