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coronavirus

Time for another COVID roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, too, we still suck at testing.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

But that doesn’t solve everything.

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

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

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

Harris County to buy digital devices for students

An excellent use of CARES money.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday voted to spend up to $32 million in federal COVID-19 funds on providing hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots and devices to children in school districts across the county.

The funds, provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will go toward the purchase of more than 200,000 devices, such as Chromebook laptops, and more than 80,000 WiFi hotspots. The county is partnering with the Texas Education Agency and T-Mobile as part of the initiative. (more…)

College sports roundup

Southland Conference postpones fall sports.

After much deliberation, the Southland Conference has postponed league competition in all of its fall sports with the intent of playing a football season in the spring of 2021 due to concerns over COVID-19.

The Southland will, however, allow teams to play nonconference games if they choose.

Houston Baptist, for example, plans on playing its three scheduled nonconference football games this fall, including at Texas Tech. HBU’s other nonconference opponents are North Texas and Louisiana Tech.

The Huskies also will participate in nonconference games in volleyball and women’s soccer.

[…]

Sam Houston State will not try to play any sports in the fall, but Stephen F. Austin said it would.

HBU will play three opponents (North Texas, Texas Tech, and Louisiana Tech) who will pay them for the game. That’s one way to mitigate the financial hit for this.

West Coast Conference postpones fall sports.

Keeping in line with many other leagues around the country, the West Coast Conference, which includes BYU, announced Thursday that it has postponed all conference fall competition due to the coronavirus pandemic and is looking at ways to compete in the spring.

The decision was reached by the WCC Presidents’ Council after consulting with the league’s 10 athletic directors and commissioner Gloria Nevarez over the past several weeks.

This move impacts women’s volleyball, soccer, men’s cross-country and women’s cross-country. But it doesn’t affect men’s and women’s basketball, which is scheduled to tip off in November.

The conference “remains fully committed and continues to work closely with campus leadership on plans to ensure a safe environment to conduct the 2020-21 WCC men’s and women’s basketball seasons in the winter,” according to league officials. “The conference intends to explore various models for conducting WCC competition in the fall sports of men’s and women’s cross-country, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball in the spring of 2021. The WCC strongly supports efforts to encourage the National Collegiate Athletic Association to conduct fall NCAA championships in the spring.”

The WCC includes Gonzaga, so you can understand the desire to play basketball.

Southern Conference postpones fall sports.

VMI will not play Virginia nor any other football team this fall.

The Southern Conference announced Thursday that it is postponing its fall sports season until next spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. SoCon presidents voted on the matter Thursday afternoon.

Although SoCon games are moving to the spring, the conference is permitting its teams to still play nonleague games this fall.

But VMI decided not to exercise that option. So the Keydets will not play their scheduled game at UVa on Sept. 11.

“We made the decision, our CEOs did, regarding fall moving to spring, and we support that and believe it’s in the best interest of our cadet athletes to shift things to the [spring],” VMI athletic director Dave Diles said Thursday in a phone interview. “And therefore [VMI] didn’t feel it was the right thing to have any additional parts separated from that decision.”

VMI would have received $375K to play UVa.

Horizon League postpones fall sports.

The Horizon League has canceled sports this fall.

On Thursday afternoon, the league announced it has postponed all competition for fall sports. Among the schools in the Horizon League are Detroit Mercy and Oakland.

In total, 10 sports have been canceled, including men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s golf, baseball, softball, men’s tennis and women’s volleyball.

The league said any decision to move fall sports competition to the spring will be made at a later date. Individual schools will implement their own rules involving team workouts, in accordance with NCAA and state guidelines.

The Horizon League had previously voted to delay the start of the fall sports season until October 1.

Big Sky and Western Athletic Conferences postpone fall sports.

There won’t be any sports competitions this fall in either the Big Sky Conference or Western Athletic Conference due to health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both leagues made their announcements Thursday and are looking at the possibility of moving fall competition to the spring. It impacts four Utah colleges: Weber State and Southern Utah in the Big Sky, and Utah Valley and Dixie State in the WAC.

The Big Sky had previously announced it would postpone the league’s conference competition in football this fall, and Thursday’s news confirms there won’t be any nonconference play in any sport. The decision also impacts Big Sky competition in sports like men’s and women’s cross-country, soccer and volleyball that compete for their championships in the fall, as well as those in their nonchampionship portion of the season, including men’s and women’s golf, softball, men’s and women’s tennis.

[…]

The Big Sky punted making a decision on when the league’s winter sports — men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s indoor track and field — could start competition.

The WAC’s fall championship sports impacted include men’s and women’s cross-country, volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer. The league also said the earliest possible competition date for sports in the nonchampionship portion of their season is Jan. 1, 2021, affecting men’s and women’s golf, baseball, and softball.

The WAC will discuss winter athletics competition at a later date, while saying competition in men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s swimming and diving competition will be postponed through the end of October.

All of these conferences are FCS; the WAC used to be FBS, but dropped football after lots of schools moved to other conferences. Also, FCS school New Mexico State postponed its fall sports, becoming the third independent FCS school to do so, following the University of Connecticut and the University of Massachusetts. They all join the Big 10 and the PAC 12 in sitting it out for now, leaving the fall to the Big 12, SEC, and ACC

I don’t know what other FCS conferences there are out there, but for now at least this is what we’re going to get. I’m still quite skeptical that these three Power 5 conferences, plus the non-P5 FCS schools that are still in, can do this safely, but they’re going to try. And who knows, maybe they can. Sean Pendergast makes the case that the conferences that postponed were the foolish ones.

Regular students are coming back to campus anyway
At many of these schools, particularly in the Big Ten, regular students are actually returning to on campus classes this month. Yes, thousands of kids on campus, left to determine social distances and left for us to trust their masking policies. Football players at those schools will now be spending MORE time near the rest of those students. Also, if the Big Ten schools with student returning to campus are THAT concerned about COVID-19, to where they re canceling football, then why on earth are they bringing students back? It makes no sense.

Players in the SEC, ACC, and Big XII will have better access to testing and medical care
When they ultimately nail down hard and fast protocols, it is widely assumed that the SEC, ACC, and Big XII will obviously have some sort of regular testing for COVID-19. This, along with the access to top notch medical staff and facilities, make the players at those schools the most cared-for college students anywhere when it comes to COVID-19. Between frequent testing, the structure of a football regimen, and great doctors, you could argue the safest students in the country are the football players of the SEC, ACC, and Big XII. I feel for the Big Ten and Pac-12 kids who are now left without testing, and many of them being sent back to their hometowns, where depending on their family’s healthcare coverage, it’s hit or miss as to just how protected they are from the coronavirus.

Athletic departments budgets are about to be plundered, say goodbye to non-revenue sports
It would be naive to ignore the fiscal suicide being committed by the Big Ten and the Pac-12, who stand to lose tens of million of dollars by canceling the 2020 football season, basically out of fear — fear of bad press, fear of future litigation, fear of whatever. It’s why I wanted to establish first that the student-athletes in the conferences PLAYING football are actually safer from COVID-19, so my argument doesn’t appear mercenary. Big Ten schools pocket over $50 million per year from the Big Ten Network ALONE. Athletic departments stand to drown in a sea of red ink approaching nine figures. Non-revenue sports, basically everything that’s not football and basketball, that provide scholarship opportunities for literally thousands of kids, many female and minorities, are going to die under a financial guillotine when this is all said and done.

Playing a spring season is actually MORE dangerous than playing in the fall
Here is perhaps the least logical part of the whole thing — the Big Ten and Pac-12 are reportedly wanting to play in the spring. So this would mean playing a football season, which I’m assuming is a minimum of eight games, starting in, say March. This would run through May. Training camp for the fall season, assuming there’s a COVID vaccine and/or therapeutic medicine, would begin in July. That’s LESS than two months between seasons. Seasons of FOOTBALL. This is beyond malpractice, and far more abusive than any sort of exposure players would have to COVID-19. It seems that everyone wanting to cancel football, stuck in their coronavirus fetal position, conveniently forget that they’ve been watching and enjoying a sport for years that includes the risk of permanent head trauma.

Maybe! I think #3 is a legitimate concern, and #4 is a concern for a different reason, which I’ve seen expressed elsewhere: You’re moving football games from October and November to January and February, which are a lot colder and have more snow. That’s not great for a variety of reasons. Multiple football programs have had COVID outbreaks among their players already, some bigger than others, and I have plenty of doubts that the coaches, ADs, and whoever else is making these decisions has any idea what they’re going to do if a team has a similar outbreak during the season. And Lord help us if they all insist on having fans in attendance. I will readily admit, moving these sports to the spring has its share of risks and downsides. But let’s not underestimate the risk of staying the course.

Harris County to join TDP lawsuit over vote by mail

They do lots of stuff at Commissioners Court.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted on Tuesday to join a lawsuit by Texas Democrats suing Gov. Greg Abbott to expand vote-by-mail in Texas.

The Democratic-led commissioners court voted 3-2 to join the lawsuit. The litigation seeks to allow all Texas voters to cast a mail-in ballot during the pandemic, arguing that absentee ballot restrictions in Texas violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the U.S. Constitution. Texas Democrats filed the suit against Abbott and the Texas Secretary of State in April.

[…]

Democrats attempted to leapfrog over the appeals court by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene before the July primary runoff elections, but the justices declined to do so until a decision by the lower appeals court was reached. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to revisit the case sometime this month.

See here for the most recent update that I have, and here for a tweet from Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, which is the only other place I’ve seen this noted. It’s unclear to me what difference it makes from a practical perspective for Harris County to join in, but from a political and symbolic perspective it means a lot. Let’s do hope we hear something from the Fifth Circuit soon.

We don’t need a vote to expand Medicaid

There’s a fundamental truth that needs to be addressed in this.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On Tuesday, Missouri became the 38th state to expand Medicaid, opening healthcare to over 230,000 Missourians. It joins a lengthy list of GOP-led states in expanding healthcare, including Nebraska, Utah, and Oklahoma. Meanwhile in Texas we still lead the country in the number of uninsured and, since the COVID-19, pandemic another 650,000 have lost their health insurance.

The ballot initiative to expand Medicaid passed in Missouri by 53 percent, with several suburban counties in St. Louis and Kansas City voting overwhelmingly for the measure. The governor of Missouri, a staunch conservative, actually added the ballot initiative to the August primary ballot instead of November’s presidential ballot, hoping a smaller turnout would defeat the measure.

Clearly, the voters of Missouri felt expanding Medicaid was important for their state. The vote also comes as the Trump administration continues its effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, potentially kicking 20 million Americans off their health care and denying preexisting conditions coverage to over 120 million. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton support ending the ACA.

Texas has been in a health crisis for a long time, well after the state decided not to expand Medicaid through the ACA. According to a report from 2018, over 17 percent of Texas residents lacked health coverage. That’s about 5 million Texans without access to health care.

