Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Houston

Rental assistance

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our vaccination rates are down, too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

That condition will exist the instant schools reopen.

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

Enforcing the mask order

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

How risky is music?

I’m very interested in the answer to this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restaurants may get to use parking lot space for dining

I like this idea.

Restaurants in Houston, currently limited by 50% indoor capacity limits, may soon be able to serve diners in parking lots to accommodate more guests.

Pending a vote by the Houston City Council, a “More Spaces” plan developed by Houston’s Chief Transportation Officer David Fields would allow restaurants to convert 50% of off-street parking spots to dining spaces.

The ability to make such conversions would allow restaurants to serve more guests in an open-air environment that limits the spread of the coronavirus more effectively than dining indoors, according to Centers for Disease Control guidance. The efforts mirror that of other cities, such as Austin and Atlanta.

Restaurant owners would not need to apply for the authority to do so; instead, they would file a notification with the city so that the planning department can track restaurants’ compliance with the new protocols. The proposal prohibits music in the adapted outdoor dining areas and limits closing hours to no later than midnight. Participating restaurants must also ensure that ADA-accessible parking spaces remain available.

If enacted, the policy will only remain in place under coronavirus emergency orders, but it could serve as a test period for future efforts.

“I think we could learn a lot from this pilot in the immediate term and go back out to the industry and the community and show what we have learned,” Fields said.

I know, eating outdoors on a concrete or asphalt surface in July and August may not sound appealing, but fall is coming, plenty of dining hours are as or after the sun goes down, and I’m sure the restaurants themselves can figure out what will work for them. The point here is that outdoor is safer than indoor, and this will add capacity to restaurants that are currently limited to fifty percent of their indoor capacity. Their parking lots are already underutilized, so why not give them some options? It can’t hurt to try.

Hey, remember District B?

This makes me so mad.

Cynthia Bailey

For the last couple months, Tarsha Jackson has organized north Houston neighborhoods around criminal justice reform, helping to release a “Justice Can’t Wait” policy platform she said the city could enact immediately.

Cynthia Bailey has been working in the same communities, solving what she calls “neighborhood issues” and distributing masks and food amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected underserved communities like those in north Houston.

Renee Jefferson-Smith said she has helped ensure seniors there have hot meals and groceries.

They are familiar roles for candidates running for local office, but lately frustrating ones. Other candidates who ran on the same ballot last fall have been in office for seven months now, working within City Hall to enact policies they favor and helping to deploy city services to constituents that need them.

Tarsha Jackson

The election Jackson, Bailey and Jefferson-Smith ran in — the District B seat on city council — has been on hold since December amid an ongoing legal battle over the ballot.

District B, a majority Black and Latino area between just northeast of downtown to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, has been particularly challenged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Incumbent Jerry Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for a spot in the Texas House, has remained in the seat to ensure district residents have representation. Still, many residents and community leaders there feel left behind.

“They have gone from being upset about it, to trying to understand, to now they’re mad as hell,” said Angeanette Thibodeaux, president of the Acres Homes Super Neighborhood Council. “How ironic is this? How terrible is this? That in a time when we need representation and leadership and support, the one district that needs it more than any is disenfranchised once again. That hurts. In the pit of my stomach, that hurts.”

[…]

The candidates’ lawyers expect an appellate ruling in early August, perhaps as soon as next week, that they hope will settle the matter. Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the city will call an election as soon as the courts decide it can.

See here, here, and here for some background. First and foremost, I’m mad that our laws continue to punish people who have otherwise completed in full the sentence for whatever past crime they may have committed. Cynthia Bailey had as much right to be on that ballot as anyone. We need to fix these racist old laws.

Second, I’m mad at Renee Jefferson Smith for dragging this out. I can understand that she felt like the system wronged her, but the damage she has caused far outweighs any injury she may have received. At any point, she could have accepted the result, allowed the voters of District B to select their next Council member, and worked to change or clarify the law so that this situation would not happen again. She could have chosen to put the district’s needs ahead of her own, but she did not. She may prevail in court – I don’t think that would be a just outcome, because you cannot conclusively determine that she would have finished in the runoff had Cynthia Bailey never been on the ballot, but it is a possible ruling we could get – but if so she does not deserve to be rewarded for it. The only acceptable result at this point is for Tarsha Jackson or Cynthia Bailey to be the next Council member in B.

And just think, this situation could be even worse right now. If Jerry Davis had won his primary runoff against Harold Dutton, then District B would have no one sitting at the Council table for them, for however long it would take to get a court ruling. Even that could come with a down side, as the possibility still exists that someone will file a lawsuit over some vote or other action Davis has taken while serving as Council member-in-overtime, on the grounds that he was not legally able to serve past the end of his term. That hasn’t happened yet thank God, but it still could.

At this point, if we get a ruling before August 17, I think we can have the runoff on the November ballot. I’m assuming here a ruling that denies Jefferson Smith’s appeal and verifies that Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey are the only candidates for the office. I don’t know if this has to be approved by City Council or not, but if so we’ll need the ruling even sooner than that, say by August 10. It would be very nice to get that ruling this week. And if Jefferson Smith prevails and we need to have some kind of do-over…I don’t even want to think about it. Let’s just file this in the “Underappreciated Ways In Which 2020 Has Sucked” folder and go from there.

So we really were undercounting the COVID-19 death rate

Can’t say I’m surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Abbott finally speaks about schools

Of course, he mostly says weasel words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

The school situation remains a big ol’ mess

You can blame Greg Abbott for all this confusion.

After weeks of confusion and conflicting signals, Texas has settled into policies that effectively compel schools to reopen their classrooms this fall no later than eight weeks after the academic year begins, whether they want to or not.

Teachers, parents, school administrators and public health officials have been seeking clarity for weeks on how the state will approach reopening schools safely as coronavirus infections and deaths rise across Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott has not responded directly to questions from reporters about who has the authority to order schools closed in areas hard-hit by the virus, and the Texas Education Agency has sent mixed messages on reopening guidelines.

But despite the lack of any formal announcement from the governor, the die was cast in in a rapid two-step process Tuesday. First, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released nonbinding legal guidance saying local public health officials do not have the power to preemptively require all schools in their jurisdictions to remain closed, even as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in many Texas hotspots.

Then, state education officials reversed an earlier decision by announcing they will not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed for longer than the state allows even if ordered to do so by a local health mandate. Taken together, the actions put school districts in the position of reopening classrooms on the state’s timetable or losing funds and risking potential litigation.

Educators and families must now once again rethink their back-to-school plans this fall. The education agency has given school districts up to eight weeks to limit the number of students permitted on their campuses, after which they must open classrooms to all students who want to attend.

That ninth week is looming large for superintendents who are not sure what the public health landscape will look like at that point. Now, they can’t depend on their local health officials to give them more time, without losing money.

“Starting in the ninth week of our respective school years, regardless of the status of the virus in our communities, as the guidance is written today, we would be faced with two options,” said Northside Superintendent Brian Woods in an interview with the San Antonio Express News editorial board Wednesday. “One would be to ignore a local health order, and in doing so likely put our students and staff and families at risk, or lose funding, which is essential to teaching and serving our families.”

At a school board meeting Tuesday night, Woods indicated he and other superintendents would consider filing a lawsuit seeking to keep their classrooms closed longer if necessary. Paxton’s decision to step into the fray weeks before the school year begins has prompted more questions than answers, including whether a deluge of lawsuits is expected to hit Texas courts demanding health mandates be revoked or enforced.

Emphasis mine, and see here for the background. The Chron’s Jacob Carpenter tries to make sense of this hash.

What is the impact of Paxton’s letter?

Paxton’s letter is not legally binding. The only way the local health authority orders can be negated is through an executive order issued by the governor or a judge’s ruling in a lawsuit.

As of now, Abbott has not issued an executive order declaring that local health authorities cannot mandate school closures, and nobody has filed a lawsuit challenging the local closure orders.

As a result, at this time the school closure mandates issued by local health authorities are legally valid and enforceable.

What did Morath do Tuesday?

Hours after Paxton published his letter, Morath issued new guidance saying public school districts risk losing state funding if they keep campuses shuttered solely as a result of a local health authority closure order.

Districts still can require students with at-home technology access to remain in online-only classes for up to the first eight weeks of the school year. School boards also can push back their school start dates.

If local school closure orders are legally valid, why did Morath say districts risk losing state funding if they follow closure orders?

Morath cited Paxton’s letter in issuing the new guidance on school funding.

“As a state agency, we will follow the Attorney General’s guidance,” Morath said in a statement. “Consequently, a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction for an indefinite period of time.

However, another section of TEA guidance says the agency will continue to provide funding to districts that are forced to close campuses by an entity “authorized to issue such an order under state law” — and as of now, local health authorities have issued legal orders.

Essentially, the TEA has provided two potentially conflicting pieces of guidance.

Who can clear up this conflict?

The simplest answer: Abbott.

At any time, Abbott could issue an executive order that negates all local health orders, or he could announce he will allow the orders to stand.

Abbott has made no move in either direction.

Asked multiple times by the Houston Chronicle earlier this month whether he planned to allow local health officials to order school closures, the governor’s office never directly answered the question. Abbott’s staff also did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday following the release of Paxton’s letter.

Yes, our Governor continues to be basically useless. At this point, the best advice seems to be just wait and see what happens. Maybe Abbott revises his executive order. Maybe all the school districts and county health authorities cave. Maybe someone (or multiple someones) files a lawsuit – unfortunately, one of those someones is gonna be Jared Woodfill, so prepare yourself for the stupid – and a judge makes a ruling that forces the issue one way or another. It’s still the case that schools don’t have to open till September 8, which is what HISD is doing, and the first six weeks after that can be online-only. It’s after that it gets dicey. So sit tight and wait to see how it gets sorted out.

Who gets to be on the I-45 panel?

I’m not thrilled about this.

Houston will have a say in a regional response to design differences in the planned widening of Interstate 45 within the city — and so will Sugar Land, Montgomery County and Waller County.

