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Harris County

Chris Hollins sworn in

We have a County Clerk again.

Chris Hollins

Christopher Hollins on Monday became the third Harris County clerk in three years, appointed to the post after the incumbent, Diane Trautman, resigned after 17 months because of unspecified health concerns.

He has pledged to hold the job only in an interim role, avoiding the potential distraction of running a campaign this fall. Still, the 33-year-old lawyer faces a difficult task in running the July primary runoff and November general elections — the latter likely to be the highest-turnout contest in county history — during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Hollins said he grasps the scope of the challenge and is up to the task. Though he has no experience in elections administration and has never run for office, he said his background in government consulting will serve him well in his new role.

“Elections already are a really large task under normal circumstances,” he said. “And you add to that the concerns and complications that come with a global pandemic, and we have this massive undertaking ahead of us to make sure all the residents of Harris County are able to vote safely, conveniently, and with the confidence their vote is going to be counted.”

See here and here for the background. I doubt he’ll make any major changes in the short time he’ll have in the position – he’s retained Trautman’s elections staffers, which is good to hear – but I’m sure he’ll have a few ideas to implement. He also has to deal with the vote by mail issue:

Hollins said he lacks expertise in Texas election law, and will defer to the county attorney on mail voting. Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said the county will let voters choose whether they qualify for a mail ballot.

“It’s up to the voter to decide,” Ray said Monday. “We’re not going to require any proof. We’re not going to require any explanation.”

This is consistent with the State Supreme Court ruling. The federal cases may change things, but for now this is where we are. If Chris Hollins can be a steady hand on the till for the next seven months, that will be plenty. I wish him all the best of luck.

Hurricanes and pandemics

Summertime in the Gulf Coast, y’all.

Dealing with multiple disaster threats at the same time is nothing new for Francisco Sanchez.

As a 15-year emergency management veteran for Harris County, Sanchez understands the anxiety tugging at local officials wary of preparing for possible hurricanes while also dealing with the everyday reality of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sanchez also appreciates the instinct that some emergency management officials have to be as detailed as possible in anticipating all sorts of disaster scenarios when social distancing may still be recommended. But as counterintuitive as it might seem, details, he said, can be the enemy of the good when it comes to hurricane preparation.

“Whether you’ve done one disaster or dozens, you know that no plan fully survives its encounter with reality,” said Sanchez, the deputy coordinator for the Harris County Office of Emergency Management. “Develop concepts of operations that allow you to be flexible and scalable. It will allow you to cover more ground at a time where time is scarce, planning resources are scarce and response resources are scarce.”

The 2020 hurricane season, which [started] Monday, is poised to be significantly different than prior years given how the coronavirus outbreak has altered everyday life, including basic disaster planning. The stay-at-home orders that were in place prior to May 1 as well as current social distancing guidelines have forced many emergency management officials to scale back and adjust their typical hurricane season outreach.

Cities and counties that held annual town-hall meetings dispensing advice on evacuation planning and hurricane kits are now planning to do so virtually. First response agencies are adapting rescue protocols to include personal protective equipment. Medical centers and hospitals have to grapple with the possibility of having to evacuate coronavirus patients from hospitals. And residents are being advised to put together hurricane kits now so as not to inundate retail stores with large crowds in the days ahead of a storm.

“Restock that hurricane kit — now is the time to do it when we can maintain that social distancing very easily,” said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District.

As a reminder, NOAA is predicting a busy hurricane season. Indeed, there is already a tropical depression in the Gulf that could possibly develop into a big rainmaking event in our area. What we all know is that it only takes one storm to make it a bad year. Do restock your bottled water and batteries, and as always pay attention to what the folks who know what they’re talking about have to say. Unless of course that interferes with your god-given constitutional right of FREEDOM, in which case go right ahead and drive on into the storm and show us that you can’t be pushed around – well, not by anything less than 100 MPH winds, anyway. Hope that works out for you.

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.

More people are requesting mail ballots

It’s a trickle and not a flood so far, but I suspect that will change as we get closer to Novemner.

The legal status of mail-in voting for virus-related reasons has gone back and forth — earlier this month, one court gave the green light only to be overturned by another court less than 24 hours later. Nevertheless, a considerable number of voters have turned in early requests for mail ballots, a Hearst Newspapers analysis shows.

In Harris County, the number of accepted mail-in ballot requests has risen from about 2.4 percent of registered voters in 2016, or 51,451 voters, to 3.2 percent of voters, or 76,267 voters, so far this year. Most were annual applications and were not limited to a single election.

Requests from Harris County voters age 65 or older, who are guaranteed a mail-in ballot in Texas, continue to represent the vast majority of applications — more than 90 percent. Requests for ballots on the basis of a disability totaled 1,429 — 0.06 percent of registered voters, compared to 0.04 percent in 2016.

Bexar County has similarly seen a slight increase in mail-in ballot requests compared with 2016. They’ve risen from about 1.6 percent to 2.2 percent of registered voters, or 24,477 total. Voters 65 or older accounted for most of the increase.

Texas’ primary runoff is scheduled for July 14. The deadline to apply to vote by mail is July 2, some five weeks away. (Applications must be received by that date, not simply postmarked.)

Bob Stein, a Rice University political science professor who studies elections, said the initial numbers point to a significant shift toward mail balloting.

“It’s historically high,” Stein said. “For the fall, the data tells me that if the conditions today remain unchanged or worsen … the consequence is that more people will try to vote by mail, try to avoid contracting the virus by voting in person early or they won’t vote at all.

“But there’s no doubt in my mind that the share of the vote cast by mail will go up, and it will go up dramatically.”

Depending on how the courts rule, Stein said the number of mail-in ballots cast in Texas could increase anywhere from 15 to 100 percent or more in the Nov. 3 general election.

Let’s add some clarity to the math in the second and third paragraphs. First, the numbers cited for early voting are for the primaries. There were 124K absentee ballots mailed for the November 2016 election, and 120K absentee ballots mailed for November 2018. There were something like 833 mail ballots requested due to disability for the 2016 primary – we don’t know what the comparable figure for November was – which is needless to say a tiny figure in the grand scheme of things. The 1,429 disability ballots requested so far – it would be super nice to know how many have been requested for the Dem primary runoff and how many for the Republican primary runoff by the way, since this is a thing we can know – is way less than ten percent of the total mail ballots, more like 1.8%. If we take Bob Stein’s high end estimate for November, we could be looking at 250K ballot requests, with maybe up to five thousand of them being from people claiming a disability. Sure seems like a little bitty thing for the Republicans to be freaking out so much about.

Of course, we don’t have any idea how this will go. Maybe a huge number of people will request mail ballots if the federal courts ultimately rule in favor of the plaintiffs. Maybe more people than you might think prefer to vote in person, or just don’t want to try something new in such a consequential election when it’s the first time it’s been done and the chances of human error causing havoc are higher than usual. Maybe people will feel safer voting in person in November, or maybe we’ll have had a second spike and people will be even more scared of doing anything outside the house than they are now. The point I would make at this time is yes, more people are requesting mail ballots, at least in the biggest counties. The vast overwhelming majority of those making that request are people 65 and older, who have always had that legal right. Even with this increase, the mail ballot universe represents a small fraction of all registered voters – we’re talking maybe ten percent of registered voters if we assume the Bob Stein maximal figure, which in turn may be something like 15-20% of total turnout for November. Not nothing, but not earth-shattering either. Ask me again in October and maybe my answer changes, but for now it’s significant but still small, and nothing the system shouldn’t be able to handle.

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?

How about some antibody tests?

That would be good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constable Rosen tests positive for COVID-19

Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Alan Rosen

Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, his office confirmed Wednesday.

Rosen is the second local elected official known to have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Houston City Councilwoman Letitia Plummer tested positive May 11.

