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“Universal masking” for school children recommended

Seems like a sensible idea, especially given that children under the age of 12 can’t get the vaccine yet.

The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommended that all children over the age of 2 wear masks when returning to school this year, regardless of vaccination status.

The AAP, which said its important for children to return to in-person learning this year, recommends that school staff also wear masks. The AAP is calling the new guidance a “layered approach.”

“We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers — and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely,” said Sonja O’Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health. “Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”

The AAP said universal masking is necessary because much of the student population is not vaccinated, and it’s hard for schools to determine who is as new variants emerge that might spread more easily among children.

Children 12 and over are eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations in the U.S. And the FDA said last week that emergency authorization for vaccines for children under 12 could come in early to midwinter.

[…]

Universal masking will also protect students and staff from other respiratory illnesses that could keep kids out of school, the AAP said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this month that vaccinated students do not have to wear masks in classrooms.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said on MSNBC that the CDC may have been trying to be a little more lenient, allowing people to make judgment calls “depending on the circumstances in your school and your community.”

But he said he understands where the AAP is coming from.

“They will not be popular amongst parents and kids who are sick of masks, but you know what? The virus doesn’t care that we’re sick of masks,” Collins said. “The virus is having another version of its wonderful party for itself. And to the degree that we can squash that by doing something that maybe is a little uncomfortable, a little inconvenient … if it looks like it’s going to help, put the mask back on for a while.”

That was from last week. Yesterday, the CDC caught up.

To prevent further spread of the Delta variant, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance on Tuesday to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors when in areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission of Covid-19, which includes nearly two-thirds of all US counties.

“In recent days I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the Delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that cause Covid-19,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told a media briefing on Tuesday.

“This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations,” she said. “This is not a decision that we or CDC has made lightly.”

[…]

Earlier this month, the CDC’s Covid-19 school guidance noted that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks, and then about a week later the American Academy of Pediatrics issued stricter guidance recommending that everyone older than 2 wear a mask in schools, regardless of vaccination their status.

Now the updated CDC guidance recommends everyone in schools wear masks.

“CDC recommends that everyone in K through 12 schools wear a mask indoors, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies in place,” Walensky said. “Finally, CDC recommends community leaders encourage vaccination and universal masking to prevent further outbreaks in areas of substantial and high transmission. With the Delta variant, vaccinating more Americans now is more urgent than ever.”

The updated CDC guidance makes “excellent sense,” Dr. David Weber, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill and board member of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology, told CNN on Tuesday.

“Breakthrough disease clearly occurs, and for those cases, we know they’re much more mild in vaccinated people, but we don’t know how infectious vaccinated people are,” he said. “But clearly, if you want to protect your children under 12 or grandchildren, or protect immunocompromised people, as well as protect your own health — from even mild disease — then you should be wearing a mask, particularly in areas of high transmission when indoors.”

My kids have been vaccinated, but they’re still regular mask-wearers, especially the younger one. I fully expect them to continue to do so in school, at least for the fall. I’ve been wearing a mask again for indoor spaces as well. I will admit it’s kind of annoying, as we have been vaccinated for months now and have been pretty damn careful all along, but it is what it is. That said, I have a lot of sympathy for this position:

Some of that is happening in other states, but who knows, maybe we’ll get it for federal buildings and air travel, too. And who knows, maybe this will work.

As leaders in other parts of the country require government employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations, San Antonio and Bexar County are considering following suit, the Express-News reports.

Such a step would come as vaccination rates plateau and the highly contagious delta variant leads to a rise in infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Texas. California and New York City this week said they will make employees get the vaccine or submit to weekly coronavirus tests. Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to mandate COVID vaccinations for frontline staff.

“We are supportive of the efforts of New York and California,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff said in a joint statement supplied to Express-News. “We will be reviewing the legalities and practicalities of requiring a COVID-19 vaccine and/or weekly testing in conformity with CDC guidelines in order to protect the health and well-being of city/county workforce.”

A city and county vaccine mandate would apply to roughly 18,000 workers, according to the daily, which reports that both Nirenberg and Wolff are unsure whether the requirement would be allowable under state law.

I think we can say with extreme confidence that the state would bring all its fight against such a move. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort, but it’s not a move to be made lightly. Be prepared to hire a bunch of expensive lawyers, and have a solid communication strategy in place, that would be my advice.

As for masks in schools, well…

What did you expect? Greg Abbott has already said there won’t be any mask mandate in schools, and it’s impossible to imagine him changing his mind. It’s all up to the parents and school staff. I would not feel safe having my not-yet-vaccinated kids in school without a full-mask situation, which by the way is what we did in this past spring semester. I don’t even know what the argument against is. Doesn’t much matter when the power is on that side. The Trib and Daily Kos have more.

