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May 6th, 2020:

More reopening

It’s going great so far, right?

“Grandpa, what did you do during the COVID crisis?” “I got a haircut – for FREEDOM.”

Gov. Greg Abbott will allow hair salons in Texas to reopen Friday and gyms on May 18, moving more quickly than expected to further restart the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

The businesses will be required to follow certain rules, however, as the state continues to grapple with the novel coronavirus. For example, hair stylists will only be able to work with one customer at a time, while gyms can only reopen at 25% capacity, and their showers and locker rooms should remain closed for now.

Abbott announced the upcoming reopenings during a news conference Tuesday at the state Capitol in Austin, four days after he let stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls reopen at 25% capacity. He had initially eyed May 18 as the next date to announce further reopenings, but in recent days he has faced growing pressure from some in his own party to move quicker.

Even as Abbott rolled out the additional reopenings, he braced Texans for “flare-ups in certain regions” and said the state has assembled “surge response teams” to dispatch to such problem areas.

After discussing barbershops and gyms, Abbott said state officials also want to reopen another type of business — bars — but are still figuring out how to do so safely. He said he wants feedback from bar owners, given that “not all bars are the same,” particularly when it comes to size.

The Friday reopenings, Abbott said, apply to “cosmetology salons, barbershops, hair salons, nail salons and tanning salons.” In addition to limiting stylists to one customer at a time, Abbott recommended salons use an appointment system only, and if they accept walk-ins, those customers should only wait inside if they can practice social distancing. Stylist stations should also be 6 feet apart, and Abbott said he “strongly” recommends stylists and customers wear masks.

When it comes to gyms, in addition to limiting capacity and keeping locker rooms closed, Abbott said all equipment must be disinfected after each use. Customers should wear gloves that cover their entire hands, including the fingers. Customers should maintain social distancing. And if customers bring their own equipment into the gym, such as a yoga mat, it must be disinfected before and after each use.

[…]

After the news conference, Democrats said Abbott was moving too quickly to further open up the economy, especially so soon after the initial reopenings.

“I thought we were waiting to see if the first round of re-opening caused COVID-19 spikes before making decisions on additional openings?” tweeted state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “It’s been four days.”

Look, Steve Toth and Briscoe Cain’s hairs weren’t going to cut themselves. Desperate times call for desperate measures, you know.

Look, I need a haircut, too. I’m sure my beloved stylist (the girls and I go to Venus Hair in the Heights; Miss Venus has cut their hair since they were little) has been hurting and will be delighted to see me, and I feel reasonably sure she’ll do what she can to sanitize the place. I’m still not sure I’m quite ready for it, though. As for gyms, I don’t go to those but I have done a twice-weekly pilates class at a small home-based studio in the neighborhood, and I’m sure they will be eager to get up and running again, too. We already wiped down the equipment after use, now we’ll do it before as well and will be even more thorough about it. We’ll also be in a small space (a converted garage), and I don’t know how I feel about that. I hate that this is hurting small business owners like these folks. I also had pneumonia in 2007 and have no desire to put myself at risk for a nasty respiratory virus.

If we had a functional federal government that had used the lead time we had to get a scaled-up test and trace regimen in place, we wouldn’t be in this position now. If we didn’t have public officials and society page dilettantes and various armed lunatics out there denying reality and putting everyone’s health and safety at risk, maybe we could have a more honest conversation about balancing risk with people’s ability to earn a living. If we weren’t coming off the worst week for infections and deaths in the state, maybe we could feel a bit more secure. I mean, seriously:

The number of new reported COVID-19 cases and deaths last week was the largest since the pandemic began, suggesting that infections remain pervasive and much is still unknown about the size and scale of the Texas outbreak.

The state reported more than 7,000 new cases and 221 deaths, an increase of 24 percent and 33 percent over the previous week, respectively, a Hearst Newspapers analysis shows.