With COVID-19, that health crisis has only exacerbated. While cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have gone down in parts of the state, those numbers will likely rise precipitously as schools open. Over 7,000 Texans have died from the coronavirus. Many hospitals, particularly rural ones, are overwhelmed. The health care status quo has never felt so dangerous and untenable.

So will Texas ever get a chance to vote on expanding Medicaid? According to Republican lawmakers in the state, that would be a “no.” Rep. Celia Israel commented on Twitter that she and Rep. John Bucy sponsored a bill in the last legislative session that would allow voters to “weigh in and expand Medicaid,” but that it never got a hearing.

[…]

If Texans do get a chance to vote on expanding Medicaid, it will surely be opposed by Republicans statewide and in the legislature. If history is any guide, however, improving health care will transcend partisan lines.

The people of Missouri voted on the question of expanding Medicaid because the state of Missouri allows for laws to be enacted by referendum. In other words, in the state of Missouri and a number of others, you can collect petition signatures to put a proposed law up for a vote by the people, which is then enacted if it passes. Different states have different rules for this, but that’s the basic idea. The city of Houston allows for charter amendments to be put up for a vote via the petition process, which is always a fun thing to endure. For better or worse, the state of Texas does not allow for this.

The key thing to understand here is that the folks who pushed Medicaid expansion in Missouri via referendum did so for the explicit purpose of bypassing Missouri’s legislature and governor, both of which opposed Medicaid expansion. Most states early on passed Medicaid expansion via their legislatures, including some Republican states, but in recent years most of the action has come via the ballot box, in states like Idaho and Nebraska and Oklahoma. The key ingredients there were a combination of legislators and governors that opposed expanding Medicaid, and a petition process that allowed for the legislative process to be circumvented.

So if you’ve wondered why if those states can vote to expand Medicaid why can’t Texas, the answer is because the law doesn’t allow for it. It can only be done via the Legislature. Indeed, bills to do some form of Medicaid expansion have been proposed but have not gotten anywhere. The reason for that of course is intransigent Republican opposition, but guess what: The Democrats have a shot at taking the majority in the State House this year (as you may have heard), which would overcome one of those obstacles. We’d still need to take the Senate and elect a new Governor to finish the job, but at the very least the House could pass a Medicaid expansion bill, or put something for it in the budget, and dare the Senate and Greg Abbott to oppose it. I for one would be fine with having the 2022 Governor’s race be defined in large part by expanding Medicaid (in addition to, you know, COVID-19 response).

If that’s the case, then what was Rep. Israel tweeting about? Very simply, it was a political move to try to force the issue in a slightly different way. What Reps. Israel and Bucy proposed was a Constitutional amendment, which is something that the voters have to approve, which would have expanded Medicaid. Why propose a Constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers, instead of a regular old bill that needs only a simple majority? Three reasons: One, constitutional amendments do not need the governor’s approval, so it would go to the voters regardless of what Greg Abbott wanted. Two, it offered Republican legislators who opposed Medicaid expansion but might have felt the need to do something a way out, as in “just vote to let the people decide, and we’ll never bother you about it again”. And three, constitutional amendments can only be changed or repealed by subsequent constitutional amendments, with their two-thirds-majority requirements, thus protecting Medicaid expansion via this avenue from the whims of a future Republican legislature.

The point is, though, we don’t need to vote to expand Medicaid. At least, we don’t need to vote on a ballot proposition to do it. We just need to vote for a Legislature and a Governor who are willing to do it. We’re a lot closer to that than we’ve ever been, and we’re closer to it than states like Missouri and Idaho and Nebraska and Oklahoma had any hope of being. The votes we need to expand Medicaid are this November, and November of 2022. Those are the prizes to keep your eyes on.

Harris County issues guidance for opening schools

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

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The Big 12 will play football

That’s their plan, anyway.

The start of the Big 12 Conference’s college football season will move forward as scheduled, conference officials said Wednesday, meaning four major Texas football programs are one step closer to playing this fall.

“Ultimately, our student-athletes have indicated their desire to compete in the sports they love this season and it is up to all of us to deliver a safe, medically sound, and structured academic and athletic environment for accomplishing that outcome,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a statement. The season will kick off Sept. 26, with the conference championship pegged for Dec. 12.

Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin are Big 12 members. The conference presidents’ decision to allow football during the coronavirus pandemic was made official Wednesday morning, a day after the Big Ten and the Pac-12 announced their seasons would be postponed until the spring semester.

Bowlsby said member schools have committed to enhanced COVID-19 testing, with three tests per week in high contact sports. Non-conference football opponents must also adhere to testing protocols that match conference standards.

Texas A&M University is part of the Southeastern Conference, which has also signaled its intent to allow teams to play this fall.

“We will continue to further refine our policies and protocols for a safe return to sports as we monitor developments around COVID-19 in a continued effort to support, educate and care for our student-athletes every day,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey in a statement Tuesday.

So that’s two Power 5 conferences not playing in the fall, two that say they are, and the ACC. Of course, there are a ton of questions that will have to be addressed before this can be taken seriously, such as “how exactly are you going to keep all those people safe”, “what will be the protocol when someone (or several someones) tests positive”, and “do you really think that allowing fans in the stands is a good idea”. You can have all the bravado you want, but you better have some idea of what you’re doing when something inevitably goes wrong. In the meantime, all I can say is that it’s going to be an interesting autumn. Or possibly spring, if things do change. Reform Austin has more.

Big 10 and PAC 12 scrap football for this fall

Boom.

Big Ten Conference presidents and chancellors voted Tuesday to postpone all fall sports seasons, including football, with the hopes of playing in the spring, it announced Tuesday.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.

“We know how significant the student-athlete experience can be in shaping the future of the talented young women and men who compete in the Big Ten Conference. Although that knowledge made this a painstaking decision, it did not make it difficult. While I know our decision today will be disappointing in many ways for our thousands of student-athletes and their families, I am heartened and inspired by their resilience, their insightful and discerning thoughts, and their participation through our conversations to this point. Everyone associated with the Big Ten Conference and its member institutions is committed to getting everyone back to competition as soon as it is safe to do so.”

[…]

In making its decision, the Big Ten said it relied on the medical advice and counsel of the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee.

“Our primary responsibility is to make the best possible decisions in the interest of our students, faculty and staff,” Morton Schapiro, the Chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors and Northwestern University president, said in a statement.

The University of Nebraska, after Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost on Monday said his program is prepared “to look at any and all options” in order to play this fall, on Tuesday issued a joint statement saying “we are very disappointed in the decision by the Big Ten.”

“We have been and continue to be ready to play,” the Nebraska joint statement said. “Safety comes first. Based on the conversations with our medical experts, we continue to strongly believe the absolute safest place for our student athletes is within the rigorous safety protocols, testing procedures, and the structure and support provided by Husker Athletics.

“… We hope it may be possible for our student athletes to have the opportunity to compete.”

See here for the background. Here’s the official statement from the Big 10. Something I noticed after rereading my draft was that basketball, which obviously starts in the fall but has a sprint championship, was not mentioned in the news stories. It’s not mentioned in the statement either, so at this point there’s no news. Any postponement of basketball will have further effects, but for now that decision has not been made.

A few hours later, the PAC 12 followed suit.

The Pac-12 CEO group voted unanimously Tuesday to postpone fall sports and will look at options to return to competition next year, the conference announced.

“The health, safety and well-being of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports has been our number one priority since the start of this current crisis,” said Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott in a statement. “Our student-athletes, fans, staff and all those who love college sports would like to have seen the season played this calendar year as originally planned, and we know how disappointing this is.”

Impacted Pac-12 student athletes will continue to have their scholarships guaranteed. The conference is also encouraging the NCAA to grant students who opt out of playing this academic year an additional year of eligibility.

The league’s medical advisory group had “concerns that many of its current recommendations cannot be achieved consistently across all universities at this point in time. Currently, the availability of frequent, FDA-approved, accurate testing with rapid turn-around time vary at each of the Pac-12 institution locations. In addition, in many locations within the Conference, community test positivity rates and number of cases per 100,000 in the surrounding community exceed levels which infectious disease and public health officials deem safe for group sports.”

The medical advisory group said “it is anticipated that over the next few months, rapid point of care tests will become more available and we will have a greater understanding of potential short- and long-term health effects of COVID-19 to better inform medical decision-making.”

Here’s their statement, which says they will “postpone all sport competitions through the end of the 2020 calendar year”. That also doesn’t mention basketball, but as noted since a bunch of (generally non-conference) games are played in the fall, it would seem to affect that as well. We’ll see what that means.

Looking at the other Power 5 conferences, it seems that the SEC is most likely to try to have a season, while the Big 12 may be the last one to made a decision. Whatever happens from here, this was a first step. There will be tons of fallout and repercussions from this, and we may not see a return to “normal” for some time. And that’s without factoring in the financial consequences. Hold onto your hats. The AP, CBS Sports, Slate, and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: An interesting fact from the Chron: “As of Tuesday, 53 of the 130 FBS schools will not play football this fall.” Just a guess here, but that number is going to go up.

Texas Dems ramp up mail ballot outreach

It’s a smart move, with some caveats.

The Texas Democratic Party [announced] Monday that it is doubling down on its vote-by-mail campaign with a goal of reaching 1.7 million potential mail voters by the end of the month — the most for an election cycle in the state party’s history.

To reach that goal, party officials will launch an effort to send out more than 815,000 vote-by-mail applications by the end of August to those already eligible to receive the ballots — like those over 65 or people with disabilities.

Those mail ballot applications may play a major role in this year’s crucial elections, as voters weigh whether voting in person is safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Democratic officials said voting by mail is the safest way to vote and cast their campaign as an effort to keep Texans safe in the absence of action by the Republican-dominated state government.

“Now more than ever, to have our seniors vote safely, voting by mail is the best option for them,” Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party said in a statement. “This historic investment in our Vote-by-Mail program is the next phase of our plan to win the state of Texas. We will continue to register new voters, expand the electorate, fight back against all Republican attempts to suppress the vote, and harness the energy and enthusiasm that we’ve seen across the state.”

[…]

The practice does not usually give either party an advantage, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. But with more than 140,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 and the pandemic wreaking havoc on the economy, an application to vote by mail could entice an otherwise apathetic voter to cast her ballot.

“We know from decades of research in voting that if you reduce the cost of voting for people, they’ll be more likely to vote,” Rottinghaus said. “It makes their job easier and ultimately that’s the goal.”

For Democrats, getting those mail ballot applications out three months ahead of the election sends a signal to voters that elections need to be top of mind and preparations need to be made, Rottinghaus said.

While research shows that younger voters, as well as Black and Latino voters — all demographics the Democrats are targeting — have their mail ballot applications rejected at higher rates or do not return them, the party is looking to seize on a captive audience during the pandemic.