After voting last month to establish a working group focused on improving the plans by the Texas Department of Transportation for rebuilding I-45, members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council approved the members of the panel Friday over the objections of critics and Harris County officials.

“I do take exception that those who are going to be most impacted are not as represented,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

[…]

Houston, via a letter from Mayor Sylvester Turner to TxDOT officials, has sought changes to the project north of downtown to ease those effects. City officials want frontage roads in some areas eliminated or reduced to two lanes, and a greater reliance on transit instead of carpools by making the center lanes bus-only rather than HOV. TxDOT has said it is studying the proposal, but said that after years of discussion it is committed to moving its designs along to keep construction on track while addressing possible changes later.

Regional officials with the transportation council ultimately will decide whether $100 million or more of locally-controlled federal money is spent on the project as phases begin over the next five years, a sum that while small in comparison of the $7 billion-plus cost, significantly affects TxDOT’s ability to leverage state-controlled dollars. That leaves the council to support or not support the changes as a condition of its funding, or allow TxDOT to move forward with its own plans.

The 16-person working group approved Friday includes some Houston-centric officials — including At-Large Councilman David Robinson, Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman and Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther. Half of the members, however, hail from outside Harris County, including Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, Waller County Commissioner Justin Beckendorff and Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, chairman of the transportation council, said his aim in appointing people to the group was to reflect the entire region’s interest in the project.

“Their commuters are driving their freeway roads all over the place,” Clark said. “I thought it was important we had a group that had that … a critical working group if you will.”

Zimmerman, who last month argued Houston-area officials needed to put the project “in a positive light” noted that the regional body’s role was to reflect the entire eight-county area.

“The intent was to keep politics out of this,” Zimmerman said.

Critics, who have said for two years that their concerns have been heard by TxDOT with little progress toward resolving the issues, said a regional group that includes no members from the project area speaking directly for residents and neighborhoods indicates their concerns are being ignored.

“This proposal is inequitable and unacceptable,” said Jonathan Brooks, director of policy and planning for LINK Houston, a local advocacy group that has organized some of the opposition to the project.

First of all, you can never “keep the politics out” of an inherently political process. I cringe at this because the implication here, one that is widely made and shared, is that by keeping “politics” out of this process you are somehow keeping it “clean” and “fair”, because “politics” is dirty and tainted. But “politics”, as a process, is all about engaging communities and getting consensus. You can’t do that if key communities are being excluded while others that have a lesser stake in the outcome are given power over the process. The people whose homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and lives are going to be directly affected by the I-45 project need to have a seat at that table. It’s just wrong that they don’t.

Second, maybe the reason Houston-area officials haven’t been putting such a “positive light” on this project is because we don’t see it as being all that positive. Certainly, plenty of people who live in Houston don’t see it that way. Maybe the problem isn’t branding but the product itself.

And look, none of this would be a problem now if the people who will be the most affected by this project had truly been heard along the way. They’ve been airing the same complaints about the I-45 rebuild because so many of their key concerns are still there. You may say there’s no way to do this project without setting aside most of those concerns. We would say that’s exactly the problem, and should call into question the fundamental assumptions about this project in the first place. If you can’t do it without causing significant harm, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

Paxton overrides county health orders on schools

So much concern for the children here.

Best mugshot ever

Local health officials do not have the authority to shut down all schools in their vicinity while COVID-19 cases rise, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in nonbinding guidance Tuesday that contradicts what the Texas Education Agency has told school officials.

Shortly after Paxton’s announcement, the Texas Education Agency updated its guidance to say it will not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed because of a local health mandate, citing the attorney general’s letter. Districts can receive state funding if they obtain TEA’s permission to stay closed, as allowed for up to eight weeks with some restrictions.

The change represents an about-face for the agency, which previously said it would fund districts that remained closed under a mandate. It will impact schools in at least 16 local authorities, many in the most populous counties, that have issued school closure mandates in the past month.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, whose county is among those with a mandate to close schools, said local officials will continue to make decisions to keep students safe “regardless of what opinion General Paxton comes up with.”

“The only way that it would really screw things up is if Abbott tried to take away the control from the local groups,” Jenkins said.

The guidance is non-binding, but local health authorities could face lawsuits especially now that Paxton has weighed in. Paxton’s office declined to comment on whether it would sue local health officials that don’t retract mandates, saying it could not comment on hypothetical or potential litigation.

[…]

The governor’s executive order allowing all school districts to operate overrules local mandates to close, Paxton said. Local health officials have some authority to order schools closed if people in it are infected by COVID-19, but not as a preventive measure.

See here and here for the background. I don’t know what happens next – maybe the counties fold and rescind their orders, maybe someone files a lawsuit to force the issue, maybe we wait and see what happens when schools are supposed to start in a non-pandemic world – but it is clear that one person could end the confusion. The head of the TEA is hand-picked by Greg Abbott, after all, and one presumes Mike Morath would not have let the TEA issue that directive if Abbott was not aware of it. Plus, as noted in the story, Abbott’s own executive order is part of the reason the counties don’t have this authority, at least according to Ken Paxton. So we just need Greg Abbott to come forward and clarify things and

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to a request to clarify this earlier this month.

Yeah. You know, whoever runs against Abbott in 2022, they need to make a video montage of all of the “Abbott did not respond to a request for comment” lines in every damn story about coronavirus. If there’s a single defining trait of his reign of error, that’s it. Reform Austin has more.

UPDATE: This says a lot:

Truly, we have a weak and feckless Governor.

Harris County issues school closure order

This was expected.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County and Houston health authorities on Friday ordered all public and non-religious private schools to delay opening for in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8 — a date likely to be extended unless the region sees a significant reduction in its COVID-19 outbreak.

Flanked by their respective health authorities, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the region’s novel coronavirus outlook appears too dire to allow the restart of face-to-face classes before Labor Day. Most Houston-area public school districts already had pushed back their in-person start dates to Sept. 8, though a few remained on track to hold on-campus classes in August.

“The last thing I want to do is shut down a brick-and-mortar representation of the American dream,” Hidalgo said Friday. “But right now, we’re guided by human life.”

With the decision, officials in all five of the state’s largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — have ordered the closure of public schools through at least Labor Day.

None of the Greater Houston region’s other large counties — Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria and Galveston — have issued closure orders. However, Montgomery County public health officials recommended this week that their school districts delay their start dates or remain online-only through Labor Day.

The Harris County order comes four days after Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah issued a non-binding recommendation that campuses stay closed until October at the earliest. While county and city officials held off Friday on mandating closures through September, Hidalgo said reopening buildings immediately after Labor Day “is still likely too soon.”

County and city officials said they will need to see a significant decrease in multiple measures, including case counts, rate of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths, before they OK the reopening of campuses. Local health officials, however, have not set specific COVID-19 outbreak benchmarks that must be met.

“If we want our schools to reopen quicker in person, it’s going to take all of us pulling together to do that,” Shah said.

See here for the background. This was done in part so that HISD would be in compliance with the TEA’s current guidelines. We all want our kids to get back to school in a safe manner as quickly as possible. That means not flattening but crushing the curve, getting coronavirus infections way down to much more manageable levels. We have the month of August to make that happen. Are we going to take this seriously – face masking, social distancing, self-quarantining as needed – or not? The choice is ours.

A very early glimmer of some possibly good news

We may be finally bending the curve, thanks to people finally taking seriously the need to wear face masks in public.

Three weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott required Texans to wear masks, epidemiologists and disease modelers say they are cautiously optimistic that the mandate is helping the state turn a corner in its efforts to contain an outbreak that has killed more than 4,500 Texans.

Throughout the summer, Texas’ coronavirus outbreak became grimmer by the day and by almost every metric: case counts, hospitalizations, deaths. But in the past week or so, Abbott and some of the state’s public health officials began to see hope in the daily case counts as they appeared to stabilize.

A growing body of evidence points to widespread mask-wearing as an effective strategy for containing the virus, and one North Texas researcher’s statistical analysis published this week argued that local mask orders in the region reduced viral transmission enough to avoid a lockdown. The governor, who has faced blistering criticism for his handling of the pandemic from members of his own political party, immediately seized upon those findings in defense of his statewide order.

“A community lock down is not needed as long as masks & other distancing strategies are used,” Abbott wrote Monday on Twitter, citing the analysis by Rajesh Nandy, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

But public health experts warn that more restrictive lockdowns may still be appropriate in the state’s hardest-hit regions, as the disease continues to infect about 10 times as many people each day compared with two months ago, ravaging some parts of the state more severely than others.

State data now appears to show new daily infections leveling off, albeit at nearly record highs. There were around 9,100 daily new cases of the virus on average over the past week. The state recorded its largest number of daily new cases July 15, at 10,791. On Thursday, that number was 9,507.

“The downside is even though we are approaching another plateau, we are at a much higher level than in May,” Nandy said.

Yes, it would be good news if the case rate stops going up. But it won’t truly be good news until the number of infections starts to go down, and then continues to go down. You know, like it has in New York and Europe and Asia and other places with generally functional governments. It’s when we get the virus down to levels at or below where we were when we first shut down back in March that we can truly contemplate things like safely sending kids back to school and reopening the economy. You’d think this would be something that would be better understood by the elected officials who have been so resistant to taking basic measures to fight COVID-19 – poll data consistently shows that the public understands this, even if they’re not always great about doing it in the absence of leadership – but clearly for some people, these things have to be learned the hard way. And as they are learning this, the hospitals are still at capacity, and could get overwhelmed at any time.

The irony there is that it may take another broad, mostly national shutdown to get to the point we want to get to. That won’t happen under this President, and if it’s still a necessary thing under the next one, then my god have we effed this up beyond all comprehension. In the meantime:

Now Starr County is at a dangerous “tipping point,” reporting an alarming number of new cases each day, data show. Starr County Memorial Hospital — the county’s only hospital — is overflowing with COVID-19 patients.

