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Houston

Don’t park in a bike lane

It’s illegal now, and you will get a citation.

Houston city council on Wednesday made it illegal to park in or otherwise block the city’s expanding network of bike lanes, a long-sought change by cyclists fed up with dodging cars and other obstacles in their designated paths.

Council voted 15-2 to pass an ordinance to forbid people from blocking the dedicated lanes that are physically separated from roadways. The prohibition applies to 120 miles of bike lanes, and violations will be punishable by a $100 fine.

Councilmembers Mike Knox and Edward Pollard voted against the measure, but did not explain why. Council did not discuss the ordinance.

Previously, there was nothing in the city’s code that prohibited blocking the lanes. The city had to post “no parking” signs along the lanes in a sometimes futile effort to keep them clear.

Nick Hellyar, a board member for the nonprofit Bike Houston, hailed the ordinance as a pragmatic step toward safety.

“Bike Houston has been fighting for this for forever,” said Hellyar. “It’s just some of that common-sense government that sometimes we need to push a little harder for as advocacy groups.”

Warnings will be given for the first 90 days, and an amendment proposed by three Council members to offer a free bike class in lieu of the fine – sort of like defensive driving class for illegal parkers – was adopted. Motor vehicles of any kind are not allowed on the off-road bike trails, so in a sense all this does is standardize the bike trails around the city. I approve.

HISD needs a bond referendum

Easier said than done, though.

Houston ISD appeared to be on track in mid-February to put a bond election on the ballot this November, taking a critical step toward asking voters for the first time since 2012 to let it borrow money to finance major facility upgrades in the district.

Two weeks later, federal agents raided the district’s headquarters. Three weeks after that, campuses closed due to COVID-19.

Once again, an HISD bond would have to wait.

As voters in Dallas, San Antonio and parts of Fort Bend County decide in the coming weeks whether to back billions of dollars in school improvements, residents of the state’s largest district will not see a bond request on the ballot for the eighth straight year, the longest absence among Texas’ major urban districts.

Despite promising signs earlier this year that HISD finally may have weathered a cascade of embarrassments, the district remains unable to garner support needed to provide students with much-wanted improvements. After approving a facilities assessment in February, a precursor to a bond vote, HISD administrators and trustees never publicly discussed seeking an election following the raid and pandemic-induced shutdown.

In addition to grappling with the novel coronavirus pandemic, HISD continues to face fallout from the abrupt departure of former Superintendent Richard Carranza, self-admitted dysfunction on the school board in 2018 and 2019, the Texas Education Agency’s ongoing effort to replace trustees and the raid tied to former high-ranking administrator Brian Busby.

“As a layperson on the outside looking in, with everything that was going on in the district, I personally would have had some reluctance supporting one,” said HISD trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, one of four new members on the nine-person board this year. “We’re not entangled in all that controversy now, and so it’s imperative that we look at trying to do a bond every five years. We’re way overdue.”

[…]

Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who has conducted dozens of school bond polls and led a survey on voter attitudes toward HISD last year, said he would be “shocked” if the district could earn the needed majority support for a package. If a bond vote fails, HISD must cover costs associated with administering the election.

“There’s just no confidence in the district, and I have no reason to think that confidence has increased with remote learning,” Stein said. “My guess is they’re not going to pass a bond anytime soon.”

Here’s a scorching hot take: Maybe the best way to get a very necessary bond passed is to hand that responsibility to the board of managers that will (one presumes) eventually get installed by the TEA as part of its now-held-up-in-the-courts takeover. If there’s not enough faith that the elected Board members are up to the task (a proposition I’d question, but let’s go with it for now), then give the new Board a crack at it. It’s not clear to me that the appointed Board would have a net gain in public trust, since so many HISD parents and other stakeholders are deeply suspicious of (if not outright hostile to) the TEA takeover, but maybe they could earn some trust, or have a honeymoon period, or just be able to bring it up without other issues getting in the way. I’m just spitballing here. The fact remains, the schools need the capital investment. I’m open to any reasonable ideas for making it happen.

Back to the classroom for some

I sure hope this goes well, but I remain worried.

With the novel coronavirus still top of mind, HISD will welcome back an estimated 80,000-plus of its nearly 200,000 students to classrooms Monday, becoming the region’s final large district to reopen campuses for in-person instruction.

The return will come with new safety, scheduling and teaching protocols, some of which will vary across the district’s 280 campuses. All students returning to buildings must wear masks, while staff members will direct children to frequently use hand sanitizer and wash their hands. Many schools plan to stagger bell schedules, aiming to limit hallway traffic, while most teachers are preparing to provide in-person and online instruction at the same time.

The restart arrives as many districts across the state report only sporadic cases of students and staff stepping foot on campus while infected with COVID-19, a positive early sign amid the pandemic. As of Friday, seven Houston-area high schools had reported outbreaks involving more than 10 active cases at one time, with no elementary or middle schools reaching that threshold.

However, HISD’s return comes with some risks. About 85 percent of HISD students are Black or Hispanic, two demographic groups that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. In addition, case counts and hospitalizations in Greater Houston have started creeping up in the past couple weeks after a major dip in the late summer.

“I’m a little nervous, because all of this with the virus is not good,” said Norma Vasquez Chavez, whose kindergartner and fifth-grader will attend in-person classes Monday at Brookline Elementary School on the district’s southeast side. “Every time my daughters go out, I’m telling them about using the masks, using the hand sanitizer. I’m trying to trust in them and all that the school is doing.”

The lingering concerns are reflected in the fact that about 60 percent of HISD students are expected to continue learning from home Monday, despite the district offering in-person classes to all families. Under state guidelines, HISD had until Nov. 2 to provide face-to-face instruction to all students who wanted it.

[…]

District leaders have not published metrics for when HISD will change its “gauge,” showing if and how in-person classes are held. HISD moved from “red,” which requires keeping campuses closed, to “orange,” which allows for in-person classes with mandatory social distancing, on Oct. 9, three days before staff were scheduled to return to buildings.

HISD also changed its desk distancing requirements from a mandatory 6 feet to “whenever possible,” citing “updated public health and educational guidelines.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended spacing desks 6 feet apart “when feasible” in early September.

Wheatley High School teacher Kendra Yarbrough, however, called on district leaders to reverse the switch.

“This will greatly help reduce teachers’ stress,” Yarbrough said. “Many of us are struggling currently, trying to make decisions, figuring out how do we keep ourselves safe, as well as ensure that we’re providing for our own families who are at high risk.”

Our kids are still doing remote learning for now, as are some but not all of their friends. The 13-year-old gave me a running commentary on Monday about how it was going – short answer, a little weird because the kids that were there in school were not also on the Teams session, so it wasn’t clear how they were going to answer questions since they weren’t loud enough to be heard by the teacher’s microphone; also, the between-class duration was confusing – but I figure they’ll work out the odd bits this week, as they did when this year’s remote learning started. The main concern, of course, is keeping everyone safe. As far as that goes, well

Five Houston ISD schools temporarily have closed due to a confirmed or presumed COVID-19 case on campus, swift shutdowns on the day after the state’s largest district resumed in-person classes.

Bellaire High School, Daily Elementary School and Foerster Elementary School canceled in-person classes and transitioned to virtual learning this week, according to HISD officials.

Emails sent by the leaders of Lanier Middle School and Westbury High School and reviewed by the Houston Chronicle also show those two schools were closed Tuesday. HISD administrators have not yet confirmed the shutdowns and initially reported only three closures Tuesday morning.

In confirming the closures of Ballaire, Daily and Foerster, district officials said they received notice of a single positive or presumed COVID-19 case at each campus. HISD’s COVID-19 protocols call for shutting down a campus for a “recommended number of days to allow for disinfection and sanitization” after learning of a positive or presumed case. Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has said district leaders would consult with city and county health officials, the district’s communicable disease plan task force and district operations staff to determine need actions and length of closures.

And there were still more school closures later in the day. Not great, Bob. It’s early, these were based on single test results, it’s been so far so good in other districts, but with more kids back in classes now, the risk is necessarily higher, and this is happening at a time when the infection rate is increasing. We need to be prepared for the possibility that this will be a short-lived experience. The Press has more.

District B runoff officially scheduled

Hooray!

Cynthia Bailey

At long last, voters in the north Houston neighborhoods that make up City Council’s District B will get to select a new representative in December.

Visiting state District Judge Grant Dorfman on Monday ordered the long-delayed runoff to be held Saturday, Dec. 12, almost exactly a year after the election was originally scheduled last year. Tarsha Jackson, a criminal justice organizer, and Cynthia Bailey, a neighborhood advocate, will face off in the election.

That is the same date for any runoffs necessitated by the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

Tarsha Jackson

Council member Jerry Davis, the incumbent set to leave office last January, has remained in the seat to ensure the district had representation during the legal fight. Davis narrowly was defeated in his July runoff against state Rep. Harold Dutton for the District 142 seat Dutton has held since 1985.

District B includes nearly 200,000 people from many historic north Houston neighborhoods, such as Acres Homes, Kashmere Gardens and Settegast. The district stretches up to include Greenspoint and Bush International Airport. It has the second-highest concentration of Black residents, 47 percent, in the city.

See here for the background. Not much else to say here, we’ve been waiting a long, long time for this. It’s time to finally get a new Council member in District B.

The virtual marathon

We’re still not ready for things to be normal.

The 2021 Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon will be virtual due to ongoing public health concerns with COVID-19.

The 2021 Virtual Houston Marathon Running Events will be held over the span of 10 days where runners will have the option to complete the race distance anywhere between Jan. 8-17, according to the Houston Marathon Committee.

Participants who have already registered for the 2021 marathon will be able opt for the virtual race experience, which will include a discounted registration for the Chevron Houston Marathon 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2022; or defer their entry to one of the following two years (2022 or 2023); or donate their entry to the Houston Marathon Committee, which is a 501 c(4) nonprofit organization.

Half marathon registrants and We are Houston 5K runners will receive an email with instructions on how to complete their registration selection, according to a news release.

“At this time, we recognize that there are many unknowns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but the safety and well-being of our runners, volunteers, partners, spectators and local Houston community will always be our top priority,” said Wade Morehead, committee executive director. “While we are unable to celebrate the 2021 event together in the heart of Downtown Houston, we will be cheering for our runners around the world as they participate in a unique virtual race experience, embracing the incredible spirit of our RunHOU community.”

