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Greg Abbott

A bipartisan equality bill

I appreciate the effort, but we can’t expect too much to come of this.

Five Democratic and two Republican state legislators announced plans Wednesday to file a bill next legislative session that would bar discrimination against LGBTQ Texans in housing, employment and public spaces.

The bill, which has the early support of state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, and Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would extend protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There are 21 states that already have enacted such policies.

“Quite frankly, we are already behind the curve on this issue,” Davis said. “Nondiscrimination is not just good for LGBTQ community, but it’s good for all Texans.”

Lawmakers rolled out the bill during a virtual news conference where they touted an economic study that found a statewide nondiscrimination policy would generate $738 million in state revenue and $531 million in local government revenue next biennium. It also would add 180,000 new jobs in technology and tourism by 2025, the study found. The benefits, the authors said, largely would come from Texas’ greater ability to attract talent and heightened opportunity for tourism and conventions.

“We should want to treat people fairly because it’s the right thing to do, whether it has economic effects or not,” said Ray Perryman, a Waco-based economist who led the study. “This shouldn’t be the reason to do it, but it is a very important aspect of it in today’s society, and there are very significant economic costs associated with discrimination.”

The legislation likely will face strong headwinds in the Republican-controlled Senate. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the upper chamber, prominently opposed a similar measure that was rejected by Houston voters in 2015, and later backed the so-called bathroom bill opposed by LGBTQ advocates that would have required people to use facilities matching the gender identity on their birth certificates.

The lawmakers largely dismissed political concerns Wednesday, arguing instead that their early push for the bill — more than seven months before the session is slated to begin — heightens their odds of passing it.

“I think a lot of this is going to take talking to our colleagues and explaining the results of this study,” said Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, a member of the House LGBTQ Caucus and author of the bill. “It’s going to take a lot of groundwork.”

[…]

The bill faces good odds of passing the lower chamber, where Democrats have gained ground and some Republicans have moderated their positions, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. He was less bullish on the bill’s chances in the Senate.

“It’s a different animal on that side of the chamber,” Rottinghaus said. “You do all the political calculations and it’s a tall order to get it passed. But, in some ways it’s a marker: these members see the future of Texas as one where the economy needs to be put front and center, and if that theory can get some grip among the members, then there’s hope for it in the future. But as it is now, it’s a pretty tough sell.”

That’s really about all there is to it. This bill may pass the House, but if so then Dan Patrick will stick it in a shredder, have the shredder blown up by the bomb squad, and then have the debris shipped to Oklahoma. We ain’t getting a bill like this passed while he’s Lite Guv, and that’s even before we consider getting it signed and then having it reasonably enforced by the Attorney General. It’s nice that there are two House Republicans willing to sign on to this – no, really, that is important and could very well matter if we oust Patrick in 2022 but still have a Republican-controlled Senate – but it will take either more of them than that to get this passed, or fewer Republicans in the House overall. I don’t know who our next Speaker will be, but I like the odds of this passing with a Democrat appointing committee chairs than with pretty much any Republican that could inherit the gavel. Needless to say, one way of getting the requisite number of Dems in the House is to oust Sarah Davis, as her seat is high on the list of pickup possibilities. Todd Hunter’s HD32 is on that list as well, but farther down; if he loses in November, Dems have had a very, very good day.

Let’s be clear that lots of substantive bills take more than one session to get passed, so bringing this up now even without any assurance that it could get out of committee is the right call. Start talking about this now – the real benefits a true equality bill would bring, the ridiculous arguments that opponents will throw at it, and very importantly the potential legal pitfalls that the true wingnuts and their sympathetic judges will try to exploit – and we’ll be better positioned when the timing is better. I can’t say when that might be – elections have consequences, I’m told – but it’s best to be prepared.

Of course they have voted by mail

It should surprise no one that the three main opponents to an expansion of voting by mail have all voted by mail themselves in past elections.

Three of Texas’ top Republican leaders are vigorously fighting efforts to expand mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic, arguing it will lead to increased voter fraud, yet all three have themselves cast absentee ballots at least once in past elections.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — then a state senator — voted by mail in 2007 for a May Houston municipal election and an ensuing runoff, though Harris County records show his first mail-in ballot was rejected because of a signature verification issue. Patrick is a regular voter in both local and state elections and favors casting his ballot during the early voting period. He’s been voting in Montgomery County since 2017.

Though he’s a regular in-person voter in Collin County, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton used the voting by mail option to cast a ballot in a 2011 municipal election, according to county records. In recent elections, he’s opted for voting early.

Travis County election records show Gov. Greg Abbott cast a mail-in ballot in a 1997 special election when he was a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. Abbott consistently votes in local and state elections.

Abbott and Patrick and Paxton would no doubt assert that they were taking advantage of a perfectly legal opportunity to use an absentee ballot, and that all those other people are asking for something that the law does not allow. I would say that despite the recent Supreme Court ruling, the law as written is hardly clear and lower courts did not agree with that more narrow interpretation. I would also note that one can have a principled disagreement about what the law says without lying and fearmongering about voting by mail, which has the effect of suppressing turnout and delegitimizing the process. (To be fair, Patrick and Paxton have been far more egregious about this than Abbott has, though he’s hardly uttered a peep in dissent of their noxious views.) As with Donald Trump and his current spokesperson, the impression one gets is “it’s fine for me to do this, but lowlifes like you can’t be trusted with it”. None of this had to be this way.

Abbott issues disaster declaration following protests

Where we are now.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Sunday afternoon that the entire state of Texas will be placed under a disaster declaration in response to demonstrators in several Texas cities protesting the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed Monday in Minneapolis police custody.

The declaration allowed Abbott to designate federal law enforcement officers to perform the duties of peace officers in Texas.

Thousands of protesters marched in Texas cities on Friday and Saturday, outraged after Floyd was filmed crying out for help as a white police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee to his neck. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was later arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

“Every Texan and every American has the right to protest and I encourage all Texans to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Abbott said in a statement. “However, violence against others and the destruction of property is unacceptable and counterproductive.”

His announcement comes a day after he activated the Texas National Guard “in response to protest violence” across the state. In several of the state’s large metropolitan areas — including Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio — protesters clashed with police who sometimes used rubber bullets and tear gas.

Abbott also sent state resources to Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio on Saturday afternoon and said he’s spoken to the mayors of all four cities, as well as law enforcement officials. He said Sunday that he also increased those resources for cities throughout Texas and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has deployed tactical teams to assist state and local law enforcement.

[…]

Prior to Abbott’s announcement, several Texas cities took measures into their own hands. On Saturday evening, the mayor of San Antonio imposed a curfew as a result of escalating tensions due to the protests.

In Dallas, where officials defended the use of tear gas at protests for Floyd, Dallas Police Chief Reneé Hall said Sunday afternoon that a 7 p.m. curfew will go into effect Sunday and end at 6 a.m. “for the next several days,” The Dallas Morning News reported. In Austin, meanwhile, organizers canceled a protest planned for Sunday afternoon out of fear that “white agitators and other agitators of color” would co-opt the event and put black Texans in harm’s way.

The single best thing that can happen right now is for law enforcement agencies around the country to stand down and stop being violent themselves. After that we’ll see, but people have been pushing for moderate and incremental police reforms for a long time now with little success. What are people supposed to do now?

Hotze and pals still crying to the Supreme Court

It’s hard to keep track of it all.

Houston GOP activist Steve Hotze and a coalition of business owners and conservatives have launched a legal challenge claiming Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency orders related to the coronavirus violate the Texas Constitution.

In a 34-page emergency pleading filed Friday, lawyers for Hotze as well as three pastors, state Rep. Bill Zedler and five business owners ask the Texas Supreme Court to strike down the orders.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Attorney Jared Woodfill argued in the petition that the governor does not have the power to issue mandates that suspend state laws and that he should have convened the Legislature instead.

“Our senators and state representatives have been muted because Gov. Abbott has chosen to act as a king, and that is fundamentally unconstitutional and fundamentally wrong,” Woodfill said.

Even if the law that gave Abbott his emergency powers is constitutional, Woodfill wrote, the orders are still unconstitutional because they deny due process by assuming every Texan and business is a threat to public health without allowing them the chance to defend themselves; violate equal protection by allowing some businesses to stay open and others not; and are otherwise “arbitrary” and “capricious.”

[…]

Woodfill said the petitioners’ goal is to set the precedent for governors’ authority during future emergencies.

“What’s going to happen if we have a COVID-20?” Woodfill said. “Are we going to again surrender all our constitutional rights?”

It’s hard to keep track of all the lawsuits and petitions coming from the Hotze machine, but I’m going to try. He and this same cohort (more or less) had previously filed a lawsuit in Travis County against Abbott and Paxton over the statewide stay at home orders. This had followed a lawsuit filed in March against the Harris County stay at home order, which he then tried to get fast-tracked to the Supreme Court but was denied. He then filed another lawsuit against Harris County over the face mask order and sought an emergency ruling from the Supreme Court on it, but by that time Abbott had issued an order overriding local orders and forbidding the requirement that face masks be worn. It’s not clear to me if this pleading is related to the Travis County lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton or if it is a second front in their war on anyone who dares to try to tell them what to do under any circumstance. I’m also not sure if that Harris County lawsuit is still in effect or if it has been mooted by subsequent state actions.

All right, so that’s where I think we are now. I’ll say again, I think there are very valid questions to be asked about what powers the Governor does and does not have in emergencies. When must the Legislature be involved? What if any laws can be superseded or suspended by executive order, and under what circumstance? What power does the Governor have to unilaterally overrule cities and counties, whose executives have their own emergency powers? There’s plenty of room for robust debate on these topics, and I hope the Lege addresses some of them in the spring. It’s clear that the Governor – and Mayors, and County Judges – need to have some latitude to take quick action in times of crisis, but it’s equally clear there needs to be some limits on that, in terms of scope and duration and jurisdiction. I don’t want any Governor to have unchecked power, least of all Greg Abbott. I also don’t want a bunch of nihilistic cranks to have the power to disregard public health and safety with impunity. I don’t want the worst people in the world to be the ones asking the questions that will affect all of us going forward. I hope the Supreme Court is up to the task of responding to this.

Reopening 3.0

Who wants to go to a water park?

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation Tuesday announcing additional services and activities that can resume under his second wave of reopenings, allowing food courts in shopping malls to reopen immediately and giving the green light for water parks to begin operations with limited capacity starting Friday.

Recreational sports programs for adults can restart Sunday, though games and similar competitions may not recommence until June 15. Abbott also permitted driver education programs to resume operations immediately.

For food court dining areas that choose to reopen, Abbott is encouraging malls to designate one or more people who are responsible for enforcing social distancing and ensuring tables are cleaned and disinfected between uses.

[…]

While indoor and outdoor pools can operate at 25% occupancy, the governor’s previous directives have specifically said people should continue to avoid interactive amusement venues like water parks. Abbott was facing pressure, however, from a Houston-area water park that initially said last week that it would defy Abbott’s orders and reopen Saturday for Memorial Day weekend. Asked about that last week, Abbott told an Austin television station that his office was talking with operators to make sure they complied.

“They subject themselves to potential litigation as well as potential licensing-based issues if they fail to comply, and so it’s a potentially business-dangerous process for them to proceed forward knowing that they are subjecting themselves to litigation if they open up and anybody contracts COVID-19,” he said to KXAN.

The park ultimately decided not to open early, Community Impact Newspaper reported.

If you can maintain social distancing, swimming is fairly low risk. My experience at water parks is that you’d be fine on most of the rides, but the lines to get to the rides will be what puts you in jeopardy. I’m also not sure how financially viable a 25%-capacity water park is, but that’s their problem, and if Schlitterbahn thinks they can make it work, they’re in a better position than I am to judge. I don’t expect to be paying them a visit this year, that much I do know.