At the same time, as testing expands, the percentage of Texans who test positive for the disease has fallen to its lowest levels in over a month — a point that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has turned to recently as a sign of progress.

The data tracks closely with national trends, and has some health experts worried as states including Texas move to reopen their economies.

“We’re opening against a backdrop of a lot of spread,” Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under President Donald Trump, tweeted Monday. “Unless there’s a strong seasonal effect and summer slows transmission more than expected, we should expect cases to grow.”

You know who else expects cases to grow? Greg Abbott, that’s who. Please tell me again why we couldn’t have waited at least until we actually got the number of daily tests being administered up to the goal level he set before we did this? You can send a strike force to Amarillo if you want – you should also be prepared to send one to Palestine, too – but what exactly are they going to do to make this better?

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

How about that other coronavirus hot spot?

You know, prisons?

For more than fifty years, Palestine, Texas, has been known as a prison town. Most of the time, that hasn’t been a problem.

True, it was a bit controversial in the 1960s when the Texas corrections department bought up 21,000 acres in this part of East Texas and built the biggest men’s prison in the state. According to Ben Campbell, a local historian and self-described “old geezer,” locals fretted at the time about the danger of escaping prisoners. The state provided steady jobs with decent benefits, however, and over the years one prison expanded into five, which can hold nearly 14,000 men. Now, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is the largest employer in Anderson County.

“People love it and they hate it—it’s jobs, but it’s low-paying jobs,” Campbell said. “They get decent benefits, so it’s a positive for the county.”

But when coronavirus hit, the county’s biggest employer became its biggest threat. More than 2,000 workers go in and out of the prisons—and have unwittingly been carrying coronavirus with them. More than 30 of them had tested positive for COVID-19 by Friday evening, according to the prison system, in a county with only 30 reported cases total (not all of the guards live there). There’s just one hospital in the county, the 150-bed Palestine Regional Medical Center.

“People are trying to be supportive and understanding of the guards needing to do their jobs,” said Matt Kuhl, the son of a retired corrections officer, who runs the “Happening Now in Anderson County, TX!” Facebook group. “But the general consensus is that it’s a threat to have so many cases nearby.”

[…]

By April 2,  the county already had its first confirmed COVID-19 case, and its chief executive issued a shelter-in-place order. The county also imposed an order limiting how many family members could enter big-box stores at one time because so many people had been congregating at the Walmart.

None of these restrictions could stave off the coronavirus explosion inside Anderson County prisons. The following week, the state corrections agency announced six men at the George Beto Unit had tested positive, and the maximum-security prison quickly became the biggest hotspot among the state’s 104 prisons.

“When it started spinning up out there at Beto, within a few days it was up to 30 cases and then 70,” said Peyton Williams, who has lived in Palestine for two years and works in banking. “It seemed to sneak up pretty quickly.”

Ten days after those first positives, Beto had more than 100 cases and, suddenly, a lot of people started worrying. Mayor Steve Presley sparred with prison administrators he accused of misrepresenting basic facts, like whether men were being moved from prison to prison, and thus possibly spreading the disease.

“They told us at one point that they had stopped all transfers except medical—and they eventually did, but they kept transferring them for about a week, just back and forth between prisons,” Presley told me recently. “Did they think we couldn’t find out in a town this small? That people wouldn’t tell us?”

Usually, he said, the city and the state agency get along. Everyone in town has seen vans full of men in prison-white uniforms on their way to trim grass at the city cemetery.

Prisoners had already stopped work for the city in early April when Presley vented to the local newspaper, telling the Palestine Herald-Press that he was furious that the corrections agency was not prepared to handle an outbreak. A state worker then said prisoners would no longer work at the city’s cemetery and parks. The mayor initially suspected it was in retaliation, but the TDCJ later said it was a misunderstanding and the change was not permanent.

That was two weeks ago, but problems continue. Prisoners at two other nearby units have tested positive, and the outbreak at Beto is still growing. Last week it topped two hundred cases.