“This early, it’s a stand to get people to return the ballots early on,” he added. “Ultimately, the Democratic party is worried that they’re going to lose an opportunity to turn Texas blue with Trump at the top of the ticket. This will be their last chance to harness anti-Trump fervor. The party doesn’t want to make mistakes and wants to do everything they can to get favorable ballots back in.”

You can see the TDP press release that announced this here. I want to clarify one thing first, and that’s the 815K and 1.75 million numbers. I contacted TDP spokesperson Abhi Rahman, and confirmed that the 1.75 million number represents all mail ballot applications sent for the 2020 cycle, which includes the March primary and the July runoff. The 815K applications that just went out are for November, so that’s the number to keep in mind for these purposes. There will surely be more than that in the end, as the TDP may send more applications later, and there are other efforts like the one Glen Maxey does for rural counties. The point is, that 1.75 million number was cumulative, so do bear that in mind.

(The Monday press release, made after the official announcement, is more clear about what the numbers mean. The DMN story was written prior to this press release coming out.)

As for these 815K, I was told that the vast majority are folks 65 and over – the ones who are not have Democratic primary histories and have voted by mail in the past – and most of them have Dem primary histories but some do not. Those folks were identified as people who would likely vote Democratic if they voted. In that sense, it’s the same idea as the Sisters United project. We know from the primary runoffs that some number of people who receive a mail ballot application will end up voting who might not have voted otherwise. That’s the goal here.

As the story notes, the Dems have been fighting in court to allow more people to vote by mail, with two lawsuits still pending over the matter plus a third that is about other voting access issues. There’s no guarantee there will be a ruling on any of these lawsuits, much less a favorable ruling, before the election, so this is where we are for now. We must also acknowledge the ongoing Trump campaign of destruction against the US Postal Service, which is making vote by mail a riskier proposition. Along those lines, let me hand the mike to the aforementioned Glen Maxey:

If people apply early, and vote as soon as they get their ballots a lot of things fall into place.

The Clerk will have your ballot “in the can” long before early voting occurs.

You can call your Clerk and they’ll tell you the status of your ballot. If, god forbid, something DID happen, you can go vote early, vote provisionally, and your provisional ballot gets counted if the mail ballot doesn’t show up in time.

Additionally, if you decide to go in person later, you MUST just take the mail ballot, they’ll cancel it, and you vote on the machine in the polling place (a stupid thing to do for two reasons: 1) you take up time in line or polling both and keep some young person who aint gonna stand in line decide to skip voting. 2) It puts you, election workers, and other voters at risk of dying. Neither of these options is something a good Democrat would do.

The Clerk will only have to be processing emergency situations at the end and not your lazy ass who waited and then complains you didn’t get your ballot in time.

The people who whined “I didn’t get my ballot until election day” in most cases didn’t ask for their friggin’ ballot until the week before the election. There is processing time. There is the post office moving applications and ballots four times back and forth. It all takes time.

Do it now. Do it fast. Don’t sit on your ass. Donald Trump and the Republicans are counting on you to procrastinate so their USPS delays have an effect. If you mail early, you have fucked p their plans. And there is nothing more satisfying that fucking up Trump.

Note also that if you are in a big county like Harris, there will almost certainly be dropoff locations for mail ballots, which should all be in operation during early voting. In Harris County, Reliant Arena will be one of several mail ballot dropoff locations. Bottom line, once you have your mail ballot if you want to make sure it gets received without having to worry about mail delivery, that is a great option for you. Just whatever you do, don’t procrastinate. Get it done ASAP, for your good and the good of everyone you voted for. The Chron and the Star-Telegram have more.

More election innovation, please

Some good stuff here:

There’s a lot to like in there and in the embedded letter he wrote to Bexar County Commissioner Nelson Wolff, to formalize these ideas. Several of them have been done or have been proposed for Harris County, including sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter 65 and over, having a mega-voting location, expanding early voting hours during the EV period, and having more curbside voting options. Some ideas are new, or at least new to Harris County, such as having a 24-hour early voting location, having more mail ballot dropoff locations, and mailing “a Notice of Election, Sample Ballot, and information on voting safely during COVID-19 to every registered voter” in the county. I love the creativity, the commitment to making voting easier, and especially since this is coming from a County Commissioner, the willingness to put up the money to make it happen. I hope County Clerk Chris Hollins and Harris County Commissioners Court are paying attention.

The other point I would make here is that we could keep doing some or all of these things in future elections, when there will hopefully not be a pandemic to force the issue, for the simple reason that they do in fact make voting easier. I mean, that’s how it should be.

Of course, a key assumption underpinning all this is that there will be enough people to work the elections. Here’s another idea I like for that:

It turns out that this is already legal and open to students 16 years old and older, so it just needs to be better known. Pass it on to the students you know.

For those of us who don’t need a principal’s permission, here’s what we can do:

The Harris County Clerk’s Office is looking for election workers to staff more than 800 voting centers that will be open for the November 3, 2020 General Election. Election workers are also needed three weeks prior to the election to work at approximately 100 voting centers during the Early Voting period, October 13-30.

“We expect a high turnout for the upcoming general election. Early predictions indicate that more than 65 percent of the 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County will cast a ballot in November,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “We need more than 1,000 election workers for the Early Voting period – which has been extended to three weeks – and more than 8,000 election workers for Election Day. I highly encourage all civic-minded residents of Harris County to consider serving our communities as election workers.”

To serve as an election worker, you must be a registered voter in Harris County, have transportation to and from the polling location, and be able to attend training. Bilingual election workers are needed and encouraged to apply. Students 16 years of age and older can apply to work as student clerks. All of these positions are paid.

“We will take every possible measure to keep voters and election workers safe, from keeping voting centers sanitized, to enforcing social distancing, to providing personal protective equipment to all election workers and voters,” said Clerk Hollins.

If you are interested in becoming an election worker, click here to apply online or call 713.755.6965.

This is all-hands-on-deck time. If you can do this, or know someone who can, please take action. ABC-13 has more.

So where are we with college football?

Possibly on the brink of postponing the season.

Commissioners of the Power 5 conferences held an emergency meeting on Sunday, as there is growing concern among college athletics officials that the upcoming football season and other fall sports can’t be played because of the coronavirus pandemic, sources told ESPN.

No major decisions were made on Sunday night, but multiple sources in several Power 5 conferences have told ESPN the commissioners talked about trying to collaborate if their respective presidents do decide to cancel or postpone fall sports.

Several sources have indicated to ESPN that Big Ten presidents, following a meeting on Saturday, are ready to pull the plug on its fall sports season, and they wanted to gauge if commissioners and university presidents and chancellors from the other Power 5 conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — will fall in line with them.

Sources told ESPN that a vast majority of Big Ten presidents have indicated that they would vote to postpone football season, hopefully to the spring. A Big Ten official confirmed to ESPN that no official vote took place during Saturday’s meeting.

“It doesn’t look good,” one Power 5 athletic director said.

[…]

Several sources have told ESPN over the past 48 hours that the postponement or cancellation of the football season seems inevitable. Many of those sources believed it ultimately will take a Power 5 conference to move things in that direction and that either the Big Ten or Pac-12 would probably be the first league to do it.

“Nobody wanted to be the first to do it,” a Power 5 coach told ESPN, “and now nobody will want to be the last.”

A Power 5 administrator added: “It feels like no one wants to, but it’s reaching the point where someone is going to have to.”

As we know, all of the not-FBS conferences, as well as the MAC, have cancelled or postponed their fall sports. On Monday, the Mountain West Conference joined them. Today, the PAC 12 will have a meeting, and we’ll see what they decide. This could be the week when the plug gets pulled, which would mean spring football if everything is finally better by then.

Or maybe not. The University of Nebraska is considering its options in the event the Big 10 postpones its season. (As of last night, there were conflicting reports about the Big 10’s plans.) There is definitely support from some athletes and politicians for having a season, though as that story notes the reasons each group has for advocating its position are different. One possible outcome is some kind of massive realignment, maybe with a smaller number of schools playing, and/or a bunch of athletes moving to other schools to participate. I’m sure we’ll know more soon. But just remember, in a country where we had the political leadership to get COVID-19 under control, we’d be having a very different conversation right now.

UPDATE: Just noticed that Rice is pushing back the start of its season to September 26, with the intent to reschedule games against UH and Army that were originally planned for before that date. I guess that’s a baby step towards postponing till spring, but as of this writing Conference USA and the AAC were still on for the fall.

Who needs testing?

It’s the surest way to see the infection rate decline, am I right?

The number of Texans being tested for the coronavirus has fallen sharply in recent weeks, a trend that has worried public health experts as officials consider sending children back to school while thousands more Texans are infected each day.

In the week ending Aug. 8, an average 36,255 coronavirus tests were administered in Texas each day — a drop of about 42% from two weeks earlier, when the average number of daily tests was 62,516.

At the same time, the percentage of tests yielding positive results has climbed, up to 20% on average in the week ending Aug. 8. Two weeks earlier, the average positivity rate was around 14%.

On Saturday, the state set a record for its positivity rate, with more than half of that day’s roughly 14,000 viral tests indicating an infection.

Taken together, the low number of tests and the large percentage of positive results suggest inadequacies in the state’s public health surveillance effort at a time when school reopenings are certain to increase viral spread, health experts said.

“Opening the schools is a really complicated problem, and the best thing we can do is get the number of cases down so kids can go back to school safely,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “There are so many reasons why kids need to be in school, particularly younger kids, but we’re finding out more and more they can get infected, and the concern is them bringing it home and spreading in the community and spreading to teachers.

“I think the worst thing would be for schools to open, then close,” she said. “That really makes it hard on parents, that unpredictability, and there’s a lot of costs associated with opening the schools safely.”

[…]

The number of tests performed in Texas has “never been great,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, but “it’s extremely troubling” that the numbers have dipped since last month.

“It’s troubling because we can guess at some of the reasons, but we’re not sure,” she said.

She suggested that some people may have been discouraged by long wait times for test results, or less concerned about the virus’ toll in Texas after a frightening peak in July began to flatten out.

A declining number of tests is a particularly thorny issue for schools, Ho said. “No public school has the resources to do testing under the current circumstances. There are huge class sizes and crowded hallways,” she said.

Does any of that sound good to you? Because none of it sounds good to me. Again I say, remember when Greg Abbott’s plans for reopening included sufficient testing capacity and a positivity rate under ten percent? Boy, those were the days. Oh, and as the story notes, the TEA still hasn’t yet released any specifics on which districts will be able to receive waivers to limit in-person instruction beyond eight weeks or under what circumstances. So, you know, the school situation remains a mess. Isn’t this fun?

No eviction moratoriums

So opines Ken Paxton, and we all know what an unimpeachable source he is.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton advised Friday that local Texas governments’ attempts to delay evictions for renters grappling with the COVID-19 recession amounted to rewriting state law — something they can’t do, he said in nonbinding legal guidance.