Rosen was confirmed positive on Saturday, five days after being tested while experiencing a mild fever, spokesman Kevin Quinn said.

The constable informed his command staff of his diagnosis but not the public because it was a personal medical matter, Quinn said. Rosen declined an interview request.

“I appreciate everyone being thoughtful and kind with their words of support,” he said in a statement. “In these times, it’s so important to wear a mask, wash your hands frequently and socially distance.”

Rosen has been working from home for 10 days, and any employee with whom he interacted before his diagnosis has been tested, Quinn said. Five Precinct 1 employees have tested positive since the outbreak began here in March.

As noted, CM Plummer tested positive earlier in the month. She hopes to be free of the virus soon, as does Constable Rosen. I wish them both the best.

State Supreme Court issues confusing ruling in vote by mail case

Let’s unpack this.

The Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus does not qualify a voter to apply for a mail-in ballot.

In the latest twist in the legal fight over voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, the court agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that the risk of contracting the virus alone does not meet the state’s qualifications for voting by mail.

“We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code,” the court wrote.

Texas voters can qualify for mail-in ballots only if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period, or are confined in jail. The Texas election code defines disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of “injuring the voter’s health.”

Though the court sided with Paxton’s interpretation of what constitutes a disability, it indicated it was up to voters to assess their own health and determine if they met the state’s definition.

“The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of ‘disability’,” the court said in its order.

The high court also rejected Paxton’s request to prevent local election officials from sending mail-in ballots to voters who were citing lack of immunity to the coronavirus as a disability. Those officials denied they were operating outside the law and argued they cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus.

When voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot. The state ultimately conceded that officials can’t reject those voters.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Let me quote the opening two paragraphs, because the main points of this ruling are right there.

Under the Texas Election Code, qualified voters are eligible to vote by mail only in five specific circumstances.1 One is if the voter has a “disability” as defined by statute.2 In this original proceeding, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and with elections upcoming in July and November, the parties ask us to determine whether a voter’s lack of immunity from the disease and concern about contracting it at a polling place is a “disability” within the meaning of the statute.3 Petitioner, the State of Texas, argues that the answer is no and seeks mandamus relief prohibiting respondents, five county clerks and election administrators (the Clerks),4 from misinforming the public to the contrary and improperly approving applications for mail-in ballots. The Clerks deny that they have misinterpreted or misapplied the law, either because the State’s position is incorrect or because they have taken no position to the contrary.

Limitations on voting by mail have long been a subject of intense political debate, in this State and throughout the country. We, of course, take no side in that debate, which we leave to legislators and others. The question before us is not whether voting by mail is better policy or worse, but what the Legislature has enacted. It is purely a question of law. Our authority and responsibility are to interpret the statutory text and give effect to the Legislature’s intent. We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a “disability” as defined by the Election Code. But the State acknowledges that election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face. The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of “disability”. Because we are confident that the Clerks and all election officials will comply with the law in good faith, we deny the State’s petition for writ of mandamus.

Emphasis mine, and I’ll get to that in a minute. There’s a discourse on the history of absentee voting in Texas, which was first allowed in 1917, and a summary of the arguments made by all the county clerks. There are three concurring opinions to the main opinion, which was written by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht. I refer you to this Twitter thread by Michael Li highlighting the key points of the majority opinion and noting the differences in the various concurrences.

So what is the practical effect of this decision? First, it basically ends the state lawsuit. While this was a writ of mandamus, and there was never a hearing on the merits of the original case, just a motion to allow voters to request mail ballots in the interim, by defining what is and isn’t a “disability”, the main legal questions have been answered. I expect the hearing in Travis County currently scheduled for after the July election will be cancelled. And of course, there are still the federal lawsuits, which are on a completely different track. This litigation was about the interpretation of state law, the federal lawsuits are about broader voting rights and age discrimination. Whatever happens there will be the ultimate answer for all this.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court’s answer more or less leaves the situation where it was before, with an important caveat. It’s still the case that a voter can request a mail ballot on the grounds of disability, and it’s still the case that their county election administrator has no means or obligation to question that. Look at that bolded sentence from the opinion. The decision to apply for a mail ballot is the voter’s. If you ask for a mail ballot and claim a disability, you will get the mail ballot. As far as that goes and as far as I as a non-lawyer can tell, nothing has changed.

Now for that caveat. The Supreme Court has made it clear what the law is, and what is – or, more to the point, is not – a disability. Your county clerk will send you a mail ballot if you ask for one, but Ken Paxton could have you arrested, or some wingnut activist like Alan Vara could file a complaint against you, if you request one because of COVID concerns. I think the risk of the former is small unless you make yourself a target, but the latter is non-trivial since who gets a mail ballot is a matter of public record. That doesn’t mean that your local DA will agree to press charges, or that they would be able to get a conviction, but who wants to deal with that? We know how vindictive the legal system can be to people charged with violations of the electoral code, especially to voters of color. I’m planning to vote in person regardless, but if I had been thinking about applying for a mail ballot, this would definitely make me reconsider. You have to decide for yourself what your risk of exposure is.

Rick Hasen, writing in Slate, summarizes the position potential absentee voters are in:

Again, this is a recipe for disaster. It will lead Paxton to publicize the argument that lack of immunity and fear of getting the disease is not a valid excuse to vote by mail, and that anyone who advises someone else to claim disability to vote by mail is engaged in a criminal conspiracy to commit voter fraud. Some voters may get in trouble because they could be accused of voting by mail while understanding that it is illegal. Only the ignorant can vote by mail without fear of prosecution, assuming they can later prove their ignorance. Meanwhile, if a voter has a serious underlying condition or comorbidity that increases the risk of serious complications—or death—from COVID-19, the ruling fails to give guidance on whether she is allowed to cite the condition in lawfully voting by-mail in order to avoid the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. This would seem to leave open the possibility for Paxton to frighten possibly qualifying voters into not voting, or to go after those who do.

That said, and as Hasen notes, there is still the federal litigation, and I expect we’ll get some action on those cases soon. By this time next week the whole thing could be flipped on its head. And of course if you are 65 or over, there is nothing stopping you from applying for a mail ballot if you want one. My advice at this point is don’t panic, don’t freak out, and for sure don’t lose hope. This isn’t over, not by a long shot. The DMN has more.

UPDATE: The following is quoted with permission from a lawyer friend of mine, who sent me a copy of the opinion and answered my questions as I was prepping this:

It doesn’t automatically end the state litigation, but for all practical purposes it does. No litigant can argue now that a lack of immunity by itself is a disability after this decision. (Technically, there are different lawsuits on file and each of them may involve some motions and litigation on just what this means.) It’s clear than Nathan Hecht considered this an important legal question that needed to be answered, and this is his way of answering the question definitively. The Court did a pretty good job of splitting the baby with an analysis that reaches the conclusion sought by Paxton, ends the litigation, and provides deniability that their analysis is partisan.

I think the most pressing question is whether voters who consider themselves disabled will be the final judge of their own condition, or whether the State has the authority to prosecute individual voters. I’ve now skimmed the opinions and notice that Jeff Boyd’s concurring opinion says: “Voters who claim to have a disability under section 82.002(a) merely because they lack immunity to COVID-19 or have a fear or concern about contracting the virus would do so in violation of the statute.”

Now we wait for what I hope will be clarity and a better outcome from the federal cases.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Have you missed having Stan Stanart to kick around?

Well then, I have good news for you.

Former Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart will run again for his old job, he confirmed Wednesday, joining two other Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for the November special election.

Incumbent clerk Diane Trautman, who defeated Stanart in 2018, announced she would resign May 31 because of undisclosed health concerns.

The Democratic and Republican parties must nominate candidates to fill the remaining two years of her term.