Meanwhile, more people in Palestine are getting sick. “Most of the cases are prison-related,” said Dr. Carolyn Salter, a local physician who was once the mayor. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

I know the mere mention of this subject will send some people fluttering to the fainting chairs, but discuss it we must. And hot tip, lots and lots of people go into and out of these prisons (and jails) every day. If those places are ginormous breeding grounds for coronavirus – and they are – what did you think was going to happen? And more to the point, what are we going to do about it?

The new coronavirus is fully entrenched in the Texas prison system, confirmed to have infected more than 1,600 inmates and employees at dozens of units. At least 25 infected prisoners and staff members have died. But, like in the rest of the state, the scope of the virus’ spread behind bars is still largely unknown because testing has been limited.

As of Saturday, TDCJ had tested about 1,700 symptomatic inmates for the virus — about 1% of the state’s prison population, according to TDCJ reports. More than 70% of them have tested positive for the coronavirus. That’s a staggeringly high rate compared with the state overall, where less than 10% of the relatively low number of Texans tested had positive results. (Prisoners are largely excluded from state case counts.)

Epidemiologists say more testing is needed in prisons because they are incubators for disease, which can endanger not only prisoners and staff, but surrounding communities as well.

“People tend to think of them as separated from the rest of society, but that is not the case,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Most [prison outbreaks] have begun with introductions from staff.”

[…]

And infectious disease experts and prisoner rights advocates say much more needs to be done, starting with mass testing of inmates and reducing the overall prisoner population.

“Until they start doing mass testing, I don’t think they’re going to get a hold of the problem there,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and prison conditions expert at the University of Texas law school. “There are going to continue to be deaths, and it’s going to continue spreading to the communities both through staff and people who are released and people who are sent to community hospitals.”

But Texas has one of the lowest testing rates in the country. State Rep. James White, who leads the Texas House Corrections Committee, said the prison system is doing the best it can with the resources it has.

“Whatever we’re challenged with in the so-called free society, we have those same challenges, if not exacerbated, in the incarcerated population,” the Hillister Republican said. “We’re having challenges with testing like in the state.”

Releasing some prisoners early — which could include elderly inmates eligible for parole, people close to finishing their sentences or those who have already been granted parole but are still behind bars — is a decision that falls to Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, but neither has indicated any plans to do so.

After some law enforcement officials and conservatives argued that freeing more inmates could lead to a spike in crime when police are already stretched thin, Abbott came out against more releases from lockups.

“We want to prevent the spread of #COVID19 among prison staff & inmates. But, releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution,” Abbott said in a March tweet.

But Seth Prins, an assistant professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, said it’s too late to rely solely on mitigation in the prisons.

“Really the only effective strategy is to get as many people out as possible,” he said. “I wish there was a middle-of-the-road answer, but there’s not.”

We could have done more aggressive testing early on, to at least try to isolate the sick from the not-yet-sick, and we could have been more aggressive about releasing low-risk inmates and speeding up the release of those who were going to be getting out soon anyway, but that ship has sailed. What we now get to live with, thanks to Greg Abbott and Donald Trump and their complete failure to provide for universal testing is this constant source of infection, which will mostly but not entirely fall on the people who live near, work in, or are incarcerated in these places. As with pretty much everything else about this virus, it didn’t have to be this way, but here we are.

No one knows when schools will open

I mean, if Mike Morath doesn’t know, then no one knows.

Texas schools might start bringing students back to classrooms on staggered schedules in the fall. Or they might have some students show up at school while others continue their coursework online.

Or they might stay completely virtual until 2021.

While it’s much too early to pin down all the permutations of how and where COVID-19 might remain a health risk come August, Texas superintendents are starting to game out how public education will look in the fall.

Since Gov. Greg Abbott closed all schools in late March, school districts have cobbled together combinations of online learning and old-school written worksheets handed out to students without reliable internet. The evolving, makeshift system has raised concerns about students without computers being left out and overwhelmed parents struggling with their new roles as home school teachers.