Also, too, outdoor sporting events are back on the menu.

In a new proclamation, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that fans will be allowed at outdoor professional sporting events in most Texas counties with limited occupancy, under a new expansion of his most recent wave of economic reopenings.

Starting Friday, all Texans counties — excluding Deaf Smith, El Paso, Moore, Potter and Randall counties — will be able to host in-person spectators for outdoor sports in venues as long as visitors are capped at 25% capacity. Leagues will first have to apply to — and receive approval from — the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Under the revised rule, fans are still banned from attending indoor sporting events in person. The rule does not address college or high school athletics.

[…]

The health agency’s protocols for adult recreational sports participants include a recommendation of wearing face masks during sporting events and practices, screening individuals for symptoms of COVID-19, and using and carrying hand sanitizers.

Spectators, meanwhile, are encouraged to avoid being in groups larger than 10, maintain a 6-foot distance from others when possible and wear cloth face coverings.

Regular COVID-19 testing is also recommended throughout the professional sports season.

I’d say the main effect of this is allowing recreational sports leagues to start up. High school and college sports are exempted, the NWSL will be playing only in Utah, and MLB is still a work in progress. I guess auto racing would be open to fans now as well. I will have a decision to make when the college football season starts, but I wasn’t expecting to see an Astros game any time soon except on TV. Do any of these new options appeal to you? Leave a comment and let us know.

Sharing is CARES-ing

I’m still trying to understand this.

The state of Texas and its 12 largest counties are in a tug-of-war over who is responsible for handing out federal coronavirus relief funding for some small cities.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act signed into law by President Donald Trump in late March sent $11.24 billion in aid to the state. Of that, six Texas cities and 12 counties with a population more than 500,000 received more than $3.2 billion.

The other 242 counties and cities within those counties were allowed to apply for per capita funding allocations from the state out of the remaining $1.85 billion earmarked for local governments.

With an apparent gray area in the legislation, the CARES Act did not specify which entity — the state or the dozen large counties — should cover the small cities within the dozen counties that received direct funding. State leaders including Gov. Greg Abbott want the counties to pay; the counties want the state to share more of its cut.

The skirmish has meant that months after the major relief package was passed, funding for some Texas cities is in limbo, including for Houston-area suburbs such as Pasadena that have been hit with major outbreaks.

[…]

Abbott — as well as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the state Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations committee chairs and vice-chairs — in a May 11 letter placed the responsibility on the counties.

Two days later, the counties wrote to state leadership to ask for their reconsideration. While the counties account for about 69 percent of all COVID-19 cases, they received just about 29 percent of the relief funds, they wrote in a letter shared with Hearst Newspapers.

“We ask you to address this shortfall,” they wrote. “Counties are your frontline partners in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Help us help Texans stay in their homes, keep their jobs, and have food on their table.”

I guess I need to know more about what the priorities are here. It seems clear to me that the funds should be distributed based primarily on need, with any other considerations coming after that. By “need” I mean testing and support for frontline responders and hospitals, food and housing for those in financial distress, buying supplies like hand sanitizer and PPEs, that sort of thing. Whether that should come from the money allocated to the state or the money allocated to the larger counties, I don’t care. It should come from both, depending on their capacity. Maybe there is a good objective case for it to come from one source or the other – I can’t tell from this story – but even if that’s so, I’d want the state and counties to be working together to maximize the return on these federal dollars. That’s what really matters, doesn’t it?

We will have more early voting time in November

That’s good.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday he will extend the early voting period for an unspecified amount of time during the November election as concerns continue to persist around in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Abbott has already doubled the time period for the primary runoff election July 14, calling it necessary so that “election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices.”

In a TV interview Thursday afternoon, Abbott was asked if he believes Texas voters will be able to cast their ballots safely not only this summer but also in the fall.

“We do, and for this reason, and that is … Texas has always had early voting, and what I did for the July time period and what we will do again for the November time period is we will extend the early voting period,” Abbott said in the interview with KCBD in Lubbock. “And what that does — it allows more people to go vote early in settings that are not highly congregated. As a result, you can go vote without having to worry about a whole bunch of people being around you that you could contract COVID-19 from. That makes voting a lot safer [of a] setting than it would otherwise be with the shortened early voting time period.”

See here for the background. I had called on Abbott to do exactly this, though I did not expect that he would. He hasn’t said yet how much he’ll extend early voting – maybe we’ll get a third week, maybe a third and a fourth, who knows – but this is a Good Thing, and I’m glad to see it. Having the state pony up to help counties cover their extra expenses in this weird year, and not being fanatically opposed to letting people with a legitimate fear of COVID exposure vote by mail, would also be nice. But this is something, and credit where it’s due.

Voter, sanitize thyself

WTF?

With voting in the primary runoff election starting next month in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the Texas secretary of state on Tuesday issued “minimum recommended health protocols” for elections, including a suggestion that voters bring their own hand sanitizer to the polls and that they “may want to consider” voting curbside if they have symptoms of COVID-19.

In an eight-page document, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs laid out checklists for voters and election workers that range from self-screening for symptoms to increased sanitation of voting equipment — none of which are binding and many of which were already being considered by local election officials planning for the first statewide election during the coronavirus pandemic.

In its recommendations, the state said voters should consider wearing cloth face masks, bringing their own marking devices — like pencils with erasers or styluses — and using curbside voting if they have a cough, fever, shortness of breath or other symptoms associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Voters in Texas have long had the option of having a ballot brought to them outside their polling place if “a voter is physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

The state instructed local election officials to place markings on the floor to facilitate social distancing and to keep at least 6 feet between voting stations. Election officials should also consider having all employees wear masks, the secretary of state said.

The recommendations are meant to serve as a baseline, and county officials can adopt additional protocols. Early voting for the July primary runoff starts June 29.

Man, this is weak. The main takeaway here is that the state of Texas really, really doesn’t want to do anything to make it safer or easier for anyone to vote. Let’s put aside the hotly-contested question about allowing more voting by mail and consider two fairly simple alternatives the state could do in this regard. One, the state could pay for the extra supplies that voters or county officials if they are willing and able are being encouraged to provide for themselves. A few million bucks from Greg Abbott’s discretionary fund would go a long way towards buying hand sanitizer, pencils, masks and gloves for poll workers, and so forth, not just for the July election but for November as well. Additionally, and speaking of November, Abbott could use his emergency powers – or call a special session if this would be too legally questionable – to extend the early voting period for November to four weeks. That would do a lot to address concerns about long lines and crowds of people crammed inside polling places waiting their turn. He extended the early voting period for July to address this, which I do appreciate. But no, we get this limp mixture of “you might wanna bring some Purell with you, and oh yeah, mark some spots on the floor”. Are you kidding me?

Republican voters should be unhappy about this inability to engage with the actual issue, too. This isn’t hard. And surely I’m not the only one looking at that recommendation to voters that they spend their own money to provide their own risk mitigation and thinking that telling voters there’s a cost to voting they have to pay amounts to a poll tax. If there isn’t a lawsuit filed over this, I’ll be quite surprised. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get the state to take this seriously.

The COVID models remain pessimistic about Texas

Make of this what you will.

The coronavirus may still be spreading at epidemic rates in 24 states, particularly in the South and Midwest, according to new research that highlights the risk of a second wave of infections in places that reopen too quickly or without sufficient precautions.

Researchers at Imperial College London created a model that incorporates cellphone data showing that people sharply reduced their movements after stay-at-home orders were broadly imposed in March. With restrictions now easing and mobility increasing with the approach of Memorial Day and the unofficial start of summer, the researchers developed an estimate of viral spread as of May 17.

It is a snapshot of a transitional moment in the pandemic and captures the patchwork nature across the country of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Some states have had little viral spread or “crushed the curve” to a great degree and have some wiggle room to reopen their economies without generating a new epidemic-level surge in cases. Others are nowhere near containing the virus.

The model, which has not been peer reviewed, shows that in the majority of states, a second wave looms if people abandon efforts to mitigate the viral spread.

“There’s evidence that the U.S. is not under control, as an entire country,” said Samir Bhatt, a senior lecturer in geostatistics at Imperial College.

[…]

The Imperial College researchers estimated the virus’s reproduction number, known as R0, or R naught. This is the average number of infections generated by each infected person in a vulnerable population. The researchers found the reproduction number has dropped below 1 in 26 states and the District. In those places, as of May 17, the epidemic was waning.

In 24 states, however, the model shows a reproduction number over 1. Texas tops the list, followed by Arizona, Illinois, Colorado, Ohio, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa, Alabama and Wisconsin.

When the R naught is below 1, it means the virus is hitting a lot of dead ends as it infects people. Someone who is infected but who follows social distancing rules or stays quarantined until recovering has a good chance of not infecting anyone else. The challenge is finding a way to reopen the economy with sufficient care to prevent the reproduction number from going over 1.

[…]

In Texas, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said he consults with doctors and experts from area hospitals, “and what they tell us is that we’re reopening too fast, and we’re reopening in the wrong order.”

Local jurisdictions in Texas do not have the authority to issue more stringent restrictions than the state, which began aggressively reopening this month. So Dallas has focused on messaging. The county has a daily “covid-19 risk level” that is currently red, for “stay home, stay safe.” Officials are working on seals that businesses can display to indicate they are meeting local public health guidelines, not just state mandates.

The Imperial College estimates for Texas are in line with internal modeling conducted by university experts advising state leaders.

Rebecca Fischer, an epidemiologist at Texas A&M University and part of a team partnering with the governor’s office, said the daily caseload was fluctuating, but “it looks like we’re not cresting a peak and coming down the other side.”

The embedded graphic shows the probability (according to the model) that R naught is less than one in the given state. For Texas, that probability is close to zero, which means that the virus is still spreading at an increasing rate. This is consistent with the PolicyLab study, which uses county-level data. You can see the Imperial College study here, and a brief analysis of it by Josh Marshall here. There’s still a lot we don’t know, and if loosening restrictions is going to have a bad effect on the pandemic it’ll still be a couple of weeks before we really begin to feel it. Staying at home, social distancing, and wearing masks are still your best bet, but I doubt I will convince you of that if you’re certain you know better.

School districts set to get financial relief for coronavirus

Good.

Texas will distribute the vast majority of a $1.29 billion federal stimulus package to school districts this summer, using it to deliver on a promise that schools will remain fully funded this school year despite statewide closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told school officials on a call Thursday.

State officials told school districts in March there would be no financial penalties for attendance declines, as COVID-19 fears spread and school districts were required to close their buildings. Now, Texas has decided to use its share of the federal stimulus package to fund that promise, distributing 90% directly to districts based on their student poverty rates, aiming to forestall layoffs and budget cuts.

Texas school districts can see how much they can expect to receive on the Texas Education Agency’s website. Houston Independent School District, the state’s most populous, will receive the highest award of $81.7 million.

On top of that stimulus package, Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmakers agreed to reimburse all school districts for up to 75% of their pandemic-related expenses to date, using money from a federal grant awarded to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office. School districts have spent a state total of about $392 million on COVID-19 expenses.

School districts in Texas are funded based on student attendance, meaning the statewide school closures could have been a major financial hit. “With school closed to in-person attendance for nearly a third of the school year, generating the remainder of that entitlement would be impossible without us stepping in and making some changes,” Morath said Thursday.

States are allowed to use the federal stimulus funding to offset budget holes. “Federal guidance explicitly authorizes it as a way for states to sustain their school finance system, as long as net state funding remains above prior years,” Morath said.

From the description in the story, I don’t have any specific concerns. It sounds like the districts are going to have their COVID expenses mostly covered, which is what should happen in times like these. Now we just need the same thing for cities and states.