I mean, none of this should be a surprise. The Marathon is an event where everyone is packed together, and even if the spectators and officials and volunteers were all wearing masks, there’s no way that the runners could. Doing it like this, where everyone just picks their own 26-mile course and registers to submit an official time for it, is the only way. This is just a reminder that seeing the calendar turn over into 2021 doesn’t mean anything in terms of the virus or its containment. We’re still in need of an actual federal plan, with actual leadership, to try to contain it, and eventually a vaccine to finally achieve some level of immunity. If we’re lucky, that 2022 50th anniversary marathon will be able to be run like it always has in the past. But as of today, we can’t say for sure that it will.

(You can register for the Marathon here, if that’s your thing.)

Don’t look now, but COVID numbers are ticking up again

In the state as a whole.

Texas reported more than 4,100 people hospitalized with the coronavirus on Wednesday, its largest total in six weeks and one that comes amid rising infections in El Paso and North Texas.

Hospitalizations hit a low in late September after a summer surge, but have risen incrementally for the past 10 days, reaching 4,133 on Wednesday. Other key metrics were also up slightly from a week earlier, including the reported rolling average of new daily infections and the number of people testing positive for the virus.

Public health officials said the increase is likely due to a combination of factors, including pandemic fatigue and expanded reopenings, especially bars. Bars were only allowed to begin reopening in select counties on Wednesday, but many have already been opened for weeks after reclassifying as restaurants — a loophole that the state created in hopes it would lead to better social distancing.

[…]

The biggest increases appear to be in West Texas and areas in and around Dallas.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins raised the county’s pandemic risk level back to red on Wednesday, and earlier this week Gov. Greg Abbott sent medical staff and supplies to El Paso to help respond to a wave of new COVID-19 cases.

“With a new and quickly escalating wave of COVID-19 cases hitting North Texas, it is more important than ever that we make good decisions,” Jenkins tweeted.

And here in the Houston area.

Houston-area COVID-19 numbers, trending in a positive direction for the last couple months, have taken a turn for the worse.

Four key coronavirus metrics all show an increase in the past week, according to the Texas Medical Center, which tracks the data for the complex’s seven major hospital systems. Those numbers had started trickling up the previous week in daily reports produced by the center.

The latest numbers from Wednesday’s report:

• The number of COVID-19 cases reported Tuesday, 671, represents a 62 percent increase over last week’s daily average of 412 cases per day.

• The number of COVID-19 patients admitted to TMC hospitals Tuesday, 102, represents an 18 percent increase over last week’s daily average of 86 patients per day.

• The TMC COVID-19 test positivity rate of 3.8 percent represents an 8 percent over last week’s daily average.

• The so-called R(t), or reproduction rate, the rate at which the virus is spreading, hit 1.16 Tuesday, an 18 percent increase in the past week. On Sept. 29, the number was 0.64, which meant the virus’ spread was then decreasing significantly.

The latest metric is probably the most concerning to health officials. A number below 1.0 means the virus is burning out in the area; a number above 1.0 means the spread is accelerating. After 32 consecutive days in which the metric showed the virus was burning out in the Houston area, it now shows the virus is again picking up steam.

And as was the case in the month of June, it’s already too late to stop this. The best we can do now is go back to what we had been doing before to bend the curve back in the downward direction. First and foremost, wear your goddamn masks, and practice social distancing. Don’t be this guy.

As for bars, I want them to survive, and I’ve been up front about the arbitrariness of the state’s definition of what a “bar” is versus what a “restaurant” is. I support the various ways that have been suggested to help bars survive by being more like restaurants, and by enabling to-go and outdoor service. And we really need a federal rescue bill for bars and restaurants and theaters and music halls and other public-gathering businesses that have been so devastated by this pandemic. But we have to be real and recognize that there are no circumstances under which crowding a bunch of people into indoor spaces is a good idea. How many times are we going to have to learn this lesson? The Trib has more.

Here comes another rideshare company

Seems like a less than optimal time to be expanding, but here we are.

Alto, a new rideshare company based in Dallas, will roll into view in Houston as it looks to expand its reach and compete with Uber and Lyft.

The app-based service, which [arrived] in Houston Thursday, looks to distinguish itself in the market by offering what it calls a consistent experience by managing its own fleet of 200 luxury Buick sports utility vehicles and hiring employees to drive them rather than relying on independent contractors, as competittors such as Uber and Lyft do.

[…]

Alto’s expansion comes as a debate rages in California over how companies such as Uber and Lyft should treat its drivers. There, a new state employment law requires the gig economy companies to classify drivers as employees, but voters could exempt the companies via a ballot measure in November.

Alto also is expanding as the coronovirus pandemic batters the ride-hailing industry. Uber, the market leader, reported a 75 percent decline in ridership during the quarter ended June 30, as people grew wary of leaving the house and entering enclosed spaces.

Alto’s business has shrunk, too. Business is still down about 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels, [Alto CEO Will] Coleman said. “There’s some people in Dallas that are going to continue to not get into cars,” he said, “so our total customer base is smaller.”

That makes expanding into new territories more important to the company’s growth, Coleman said. Houston seemed like a natural next step, he said, given its proximity and size — it’s the nation’s fourth largest city. It also appealed because the company caters to the business community, which in Houston is large and international.

Business travel from the airport was a big sales driver before the pandemic, he said, and is beginning to pick back up. “People are looking for safe ways to move again,” Coleman said.

Not surprisingly, Alto costs more than Uber; the story does not do a comparison to a taxi fare, which would have been interesting. As someone who thinks Uber and Lyft treat their drivers like trash, I like Alto’s model, I just don’t know what their prospects are, even without factoring the pandemic into the equation. But if you’re the type of person who uses this type of service, and you’ve been wishing there was an alternative to Uber and Lyft, here you go.

(Also, can we please come up with an alternative term for “rideshare”? That doesn’t fit all that well any more for Uber and Lyft, and it makes even less sense for Alto, which actually owns the vehicles and employs the drivers. They’re basically a livery service, but that word makes me think of horse-drawn carriages with footmen. I am open to suggestion here.)

We need a better word than “controversial”

From the Chron: Meet Al Hartman, the controversial Houston CEO who is suing Hidalgo, Abbott over COVID orders.

Al Hartman is not shy about his beliefs.

As a guest on a Christian radio show, he spoke about a faith so strong that he heads to a mall after Sunday services to proselytize among the shoppers. He once handed out “Make America Great Again” hats to employees during an outing sponsored by his commercial real estate company. He is an active member and generous contributor to conservative groups, candidates and causes.

The latest cause for Hartman, the founder and CEO of Houston-based Hartman Income REIT Management, is masks, recently joining a suit against Harris County’s top elected executive, Lina Hidalgo, for ordering businesses to require employees and visitors to wear masks. This was two months after joining a suit brought by conservative activists against Gov. Greg Abbott over shutdown orders.

In August, he was further thrust into the public eye when the website Buzzfeed reported — and the company confirmed — that an employee was asked to leave a meeting by Hartman for refusing to take off his mask. The meeting, according to Mark Torok, Hartman’s general counsel, took place before the government recommended that everyone wear masks.

Hartman and his company, which owns directly or through affiliates some 60 buildings across Texas, present another example of how politics and ideology are shaping the response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 people in the United States and at least 16,000 in Texas. Hartman’s company has not required employees to wear masks, and, until a few weeks ago, signs posted throughout the company’s buildings stated tenants and visitors were not required to wear them, either.

Hartman declined to be interviewed. But by the end of the summer, his workers were falling ill from COVID-19, as first reported by Buzzfeed. Torok confirmed that at least two employees who work in the 43-person corporate office at 2909 Hillcroft Ave. tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Employees practice social distancing and handwashing, Torok added. Many do wear masks.

I’m going to be concise here.

1. If your “freedom” or your “beliefs” rest on the need for other people to be harmed, then your freedom is a sham and your beliefs are bad, and neither the legal nor political system should accommodate you.

2. Along those lines, and as someone who was raised in a Christian faith, I do not understand this version of “Christianity” that regularly advocates for the harm of other people. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus was teaching.

3. As noted in the title of this post, we need a better word for our newspaper headlines than “controversial” to describe people like Al Hartman. “Nihilistic” would seem to me to be a better fit, but I’m open to other ideas.

Pension reform law partially blocked

I have to admit, I have no idea what this may mean.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Wednesday struck down a key portion of Houston’s landmark pension reform package that applies to firefighters, a move that likely would upend the system — and the city’s finances — if upheld.

In an order siding with the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, state District Judge Beau Miller wrote that the legislation passed in 2017 to overhaul the city’s troubled pension system prevents the firefighters’ pension board from determining “sound actuarial assumptions.”

Pension fund officials argued in court filings that the plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment strips them of their ability to control the fund’s cost projections. By codifying the rate in state law, they argued, city officials gained a role in that process when the Texas Constitution says only the pension fund should be able to set the assumed rate of return.

The argument mirrors one used in a prior legal challenge that was struck down in June 2019 by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals. Pension fund officials refiled the new lawsuit the following month, tweaking their argument but still challenging the constitutionality of the pension reform package.

It is unclear what the financial hit to the city would be if the portion of the law governing firefighter pensions is thrown out, but it could be significant. In the first fiscal year after the reforms took effect, the city paid $83 million into the fire pension fund, down from $93 million the year before.

At the time, the fire pension fund argued the city should have paid $148 million, an additional $65 million, equivalent to the current annual budget of the city parks department.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, a key architect of the reform plan, said the city would appeal the ruling. He predicted the lawsuit would fail, but warned that an unsuccessful appeal would lead to “the destruction of pension reform with devastating financial impacts for taxpayers, city employees, and the city.”

The mayor said in a statement that pension board officials had convinced Miller “the board’s powers exceed that of the State of Texas and that the firefighters are above any law and cannot be governed by anyone else, even the Texas Legislature.”

Miller stipulated his ruling would take effect Nov. 15 and ordered the city to “allocate funding in accordance with” the part of the Texas Constitution challenged by the pension fund, though he did not elaborate. He also issued a permanent injunction prohibiting city officials from “taking action under SB 2190.”

I’ll be honest, I did not realize there was still active litigation over this. I don’t have anything to add at this time, but I will keep an eye out on the appeal. My guess is the city will try to get this ruling stayed, so we’ll see what happens with that.

We are finally about to get that District B runoff scheduled

About damn time.

Cynthia Bailey

A court hearing set for Oct. 19 finally could end the election dispute that has delayed a runoff in Houston city council’s District B for nearly a year.

A state district judge is scheduled to hear an unopposed motion to set the election for Saturday, Dec. 12, which would be almost exactly a year after the initial runoff on Dec. 14, 2019.

Houston, Harris County and the three candidates involved in the dispute support that election date, according to legal filings.

Tarsha Jackson

That would mean voters in District B, which is concentrated in north Houston and stretches up to Bush International Airport, could elect a new representative in December.

Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey were the top two finishers in the general election last November and now would proceed to the runoff.

[…]

The runoff could not be held on Nov. 3 because state law mandates it be held on the same date as the original election, which was a Saturday.

The date of the court hearing was delayed because state law prescribes a maximum amount of time between the court order and the runoff. Oct. 19 was the earliest date possible for a court order to get on the Dec. 12 ballot, according to legal filings.

See here for the previous update. December 12 is the date that a city runoff election would have been held this year, if there had been any city elections on the November ballot. It’s always the second Saturday in December. It sounds like this court hearing is pro forma, so once it’s over we should have an official, scheduled runoff election date. All I san say is “Hallelujah”.

Mayor will support the task force recommendations

Good start, now let’s get it going.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday endorsed “almost all” the 104 recommendations laid out last week by his Task Force on Policing Reform.

Speaking at a virtual city council meeting, Turner said a few recommendations, which he did not identify, raise questions about the need for state legislative action, and a few others prompt “some concern about where we come up with the money to implement some of the proposals.”

“But, by and large, I’ve read through the entire report and I am overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas,” Turner said.

[…]

The task force — which laid out an implementation timeline for all of its recommendations — would remain involved in developing the implementation strategy, Turner said.

While the mayor did not specify which items gave him pause, the task force report referred to the need for legislative action on at least one occasion. That involved allowing doctors and health care workers to issue notifications of detention, currently only allowed by law enforcement officers.

Other measures, such as amending disciplinary windows for officers, would require the union to sign off on the changes unless a state law is passed.

That prospect is unlikely. Houston Police Officers’ Union Vice President Douglas Griffith said some of the recommendations, including those regarding discipline, were ill-informed or impractical.

He challenged one proposal to allow supervisors to investigate officers 180 days after learning of alleged misconduct, rather than 180 after it occurred. The so-called “180-day rule” has been a key target for reform advocates.

Officers’ current contract and state law allows supervisors 180 days after discovering misconduct to issue temporary suspensions of up to 15 days. If department leaders want to fire officers, however, the contract requires chiefs to do it within 180 days after the alleged misconduct occurred or if the officer has been indicted.

In its report, the task force said budgetary considerations were beyond its scope, so it did not outline where to find the necessary funds to implement the measures.

“We acknowledge that some of our recommendations will require additional funding and recognize fundraising as a critical step toward implementation. That said, we implore the mayor, city council, and the HPD to explore partnerships, grant applications, and otherwise exhaust other reasonable options before declaring that something cannot be done due to a lack of funding.”

The task force included timelines on how long it believed recommendations should take to be enacted, suggesting HPD and the city implement many within 90 days. Those short-term objectives include creating a way for residents to file complaints online, or for the department to follow up with civilians who had filed complaints. A policy outlining the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of incidents and a new order on long-term patrol assignments were also included in the short-term objectives, among dozens of others.

Proponents of criminal justice reform said they were encouraged by the mayor’s comments but that Turner needed to provide more details on how he would carry out the task force’s recommendations.

“There’s never been a shortage of good ideas about police reform,” ACLU Policy Advocacy Strategist Nicholas Hudson said. “But we need a clear timeline for implementation, and aggressive action from the mayor and council, especially on items in the ‘Justice Can’t Wait’ report.”

See here for the background. My advice is to get the things that can be done quickly as soon as possible, and start building consensus or working with legislators on the rest. If the union is going to object to some things, well, that’s what they’re going to do, but don’t consider that an obstacle. This is a rare chance to make some real progress, and the success of Mayor Turner’s second term will be determined in large part by what he does with this from here.

Lots of HISD students will stay remote for now

The people have spoken.

If the state’s largest district follows through with reopening campuses to students on Oct. 19 — the tentative plan, still based on public health conditions — more than half of the district’s nearly 200,000 could remain at home for at least one grading period, HISD officials said this week.

Newly released data shows that 80 percent of the district’s families committed in recent days to a back-to-school option. Of those, about 40 percent chose in-person instruction and 60 percent opted to stay in virtual classes. HISD officials are unsure whether the remaining 20 percent of families will send their children back to classrooms, but district staff are planning as if they will show up on campus.

With those totals in hand, HISD officials are using the next few days to finalize arrangements for Oct. 19, which marks the start of the district’s second grading period. Key decisions are expected to land next week, including whether to limit attendance at some high school campuses and shuffle students’ already-assigned teachers.

“Based on the enrollment data breakdown, campus principals will create schedules to accommodate students returning for face-to-face instruction and those continuing remotely,” HISD’s administration said in a statement.

[…]

Nearly all of the Houston area’s largest districts resumed in-person classes for families that want it in recent weeks, though a few remain in the early stages of reopening, including Alief and Fort Bend ISDs.

To date, only Crosby ISD has reported more than 10 active cases of COVID-19 at a single campus. The district temporarily closed Crosby High School this week and Crosby Middle School last week for cleaning.

HISD will be the region’s last district to offer face-to-face instruction, though the district has operated learning centers at 36 campuses and churches for students without at-home technology access since the 2020-21 school year started virtually in early September.

If HISD reopens classrooms in mid-October, the district likely will bring back thousands of employees who remain fearful of returning to work.

A survey of roughly 7,400 teachers conducted between mid-June and early July found that 35 percent were more comfortable staying in online-only classes, while 14 percent were ready to return to the classroom. About half of respondents said they were open to a hybrid model, in which students wanting in-person instruction spent part of their week on campus and part in at-home classes.

“There have been numerous concerns about the size of the classrooms,” said Scott Parker, a science teacher at Navarro Middle School. “You have literally thousands of students coming back, and they’re all within a closed, confined area.”

Nearly all of the district’s 280 campuses are expected to host all students wanting in-person instruction for five days each week. HISD officials did not release a campus-by-campus breakdown of expected in-person attendance rates Friday.

Our girls will be among those who continue to do remote learning for the next six weeks. Both their schools will have the teachers do in-person and remote instruction simultaneously, which means they will stay with the same teachers and on the same schedule. We’ll figure it out for the next six weeks after that. I am hoping that the initial return to campus will be safe and successful, because I know we need to get students back into their schools. We’re getting by and making do for now, but this is not ideal, and there will be long-term negative effects for many students. As to what happens if the return of students (and teachers, and support staff, and whoever else) to campuses is not successful, I have no idea. I just hope HISD and the TEA do. If you have kids in HISD or other district’s schools, what decision have you made about in-person versus remote learning?

We really can track COVID-19 through wastewater

This is terrific news.

Researchers with the city, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine were able to sniff out a potential second outbreak of COVID-19 at a homeless shelter in downtown Houston earlier this year by looking down its drains instead of in people’s noses, health officials said Thursday.

Quashing the resurgence at the Star of Hope Men’s Shelter earlier this year was one of the first successes of an effort to track the novel coronavirus through wastewater, city officials said Thursday. The initiative, one of several occurring around the country, attempts to spot outbreaks by sampling water at city treatment facilities, which could help officials tailor their testing and prevention efforts to specific neighborhoods.

To date, the results from testing wastewater largely have aligned with those from nasal swab testing, said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the city’s chief environmental science officer. That has increased the confidence that the wastewater sampling is accurate. The benefit, she said, is that wastewater tests produce quicker results.

“Ultimately, the goal is to develop an early warning system allowing the health department to identify the city’s COVID-19 hot spots sooner and put measures in place to the slow the spread of this virus,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

People shed the virus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The city was able to detect the virus in the shelter by placing a sampler on the manhole outside the facility after its initial outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

The ability to home in on a single building still is limited, Hopkins said. City officials have deployed that strategy for the shelter and the Harris County Jail, and they are trying to acquire more equipment to expand the effort in the fall. The health department plans to begin testing long-term care facilities, for example.

[…]

So far, there has been a strong correlation between the viral load in the wastewater and the positivity rates by nasal tests, so the method has not unearthed large swaths of the virus that have gone undetected by tests. Still, that correlation has increased confidence that the wastewater analysis is accurate and can be used as a bellwether for future outbreaks.

From Sept. 7 to Sept. 14, for example, scientists found the virus was increasing in a statistically significant way in the communities served by the Tidwell Timber, Upper Brays and Forest Cove treatment plants, among others, while decreasing in District 23, White Oak and Homestead.

That information, coupled with the local positivity rate and other factors, helped the health department decide where to send strike teams to test people, conduct outreach and provide education about the virus. The city said the wastewater study has resulted in more testing at several congregant living centers.

See here and here for the background. This method is extra useful because it provides a more focused view of where the cases are clustering, and the testing is faster, so the response to the test results is also faster. If we are ever going to get a handle on this disease, especially before there’s a vaccine but also after one is available, it’s going to come from technology like this that gives a real-time and location-specific view of where the virus is happening. We should be rooting for this to ramp up as much and as quickly as possible. Kudos to all for making this happen. The Press has more.

Here comes the police reform task force report

Now let’s do something with it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday rolled out his task force’s report on policing reform in Houston, but said he needed more time to digest the 153-page report before taking action on its recommendations.

The task force lists 104 reforms the city could enact to improve policing in Houston, which the Chronicle previously reported.

Among them: a fundamentally revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff, a blanket ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses, the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents, more stringent rules on police officer misconduct and an online process for complaints about police behavior.

Turner said his initial read indicated the report was comprehensive. He embraced revamping the oversight board — a conclusion he said he reached before the report was released — but declined to say when recommendations would be adopted.

“If you can just give me a few days to really digest it, and then to visit with Chairman (Laurence) Payne and the sub-chairs, and some of the members of city council, I’d be in a much better position,” Turner said when asked about implementation. “Literally, I just got it yesterday.”

The report is here, and I have not yet read it. But I strongly agree with the Chron editorial board that there needs to be real action here. We know the history of task forces, and of police reform more generally. The need for action is clear, and it’s urgent. Let’s not blow it. Grits, who has read the report, and the Press have more.

Turner signs cite-and-release order

Good.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday signed an executive order authorizing a new cite-and-release program for the Houston Police Department, aiming to let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of a trip to jail.

Turner and Chief Art Acevedo also promised to release monthly public updates on its implementation, ensuring the public can review how the policy is applied. The order takes effect 6 a.m. Tuesday.

“The program gives them an opportunity to make changes in their lives and face responsibility for their actions without having the stain of an arrest, or serving jail time, on their record,” Turner said of accused offenders.

[…]

The policy has buy-in from HPD executives, the Houston Police Officers’ Union, and some advocates, who have called it an imperfect step in the right direction.