Some superintendents worry that students will fall ever further behind the longer school buildings are closed. And they know they must improve remote teaching in case the return date ends up being even further off than projected.

[…]

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has been holding biweekly phone calls with superintendents across the state to discuss plans, but no official decisions have been made.

“The bigger question is: How can you plan to be nimble so that if the situation changes quickly, you can adjust to the change either way, either toward bringing kids into buildings, or perhaps once you bring kids into building, having to put them back into distance learning environments?” said Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio.

“If you ask me today, what’s the percentage chance we come back in August? I have no idea. Somewhere between 0 and 100%.”

About half the students in the 100,000-student school district are economically disadvantaged, and 12% are receiving special education services. Woods and his staff are considering bringing back those students least likely to be served virtually in the fall while keeping the other half in distance learning as a way to reduce exposure.

But that method of splitting students up is less possible for districts like small Hearne ISD, outside of College Station, where 96% of students are economically disadvantaged, meaning pretty much all are hurting while school buildings are closed.

Two points. One, it would be super if the state could pony up a few bucks to help the school districts that are struggling to outfit their students with the equipment necessary to properly do remote learning. (Maybe this kind of school finance inadequacy, combined with the much more urgent need for this kind of contingency, could be the basis of the next school finance lawsuit.) And two, if no one can feel confident about schools being able to reopen and stay open, then what does that say about all of the other things that Greg Abbott wants to open?

Hey look, there’s baseball!

Welcome to the KBO:

Those craving live baseball can soon get a fix.

ESPN announced Monday an agreement with Eclat Media Group to televise six live Korean Baseball Organization games per week. KBO Opening Day [was] Tuesday and ESPN [began] its telecasts then, with a midnight game between the NC Dinos and Samsung Lions.

Former Astros outfielder Preston Tucker is among the handful of American-born players set to start his season. Tucker’s Kia Tigers will play at 4:30 a.m. Friday against the Samsung Lions on ESPN. KBO games will not have fans.

ESPN’s deal includes the KBO postseason and best-of-seven championship series. ESPN’s familiar crew of broadcasters and analysts — Jon Sciambi, Karl Ravech, Eduardo Perez, Jessica Mendoza and Kyle Peterson — will call the games remotely from their home offices.

[…]

In an interview last month, Tucker detailed the many steps taken by the KBO to get its season back. Tucker must take his temperature in the morning, at night and before he enters the ballpark. Any player or staff member with an elevated temperature is not allowed to enter the facility.

The KBO issued new regulations and guidelines that included a ban on spitting and cautioned against high-fiving or handshakes. Tucker said players have been advised not to go to malls or movie theaters, but are permitted to go out to dinner or take walks around their home city.

“If you’re on the field, they’ve checked you out 100 percent that you’re at least not sick and not running a fever,” Tucker said. “If you make it into the stadium, they’ve pretty much cleared you if you’re healthy.”

FanGraphs has the first week’s schedule and a bunch of links to acquaint yourself with the league. The times are not great for an American audience, but that’s why God gave us DVRs. You’ll want to check out My KBO and its Twitter feed for English-language stats, history, highlights and more. The one thing my wife and I didn’t get to do that I wanted to do when we were in Seoul about 20 years ago was see a baseball game there. (We did get to see a game in Tokyo on that same trip, which was a phenomenal experience.) It’s been a wish list item for me for awhile now. I’ll probably tune into some games on ESPN, which among other things will help me see how weird this experience will be without a live crowd, since that will probably be what we get when one of the crazy plans being floated gets adopted.

I should note that the KBO is not the only game going on – the Chinese Professional Baseball League, from Taiwan, is also playing games. There are no English language broadcasts of the CPBL that I am aware of, but they will soon have live fans at the games. I’m glad for them, and also super jealous. I’m so ready for baseball here as well.