“While local officials do possess certain emergency powers … statewide eviction procedures far exceed the requirement that those powers be exercised ‘on an appropriate local scale,’” Paxton said in a letter. “Government Code does not authorize local governmental entities operating under a declared disaster to independently rewrite state law as it applies to their jurisdiction to prohibit, delay, or restrict the issuance of a notice to vacate.”

Paxton’s letter, issued in response to a question from Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, seems to chide local officials like Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who last month extended the eviction moratorium in the city until Sept. 30. Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe extended his ban until the same date. In other counties, like Harris and Dallas, some justices of the peace have decided to not hear evictions. It is unclear if Paxton’s opinion will influence those judges.

Adler said in a statement that his orders were lawful and “do not amend statewide eviction procedures,” but rather aim to “reduce person-to-person contact to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Hector Nieto, a spokesperson for Travis County, said officials there are reviewing the opinion.

Paxton’s opinion could have weight if someone were to sue a local government over its eviction moratorium.

“I can’t say I’m shocked that the state attorney general would side with landlords. Nothing he has done to date shows us that we could expect something different,” said Sandy Rollins, executive director of the housing advocacy group Texas Tenants Union. “A lot of tenants are facing eviction in Texas by zero fault of their own, and putting protections that are normal in almost every other state should be allowed in this pandemic.”

As we know, AG opinions don’t carry the force of law, but they are an obstacle. As with other contentious matters on which Paxton has opined, someone will have to take this to court to force the issue. Of course, this is also something the Legislature can review and revise, and I’d say it needs to be on the ever-increasing list of things the Lege very much needs to do at its first opportunity. On a side note, this adds some context to the city of Houston’s rental assistance program, which has been offered instead of an eviction moratorium order, which a number of people advocated for. A moratorium would certainly have been a more comprehensive tool to keep people who have been affected by the pandemic and the economic devastation that resulted from it in their homes, but not if it could not be enforced. Whatever you think of Mayor Turner’s approach, it was not affected by this action.

FBS versus FCS

I’m referring in the title to the two types of Division I NCAA college football, the Football Bowl Subdivision, which includes the power 5 conferences, and the Football Championship Subdivision, which used to be known as 1-AA and which has always had a playoff to determine its champion. Those of you who are fans of FCS football will have to wait till spring to see any of it.

The NCAA’s second-highest level of football won’t crown a 2020 champion as more schools announced Friday they wouldn’t take the gridiron this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Universities comprising the Missouri Valley Football ConferenceBig Sky Conference and Pioneer Football League all said they won’t play this fall, which effectively pulled the plug on postseason play for the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).

As FCS teams and conferences pulled out of fall play in recent weeks, the NCAA announced that FCS playoffs would be cancelled if 50 percent of eligible teams pulled out. When the MVFC, Big Sky and Pioneer all opted out of autumn football, that minimum threshold was breached.

Before Friday, a host of other FCS leagues had called off fall football: the Ivy LeaguePatriot LeagueColonial Athletic AssociationNortheast ConferenceSouthwestern Athletic Conference and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

The 2019 FCS title was won by North Dakota State University, which edged James Madison University in the final.

Lower levels of NCAA football, Division II and Division III, also had playoffs cancelled this week.

That’s an awful lot of college football that will not be happening this fall. And now some of the FBS action won’t be happening, either.

The Mid-American Conference has long been the home of Tuesday football, seven-overtime epics and the #MACtion hashtag that bonds together the most hardcore college football fans.

The MAC functions on the outer orbit of big-time college football, a key part of the food chain by providing early season buy games, midweek television inventory and early gambling opportunities for those who’ve endured lost weekends.

On Saturday, the MAC took over a new role in the college football universe — the center of attention. The MAC presidents met virtually Saturday morning and decided to cancel the fall football season, a source told Yahoo Sports. The MAC will focus on playing football in the spring. Stadium first reported the development.

All day Friday, athletic directors and coaches were fixated on the MAC as a potential harbinger for the sport. The MAC becomes the first FBS conference to cancel sports this fall, setting the table for a new question around the industry: “Who goes next?”

The Big Ten presidents are scheduled to meet on Saturday afternoon and discuss the league’s 2020 future, sources told Yahoo Sports. There’s some momentum among league presidents to cancel the fall season. But it’s unknown if there’s enough for a decision to be made immediately.

As noted before, the University of Connecticut, which now operates as an independent for football, cancelled its season as well. Optimism abounds elsewhere, with plans for mostly-full schedules and some fans in attendance. All I can say at this point is that it sure seems unlikely to me that “not playing football at all until spring” and “preparing to play football in the fall as if everything is more or less normal” cannot simultaneously be the optimal strategy. I don’t know at what point the FBS bubble bursts, but I feel like it has to sooner or later.

The school situation remains a mess

It’s a mess of Greg Abbott’s making.

Some superintendents say that despite Abbott’s statements to the contrary, their ability to respond to the pandemic is still limited, and many of their questions have gone unanswered even as school is slated to start in the coming weeks. They are worried their decisions could result in consequences from the state, including cuts to funding, and some say they would prefer high-stakes decisions affecting student and employee health to stay with medical experts.

“We’re going to make our decisions based on local scientific data, and we’re working with the health authority. That’s our guide,” said Juan Cabrera, superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District. “Nobody on our board, including myself and my administration, are medical doctors, so I’m going to try to take their advice.”

After about 18 local health authorities issued orders delaying in-person instruction because of coronavirus concerns, Abbott said last week that those health officials cannot issue blanket orders preventing all schools in their jurisdictions from opening classrooms before the academic year begins. His statement backed nonbinding guidance from Attorney General Ken Paxton released earlier that week.

Abbott also said school districts could ask for more time to limit the number of students learning in classrooms, on a case-by-case basis, beyond the current eight-week maximum set by the Texas Education Agency. And he reminded school officials that they could move their start dates later in the year with a school board vote, as long as they make up the time. This, he said, gives local school boards the most authority to determine when and how it’s safe to have kids back.

The Texas Education Agency has not yet released any specifics on which districts will be able to receive waivers to limit in-person instruction beyond eight weeks or under what circumstances. But it said it will not fund school districts for unlawful school closures, worrying superintendents who want more certainty of state support while handling an unpredictable pandemic.

“After the eight weeks, there’s a threat to withhold funding if schools don’t have in-person learning. They’ve offered a waiver opportunity … but it takes it out of the hands of the local school district beyond the eight weeks, and that is not local control,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators and former superintendent of Alamo Heights ISD in San Antonio.

A spokesperson for Abbott, when reached for comment for this story, referred to the governor’s previous statements on the issue. Abbott has said that school boards are welcome to consult public health authorities as they make their decisions. And he said local health officials could shut down schools that have COVID-19 outbreaks after they reopen.

Some superintendents, especially in areas where the virus is rampant, balked at the idea of waiting for kids and teachers to get sick before shutting down their campuses in the middle of the year, instead of working with local health officials to close classrooms if cases spike again. And some still wondered: What options do they have if cases are still high after eight weeks?

“Districts, I think, are very concerned about creating these rolling situations where people come back on campus and then get sick and then everybody has to leave again,” said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards, on a recent podcast explaining the state’s guidance.

See here, here, and here for the background. Basically, school districts are being told they cannot prioritize safety until they have proof that their schools are unsafe. If they take action that doesn’t conform with regulations that are not currently documented, they risk losing funding. Greg Abbott is the sole decider on these matters, and he has nothing new to say at this time. Any questions?

It’s like we don’t want any extra Congresspeople

As someone once said, where’s the outrage?

For months, as Texans have been asked to stay home to avoid the spread of the new coronavirus, Jennifer Edwards has been doing the rounds at gas stations in a trio of counties near the Texas-Louisiana border.

Volunteering as a census community organizer, the Tarleton State University professor reasoned that gas stations, like grocery stores, would continue to see foot traffic during the pandemic. Setting up a booth just outside the front doors offered her face time with essential workers to deliver an essential message — please fill out the census.

“When we’re meeting with people in front of the tractor supply or the dollar store or the gas station … the communication is focused on ‘Well when does it end, what’s the deadline?’” said Edwards, who had been sharing the pandemic-induced October deadline for counting every person living in the U.S. for the once-a-decade census.

But on Monday evening, the U.S. Census Bureau upended the timeline Edwards and hundreds of other organizers, volunteers and local officials had been working under. After previously stating the census would run through Oct. 31, the bureau announced it was cutting the count short by a month, moving up the deadline for responding to Sept. 30.

The October cutoff had offered organizers crucial overtime for the count after the coronavirus pandemic derailed a ground game for canvassing and outreach efforts that in some regions of the state had been in the works for years. Now, the earlier deadline is heightening risks that Texas will be undercounted and that some Texans, particularly those who are low-income or Hispanic, will be missed in the count as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage their communities.

The schedule change comes at a key point in the count. The bureau has started its door-to-door campaign to follow up with households that have not yet filled out the census online, by phone or by mail, but census workers won’t reach some communities in Texas, like the Rio Grande Valley, that are at the highest risk of being missed until next week.

“It seems like not only are they cutting back the time they’re giving themselves to do this nonresponse follow up, but they’re also allocating the least amount of time in the hardest-to-count places in the state,” said Lila Valencia, a senior demographer at the Texas Demographic Center.

This follows Donald Trump’s efforts to exclude certain people from the Census data for redistricting purposes, as well as the state’s refusal to pay for any effort to do a thorough Census count. It’s like there’s a conspiracy to keep Texas from getting the up to three additional members of Congress that it would be due if everything went as it should. And also, you know, billions and billions of federal money that our taxes contribute to that will instead flow to other states because the Census says we have a lot fewer people than we actually do. I get what Trump’s motivations are here. I have a much harder time understanding why this isn’t a problem for Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and every Republican running for Congress. Why do they all want to hurt Texas like this? It’s a question that should get asked, a lot.

Rental assistance

We’re going to need a lot more like this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston on Wednesday added another $20 million to its rent relief program, aimed at helping thousands of tenants catch up on late rent payments.

City council voted unanimously to add the money Wednesday, more than doubling the initial program the city launched in May. Private donors, including Texans owner Janice McNair, gave $5 million toward the effort, and the city devoted another $15 million from the federal money it received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The program requires concessions from landlords for them to receive the funds. They must forego eviction proceedings through September for all of their residents, even if only one of them is set to receive assistance. They also must waive late fees and interest on late payments, and agree to a payment plan for residents that are behind.

“The concern was, you took the money, and then a month later, you’re still trying to get them out,” said District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas, who chairs the council’s housing committee.

The application window will open first for landlords, and then their tenants will be able to apply. Thomas said that will open some time in the next two weeks.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls for a grace period ordinance that would give residents more time to catch up before getting evicted, said the assistance and resulting concessions provide for a more fruitful approach. He said a grace period worsens the financial liability those tenants will have to cover later down the road.