However, the city’s policy allows for exceptions that some argue are too expansive. The exceptions include if an alleged offender cannot provide a government ID, if there is reason to believe they will not appear in court, and if “an officer believes that offering Cite And Release to an otherwise qualified suspect is not the best course of action.”

In those cases, the officer must get supervisor approval and document the name of that supervisor in his or her offense report.

Those exceptions have given pause to criminal justice advocates who have pushed for a cite-and-release policy for years.

The Right2Justice Coalition, a group that includes many prominent local justice organizations and drafted a model cite-and-release ordinance this summer, wrote an open letter to the mayor last week asking him to strengthen the new policy.

It said the policy, as laid out by HPD, leaves officers with too much discretion and carves out too many exceptions. It is not legally binding and does not include all citation-eligible offenses under state law, the letter said.

Houston’s policy has 16 exceptions, whereas San Marcos has six and Austin has seven, according to the letter.

“We project that their program, as presented, will fail to significantly improve community safety, wellbeing and equity in the city,” the letter said.

See here, here, and here for the background. The detailed reporting is good, as that will let everyone know how this is working. Even better would be a commitment to make changes when the data shows there are opportunities for improvement. I can understand why the activists are still critical, but we’ll see how this goes. We are expecting the task force report in the next couple of days, so we will be continuing this discussion further, and maybe make some more progress as well.

Texas Central gets federal approvals

A big step completed.

Federal officials have issued final approvals to backers of a Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line, clearing the way for construction of the proposed line, in a move almost certain to face challenges from opponents.

Texas Central Railroad, the company planning to operate trains from Houston to Dallas with a stop near College Station, said early Monday that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued both the Record of Decision that ends the environmental analysis and the Rule of Particular Applicability that governs the safety standards the Japanese-developed trains must use.

“This is the moment we have been working towards,” said Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central Railroad.

Railroad administration officials did not confirm the approvals, with the company saying the details and specifics of the rules will be released soon.

Company officials — who less than a decade ago expected construction to cost $10 billion, now say building it will cost “around $20 billion,” with construction possibly starting in the first half of next year.

[…]

With the two approvals in hand, Texas Central can begin final designs and construction of the project. A consortium of companies, including Italian construction giant Salini Impregilo, Central Japan Railway — builder of the Shinkansen bullet trains that will be the basis for the Texas trains — and Spanish rail operator Renfe, are all hired to handle various parts of the building and operations of the system.

Though development involves global companies, Texas Central and supporters, including elected officials in Houston and Dallas, note the company is based in Texas and the companies will hire thousands of locals to build and operate it. Some, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said new travel modes will define how the metro areas grow and cooperate.

“The construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses,” Turner said.

Texas Central had previously hoped to start construction by the end of this year. I presume, though the story doesn’t indicate, that the COVID situation may have slowed things down a bit.

Most of the rest of the story is given to Texas Central opponents, and I think we can recite most of what they have to say by heart. I don’t expect the opposition to ease up any time soon, but the opponents are beginning to run out of tools in their bag, especially after a favorable court ruling on the “are they really a railroad” question. I’ve said repeatedly that the best thing TCR can do for their own future is to get those shovels in the ground and start constructing before the Lege has the chance to take any further action. They’ll be at the very beginning stages of that during the session this spring, so maybe this is the end of the line for serious peril.

Of course, we don’t know how demand for this kind of travel will change in a post-COVID world. One could argue that with fast boarding and roomier passenger spaces, TCR will be better placed than before to compete with the airlines. They may have a harder time competing with people driving themselves, however. All this assumes there will be the same kind of demand for mostly business travel going forward. We just don’t know what that effect will be in the longer term, but any argument that the Zoom-and-Teams world we’re in now obviates the need for big rail projects like TCR would apply to big road projects as well. We may very well make some inaccurate guesses about this. We’re going to have to live with that until we do know better. The Trib has more.

So far so good on school reopening

It’s still early, though.

For the first Houston-area school districts to resume in-person classes, the early results for COVID-19 on campus are in: so far, mostly so good.

Eight districts that brought children back to schools in August are reporting sporadic known cases of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19, but they are avoiding the kind of outbreaks that stoked the most fear headed into the new school year.

The preliminary data offer signs of hope that many schools, under the right conditions, can hold face-to-face instruction and avoid widespread transmission of the deadly novel coronavirus within a campus.

With three to four weeks in the books, those districts reported about 80 active COVID-19 cases as of Friday among the roughly 112,000 students and 29,000 staff members regularly traveling to campuses. While the source of those infections is not known, none of the eight districts are reporting several active cases at a single campus.

Most districts consider a case active if an individual spent time on district premises, later tested positive for COVID-19 and remains in recovery.

[…]

Michael Chang, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School, said COVID-19 spread among students and staff will become more clear in the next few weeks, though rapid outbreaks have occurred in settings with large gatherings of children.

“Particularly in high school and maybe middle school, I think you’d anticipate a relatively quick signal and fast outbreak,” Chang said. “Not too many districts have had a lot of face-to-face students for that long yet. It might be a little early, especially if we have asymptomatic kids.”

The possibility of a school-based outbreak also could increase as more districts resume in-person classes.

Several districts that serve large numbers of Black, Hispanic and lower-income families — who are testing positive for COVID-19 and dying from the disease at higher rates than wealthier and white families — are just starting face-to-face classes or returning to campuses in the coming weeks. Houston ISD, the region’s largest school district, is tentatively scheduled to offer in-person classes beginning Oct. 19.

Still, the lack of immediate outbreaks suggests the use of masks, social distancing and handwashing could be helping to limit the spread on campuses.

“I firmly believe we can open up schools pretty safely,” said Jeffrey Starke, a professor of pediatrics who specializes in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. “Is it going to be perfect? No. Are there going to be cases? Sure. But I think the impact on the community can be minimal if we do it safely.”

I sure hope so. The potential for schools to be a huge vector for COVID spread is real, and it will only take one or two outbreaks to have a big effect. My own kids are going to be back on campus in a couple of weeks, so I’m keeping a very close eye on this. The optimistic take on this is that it may finally convince some mask skeptics that wearing the damn things really does matter. The pessimistic view is more gruesome than I care to write down. Let’s hope that what we’re seeing now is what we will continue to get.

HPD adopts cite-and-release

Took them long enough.

The Houston Police Department plans to join Harris County’s cite-and-release program, fulfilling advocates’ long-running request to implement the policy they say keeps low-level offenders out of jail and saves law enforcement resources for more serious threats.

In a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety Committee, two assistant chiefs on Thursday laid out the program they would use for a set of six misdemeanors offenses. The strategy mirrors that already used by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other local departments in the county, using a program set up by Harris County court-at-law judges.

In those cases, officers now would be required to give people a citation with the time and date they must appear in court, instead of hauling them to jail, unless they meet certain exceptions. Like the sheriff’s office, HPD officers who use their discretion to disqualify an eligible offender from the program would have to get supervisor approval and list the reason in their report, according to the presentation.

“I believe cite-and-release programs are critical, not just as it relates to police reform, but addressing the prison pipeline and, quite frankly, racism in our criminal justice system,” said City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs the committee. “I reiterate that this is just one aspect of improving and making sure our city is safe for all Houstonians. We can’t be finished after cite and release.”

Assistant Chief Wendy Baimbridge said the department plans to adopt the program internally, as it is allowed to do under state law. It was not clear when that will be done.

[…]

Darrell Jordan, a Harris County court-at-law judge who helped design the cite-and-release program, which launched in February, said the city should not win plaudits for dragging its feet and finally succumbing to pressure.

He said the roll-out and presentation of the program was “all for show” and wasted time. The city could have opted into the program without an ordinance days, weeks, or months ago, if it wanted. The county’s cite-and-release court has processed 113 cases since the program’s launch in February. About half of those, 60, came from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, that agency reported.

“I don’t believe in applauding people for waiting six months to fix a problem,” he said. “That’s six months Houstonians had less officers on the streets. How many victims have suffered waiting for police officers to respond? How many alleged criminals have gotten away?”

See here and here for the background. I largely agree with Judge Jordan here, with two caveats. One, late is still better than never, so I do credit the city for eventually coming around. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but at least in the end they did make the right decision. And two, I do want City Council to vote on making this an ordinance, to make it harder for future police chiefs to tinker around the edges of this system if for whatever the reason they don’t like some part of it. It would also ensure that HPD doesn’t take too much time getting around to implementing this. This can, and ideally should, be part of a larger ordinance that includes other reforms. It’s a first step, not the end of the journey.

The post-Harvey flood control march

It’s a long journey, with a lot to be done. It’s going to take awhile.

Most of Kenwood, a working class, mostly Latino neighborhood, is so deep in the 100-year floodplain that Harris County engineers have concluded no flood control project could protect it from a strong storm. Instead, the county began a voluntary buyout program in Kenwood and seven other vulnerable areas two years ago, but found few takers. Under pressure to spend federal Harvey recovery aid more quickly, the county this summer chose to make the buyouts mandatory.

The extraordinary step only underscores that, more than three years after Harvey rolled ashore as the worst rainstorm in continental U.S. history — and amid a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season — progress toward reducing Houston’s greatest vulnerability has been painfully slow and piecemeal at best.

Voters passed a $2.5 billion bond two years ago, giving the county a huge injection of funding to tackle nearly 200 flood control projects. Those projects take time, often years, to complete, however. And county officials concede the cost to fully protect against 100-year storms is more than 10 times higher than what voters approved.

City Hall lacks a comparable cash infusion and so mostly is waiting on the slow-motion arrival of federal aid. Meanwhile, its voter-approved street and drainage program has been shorted by more than $260 million over the last six years, money that has been used on other city services.

The city and county did update their floodplain building standards in the months after the storm, but City Council has yet to follow Commissioners Court’s lead in strengthening storm water detention rules.

“Folks are definitely still quite dissatisfied with the level of flood protection that’s been provided thus far from the city and the county,” said Chrishelle Palay, director of Houston Organizing Movement for Equity. “When it comes to historically underserved communities of color, those are the communities where the infrastructure has been disinvested, both from street flooding and from watershed protection.”

The Houston region’s most readily available defense against future floods is the $2.5 billion county bond.

To date, the county Flood Control District has begun work on 144 of its 188 planned bond projects, but only 18 have reached the construction stage, said Deputy Executive Director Matt Zeve. A dozen projects the district funded with other revenues also have been completed since Harvey, removing an estimated 5,000 homes from the 100-year floodplain.

The bond funds are helping to accelerate long-planned projects and start new ones, Zeve said, but large infrastructure improvements cannot be engineered and built overnight.