“I’ve got eight years’ experience, and the name ID necessary to win in November,” Stanart said in a phone call. “I’m calling precinct chairs and doing very well asking for their endorsement.”

Stanart’s announcement Wednesday was the result of a mix-up; he said he thought he was talking to a Harris County Republican Party precinct chair when a Houston Chronicle reporter called him. He said he had planned to go public with his candidacy next week.

The other Republican candidates to date are former Houston city councilman Bert Keller and former Harris County judicial candidate Michelle Fraga.

Emphasis mine. We’ve all missed that Stan Stanart touch around here, haven’t we? Not to mention the glorious headshot. I feel like he missed his calling as a spokesman for BrylCreem, but we must look forward from here.

Anyway. As the story notes, no Dems have publicly announced their interest in the nomination as yet. I expect Teneshia Hudspeth to throw her hat in the ring, but as yet I’ve heard nothing. I presume we’ll know more by the time of the next CEC meeting.

Here come the electric bikes

Cool.

Houston’s growing bike share system will jump into over-drive in the coming months, fueled by $250,000 in Harris County funds that will put 100 new electric bikes on city streets.

An amended plan by Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis approved [recently] will buy the bikes, along with additional stations in under-served communities.

The bikes — outfitted with electric motors — will be distributed and used across the entire B-Cycle system, most of which lies within Ellis’ county precinct.

[…]

With the addition of the electric bikes, Ellis’ proposal — approved [recently] by Commissioners’ Court with money from Precinct One discretionary funds — totals $842,700 and includes installation of 30 stations — half in low income areas — along with 320 bicycles.

The expansion of e-bikes will increase the number of electric bicycles in the system from five to 105.

“Five isn’t very much of a pilot,” Ellis said Wednesday. “Let’s get these in place and let’s see what usage is like then.”

Key to that use in many communities is the location of kiosks. B-Cycle, operated by a local nonprofit, allows people to check out bicycles from stations of 10 to 15 bikes across the area, mostly clustered in downtown, Midtown, Montrose and the Texas Medical Center. Riders can check out bikes and pay $3 for every 30 minutes of use or use a monthly or annual pass and receive the first 60 minutes of use free. Bikes can be checked out and returned to any of the 109 current stations, though 12 have been shut down because of the COVID-19 crisis to lower exposure in area parks.

“Even after shuttering a dozen of our highest-performing kiosks, ridership has remained strong,” said Doogie Roux, operations director for Houston B-Cycle. “We’re still seeing people make increased efforts to travel in a socially-distant, environmentally-responsible and fun way.”

All of the new stations planned are in Precinct One, though the additional bikes will be distributed and used across the system, which now totals 109 kiosks and nearly 800 bikes. The upcoming stations are part of a larger program to increase the total to 160 by next year.

You know I’m a fan of B-Cycle. Some of the kiosks close to where I live are closed for now, but I do still see folks riding around on them. I’m glad ridership hasn’t suffered too much at this time, but expanding the system, especially in the indicated areas (see the embedded map in the story) is what they should want to be doing. Keep it up, y’all.

So you want some flood bond project money?

Harris County plays a little hardball.

Harris County on Tuesday plans to restrict flood bond projects to municipalities that meet its floodplain development standards, effectively forcing the 34 cities within its borders to adopt stricter rules to access the $2.5 billion pot.

The policy change is meant to protect the county’s largest-ever investment in flood control infrastructure and create uniformity in building rules, following the principle that cities should not permit development than can worsen flooding for their neighbors.

“The goal isn’t to punish anybody,” County Engineer John Blount said. “It’s to announce, ‘Hey, these are the minimum standards we think you should enforce.’”

By the end of this year, cities must set minimum detention rules for new development, prohibit builders from filling in the 500-year floodplain and base standards on the newest rainfall rates, among other requirements.

Many, including the city of Houston, already have updated their rules. County floodplain experts are available to help the remaining cities do so, Blount said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said forcing small cities to improve their standards helps them avoid conflict with developers who may oppose the changes. Harris County already haggled with the building community over upgrading its own rules last year.

“This gives them the opportunity to point to us and say, “Look, it’s the county that’s making us do this,’” Hidalgo said. “Hopefully, this will take some of the politics out of that.”

You can look at it that way, as Harris County helping the small cities help themselves by playing the heavy with the developers. You can also look at it as the county protecting its own legitimate interests by not wasting money on projects that will be undermined by lax standards, and you can look at it as the county using its financial might to enforce a rigid standards on smaller and more local government entities. It’s the local control fight in another context, and there’s more than one way to view it. I think the county is correct on the merits, and I’m not even sure there is a good counter-argument to their position in this case. But since local control and the heavy hand of the state government – quite a recent development there, as we know – is a regular topic here, I thought it was worth pondering this initiative from that angle.

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.

Are we headed towards a coronavirus spike?

One set of researchers thinks we may be.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Another profile of Judge Hidalgo

It’s good, and she deserves the attention she’s getting, but there’s something about this that bugs me a little, and I’m trying to put my finger on it.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

On March 1, before Harris County reported its first confirmed case of the coronavirus but as the disease was already infiltrating America’s biggest cities, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo made a call to ground zero.

It was Dow Constantine, her counterpart in Washington state’s King County, who picked up. At the time, he was responding to what was believed to be the first coronavirus death in the United States.

Hidalgo believed Texas had the benefit of precious time, and she wanted Constantine’s advice to make sure she didn’t squander it. What did he wish he had known two weeks ago? How could Washington have been more prepared?

“I sat down with my team and said, ‘Guys, this is coming.’ It’s a bit like a hurricane in that we see it coming, but with this one we had more time,” Hidalgo said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “There was no excuse to be caught flat-footed.” (Constantine told the Tribune that Hidalgo was the only county official who took the initiative to reach out for advice in the early days of the crisis.)

Harris County, the state’s largest, leads Texas in coronavirus cases and deaths, but the area has largely avoided the fates of the hardest-hit regions like Washington state, New York and Louisiana, where a surge of patients overwhelmed hospital systems. While the daily number of new cases reported in Texas continues to climb, the Houston area’s numbers have plateaued at a number far below their peak last month. The result is that Hidalgo, a first-term political figure, has been thrust into the spotlight.

Hidalgo, who took office in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, came into the job knowing she would have to prepare for disasters. “This is a huge county, and when you have landmass the size of Rhode Island and around 5 million people, things are bound to happen,” she said.

What she was not prepared for was the acrid backlash that would follow.

It goes from there, and it’s a good recap of what has happened so far and who (Republicans) has been vocally (and often insultingly) critical of Hidalgo, along with some biography that we should be reasonably familiar with by now. Like I said, there’s something about this that nags at me, and I have a hard time pinning it down. Part of me wishes that the main loudmouth critics in this story, like State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, would be made to answer just exactly what they would have done in her position. That can be satisfying to consider, but in reality they’d just come up with their own alternate history where everything they did turned out even better, and that accomplishes nothing. We can run a gazillion simulations of the pandemic based on whatever conditions we want to apply, but we only get to live it once, and we can never say for sure what might have been.

Perhaps another way to do this kind of story is to ignore the political critics and focus instead on the people who are front and center at dealing with the pandemic and its effects, and get their view on how various decisions and policies have helped or hindered them. The problem there is that people often don’t know or can’t isolate a particular action taken by one branch of government, and so what you get is a mix of their own interpretations and competing factors. How exactly do you distinguish between the feds, the state, and the locals have done if you’re a critical care doctor or nurse, or a grocery story employee? So I don’t know what that accomplishes, either.