Nothing but gray skies ahead

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

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

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

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

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

Hope you enjoyed the breathable air while it lasted.

Abbott expects there to be college football this fall

Pretty optimistic, if you ask me.

Gov. Greg Abbott said he believes college football will begin on schedule in Texas with some fans in the stands, he told KXAN during an interview Friday.

“My prediction is yes we’re going to have college football beginning as scheduled, on schedule, with at least some level of fans in the stands,” the governor said.

Abbott said what is unclear at the moment is what the capacity level would be.

“Would it be strategic and limited to ensure that we have safe distancing practices, there are factors we simply do not know at this time,” Abbott explained about the potential health risks of reopening UT football in the fall.

Abbott stated that the University of Texas at Austin’s athletic director needs a decision by early August. He said the state thinks it should be able to make a decision by then.

This isn’t out of the blue. In April, the chancellors of Texas A&M and Texas Tech said they expect there will be football when they reopen in the fall, though that story didn’t address the question of fans. ESPN quoted Abbott referring to the reopening plans of MLB and the NBA, though those sports and others like MLS are all talking about fan-free games, possibly at a single location. It’s one thing to imagine the games happening, especially if the campuses are open anyway. It’s another to imagine sixty thousand people or more packed into a stadium screaming their lungs out, especially if the pro sports leagues are still playing before nothing but empty seats. Texas A&M at least is thinking about what this might mean.

“We have not gone down the path of examining every section,” A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said of exactly how many fans Kyle Field will hold with mandated social distancing in place. “There are a lot of scenarios being discussed.”

Like that proverbial glass, Bjork prefers to envision a stadium as half full, not half empty, should restrictions be in place this season.

“We want a full experience, and we’re staying positive — that’s the approach we’re taking right now,” Bjork said. “We know we can pivot quickly if we have to, but we have not mapped that out.”

[…]

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has gradually reopened the state in the past month, but he has held off on potentially crowded events such as county fairs. With that in mind, what exactly would Kyle Field look like at, say, 25 percent capacity?

Roughly 25,000 fans would be spread throughout the stadium, and which fans would be allowed in would be determined in a potentially convoluted process.

“You’ve got 102,733 seats,” Bjork said. “Last year we sold about 85,000 season tickets, including right around 35,000 student tickets. That leaves you about 18,000 empty seats. The great thing about Kyle Field is we have a lot of space. So you would start with your infrastructure and analyze it from there, but we would not (ideally) want to decrease our season ticket base. …

“We have a huge footprint, and we just haven’t had to go down that (downsizing) path yet.”

Should social distancing be required at Kyle Field this fall, not only would fans be spaced at least 6 feet apart throughout the stadium, but multiple measures would be in place to try to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

That might mean everyone but the players and those on the sideline would be required to wear masks (further muffling touchdown celebrations and the Aggies’ tradition of kissing after a score); an abundance of hand sanitizers spread throughout the stadium; and scheduled times for different sections to enter the stadium so there is no squeeze at the gates, where body temperatures might also be checked.

Bjork added that it might be helpful for fans to bring their own beverage containers to limit the number of hands on a cup, making last year’s new policy of selling alcohol throughout the stadium a bit trickier. A&M and its concessions cohort made more than $1 million off alcohol sales at Kyle Field in 2019, according to the university.

“One of the things that we’ve had to do with the alcohol policy is have (employees) pour the bottle or can of beer into a cup (for fans); that’s an SEC policy,” Bjork said. “Does that need to change so you limit as many contacts as possible? Those approaches are being studied right now.”

So are the possibilities of limiting the university-sanctioned tailgating scene around Kyle Field, and the myriad activities in the Aggie Fan Zone on the plaza north of the stadium that create a festival-like atmosphere in the hours before kickoff.

“There’s nothing you can really put in writing right now or have a ‘backup’ plan yet, because there’s too much uncertainty, and it’s way too early,” Bjork said of the Aggies’ plans for Kyle Field starting with the Sept. 5 opener against Abilene Christian.

Which fans would get to attend would also present a knotty question for them. I do expect there to be a lot of pressure for playing college football, for various financial and social reasons. How that manifests remains an open question, and that’s before we take into account the possibility of a resurgence, in which case all of this will seem extremely stupid.

This is an issue that has more than the usual amount of resonance for me. As you know if you’ve been reading this site for awhile or know me in Real Life, I’ve been a member of the Rice Marching Owl Band (MOB) for many years. I don’t know at this point what Rice plans to go regarding its sports teams, nor do I know at this point what the MOB plans to do. (They’ve been busy with the usual end-of-semester activities, saying goodbye to graduating seniors and installing the new drum major and drum minor, that sort of thing.) I really don’t know what I plan to do just yet if everyone is going ahead like normal. On the one hand, we’ll be outside and there will be a reasonable amount of space for us all in the stands. On the other hand, there’s only so much social distancing a band can do and still sound like a band, the deep breathing that playing a wind instrument requires is an extra risk factor for COVID transmission, and everything else about the stadium experience will involve a lot of closer-than-I’m-comfortable-with contact with other people. Maybe if we’ve really got infection rates under control, or there’s true universal testing, I’d be willing to trot out there for another season like it was the Before Times. I’m not feeling that right now. Ask me again in August and we’ll see. The Chron has more.

That’s not how you test

Oops.

Texas health officials made a key change Thursday to how they report data about the coronavirus, distinguishing antibody tests from standard viral tests and prompting slight increases in the state’s oft-cited daily statistic known as the positivity rate.

The positivity rate is the ratio of the confirmed cases to total tests, presented by the state as a seven-day rolling average. The Texas Department State of Health Services disclosed for the first time Thursday that as of a day earlier, it had counted 49,313 antibody tests as as part of its “total tests” tally. That represents 6.4% of the 770,241 total tests that the state had reported through Wednesday.

Health experts have warned against conflating the tests because they are distinctly different. Antibody tests detect whether someone was previously infected, while standard viral tests determine whether someone currently has the virus.

Now that DSHS is reporting the number of antibody tests, it has recalculated its daily positivity rates starting Tuesday to exclude such tests. That led to a 0.41 percentage-point increase in Tuesday’s rate and a 0.55 point increase in Wednesday’s rate, according to DSHS calculations.

DSHS acknowledged last week that it was reporting an unknown quantity of antibody tests as part of the “total tests” figure. Despite that, Gov. Greg Abbott incorrectly claimed Monday that the state was not “commingling” the numbers while promising the state would soon break out the antibody test count.

[…]

When public health agencies combine antibody testing figures with viral testing figures, “I want to scream,” said Seema Yasmin, an epidemiologist and director of the Stanford Health Communications Initiative.

Viral tests, usually taken from nasal swabs, can detect an active coronavirus infection. If a person’s biological sample is found to have traces of the virus’s genetic material, public health workers can order them to self-isolate and track down any of their contacts who may have been exposed.

Antibody tests “are like looking in the rearview mirror,” Yasmin said, because they may show if a person has recovered from a coronavirus infection. That can be useful for public health surveillance, but it does not offer much insight about where the virus is currently spreading. Another issue is that many antibody tests have been shown to have high rates of inaccuracy, she said.

“As an epidemiologist, this level of messiness in the data makes your job so much more difficult, and it misleads the public about what’s really happening,” Yasmin said. “We’ve been talking about the capacity for testing increasing over the last few weeks, but now we might have to tell the public that might not be true.”

And dumping antibody testing data into the pool of viral testing data brings the overall positivity rate down, reflecting “a deceptive misuse of the data,” analysts for the COVID Tracking Project wrote last week. That’s because the numbers may make it seem like the state has grown its testing capacity even if a state’s viral testing capacity remains flat.

“This is crucial as we need increased capacity for viral testing before reopening to identify active infections even in the pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic stages,” the analysts wrote.

To be fair, Texas is not the only state to have done this. Florida and Georgia have been accused of manipulating their data in other ways as well. The bottom line here is that we’ll never get our arms around this pandemic if we don’t have good data. The data is messy enough as it is, we surely don’t need to be making it worse.

Hidalgo extends stay-at-home order

Well, sort of.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday issued new guidelines urging residents to stay home when possible, even as Gov. Greg Abbott reopens most businesses.

The extended Stay Home, Work Safe order is in effect through June 10, though it bears little resemblance to the original directive in March that closed most businesses and ordered residents to remain at home.

San Antonio and Bexar County extended their own stay-home guidelines through June 4.

Abbott’s orders reopening Texas businesses override any rules from local officials. The governor also barred cities and counties from enforcing facemask requirements, as Hidalgo had attempted.

The county judge said her order reminds residents to keep practicing social distancing.

“I don’t want the community to get the message that we’re done,” Hidalgo said. “We may well be in the eye of the hurricane. There’s still no cure, no vaccine.”

[…]

Hidalgo on Thursday also unveiled a series of guidelines meant to protect employees returning to their jobs and help businesses create safe workplaces. They include staggering shifts to avoid congregating workers, taking employees’ temperatures, providing face coverings and never requiring anyone to come to work if they feel ill.

Retail firms should clean and disinfect shops before reopening and give employees a break every hour so they may wash their hands or take other safety precautions, she said. Employers also should keep attendance of all workers on-site each day, so contract tracing can easily occur in the event of an outbreak.

State Rep. Armando Walle, whom Hidalgo appointed the county’s coronavirus recovery czar, said it is hoped the worker guidelines will prevent outbreaks like those discovered at meatpacking plants in the Texas Panhandle.

You can see the amended order here. It heavily references the most recent gubernatorial executive order, and encourages everyone to continue social distancing. The fact of the matter is that while the daily new case average is holding steady, that means it isn’t decreasing. We’re not getting any closer to having no new cases. That means that another increase in the new case rate could still happen, because the disease hasn’t gone away. If we don’t want a spike to happen and we do want to reopen, we have to keep being careful and keep exercising caution. We’re not past this, we’re choosing to live with it. It’s up to us to make sure we don’t regret that choice.

Coronavirus and the State Supreme Court

Just a reminder, nearly half of the State Supreme Court is up for election this November. You know, in case you had opinions about their recent opinions.

Typically not top of mind for voters, the nine Republican justices of the Texas Supreme Court have come under the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic with a slate of high-profile and controversy-generating moves.

Actions on bailevictions, debt collections, vote-by-mail and a Dallas salon owner named Shelley Luther have foregrounded the court in a year when four incumbent justices face reelection — making it easier, Democratic challengers say, to make the case against them.

Last week, the high court lifted its coronavirus ban on evictions and debt collections, put in place in March as the economy shut down and hundreds of thousands were added to the unemployment rolls. And the justices temporarily put on hold a lower court ruling that expanded vote-by-mail access during the pandemic. Both decisions have infuriated some voters and energized the Democratic Party.

This month, the court ordered the release of Luther, who was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to shutter her salon under coronavirus orders; earlier this spring, it sided with state officials in limiting how many inmates could be released from county jails, which have become hotspots for disease.

Democrats, who have not won a seat on the state’s highest civil court in more than two decades, have reclassified the typically sleepy races as a “top-tier priority,” a designation party officials said comes with digital ad spending. And some candidates have already begun to speak out publicly against high court decisions they say disenfranchise voters and risk their safety.

“I think people’s eyes are opening up,” said 3rd Court of Appeals Justice Gisela Triana, one of the four women running for Supreme Court on the Democratic ticket this year. “What has been the sleepy branch of government … has woken up.”

There’s more and you should read the rest. For obvious reasons, these races are largely going to be determined by the Presidential race – if Joe Biden can run even with or ahead of Donald Trump, one or more of the Democratic candidates can break through. It surely wouldn’t hurt for their to be some money spent on these races, in part just to make sure voters are aware of them and in part to highlight some of the decisions that are not exactly in line with public preferences, but there’s only so much the individual candidates can do about that. In case you’re wondering, I have one Q&A from a Democratic candidate for Supreme Court from the primaries, from Judge Amy Clark Meachum.