The county has been forced to form what is being compared to a so-called “death panel.” A county health board – which governs Starr Memorial – is set to authorize critical care guidelines Thursday that will help medical workers determine ways to allocate scarce medical resources on patients with the best chance to survive.

A committee will deem which COVID-19 patients are likely to die and send them home with family, Jose Vasquez, the county health authority, said during a news conference Tuesday.

“The situation is desperate,” Vasquez said. “We cannot continue functioning in the Starr County Memorial Hospital nor in our county in the way that things are going. The numbers are staggering.”

That’s the same Starr County that was once lauded for its low infection rate and ability to keep the virus under control. That was back when local officials had the authority to make and enforce shelter-in-place orders, before Greg Abbott took that authority away. Starr County now plans to issue a new shelter in place order, though of course they won’t be able to enforce it. Greg Abbott could let them enforce it, and he could let other local governments that want to take a step back in an effort to get their numbers down do so, but that’s not something he has any interest in doing. And so here we are.

More like Ike than Harvey

Not sure this is a choice I want to have to make, but here we are.

Hurricanes are expected to blow through Texas more quickly during the last 25 years of this century.

A study led by Rice University researcher Pedram Hassanzadeh found that climate change will make future hurricanes fast-moving storms like Ike in 2008 rather than slow-moving rainmakers like Harvey in 2017.

“We find that the probability of having strong northward steering winds will increase with climate change, meaning hurricanes over Texas will be more likely to move like Ike than Harvey,” Hassanzadeh said in a news release.

Hurricane Harvey caused an estimated $125 billion in damage, matching 2005’s Katrina as the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, according to the news release. Ike’s coastal flooding and high winds caused $38 billion in damage across several states. In 2008, it was the second-costliest U.S. hurricane. It has since moved to sixth.

The study is here. Ike cost less than Harvey, though that’s partially an accident of geography – had Ike stayed a bit more to the west it would have made a direct hit on Houston, in what has been described as a “worst case scenario” (at least pre-Harvey) for our town. Point being, neither is a good option. Maybe we ought to, I don’t know, do something about climate change so we don’t have to face choices like this in the future. Just a thought.

Time for your regularly scheduled announcement that the Uptown BRT line opening has been pushed back

Maybe for the last time, though. We hope.

Rapid bus service is coming to Uptown next month, a couple weeks later than Metro first said this summer and two years later than expected when construction began in 2016.

Service will start along the Silver Line on Aug. 23, along with other bus route changes planned by Metropolitan Transit Authority, CEO Tom Lambert said. Officials pushed back opening day a couple weeks from an earlier estimate to make all the changes at once.

“This allows us to be consistent,” Lambert said.

[…]

“There are four critical traffic signals to getting this done,” said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction, outlining the remaining work.

City officials, Trevino said, pledged to have the signals in place by the end of the week. The lights are vital to giving buses their own signal to enter and exit the lanes at key such intersections as Westpark and the Loop 610 southbound frontage road.

See here for the previous update, when July was the target month. I will say, this time we have an actual date, which is a step forward. Also, if the term “Silver Line” has been used elsewhere, I’ve missed it. I look forward to a day when the virus is under control and I can feel free to take what would be a joyride for myself on this new line. I hope the date for that doesn’t have to keep being rescheduled.

The cities still need COVID relief

Just a reminder, in case you’d forgotten.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Congress resumes work on a new coronavirus financial relief package, nearly 100 Texas mayors are pressing the state’s congressional delegation for more funding to address revenue losses incurred due to the economic downturn brought by COVID-19.

Texas received $11 billion in funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which were distributed among the state, counties and cities. Some Texas mayors said these have to be spent before the end of the year and for expenditures related to the pandemic response — and don’t address government entities’ losses in anticipated revenues related to decreased economic activity. Others said there’s been conflicting information about how the money can be spent.

Since March, the economic slowdown has directly hit cities’ revenues. According to the state comptroller, local sales tax allocations for cities in June dropped by 11.1% compared with the same month last year.

“The budget calamity looming over local governments is real and it requires extraordinary measures,” said a letter signed by 97 Texas mayors and directed to members of Congress. “We therefore fear that state and local revenue is going to take time to rebound. We also fear that if we do not stabilize our economy, we could see a drop in property tax revenue next year.”

In the letter, which included signatures of leaders from urban, suburban and rural areas, the mayors asked for “direct and flexible fiscal assistance to all cities.”

“What we’re asking [is] for direct assistance for state and local governments. Not for things like pension measures, none of that, but as a result of lost revenue as a result of coronavirus itself,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Monday. “We are the infrastructure that supports the public and private sector, and at this point in time, we are needing direct assistance.”

We’ve known this for awhile, and the need is still there even if the city of Houston was able to kick the can down the road with this year’s budget and existing CARES funds. The simple fact is that cities – and counties, and the state, and to a lesser extend school districts – didn’t do anything to cause the problems they’re facing now. The analogy that some have made to a natural disaster is apt, and the effect will long outlive the original cause of the problem if it isn’t addressed. The US House passed a large bill a couple of months ago that would address these needs, but of course it has to get through the Senate, and you know what that means. If we had a functional state government, it would be advocating on behalf of the cities as well, because the loss of many thousands of municipal jobs will not do anything to help the state’s economic recovery. Our state leaders don’t see it that way, unfortunately, so the cities are on their own. It doesn’t have to be this way.

On a tangential note, the Slate podcast “What Next: TBD” did a segment on this very topic last Friday, and spoke to City Controller Chris Brown as part of their reporting. Check it out.

TEA updates its school-opening guidance

They heard the outcry.

Facing growing backlash from teachers, parents and health officials, Texas education officials Friday relaxed a previous order that would have given public schools just three weeks from the start of the fall semester to reopen their classrooms for in-person instruction.

School districts will be allowed to delay on-campus instruction for at least four weeks, and ask for waivers to continue remote instruction for up to four additional weeks in areas hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. During those second four weeks, districts must educate at least a small number of students on campus, and tell the state what public health conditions would allow them to bring more students into classrooms.

Local school boards in areas with a lot of community spread can also delay the start of the school year.

“Our objective is to get as many kids as possible on campus as long as it is safe,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on a call with school superintendents Friday afternoon.”But we know on-campus instruction is really the best instructional setting for the vast majority of our students in Texas. Please don’t feel compelled to use this transition period unless your local conditions deem it necessary.”

The revised guidance offers school districts more options on reopening their schools. Last week, the Texas Education Agency had released more stringent guidelines requiring all school districts to offer on-campus instruction daily for all students who want it, except for a transition period of three weeks at the start of the school year.

Educator associations still say Texas isn’t going far enough to protect educators and parents. The Association of Texas Professional Educators released a statement calling the revision “insufficient” and lacking in “science-based metrics,” since it still requires schools to offer in-person instruction to students who need and want it daily.

Specifically, the guidance says districts that limit in-person instruction must provide devices and WiFi hotspots to students who need them. Students who do not have reliable access to technology must be allowed to learn in school every day. And during the second four weeks of state-allowed remote learning, districts must educate at least some students on campus, though they can restrict that number as they see fit.

“We demand that Gov. Abbott issue a statewide order that all school buildings remain closed and all instruction be provided remotely until the pandemic has clearly begun to subside and it is safe to reopen school buildings under strict safety standards,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a statement Friday.

[…]

School districts may also, with permission from the state, choose high schools where students will receive part of their instruction on campus and part remotely at home for the entire school year. Students must learn on-campus for at least 40% of the days in each grading period, usually six or nine weeks long.

That option would be best for districts “if your health conditions are such where you really need to reduce the number of people on campus at any one time,” Morath said Friday. Some districts have already proposed bringing different groups of students into classrooms on alternating days or even weeks, and otherwise educating them remotely.

See here and here. The state is going to allocate more money for school districts to buy equipment for remote learning, which is a huge barrier for a lot of kids. Some counties like Dallas have issued local health advisories that would require schools to remain closed, which the TEA guidance is allowing for at this time. The AG’s office has released an opinion saying that local governments can’t force private religious schools to close. So there’s still a lot of moving parts.

The Chron covers the local angle.

In anticipation of a change in guidance, Houston ISD announced Wednesday that it plans to remain online-only for its first grading period, which lasts six weeks. District officials also said they plan to delay the start of school by two weeks, moving the first day of classes to Sept. 8.

HISD officials hope to reopen campuses Oct. 19, but Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said public health circumstances will dictate whether that happens.

Officials in Aldine and Alief ISDs said they would start in all-virtual classes for the first three weeks, while Fort Bend ISD leaders said they will stay online-only indefinitely, with exceptions for a small percentage of students.

Several other school districts have released plans for reopening campuses that, for now, do not include online-only plans in August. However, superintendents in Conroe, Humble and Spring Branch ISDs, among others, said they are monitoring public health conditions and could decide in the coming days to keep campuses closed.

Spring Branch Superintendent Jennifer Blaine, whose district released a reopening plan Wednesday, said she plans to make a closure decision no later than the end of the month. Blaine said she first wants to see results of a survey sent to parents this week asking whether they want in-person classes or online-only instruction for their children.

“We don’t want to string this out,” Blaine said. “People are anxious and nervous. People want to know what the plans are going to be for August.”

The about-face on hybrid models in high schools, however, likely will cause some districts to re-evaluate their plans.

We’ll see what happens with HISD. One criticism that has been levied by teachers’ organizations about the TEA plan at this time – and to be fair, I think the TEA plan is still a work in progress, they have already changed it in response to public feedback – is that there isn’t yet a set of objective, scientific metrics that will govern how and when schools will reopen. I agree that this is a major oversight, but I will also point out that having metrics isn’t enough. We had a set of objective, scientific metrics that most people thought were pretty decent that were supposed to guide how and when the state reopened, and look what happened there. It’s necessary to have these metrics, but it is very much not sufficient. You have to actually follow them, and to be willing to slow down, stop, or even reverse course if the metrics aren’t being met. And given the nature of this pandemic, and the by now completely well-known lag between the case rate, the hospitalization rate, and the death rate, you have to be willing to do those things before we get into a crisis situation. You have to be willing to do them at the first sign of trouble, not at the point where things have already gotten bad ans now you need to try to catch up. If we haven’t learned that lesson by now, then we really are a bunch of idiots who will let many people suffer and die for no good reason.