So I don’t know that there’s a better way to tell this story than what we have here, which perhaps frustrates a close observer like myself but is more useful to someone who doesn’t spend as much time on this kind of minutia. I at least can always talk to my fellow nerds and get the unreported gossip, which is as much what I want as anything else. What do you want from stories like this?

Fifth Circuit flips the switch

It’s what they do.

A federal appeals court has temporarily put on hold a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday blocked a preliminary injunction issued just a day before by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery. The move could prove to be a temporary win for the state. The appellate panel granted what’s known as an administrative stay, which only stops Biery’s ruling from taking effect while the court considers if it will issue an injunction nullifying it during the entire appeals process.

Also on Wednesday afternoon, Paxton’s office tried to convince the Texas Supreme Court to issue an order blocking local election officials in Texas from facilitating efforts by voters obtain absentee ballots if they fear getting sick from voting in person. The court did not issue a ruling, but it grappled with the question of who gets to decide if a voter has a disability under Texas election law.

[…]

In issuing the preliminary injunction, Biery cited the irreparable harm voters would face if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remained in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. In his request to the 5th Circuit, Paxton argued that Biery’s injunction threatened “irreparable injury” to the state “by injecting substantial confusion into the Texas voting process mere days before ballots are distributed and weeks before runoff elections.”

The appeals court ordered the Democrats to file a response to the state’s request to block the ruling by Thursday afternoon.

See here for the background. I mean, this was to be expected, so let’s move on to the other thing that happened yesterday, also from this story.

In a virtual hearing Wednesday, the justices’ interrogations of Paxton’s lawyer and those representing the counties returned frequently to a gaping hole in Paxton’s request — when voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot.

Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins conceded to the court that officials cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus. Hawkins said the state was only arguing for applications to be rejected if a voter wrote in extraneous information on their application that indicated they feared infection but were “otherwise healthy.”

Local election officials can reject an application if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disabilities. They argued as much in briefs filed to the court ahead of the hearing.

“These officials move the Court to mandamus local election officials to do something the Legislature has never required of them: police voter disability claims for mail in balloting,” El Paso County argued in its brief.

Conducting an inquiry into individual voters’ reasons for checking the disability box could violate both state and federal law, Cameron County officials argued in their brief. In its brief, Dallas County argued Paxton’s request would force election administrators to look “behind the claimed disability in each case” or require a voter to include information the nature of their disability in their applications — both of which would go beyond the Texas Election Code.

Still, the solicitor general asked the court to order election officials to abide by the state’s direction that fear of the virus or lack of immunity to the virus cannot constitute a disability under the election code, and they cannot encourage voters to request a mail-in ballot on that basis.

Barbara Nichols, an attorney representing Dallas County, argued it was unnecessary for the Supreme Court to order anything of the county’s election administrator because she had not indicated she would go beyond existing laws for voting by mail.

“As we sit here right now, your honor, the election administrator has not take any action whatsoever in which to justify the exercise of jurisdiction over her,” Nichols said. “And the state cannot point to any such evidence in the record.”

See here for the previous update. Harris County was also a respondent in this hearing – I have a copy of their brief here. I mean, the law here is pretty clear, so much so that even the Solicitor General had to admit it. The question is, what will the Supreme Court do about it? I will note that this is a writ of mandamus, not an appellate action, so they could just swat it away and let the lower courts do their thing before they weigh in. Remember, the state lawsuit hasn’t even been heard yet, we’ve just had a ruling on the motion to allow people to apply for mail ballots while the litigation is in progress. Just take a pass, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll see what they say. The Chron and the Signal have more.

Meet your new County Clerk

Hello, Chris Hollins.

Chris Hollins

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday appointed an attorney and Texas Democratic Party official as interim county clerk.

Christopher Hollins, vice finance chairman for the state party, will serve until a new clerk can be elected in November. Incumbent Diane Trautman, who was elected in 2018, announced May 9 she would step down because of health issues.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines to approve Hollins. Five public speakers urged court members to choose Teneshia Hudspeth, Trautman’s chief deputy. County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said Hollins’ pledge to serve only on an interim basis factored in their decision.

Hollins was selected after 10 p.m., more than 12 hours after Commissioners Court convened, and was unavailable for comment.

He previously worked as a senior manager at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and intern at Goldman Sachs and the White House Office of Presidential Personnel during the Obama administration, according to his personal website. He has never held elected office.

See here for the background. You can find Hollins’ Twitter here and his bio here. He released a statement later last night here, and the County Clerk’s office released one here. From skimming Facebook, the folks I read seem to be positive about him and his appointment. Clearly, the Commissioners wanted the Clerk to focus entirely on running the election and not running for their own election. That is certainly a reasonable position to take, and it means that we precinct chairs will get to pick a candidate of our choice. Fine by me.

Also mentioned in the story was Commissioner Ellis’ proposal about an appointed elections administrator, which was discussed but no action was taken. I saw somewhere that the Harris County Republican Party Chair was opposed to the idea, which is his right. My guess is that this is the end of it, but you never know. Campos, Stace, and The Texas Signal have more.

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.

Could we get an elections administrator along with a new County Clerk?

Maybe.

Diane Trautman

A week after Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman announced she would resign due to health concerns, Commissioners Court on Tuesday plans to debate whether to appoint an independent administrator to run county elections.

After Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis inquired about how to do so, the County Attorney’s office prepared a four-page memorandum last week detailing how to switch to an elections administrator, which most major counties in Texas have done.

Ellis said partisan elections administration can unfairly inject politics into what is supposed to be an apolitical process.

“In more extreme cases, the politicization of decisions may paralyze the entire process,” Ellis said in a statement.

The move would put a single office in charge of running elections and managing the voter roll, both gargantuan tasks in the state’s largest county, which has 4.7 million residents. Voter registration is currently the responsibility of the tax assessor-collector, owing to the office’s historic role collecting poll taxes. The county clerk’s office administers elections.

The nonpartisan model is successful because a centralized elections department can more efficiently update voting infrastructure, like machines and poll books, based on changes to the roll, said Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón.

“I don’t care how perfect our elections are running, how the machines and everyone is trained — if my voter registration data base is not up to date… then we’re not as good as we should be,” said Ramón, who also is president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

The position of elections administrator is created by Commissioners Court.

A majority of the county election commission, comprised of the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties, is needed to select an elections administrator.

See here for the background. Then-Judge Ed Emmett floated the idea back in May of 2010, at a time when then-Clerk Beverly Kaufman was known to be retiring and then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez had lost in the Republican primary. It was approved for a study that June, then fell off the radar before a brief revival in 2012. One of the concerns I had at the time was how do you remove an Elections Administrator if one proves to be not up to the task. The answer to that question, at least as articulated in that last link, appears to be “with a four-fifths majority of the election commission”, which concerns me as anything that requires a supermajority does. I’m open to the idea – you can read my thoughts about it from back then at those links – and if we go forward with it I would still want someone who fits my criteria for a County Clerk that has those same responsibilities. So for, no one other than Ellis has spoken in favor of this, but he just announced the idea over the weekend, so it’s early days. As the story notes, only Harris and Travis Counties don’t have an elections administrator, at least among the big counties, so we’d be joining the crowd if we do this. If there’s any future to this idea we’ll find out at today’s Commissioners Court meeting.

More runoff debates

In case you had not seen this, as I myself had not before Sunday.

Watch Democratic Candidate Debates Here!

Every Tuesday and Thursday in May, join us for our debate series:

Debate Schedule:
Tuesday, May 5 – Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner
Thursday, May 7 – Texas State House District 138
Tuesday, May 12 – Texas State House District 142
Thursday, May 14 – Texas State House District 148
Tuesday, May 19 – US Congressional District 10
Thursday, May 21 – Texas State Board of Education Position 6
Tuesday, May 26 – Texas Railroad Commission
Thursday, May 28 – United States Senate

Video of past debates are on the page, so for example if you want to hear Anna Eastman and Penny Shaw, go here. In some cases, one of the candidates in the runoff has declined or not responded, but in most cases you can hear both candidates. Early voting begins June 29, so remind yourself of who’s on your ballot and start making up your mind.