On a more sobering note:

Justice Debra Lehrmann

One day after presiding over a hearing on the state’s mail-in ballot controversy via videoconference, Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann says she and her husband have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We began to exhibit symptoms last week, despite diligently complying with stay-at-home rules,” Lehrmann wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Thankfully, this has not interfered with #SCOTX work, as the Court is working remotely. We are grateful for your thoughts & prayers.”

Her diagnosis marks the first known coronavirus case of a top state official. The justice did not immediately respond to requests for an interview but told the Dallas Morning News that she and her husband Greg had fevers and body aches early last week before getting tested at an Austin drive-thru testing center.

She also told The News that their Houston lawyer son, Jonathan, his wife Sarah and their six-month-old son Jack, who had been visiting them every other week, stopped and are believed to also be infected.

Her tweet is here. I wish Justice Lehrmann and her husband all the best for a swift recovery. (She is not on the 2020 ballot, in case you were wondering.)

We still don’t know what the upcoming school year will look like

Lots of possibilities, no clear answer yet.

Houston ISD officials are planning for the possibility that some — if not all — students will continue to take virtual classes at home to start the upcoming school year, Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said Friday.

Leaders of the state’s largest school district are preparing multiple contingency plans for August, many of which involve a continuation of online learning, amid uncertainty about their ability to safely re-open campuses as the novel coronavirus pandemic lingers.

District administrators remain weeks away from finalizing key decisions about the upcoming school year, but Lathan said during a wide-ranging press conference that she hopes to announce within the next month whether some form of in-person classes can resume by August.

Under one potential plan floated Friday by Lathan, some or all of the district’s 209,000 students would spend part of the school week on campus and the remainder of the week in online classes — a method aimed at increasing social distancing in crowded buildings. Numerous education leaders across the state and country have suggested similar structure in recent weeks.

“We’re also looking at some students being virtually online the entire first semester or, possibly, the entire school year,” Lathan said.

Superintendents across Texas are grappling with how to structure their school calendars and daily schedules to best accommodate students while balancing public health concerns. Although children suffer medical complications from COVID-19 at far lower rates than adults, public health officials remain concerned about their ability to spread the virus to school staff and family members at home.

[…]

Beyond this summer, superintendents and school boards are evaluating major changes for the 2020-21 school year given the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and the need to support students falling behind during the current shutdown.

In HISD, administrators are starting to discuss with staff and families whether to start the school year earlier and build in longer breaks that could be used as make-up days if in-person classes are canceled due to COVID-19. Texas Education Agency officials are pushing the benefits of this model across the state, though decisions about academic calendars rest with local school boards.

HISD officials also are evaluating whether to extend the school day by 30 minutes, giving teachers and staff more time to help students recover from the disruptions. Lathan said such a move would come with additional pay for employees and could involve structural changes to campus operations.

“We have to look at the emotional toll it’s taken on our teachers to prepare and keep students engaged,” Lathan said.

See here, here, and here for some background. There are just too many variables to say with any confidence what may happen, so just try to keep up with the possibilities so you can make plans. We’ll be fine no matter what – both of us can work from home as needed – but a lot of people will have it much harder. None of this is easy. The best we can hope for is a treatment regimen for COVID-19, and eventually a vaccine. If we’re really lucky, we’ll have a better President next year and can maybe finally get a halfway decent federal response to this mess. In the meantime, this is where we are.

More reopening

Onward we go, whether wise or not.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced his next wave of reopenings designed to restart the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic, saying child care facilities can reopen immediately, bars can open Friday with limited capacity and sporting events can return without fans at the end of the month.

Abbott also said he would permit restaurants to operate at 50% capacity starting Friday, up from 25% that’s allowed now.

At the same time, Abbott exempted two hotspot regions — Amarillo and El Paso — from his latest decisions, saying they would need to wait a week — until May 29 — while the state’s surge response teams work to contain outbreaks in each area.

Abbott’s news conference came 18 days after he began a phased reopening of the state, starting with letting restaurants, stores, movie theaters and malls open up at 25% capacity. He then allowed barbershops and salons to reopen May 8 under certain restrictions. Monday was the first day gyms were allowed to open up, also under restrictions.

Previously, child care was only available to workers deemed essential by the state. Abbott’s announcement Monday allows child care centers to reopen to help all workers returning to their jobs.

In addition to bars, Abbott is letting a host of other establishments reopen Friday, including bowling alleys, bingo halls, skating rinks, rodeos, zoos and aquariums. In the lead-up to Monday, however, the fate of bars had drawn the most attention, especially after Abbott began allowing restaurants to reopen May 1. All the businesses opening Friday will only be allowed to operate at 25% capacity.

For bars that reopen Friday, the state is recommending that customers remain seated at tables of no more than six people, among other restrictions. Dancing is discouraged.

Insert Baptist joke here. On the one hand, the daily case numbers keep rising, with no clear indication that we were approaching a peak even before we started loosening things up, and without achieving the Abbott-stated benchmark of 30,000 tests per day. It’s not that we’re reopening per se, it’s that Abbott himself laid out conditions and requirements and penalties for people who failed to comply, then dropped it all like a hot rock the minute some grifter hairstylist in Dallas threw a hissy fit. It just doesn’t inspire confidence that Abbott has any idea what he’s doing or any plan to retreat if things start to get worse. That said, the rate of growth in the state is fairly slow, hospital capacity is in good shape – both of these are no doubt helped by the solid results in Harris County, for which Abbott owes Lina Hidalgo a big thank you – and to his credit Abbott paid attention to the places that needed and asked to be excluded from this round of reopenings.

The next round of reopenings will come May 31, when Abbott allow permit summer youth camps to reopen — as well as let certain professional sports to resume without spectators. The sports include basketball, baseball, car racing, football, golf, softball and tennis. Leagues will first have to apply to — and receive approval from — the Texas Department of State Health Services.

[…]

Notably, Monday marked the first time that Abbott singled out specific regions as not ready to take part in the latest reopenings.

Amarillo has been a hotspot due to outbreaks at its meatpacking plants, and earlier this month, the state dispatched one of its Surge Response Teams to the city to try to get things under control. Of the 1,801 new cases that Texas reported Saturday, over 700 were linked to the Amarillo meatpacking plants, according to Abbott’s office.

In El Paso, the situation has deteriorated enough that the county judge, Ricardo Samaniego, and other local officials asked Abbott last week to exempt the county from the next reopenings until the county sees a two-week downward trend in the number of positive cases or positive test rate. Abbott said Monday that El Paso’s hospital capacity is “too close for comfort at this particular time.”

The one-week delay “will give those communities and our surge team response the time needed to slow the spread and maintain hospital capacity,” Abbott said. “It will ensure those communities safely move into phase 2.”

The counties subject to the delay are El Paso, Randall, Potter, Moore and Deaf Smith. The latter four are all in the Amarillo region.

I have my doubts that the Abbott Strike Force will make any difference in these places, unless they find the will to shut down the meatpacking plants that have been such hotspots, but at least he’s not ignoring reality, unlike some other state officials I could name. He’s still wishy-washy, and in the end if this works out reasonably well I’ll believe it’s because he was more lucky than smart, but it could be worse. In this state, that’s often the best you can hope for. The Chron, the Press, the Current, the Rivard Report, and the Dallas Observer have more.

When is a strip club not a strip club?

When it’s a restaurant, with no strippers. What, did you think that was a trick question?

A week after a temporary court order allowed a Houston strip club to resume operations, a federal judge has ruled that the club’s owner must operate as just a restaurant – no dancers allowed.

Houston police raided Onyx Club just after midnight on May 1, insisting the business did not qualify to reopen under Gov. Greg Abbott’s guidelines for phased reopenings. Officers threatened to arrest owner Eric Langan, who defied orders until 4 a.m., when he shut down the club.

Langan’s business, Trumps Inc., filed a federal lawsuit calling the club a restaurant, and alleging that the police raid and closure violated his civil rights.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore granted Langan and Onyx Club a temporary injunction on May 1 that let the club resume operations, but said at a Friday hearing that the business may not offer any services that go beyond those specifically allowed in the new guidance.

“Sexually oriented businesses may only offer restaurant services and are prohibited from providing any other service,” Gilmore wrote in the ruling.

Onyx Club is allowed to reopen as a restaurant so long as it only serves food, but it’s presently defined as a “sexually oriented business,” according to the ruling.

“Because (Trumps Inc.) operates a sexually oriented business, they are prohibited from offering both restaurant services and entertainers, even if the entertainers are fully clothed,” Gilmore wrote.

See here for the background. That was from last Friday, and while the club owner says their business is doing well now, who knows how long that may last under these conditions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re now competing with a bunch of places whose primary business has always been food service. We’ll see how Onyx does without the loss of their main amenity.

One more thing, since this came up in that post:

In a case filed by a Houston strip club that wanted to reopen as a restaurant, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore of Houston said Abbott’s changing series of orders “has caused a state of confusion that rests clearly on the Governor’s doorstep.”

Gilmore ruled that Onyx Houston could open only “without additional entertainment” — in other words, no dancers, “even if the entertainers are fully clothed.”

But she went on to suggest some flaws in the state’s executive orders.

“As previously stated, the Plaintiff has failed to add the State as a party to this action to address the First Amendment and equal protection issues raised by the Governor’s orders. Nonetheless, the Court feels compelled to point out the constitutional problems raised by the Governor’s various orders.

“The fact that the governor has now apparently decided that jail time is too harsh a penalty for a violation of his orders is little comfort,” the judge wrote, “as even that action seems to have been motivated by the impact of his order on a single violator, Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther, leaving many business owners unsure, even now, if the orders would be equally applied to them.”

The story points out that the state of Texas – not just Greg Abbott, but also Ken Paxton in his role as lapdog/enforcer – has been quite inconsistent in its directives to businesses and cities, doing a complete reversal on the matter of enforcement after Shelley Luther started showboating. This pandemic has been very difficult for all levels of government to manage. It’s something we hadn’t seen before, and the various stay-at-home orders do raise a lot of questions about executive authority and competing interests and so forth, which the courts will be sorting out, in some cases for years to come. Greg Abbott and his craven response to the first sign of pushback from the seething masses that make up his Republican Party didn’t make any of this any easier.

Emerson: Trump 47, Biden 41

Next up.

The latest Emerson College/Nexstar Media polls of Texas, California, and Ohio show President Donald Trump with a slight advantage in Ohio and Texas in the general election against presumptive Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump also appears to be who voters in these states expect to win in November, as a majority expect him to secure a second term.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to deeply affect the country, Governors in all three states maintain strong approval and partisan divides are stark in individual opinions on the country’s future.

[…]

In Texas, a potential new battleground state, President Trump is at 46% approval and 44% disapproval. Republican Governor Greg Abbott has 54% approval and 32% disapproval among voters in the state. n=800, +/-3.4%.

Trump leads Biden by six points among Texas voters, 47% to 41%, but when undecided voters are included, Trump’s lead tightens to four points, 52% to 48%. Despite the close ballot test, a clear majority of voters in Texas, 61%, expect Trump to be re-elected.

A slight majority in Texas, 51%, would rather vote by mail this year because of concerns about safety related to the virus.

You can see the full poll data for Texas here. For what it’s worth, FiveThirtyEight uses the 52-48 push-the-leaner total on its Texas polling page.

There are some questions about what kind of newly reopened establishments one would feel comfortable in, if you want to read more. Texas respondents were more cautious than their Ohio counterparts, which was interesting. Note that while Greg Abbott had fairly solid approval numbers, they pale in comparison to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who checked in at 71 approve/15 disapprove – California Governor Gavin Newsom was at 65/20. Both DeWine and Newsom have been generally praised for their handling of the pandemic, while Abbott has been his usual wishy-washy self. It’s not that Abbott’s numbers are terrible, but compared to his peers, they’re weak. Make of that what you will.