“When their grace period comes to an end, they are facing a tsunami of a situation where the financial obligation has not been eliminated,” Turner said of cities that have implemented similar policies. “What will happen is that at the end, the hole is so much bigger.”

Advocates have said a grace period would provide blanket coverage to residents who will not get access to the city’s relief funds, which Turner and others have acknowledged cannot meet the overwhelming demand.

See here for the city’s press release. I’m not sure why the city preferred this approach, but I do know that it’s in everyone’s interests to keep people in their apartments if at all possible. Losing their homes, especially at a time like this, will have devastating and long-term consequences, and not just for the newly homeless people – there will be more strain on the city’s social services, and it’s not like there will be a long line of other folks waiting to take the now-vacant apartment. We really need the Senate to act on the bill that the House passed months ago, because there are millions of lives at stake. If nothing else, surely we can all agree that putting a bunch of people out on the street is not going to help the economy. Keeping folks in their homes is the right answer no matter how you ask the question. All levels of government need to do their part.

Another lawsuit against Abbott over emergency orders

This one is a bit more serious due to the lack of Hotze and Woodfill, but it’s still not a great way to have the debate about this issue.

Five Republican Texas lawmakers are suing Gov. Greg Abbott over the state’s $295 million COVID-19 contact tracing contract to a small, little-known company, alleging the agreement is unconstitutional because it wasn’t competitively bid and because the funds should have been appropriated by the Legislature in a special session.

In the Travis Country district court suit filed Monday, State Reps. Mike Lang, Kyle Biederman, William Zedler, Steve Toth and state Sen. Bob Hall named as defendants Abbott, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the company awarded the contract, the Frisco-based MTX Group.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have defended the contract. Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawmakers are seeking a court order voiding the contract for lack of statutory authorization and deeming unconstitutional the governor’s application of the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which gives him broad powers in the case of an emergency, in granting the contract.

“The Texas Constitution requires a separation of powers, and that separation leaves policy-making decisions with the Texas Legislature,” the lawsuit states. “These decisions are not changed by pandemics.”

Abbott has declined to convene a special session since March when the coronavirus pandemic began, instead leaning on his emergency powers to issue a series of sweeping executive orders governing what businesses can open, where people can gather in public, and mandating safety measures including wearing face coverings in public.

While the law has been used by governors for years, the time span of the coronavirus-related orders is unprecedented and raises questions about the durability of that legal justification.

As the story notes, the Supreme Court just rejected several Hotze lawsuits relating to executive emergency powers, saying he lacked standing. I don’t know if that is likely to be an issue in this case or not. I still agree with the basic premise that we need to have a robust debate about the parameters of the Texas Disaster Act, including when the Governor should be compelled to call a special session so that the Lege can be involved in the decision-making process. I also still think that this is a lousy way to have that debate, and while these five legislators have more gravitas than Hotze, that’s a low bar to clear. To put it another way, the anti-face mask and quarantine lobby still isn’t sending their best.

There’s no doubt that the contact tracng deal was a boondoggle, and I welcome all scrutiny on it. And I have to admit, as queasy as I am with settling these big questions about emergency powers by litigation, there isn’t much legislators can do on their own, given that they’re not in session and can’t be in session before January unless Abbott calls them into a session. I’m not sure what the right process for this should have been, given the speed and urgency of the crisis. The Lege very much needs to address these matters in the spring, but I’m leery of making any drastic changes to the status quo before then. In some ways, this is the best argument I’ve seen against our tradition of having a Legislature that only meets every two years. Some things just can’t wait, and we shouldn’t have to depend on the judgment of the Governor to fill in the gaps. I hope some of the brighter lights in our Legislature are thinking about all this. The Trib has more.

We still suck at COVID data

I’m sure none of this is important.

The government’s official data on the coronavirus outbreak is startling: More than 4.6 million cases in the U.S. More than 440,000 in Texas. More than 70,000 in Harris County.

But those numbers don’t include all positive COVID-19 patients.

Texas, unlike 27 other states, excludes the results of increasingly popular, rapid COVID-19 tests from the numbers it reports publicly — obscuring the scope of the pandemic, records and interviews show. The antigen tests are used in doctor’s offices, hospitals and stand-alone clinics and deliver results in less than 30 minutes.

But conflicting guidance from the Texas Department of State Health Services created confusion among local health departments about what test results to report. A reliance on faxed test results has created a paper backlog that makes it impossible for the state to do its own tally.

And while there is no way to independently estimate the scope of the undercount, based on the 11 Texas counties that publish antigen tests results separately of their own accord, the state’s tally is short by at least tens of thousands of cases — but likely far more, a Houston Chronicle analysis found.

And the undercount is about to get worse. The federal government is rolling out a program to use thousands of antigen tests in nursing homes across the country — including Texas.

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, who serves as vice-chair of the House committee that oversees the state’s public health agencies, said the lack of reliable data is hindering the overall COVID-19 response effort in Texas.

“The only way people will be inspired to act right without government mandates is if they have the information they need to make smart choices,” Hinojosa told the Chronicle. “And that has been just impossible to come by.”

The problem, apparently, is that the state considers a positive antigen test to be a “probable” positive for COVID-19, not a definite positive. I mean, I figure a couple of data geeks could work out a decent solution for this in less than a day’s work, so color me baffled by the confusion here. And if you’re confused for other reasons, please note that antigen tests are different from antibody tests, which determine if you have had COVID-19 in the past, and thus should be in a separate category. It would be nice if we could get this all straightened out. The Trib has more.

Our vaccination rates are down, too

I wish I had a snappy intro for this, but I just don’t.

The summer months are typically the busiest of the year in Dr. Kenya Parks’ office, a steady flow of parents trotting in their little ones to receive immunizations required for school attendance.

But the numbers are way down this year, one more casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s quite noticeable,” said Parks, a pediatrician with UTHealth and UT Physicians, the practice of doctors at the University of Texas’ McGovern Medical School in Houston. “Parents who usually pack our offices around now instead are putting off or canceling or just not showing up for appointments. They’re scared.”

Such fear is a primary reason for an average 44 percent drop in the number of doses administered in the Texas Vaccines for Children program during the early months of the pandemic, according to a new state report. The trend puts Texas at risk of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, a potential disaster when school starts up.

The drop is particularly high for immunizations for measles — 55 percent — the highly infectious disease declared eradicated in the United States 20 years ago but now experiencing a resurgence. The drop in doses administered is slightly higher in the Houston area, site of a measles outbreak in 2019 and identified in a study the same year as one of the nation’s hot spots, vulnerable to an even bigger outbreak.

The overall Texas trend is concerning because the state’s vaccination rates were bad even before the pandemic. The state last year failed to meet minimal national goals for eight of 11 immunizations and barely squeaked by for the three it did meet.

“It’s like we got an F in eight classes and a D- in three, and now things are getting worse, when we can least afford it,” said Allison Winnike, president of the Immunization Partnership, a Houston-based vaccine advocacy organization. “That’s why it’s crucial parents call their pediatricians, get their kids in for their vaccinations if they’re not up to date.”

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that this doesn’t seem to be the result of changing attitudes about vaccinations. It’s about fear of the virus, which is something we can be a bit more hopeful will change in the not-too-distant future. But this is also a real risk factor for reopening schools, which I haven’t seen any official acknowledgement of. Risking a COVID-19 outbreak to force in-person school at a predetermined date is bad enough. Risking a measles outbreak on top of that is even worse. You can blame the parents if you want for the decisions they’ve made – I for one would be more compassionate, but you do you – but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a thing that will need to be dealt with, and that’s likely going to require some time. Are Greg Abbott and the TEA even thinking about this?

More on Abbott’s approval rating

Further evidence of decline.

Approval for Gov. Greg Abbott’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic continues to erode, according to a new poll from a consortium of universities.

The survey, conducted through Sunday by Harvard, Northeastern, Rutgers and Northwestern universities, found that 38 percent of Texans approve of the governor’s response to the health crisis, a steep decline from the 61 percent who were supportive in a similar poll in late April.

The authors said Republican governors in states that have seen recent surges, including Abbott, have seen declining approval for their countermeasures that closely mirror those suggested by President Donald Trump. Approval for Trump’s handling of the crisis dropped to 32 percent both nationally and in Texas, according to the poll.

“Across much of the South we see a tight coupling between approval of the president’s handling of the pandemic and approval of the governor’s performance during the pandemic,” they wrote.

[…]

The survey was conducted online between July 10 and July 26 and included 19,052 people from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. It had a margin of error of 6 percentage points.

The authors noted that new weights were given to respondents based on where they lived within the state, and that the results may therefore not be exactly comparable to past iterations. The consortium did six previous rounds of surveys, finding a steady drop in favorability for Abbott’s leadership amid the crisis.

A little googling tells me that this consortium is publishing its work on the covidstates.org website. The report for July is here. It’s interesting and it does correlate with the data that we have from Presidential polls, which don’t always include a question about Abbott’s approval, but it feels like its own thing, and I’m not sure how comparable it is to those other data points. But it does provide its own trend lines, so that’s good. How permanent or transient any of this is, and how much it will matter in 2022 is a question we can’t answer right now. So take this for what it’s worth and we’ll go from there.

An analysis of that Paxton opinion about schools and county health authorities

Short version: That’s just, like, his opinion, man.

Best mugshot ever

The law should mean what it says. Rule §97.6(h) of the Texas Administrative Code says: “The health authority is empowered to close any public or private child-care facility, school or other place of public or private assembly when in his or her opinion such closing is necessary to protect the public health; and such school or other place of public or private assembly shall not reopen until permitted by the health authority who caused its closure.” This law was invoked by the Harris County Health Authority this month , directing that K-12 schools in the county start operations entirely online until at least Sept. 7.

On Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote an opinion that effectively invalidated Harris County’s control order and others. The Texas Education Agency accepted the opinion, and said it will defund schools that follow the orders. On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott added his backing.

While the attorney general’s opinions are non-binding, they are entitled to some respect. So too, though, is the plain language of the law. I believe Paxton has it wrong and that his opinion is likely to kill people.

[…]

The law appears to be clear. The provision of the administrative code cited above gives the power to local health authorities. Despite this, Paxton concludes the law doesn’t mean what it says. He argues if read literally, the law would undercut limitations on the power of local health authorities he believes exist elsewhere in Texas law .

I wouldn’t give that argument a high grade. The “limitations” he cites would cripple local health authority’s power to effectively manage dangerous diseases that cannot survive on surfaces. More importantly, Paxton really can’t explain why Texas couldn’t give local health authorities, who have the authority to take steps such as quarantining an entire county, the (supposedly) limited powers that exist elsewhere and, just as the law says, the explicit power to close schools.

The factual assumptions underlying Paxton’s reading of Texas law are flawed. He writes before closing schools as a form of “area quarantine” (which isn’t the part of the statute the Harris County order relied on), the local health authority must demonstrate “reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease.”

That condition will exist the instant schools reopen.