Arguments due this week in Astros sign stealing lawsuits

Here we go.

Did not age well

Attorneys will submit written arguments May 25 to a Harris County judge in the Astros’ attempt to dismiss a consolidated lawsuit filed by season ticket holders upset by the 2017-18 electronic sign-stealing scandal.

State District Judge Robert Schaffer is overseeing the case, which combines three earlier lawsuits accusing the Astros of fraud and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

A hearing to dismiss normally would be held in person but will be conducted in writing because courthouse access is limited by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The consolidated suit, which was updated earlier this month, expands a proposed class of Astros season ticket holders suing the team to include full and partial season ticket-holders from 2016 through 2020.

It also adds three plaintiffs as prospective representatives for the requested class action.

One represents 2016 ticket holders. A second, the engineering and construction management firm CHA Consulting, would represent Diamond Club customers.

A third, Houston resident Donald Rao, represents 2020 season ticket holders who are seeking refunds from the ballclub for games that are not expected to be played this season because of the Major League Baseball shutdown.

See here for the previous update. With the DraftKings lawsuit tossed, there’s this one and the California lawsuit, which the Astros want either to be dismissed or moved to Texas.

Supreme Court sticks its nose in

I suppose this was to be expected.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday temporarily put on hold an expansion of voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Supreme Court blocked a state appeals court decision that allowed voters who lack immunity to the virus to qualify for absentee ballots by citing a disability. That appellate decision upheld a lower court’s order that would have allowed more people to qualify to vote by mail. The state’s Supreme Court has not weighed the merits of the case.

It’s the latest in an ongoing legal squabble that in the last three days has resulted in daily changes to who can qualify for a ballot they can fill out at home and mail in.

Federal and state courts are considering legal challenges to the state’s rules for voting by mail as Democrats and voting rights groups ask courts to clarify whether lack of immunity to the coronavirus is a valid reason for people to request absentee ballots. A resolution to that question is gaining more urgency every day as the state approaches the July primary runoff elections.

[…]

The court also set oral arguments for May 20 on Paxton’s request for it to weigh in on whether the appeals court erred and abused its discretion when it allowed Sulak’s order to go into effect.

See here and here for the background. I just want to remind everyone, early voting for the July primary runoffs begins on June 29, and mail ballots are already being sent to voters who requested them. People are going to have to start making decisions about how they’re going to vote. And whatever the state courts ultimately say, there are those federal lawsuits out there as well. This is going to be a whirlwind of uncertainty for some time. The Chron has more.

Appeals court upholds vote by mail order

Second round goes to the plaintiffs.

A state appeals court upheld a temporary order Thursday from a state district judge that could greatly expand the number of voters who qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, rebuffing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to have the ruling put on hold while he appeals it.

In a 2-1 split along party lines, a panel of the 14th Court of Appeals of Texas said it would let stand state District Judge Tim Sulak’s ruling from last month that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under state election law and is a legally valid reason for voters to request absentee ballots. Paxton has been fighting that ruling and had argued that his pending appeal meant the lower court’s ruling was not in effect.

[…]

“Eligible voters can vote by mail during this pandemic,” Chad Dunn, the Texas Democratic Party’s general counsel, said in a statement Thursday. “It is time for a few state officers to stop trying to force people to expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to vote.”

In response to the appeals court’s ruling, a spokesperson for Paxton said his office will “look forward to the Texas Supreme Court resolving this issue.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the court’s order is here, and of the dissent is here. If you believed that Paxton went to the Supreme Court even before the 14th Court ruled on this motion for the purpose of gaining political advantage, the 2-1 partisan split in this ruling is not going to dissuade you. The Supreme Court’s gonna do what the Supreme Court’s gonna do, but that seems to me to not be a great sign. Sorry to be a party pooper, but it’s hard to miss the symbolism of that. The Chron has more.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, they have requested a response from the counties named in Paxton’s writ of mandamus no later than 4 PM on Monday the 18th. I don’t think we’ll have to wait much longer to hear from them.

I should note that despite my pessimism in that first paragraph, there are some Republicans who are fine with pushing mail ballots to anyone who wants them. Like Kathaleen Wall, for example:

[Wall] has sent out mailers in recent weeks telling voters they have the “green light” to vote by mail and that the secretary of state has cleared them to do so if they are worried about contracting or spreading the virus by voting in person.

[…]

The controversy in the 22nd District has caught the attention of state officials. The secretary of state’s office says it “has been made aware of the mailings that have been sent out and have been in touch with representatives of the Wall campaign.”

“We have informed them that certain statements attributed to the Secretary of State’s office are categorically false, instructed them to update voters who have already been contacted, and to immediately cease further distribution,” a spokesman for the office, Stephen Chang, said in a statement.

Wall’s campaign says she is doing her best to keep voters up to date on the fast-changing developments around voting by mail, pointing to posts on her website and social media that have come in addition to the mailers. In a statement, the candidate defended sending out the vote-by-mail applications.

“I’ve distributed over 60,000 face masks to first responders and businesses in CD22 to make sure they have the tools they need to stay safe,” Wall said. “Sending out ballot by mail applications is the same thing. I’m making sure voters know they have options if they want to exercise it and meet the qualifications.”

However, Wall’s questionable vote-by-mail efforts go back to mid-April, when she sent out a mailer with the state seal telling the voters that they had received the “green light” to vote by mail and that their applications would be arriving soon. (Federal candidates are exempted from state law that prohibits the use of the state seal in political advertising.) The mailer also said, “Recently, the Texas Secretary of State ruled that voters’ concerns over contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus and endangering their health by visiting a public polling place meet the election law requirements to be deemed eligible to vote absentee.”

Wall’s campaign used the same language in the subsequent mailer with the application, which featured the “Disability” box pre-checked.

As the story notes, that’s not exactly what the SOS said in that advisory, and indeed this is basically the Democratic plaintiffs’ position in the nine million current lawsuits that have been filed on the topic. Kathaleen Wall is an idiot who maybe doesn’t fully grasp the politics here. Or who knows, maybe this is a sincere statement of her beliefs, in which case all I can say is welcome aboard. I will admit, it’s still a little weird to me that this has become such a partisan issue, since one would think there are plenty of Republican voters who aren’t over 65 that might like to have this option as well. But here we are anyway, and now we have Kathaleen Wall on our side. Hooray?

Paxton tries a Supreme shortcut

They sure are keeping busy.

In a bit of judicial leapfrog, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on his interpretation of how voters can qualify for absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Various lawsuits are pending over whether eligibility for mail-in ballots can be expanded to voters who risk contracting the virus by voting in person. Paxton believes it can’t, and Wednesday asked the state’s highest civil court to issue a relatively rare writ of mandamus preventing local election officials from doing so.

In a motion filed Wednesday, the Republican attorney general asked the Texas Supreme Court to order election officials in some of the biggest, largely Democratic counties in the state to follow his reading of existing eligibility requirements for absentee voting, arguing the court must step in quickly because those county officials intend to apply an “incorrect reading” of state law.

[…]

The election officials Paxton is targeting — county clerks or election administrators in Harris, Dallas, Travis, El Paso and Cameron counties — have generally indicated they will process mail-in ballots that cite a disability in accordance with the law and court rulings.

In his filing, Paxton argued that county election officials are refusing “to discharge” their duty to reject applications to vote by mail from voters who don’t qualify under the state’s existing eligibility criteria.