“There are places in Harris County that are right where they were three years ago, but there are several areas where we’ve completed projects or are constructing projects right now, and those areas will have a lower risk of flooding in a future storm event,” Zeve said. “It’s not as fast as everyone wants, but we do feel like we’re making good progress on major flood damage reduction projects all over Harris County, with more to come.”

Home buyouts, though some take a year to complete, move the fastest, making the 560 repeatedly flooded homes the county has bought since Harvey among the few tangible signs of progress the city and county have made toward reducing flood risk since the storm.

Even this seemingly simple task, however, can be an arduous process fraught with difficulties and heartache for residents.

There’s progress, but it’s slow and spotty. We should acknowledge that capital projects take time by their nature, and so does relocating people. There’s a lot to be done because there was so much that hadn’t been done over the past thirty or forty years. I don’t know what else there is to say about this. We should keep a close eye on the progress of all of the projects, we should continue to demand that more is done, and we should be voting for politicians who work towards these goals, but in the end and under the best of circumstances, this is going to take time.

Cite and release for Houston

Good.

Houston is preparing a cite-and-release policy that could let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of an arrest, perhaps the city’s most significant bid at criminal justice reform since the killing of George Floyd ignited a renewed national reckoning over policing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner previously has alluded to the effort, and the proposal is scheduled for discussion at the Public Safety Committee on Thursday. City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs that committee, said she has helped work on the policy.

“I’m thankful to community groups for advocating for this, and to HPD and Mayor Turner for bringing this forward so quickly,” Kamin said.

The details of the measure, which remain in the works, were not immediately available Monday, including which offenses would be included and whether tickets would be required — or merely preferred — instead of arrests. It also is unclear whether the measure would be an ordinance passed by the city council or an administration policy.

Since 2007, state law has allowed citations for all Class C misdemeanors and some others. Among them: possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana; criminal mischief (damage up to $750); graffiti; theft of up to $750; providing contraband in a correctional facility; and driving with an invalid license. In those cases, officers can give offenders a written citation with a date and time to appear in court, allowing them to await the hearing without going to jail.

Advocates and elected officials in Houston have been calling for a cite-and-release policy for years. The “Justice Can’t Wait” report, released in July by a broad coalition of Houston-area criminal justice advocacy groups, renewed calls for the policy, and five city council members echoed that in a letter released late last month.

The mayor’s own transition team recommended such a policy in a 2016 report after Turner first was elected.

See here for some background. I know some people can’t sleep at night unless everyone who has ever encountered a police officer is in a jail cell, but would you rather have those officers spend their time hauling graffiti artists and people with expired licenses off to jail, or patrolling the streets after writing them a ticket? The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February, and as far as I can tell the region has not fallen into anarchy and chaos. Keep people out of jail and keep cops on the streets. And maybe that Task Force report (due by the end of the month) will have more.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the story, with some back-and-forth about whether the city should implement this now as a matter of policy, or draft an ordinance to mandate cite-and-release and implement it that way.

Houston to allow some limited events

I dunno, man. I get the impulse, but I don’t think I’m ready.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will allow certain events in what the mayor calls “controlled environments” to resume in the city, marking his most significant move toward reopening as the spread of COVID-19 slows here.

The events still will have limited crowds, with a maximum capacity of 25 percent, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced at a news conference Wednesday. All attendees must wear masks, answer a virus questionnaire, submit to a temperature screening and maintain social distancing.

The events that received the city’s approval so far are: a drive-in tailgate Thursday for the Texans: 100 cars are allowed, with a maximum of four people per car; Houston Symphony concerts: 150 guests will be allowed in the 3,000-seat Jones Hall auditorium; and Houston Dynamo and Dash games at BBVA Stadium: the teams are preparing for up to 3,000 fans, which would be about 14 percent capacity.

The Dynamo averaged 15,674 fans at 17 home games in 2019, and the Dash garnered an average of 4,086 fans, the teams said. The schedule for Major League Soccer’s Phase 2 has not been released yet, so it is not yet clear when fans will return. The teams’ plans for welcoming fans include staggered entry times for the stadium, and “seating pods” that minimize interaction between different groups of fans.

“I think we are all wanting to open up even more,” Turner said, “but we also recognize that it is better to be cautious rather than to be aggressive, and then finding ourselves having to go right back to the very beginning.”

While transmission is decreasing, the virus continues to spread in Houston. The city has driven down its positivity rate — the number of tests that come back positive — to 6.6 percent. Turner had set a goal of getting that number, which peaked above 25 percent in late June and early July, below 5 percent by the end of August.

The national average is 5.3 percent, according to Johns Hopkins University. Some states, like New York and Connecticut, have seen their rates drop to below 1 percent. Houston has reported 66,483 cases of the virus and 906 deaths as of Wednesday.

Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious diseases and tropical medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, said the region has made significant progress, but it has not reached the point where it is in control of the virus.

“Any large gathering where there are people in close contact — particularly if you’re indoors and generating a lot of respiratory droplets, if you are yelling or screaming or singing — it’s going to increase the chance of outbreaks,” she said.

[…]

The city is requiring an extensive list of safety protocols, [Susan Christian, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events] said. The three events approved Wednesday already had adopted most of those protocols.

“We just had to tweak it a bit,” she said. “These producers have been working on these guidelines, as we have, for quite some time now.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office said the county is waiting for its threat index to lower before it considers allowing similarly-sized events. The county remains at the most serious threat level, which “signifies a severe and uncontrolled level of COVID-19.”

“Trends are moving in the right direction right now, but we’re not quite there yet,” said Rafael Lemaitre, Hidalgo’s communications director.

I’ve stared at this draft for some time now, and I still don’t know what to say. I lean towards the county’s view, but I get what the city is trying to do. There’s got to be a lot of pressure for some return to having public events, and of course not being able to have them is a drain on city finances. You can make a risk-based assessment for either position. I just hope this works out.

Scrambling to finish the Census

It’s a hell of a job, and it’s so important.

With a deadline looming for local governments to complete a population count for the 2020 Census, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is warning that the city could miss out on billions in federal funding for services such as road repairs and school lunches.

The reason? Less than 57 percent of the city’s residents have filled out the census form, a nine-question survey that can be completed by mail, phone or online. The city of Houston was planning a major outreach effort to avoid an undercount among young and poor people, immigrants and communities of color. The pandemic and economic insecurity from shuttered businesses, however, hampered outreach efforts and hobbled participation, officials say.

“September is the final month to respond to the Census,” Turner tweeted this month. “Over 40% of Houstonians have yet to answer 9 questions @mycensus2020.gov which could cost Houston $1500 person per year for 10 years. Please do so now.”

Sasha-Joi Marshall Smith, a city planner who has been coordinating outreach efforts, attributed low participation to political interference, civil unrest and the coronavirus pandemic. She is “terrified” about the economic and social reverberations of an undercount that’s now running about 15 percentage points behind 2010.

Every 1 percent of the population that’s not counted means $250 million in federal funding that the city is entitled to will be directed to another city, she said. “It’s that serious.”

“I tell people, ‘It’s our federal tax dollars… God forbid it goes to Dallas,’” she said. “Whether you were born here or not, it’s our job to make sure people here have basic services.”

Harris County faces a similar predicament, with just under 61 percent of residents having participated.

“There are so many pockets in Harris County where we haven’t heard from most people — perhaps a fraction of the people have responded but most have not responded,” said Tazeen Zehra, a senior census staffer in Houston.

Galveston County has had such a low return rate — 58 percent — that census workers have sought helpers from neighboring counties. Montgomery County is doing slightly better with just under 66 percent reporting. Fort Bend County has the highest participation rate in the state with more than 73 percent responding overall, including nearly 80 percent in Sugar Land.

The current deadline for local governments to complete their counts is Sept. 30. But outreach workers are hoping a federal judge will extend that deadline to Oct. 31 for the entire country at a court hearing in California next week. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined as plaintiffs in the California case because they’re concerned that their districts will be undercounted without an extension. The Trump administration previously offered an extension, then withdrew the offer.

We’ve discussed the challenges of the Census many times. The undercounting issue is so pervasive that even our retrograde state leadership has been forced to try to do something about it. There’s a temporary restraining order in that California lawsuit to which Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are parties, with a hearing scheduled for the 17th. I think the odds are good that the plaintiffs will prevail since “arbitrary and capricious” is the standard operating procedure for this administration, but even with those extra 31 days it’s going to be tough to get an adequate count. As with so many other things these days, this did not have to happen.

On a related note:

A three-judge federal panel in New York has ruled that the Trump administration cannot keep undocumented immigrants from being counted when lawmakers reapportion congressional districts next year — an effort that could have potentially cost Texas several seats in Congress.

In a significant departure from the way representation is typically divided up, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum in July directing Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to exclude undocumented immigrants from the base population used to distribute seats in Congress. But in its Thursday ruling, the panel of judges deemed the memo an “unlawful exercise of authority granted to the President.”

The constitutionally mandated count each 10 years of every person residing in the country is used to determine congressional representation from each state. Excluding undocumented residents from the counts used to parcel out congressional districts would likely lead to a drastic realignment of political power throughout Texas.

Trump pursued the change by arguing that the U.S. Constitution does not define “which persons must be included” in that base population. But the New York panel of judges blocked Ross, who oversees the census, from providing any information on the number of undocumented people in each state.

See here for the background. This would almost certainly cost the state of Texas at least one if not two of the Congressional seats that it’s otherwise likely to get. Not that any of our state leaders care, going by their utter lack of any reaction to that memorandum. The courts can’t save us from everything, but they have been there at times like this.

Mutant mosquito update

Keeping you informed on the news you can really use.

Four years ago, the Zika virus became an issue. More than 300 people were infected in Texas. Zika can cause birth defects and fetal neurodevelopmental abnormalities in pregnant women.

The vector is Aedes (rhymes with ladies) aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. The Aedes mosquitoes transmit Zika, chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever, which prompted state and county health officials to discuss actionable solutions to control the mosquito.

Talks about releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in Houston began in 2018 between Harris County and Oxitec, a United Kingdom-based company that produces sustainable technologies or transgenic methodologies to stem the impact of disease-spreading insects. Talk also began about a similar action in Monroe County, Fla.

However, ecological concerns have been raised about the use of these mosquitoes.

“We had stakeholders there who wanted to use it,” said Kevin Gorman, head of field operations at Oxitec. “We had vector control authorities who were keen to try the technology.”

The Environmental Protection Agency stated in a May 2020 press release that it approved an experimental use permit to Oxitec to field-test its genetically engineered mosquito in the United States.

The genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are males that mate with wild female Aedes aegypti, essentially causing the offspring to die before they can reproduce due to a genetic variation.