Early voting gets an early start

This is a remarkably sensible thing to do.

Ahead of the first statewide election during the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott has doubled the length of the early voting period for the upcoming July primary runoff elections.

In a proclamation issued Monday, Abbott ordered early voting for the July 14 runoffs to begin June 29 instead of on July 6. He noted that sticking with the truncated early voting window that’s typical for runoff elections “would prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with the COVID-19 disaster.”

Abbott previously used his emergency powers under his statewide disaster declaration to delay the primary runoffs, which were originally slated for May, and a special election for the Austin area’s Texas Senate District 14.

[…]

“In order to ensure that elections proceed efficiently and safely when Texans go to the polls to cast a vote in person during early voting or on election day,” Abbott wrote in the proclamation, “it is necessary to increase the number of days in which polling locations will be open during the early voting period, such that election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices.”

See here for the background. Bear in mind, it is this election for which the expanded vote by mail order applies, pending the outcome of appeals. Both increasing vote by mail and extending the early voting period serves the purpose of reducing the risk of in person voting. It could be that this decision was a strategic one, designed to undercut the Democratic argument that fear of contracting coronavirus is a legitimate disability per Texas law that must be mitigated by mail ballots. The idea here would be that having a longer early voting period for this election means that the risk of being in a crowd or waiting on line to vote is sufficiently lower that no further mitigation is needed. It may also be that Abbott is responding to the wishes of Republican voters, who have so far expressed greater interest in voting in person. Or maybe, just maybe, Abbott did this because it was a smart and beneficial thing to do. Crazier things have happened. If that’s the case, maybe he’ll be amenable to allowing a longer early voting period for November as well. Be that as it may, you now have two weeks to vote early in person for the primary runoffs. It’s a good thing however it came to be.

The Hair Affair

I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this story, so to save myself a little brain power I’m going to outsource it.

Lisa Falkenberg:

Let’s be clear about something: Shelley Luther, the Dallas-area salon owner-turned-folk hero, wound up in jail this week because of her very public, very theatrical refusal to follow Abbott’s very own order.

Abbott’s executive order, which preempted local orders, delayed the reopening of salons as part of a phased-in approach to restart the Texas economy responsibly.

And like Abbott’s other orders issued during this outbreak, it specified stiff consequences for noncompliance: A fine not to exceed $1,000, up to 180 days in jail, or both.

So why, as soon as Luther’s case got widespread attention, did he begin to condemn local authorities who enforced it?

“Throwing Texans in jail who have had their businesses shut down through no fault of their own is nonsensical, and I will not allow it to happen,” Abbott said in a statement.

Allow it? Technically, he ordered it. Even Northeast Tarrant Tea Party leader Julie White McCarty saw through Abbott’s hypocrisy: “Governor Abbott gave orders putting severe limitations in place,” she wrote on Facebook. “Governor Abbott is now condemning the enforcement as if he’s innocent.”

[…]

But Luther held court for days in front of TV cameras. She didn’t just violate an order to close her salon – she tore it up. When a veteran, 65-year-old Dallas judge gave her an easy out if she’d just apologize and follow the law, she scoffed in defiance. So, he did what judges do: found her in contempt in court.

She could have taken the deal and gone home to her kids and waited until she could open legally on Friday.

Clearly, Luther and her legions of admirers had turned her into a cause. That’s why she went to jail — to draw attention to what she believes is a violation of her rights. And that’s the point of civil disobedience. While others have advanced noble causes such as suffrage and equality, Luther did it to defend her right to work even if doing so puts her workers, neighbors and customers at risk amid a deadly pandemic.

But hey, if she wants to be the hero, a rebel with a cause, the patron saint of social distancing scofflaws, she can’t play the victim, too.

Christopher Hooks:

The conflict really kicked off on April 25, at a protest in front of the Frisco City Hall calling for the reopening of shuttered businesses. Shelley Luther, the owner of Salon à la Mode, took center stage. She had gained local publicity for reopening her business in defiance of Governor Greg Abbott’s shutdown order. By way of enforcing it, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins had sent her a cease and desist order—and, as Abbott had laid out in his order, a $1,000 fine. (The governor also threatened violators with up to 180 days in jail.) In front of a cheering crowd, Luther ripped up the document. There she stood: she could do no other.

Your move, governor. On April 27, at a press conference, Abbott laid out his vision for unwinding his shutdown order. On May 1, his “phase one” would go into effect, allowing retail businesses and restaurants to partially reopen, as long as they followed certain guidelines. In mid-May, assuming things had gone well and COVID-19 infection numbers weren’t spiking, he declared that he would move Texas to “phase two” and allow more businesses to open. Hair salons, barbershops, gyms, and bars could welcome customers back in once the state had collected “two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19” after phase one, he said.

Why the different standards? Well, barbering and hairstyling involve sustained intimate contact, in an environment where customers are coming and going over the course of the day. Barbershops and salons provide a much more potent risk for viral transmission than, say, a Home Depot. And why two weeks? That’s the minimum period required to get a sense of whether the virus is in submission, according to public health experts. Though the coronavirus has a median incubation time of about five days, some of those infected don’t show symptoms until about twelve to fourteen days after infection.

Abbott got pushback from all sides. Some thought he was moving too fast while others complained that he was acting too slowly. Setting that aside, he deserves at least a little credit for the fact that unlike some governors—the fella who rules over our unfortunate brothers and sisters in Georgia, for one—Abbott at least had a plan. With dates. A 66-page manual. An order of operations. Something you could make into a flowchart. Less dangerous businesses first, more dangerous businesses later. Capiche?

[…]

Now, the question of what to do with those who violate public health directives—who put the public at risk indirectly—is a tricky one. Many liberals and conservatives now find agreement in the idea that no one should be put in jail for nonviolent crimes. The situation is trickier when, like Luther, violators are given many, many chances to conform to the law and refuse. It’s a question that we’re probably going to have to face again, as we struggle to adjust to having COVID-19 as a neighbor, and it’s going to be difficult every time.

Citizens of South Korea or Denmark may like big government telling them what to do to stay safe, but we’re America, baby, and we’re high on Alex Jones’s brain-healing powder. We’re a country that’s fighting a culture war about whether wearing masks makes you a wimp, and where men complain loudly on television that the pandemic is making it hard to buy lawn fertilizer.

It’s notable, perhaps, that Shelley Luther shows up in at least one other pandemic-related local news story in the last few months. On March 11, KHOU interviewed Luther and her boyfriend, Tim Georgeff, as they boarded a cruise ship in Galveston. Were they worried about getting on an enormous floating petri dish in the middle of a pandemic, not long after the entire Diamond Princess had been quarantined in Japan? “Well, for one, I have a real good friend who’s a doctor,” Georgeff told the reporter. “It’s really nothing more than a severe cold.”

But there’s one point that’s worth triple-underlining, and it’s the strangest part of the whole salon saga. Judge Moyé has been cast as the villain, the oppressor, whose puppetmaster is Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. It’s important to listen to Moyé’s words as he sentenced Luther. He was convicting her, he said, because of the rather sensible proposition that “the rule of law governs us … Society cannot function when one’s own belief in the concept of liberty permits you to flaunt your disdain for the rulings of elected officials,” Moyé said.

Here’s the thing. One of the “rulings” in question here is by Abbott, who, if you need reminding, is the Republican governor of Texas. Moyé, a Democrat, is defending Abbott’s prerogative in ordering business closures for public health reasons. Abbott isn’t alone in this, of course. The president, the governor of Texas, the Dallas county judge, and an assortment of both Democratic and Republican mayors in North Texas all agreed that Americans should cool it in April. This group may never agree on anything ever again, but they agreed on this. And yet the Republican officeholders are urging conservatives to train their fire on Moyé and Jenkins.

Ross Ramsey:

She’s not the only Texas beautician arrested for tending to customers during the pandemic — just the one who got the attention of the top politicians in Austin. Consider the story of two women in Laredo busted in April for offering nail and eyelash services in violation of pandemic-spurred restrictions. Ana Isabel Castro-Garcia was arrested by Laredo police after arranging to do the nails of an undercover cop posing as a customer. Brenda Stephanie Mata was arrested for a similar transgression, offering eyelash services to an undercover officer. Nails and lashes weren’t on the list of essential services under that city’s “COVID-19 Emergency Management Plan.”

Illegal grooming is hardly of interest to the average neighborhood crime watch or the FBI — whether it takes place in Laredo or in Dallas — but the law is the law.

Maybe it’s a big-city thing. State officials got after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo for a mandatory mask law that included fines for violators caught without masks in public. That furor also didn’t reach Laredo, where state officials had ignored a similar law for weeks. Maybe state officials just don’t pay attention to Laredo, or the Houston masks and the Dallas hair were just convenient attention-getting distractions for stressed-out politicians in the middle of a scary pandemic.

Whatever the case, salons can reopen in Texas on Friday to 25% of their regular capacity, freeing the state’s politicians to argue about other essentials.

Dale Hansen:

Those who blame the judge, saying it was a political stunt to put her in jail, are ignoring the real stunt here.

Luther’s GoFundMe page has raised more than half a million dollars, because it is true, there really is one born every minute. But I’m assuming she can feed her family now, and she will share her bounty with all those who can’t.

No one likes the position we’re in now. The virus has made it incredibly hard on almost all of us. But to excuse the actions of Luther, would create a society that I don’t think any of really want to live in.

[…]

We’re not in this together, we never have been. And all the sweet commercials won’t make it so.

Gov. Abbott and our other state leaders have proven again that the rule of law doesn’t matter, and court orders can be ignored as long as you are well-to-do and white.

If Shelley Luther’s beauty salon was in South Dallas the lieutenant governor would’ve never paid her fine and she’d still be in jail. And not a single one of you would be blaming the judge.

There. May Shelley Luther sink back into obscurity, and may we all remember the words of a long-ago statesman who said “We must all hang together, or we will surely hang separately.”

What if it were Ed?

The question to ask yourself in reading this story about Republicans bitching and moaning about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is “How different would things actually be if Ed Emmett were still County Judge?”

Judge Lina Hidalgo

By the time Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered residents to cover their faces in public April 22, Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties already had issued similar measures intended to blunt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Laredo’s mask rule, already 17 days old, also carried a potential $1,000 fine.

Only Hidalgo’s order drew the ire of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

He blasted the rules as an abuse of Hidalgo’s authority. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, another Republican, said potential fines of up to $1,000 for violators would lead to government tyranny. The Harris County Republican Party and business coalitions decried the order.

Gov. Greg Abbott struck down the punishments on Monday, hours after Harris County’s order went into effect.

Much like the widening national political divide over how government should manage the pandemic, criticism of the county’s response falls along familiar partisan lines. Hidalgo has sparred with Republicans — and sometimes other Democrats — over releasing inmates from the county jail, closing businesses and requiring masks in public.

The clashes often are proxy battles over Hidalgo’s vision for the county she has pushed since taking office last year, when Democrats took control of Commissioners Court for the first time in a generation.

“More or less, they’re the same fights, but magnified because of the political implications for where the state is going to go in the future,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston.

[…]

Some of the critiques lobbed at Hidalgo focus on her youth, ethnicity and gender. She often asserts herself in these situations — whether a public speaker refers to her as a girl or, as Commissioner Steve Radack has called her, “young lady” — but otherwise moves on.

Most of the criticism is not identity-based, however. Many conservatives fundamentally disagree with her expansive view of government, willingness to raise taxes and dipping into the county’s historically high cash reserves.