“They have instead determined that the coronavirus pandemic allows them to unilaterally expand the Legislature’s determination of who is eligible to vote by mail,” Paxton wrote. “To the local election officials of Travis, Harris, Cameron, Dallas, and El Paso Counties —all Respondents here —a ‘disability’ does not mean a ‘sickness or physical condition.’ Instead, it means a generalized fear common to all voters of contracting disease.”

It’s unclear how election officials would be able to reject applications from voters who use the disability category of eligibility as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Voters who cite a disability to receive a mail-in don’t have to provide any information beyond checking a box on the application form. Election officials can reject applications if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disability.

Paxton argued the election officials’ actions were “not only unlawful; they are also unnecessary” because the state is already making changes to the voting process during the pandemic. Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott doubled the early voting period for the July 14 primary runoff.

This is of course in reference to the state lawsuit. As we know, Paxton had previously threatened county election officials who might be accommodating to people requesting mail ballots on the grounds that the original ruling only applied to Travis County and was stayed pending appeal. The TDP, the plaintiffs in the suit, filed a motion with the Third Court of Appeals opposing Paxton’s actions. I should note that this case has been transferred to the 14th Court of Appeals, which includes Harris County. The Trib story about the complaint filed against Paxton in Dallas County contains a reference to this. Here’s a copy of the briefing schedule for the 14th Court of Appeals, which looks to be set for a ruling in mid-June. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t take this out of their hands.

This is basically Paxton getting a second bite at the apple. It’s a writ of mandamus – you may remember, the thing that they acted on in 2015 when they ordered the city of Houston to allow the anti-HERO referendum to go forward – and not an appeal, since the appeals court hasn’t been heard from yet. They don’t have to do anything with this, they could just let the appellate court do its job. As the story notes, there’s no way for clerks to vet or verify anyone’s disability claim. I suppose either court could order clerks to shut up and not tell people that they have the right to ask for a mail ballot if they have a disability. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, but the law can be a funny thing. And of course, there are all those federal suits, over which the State Supreme Court has no jurisdiction. So who knows? I don’t know what else to say, we’ll just have to wait and see what they do. The Chron has more.

On picking a new County Clerk

Stace has some thoughts.

Diane Trautman

I’m of the opinion that the Democratic majority on the Commissioner’s Court should make a strong appointment of someone who will be the incumbent, making it clear that there is no need for a possible free-for-all at the precinct chair level.

We elected our County Judge and our Commissioners, while most of us cannot even find a link on the Party website to find our own precinct chair so that we can lobby for whom we want them to vote. Either process is hardly democratic as the voters are left out of the process. I’d rather go with whom our top leaders choose and have the precinct chairs basically ratify it so we can move forward. Wishful thinking? Maybe.

Some may opine that appointing as interim one of the professionals already in the County Clerk’s office to run the 2020 election and be a placeholder while allowing a candidate chosen by the precinct chairs to run full-time is the solution. And that’s a good argument. But I think we should have a candidate who can show that they can do the professional and the political work, simultaneously. I think it’s more of a confidence builder for us voters when we see that our candidates can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Either way, we’ll see what happens. I already see suggestions on my Facebook feeds about who should run and about diversity on the ballot. There’s nothing wrong with healthy debate, but these things can take a turn for the ugly real quick. And that’s another reason why I’d like to see the Judge and Commissioners lead on this one.

See here for the background. As a precinct chair who will be among those lucky duckies that gets to put a nominee on the ballot for 2020, let me say that I agree with Stace’s position that we should want a candidate who “can do the professional and the political work, simultaneously”. I hope to have a better feel for this once people start throwing their hats into the ring, but I agree that a Clerk who can plan for and run an election well and who is also able to tell Ken Paxton to get stuffed while giving clear direction on these matters to the Court, the County Attorney, and the government relations crew at the county, is someone I want to see in that job.

How we get there is of less importance. If Commissioners Court – specifically, Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Ellis, and Commissioner Garcia; I don’t expect either of the other two to provide any productive input but will hear it out if they do – says that they just want someone who can carry out the necessary electoral duties for 2020 and leave the politics up to the political people, that’s fine by me. If instead they make a strong statement about wanting the same kind of qualities as discussed here in the next Clerk and appoint someone they believe embodies those qualities, I will be more than happy to endorse that selection for the November ballot, if I agree that they got it right. I’m happy to be led by them on this matter, as long as they do lead us in the right direction. I reserve the right as part of the body that makes this selection to maintain my own counsel.

To be sure, this kind of process can get ugly in a hurry. This may be the best chance any Democrat has to win one of these offices now that there are no more Republicans to oust and we have to fight among ourselves to win. Having the Democratic members of Commissioners Court come out in unison behind a well-qualified candidate that they would like to continue working with after this November would make this a lot easier. We’ll see what they decide to do.

Meanwhile, Campos has one piece of advice:

The Commissioners Court will pick an interim County Clerk and sometime this summer the Harris County Democratic Party Executive Committee will select a nominee to place on the November ballot. The Commissioners aren’t going to listen to Commentary, but I hope they pick a female. If they pick a male and the male ends up getting the Executive Committee’s nod, he will win this November but get knocked off in the 2022 Democratic Party Primary by a female sure enough. Dudes need not apply.

For sure, that can happen. I will just say, 2022 will be its own election, with a different context and likely smaller turnout due to the lack of a Presidential race. It’s certainly possible that the robust candidate we hope to pick this year will get knocked off in 2022 by someone no one has heard of today. I will just say that we are not completely powerless to prevent such an outcome – I’ve been talking about the need to do a better job of promoting quality candidates at the statewide level for a couple of cycles now, following recent debacles in various downballot low-profile primaries. The same prescription holds true here, with a combination of financial support to allow a visible campaign and visible support from the elected leaders who have as much of a vested interest in having the best person possible to run elections as the rest of us do. Pick the best possible person, then support that person going forward. It’s not that complicated.

Those are my thoughts at this time. Feel free to tell me whose name you are hearing for the job and how you think I should approach this when the precinct chairs get together (virtually, I assume) to formalize it.

What the next CARES act could mean for Texas cities and counties

Short answer, a lot.

Cities and counties across Texas would get more than $29 billion from the $3 trillion coronavirus relief package House Democrats want to pass as soon as Friday.

That includes more than $1.7 billion to Houston and nearly $1 billion to San Antonio as both cities stare down massive budget holes caused by the outbreak. Harris County’s funding could top $2.6 billion and Bexar could be on tap for more than $1 billion, as well. Texas, meanwhile, could get nearly $35.5 billion from a separate pool of funding to aid states.

That’s all according to estimates compiled by the Congressional Research Service, Congress’ public policy institute. The estimates, which cover the rest of 2020 and 2021, are based on some factors not yet known, such as unemployment and infection rates, so they’re not exact.

[…]

At the top of the Democrats’ list is sending $875 billion to states, cities and counties to help plug huge budget deficits. Cities can’t use the aid that Congress has offered so far to close those budget holes and cities across the country, including Houston and San Antonio, are starting to lay off employees and cut programs.

The bill would also for the first time offer coronavirus relief aide to smaller cities, as past relief packages have only directed funding to cities with 500,000 or more residents, meaning suburbs could get tens of millions. New Braunfels, for instance, could get nearly $30 million. Sugar Land could get more than $58.5 million.

There’s a list of cities and counties in Texas and the amounts they would get here. As noted, it’s broken out over two years, so Houston would get $1.18 billion this year and $580 million next year, while Harris County would get $1.76 billion this year and $881 million next year. That’s way more than the current Houston budget gap, so I presume a lot of that money is intended for other purposes as well, such as perhaps rental assistance and maybe rebuilding public health infrastructure. The main point here is that this is a demonstration that someone has learned the lesson from 2009, which is that massive cuts and layoffs in city and state budgets is a huge drag on any economic recovery effort. (That someone is the Democrats, though for at least a few minutes the Republicans have decided that they need to take whatever steps they have to in order to keep the economy from completely collapsing on Trump.) I don’t know what a final version of this might look like – there are certainly things the Dems could concede on – but if something like this passes and cities and counties and states can “balance” their budgets without taking a chainsaw to them, it would be a bug freaking deal. Daily Kos has more.