Anyway. If you want a broader perspective from teachers about the upcoming school year and what we can and should be doing, give a listen to this week’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting podcast, which is usually about parenting but this week talked to four teachers from different parts of the country. As one of them puts it, if we move ahead with opening schools before we have this virus under control, some number of kids, and some number of teachers – and I would add, some number of parents – are going to die as a result. Do we really want to do that?

Here, have a COVID update

Things are going great.

Texas set yet another record for coronavirus deaths Thursday with 154 — the third day in a row above 100.

The previous record was July 8 when 112 deaths were logged, according to a data analysis by Hearst Newspapers that shows the state reported 105 deaths on Wednesday and 104 on Tuesday.

The streak in deaths comes two weeks after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ordered most of the state’s 30 million residents to wear masks. Despite pressure from local authorities that he give back their ability to mandate stay-at-home orders, Abbott has insisted increased mask-wearing is the key.

Abbott told Houston’s Fox 26 on Thursday that “the last step that would ever be taken is to lock Texans back down” and said other measures would be taken before resorting to that.

“It seems like I get this question a thousand times a day, and there seem to be rumors out there about a looming shutdown,” Abbott said in the interview. “Let me tell you: There is no shutdown coming.”

It will take about three weeks, Abbott said, to see the effects of his mask mandate and his closure of bars in late June. Abbott claimed cases were flattening out in Harris County, though Hearst Newspapers’ analysis shows the county’s rolling average for new cases is more than three times higher than a month ago.

[…]

A new report from Kinsa, a company that uses internet-connected thermometers to predict the spread of diseases, showed that Texas’ rate of illness is spreading faster than those of other states. The company in the past few years has successfully anticipated outbreaks of the flu weeks ahead of the federal government.

The Kinsa data, which tracks whether an uncontrolled outbreak is likely using fever trends and other information, showed that the state is hitting above the threshold for the entirety of the past 30 days.

“This level of sustained, rampant disease transmission suggests that there is likely a lot more illness in the community than what has been reflected in the case numbers to date,” the company said in a press release Thursday. “In other words, there is no relief in store for Texas over the next few weeks, and we fear that the situation there may get much worse in the near-term.”

No, seriously, it’s just terrific.

A coronavirus patient in Anahuac was flown by helicopter to a hospital in El Campo — 120 miles away — because closer facilities could not take him.

Ambulances are waiting up to 10 hours to deliver patients to packed Hidalgo County emergency rooms.

And short-staffed hospitals in Midland and Odessa have had to turn away ailing COVID-19 patients from rural West Texas facilities that can’t offer the care they need.

As the tally of coronavirus infections climbs higher each day, Texas hospitals are taking extraordinary steps to make space for a surge of patients. Some facilities in South Texas say they are dangerously close to filling up, while hospitals elsewhere are taking precautionary measures to keep their numbers manageable.

Doctors warn of shortages of an antiviral drug that shows promise for treating COVID-19 patients. And epidemiologists say the state’s hospitals may be in for a longer, harder ride than places like New York, where hospitals were stretched to capacity in the spring and some parked refrigerated trailers outside to store bodies of people who died from COVID-19.

“It used to [be that] if one hospital got kind of overwhelmed … you would start transferring out ICU patients to other facilities that had ICU beds available,” said Dr. Robert Hancock, president of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians. “And there really is none of that now, because everybody’s in the same boat and they’re struggling to get their own patients admitted.”

You might say we’re red hot.

A document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force but not publicized suggests more than a dozen states should revert to more stringent protective measures, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, closing bars and gyms and asking residents to wear masks at all times.

The document, dated July 14 and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, says 18 states are in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases, meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week. Eleven states are in the “red zone” for test positivity, meaning more than 10 percent of diagnostic test results came back positive.

It includes county-level data and reflects the insistence of the Trump administration that states and counties should take the lead in responding to the coronavirus. The document has been shared within the federal government but does not appear to be posted publicly.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said he thought the information and recommendations were mostly good.

“The fact that it’s not public makes no sense to me,” Jha said Thursday. “Why are we hiding this information from the American people? This should be published and updated every day.”

[…]

The 18 states that are included in the red zone for cases in the document are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

The 11 states that are in the red zone for test positivity are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas and Washington.

In May, the World Health Organization recommended that governments make sure test positivity rates were at 5 percent or lower for 14 days before reopening. A COVID-19 tracker from Johns Hopkins University shows that 33 states were above that recommended positivity as of July 16.

“If the test positivity rate is above 10 percent, that means we’re not doing a good job mitigating the outbreak,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, science communication lead at the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization launched by journalists from The Atlantic. “Ideally we want the test positivity rate to be below 3 percent, because that shows that we’re suppressing COVID-19.”

But don’t worry, Greg Abbott is on it.

As the number of new coronavirus cases in Texas continues to rise and hospitals grow more crowded, Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday there is no statewide shutdown looming.

Abbott said last week that if the spread of the virus didn’t slow, “the next step would have to be a lockdown.” But in a television interview Thursday, he said that there have been rumors of such a move and stressed that they were not true.

“Let me tell you, there is no shutdown coming,” he told KRIV-TV in Houston.

Abbott pointed to measures he’s taken in recent weeks, including a statewide mask mandate and an order shutting down bars, to slow the spread of the virus. It will take a few weeks to see a reversal in coronavirus case surges, he said.

He has repeatedly stressed this week that, if people wear masks, he’ll be able to avoid shutting down the state. On Wednesday, he told KPRC-TV in Houston that it seems like people ask him about a shutdown “like a thousand times a day.”

“People are panicking, thinking I’m about to shut down Texas again,” he said. “The answer is no. That is not the goal. I’ve been abundantly clear.”

To also be abundantly clear, Abbott is correct that it will take a bit of time for the mask order and other interventions to work, just as there was a lag between the increasing case rate and subsequent increases in hospitalizations and deaths (not that we responded in time for them, but never mind that right now). He is also correct that universal face mask wearing would be a big help, though it may not be enough at this point, and he’s fighting headwinds from Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans on that score. And if we really want to be clear, we need to remember that Abbott mostly speaks in riddles these days, so we turn to an expert in the field for true clarity:

Yes, that’s the kind of straight talk you get from Greg Abbott.

Lawmakers quickly discovered something remarkable. It was possible to stare the man in the eyes, to speak with him for a half-hour or more, and walk away with no better idea of where he stood on important legislative matters. He seemed unwilling to speak forthrightly about nearly anything, drawing a veil around his positions, lest he alienate some key legislator or interest group.

When Abbott did make himself clear, it was to issue marching orders to those who had no reason to follow them, or to punish those who had defied him. “There was no comparison to Perry. [Abbott’s] concept of governing is ordering people around,” Republican state representative Sarah Davis told me in 2018. “He came into the regular session and kind of chided us, and then was absent for the rest of the session.”

And his public statements often contradicted his private ones. Publicly, Abbott endorsed the infamous anti-transgender “bathroom bill” in the 2017 session and pretended to advocate for its passage. But in private he reassured business groups—who worried the state would be boycotted by lucrative conventions and sports tournaments—that the bill would never pass. He was publicly accused of that duplicity by Republican state representative Byron Cook in 2018. The governor’s office has never addressed it.

[…]

Fast forward a few years, through 130,000 American deaths from the coronavirus, at least 3,500 of them from Texas so far, and the onset of the worst economic circumstances since the Great Depression. Now Abbott’s governing style is under strain. Arguably, the root cause of the current crisis is his tendency to talk a lot without saying much and his propensity to take the path of least resistance regardless of the circumstances, especially when confronted by the inchoate demands of the Republican party’s right wing. This modus operandi is on display every time Abbott gets in front of a television camera. But as we see more and more of it, the artifice is becoming more clear. Abbott’s disapproval numbers have been rising just a bit, even as other governors have seen a surge of popularity during the crisis.

Here, we could talk about Abbott’s quadruple-backflip on mask mandates; the time he issued a statewide lockdown disguised under a bureaucratic name while insisting it wasn’t one, before clarifying that it was the next day; the Shelley Luther saga, which saw him ordain that violators of his shutdown order should be punished with fines and jail time only to blame local officials for enforcing it, before retroactively nullifying what he had expressly commanded; or the way he opened the state for business before fixing the problems the lockdown was designed to address.

But instead, let’s consider a small but important test Abbott recently faced, one that seems instructive. Abbott’s party had long been planning to hold its state convention in Houston, one of the nation’s biggest coronavirus hot spots, which would have brought some six thousand attendees, many of them older and especially vulnerable to the virus, from all around the state for a crowded three-day fete. An in-person convention was a virtual guarantee that some delegates and service workers would get infected and possibly die, and that Houston’s seemingly potent strain of the virus would be spread around the state.

It was an incredibly bad idea that Abbott’s party nonetheless seemed hell-bent on pursuing. What did the governor have to say about it? Would he speak up, in an attempt to save the lives of his own party’s activists? “You’re the top Republican in the state, governor,” said an anchor for KDFW in Dallas on July 6, after Houston mayor Sylvester Turner begged the party to call off the gathering, then canceled it two days later. “What do you think should happen?”

The governor’s answer: “I know that the executive committee for the Republican Party of Texas have been talking about this. I think they continue to talk about it, and they weigh all of the consequences and the public health and measures … They’ll make a decision.”

The anchor persisted: “You don’t want to weigh in on what you think should happen?”

The governor paused and then gave his answer: “Obviously I think whatever happens—whether it be, listen, this convention or any action that anybody takes—we’re at a time with the outbreak of the coronavirus where public safety needs to be a paramount concern, and make sure that whoever does anything and whatever they do, they need to do to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.”