Oxitec had two successful years of controlling the Aedes aegypti in Brazil with its current generation of mosquito and had several years of efficacy in Brazil with its first-generation, Gorman said.

[…]

A release in Florida seems imminent, but not in Texas. Despite an established relationship and much communication, it looks like the Florida Keys will be going solo.

“Although we really enjoyed a sort of really great relationship with Houston at the moment we’re in a holding pattern with Houston,” Gorman said. “And we’re unlikely to be releasing there, and there certainly aren’t firm plans to do so in the next year.”

He cited uncertainty due to personnel changes in the county government as the reason for the decision.

A statement sent to Reform Austin by Sam Bissett, a communications specialist with Harris County Public Health, said the choice to not move forward with the release was made last year by both parties.

“At this time, there are no agreements or approval in place for Harris County to work with Oxitec in 2021. While we have had discussions with Oxitec previously about a potential partnership with Harris County Public Health, those discussions were paused last year between both sides.”

See here for my previous post on Oxitec and mutant mosquitoes, from 2017. There’s a lot more to the story and it’s hard to just capture the essence of it, so go read the whole thing. Apparently, the Aedes aegypti mosquito is more abundant in the Rio Grnade Valley than in Harris County, so maybe we’re not the best place to test this out in the US. Harris County also employs mosquito traps and dragonfly armies to control the local skeeter population. Which all seems a whole lot more quaint these days, but Zike and its ilk haven’t gone away just because we’re mostly inside these days. We will be spending more time outside again, and when we do we’d like to not be at significant risk from some other emergent deadly disease, thank you very much. Maybe next time we’ll be able to work something out.

No, seriously, what are we going to do to prepare for the next Hurricane Laura?

I mean, the next one is coming whether we’re ready or not. We just don’t know when it will be here.

Though the storm ultimately tracked east, sparing Houston, the problem remains: The region is disastrously unready to handle any of the three main threats of an intense hurricane: a high surge, damaging winds and — even three years after Hurricane Harvey — flooding.

While Harvey’s devastating stall over the Houston area has resulted in billions of dollars of investment in flood control infrastructure and new regulations, Laura reminded the region of what a different kind of storm could do.

In its wake, leaders have made impassioned pleas about preparing for when — not if — that storm does arrive. Most notably, they have ramped up calls for federal funding on a so-called “coastal spine,” a system of levees, gates and dunes first proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008, to protect the region from a storm surge.

Those plans, though, remain mired in the slog of the federal approval process. The kind of political will and cohesion needed to fast-track such infrastructure typically only forms after disasters, not before.

[…]

There are signs the region has reached an inflection point on the need to protect against that threat. A growing consensus among local officials around the effects of climate change has shifted the public policy debate to figuring out which infrastructure projects will help stave off its worst effects, and at what cost.

The proposed coastal spine, a 71-mile-long barrier system to protect the southeast Texas coast, has received the most attention since it was taken up by the Army Corps of Engineers in October 2018.

The plan is an outgrowth of the “Ike Dike” concept first pitched more than a decade ago by William Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston. It includes a series of gates that stretch the two-mile length of Bolivar Road, twin rows of 14-foot-high sand dunes across Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, a ring levee around Galveston’s city center and investments in ecosystem restoration.

The price tag has been put at $23 billion to $32 billion, with the dunes and sea gate at the ship channel alone costing up to $18 billion of that. It is in the midst of a five-year design and study process and is on track to be sent to Congress for final approval in May 2021.

“Quite frankly, we need it yesterday,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week. “We’re running out of lives, so to speak.”

Even on the most optimistic timeline, the coastal barrier is 10 to 15 years from becoming a reality. With the Houston-Galveston region a perennial target during the Atlantic hurricane season, there is a growing urgency to find a more expedient, cheaper solution.

The Galveston Bay Park Plan, first proposed by the Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the coastal spine, but adds a mid-bay barrier island system with a 25-foot wall that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney and co-director of the SSPEED Center, says the plan could provide vital protection a lot sooner than the coastal spine, but that it also could complement that barrier. He estimates that if allowed to use dredging spoils from the planned widening of the Houston Ship Channel to build the barrier islands, the project could be completed by 2027 at a fraction of the cost of the coastal spine — an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion.

“You have a coastal defense and that’s your first line of defense and then you come in with your in-bay defense, that is really the one that can protect against your bigger storms,” Blackburn said. “It’s very much almost like thinking in a military sense of how do you defend against an enemy invasion?”

See here and here for some background. I’m of the opinion that we just need to start building something, and that the price tag is a mirage, because the federal government can absolutely afford this. What we can’t afford is to sit around on our asses until the devastating storm we’ve been warned about for years comes and wipes our unprepared selves right off the map.

What makes a mural?

I’m kind of fascinated by this.

Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle

For two decades, passersby could easily miss Bud Adams’ vacant midcentury modern building on the Southwest Freeway near Hillcroft.

Not anymore. The low-slung, massive roof over the car dealership, formerly owned by the late NFL Houston Oilers/Tennesse Titans founder, was recently painted yellow with boxy patches of red, Luv Ya blue and white that beam like joyful sunshine.

The design isn’t recognizable unless, maybe, you know the logo of Joyride, the new Houston car leasing company that now owns the building; in which case you could imagine it as one of those magic-eye brain games. That has city sign inspectors seeing red, and it has put the company and popular street artist Sebastien ‘Mr. D’ Boileau in hot water.

The dispute escalated this week after Joyride appealed two citations for violating Houston’s sign codes and the city charged Boileau with not holding a sign painting license, painting an unlawful sign and painting a sign on a roof.

“I’m not a sign painter. I’m an artist,” Boileau said. “It’s a slippery slope for the practice of murals in Houston.”

The trouble began in late January, when a permit to install a sign with Joyride’s logo on its roof was denied. Co-founder and CEO Rick Williams still wanted to do “something fun” with 10,000-square foot surface. “The roof deserves some sort of attention,” he said. “It’s unique, pitched at a low angle, with terrific visibility from the freeway.”

Williams had hired Boileau several years ago to transform a downtown space for his previous company, Texas Direct Auto. “He took this ugly little building and turned it into a ‘colony on Mars,’” Williams said. This time, he asked Boileau to paint a mural that might cleverly incorporate his company’s colors, without text or logos, in a way that would satisfy officials.

Boileau saw an ugly roof and a massive canvas too inviting to resist. “I deliberately, extremely abstracted the imagery with the knowledge that we didn’t want to rub the city the wrong way,” he said. “It’s my artistic interpretation, which had a deliberate goal of not matching the logo — not even a curve of it.”

Inspired by Joyride’s tech-based aesthetic, Boileau pixelated the original four-color imagery, breaking it into blocks of 20 contrasting colors. His execution and materials were strictly street-art driven, he added. “I emptied 100 spray cans that I exploded with screw drivers.”

[…]

Erin Jones, a city Public Works spokesperson, said she couldn’t comment on some aspects of the issue since it goes before an appeals board next month. “I hate for Sebastien to think we’re regulating art,” she said, “but this violates the first commandment of the regulations: No signs on roofs.” Anything with a logo for a business must be done by a licensed sign contractor, she added. “Our sign guys love art. But allowing a logo sets a dangerous precedent for advertising.”

Williams, the Joyride CEO, is not backing down. “It seems obvious to me that it’s art,” he said. “This project took months to develop. It’s not some sign company rolling out vinyl. It was a labor of love.”

The story cites some other examples of murals running into issues because they included logos in them. I get the concern, but maybe there needs to be a bit more flexibility in the code. We’ll see how this shakes out. In the meantime, I feel like I need to do a drive-by and see this for myself. What do you think?

Dallas ends its scooter experiment

Over in Dallas, never started in Houston.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Tis better to have scootered and stopped than to have never scootered at all.

That is the consensus of a handful of Houston proponents of rental scooters as they watched Dallas this week order companies to pull the devices from local streets, citing crime and other issues with their use.

“We have received complaints about scooters and would like to make substantial changes to the scooter program,” said Dallas Transportation Director Mike Rogers, in a statement. “The changes will include public safety considerations so that the city may have safe modes of alternative transportation.”

Companies have flooded some cities with scooters people can rent by the minute with a smartphone app, part of a growing micro-mobility movement. Users can grab a scooter, motor to wherever they are going within a few blocks or miles and simply leave the scooter for the next person. Advocates say the scooters reduce car travel while making moving outdoors in inhospitable places — like scorching Texas — possible.

Critics call the scooters mobile clutter, complaining they crowd sidewalks and pose a safety hazard to pedestrians and riders.

That is the point Dallas hit earlier this week. City officials told Bird, Spin, Jump and any other companies still out there to cease operations on Wednesday and remove all the scooters by Friday, bringing an end to a popular but contentious debate about dockless devices and local transportation, for now.

It is a debate Houston mostly has avoided simply by doing nothing. Regulations in Houston make deploying the scooters murky at best — much as companies such as Uber and Lyft began operating in a cloud of uncertainty related to taxi rules. The consensus was Houston’s regulations would need to be changed before scooters hit the streets for rent.

Houston was an outlier in Texas in not having scooters. Dallas and Austin were both fertile markets for the devices, at least until COVID significantly upended the business and some of the companies collapsed or cut back. San Antonio finalized its agreement with the companies in January after 10 months of public discussion, allowing Razor and Bird to deploy up to 1,000 scooters each.

[…]

Houston officials said scooter regulations remain possible, but are not a high priority compared to such efforts as Vision Zero to eliminate roadway deaths. .

“The city’s focus right now is on implementing Vision Zero and adding bike lanes across the city,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. “At this time, a program is not under consideration but we are studying it and trying to figure out how it could safely work.”

Officials also are working through a number of transportation-related rule changes, including specific prohibitions and greater enforcement of illegal parking in bike lanes.

Meanwhile, use of Houston’s B-Cycle system is booming during the pandemic as bike-sharing officials ready for more expansion, including 100 new e-bikes that bring their own challenges related to trail safety.

Until I saw this headline earlier in the week, I’d completely forgotten that just over a year ago it looked like scooters, or at least some proposed scooter regulations, were about to debut in Houston. Crazy how things can change, huh? Scooters may have failed in Dallas, but they remain a success in San Antonio, as long as they keep off the sidewalk. We can only speculate at this point what their fate might have been in Houston if Lime and Bird and the rest had simply taken the Uber/Lyft approach and invaded the city first, letting the regulatory issues sort themselves out later.

Honestly, I think the main reason why scooters have taken a back seat in Houston is that the city’s attention has been much more on bikes and expanding bicycle infrastructure. B-Cycle has been successful and continues to expand, while Dallas tried and failed to go with dockless bike sharing. The city of Houston, along with Harris County and the Bayou Greenway Initiative, has been busy building out its bike infrastructure, which by the way is off limits to scooters as they are not people-powered. Also, too, we do have electric bikes in the pipeline, and they pretty much serve the same transportational niche as scooters.