The two Republican county commissioners, Radack and Jack Cagle, have accused Hidalgo of ignoring her promises of transparency, failing to seriously solicit their counsel and only seeking the advice of experts who are inclined to agree with her. Commissioner Rodney Ellis, formerly the only Democrat on the court, chalked his colleagues’ complaints up to unfamiliarity with serving in the minority.

The complaints extend to her handling of the pandemic. Houston City Councilman Greg Travis, who opposed closing the rodeo and the stay-at-home order, said Hidalgo did not properly consider the economic damage the restrictions would bring.

“It’s up to leaders to listen to experts in various fields and to try to chart a course that is best,” Travis said. “We put 350,000 people out of work.”

He cited Hidalgo’s mask order, which he said was foolish because police had little capacity to enforce it, as a misstep attributable to her inexperience. Travis said if masks were so important, Hidalgo should have required them a month earlier, along with closing down public transit.

Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. I cannot take seriously anyone who thinks Judge Hidalgo should not have shut down the Rodeo – she herself thinks maybe she should have acted more quickly to shut it down – and the rest is petty nitpicking from the peanut gallery. CM Travis’ press release that criticized the Rodeo shutdown is one of those things that is Not Going To Age Well. And really, does anyone believe Ed Emmett wouldn’t have done the same thing, perhaps a bit later, perhaps even a bit sooner? We’ve wasted enough time on this.

As for the Commissioners Court complaints, Rodney Ellis is 100% right. Republicans had forty-some years in the majority. Steve Radack got to build a soap box derby park in Hockley as lord and master of his little fiefdom because he could. The county is a different place now, and they are all cordially invited to sit down and suck it up.

Finally, in regard to Dan Patrick and the rest of the nattering nabobs, again I ask what if anything do you think Ed Emmett would have done differently? Remember, Montgomery County and its extremely Trump-friendly County Judge issued a shutdown order on March 27, a mere four days after the Harris County order was issued. Harris County was a day or two behind the likes of Dallas and Bexar and Travis. The specifics of various county shutdown orders – and remember, it was counties doing this because Greg Abbott was too timid to do the potentially unpopular thing of closing businesses and schools – varied a bit from one to the other, but they were broadly the same. Restrictions on churches were controversial around the state, but only Harris County has the Steven Hotze death squad, while no one particularly cared about face mask orders until Lina Hidalgo issued one.

My point is, she’s done the things that county judges have done, more or less at the same time and in the same way as other county judges have done. But she’s young, she’s Latina, she’s bilingual, she’s not been cowed by swaggering dinosaurs like Steve Radack, and worst of all, she’s a Democrat who beat the one Republican everyone thought would survive the 2018 blue wave. (Did I mention that Dan Patrick lost Harris County by a 56-42 margin in 2018? Harris County doesn’t care what you think, Dan.) Especially for a bunch of self-styled alpha males, the level of whining these guys generate is truly impressive.

I should note, by the way, that if Ed Emmett were still County Judge he’s likely have had some rhetorical rocks thrown at him as well, in large part because the Dan Patrick faction thinks he’s a RINO squish. I just don’t think anyone would be comparing him to a children’s cartoon character. You tell me what that says about the critics and their criticisms.

Might a Democrat challenge her in 2022? Anything is possible, and as we saw this year, nobody is likely to get a free pass. Hidalgo has not been a huge fundraiser, but she’s done all right and she has time to step it up. The questions I would ask are 1) what issue that is likely to resonate with the typical Democratic primary voter would such a candidate champion, and 2) what kind of establishment support would such a candidate be likely to get? The 2022 primary will not be as big as the 2020 primary was, but if there are some compelling candidates for the top statewide offices, it will get decent turnout. For what it’s worth, from my vantage point as Democratic precinct chair, I’ve not heard much in the way of complaint about Judge Hidalgo’s performance – quite the opposite, in fact – nor am I aware of any potential candidates out there shaking the trees. Obviously, it’s ridiculously early, we’re in a moment where basically nobody is campaigning for anything, and there’s still plenty of time for things to happen. I’m just saying, if the bulk of the complaining about Hidalgo is being done by Republicans, I don’t see how that hurts her any in the next Democratic primary.

State Supreme Court is skeptical of stay-at-home orders

They’re not ready to act yet, though.

In turning down a case challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s order allowing certain Texas businesses to reopen, the Texas Supreme Court hinted Tuesday that it is sympathetic to constitutionality concerns raised by coronavirus restrictions.

The state’s highest civil court declined to take the case —spearheaded by a Dallas salon owner whose decision to open in defiance of the order prompted demonstrations and TV spots over the past few weeks — saying lower courts should first consider whether the restrictions should stand. The Texas Supreme Court is generally the “court of last resort.”

Justice James D. Blacklock wrote in the opinion Tuesday that during a public health emergency, the onus is on the government to explain why its measures are necessary and why other less restrictive measures would not adequately address the threat. District courts will need to decide how to judge whether that’s been accomplished, he wrote.

“When the present crisis began, perhaps not enough was known about the virus to second-guess the worst-case projections motivating the lockdowns,” Blacklock wrote. “As more becomes known about the threat and about the less restrictive, more targeted ways to respond to it, continued burdens on constitutional liberties may not survive judicial scrutiny.”

[…]

The businesses argue in their suit that local authorities do not have the power to close businesses or threaten fines or jail time. The suit says that local stay-at-home orders mandating closures of certain, but not all businesses, are unconstitutional. Instead the governor should have convened a special legislative session as the Texas Constitution allows in the case of a “disease threat,” it says.

Business owners across Texas “are having their legal and constitutional rights, and the constitutional rights of their businesses, continuously infringed as long as these authorities are allowed to enforce executive orders, and particularly so when the executive orders are enforced arbitrarily,” the suit states.

They are seeking a court order to block enforcement of all local orders and had hoped to skip over district courts by going straight to the state high court.

I have to say, I don’t have any particular problem with this. They were right to send this back to the lower courts, which is where the facts can and should be established. They are right that local and state government must adequately justify their actions and not go overboard. There’s certainly a case to be made that Greg Abbott is doing way too much on his own, without involving or even informing legislators of his actions. Calling a special session to get things done takes time, which isn’t always in abundance, and we are in a place where no one really knows what is the optimal thing to do so we had been fairly cautious up till now. We will hopefully have a much better idea how to react – and have a federal government that is capable of responding to events like these – the next time we have to. In the meantime, it’s good and right to have a thorough discussion about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it, and making sure the government is accountable for its decisions.

More reopening

It’s going great so far, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

How about that other coronavirus hot spot?

You know, prisons?

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federal response to coronavirus spike in Panhandle

Variations on the theme.

A federal strike force is headed to Amarillo in response to a surge of coronavirus cases tied to meatpacking plants in the area.

Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson announced on Saturday that a team of federal officials would arrive in the Texas Panhandle as soon as Sunday to help “attack” outbreaks in the plants and take over testing and investigations of people contracting the new coronavirus.

“They will bring resources and most importantly they will bring strategies that they’ve been using in other beef packing plants to slow the spread, to get control of it,” Nelson said in a video posted to her Facebook page.

The latest figures reported by the state put the number of people who have been infected in Potter County at 684, giving it an infection rate of 5.66 per 1,000 residents. That’s roughly four times higher than the infection rates in Harris and Dallas counties.

[…]

In her video update, Nelson said that community spread of the virus in the area had “started from” meatpacking plants in the area. There is also a Tyson Foods meatpacking plant in Amarillo.

Nelson shared details of a phone call with Gov. Greg Abbott during which the governor told her it was best for Amarillo residents to stay indoors. Abbott last week allowed his statewide stay-at-home order to expire and allowed for the reopening of some businesses that limit their capacity.

So, would Abbott allow Amarillo to impose (or reimpose) its own stay-at-home order if Mayor Nelson thought it was the best way to bring this outbreak under control, or nah? Asking for a friend.

We’ve talked about meat processing plants and their role in spreading coronavirus before. The story doesn’t say whether that Tyson plant in Amarillo is one of the places where the community spread of COVID-19 started, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s that once there is a hot spot in your area, whether it’s a meant processing plant or a nursing home or, you know, a prison, it’s going to affect people outside that hot spot, too. Maybe if we put a little more focus and emphasis on minimizing the risks at these places, we’d be in a better position to back off the restrictions on other places.

One good thing that may come out of all this

We may get to keep booze to go sales.

On Twitter Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott suggested to-go alcohol sales should be made available in Texas past the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas restaurants will be allowed to open for dine-in Friday under a 25 percent occupancy limit, and they’ll also be able to still offer alcohol to-go with the purchase of food. The state may be able to keep the option permanently, Abbott said in a tweet.

“Alcohol-to-go sales can continue after May 1,” the governor tweeted Tuesday night. “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let his keep going on forever.”

Some of what the governor may be hearing — or seeing — is the online chatter between residents enjoying the ability to pick up drinks to enjoy at home throughout the pandemic. The new freedom has been the source of memes, jealousy from other states and was incorporated on El Arroyo’s famed marquee signage in Austin. Long drive-thru lines at places like Taco Cabana, where frozen margaritas are $2, have also been common.

Abbott included the hashtag #txlege in the tweet for the Texas Legislature. The next legislative session begins Jan. 12.

Hooray and all that. I can’t help but think of the multi-year struggle to get beer-to-go legislation passed in the Lege, and the big money opposition to it from the cartel known as the distributors. That was a big step forward, but there remain dumb laws that impinge on craft brewers. I wish we could wave a pandemic-powered magic wand to make it all make sense, but we’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way.

How to become a coronavirus hotspot

It can happen to you, wherever you are.

Lamar County courthouse

Barely a week ago, rural Lamar County in Texas could make a pretty good argument for reopening on Friday.

Less than a dozen of the 50,000 residents of the area, which is right on the border with Oklahoma, had tested positive for the coronavirus – and none had died.

The mayor of Paris, Texas – a pit stop for drivers passing through to snap a selfie with the city’s miniaturized Eiffel Tower – had drive-thru virus testing in the works, just to give locals peace of mind. Some wore masks but many saw little reason to bother.

Then an outbreak at a nursing home turned up over the weekend, with at least 47 people at Paris Healthcare Center infected.

Now 65 people county-wide are infected and stores are second-guessing reopening as Lamar County becomes a cautionary tale of the fragility of Republican Gov Greg Abbott’s plan to get Texas back in business faster than many states.

[…]

Up until last weekend, Lamar County looked like a contender to begin to reopen under the loosest restrictions.

There had been just eight cases of coronavirus as of April 23, and six of those people had recovered.

“And then: ‘Boom,'” Paris Mayor Steve Clifford said, with the first positive case at the nursing home appeared the very next day.

“It hits us, like, right between the eyes, and all of a sudden we have this really huge, huge outbreak.”

According to The Paris News, there area fears of cross-contamination at another facility where an employee of Paris HealthCare also works.

“We are on the state’s radar now, and inspectors were at a second nursing home today,” Paris Mayor Pro Tem Paula Portugal told the newspaper.

“Austin knows our situation, and I believe they will help us with testing if we have a positive in a second nursing home.”

Now Clifford, a radiologist, worries about a second wave.

He worries about getting more testing kits, which has been a chronic problem that may have masked the true number of cases in his city from the start.

Recently, a courier drove 11 hours through the night to pick up testing kits.

Clifford had purchased 1,500 antibody tests – a big gesture for a city of 25,000 – and did a trial run of drive-thru testing April 23, in preparation for opening up for three days this week.

The nursing home outbreak scuttled those plans. One resident has died, but Clifford said if Texas doesn’t open back up soon, “every business in my city is going to go bankrupt and no one will have a job, and then there will be poverty.”