Huh?

A day later, an anchor for KENS in San Antonio tried a different tack: “Will you be attending in person?” Abbott dissembled, so the anchor tried again. “Yeah, listen, as for myself, as well as for everybody else,” Abbott said, “we will continue to see what the standards are that will be issued by the State Republican Executive Committee, by the state Republican Party to determine what the possibility will be for being able to attend.” To determine what the possibility will be for being able to attend.

Not only could Abbott not say whether he thought the convention was a good idea, he couldn’t even say whether he would be there. The interview went out during the KENS five o’clock broadcast. Not half an hour later, during a meeting of the SREC, the party’s executive director announced that elected officials would be pre-recording messages instead of giving in-person speeches. Abbott surely knew this important fact when he was on the air.

I hope this clears everything up.

Federal judge rules GOP can have its in person convention

Unbelievable.

A federal judge on Friday ruled that Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston First Corp. must allow the Texas Republican Party to proceed with an in-person convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center, though the party now only intends to use the facility as a backup option.

Judge Lynn Hughes of the Southern District of Texas found the city had infringed upon the Texas GOP’s constitutional rights by canceling the convention, which initially was set to run from Thursday through Saturday before Turner ordered Houston First, the city’s convention agency, to nix it.

Hughes gave the party the option of using the convention center this weekend and next, according to Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Houston conservative activist Steve Hotze, who initially filed the lawsuit with a handful of other plaintiffs.

The party began its convention online Thursday but encountered numerous technical difficulties, forcing officials to postpone the event until Saturday. The party joined Hotze’s lawsuit Friday “to provide a last-resort method in-person if we needed it to secure our national election obligations,” Chairman James Dickey said in a statement following Hughes’ ruling. He said the party still “is on track to hold its convention online.”

Party officials will elect their party chair and select delegates for the national Republican convention at the state convention.

“Our online convention provides the greatest opportunity for as many delegates who want to participate in the convention as possible,” Dickey said. “We learned a hard lesson yesterday and with this win today, if for any reason there is an issue tomorrow, we know that we have a single location where, with the necessary SREC authorizations, we could” elect delegates to the national convention.

Turner in a statement blasted the party for its legal efforts to proceed with the convention, and said the city and Houston First would appeal upon receiving a written order from Hughes.

“We are in the midst of a pandemic, a public health crisis. More people are being admitted to our hospitals and ICUs, and more people are dying,” Turner said. “The State Republican Executive Committee is being totally irresponsible in continuing to push for an indoor, in-person convention. This reflects a total disregard for the health and safety of employees and people in our city.”

[…]

Hughes, in granting the Texas GOP an injunction that bars Turner from canceling the event, agreed with the argument by Hotze and the party that Turner’s move to cancel the convention “at the last minute” deprived party members “of their right to express their political beliefs, and make core political determinations,” a right protected by the First Amendment.

In a court filing Friday, Woodfill wrote that the party “has attempted a virtual convention and found that it is an unworkable platform.”

“Accordingly, the Republican Party of Texas has no choice but to seek relief from the Court to allow the Republican Party of Texas to prepare for the upcoming election season,” Woodfill wrote.

See here and here for some background. The plaintiffs knew which judge to pick, you have to give them credit for that. The judge bought the argument that the late cancellation of the convention, which came after they had considered but rejected changing to an online convention, which Mayor Turner begged them to reconsider, plus the GOP’s complete inability to get Zoom to work, meant that their rights were being infringed. Putting it another way:

The city and Houston First will appeal, so we’ll see what happens. Even on the Republican side, this was a bit controversial:

Before Friday’s ruling, Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said the party was still working toward resuming the virtual convention Saturday.

“Today we have been hard at work for hours already on Plan A and Plan B and Plan C,” Dickey said during an interview with Texas Values. “We are going to make sure that we can move forward with our convention virtually tomorrow.”

[…]

Dickey’s chairmanship is on the line at the convention, where he faces a serious challenge from Allen West, the former Florida congressman. The election is tentatively scheduled for Sunday.

West has mostly stayed out of the debate over holding the convention in person, though he has increasingly questioned Dickey over the voting technology for the virtual meeting. And earlier Friday, West’s team seemed to reach a boiling point when word got out that the party was making a last-ditch legal push to join Hotze’s lawsuit.

“It is beyond belief that Chairman Dickey and the RPT allowed a foreseeable catastrophic failure such as this to unfold,” West lawyer Clyde Siebman wrote in a letter to Dickey. “Colonel West grew to doubt that it was by mere negligence but continued to give fellow Republicans the benefit of the doubt — until today.”

The party’s 11th-hour participation in the lawsuit “proves an intent to disenfranchise large blocks of grassroot Republicans across Texas,” Siebman added.

I don’t know what’s going to happen at this point, but my advice is to avoid downtown until this is over. And pray for those workers whose lives are being put in danger.

We’re still not doing great with the Census

There’s still time, but we have a lot of work to do.

Despite an extended deadline, local government cash infusions and grassroots campaigns to improve Houston’s 2020 census response rate, almost half of Houston households are still missing from the official count.

As of July 5, 52.5% of Houston’s estimated 2.32 million residents have completed the decennial survey, according to the most recent census data. In Harris County, the response has been about 56 percent.

But Houston is not alone. Across the country, many other large metropolitan areas are also struggling to get their populations counted, reporting similar self-response rates to Houston’s. In Los Angeles, the household response rate is 51.6%, while Chicago polls higher at 54.5%, and 53.1% in New York City.

Other cities in Texas have slightly greater household response rates so far, with Austin hovering around 60.4%, Fort Worth at 58.9%, and Dallas at 53.4%.

Texas ranks 40th in state census response, according to recent census findings. The state’s response rate of 56.7% lags behind the national rate of 61.9%. In 2010, the response rate was slightly higher at both the state and national levels, according to a recent report from Understanding Houston, which analyzed census data. The state had a 64.4% self-response rate compared with a national self-response rate of 66.5%.

With the deadline extended to Oct. 31, the hope is that more Texans will complete the survey, pulling the response rate up.

[…]

A 2019 study by Lopez Negrete Communications found that one helpful tool for ensuring people participate was through community action— which has become increasingly difficult with stay-at-home orders in place. Traditional forms of influence noted in the report include churches, schools, public events and community health clinics, yet many of these cultural and community centers remain closed.

It’s not hard to see why it’s been a challenge to get people to do the Census. If we can’t go door to door and can’t engage with the community, there’s only so much that can be done. It’s bad enough that the Lege didn’t appropriate any money for Census outreach, now we have Greg Abbott’s lousy handling of the pandemic acting as headwinds. Maybe we’ll be lucky and things will improve enough by October to make some more progress. I sure hope so.

Bike lanes coming to Shepherd/Durham corridor

Nice.

Houston officials with some regional help have nearly solved funding a $100 million rebuild of Shepherd and Durham that adds bike lanes, wider sidewalks, improved drainage and new concrete to one of the most car-centric corridors within Loop 610. Regional officials Friday approved committing $40 million of the cost, using locally controlled federal highway funds.

All those additions, however, come with the loss of a driving lane on each street, reducing them to three lanes each.

Work is scheduled to start on the northern segment in fiscal 2022, from Loop 610 to 15th Street. Construction is expected to move south of 15th about a year later to Interstate 10.

It is the latest major effort by city officials to add cycling amenities along bustling and traffic-logged corridors that officials said will not significantly choke drivers and offer others crucial links to trails and upcoming transit projects.

“It is critical we have inter-modal transportation,” said Houston District C Councilwoman Abbie Kamin.

She said the rebuilds of Shepherd and Durham — planned since 2013 — were among her priority projects when she took office in January because of the rapid redevelopment happening along the two streets. Car sales lots, warehouses and other businesses are being replaced by mid-rise apartment buildings and new commercial centers between I-10 and Loop 610.

“We have so many great places coming in but people can’t walk or ride to get there,” Kamin said.

[…]

The southern segment is vital because I-10 at Shepherd/Durham is also where Metropolitan Transit Authority plans a new stop on a future bus rapid transit line along the freeway from its Northwest Transit Center near Uptown to downtown. A completed bike lane would provide a direct link so someone could bike to a bus depot where they could hop on transit that would connect them to the two largest clusters of jobs in the region.

“It gives people a way to get to transit without driving their cars,” said Maureen Crocker, deputy director of transportation planning in the Transportation and Drainage Operations Department of Houston Public Works.

Support for funding the street redesign came from a wide swath of elected officials. Texas Republicans Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, whose zig-zagged district includes the Shepherd-Durham corridor as well as Kingwood, wrote letters of support along with Houston-area Democrats led by Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“It just shows the importance of this project,” Kamin said.

Aside from the bike benefits, officials said the rebuild restores streets that have waited years for repairs, including cross streets such as 20th that are riddled with chipped-away pothole patches. By eliminating the fourth lane of traffic, federal officials said in their grant award last year, the street project also improves safety by shortening the distance drivers and pedestrians must travel to safely cross the streets.

With phase two funded, Kamin said that leaves a small segment from I-10 south to Washington unpaid for, but she said officials are optimistic they can work to get the final pieces in place.

I’m glad to see this. CM Kamin is exactly right about the changing nature of this corridor. Among other things, there are a lot of new restaurants in that area, which should draw customers from the immediate area. Ideally, those folks would be able to walk or bike there, as they would in other neighborhoods that don’t have what are basically four-lane freeways running through them. This is a big step towards making that happen, and that will be a real boon for the area. It’s also important to remember that even in Houston there are a lot of folks who don’t have cars, and a project like this is going to make how they travel, whether by foot or bike or bus, safer as well.