So maybe this is a lot of fuss about nothing much. Or maybe the problem was that the scooter business model doesn’t necessarily work everywhere, and perhaps Dallas and eventually Houston would be served better by a non-profit scooter rental system like B-Cycle. I mean, if it really is about solving a people-moving problem that enables mobility without cars, then it shouldn’t matter what the entity behind the scooters is. I’ve said all along, I’m happy that other cities have taken the lead in working out all the kinks in this process before it comes to Houston, so my thanks to the people of Big D for their service. The Dallas Observer has more.

Back to school

How’d it go for you and your kids?

On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.

On Tuesday, as many of the state’s biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.

Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn’t under control.

In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio’s North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.

Only about half of Seguin ISD’s students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.

Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.

Here’s the local view.

Students in Klein and about nine districts throughout the region will get their real first taste of the new learning environment on Tuesday as those districts welcome back those who opted to come to school rather than attend online. Among them are Cypress-Fairbanks, Katy, Conroe, Spring Branch, La Porte, Magnolia and Santa Fe ISDs.

It marks the biggest return of students to school campuses in six months, after schools were closed in mid-March to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Already, students in Lamar CISD and Humble, Alvin, Dickinson, Galveston and Barbers Hill ISDs have brought some of their students back in recent weeks.

The districts are forging ahead with plans to reopen campuses despite warnings from regional health authorities and some local leaders who say it still is too early. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah recommended in August that schools remain closed until there are fewer cases of COVID-19 and less community spread. The two set benchmarks for schools to begin reopening, but with current statistics, it would take weeks to reach them.

Hidalgo and Shah only can offer recommendations, after Gov. Greg Abbott said local government officials do not have the legal authority to preemptively close campuses. Instead, he said, those decisions should be left to school districts. In some Houston-area districts, school boards, parents and some educators have argued that the benefits of face-to-face instruction, especially after such a long hiatus, outweigh potential health risks.

“We can provide a schooling online, but we can’t provide an education online,” Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Superintendent Mark Henry said at a July board meeting.

Others have opted to keep their students learning remotely for the foreseeable future, including Fort Bend and Alief ISDs. In Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, students will return Tuesday to online-only classes, which are scheduled to remain in place until mid-October.

District officials estimate that about 18,000 students still lack the computer or internet access needed for online classes. As a result, HISD is directing those students to 36 “learning centers” with adult supervision and available technology. HISD officials said they are not publicizing the learning center locations.

“It just can’t be everyone showing up,” HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “It’s truly assigned locations for students and staff.”

[…]

For those that already have opened classrooms, teachers and students still are adapting.

In Humble ISD, middle and high school students are coming into the buildings in alternating groups, with an A group coming on some days and a B group on others.

Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said she has been surprised the elementary schoolers have not had as many issues with face masks and social distancing as some had feared.

“We’re starting to get our arms around it pretty well,” Fagen said. “Every day there are new metrics to monitor, and we hope we can get to a place for (more) in person in near future.”

For students at Klein ISD’s Mahaffey Elementary who chose in-person instruction, last Wednesday served as a crash course for their new school realities.

Staff practiced funneling students through entrances assigned by grade rather than the main doors in the front. They showed students how to keep their distance in hallways and spent class periods juggling between in-person students and those learning remotely on Zoom calls. They adjusted their cameras, helped parents troubleshoot technology problems and made sure the kids in their classrooms knew the new procedures.

It was a strange day here, as my girls started with remote learning. We’re used to that, in that we had done it before, but it was still strange to just transition from “no school” to “distance learning school”. Didn’t have that usual “first day of school” feel, you know? There were some connection issues on the HISD hub that affected Olivia’s school, but students were redirected to an alternate site that seemed to work, so no big deal. Ask me again in a week how it’s going.

For the schools that are reopening for in person instruction, I sure hope it all goes well. I hope the mask-wearing and social distancing and other protocols that are being adopted to (hopefully) keep virus spread to a minimum works as planned, not just for them but for the rest of us, who will be in the same position in six weeks. Unless it doesn’t go well, of course, in which case they’ll be in the same position as us. I absolutely want everyone to get back to school. I also absolutely want everyone to literally survive the year, with no adverse health effects lingering on. I don’t know that we can do both of those things just yet. I’m glad it’s not my kids’ schools that are the guinea pigs for that experiment, and I sincerely hope that experiment is a ringing success. I figure we’ll know, more or less, by the time it’s our turn to go back.

RIP, Luby’s

The end of an era.

Looks like the days of LuAnn platters are coming to an end. Luby’s board of directors has “approved and adopted a plan of liquidation and dissolution,” the company announced.

The plan will need to be approved by the company’s shareholders. A date for that vote was not included in today’s announcement.

Previously, Luby’s stated it would seek a sale of its assets that would pay off its debts and generate money for its stockholders. Following the liquidation plan will generate between $92 million and $123 million, according to the company’s estimates. That represents between $3 and $4 per share of its stock (approximately 30.7 million shares outstanding).

“This plan of liquidation is the next logical step in the company’s previously announced plan to maximize value of the company through the sale of its operations and assets,” Gerald Bodzy and Randolph Read, co-chairmen of the special committee responsible for the decision, said in a statement. “Our stockholders have expressed their support for seeking alternatives to continuing to operate the company’s restaurants in their current form, and we believe the plan of liquidation will allow the company to accomplish that task in the most efficient manner.”

Ultimately, the company intends to converts all of its assets into cash, resolve its debts, and then file a certificate of dissolution. Its stock (NYSE: LUB) would be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange at that point or possibly sooner according to the exchange’s rules.

While a slim possibility exists that a buyer could be found that would keep the Houston-based cafeteria chain whole — Luby’s also owns Fuddrucker’s — the more likely plan seems to be that the restaurants will close and the company’s real estate holdings and other assets will be sold. Still, the company argues that a buyer who might preserve the restaurants is possible.

I assume Fuddrucker’s will continue as an entity, just owned by some other conglomerate. As for Luby’s, well, as someone said, tastes changed but Luby’s didn’t. Life is like that sometimes, unfortunately. I don’t have the emotional attachment to the place that natives do, but I sure do know some folks that are broken up about this. Texas Monthly, Houstonia, and the Chron have more.

HISD may do remote learning on Election Day

Makes sense to me.

Houston ISD’s administration wants to hold online-only classes on Election Day this November, citing safety concerns at more than 100 campuses that are expected to be used as polling locations.

“While it is not unusual for our school sites to be used as polling locations, the COVID-19 pandemic makes the safety of our students and staff more challenging when significant numbers of voters would be entering the schools throughout the day,” district officials wrote in documents provided to the school board.

HISD trustees are expected to vote Sept. 10 on the request.

[…]

It is not immediately clear whether the Texas Education Agency will penalize HISD for not offering in-person classes on Election Day, which is Nov. 3.

Under current TEA guidelines, public school districts can keep campuses closed up to eight weeks at the outset of the school year, though they must start to offer some in-person classes after the fourth week. Election Day falls on HISD’s ninth week of classes.

Districts that violate TEA guidelines risk losing state funding. However, TEA officials have said they plan to remain flexible amid the pandemic on safety matters.

As we know there will be 808 voting locations in Harris County on Election Day, which is nearly one per precinct. Schools have always been used as polling places – the elementary (Travis) and middle (Hogg) schools in my neighborhood are voting locations, as are nearby Crockett and Field elementaries. It is completely sensible to keep the kids home on a day when these schools will be full of strangers, in this time of pandemic. I would very much hope that the TEA will see it that way, but given some of the desperate shenanigans that are being pulled right now, I will need to hear it from them before I believe it. I hope HISD has been checking in with the TEA on this, and I hope the trustees are fully informed on this when they vote. We’ll find out next week.

Politico profile of Lina Hidalgo

Good stuff.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

In late April, Lina Hidalgo stood at a microphone in the Harris County emergency operations center in Houston and pushed up the teal fabric face mask that had slipped off her nose. Her voice was slightly muffled as she spoke. Next to her, an American Sign Language interpreter translated for an audience that couldn’t see her lips. But there was no need to worry her message would be lost. Soon it would become the subject of debate across the country—and so would she.

Hidalgo, the county judge of Harris County—the top elected official in the nation’s third-largest county—announced that millions of people in the Houston area would be required to wear a face covering in public to slow the spread of the coronavirus. People who didn’t comply would risk a fine of up to $1,000. Behind her, charts and graphs told the statistical story that had led Hidalgo to this moment. Since early March, when the state’s first case of Covid-19 had been identified in Houston, the urban heart of Harris County, the number of infected people in the county had climbed to 3,800. That day, the death toll stood at 79 and Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, warned that number could “exponentially increase.”

Hidalgo had been bracing for the disease for weeks. She had sought advice from officials in King County in Washington state, the nation’s first hot spot. Armed with their insight, she rallied her own emergency management and public health officials to prepare a response and on March 16 ordered the closure of bars and restaurant dining rooms. Initially, state officials followed suit. Three days after Hidalgo’s order, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a public health disaster for the first time in more than a century. Texans huddled indoors. But by early April, pressure was mounting on Abbott to end the lockdown. Hidalgo was pulling the other way.

You know what happened from there. You should read the whole thing, it’s mostly stuff you already know but it’s deeply satisfying to see someone who’s been right about the virus in all the ways that matter and who’s been the target of some vicious, racist insults as a result of her being right about it get her due. I’m going to highlight two other bits here:

“The perils of straight-ticket voting were on full display Tuesday in Harris County,” the Chronicle’s editorial board clucked. “Longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, a moderate Republican who’s arguably the county’s most respected official, was ousted by Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old graduate student running her first race.”

“We hope she succeeds,” the editorial continued, “but residents can be forgiven for being squeamish about how Hidalgo will lead the county and, by extension, the region’s 6 million people, through the next hurricane.”

I can understand the initial apprehension about a political newcomer taking over as County Judge, and I can understand some unease at it happening as part of a partisan wave. But I guess I’m just going to die mad about all the pearl-clutching over straight-ticket voting, which casts a whole lot of people as mindless automatons instead of individuals who made a choice. That choice in 2018 was to vote for change, and to vote against Donald Trump. One can admire Ed Emmett for his competence, his compassion, his deep concern for Harris County and its residents, and still disagree with him on principles and priorities, and want to see our county government move in a different direction. The sheer condescension in that first paragraph will never not annoy the crap out of me.