This is an Associated Press story. I saw it in the print section of the Saturday Houston Chronicle, but the only place I found it via Google News search was The Guardian, so go figure. I actually don’t intend for this to be a scare story. What happened in Lamar County could happen anywhere, but in most places it hasn’t happened, and God willing it won’t. We hate to admit such things because we all like to believe in our own virtue and fortitude, but sometimes it’s just bad luck, and this time Lamar County drew the short straw. The point of the risk mitigations we have taken against coronavirus – the shutdowns, the face masks, the social distancing, the hand washing, etc etc etc – have been about making the odds of such bad luck longer.

The parallels to what I do in real life in cybersecurity are striking. You can’t prevent all bad things from happening, but there are a lot of things you can do to make them less likely to happen, and to make them less damaging and easier to contain when they do happen. There are always tradeoffs – in IT security, they’re between stronger protections and ease of use. It’s one thing to weigh the risks when it’s your own personal safety or fortune on the line, and it’s another when the risks involve other people as well. This is why your corporate proxy server blocks certain URLs, and doesn’t let you send or receive executable files in your email.

I’m not asking you to believe that if you eat in a restaurant tomorrow you’re going to get sick and die. I am asking you to believe that your actions and decisions affect others as well as yourself, and the risks you are willing to take for yourself may impose an unbearable cost on someone else. That’s always been true – there’s a reason we have speed limits and laws about where you can legally shoot firearms, for example – but it’s a whole lot more visible to us now. I don’t know why this is so hard for some people to handle.

Well, they do serve food

Presented (mostly) without comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day One of reopening

Just a reminder, this is where we started.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Also not rushing to reopen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s restaurants:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of which

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s close on a better note:

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

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

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

[…]

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

At least someone is keeping her eye on the ball.

Ready or not, here we reopen

Who cares what the data says?

As he moves to reopen the state Friday amid the coronavirus pandemic, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has cited data and science as his guiding lights.

But Texas has yet to meet most of the benchmarks for easing restrictions set by Abbott’s most prominent outside medical adviser.

The governor is using a phased re-entry plan that seeks to balance a need to restart the economy while also preventing a second wave of the outbreak. On Monday he told Texans: “Because of your efforts, the COVID-19 infection rate has been on the decline over the past 17 days.”

While the rate of positive tests is indeed declining, the state doesn’t know the true infection rate — how many people have been infected out of all those at risk of exposure — because it has only tested about 1 percent of the population since the outbreak began.

There are still a lot of indicators the state can track. For help, Abbott has turned to medical advisers including Dr. Mark McClellan, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President George W. Bush.

McClellan — the son of former Texas comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn — directs the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University and co-authored a paper last month that laid out four prerequisites for states to meet as they reopen their economies. It has helped inform the Trump administration’s guidelines for states as the pandemic plays out.

In an interview, McClellan said Texas took effective early steps to avoid the overwhelming outbreaks that have hit New York and other states.

He also acknowledged that Texas has not met all the benchmarks he and his colleagues envisioned, and said the state will have to work hard in the coming days to boost testing and train people to track down the contacts of those infected, to slow the spread of the virus.

Here are the four goals McClellan helped outline, and where Texas stands on each.

Short answer: Of the four benchmarks, we’re missing three of them. The number of new cases is not actually declining, and hasn’t come anywhere close to declining for 14 straight days. We have less than half of the daily testing capacity Abbott required, and we have less than half of the number of contact tracers he wanted. The one metric we are meeting is on hospital capacity, and if we’re not careful or unlucky, that could get away from us as well. But hey, other than that, everything is just ducky.

I believe the interview with Dr. McClellan that the story references is this one in Texas Monthly with RG Ratcliffe. I mean look, I’m going stir-crazy too, and I want very much for our hurting businesses to get back to something sustainable for them. None of this is easy. I very much hope this will work out great and we all look back on this point in time as when the tide turned in our favor. But all that is is hope. There’s no data behind it, and no reason to believe it will go that well. And as bad as things are now for businesses, having the infection rate spike will not do anything good for them, or anyone else. I will be delighted to be proven to be a worrywart. We all better pray that I am.

Democracy Toolbox (PPP): Biden 47, Trump 46

From the inbox:

A new Texas poll shows former Vice President Joe Biden up by one percentage point over President Donald Trump and also provides insights into Texans’ concerns about voting during the COVID-19 outbreak. The poll was commissioned by Democracy Toolbox and conducted by Public Policy Polling April 27-28, yielding 1032 landline and cell phone responses, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.

When asked to choose between Democrat Joe Biden or Republican Donald Trump in the presidential contest, 47 percent responded that they would vote for Joe Biden, 46 percent for Donald Trump, and seven percent were unsure. Forty-nine percent disapprove of Trump’s job performance, and 46 percent approve. Governor Gregg Abbott fared much better, with 58 percent approving of his job performance and 30 percent disapproving.

The poll also asked a number of questions to discover how Texans are feeling about voting in the era of COVID-19, particularly voting in person, and whether the pandemic could impact their decision to participate in upcoming elections. “Thoughtful leaders are asking for universal, no-excuse voting by mail and a majority of Texans agree with them. We will see how that plays out,” said Jeff Dalton of Democracy Toolbox. “We wanted to see how voters will react if the pandemic is still a concern and the state does not lift restrictions on voting by mail.”

Seventy-eight percent of respondents indicated they were very or somewhat concerned about being around other people because of COVID-19. Sixty-three percent responded that they were very or somewhat concerned about voting in person because of the outbreak.

Those who identify as Democrats and Independents appear to be more concerned about voting in person than Republicans. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats said they were very or somewhat concerned. Sixty-four percent of Independents indicated they were very or somewhat concerned. In contrast, 14 percent of Republicans said they were very concerned, 28 percent somewhat concerned, and 58 percent said they were not too concerned or not concerned at all.

Despite worries about being in proximity with others, most voters across the political spectrum seem highly motivated to cast a ballot, even if they are only eligible to vote in person, and even if COVID-19 is still a concern. Seventy-five percent of respondents indicated that they would still participate in July runoff elections, even if they are only eligible to vote in person. Eighty-eight percent said they still plan to vote in November 2020, even if they are only eligible to vote in person.

The survey also asked people if they think Texas, for health and safety reasons, should lift restrictions on who can vote by mail. Fifty-three percent said they would like restrictions removed. Thirty-eight percent indicated they do not want restrictions removed.

You can see the questions and the crosstabs here. The sample reported voting for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 51-42 margin, which is right on the 2016 result. A couple of questions of interest: First, to the question “If the coronavirus outbreak is still a threat in November during the presidential election, and the only way you are eligible to vote is in person at a polling location, would you still plan to vote in person, or would you consider not voting this year?”, that 88% that said they would still vote in person broke down as 92% of Trump supporters (with 4% saying they wouldn’t vote and 4% saying they didn’t know), and 86% of Clinton suppoters (with 7% each saying “would not vote” and “don’t know”). Second, to the question “If you were eligible to vote by mail, what are the chances you will vote by mail because of coronavirus: will you definitely vote by mail, will you consider voting by mail, or do you think you will you still vote in person?”, 19% of Trump voters would definitely vote by mail, 17% would consider voting by mail, and 60% would still vote in person, while 69% of Clinton voters would definitely vote by mail, 18% would consider it, and 10% would still vote in person. You now have all the information you need to understand the current fight over expanded voting by mail.

Three other items of interest from the crosstabs. One is the complete lack of a gender gap in these numbers. Women and men were very similar in their approval of Trump and Abbott, their intent to vote for Biden or Trump, their support of vote by mail, their level of concern about coronavirus, and so on. Two, independents strongly disapproved of Trump (35 approve, 55 disapprove) and supported Biden (50-34), and supported expanded vote by mail (61-31). Finally, voters under the age of 65 strongly disapprove of Trump (27/59 for 18 to 29-year-olds, 43/51 for 30 to 44-year-olds, and 44/54 for 45 to 64-year-olds), and will vote for Biden (52-29, 46-45, and 53-45, respectively), while those 65 and up were exactly the reverse (62-35 approval, 59-36 voting).

Standard disclaimers: one poll, it’s early, subsamples can be weird, etc etc etc. I’ve added a Polling Texas 2020 sidebar widget to track these results. Enjoy!

Reopening roundup redux

More news about that thing that Greg Abbott is making us do.

Health experts give Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas mixed reviews, warn state should revive stay-at-home order if surge emerges:

Diana Cervantes, director of the epidemiology program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, said Monday’s announcement came too soon — and did not give businesses enough time to prepare precautionary measures before opening Friday.

“That’s a concern,” she said.

Health leaders in some Texas cities said it was too soon to relax social distancing precautions that have helped keep the coronavirus outbreak manageable in Texas. Abbott moved toward reopening about 10 days sooner than health leaders in Houston had hoped for, according to the Houston Chronicle. The governor said his order supersedes any local restrictions.

“This is too soon for us,” Mark Escott, Austin’s interim health authority, said Tuesday during a city council meeting. “As we’re still preparing contact tracing, ramping up testing, working to protect vulnerable populations, now is not the time to flip on the light switch.”

At the same meeting, Lauren Ancel Meyers, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin, shared a model she created showing that Austin could surge past its hospital capacity as soon as this summer if social distancing regulations are eased indefinitely.

In Dallas County, which marked its deadliest day on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Director Philip Huang said some area hospitals have seen increases in COVID-19 populations.

“These are the trends we’re worried about even before the governor’s order,” he said, standing in front of a screen that read “Stay Home, Stay Safe.” As businesses reopen, he said, it is all the more important that Dallas continue to socially distance, wear masks and “make smart choices.”

Health experts said Abbott must be careful in determining whether it’s safe to continue to expand business openings in coming weeks. The success of the economic reopening depends on increasing the state’s capacity for testing and contact tracing.

Moving forward to the second phase of reopening — when certain businesses could serve customers at 50% capacity — depends on the outcome of the first stage. Abbott said it is “only logical” that the restrictions he’s easing this week will cause an increase in the number of positive coronavirus cases. That alone will not be “decisive,” he said.

The governor and his advisers will look closely at hospitalization rates and death rates to decide whether it is safe to move on to phase two. But Abbott’s plan, outlined in a 65-page booklet, does not offer specific figures or thresholds.

[Luis Ostrosky-Zeichner, a professor of infectious diseases and epidemiology at UT Health] said “any sort of uptick in cases would be worrisome to me.”

A distinct lack of metrics was a concern to me as well, but what do I know?

Texas sending restaurant and retail employees back to work without child care:

Restaurant servers, retail cashiers and movie theater concession workers in Texas could be called back to work as soon as Friday, in the first phase of the state’s emergence from a coronavirus shelter-at-home order.

But parents working in those industries who have young children will be turned away from licensed child care centers, which remain open only for children of essential workers such as grocery clerks and nurses. And public and private schools across the state are closed for all students through the end of the school year.

As Republican state leaders move to re-energize the economy, already a controversial decision, they are forcing some parents into a near-impossible choice: find a place to leave your child or risk losing your source of income. Under the state’s current rules, Texans who choose not to go to work when their business reopens will no longer be eligible for unemployment payments.

“Public health needs indicate that child care operations may remain open only to serve children whose parent is considered an ‘essential’ worker under the Governor’s executive order,” said Cisco Gamez, a spokesperson for the Texas Workforce Commission, in a statement. “Just because a business is now open does not necessarily mean that it is considered ‘essential.’”

But the Texas Workforce Commission has since said in a follow-up statement that it is considering case-by-case waivers that would allow some people to continue receiving unemployment benefits even if they choose not to return to a reopened business.

“Under longstanding TWC policy, if an employer offered an individual a job and they refused the job offer without good cause the employee would not be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits,” the statement said. “Recognizing this, extraordinary situation, TWC is reevaluating good cause situations that take into consideration the governor’s direction towards reopening the economy.”