I feel compelled at this point to confess that fifteen years or so ago, during an earlier phase of the “rebuild and expand I-45 south of Beltway 8” project, I advocated for turning this corridor into a better and faster automotive alternative to I-45 – basically, using the Shepherd/Durham corridor as extra capacity for I-45, so we could maybe get away with adding less capacity to that freeway. I’m sure there’s a blog post to that effect somewhere in my archives, because I definitely remember writing something along those lines, but I don’t feel like spelunking for it. Point is, that was a bad idea that I’m glad no one took seriously. I was myopically concerned about one thing, and didn’t consider how it would affect other people and places. It’s crazy to think what this area might look like now if Shepherd and Durham had been modified to be even more highway-like. What we have now is so much better and about to be even more so. It’s good to remind myself sometimes that I’m as big an idiot as anyone else.

Give reformers a seat at the police collective bargaining table

This is a clear path forward.

Chas Moore watched in shock one night in 2017 as Austin City Council voted on the city’s proposed police contract.

He and other criminal justice reformers had spent months observing contract negotiations and lobbying council members to reject a deal they said was too expensive and lacked crucial accountability measures.

The city’s 10 council members and mayor raised their hands to vote the deal down.

“I don’t think anyone thought that would happen,” said Moore, president of the Austin Justice Coalition. “Historically people fight police unions — and they do not win.”

The vote sent police back to the negotiating table, and the resulting contract included a slew of reforms — at half the cost of the previous version.

In Houston, that negotiating table is behind closed doors.

Activists here want to change that as the city and the police union negotiate a new contract this year. They are again seeking the right to observe deliberations and to try to change provisions they say protect officers accused of wrongdoing. But while other cities with similar bargaining rules allow residents to observe negotiations, Houston does not, aided by what critics say are gaps in the state’s government code that do not clearly require union contract negotiations to be open to the public.

Houston’s police budget in 2020 tallied about $911 million — by far the largest allocation in the city budget’s general fund. While other cities across the U.S. slashed police budgets, Houston’s City Council unanimously in June passed a budget with a $20 million increase for the police department.

The pressure for reform rose around the country in the wake of the killing of former Houston resident George Floyd in police custody, and organizers say it’s overdue here.

Not long after that Austin contract rejection, community organizers in Houston sought to observe police contract deliberations here.

Local criminal justice advocate Tarsha Jackson said she approached City Hall in 2018 to try to share community concerns — but the criminal justice reformer with the Texas Organizing Project said she found an opaque process.

“It was not public. It was like a guessing game,” Jackson said.

The contract was settled behind closed doors without them getting a chance to see it or offer their input.

“As we’re having these conversations around police accountability and reform, how can we have these conversations without the community?” Moore asked regarding the efforts around the country to get a seat at the table during contract negotiations.

We all recognize that a big piece of police reform must be done via the collective bargaining process. Given that, and given the action items that the reformers are seeking, they need a seat at the table or those items will not be addressed. The Lege can and should address some items as well, but they already have a lot on their plate, and it’s never a good idea to depend on a particular bill making it through the Lege, because so many things can happen to knock it off course. This is something we can do now, because the new CBA is coming up soon.

The GOP convention is off to a great start

Ain’t technology great?

Getting the virtual state convention up and running “has not been a walk in the park,” said Republican Party of Texas Chair James Dickey in a Facebook Live chat Wednesday evening.

Glitches related to credentialing had yet to be ironed out Thursday, preventing the party from initiating the business at hand. The live feed displayed text stating “We are at ease” and that everyone would be notified when the credentialing emails had been sent.

The frustration was evident in the social media comments.

“Has anyone received their credentials,” asked one person.

“We didn’t get ANYTHING after the registration confirmation. Feeling shut out & silenced,” posted another person.

“Still no credentials … This is crazy,” wrote a third delegate.

And yet another participant had words of blame for the party’s executive committee, writing, “If you weren’t watching during the last couple of SREC meetings, you should watch them. It is the failure to act that has brought us to this online meeting. Three and a half hour meeting to decide nothing. See which SREC were driving the train off the cliff by their interruptions and antics. If SREC members can’t remember parliamentary procedure, Heaven help us when it comes to the meeting of the convention. If SREC can’t properly use the system, who will thousands of others. Like always, in was not everyone’s fault. See if you were happy with your SREC’s interruptions and actions. Maybe yours were good ones … maybe yours needs to be changed. Make that decision while we wait.”

Never wanting to miss an opportunity to poke at the competition, the Democratic Party of Texas sent out a news release encouraging reporters to watch reruns of last month’s Democratic state convention while waiting for the GOP to fix its technical glitches.

Maybe should have spent more time preparing, and less time in court? Just a thought.

Ah, well, at least Greg Abbott got a warm reception for his keynote speech.

Gov. Greg Abbott delivered a firm defense Thursday of his coronavirus response to delegates at the Texas GOP convention who even he acknowledged have grown agitated with him.

Abbott addressed the discontent head-on as the virtual convention got underway Thursday afternoon, starting with the statewide mask requirement that he issued earlier this month. Since then, several Republican county leaders, including in some of the state’s biggest red counties, have voted to censure the governor.

“Now I know that many of all you are frustrated — so am I,” Abbott said in a video message to the delegates. “I know that many of you do not like the mask requirement — I don’t either. It is the last thing that I wanted to do.

“Actually the next to the last,” Abbott added. “The last thing that any of us want is to lock Texas back down again.”

Coronavirus has surged in recent weeks across the state, and Abbott sought to impress upon the delegates how dire the situation has become.

“Each day the facts get worse,” he said. “If we don’t slow this disease quickly, our hospitals will get overrun, and I fear it will even inflict some of the people that I’m talking to right now.”

Why the facts have gotten worse each day is left as an exercise for the reader.

UPDATE: The state GOP is gonna take today to try to fix stuff, and then resume the convention tomorrow.

Is it time to step back?

It’s not a question of whether we want to do this, it’s whether we need to.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston leaders are calling for another two-week shutdown as dozens of Army personnel are set to arrive Monday to help fight a virus that continues to set record hospitalizations and deaths in the Texas Medical Center.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it’s time for the city of Houston to “step back,” as regional cases rose to 63,864 on Sunday — up 1,596 from the day before. There have been 646 deaths in the Houston area. Positive results are coming back for about 16 percent of Texas test-takers.

“Let’s look at the numbers, look at the data, see where things are,” Turner said over the weekend. “And then gradually, move forward again.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo advocated an immediate stay-home order.

“We need to stick with it this time until the hospitalization curve comes down, not just flattens,” she tweeted Sunday. “Many communities that persevered in that way are reopening for the long haul. Let’s learn from that & not make the same mistake twice.”

[…]

While Hidalgo issued a stay-at-home order in March, Abbott has since taken over decisions on whether to open or close businesses and has refused to allow local officials to make decisions on the matter. Hidalgo’s office has unsuccessfully petitioned the governor for power to issue more restrictions as COVID-19 hospitalizations spiked.

But on Friday afternoon, Abbott, too, said that he could consider expanding which nonessential businesses would shut down should the pandemic continue to worsen.

“If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown,” the governor told KLBK-TV in Lubbock.

Let’s be clear, nobody wants to do this. It will be devastating to the businesses that have been able to reopen (whether they should have been allowed to or not), and people will lose jobs as a result at a time when extended unemployment benefits and other fiscal stimulus to help people tide themselves over are being held hostage by the Republicans. The problem is that we are at the point that we thought we’d been able to avoid when we shut down the first time, with the death rate spiking and the hospitals overloaded. There may be no other way to try to slow this thing down, short of building a time machine and going two months in the past to force Greg Abbott to allow local face mask orders and a more deliberate reopening strategy. But here we are, and unless there’s a sudden flattening or downward trend in the numbers real soon, I don’t know what other choice there is. Say it with me now: This didn’t have to happen. It’s Greg Abbott’s fault that it did happen.

Schools get an in person opening reprieve

It started with this.

Texas will give school districts more flexibility to keep their school buildings closed to in-person instruction this fall as coronavirus cases continue to rise, Gov. Greg Abbott told a Houston television station Tuesday.

Public health guidance released last week indicated that school districts had to stay virtual for up to three weeks after their start dates, so they could get their safety protocols ironed out before bringing more students to campus. If they stayed closed longer than that, they would lose state funding.

Abbott on Tuesday said that time would be extended. His comment comes on the heels of a tumultuous week, after state education officials released guidance last Tuesday requiring districts to offer in-person instruction for five days a week to all parents who want it.

“I think Mike Morath, the commissioner of education, is expected to announce a longer period of time for online learning at the beginning of the school year, up to the flexibility at the local level,” Abbott said to KTRK. “This is going to have to be a local-level decision, but there will be great latitude and flexibility provided at the local level.”

The news, which Abbott said would be finalized in the next few days, will likely come as a relief to superintendents and educators asking the state for more flexibility on when and how they reopen school buildings. Some local health officials, including in El Paso and Laredo, had already demanded that schools in their areas start the year with virtual learning until cases go down.

And some larger, urban school districts, including San Antonio Independent School District, are planning to push their start dates later and keep all students online for three weeks, in order to avoid reopening school buildings as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge.

See here for the background. Bowing to reality, we got this yesterday.

Local public health officials will be able to keep Texas schools closed for in-person instruction this fall without risking state education funding, a Texas Education Agency spokesperson confirmed to The Texas Tribune Wednesday.

Last week, the state’s education agency released an order requiring schools to open their buildings to in-person instruction five days a week for all students who want it. The order gives districts a transition period of just three weeks at the start of the year to hold classes virtually and get their safety plans in place before allowing students back on campuses. After the three-week transition, districts that stay entirely virtual would risk losing funding.

But TEA officials confirmed Wednesday they would continue to fund school districts if local health officials order them to stay closed, as long as they offer remote instruction for all students.

[…]

A TEA spokesperson told the Tribune that school superintendents and school boards cannot make the decision to stay entirely virtual for longer than three weeks without a mandate from public health officials.

Some school districts, including San Antonio Independent School District, are moving their start dates to later in August and then starting their school years entirely virtually for three weeks.

And later in the day, HISD followed suit.