See here, here, and here for the background. This too is one person’s opinion, in this case a law professor named Seth Chandler. What any of it actually means is uncertain until either someone sues or the counties and school districts all concede. Given his track record and the political stakes here, it’s quite rational to believe that Paxton is not the most trustworthy authority on this, but until a court gets involved he’s what we have. I hope the various county attorneys, as well as the counsel for the affected school districts, are reviewing this carefully and considering all their options.

Enforcing the mask order

Those of you who haven’t been wearing your mask when out in public, shame on you. And also, there may now be consequences for your dumb refusal to do the right thing.

Houston law enforcement officials will begin issuing fines and citations to people who do not comply with the state’s mask order, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Monday.

The mandate from Gov. Greg Abbott requires nearly all Texans to wear face coverings in most public settings and has been in effect since early July.

Turner’s announcement comes as Houston experiences a slight dip in its COVID-19 hospitalization levels and a decline in the rate of positive tests, despite a sustained number of daily new cases. The mayor said police would continue to issue warnings at first, as Abbott’s order requires, before fining people $250 for a second offense.

“For months, we have been focusing on education and not citations, but now I am instructing the Houston Police Department to issue the necessary warnings and citations to anyone not wearing a mask in public if they do not meet the criteria for an exemption,” Turner said.

Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is appointed by Turner, agreed with the mayor’s order, saying it would help limit the spread of the coronavirus. He said HPD’s tally of infected and quarantined officers has grown “very rapidly,” with 108 testing positive and 64 awaiting test results.

[…]

The mayor in April instructed police not to issue fines or citations for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, winning favor among some of Hidalgo’s critics. Before Monday, he had told police to largely issue warnings when enforcing the governor’s order.

On the one hand, it’s a bit puzzling that the order hadn’t had the threat of a fine behind it before now. On the other hand, given the wishy-washy nature of Abbott’s order, it’s easy to understand why the city wouldn’t be all that interested in putting police resources into “enforcement” of that order. Certainly, the police union was not interested in enforcing the mask order (and yes, that was motivated by the HPOU president’s ridiculous animosity towards Judge Hidalgo), to whatever extent you give their preference weight. I honestly don’t know what difference this is going to make, but I welcome the change. We are moving in the right direction, it would be very nice to move a little faster in that direction, and whatever reasonable step we can take to advance we should take. And boy, do I wish we didn’t have to have debates like this. How much better it would be if people just understood what they need to do and did it.

How risky is music?

I’m very interested in the answer to this.

In any other time, under any other circumstance, the question would seem minor and technical. But today it has taken on both a global significance and pressing deadline: What happens to your breath when you play an instrument?

The answer could contribute to society’s budding understanding of the health risks of attending a classical concert, which will affect major decisions by the world’s largest orchestras.

The Houston Symphony has partnered with researchers at Rice University to try to do just that — study how air particles are spread during a symphonic concert, thus giving orchestras a road map to reopening safely.

The study, funded by the Rice University COVID-19 Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee and expected to be released later this summer, could help symphonies around the world find a way to hold a live concert while practicing safe social-distancing guidelines.

“This is an urgent matter,” said Robert Yekovich, dean of the Shepard School of Music at Rice. “Orchestras are waiting for information on what they’ll be able to do eight weeks from now.”

Ashok Veeraraghavan, Ashutosh Sabharwal, Yekovich and Houston Symphony CEO John Mangum penned the proposal for this study. Both Veeraraghavan and Sabharwal are electrical and computer engineering professors at Rice.

Veeraraghavan and Sabharwal spent June calibrating the machines they’ll use to test a variety of Houston Symphony musicians. They plan to begin the study this month. They’re using “Schlieren photography,” which tracks air flow by observing changes in its density; air itself, being invisible, can’t be tracked directly.

The machines would be able to see just how far an instrumentalist’s breath goes when he or she plays.

“Schlieren optics is a beautiful way of measuring. It’s an elegant technique,” Veeraraghavan said.

As someone who plays a wind instrument in a band that performs at sporting events, I have some interest in the results of this study. As with so many things about COVID-19, there’s conflicting data about how the virus is transmitted through the air, and all we can do is keep studying until we get a consensus. I look forward to the publication of this research.

SCOTX rejects multiple Hotze petitions

Some good news.

The Texas Supreme Court has refused to hear several challenges by a Houston conservative power broker to emergency orders on coronavirus issued by Gov. Greg Abbott and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

Without comment, the nine Republican justices on Friday denied a request that they review a trial court that upheld Hidalgo’s April 22 mask order.

The order required residents to wash hands before leaving home and wear masks, stay 6 feet away from each other and avoid touching their faces in public. For a time, Abbott, a Republican, prevented Hidalgo, a Democrat elected in 2018, from enforcing it. The governor later reversed course and issued his own mask order.

Experts said Friday they weren’t surprised that in five recent lawsuits, the state’s highest civil court has declined Dr. Steve Hotze’s demands that it step in and overturn Abbott and Hidalgo’s COVID-19 orders. Each time, the court ruled on procedural grounds.

Hotze, a staunch conservative who for decades has wielded influence with his “slate cards” telling Harris County voters whom to back in Republican primaries, said his bid to protect Texans’ state and federal constitutional rights will continue.

“We fight on,” he said. “It’s obvious to me some members of the Supreme Court just don’t want this case to come up. They don’t want to go against Abbott. Six of them were appointed by Abbott.”

See here for the background, and here for the one-line denial. This follows on the heels of an earlier denial over Abbott’s statewide mask order.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a lawsuit disputing Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s executive orders closing nonessential businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, but one justice expressed concern he is improperly taking the role of state lawmakers.

The Republican-controlled high court dismissed without comment the lawsuit filed by lead plaintiff and Republican activist Dr. Steven Hotze for a lack of jurisdiction.

Justice John Devine agreed with the dismissal, concluding a lawsuit against the governor is the incorrect vehicle. Nonetheless, Devine said Abbott’s emergency actions are not “categorically immune” from review by the courts and he finds it “difficult to square” the governor’s orders and state law.

“I share relators’ concern in what they describe as ‘an improper delegation of legislative authority’ to the executive branch,” his five-page concurring opinion states. “During declared states of ‘disaster,’ the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 bestows upon the governor the power to issue executive orders that have ‘the force and effect of law.’ Disaster or not, the Texas Constitution doesn’t appear to contemplate any circumstances in which we may condone such consolidation of power.”

Devine, a Republican, said the constitution’s ban on a branch of government exercising another branch’s powers “is not simply a suggestion.”

“In the first article, it states: ‘No power of suspending laws in this state shall be exercised except by the Legislature,’” he wrote. “This provision means what it says. The judiciary may not suspend laws. Nor may the executive. Only the Legislature.”

The Texas Legislature is only in regular session once every two years for 140 calendar days beginning in January. Abbott has so far ignored calls by state lawmakers to call a month-long special session to replace his executive orders during the pandemic.

Devine wrote the court’s dismissal “should not be misperceived as a judicial kowtow” to Abbott, saying there is no “pause” button to the Texas Constitution. He expressed worry that more executive orders will come when a second wave of the virus hits, resulting in “short-term orders could continually escape” the court’s review.

See here for that background, and here for that denial. This recapitulates what I’ve been saying all along – there are serious questions to be asked about the Governor’s powers at this time and what the role of the Legislature should be, questions that I sincerely hope are addressed by the next Lege, but Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill and their shambling evil Lawsuits R Us clown car is absolutely the wrong way to examine those questions. I would also add that SCOTX’s loopiest Justice John Devine is exactly the wrong person to be setting the outlines of this debate, but at least he did so in a concurring opinion. I’ll take what I can get at this point.

On a side note, in that first article Rice poli sci professor Mark Jones is quoted saying that in a 2015-2017 context, Greg Abbott very likely would have given more weight to the demands of the fringiest wingnuts in the Republican Party, because there would have been no political counterweight to them. But now, at a time when Donald Trump is at best running even with Joe Biden in the polls of Texas and the Democrats have a legitimate shot at taking the State House and knocking off a bunch of GOP members of Congress, some discretion on his part is the better part of valor. In other words, elections do have consequences.

Finally, since all news of bad things happening to Steven Hotze is good news, I was recently sent some relevant court documents by a very helpful reader that I will chare with you here. First, is this by a Harris County judge, issued on his own volition (the fancy Latin legal term for this is “sua sponte”), chiding Hotze and Woodfill for not properly serving all parties of his various lawsuits the relevant pleadings he’d been filing with SCOTX in a timely manner. Even more interesting is this one, filed by the Harris County Attorney on behalf of County Judge Lina Hidalgo and County Fire Marshal Laurie Christianson, accusing Hotze of filing multiple bullshit lawsuits against the county as a harassment tactic and asking for sanctions. Here’s a taste:

Hotze filed five lawsuits and two appeals against Judge Hidalgo in the last four months. Many of these cases are based on fabricated facts, and they all make identical constitutional challenges to the Texas Disaster Act. Based on Hotze’s own statements and actions, it is clear that he brought these duplicative suits for the improper purpose of harassing Judge Hidalgo.

Not only are these duplicative suits made for an improper purpose, but Hotze litigates them in a manner orchestrated to be as harassing as possible. Hotze presents all of his cases as urgent matters requiring emergency temporary restraining orders and emergency petitions for writ of mandamus to the Supreme Court. However, these cases are never urgent, have typically been pre-filed for days or weeks, are often set for hearing long after the orders they complain about have expired, and have nothing to do with science, liberty, or the Constitution. Their “urgency” is manufactured to deny Defendants due process by preventing them time to respond.

Hotze’s five lawsuits were designed to maximize delay and cost and create a never-ending conveyor belt of litigation using a six-step formula: (1) Hold a rally and generate negative media attention toward Judge Hidalgo, (2) solicit plaintiffs for a choose-your-own-adventure style lawsuit, (3) file a lawsuit, never serve it, then email opposing counsel about a hearing on a few hours’ notice, (4) make false claims, (5) amend, dismiss, or appeal before the court considers sanctions, and (6) start over with a new lawsuit and repeat the cycle.

It goes from there. It was filed in the 189th Civil Court, the same one whose judge issued that sua sponte order, and it requests “$10,000 in attorney’s fees and a conditional $10,000 in attorney’s fees if this matter is unsuccessfully appealed” on behalf of Hidalgo and Christianson in their official capacities. I have no idea what the odds of success of this motion are, but you do love to see it.

Coronavirus and coins

If you’re not using cash, you’re not circulating any coins.

Show some love for Millard

Stores around the U.S. are struggling with an unexpected shortage. (No, not toilet paper — sorry, we’ve already made that joke.) They’re running low on coins.

Supermarkets and gas stations across the U.S. are asking shoppers to pay with a card or produce exact change when possible. Walmart has converted some of its self-checkout registers to accept only plastic. Kroger is offering to load change that would normally involve coins onto loyalty cards. Some Wawa gas stations are accepting coin rolls in exchange for bills.