It’s almost as if the problems that had been identified for working people in good times were exacerbated in a time of crisis. No one could have seen that coming.

Montgomery County commissioners call Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas economy ‘vague’:

Gov. Greg Abbott responded to Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough late Tuesday and acknowledged his order to reopen Texas businesses on Friday needed clarification after Keough called the plan vague and said it didn’t mandate businesses such as hair and nail salons, bars and gyms remain closed.

“I actually went back and looked at the order and I can understand why he’s saying that it needs clarification. And so we will provide that clarification,” Abbott said in a Fox 26 interview regarding Keough’s comments.

Keough said he appreciated the governor’s attention in the matter but said he is standing his ground that his interpretation of Abbott’s order only says those businesses “shall” be avoided, which, he said, does not mean the businesses can’t open. He added if and when Abbott clarifies the order in writing, he will abide by its guidelines.

During the commissioners court regular meeting Tuesday morning, Keough said the county has done all it can to follow guidelines from Abbott. However, he said the opening of some businesses over others “doesn’t make sense.” After reading Abbott’s order, Keough said it does not close or keep closed any businesses.

“He doesn’t close those,” Keough said of businesses such as hair salons, barbershops, gyms and nail salons. “It says you should avoid these businesses. It is uncommonly vague what he has said and there is a measure of confusion. I am not trying to push against the governor, I am just trying to free the people who have been chosen to be the losers.

“The object here is not to go rogue on the state of Texas or the governor. The object is we have until Friday to get clarification on this. As far as we are concerned, he has not declared these (businesses) closed.”

Still waiting on that clarification. People seem to be especially agitated over the haircut issue:

As Abbott made the rounds of TV news interviews Tuesday, it was clear that his hair edict had struck a strong and disappointed chord with some Texans.

“Now governor, by far the most calls we have been getting are from barbers and hairdressers who are trying to understand why they are not in phase one of your plan,” the interviewer on KFDX in Wichita Falls asked Abbott on Tuesday afternoon. “People feel that personal grooming is essential and if proper precautions are taken, why isn’t the hair industry in phase one?”

“Well, first I agree with their sentiment 110%. And I know that fellow Texans do also,” Abbott replied. “But once again, the decisions that we made yesterday were decisions based upon recommendations by doctors, and so some doctors concluded that because of the close proximity between a barber and a customer and a hair salon and a customer, even though they’re wearing face masks, we’re still looking for best strategies.

“But it’s so important for your audience to know this,” Abbott said. “After my announcement yesterday, we began working on the issue immediately, and we are continuing to work on it and we will be looking forward to try to make an announcement really soon as we come up with safe strategies for barbers and hair salons to be able to reopen.”

I mean, my hair is approaching levels of shagginess not seen since my grad student days, but that hasn’t broken my spirit yet. My hair will still be there to be cut in a couple of weeks, you know?


Go click and read the thread, and also read this Eater story if you haven’t already.

Office space: How to keep Texas workers safe as they return:

The office refrigerator? Better take it away. The office coffee pot? Ditto. Even shared copiers and printers have become biological hazards, thanks to the spread of the coronavirus.

Workplace culture as we knew it in January is disappearing as companies prepare for the return of employees as early as Friday in Texas.

Many companies have focused on separating employee workstations so workers remain 6 feet apart to comply with government social-distancing recommendations. They’re also buying masks and gloves to prevent the virus from spreading. But what about not-so-obvious dilemmas, such as whether to station someone on each floor to help maintain distancing in office elevators. And what to do about the germ-covered door knobs on bathroom doors?

“It’s the simple things, like unfortunately and sadly, maybe eliminate the handshake,” Jason Habinsky, an employment lawyer with Haynes and Boone, told employers this week during a telephone seminar. Instead, maybe workers could point and a nod at each other, a manner that before the conoravirus pandemic might have been awkward but now makes sense.

I don’t drink coffee and I almost never generate paper, but I do bring my lunch more often than not. Guess I’ll have to plan to start bringing a cooler or something. This world we’re going to re-enter is going to be so very different from the one we left.

Reopening roundup

Judge Hidalgo adjusts to the new status that has ben imposed on us from Austin.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday announced plans to significantly expand novel coronavirus case tracing, and maintain reserve hospital capacity, to prepare for a potential virus surge as businesses reopen.

Hidalgo outlined the strategy in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision a day earlier to allow restaurants, malls, movie theaters and other businesses to reopen Friday. Harris County’s government will do its best to adjust, the county judge said.

“Frankly, I think containing this virus will be a tall order given the May 1 timeline,” Hidalgo said. “But we’re going to do everything we can, move heaven and earth to make it work.”

The county plans to recruit 300 “contact tracers” to investigate where infected people may have spread the virus and to whom. Epidemiologists will train existing county employees, volunteers and some new hires on how to track the path of a COVID-19 patient.

[…]

With a finite supply of nasal swabs, the judge warned that the county can only handle up to 100 positive cases per day. A spike would jeopardize the supply.

“If we let our foot off the gas right now, the virus will inevitably come back, and it will come back as much force, if not more force, as before,” Hidalgo said.

“For us to be safe, we need to get keep the new cases below 100 new cases a day,” she said.

I don’t know if those 300 contact tracers in Harris County are a part of the one thousand new contact tracers that Greg Abbott promised or if they are in addition to them. That would be a good question to clarify, in case Abbott meant one thing but was happy to let you believe another. In either case, we’re going to need a lot more testing. Far as I can tell, we have a lot more lip service than testing capability, at least at the state level.

Meanwhile, our local czars have their own plans.

Houston’s new recovery czar Marvin Odum says both the city and the county will eventually unveil plans for businesses in the region to reopen in a “gradual” and a “phased” approach, depending on business sectors.

Odum told Houston Public Media it’s important to first understand the risks around those various sectors returning to business

“And then making sure that we’re building — in cooperation with our medical community, and the state, and others — a monitoring program, which would involve testing strategically applied to those groups, contact tracing where necessary, and being able to bring people back to work.”

Odum says that approach is key to simultaneously getting people back to work and keeping them safe.

[…]

“Everything has to be based on data and science before we open up any businesses,” Walle said.

Odum said there will be some segments of the economy where the risks can be managed easier.

“But as you get into sectors that have more human contact — dealing with customers for example — that may require some additional tools,” Odum said.

Walle is State Rep. Armando Walle, the Harris County Recovery Czar. He will be advising Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court as Odum will be advising Mayor Turner and City Council.

And of course, various things that are now allowed to open may yet take their time in doing so. Museums, for instance:

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston isn’t ready to announce any reopening date, citing the need to establish safety precautions and to communicate with city officials.

“Our Return to Work Task Force has been actively working to determine how best to safely reopen the MFAH for our 650 staff and our visitors, but we are just now, along with many others, considering the governor’s statement,” the museum said in a statement. “We have not yet had an opportunity to connect with the mayor’s office and the county’ judge’s office to understand what the local requirements will be, as the report notes is needed.”

The Asia Society is also following a cautious path.

“We are not reopening on May 1,” an Asia Society representative said.

The Holocaust Museum Houston “might open, at the earliest, Memorial Day weekend,” said a representative who spoke with the museum’s CEO, though any opening would need “an ongoing sanitization process” to be put in place.

The Menil and the Houston Museum of Natural Science did not respond by press time. However, the Asia Society representative said all of Houston’s museums, led by the MFAH, are communicating with one another.

Movie theaters:

Movie theater chains across Texas, though, seem fairly unified in their decision-making: there’s no point in reopening early. The Plano-based Cinemark, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, and out-of-state chains like AMC and Regal (both of which operate a number of theaters across Texas) all responded to the news that they’re allowed to open as early as this weekend with a resounding, “Nah, not yet.”

There’s a good reason for that, even if theaters, like almost every business that isn’t a supermarket or home improvement store, are hurting amid the shutdown: there’s nothing to watch. Theater chains live and die by the studio release calendar, and studios haven’t released a movie since March 13, with the first new releases not scheduled to debut until mid-July. Theaters may be allowed to open, but they’d be relegated to picking from a slate of repertory releases and indie films that are being simultaneously released on video-on-demand services merely in hopes that they might be able to entice 25 percent of customers to risk contracting the virus in order to watch something they can easily see at home. And while Abbott may have issued an executive order allowing movie theaters to reopen, the ecosystem of the movie business isn’t built around what individual theaters choose to do.

Your various major releases, like Black Widow, which my 13-year-old is gonna demand to see on opening weekend, have either been released on streaming or pushed back into the late summer or fall, when everyone fervently hopes this will be much more behind us. Until then, all the theaters will have to show are oldies and maybe a few small indy films. Good luck with that.

Restaurants are more likely to be available.

No sooner than Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference on reopening the Texas economy had ended, restaurateur Michael Sambrooks was on the phone making calls to servers to come back to work.

Abbott’s announcement Monday that restaurants could reopen Friday for dine-in service at 25 percent of occupancy brings the battered restaurant industry one step closer to resuming traditional operations.

“I’m ready to get 25 percent back to work,” said Sambrooks, owner of Sambrooks Management, whose restaurants include 1751 Sea and Bar, Candente and The Pit Room. “It definitely feels like a step toward getting back to normal. It feels very hopeful to getting open and start serving people again.”

[…]

While resuming dine-in service has been something Houston restaurateurs have been anticipating, 25 percent is nowhere near normal operations, said restaurateur Benjamin Berg of Berg Hospitality.

“In any other time, if you were operating at 25 percent, you’re talking about closing your doors,” said Berg, whose restaurants include B&B Butchers & Restaurant, B.B. Lemon, B.B. Italia, The Annie Café & Bar and Turner’s. “Twenty-five percent isn’t a great business model, but it’s something.”

With the glass-half-empty perspective, that means 75 percent fewer guests; 75 percent less revenue, Berg added.

Still, on Monday he found himself busy planning how to order food, train staff and retool restaurants in hopes that some of his stores could be open on May 1.

“There’s no way we can reopen everything at the same time,” Berg said. “It would be like six grand openings again.”

But for someone like Alex Au-Yeung, who owns the 80-something seat Phat Eatery in Katy, having 19 ¾ customers — as he calculates his 25 percent occupancy — is a move toward getting back to full capacity at his Malaysian street food restaurant.

“It won’t be close to normal operations, but we’ll do what we can,” he said, adding that he also will continue curbside pickup and delivery. “I know there are people who would love to go back out to eat.”

What returning to dining out will look like and feel like will mostly be dictated by guidelines the TRA association laid out weeks ago to assure worker and customer safety as the state strives to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The TRA’s measures include health checks for employees prior to each shift; indoor and outdoor seating with safe distancing guidelines; hand sanitizer or washing stations available to customers and employees; sanitizing common areas and surfaces regularly; and sanitizing dining areas after every use. Expect to see disposable menus, waiters wearing face masks and spaced-out seating in dining rooms — many of which may be operating by reservation-only in order to control the 25 percent restriction.

On Monday the TRA emphasized that no restaurant should reopen until it is ready to do so: “Texas restaurants are experts in safety, sanitation and customer satisfaction, and we know that these values will continue to drive their decision making.”

Dallas Eater lists some good reasons why restaurants shouldn’t rush to reopen, including “Many restaurants aren’t big enough for six-foot table spacing”, “There’s no such thing as social distancing in a kitchen”, and “Servers returning to their jobs will be forced to take a serious pay cut as revenues stay low”, among others. It’s a Dallas-specific list, but I daresay it would apply anywhere else.

Look, I wish them all well, I really hope every single restaurant is able to come back from this catastrophe. I don’t think I’m ready to eat in a restaurant yet, and I’m worried these half-measures won’t do much to help them in the interim. I don’t know what the best answer is. Maybe this will work out fine. I sure hope it does. There’s just no way to know.