Council goes virtual

About time.

CM Letitia Plummer

Houston City Council will go virtual beginning next week, Mayor Turner said Tuesday, a day after one of its 16 members tested positive for COVID-19.

Turner said the switch to virtual meetings would continue for at least two weeks. All visitors to City Hall will have to wear face coverings and, eventually, there will be temperature checks at entrances, the mayor said.

Councilmember Letitia Plummer tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. She said she started experiencing symptoms last Thursday, a day after the most recent council meeting. Plummer is quarantining and recovering at home, and at least one other member has entered quarantine as a precaution.

The council has continued to meet in person at City Hall each week, though members generally are spread out around the dais, at the press tables, sometimes even in the audience seats. Most wear masks, but they frequently are in close proximity to one another.

Other governmental bodies have been meeting virtually for weeks. Harris County Commissioners Court has been conducting its lengthy meetings online for two months.

See here for the background. I’d be very interested to know which Council member is voluntarily self-quarantining. Be that as it may, I guess I hadn’t realized that Council had been continuing to meet in person up till now. I don’t know what the thinking behind that was, but it wasn’t a great idea, if only because they should have set a better example. Better late than never, but this really wasn’t a good look.

A poll of poll workers

A bit of good news, and a bit of a warning, here.

Harris County poll workers seem willing to participate in this fall’s presidential election, even amid the pandemic, but voters are more reluctant, according to results from a recent Rice University survey.

Poll workers here — regardless of party affiliation — were game to show up if conditions are safe enough. However, registered voters across the political spectrum were more reluctant about in-person voting even with safeguards in place, according to a Rice University study conducted between March 27 and May 4.

“What was surprising to us was how many poll workers were committed to working the polls with the caveat that they wanted protective gear, Plexiglass screens and Q-tips (to cast votes on machines). They wanted to do in-person voting with protection,” said Bob Stein, a political science professor who ran the survey funded by Rice’s COVID-19 Initiative with colleagues from the university’s psychology, anthropology and computer science departments.

[…]

Nearly 80 percent of poll workers said they were likely to help out in November at sites that observed social distancing guidelines and provided personal protective equipment. Poll staffers were were less enthusiastic about outdoor or drive-thru voting scenarios, according to the Rice findings. Many election workers said they relied on the seasonal income.

Voters’ responses lined up more predictably based on their age, party and gender. Democrats, women and people over 65 opted for potential remote voting — drive-thru, drop-off, mail-in or online options. Republicans, men and voters under under 65 were more willing to cast ballots in person.

More than 30 percent of Democrats said were unlikely to vote in person with nothing but social distancing to protect them, versus 9 percent of Republicans. A fourth of women voters were reluctant to vote in person, compared to 14 percent of men. Among voters over 65, who are at greater risk if exposed to the virus, 27 percent said they probably wouldn’t vote even with protections in place; whereas, 18 percent of voters under 65 said they were averse to voting under those circumstances.

You can see a copy of the poll report here. As the story notes, the Harris County Clerk is already gearing up for more mail ballots and other protective measures for the July and November elections. The challenge may be a little greater now with the forthcoming resignation of County Clerk Diane Trautman, but that shouldn’t complicate things too much. Given the concerns about poll workers, most of whom are over 60, I’m pleasantly surprised to see their willingness to work this election. That says a lot both about their dedication, and their faith that the county will do a good job of making their job as safe as possible.

The partisan split in willingness to vote in person is a bit alarming, but let’s keep three things in mind. One is that the last picture everyone has of voting is the fiasco in Wisconsin, which I daresay has people justifiably spooked. I feel reasonably confident that election officials in the state do not want their county to be the poster child for that kind of experience in November, so I have faith there will be plenty done to ameliorate the concerns. I hope that the July primary runoffs will help alleviate some worry as well. Two, that cohort of people who are most reluctant about voting in person are the people who absolutely and without question already have the right to vote by mail, and that’s the voters who are 65 or older. The HCDP has been quite good at getting mail ballots out to their voters in recent elections, and I feel confident they’re up to that task for this year as well. I would also expect there to be a lot of messaging to voters, from the county and from parties and candidates, about voting by mail. And three, we still may get a much broader vote by mail program for the state, in one of the lawsuits that have been filed by the TDP or the one filed by younger voters on federal age discrimination claims. We now know more about where people are for this election. We just need to act on it.

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman to resign

This was unexpected, to say the least.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman will resign May 31 due to health concerns, she said Saturday afternoon.

Trautman, 70, steps down just 16 months into her first term. She defeated incumbent clerk Stan Stanart in 2018.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my age, and underlying health issues, I do not feel I can safely continue to carry out my duties,” Trautman said in a statement. She declined to answer questions.

Commissioners Court will appoint an interim clerk to serve until November, when a new clerk is elected. The Democratic and Republican parties will each put forth a nominee.

During her brief tenure, Trautman’s signature success was the implementation of county voting centers, which for the first time allowed residents to visit any polling place on Election Day. County Judge Lina Hidalgo praised that effort and Trautman’s dedication to the job.

“Dr. Trautman embodies the spirit of the community she has served,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “In her brief time as County Clerk, Dr. Trautman has fought to make it easier for citizens to participate in elections and make their voices heard.”

You can see a copy of her press release, which hit my mailbox at 6 PM last night, here. I’m still a little stunned, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if she will be just the first in line to step down over health and safety concerns. Elected officials tend to be older, and we have seen multiple stories of them having come down with COVID-19. A quick google search turned up three examples of state representatives who have died as a result of the disease. In that regard, it’s honestly a little surprising we haven’t seen more elected officials do the same.

As her resignation is official on May 31, I assume there will be some kind of application process for the interim Clerk. Whoever that is will have to continue the preparations for more mail ballots as well as making in-person voting as safe as possible, both for the voters and the poll workers. No pressure, right? I presume the nominee to replace her on the November ballot will be picked by the precinct chairs, as we did with Commissioner Ellis and the three judges in 2016. That will add a level of excitement to the next CEC meeting, which is already going to be a big deal since the March one was postponed. I’m sure I’ll begin hearing from hopefuls in short order. I do not envy whoever it is at the HCDP who will be tasked with organizing this meeting, which I’m going to guess will have to be done remotely, unless we all somehow feel confident about packing several hundred mostly older folks into the IBEW hall one day next month. This is going to be all kinds of fun. We’ll get it done one way or another. In the meantime, my thanks to Diane Trautman for her service, and my best wishes for a healthy post-County Clerk life.

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.

Paxton threatens county clerks over vote by mail instructions

Seems to me this should get a bit more attention.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton informed county judges and election officials Friday that if they advise voters who normally aren’t eligible to apply for mail-in ballots due to a fear of contracting COVID-19, they could be subject to criminal sanctions.

His warning came in a letter to local officials Friday and two weeks after a state district judge had issued a temporary injunction allowing eligible voters who are fearful of contracting COVID-19 by voting in-person to cast their ballots by mail.

In order to qualify to vote by mail under state law, Texans must submit an application and be either 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county on election day and during early voting, or be eligible to vote but confined in jail.