“I expect for some Texans it’s a little hard to take that a young Latina who earned her citizenship, as opposed to being born here, has the level of authority that she has,” one of her advisers, Tom Kolditz, told me. “She absorbs every criticism, she listens to every racial dog whistle, she puts up with ageist comments about what her abilities are or are not.”

[…]

Re-opening schools has emerged as another battleground. Hidalgo has taken a position that is consistent with her aggressiveness throughout the pandemic. On July 21, she ordered all school districts in Harris County to delay opening schools for in-person learning for at least eight weeks. Wearing a floral face mask at a recent press conference, her curly hair longer than normal due to the pandemic, she urged the community to work together “until we crush this curve.”

“Then, we can responsibly bring your kids back to school,” she said. “Right now, we continue to see severe and uncontrolled spread of the virus and it would be self-defeating to open schools.”

A familiar chorus of criticism from state and federal Republicans followed quickly. Rep. Crenshaw, among others, has beat the drum that schools must open. And a week after Hidalgo’s announcement, the Texas attorney general said that local health authorities can’t close schools to preemptively prevent the spread of Covid-19. The Texas Education Agency, which oversees public education in the state, announced it wouldn’t fund schools that closed under such orders.

Kolditz, Hidalgo’s adviser and a retired Army brigadier general, has framed the pandemic like a war that can’t be won without a common objective and unity. When Hidalgo was empowered to call the shots in Harris County the pandemic was relatively under control, he said. Since Abbott undermined that, “it’s been a disaster.”

“We’re going to wake up from this pandemic and be stunned by how many lives were wasted by bad leader decisions, and she is not a part of that,” he said.

Hidalgo has largely tried to avoid making the pandemic into a political fight, but she is not naïve about the political implications of every decision. “If we do the best we can and, politically, that wasn’t appropriate for people and I’m not re-elected in two years, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll be able to sleep at night.”

I mean, we could listen to the person who’s been consistently right, or we could listen to the people who have been consistently wrong. Seems like a clear choice to me, but what do I know?

We are not ready to re-reopen

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but…

Texas COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined the most significantly — 4,144 Tuesday, down from 10,893 on July 22 — but new cases, positive test rates, daily deaths and viral spread are all dropping. They are dropping enough that one Texas modeler, Spencer Fox of University of Texas at Austin, went so far as to say he thinks that Texas may have seen the worst of the pandemic — as long as people continue to wear masks and keep their guard up.

A number of other health experts warned against lifting restrictions, noting that the coming Labor Day weekend, the expected resumption of schools and seasonal weather changes have the potential to cause a resurgence like Texas experienced earlier in the summer. They also said the amount of transmission, although improved, is still way too high.

“I don’t want to be Debbie Downer, but we’ve been surprised before,” Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the UTHealth School of Public Health, said last Friday. “It’s a double-edged sword when things start looking better. The virus is still out there, but people think things can go back to normal.”

Troisi added that some experts are hesitant because of the state’s data reporting problems, because it’s possible some other issue will surface. Those problems include under testing, coding errors that caused backlogged results and combining positive diagnostic and antibody tests.

Chris Amos, a Baylor College of Medicine quantitative scientist, said “the timing could not be worse for rolling back.”

“Given the number who test positive reflect perhaps 10 times as many individuals who have not been tested but are positive,” said Amos, “there remains a large pool of individuals who can spread COVID-19 if they begin interacting with many others, and particularly if we allow large groups to start coming together again.”

Amos acknowledged that optimism about opening up is natural given the slowing of COVID-19’s spread. The spread is measured by a value, known as reproductivity, that suggests a slowing or growing of the virus. Over 1 means each infected person transmits it to an average of more than one person and the epidemic grows; under 1 means the virus is transmitted to less than one person and the epidemic won’t sustain itself.

The value for the state overall has been under 1 since July 20.

According to Amos’ calculations, if the state maintains the current trend, with the number around 0.87, it would take 38 days to reduce the COVID-19 burden by another 50 percent.

It’s important to keep reducing that burden before students resume in-person classes, Amos said. He and others advised against a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Not every community or county in Texas is experiencing the same burden of disease,” said Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist with the Texas A&M School of Public Health. “In some places, it may be justified to roll back some restrictions whereas in others, it’d be ill-advised to do so. It will be critically important that rolling back restrictions does not send the message that we are somehow ‘all clear.’”

See here for the background. The basic fact remains that we are still at levels well above where we were in early June, when we first re-opened. There’s no question that if we re-reopened like we re-opened the first time around, we will get the same result. To me, three things are clear. One we shouldn’t change anything until we are back at early-June levels. Two, we should have sensible objective metrics that we can actually measure with accuracy and that we stick to, unlike the first time around. And three, give some discretion back to local jurisdictions so that the counties with a sufficiently low infection rate can be more open (though still within state guidelines) while those that aren’t ready for that kind of openness can continue to do what they need to do to get there. All of this should be screamingly obvious after what we just went through, but I see no reason to believe that Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick have learned anything from that experience.

Houston’s hottest neighborhoods

That’s temperature hot, not realtor hot.

This summer, Houston joins 13 other cities in a massive, community-driven, heat mapping project. More than 80 volunteers like Powers and her son, dubbed “street scientists” by the organizing groups, covered roughly 300 square miles in 32 different polygon-shaped areas.

The project, which is taking place when Houston and Harris County are usually at their hottest, will give scientists, public health officials and community leaders the data necessary to try to cool Houston down. Local leaders hope the heat maps will help direct policy and planning within neighborhoods for things like cooling center locations, greenspace, green rooftops and tree planting. Continuously rising temperatures within cities like Houston can usher in a host of health and environmental problems, and may disproportionately affect lower-income neighborhoods that tend to have less green infrastructure.

As the third largest county in the nation, Harris County’s efforts represent one of the biggest single-day community-led heat mapping events ever held. Scientists say Houston heat mapping has been done before, but this appears to be the first that will provide readily available, comprehensive data.

“This is something that, frankly, is a little bit overdue,” said Jaime González, Houston Healthy Cities program director at The Nature Conservancy in Texas, one of organizations participating in the project.

Indeed, last August was Houston’s second hottest on record, and experts predict it will continue to get hotter this year. By 2065, the number of days above a heat index — which is how hot it feels outside with added humidity — of 105 degrees is predicted to septuple. Houston is already at least 13 degrees hotter than nearby rural areas, according to Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science, and increasing temperatures put undue pressure on power grids.

Houston is undeniably hot, but some areas may be hotter than others. Infrastructure — treeless tracts, packed concrete apartment blocks, busy streets — can create conditions that could result in pockets with higher temperatures. Studies show that temperature discrepancies within a city can differ by 15 to 20 degrees, with more extreme heat often occurring in lower-income neighborhoods.

These heat maps will show quantitative data about urban neighborhoods, and specifically, which ones are more directly impacted by extreme heat.

This is a serious matter of public health, and it’s something that can be addressed by public policy if there’s sufficient data to inform that policy. The simple act of planting trees where they are most needed helps. Let me tell you, as someone who is responsible for walking a dog every day, I am very grateful to live in a neighborhood with a real tree canopy, because it’s the only thing that keeps me from turning into a pile of soot and ash on these brutally hot July and August days. Everyone should have such an amenity available to them. This is also a reality of climate change, in that our failure to address the causes of global warming means we have to take action to try to mitigate its effects, so we can live with them. I hope this effort is a great success.

(I should note that the “Powers” mentioned in the first paragraph of the excerpt is my friend and neighbor Rachel Powers, executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition. Nicely done!)

From the “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” department

Who’s ready to re-reopen Texas?

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled he may be preparing to roll back some emergency restrictions put in place this summer at the height of the state’s coronavirus surge.

Responding to concerns from the battered restaurant industry, the governor tweeted Monday night that new infections and hospitalizations from COVID-19 are receding, and added, “I hope to provide updates next week about next steps.”

“Since my last orders in July, COVID numbers have declined—most importantly hospitalizations,” said Abbott, a Republican.

The governor gave no indication about what steps he might take, and a spokesman did not respond to questions. Abbott has previously said he would consider allowing bars to reopen and restaurants to open further if positive trends continue.

Statewide, new daily infections and hospitalizations are declining, though they remain well above where where they were when Abbott began reopening the state in May — hospitalizations are now double, and average new daily infections are four times as high. It’s also unclear whether the rate of people testing positive, a key metric, is anywhere near where public health experts recommend before opening more businesses and allowing children back into schools.

What could possibly go wrong? See here for a statement from Mayor Turner, who unsurprisingly urges caution. You should also read this Politico profile of County Judge Lina Hidalgo, which I will blog about separately, and remember that at every step of the way in this crisis, Lina Hidalgo has been right and Greg Abbott has been wrong.

Five things we could do now for police reform in Houston

Seems like a good list to me.

Five city council members on Monday sent a letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner outlining police reforms they said Houston can implement immediately, including a “complete overhaul” of the Independent Police Oversight Board, a cite-and-release ordinance and incentive pay for officers who live within city limits.

In the letter, Councilmembers Edward Pollard, Tiffany Thomas, Jerry Davis, Martha Castex-Tatum, and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz say the oversight board, which reviews probes by the Houston Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, needs a reboot.

“We are convinced there must be a complete overhaul of the Independent Police Oversight Board (IPOB),” the letter says. “We have no confidence in the current format. We must create a structure of guidelines that governs the function of the new board to restore public trust with public input.”

They recommended the board have complete autonomy and investigative authority, with full access to all unclassified information from HPD.

The council members also say the city could implement an online, independently-maintained dashboard showing complaints of police misconduct, HPD policies, guidelines, “and other relevant information.”

“This platform will be an innovative measure to not only hold officers accountable for misconduct, but will increase police community relations by being transparent in a data driven fashion,” the letter said.

The letter outlines 25 items they asked be included in the next contract between the city and the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

See here and here for some background. There’s a copy of the letter embedded in the story, or you can see it here. The letter does not mention any budget items and also does not contain the signature of CM Letitia Plummer, who unsuccessfully introduced an amendment to this fiscal year’s budget to redirect some funding for HPD to other services, as well as other reforms. I honestly don’t know what capacity exists to amend the city’s budget during the fiscal year, so it may be that that’s a moot point. As for who did and didn’t sign this letter, in the absence of any Council members commenting on it all we can do is speculate.

As we know, individual Council members cannot introduce an ordinance for debate on their own, so whether or not anything happens here is up to Mayor Turner. We are due to get the vaunted Task Force recommendations in the next week or two, and I’m guessing Mayor Turner will prefer to use that as a starting point for whatever he wants to achieve. You can always call his office, as well as your district Council member and the five At Larges to let them know what you think.