Houston ISD plans to delay the start of its school year until Sept. 8, and remain in online-only classes for at least the first six weeks of school, keeping students and teachers home during that time, district officials said Wednesday.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking to a group of parent-teacher organization leaders, said decisions about returning to in-person instruction “will be based on what the health threat level is” in the area. While district leaders hope to reopen facilities on Oct. 19, that decision could depend on orders issued by local health authorities or Gov. Greg Abbott.

“Right now, it is just not possible for us to do (reopen campuses), and I’m sorry that’s the situation,” Lathan said. “We moved too fast in the city and state as it relates to reopening.”

For now, the district’s 200,000-plus students will receive a mix of live instruction delivered via video conferencing and online coursework they can complete on their own time. Daily attendance will be tracked, with students considered present if they participate in live instruction, use the district’s online learning platform or submit completed assignments.

The district’s school board still must vote on delaying the start of the school year. HISD’s current 2020-21 calendar calls for resuming classes on Aug. 24. No school board meetings are scheduled for this month.

Six weeks is longer than three weeks, but as the story notes the forthcoming updated guidelines from the TEA are expected to allow for that. I can’t find it now, but there was a graphic some folks were sharing on Twitter that showed how we had closed all the schools when the COVID-19 case rate was way lower than it is now. I know we need to get the kids back into school for a whole range of reasons, and I certainly want my own kids to go back, but it doesn’t make any sense to do that until it’s safe. At this point, we’re doing what we had already done in March, kicking the can down the road and hoping things will be better in the future. That was briefly true at the time, but then, well, you know. Still better than sending kids into schools that aren’t ready to have them there in a safe fashion. We’ll see where it goes from here.

State Supreme Court denies GOP effort to force convention to happen

Denied.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday rejected the state Republican Party’s appeal of a lower court’s decision regarding its in-person Houston convention, all but ensuring that Mayor Sylvester Turner’s move to cancel the event will stand.

In an unsigned “per curiam” opinion, the court ruled that while the Texas GOP has the constitutional right to hold a convention, “those rights do not allow it to simply commandeer use” of the George R. Brown Convention Center, where the event was set to take place Thursday through Saturday.

“Houston First’s only duty to allow the party use of the center for its convention is under the terms of the parties’ agreement, not a constitution,” the opinion stated.

[…]

The Supreme Court also rejected a petition for a writ of mandamus — a court order requiring the city to reverse the cancellation — from Steve Hotze, a Houston Republican activist who challenged the convention cancellation along with three other plaintiffs.

Justice John Devine filed the lone dissenting opinion, arguing that the court had standing to rule on the Texas GOP’s case and that Houston First breached its contract with the party by canceling. Devine also dissented from the court’s decision to deny Hotze’s petition.

Meanwhile, Justice Jeff Boyd decided not to participate in the decision. He is one of four justices whom the Texas Democratic Party called on to recuse from the case, due to their sponsorship of the convention. The other three justices — Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Justices Jane Bland and Brett Busby — opted not to recuse themselves.

See here, here, and here for the background. The ruling was more or less along the lines of that AG brief that supported the city’s position, that this was a matter of contract law, not election law. This was a writ of mandamus, asking for a quick ruling from SCOTX without waiting for the district court to issue a judgment. The denial of the writ means that the case goes back to the district court, but since this shindig was supposed to start on Friday – indeed, some preliminaries are already underway, presumably in virtual fashion – there ain’t much time for that. For their sake, I sure hope the RPT has its contingency plans for an online convention ready to go. You know, like the TDP had for its convention back in March. Mayor Turner’s statement is herer, and the Trib, the Press, and the DMN have more.

UPDATE: It’s official, the GOP will have a virtual convention. Here’s the updated Chron story.

AG sides with Mayor Turner in GOP convention litigation

But only in a limited and technical way, so cool your jets.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas Attorney General’s Office on Saturday sided with Mayor Sylvester Turner in a legal dispute over the state Republican Party’s in-person convention, arguing that the Texas Supreme Court should reject the party’s attempt to proceed with the event.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins — the state’s top appellate lawyer — said that despite the party’s “troubling factual allegations,” the court should deny its petition for failing to “properly invoke [the court’s] mandamus authority.”

The legal proceedings began earlier this week after Turner ordered Houston First Corp., the city nonprofit that manages the convention site, to cancel the event over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. The Republican Party sued Turner and Houston First, but a Harris County judge denied the party’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked Turner from canceling the event. The party then filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Texas Supreme Court.

In its petition, the party invoked a section of Texas’ election code that allows the court to issue orders that “compel the performance of any duty imposed by law in connection with the holding of an election or a political party convention.” In his brief, Hawkins argued that the party’s convention contract with Houston First does not apply, because the convention was to be held under a contract, not a law.

Prior Supreme Court rulings have “distinguished ‘a duty created under [a] contract’ as legally distinct from ‘a duty imposed by law,’” Hawkins wrote.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the AG’s brief. A copy of the original writ is here. As the story notes, the AG similarly opposed Steven Hotze’s petition on the matter, arguing Hotze has no business in this matter. The Court also has the matter of the motion for four of them to recuse themselves to sort out. I presume that has to happen first, since we have to have the question of who is ruling on the write of mandamus settled before the ruling can happen. Gonna be a busy couple of days at the SCOTX. Oh, and Paxton also opposed Hotze’s petition for a TRO against Judge Hidalgo’s latest face mask order, on the grounds that Hotze’s multiple challenges to the Texas Disaster Act may cause “irreparable harm” to the state’s sovreignty. I presume there will be a similar filing against Hotze’s lawsuit challenging Abbott’s face mask order, too. And yes, the correct response to all this is exasperation and exhaustion.

The hidden toll

Another reason why the reported death count from COVID-19 is too low: People who didn’t know they were infected and die at home may never be tested or counted.

As coronavirus cases surge, inundating hospitals and leading to testing shortages, a rapidly growing number of Houston area residents are dying at home, according to an NBC News and ProPublica review of Houston Fire Department data. An increasing number of these at-home deaths have been confirmed to be the result of COVID-19, Harris County medical examiner data shows.

The previously unreported jump in people dying at home is the latest indicator of a mounting crisis in a region beset by one of the nation’s worst and fastest-growing coronavirus outbreaks. On Tuesday, a record 3,851 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus in the Houston region, exceeding normal intensive care capacity and sending some hospitals scrambling to find additional staff and space.

The uptick in the number of people dying before they can even reach a hospital in Houston draws parallels to what happened in New York City in March and April, when there was a spike in the number of times firefighters responded to medical calls, only to discover that the person in need of help had already died. These increases also echo those reported during outbreaks in Detroit and Boston, when the number of people dying at home jumped as coronavirus cases surged.

While far more people died of COVID-19 in those cities than have died so far in Houston, researchers and paramedics say that the trend of sudden at-home deaths in Texas’ largest city is concerning because it shows that the virus’s toll may be deeper than what appears in official death tallies and daily hospitalization reports.

Many people who die at home are not tested for COVID-19, said Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In New York City, for example, only 16 percent of the 11,475 at-home deaths between February and June have been attributed to COVID-19, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s no reflexive testing,” Faust said, noting that medical examiners are selective about the cases they take. “There’s no pressure to call it a COVID death.”

The rise in at-home deaths may also reflect people who are afraid to go to the hospital because of COVID-19, and who die of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and other conditions not tied to the coronavirus, Faust said.

Ultimately, Faust said, public health experts trying to assess the toll from COVID will need to study how many excess deaths there are in a particular region and whether the demographics of those who died are different from what one might expect. “If there’s a huge spike in at-home deaths but no real spike in overall deaths, it’s just sort of rearranging deck chairs.”

There’s more, so go read the rest. I don’t have anything to add other than the usual disclaimer that none of this had to happen. We could have had a federal government that actually prepared for COVID-19. We could have had a state government that cared about reopening in a safe and scientifically-driven manner. We have neither of those things – yet – and so here we are. Keep that in mind, today and every day, not just through this November, but through November of 2022.

Dems ask some Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from convention appeal

Stay with me here, this will all make sense.

The Texas Democratic Party on Friday called for four of the state’s nine Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from a case involving the Texas Republican Party’s in-person convention, claiming each had a conflict of interest.

The campaigns of Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Justices Jane Bland, Jeffrey Boyd and Brett Busby each sponsored the convention, according to an archived list of sponsors that since has been removed from the Texas GOP’s website.

[…]

Texas GOP officials are seeking a writ of mandamus from the court that would block Turner from canceling the convention, a day after a Harris County judge denied the party’s attempt to do so in state district court.

Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the four justices, each of whom is up for re-election in November, are “faced with an obligation to do the right thing and choose the law over political allegiance.”

“A justice who funds a dangerous convention should not judicially decide the fate of that same convention,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “All four have interests in the case coming before them and all four should recuse.”

See here for the background. The allegation is that by sponsoring the convention and being on the November ballot, these judges have a conflict of interest. A press release from the TDP provided the following justification for the petition:

Canon 3(B)(1) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct provides that Texas judges “shall hear and decide matters assigned to the judge except those in which disqualification is required or recusal is appropriate.”

Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 18(b) requires a judge to recuse themself from a case when “(1) the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned” or “(2) the judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning the subject matter or a party.”

I’m not qualified to assess this claim, but I will note that if the four Justices do recuse themselves, there’s still enough justices left to issue a ruling, and since all nine are Republicans it doesn’t change the dynamic. Given the compressed timeline for this litigation, I presume we’ll get an answer quickly.

GOP sues over cancelled convention

As the night follows the day.

The Texas Republican Party on Thursday sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston First Corp. for canceling the party’s in-person convention that was scheduled for next week in downtown Houston.

The lawsuit, filed in Harris County state district court, alleges that Turner erred when he invoked a “force majeure” clause of the contract between the Texas GOP and Houston First, the city’s public nonprofit that operates the George R. Brown Convention Center. The Republican Party also is suing Houston First President Brenda Bazan and the city of Houston.