The trouble began weeks ago, when the coronavirus pandemic delivered a bizarre double blow to the U.S. supply of quarters, dimes, nickels and even pennies. Social distancing and other safety measures slowed production of coins at the U.S. Mint. But also fewer coins made their way from customers to banks, coin-sorting kiosks and stores’ cash registers as people holed up at home.

“The flow of coins through the economy … kind of stopped,” Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers in June.

That month, the Fed began rationing coins. Soon after, business groups — representing grocers, convenience stores, retailers, gas station operators and others — wrote to Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that the situation was an emergency.

“We were alarmed to hear that the system for distributing coins throughout the country is at the breaking point,” they wrote on June 23, offering a series of suggestions for how to fix it. A week later, the Fed announced it would convene a U.S. Coin Task Force to address the matter.

All things considered, I’d generally rather use cash for buying lunch and other small purchases. Old habits, I suppose, plus I know that no one is taking a cut of the cash away from the merchant I’m patronizing. But since we all started staying home and doing contactless transactions, I’ve barely used the stuff. I haven’t hit an ATM since February. I do tip more, and more often, now that it’s all credit card all the time. That’s something I need to pay attention to going forward. I do look forward to the day when I can just hand over a $20 for my lunch, if only because it will be a sure sign that things have returned to some kind of normal.

Revisiting the May elections

I’m ambivalent about this.

Most cities in Texas — from Galveston to Lubbock — moved their May elections to November under a pandemic-era decree by Gov. Greg Abbott.

But the choices facing voters will remain limited to candidates who filed for office months ago — at least for now.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton, a Galveston County Republican, wants to reopen the filing period for candidates to lead cities and other political jurisdictions, including school boards. He believes voters may have soured on incumbents facing little or no competition.

Middleton is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton whether the state should give candidates who want to run in a postponed local election until mid-August to file for a spot on the ballot.

“I think it’s also only fair that this occur because there are a lot of people that have been frankly unhappy with how some of the decisions… have been made in local government during this pandemic,” Middleton said.

The legal rub: Abbott’s March 18 order was silent on the filing deadline. But Abbott’s secretary of state, Ruth Hughs, wrote local officials that “the postponement does not have the effect of reopening candidate filings.”

Middleton believes that guidance is not supported by election law and Abbott’s order. Middleton, who chairs the arch-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, contends in his July 2 letter to Paxton that Texas law clearly states that if the election day is changed or moved, the filing period rolls forward with it.

He said the ripple effects of a legal opinion by Paxton go well beyond proving greater scrutiny for elected officials who have issued shutdown orders or mask requirements, which have drawn the ire of many conservatives. Some local officials believe that tax rates adopted by cities for the coming fiscal year could greatly exceed what voters have the appetite for amid curtailed local tax revenues due to the pandemic.

I mean, I don’t agree with Mayes Middleton on much, and I think his motives for this action are screwy. But I confess that a part of me thinks that an election held in November, even if it was supposed to have been held in May but had to be postponed for whatever reason, should have a filing deadline that’s standard for a November election. On the other hand, the original filing deadline for the May 2 elections was February 14, more than a month before Abbott’s order that rescheduled the thing. As such, it’s hard to argue that people may have been unfairly excluded from filing. Obviously, conditions have changed, and I think there’s a valid case to be made that if these elections had been scheduled for November in the first place, there would be a very different lineup for them than what exists now. I think you can also make a valid case that the voters have it in their power to persuade the candidates they do have to prioritize the things they want now, as opposed to the things they would have wanted then.

On the related question of whether we should have regular elections in May at all, I’m also ambivalent. No question, turnout would be much greater in November elections, and as a general principle I think that’s preferable. But November elections, especially November elections in even-numbered years, are full of races with a lot more money and noise-making ability, which combine to drown out whatever local issues would be heard in a quieter context. It would be so much better if people simply took a greater interest in their local and school board elections, so that they could be held at any time and didn’t need the boost of a Presidential or gubernatorial election to get even semi-decent participation. I’d like to have a robust debate about this, but I fear that only the hardcore, vote-in-every-election types would be tuned in for it, and that would miss the point entirely. I don’t know what else to say.

One more thing:

Republican Cheryl Johnson, the Galveston County tax assessor, wrote Paxton in support of Middleton’s position. She said the pandemic has “opened the eyes” of Texans to potential government overreach, namely local tax rates that could soar as cities try to bridge budget shortfalls. Johnson wants officials considering tax hikes to feel the pressure of a campaign challenge.

Johnson noted that Senate Bill 2, signed into law by Abbott during the 2019 legislative session, requires cities to receive voter approval before levying taxes that would result in collections 3.5 percent higher than the previous year. But the bill contains a disaster provision that permits a city to collect more than twice as much for at least two years if any part of the city is declared a disaster area during the current tax year.

State and local officials are at odds over whether the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a “disaster” to trigger this provision.

“I’m of the opinion that COVID-19 is not the type of disaster that would warrant the disaster provision of Senate Bill 2,” she said.

The Texas Municipal League says it conducted a survey of cities recently and found the “vast majority” plan to keep increased collections below the 3.5 percent threshold allowed by Senate Bill 2.

Yeah, sorry, if you don’t think what we’re in now counts as a “disaster”, then I’m afraid I just can’t take you seriously. SB2 was a terrible bill for many reasons, and this is one of them. But look, if you don’t want cities and counties to try to deal with their massive revenue shortfalls on their own, then there is a simple alternative, and that’s to push the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, which the House passed months ago, to provide fiscal relief to local governments for precisely this purpose. If you’re not down for that either, then I think we know all we need to know about your priorities.

The Renaissance Festival will go on

I haven’t gone to RenFest in years, and I can’t say I was itching to go this year, but it will be there for those who want it.

The 46th annual Texas Renaissance Festival will go on as scheduled this year, but things will look a little different due to the pandemic.

Beginning Saturday, Aug. 1, tickets will be available for the 2020 festival, which starts Oct. 3 and runs through Nov. 29. Tickets will be date-specific, sold in advance online only and will not be available at the gate, according to the festival website. Tickets may also be purchased at participating H-E-B stores beginning Sept. 1.

The most visible change at the nine-week-long festival is that all staff, performers and vendors will be required to wear a face-covering and receive daily temperature checks before each shift, according to a press release.

If a statewide mask order is in place at the time of the festival, patrons will also be required to wear face masks. If no state order is in place, patrons will not be required but “strongly encouraged to do so.” In line with the festival’s long-standing tradition of themed weekends and creative costumes, a face mask contest will be held every day in search of the attendee with the most creatively decorated mask.

Texas counties with more than 20 coronavirus cases are currently under a statewide mask order. Grimes County, where the festival is held, has 828 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the latest available data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The Houston region is still considered a COVID-19 hotspot and is currently at 98,565 cases total. Texas saw the second-highest day for newly reported deaths on Wednesday, per a Houston Chronicle analysis of state data.

[…]

[Texas Renaissance Festival Marketing Manager Marlena] Solomon said the festival’s 200-acre campground typically never meets 50 percent capacity during a normal season, so capacity limitations will not be issued for this season. She added that in anticipation of capacity limitations that could be issued closer to October, the festival grounds will be limited to 22,500 guests per day.

My interpretation of this is that all guests would be required to wear a mask at this time, since Grimes County is covered by that statewide mask order. But after reading this additional story, I’m not so sure of that.

The mask-optional policy has left some workers feeling that the festival will be unsafe. Niki Korontana has been working at the Renaissance Fest for 12 years, performing as a Transylvanian and pirate for 10 of those years.

She is anemic and has to have iron infusion treatments to correct the disorder. Her fragile immune system leaves her vulnerable to COVID-19, she said, and the festival’s resistance ro institute a mask order puts her in danger. She said she resigned via email and has not received a response from management.

“I do understand that we’re dealing with a lot of upheaval,” she said. “Maybe getting back to me is not a priority, but I put a lot into this job. There’s no way to socially distance in a lot of places. There’s limited access to water and hand-washing. The faire population, as a whole, is broke with no access to health care. On the regular we all get ‘faire sick’ every year even without the outbreak. We’re used to working through all of that, and I can easily imagine people infecting others.”

The festival has lost more than half of their performing staff this year, said marketing and communications manager Marlena Solomon. That estimate includes elderly workers, people in at-risk populations and those who may not want to wear masks in the hot early weekends of the event.

“We respect their decision not to come this season due to their concerns regarding facemasks,” Solomon said. “They will be welcome back next year. No one will be penalized for not being a part of this season.”

Ginnie Eatchel, who has worked at the festival for five years, doesn’t have health issues, but she said she’s quitting, too, without at mask mandate. She said she doesn’t understand how patrons can expect performers to work in full medieval dress, including suits of armor, while they balk at being asked to wear a mask.

“Many of these people at fair are of the Trump mindset saying, ‘No one can impede on my freedom’ or ‘If they make me wear a mask, I’m not buying a pass this year,’” she said. “It’s such a selfish mindset. You’re doing it for other people.”

Solomon said that partisan concerns are not behind the voluntary mask policy. “The decisions are not being made based on political views of our patrons,” she said.

Sure seems like a good case for mandating masks to me. I’d prefer that the RenFest require mask wearing, but I’m not likely to attend anyway, so who cares what I think. Honestly, I’m a little surprised to see that they’re open at all, since many other outdoor events have been cancelled. I would have thought RenFest is sufficiently spaced out that they can reasonably minimize the risks, but now I’m rethinking that. Sure would be nice to be able to do reliable contact tracing just in case. Anyway, RenFest has been going through some changes, so maybe this was just about trying to have a little more normality in our lives. I can sympathize with that.

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.

So we really were undercounting the COVID-19 death rate

Can’t say I’m surprised.

After months of undercounting coronavirus deaths, Texas’ formal tally of COVID-19 fatalities grew by more than 600 on Monday after state health officials changed their method of reporting.

The revised count indicates that more than 12% of the state’s death tally was previously unreported by state health officials before Monday.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is now counting deaths marked on death certificates as caused by COVID-19. Previously, the state relied on local and regional public health departments to verify and report deaths.

Public health experts have said for months that the state’s official death toll is an undercount. State health officials said Monday that the policy change would improve the accuracy and timeliness of their data.

Texas law requires death certificates to be filed within 10 days.

“This method does not include deaths of people who had COVID-19 but died of an unrelated cause,” the Texas Department of State Health Services said in a news release.

[…]

After the number of infections in Texas soared to new highs in June and early July, the rate of deaths in Texas has been accelerating. It took 53 days to get from the first death to 1,000 deaths and 39 days to get from 1,000 to 2,000 deaths. On July 10, the state surpassed 3,000 deaths — 24 days after 2,000 deaths were reported. And it took only 10 more days for Texas to reach 4,000 deaths.