During a hearing last month, the Texas Democratic Party argued that Texans following stay-at-home orders and exercising social distancing fall under the Texas Elections Code’s definition of a disability, which is “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”

In Friday’s letter, Paxton said that while a person ill with COVID-19 would qualify under the state’s definition of “a sickness,” a fear of contracting the virus is simply “a normal emotional reaction to the current pandemic and does not, by itself, amount to a ‘sickness’” that would meet the eligibility requirements to vote-by-mail.

Therefore, officials and “third parties” should not advise voters to apply for mail-in ballots for those “who lack a qualifying sickness or physical condition to vote by mail in response to COVID-19,” the letter reads.

Chad Dunn, the general counsel for the Texas Democratic Party, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement Friday that the court has already overruled Paxton’s arguments.

“Paxton can keep on stating his opinion over and over again for as long as he wants but the bottom line is he needs to get a court to agree with him,” Dunn said. “We all have opinions. In our constitutional system, what courts say is what matters.”

In his letter, Paxton also said the lawsuit “does not change or suspend these requirements” due to his appeal of the judge’s ruling.

“Accordingly, pursuant to Texas law, the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect during the appeal,” Paxton wrote. “Moreover, even if the order were effective, it would not apply to any county clerk or election official outside of Travis County. Those officials must continue to follow Texas law, as described in this letter, concerning eligibility for voting by mail ballot.”

Dunn disagreed with that assertion, and Thomas Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, which had also joined the lawsuit, said Paxton’s letter misinterprets the law.

“Ken Paxton’s letter — which is not binding — gets the law wrong and serves no other purpose than to attempt to intimidate voters and county officials. The simple fact is that no Texan should have to choose between their health and exercising their fundamental right to vote,” Buser-Clancy said in a statement.

See here for the background. You can see a copy of Paxton’s letter here, and a copy of the ACLU and Texas Civil Rights Project’s responses here. The Austin Chronicle adds more:

The letter, also distributed as a press release, presumably has been sent to officials in all 254 Texas counties. Asked to respond to the Attorney General’s explicit threats of “criminal sanctions” in the letter and his interpretation of state election law, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said, “This is [Paxton’s] opinion and he’s stated it a couple of times previously. We are waiting to hear from the courts.”

State District Court Judge Tim Sulak recently granted a temporary injunction, ruling that the risk of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is sufficient to enable all Texas voters to apply for mail ballots for the July 14 elections (Congressional run-offs and a Senate District 14 election in Travis County, other contests elsewhere). Paxton appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals, and has adopted the position that while the appeal is pending, “the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect.”

However, some election officials have said they are planning for a surge in voting by mail. Earlier this week, DeBeauvoir told the Chronicle that Travis County normally receives about two VBM applications a day for an interim election like the July run-off. “Right now they’re running at about 200 a day,” she said.

[…]

An earlier, “advisory” Paxton letter to state Rep. Stephanie Klick – issued prior to the District Court’s official ruling – made the same general argument about the disability provisions of state election law. The latest letter is addressed to County Judges as well as election officials. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Chronicle that Paxton’s invocation of possible “criminal sanctions” is a “threat designed to suppress voter turnout.”

Eckhardt added that Paxton’s argument that the temporary injunction is “stayed” during the Third Court appeal is simply “one lawyer’s opinion, and the higher court may have a different opinion.”

As for the reiteration of Paxton’s earlier advisory letter, DeBeauvoir said, “He wants to make certain his threat is being heard.”

I mean, I know I’m not a lawyer and all, but usually you have to ask for a court order to be stayed pending appeal. If any of that has been done, then all I can say is that it has not been reported in a form that was visible to me. If there hasn’t been a subsequent order to stay Judge Sulak’s ruling pending appeal, either from Judge Sulak himself or from the appellate court, in this case the Third Court of Appeals. For what it’s worth, the official order from Judge Sulak says at the end:

“It is further ORDERED that for this Temporary Injunction Order to be effective under the law, cash bond in the amount of $0 shall be required of the Plaintiffs and filed with the District Clerk of Travis County, Texas. The Clerk of Court shall forthwith issue a write of Temporary Injunction in conformity with the law and terms of this Order. Once effective, this Order shall remain in full force and effect until final Judgment in the trial on this matter.”

Seems pretty clear to me. As for the matter of the claim that even if there’s no stay on the order it only applies to Travis County, there’s nothing in the text of the order that looks to me (again, Not A Lawyer) like it supports that interpretation. The judge does refer to the Intervenor Plaintiffs and the fact that they represent voters “throughout the state of Texas”. I suppose this could be clarified, but the interpretation that it’s a statewide ruling seems just as reasonable to me. I know Ken Paxton is full of bluster, but this seems to me to dance close to the line of blatantly disregarding the judge’s order. Is he gonna send in the Texas Rangers to arrest Diane Trautman? Maybe the plaintiffs need to ask the judge to please remind Ken Paxton where the lines are here.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story about this, which mostly draws from the Paxton letter and ACLU/TCRP responses.

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.

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.

Harris County preps for more mail ballots

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to spend up to $12 million for an expected uptick in requests for mail-in ballots in the July primary runoff and November general election from voters concerned about contracting the novel coronavirus at polling places.

The three Democrats on the five-member court voted to give County Clerk Diane Trautman enough to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in the county over the objections of the two Republican members who said the clerk failed to justify the expense.

Trautman said her office is planning for any outcome in a lawsuit filed by Democrats and voting rights advocates seeking to force the Texas secretary of state to allow any resident to request a mail ballot.

“No matter what the courts and the state decide for the July and November elections, we must be prepared for an increase in mail ballots, which we are already seeing,” Trautman said.

[…]

Trautman said her office “can’t turn on a dime” and must begin preparing to accommodate more mail ballots, which are more expensive to process than votes cast at electronic voting machines because they would require more equipment and staff, as well as the cost of postage.

She outlined the costs of an expanded mail voting program: about $3 million for 700,000 ballots; $8 million for 1.2 million ballots; and $12 million for all 2.4 million ballots. The Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — opted for the full sum, noting the county clerk may end up spending only a portion of the funds.

“We want to make sure, with the possibility of a record turnout, we’re giving… the support they need,” Ellis said. “I want us to do what we can to improve the percentage of people who vote in this county, because it’s embarrassing.”

Hidalgo urged Trautman to keep the court and the county health department apprised of her plans to ensure upcoming balloting is safe for voters.

Whatever happens in the lawsuits, we should expect an increase in people voting by mail this fall. I mean, plenty of regular voters are over the age of 65, and all of them are eligible to receive a mail ballot. There were over 100K mail ballots returned in the 2016 election. That number could easily double or triple without any objection from Ken Paxton. Just preparing for that is going to take time and money, and that’e before any consideration of the possibility that a whole lot more people will be allowed to receive a mail ballot. It would be negligent in the extreme to not address this ahead of time.

One more thing:

Alan Vera, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s ballot security committee, warned that expanding mail voting would be a “logistical nightmare” that would render the county clerk unable to count all votes on election night.

Vera said Harris County should instead adopt an in-person voting system similar to South Korea, which held a national election in mid-April. Election workers in that nation sanitized polling stations and took the temperature of each voter. Residents with confirmed coronavirus cases still could vote by mail.

Trautman said her office already has ordered sanitation supplies for poll workers, including masks, gloves and face shields.

Okay first, as we know, all early mail and in person ballots are counted and the results published on Election Day when the polls close. You also have to get your ballot in by Election Day. I see no reason why the Clerk could not produce an up-to-date set of results on Election Day evening. I agree that the final count would be later, but most results would be clear by then. Second, because Diane Trautman is not an idiot and we are all aware of the courthouse situation, they are planning for extra safety and cleanliness measures as well. Finally, you do know that Republicans vote with mail ballots, too, right? Making it harder to vote in Harris County is going to hurt y’all as well. I can’t believe I have to tell the Harris County Republican Party that, but here we are.