Turner, who ordered Houston First to cancel the convention on Wednesday, said the clause allows one side to cancel over something that is out of its control, including “epidemics in the City of Houston.” In its petition filed Thursday, the GOP said Turner simply does not want to hold the convention, thus failing to meet the force majeure standard.

“Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s use of the force majeure clause is just a pretext to his intent to treat the Republican Party of Texas differently than other groups, such as those we have seen from recent protests in the city of Houston,” the party said in a statement Thursday. “It should go without saying that a political viewpoint cannot be the basis for unequal treatment.”

Turner said he called off the convention based on concerns about Houston’s recent COVID-19 surge and input from various medical professionals. A spokeswoman for the mayor said he would address the lawsuit at a 3 p.m. news conference.

In the lawsuit, Texas Republican Party officials are seeking a temporary restraining order that would allow the convention to continue as planned and damages due to Turner’s “anticipatory breach of contract,” including the cost of all losses and the “increased costs of handling the Convention elsewhere.”

The party argued that Turner and Houston First violated the “equal rights clause” of the Texas Constitution, and that Gov. Greg Abbott stripped Turner’s power to cancel the convention in one of his COVID-19 executive orders.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. I’d love to hear from any of the attorneys out there about the merits of this one. I can’t remember where I saw this now – probably Twitter, my brain is mush – but Jared Woodfill (who is of course the plaintiffs’ attorney for this, along with fellow genius Briscoe Cain) said he was going to try to get a hearing today and secure a temporary block on the cancellation. I can imagine that happening, at least long enough for a judge to make a preliminary ruling. (UPDATE: Per a press release from the Texas GOP received at 7:30, they were indeed denied a motion to block the cancellation. They will appeal directly to the Supreme Court. Stay tuned.) Beyond that, who knows? Insert giant shrug emoji here. Texas Lawyer and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Jasper Scherer tweets about the TRO denial. Apparently, there’s a second lawsuit as well, by Steven Hotze, because of course there is. Both motions were denied.

UPDATE: An updated Chron story, with more details on the TRO denials. Also, too, this:

The mayor also encouraged party officials to move their convention to Montgomery County, where County Judge Mark Keough offered to host the event and vowed “there will be no last-minute changes.”

“I think Judge Keough in Montgomery County is more than happy to host the 6,000 delegates (there),” Turner said. “I think they should go to Montgomery County.”

Seems like a match made in heaven to me.

A new homelessness initiative

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to authorize $18 million for a two-year program serving the homeless as advocates project a rise in homelessness with the novel coronavirus.

The program is the county’s most ambitious partnership with the City of Houston for people experiencing homelessness, with $29 million to be pledged by the city and an additional $9 million or more from private donors. The city and county’s dollars come from federal money allocated through the CARES Act.

While the city and county have collaborated on homeless initiatives in the past, this is their biggest joint investment yet.

“With the current COVID-19 crisis putting so many people’s living situations at an increased risk, having access to stable housing options is vital for the entire community,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said in a press release. Garcia brought the funding request to the county court. In commissioners court, Garica said, “This will have the most significant impact on the camps we see.”

Not only are people experiencing homelessness more vulnerable to coronavirus because of preexisting chronic conditions and a lack of even basic hygiene options, they are at higher risk of spreading it to others because people living on the streets have nowhere to self-quarantine.

“Housing is healthier for people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus,” said Catherine Villarreal, communications director for the Coalition for the Homeless. The Coalition will be administering the programs. “People experiencing homelessness are uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus because of chronic conditions.”

The Coalition hopes that the programs can begin by mid-August and will roll out in stages pending city and county funding and contract approvals, said Ana Rausch, vice president of operations for the Coalition for the Homeless.

The initiative will provide rental assistance for about 1,700 newly homeless people who don’t need much case management, house about 1,000 people experiencing homelessness, support about 200 people at risk of homelessness, provide more mental-health case management and begin a homelessness diversion program. The Coalition projects the program will help about 5,000 people.

The best evidence we have now says that the most effective way to ameliorate homelessness is to provide housing or housing assistance to the people who need it. Other services may be needed for people with addition or mental health issues (by the way, expanding Medicaid would help a lot with those, too), and it turns out that having a stable place to sleep and eat and keep clothes and other possessions makes addressing those issues a lot easier, too. It seems to me that the main objection to providing this kind of direct aid is that it’s some kind of moral hazard, as in “well, if we help SOME people then we have to help EVERYONE, and if we do that then who’s ever gonna want to do for themselves” or some such. Putting aside the fact that such sentiments are facially untrue, if there’s one thing we should be learning from the coronavirus pandemic it’s that everyone does in fact deserve help. Hard times can come for any of us, at any time, without warning and without it being anyone’s “fault”. I want to live in a society that recognizes this truth, because the next person who needs it could be me or someone I love. Imagine how much more progress we could make on controlling this pandemic if everyone whose business or employment is threatened by it knew they would be tided over until it passed. Maybe now that we’re starting to take this kind of action, we’ll recognize the need to continue it after the current crisis has passed. Houston Public Media has more.

City cancels Republican convention

Game on.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on Wednesday that the city has canceled the Texas Republican Party’s in-person state convention in downtown Houston next week.

Houston First, the public nonprofit that serves as the city’s convention arm, sent a letter to the party’s executive committee notifying it that the convention has been canceled.

The letter triggers a part of the contract called a “force majeure” clause, which allows one side to cancel for an occurrence out of its control. The definition included “epidemics in the City of Houston,” according to the Houston First letter.

Earlier Wednesday, Texas Republican Party officials said they were preparing for a legal fight after Turner said the Houston First and the city attorney’s office would review its contract with the party for using the George R. Brown Convention Center for the convention July 16-18.

Turner said he sought the review after Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, called the planned convention “a clear and present danger.”

The mayor had been hesitant to leverage his authority to cancel the convention out of fear of politicizing it, and he repeatedly had asked the party to meet virtually instead. He said Wednesday’s decision was prompted by rising numbers and an alarming letter from Persse, who reports to the mayor, outlining the danger of moving forward.

“It is a letter that as the mayor of Houston, that I simply cannot ignore or overlook,” Turner said. “The plan is to exercise those provisions, to cancel this agreement today, to not go forward with this convention.”

Persse’s letter called the spike in Houston an “unparalleled and frightening escalation” since Memorial Day.

“Now, COVID-19 infections are three times greater than they were at the peak experienced earlier this spring,” Persse wrote to Turner and Brenda Bazan, the president of Houston First. “Houston is now among the the national epicenters of the current COVID-19 outbreaks.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the announcement on Twitter. Before anyone gets their Hot Take machines fired up, please note that Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick were going to give their speeches via video, because they apparently had better things to do than bathe in a viral stew for three days. The RPT says they are reviewing their legal options, and I’d bet a year’s supply of N95 masks that someone will file a lawsuit over this. The real question is whether they’ll be able to get an expedited hearing, something the TDP was not able to get from SCOTUS with their vote-by-mail lawsuit. Priorities, you know. Anyway, Republicans should look on the bright side, because they just got something they surely prefer to a dumb convention, namely the chance to play the victim at the hands of a mean old Democrat. All that and a lower chance of death by ventilator – it’s a total win-win. The Trib, the Chron editorial board, and the Press have more.

UPDATE: Right on schedule:

We’ll see if they try for a quick ruling that disallows the cancellation. My head is spinning already.

GOP declines Turner’s invitation to cancel their convention

The ball is back in your court, Mr. Mayor.

The Texas Republican Party is proceeding with an in-person convention next week in downtown Houston, a rejection of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s formal request Monday to move the event online amid a local escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

James Dickey, chairman of the Texas GOP, in a statement Tuesday said the party has been “proactive in implementing safety measures” and had “extensive conversations” with Houston First, the public nonprofit that serves as the city’s convention arm and operates the George R. Brown Convention Center. The convention is set to take place there from July 16 to 18.

“With these precautions currently in place, the Republican Party of Texas intends to proceed with an in-person convention next week in Houston,” Dickey said.

The chairman also responded to the list of conditions Turner, a Democrat, said the GOP would need to follow if it holds the convention. Those guidelines include denying entry to anyone who has tested positive for COVID or come in contact with a COVID patient between July 2 and July 15, requiring attendees to wear masks, and providing touchless hand sanitizing stations throughout the convention center.

“Mayor Turner must not have had the information about the measures being voluntarily implemented,” Dickey said. “The Republican Party, delegates, and guests are looking forward to a safe and productive Convention next week.”

Turner said he was “incredulous” that the GOP is moving ahead with an in-person convention, and reiterated that health department officials would shut down the event if they find people are not following COVID-19 guidelines.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, the Greater Houston Partnership has also implored the GOP to cancel the in person convention.

The Greater Houston Partnership has called on the Texas GOP, along with state and local officials, to cancel the in-person Texas Republican Convention in downtown Houston next week.

Citing the health and safety of event-goers, staff and volunteers, the group of Houston business leaders said an indoor event as large as the convention — which is expected to draw thousands of people — would be unsafe.

In a letter sent Tuesday afternoon to Gov. Greg Abbott, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and state GOP Chairman James Dickey, the GHP asked “those with the authority to cancel” the event to do so.

“In normal times we would welcome an event that was expected to draw some 6,000 delegates from across Texas to the George R. Brown Convention Center,” the letter read. “Unfortunately, these are not normal times.”

You can click over to see their letter. Of course, the modern Republican Party of Texas doesn’t really represent business interests any more (see: the bathroom bill, for one), so I would not expect this to have any effect. But at least you know, it’s more than just Mayor Turner versus the state GOP.

The one person who could (maybe) put an end to this is Greg Abbott, but I think we all know that ain’t gonna happen. So for now we have this game of chicken, and we hope there’s no significant collateral damage. And if it does come down to the city health department, well, there’s this:

Those “face mask legal exemption” cards are complete BS, in case you were wondering. Not that anyone who has printed out one of those cards for themselves will believe that, of course. If there’s a better definition of “shit show” right now, I don’t want to know what it is.