While Texas continues to report daily deaths in the triple digits, the number of new daily cases seem to be stabilizing. In the past week alone, state data appears to show new daily infections leveling off, albeit at nearly record highs.

The state recorded its largest number of daily new cases July 15, at 10,791. On Sunday, that number was 5,810.

I’m not sure I fully understand what was changed, so I don’t have much to say about this. I think one can argue that we’re still undercounting the true number of COVID-19 deaths, because it has been known for a long time that some people who almost certainly had the virus die at home without ever having been tested. More broadly, people have died as a result of delaying or skipping medical care for other issues because they feared catching COVID from going to the doctor’s office or emergency room. Maybe those aren’t “official” deaths, but they are deaths that wouldn’t have happened in a non-pandemic situation. I suspect we won’t really understand the scope until some years from now when academics can do a deeper analysis of all the data. In the meantime, this is what we have. The Chron has more.

Abbott finally speaks about schools

Of course, he mostly says weasel words.

Gov. Greg Abbott clarified Friday that Texas schools will be required to provide in-person instruction this fall, but that some districts may be eligible for extended waivers on a “case-by-case basis.”

In a letter signed jointly with fellow Republican state leaders, the governor said local health authorities do not have the power to shut down schools solely to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The guidance, which does not appear to be legally binding, is the first detailed instruction from Abbott in the reopening plans. Earlier this week, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Education Commissioner Mike Morath said districts would not be able to close campuses for prevention purposes alone, and in fact could lose state funding should they try.

Currently, districts are allowed to delay in-person instruction for up to eight weeks.

“If any school district believes they need an extension beyond eight weeks due to COVID-19 related issues, the (Texas Education Agency) will review that request on a case-by-case basis,” the statement says.

The remarks do not give details about the requirements school districts must meet in order to suspend in-school learning. Even if districts reopen campuses, children in public schools across the state can remain at home, continue online-only classes and still receive course credit.

See here and here for the background. Basically, we don’t know anything today that we didn’t already know. Counties and school districts maybe have some flexibility to make their own decisions, but there are no objective criteria by which those decisions can be judged. Paxton’s opinion still doesn’t have the force of law, because Abbott still hasn’t updated his executive order, but it will take either a lawsuit or open defiance of the opinion to test that proposition. In the meantime, we have this deluded fantasy that in person classroom learning will be like it has been before while the pandemic is still raging. Meanwhile, other school employees fear for their health and safety, with no assurances that anyone is looking out for them. And oh yeah, it’s a lead-pipe cinch that people will die as a result of this. Good luck sorting it all out, fellow parents.

One more thing:

An Abbott spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the governor plans to follow-up with an executive order.

That should be carved into his goddam tombstone some day. What a feckless coward. The Trib has more.

Update on that other vote by mail lawsuit

From Daily Kos:

A federal judge has rejected Republican Secretary of State Ruth Hughs’ motion to dismiss a case brought by several Texas voters and civil rights organizations seeking to expand access to absentee voting for the November general election.

Plaintiffs are asking the court to order the state to prepay the cost of postage; require officials to count ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within a few days afterward (currently, they must be received by the day after the election); prevent the state from using arbitrary standards to reject absentee ballots for allegedly non-matching signatures without giving voters a chance to fix any problems; and allow third parties to collect and turn in completed absentee ballots.

Based on a schedule the judge previously set out, a ruling on plaintiffs’ requests is not likely until after Labor Day.

See here for the background. This lawsuit, unlike the TDP lawsuit that is awaiting action from the Fifth Circuit or the age discrimination lawsuit, which is also on hold pending action with the first lawsuit (info per the DKos Elections Litigation Tracker), is not about who is allowed to vote by mail. It is about the barriers that exist for those who are eligible to vote by mail. Here’s a summary of the plaintiffs’ claims, from the court ruling (the first link in my excerpt above):

First, Plaintiffs challenge Section 86.002 of the Texas Election Code’s failure to provide prepaid postage for mail-in voters. Id.; Tex. Elec. Code § 86.002 (“Postage Tax”). Second, Plaintiffs challenge the requirement mail-in ballots be postmarked by 7:00 p.m. on election day and then received by the county no later than 5:00 p.m. on the day after the election in order to be counted. See Tex. Elec. Code § 86.007 (“Ballot Receipt Deadline”). Third, Plaintiffs challenge the requirement that voters must submit two signature samples that “match,” according to local election officials, in order to have their early voting ballots counted. Id. § 87.027 (“Signature Match Requirement”). Fourth, Plaintiffs challenge the criminalization of a person assisting a voter in returning a marked mail ballot. Id. § 86.006 (“Voter Assistance Ban”).

The effect of this lawsuit, if the plaintiffs prevail, would be to make it easier for the people who can vote by mail to do so, and would likely reduce the number of ballots rejected for not having a legally accepted signature. That would be fairly small in the aggregate, but it would be quite meaningful for some number of people. The defense had also filed a motion opposing an expedited schedule, which the judge (Orlando Garcia, whom you may recall from previous redistricting cases) also rejected. The last filing in that schedule is for September 4, so perhaps we’ll get a ruling not too long after that. I have also read somewhere – it may have been on Daily Kos, I just don’t remember – that the Fifth Circuit is going to expedite the appeals hearing for the TDP vote by mail case, so who knows, maybe we will get some clarity before November. Doesn’t mean it will be good clarity, but it ought to be something.

Gohmert’s gonna Gohmert

On brand, possibly to the end.

Louie Gohmert

Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, a mask skeptic who tested positive for the coronavirus Wedneday as he was pre-screened to join President Donald Trump on a visit to Midland, told Fox News that he plans to take the controversial anti-malaria drug that medical experts have warned against for its health risks.

“My doctor and I are all in,” Gohmert told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “That will start in a day or two.”

Trump and other Republicans like Gohmert have touted the drug, though evidence continues to accumulate of its serious side effects and ineffectiveness treating the new coronavirus. The Food and Drug Administration has cautioned against using the drug and last month revoked its emergency use authorization for it, saying the potential, unproven benefit isn’t worth the risk.

Gohmert told Hannity that he has a friend who is a doctor who is taking the drug to treat his own coronavirus. He said his own regimen would consist of the hydroxychloroquine with azithromycin and zinc.

See here for the background. I mean, I don’t know why anyone would expect Gohmert to do something normal or rational or conventional now. I’m reminded of something my buddy’s mom said to him when we were kids and were about to do something crazy, “Well, if you break your leg, don’t come running to me”. You do you, Louie, but if it goes south please don’t expect any sympathy for your dumb decisions.

Matt Glazer: A way to end surprise medical bills

(Note: The following is a guest post that was submitted to me. I occasionally solicit guest posts, and also occasionally accept them from people I trust.)

At a young age, I had to deal with medical issue after medical issue. It started with trips to M.D. Anderson and ended with an emergency appendectomy. Three major illnesses in 2 years was hard, but we were fortunate enough not to be financially destroyed by these unexpected medical expenses.

Fast forward to now and I am constantly nervous to go see a doctor. Yes, I have insurance now (something that was impossible before the Affordable Care Act), but I am also a pawn in a subterranean fight between health care providers and insurance companies. Basic treatments that should be covered sometimes aren’t and with no rhyme or reason. Then I am hit with unexpected bill that sends me back to eating ramen or cutting expenses again.

There is a real, bi-partisan opportunity to do something about this and protect consumers.

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt life in Texas throughout the country, health care access has never been more important. Now more than ever, people need to see a doctor when they’re sick – not just for their own health, but (given the contagiousness of the disease) for the health of those around them.

Yet some in Washington, D.C. are putting that access at risk in a ham-fisted attempt to stop surprise medical bills.

Most of us have dealt with the shock of a surprise medical bill in recent years – those charges you get billed for after getting medical care, when your insurance company refuses to foot the bill for an out-of-network health provider. Congress has been debating this issue for over a year, and two main camps have emerged. One group wants to end these disputes by creating an independent dispute resolution (IDR) system, where providers and insurance companies are pushed toward a negotiating table to figure out their differences, and patients are left out of the process. The other group wants pre-determined reimbursement rates for services based on insurance companies’ in-network rates.

The first option, IDR, is similar to what we passed last year for insurance plans regulated by the state of Texas – one of the country’s most patient-friendly surprise medical bill laws which won bipartisan support. Other states, such as New York, have instituted a similar system with successful results. (Unfortunately, these state fixes only apply to plans regulated by the state, which is why Congress needs to act. For example, in Texas only 16% of health plans are covered by the state surprise billing law.)

The problems with the second option become obvious quickly: If insurance companies are setting rates, they have all the negotiating leverage. Surprise bills go from being a dispute over how much to charge for a medical procedure to a take-it-or-leave it edict to hospitals, doctors, and other care providers. The rate-setting option would artificially drive insurance payouts down and create dire financial situations for doctors and hospitals – particularly in rural areas, where hospitals function as major hubs for local health care services. It would pad the bottom line for health insurance companies, though – not like they need it, since they have been among the few companies making more money during the pandemic.

Worst of all: Rate-setting would allow insurance companies to further enrich themselves on the backs of the doctors, nurses, and other health care providers who have been serving on the front lines of the pandemic, shouldering more risk than any of us in fighting COVID-19.

(Last month, the Trump administration proposed a third option: an outright ban on surprise medical bills with no outline for resolving the underlying dispute. That figures to throw any disputed bill into the court system, with costly lawsuits driving up the costs of both health care and insurance premiums. Everyone except the lawyers would lose in that scenario.)

Thankfully, surprise medical billing is one of the few truly bipartisan issues on Congress’s agenda, outside the drama of November’s elections. And there is bipartisan support for an IDR-based solution, which means that we can have some hope that Sen. John Cornyn, Sen. Ted Cruz, and the rest of our Congressional delegation will step up and do the right thing. And there are legislative options, put forward by members of Congress who are actual doctors: Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) has more than 30 bipartisan co-sponsors for his “STOP Surprise Medical Bills Act,” and more than 110 House members have similarly signed on to the “Protecting People from Surprise Medical Bills Act,” sponsored by Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Ca.). Both of these bills solve surprise medical bills using IDR and keep the patients out of it.

We still have a long way to go in facing COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, and the time to come after, one thing should be crystal clear: We cannot make it harder for people to get health care when they need it. Access to health care will be essential as the economy struggles to recover in fits and starts, we need workers and customers who don’t have to worry about finding care if they get sick.

Forcing doctors out of business and pushing hospitals to the brink of financial collapse is no way to fight a pandemic – or to help patients.

This is a necessary solution for millions. A generation later, I am still terrified to go see a doctor because of the uncertainty surrounding every trip. I am still affected by the bad luck I was afflicted with before I could drive a car, vote, or serve our country. A generation later, I still feel the effects of being a pawn in a game I don’t want to play. There is a real opportunity to do something about this now. All it takes is for our elected officials to do it.

Matt Glazer is the past Executive Director of Progress Texas and co-founder of Blue Sky Partners.