More masking

In Travis County.

Public health officials in Austin and Travis County are now encouraging vaccinated people to wear masks both indoors and outdoors, and for those unvaccinated to stay at home except for essential needs — the first major city in Texas to take such a step.

This comes as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread across the state, pushing the county’s seven-day average of new hospitalizations to 35 — the threshold for Stage 4 of the area’s COVID-19 risk-based guidelines.

County officials made the announcement in a virtual news conference Friday morning. Under Stage 4, officials want residents — vaccinated and unvaccinated — to wear masks at all times in public, and for unvaccinated people to only leave their homes for essential trips.

The city can’t enforce the restrictions, however, because Gov. Greg Abbott banned all local pandemic-related mandates in May. The recommendations differ from those of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says it safe for people who are fully vaccinated to “resume activities that you did before the pandemic without wearing a mask or physically distancing.”

It was just last week that Austin had gone to Stage 3. Of course as noted they can’t make anyone do any of this. They can just ask nicely and recommend as hard as they can.

Fort Bend is doing likewise.

Fort Bend County officials highly encourage people to wear masks indoors and get vaccinated as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads through the community.

A month after confirming the presence of the Delta variant in Fort Bend, health officials have detected an increase in the COVID-19 test positivity rate and in the number of cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions, said Dr. Jacquelyn Minter, director of the county’s health and human services department.

In the past week, roughly 77 percent of the reported cases were the Delta variant, Minter said. The vast majority of cases of severe illness involve people who are unvaccinated. There has been a spike in the number of infected young adults.

“We are finding that this variant is especially adept at spreading in close groups of unvaccinated people,” Minter said.

Officials recommend that people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated wear masks indoors, practice physical distancing and wash their hands. County staff will post signs recommending that people mask up.

“This is a preventive action that is being asked,” said County Judge KP George. “This is not a mandate. But it is strongly advised to reduce the number of infected people.”

Harris County has gone up a notch as well, and it won’t surprise me if they take the next step. Just as a reminder, masking and social distancing did a pretty good job of keeping things under control when there was no vaccine. If we could at least do that, we could get this back under control pretty quickly. I think we all know that the overlap between “won’t get vaxxed” and “won’t wear a mask” is pretty high, so keep your expectations in check. If only there were some way to do more than encourage and recommend…

The fourth wave

We’re not ready.

One local hospital is reinstating visitor limits and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is mulling a change to the county’s threat level amid a wave of COVID-19 variant cases that medical leaders warned Tuesday could overwhelm area hospitals and wreak further havoc as schools reopen next month.

The warning came amid massive spikes in hospitalizations across the Houston region, which Hidalgo’s office is closely monitoring to decide if the county needs to raise its emergency threat level from yellow to orange — or moderate to significant.

“We’re watching this very, very closely,” Hidalgo spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre wrote in an email. “The trends are moving in the wrong direction again and we are in a high-stakes race against the delta variant of this virus. Our message to the community is simple and clear: If you haven’t been vaccinated, take action now.”

In May, Hidalgo lowered the threat level from red — where it had been for nearly a year — to orange, then yellow a few weeks later, as COVID cases waned statewide.

But this month, hospitalizations across the state have more than doubled, ballooning from 1,591 on July 1 to 3,319 as of Tuesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The state’s hospitalization count peaked in January at 14,000.

Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said he fears the closing of many testing centers will make it more difficult to gauge the extent of COVID’s spread in the coming weeks.

“As this fourth wave begins in force, our radar is down,” Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said in a Tuesday conference call with reporters. “We have only a fraction of the testing…. We’re going to be running much more blind to the spread of delta variant in our community.”

[…]

Memorial-Hermann Health System plans to readopt visitor restrictions this week, and will test all patients for COVID, regardless of their vaccination status, said Dr. Annamaria Macaluso Davidson, vice president of employee health medical operations.

The hospital system had about 100 confirmed COVID cases on July 4; by Tuesday, there were more than 250.

We’ve been discussing this, and you know how I feel. The hospitalization numbers are still relatively low, but that’s a sharp increase, and there’s no reason to think there won’t be more. And I hadn’t even thought about the drastic reduction in testing facilities – I don’t know how big an effect that may have, but it’s not going to help.

I drafted this a couple of days ago, and before I knew it, Judge Hidalgo had already taken action.

Harris County’s emergency threat level was raised to orange — or “significant” — on Thursday and County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for resumed mask wearing amid a fourth wave of COVID-19 that has already caused hospitalizations to spike across the region.

“It’s not too late,” Hidalgo said. “But if we don’t act now, it will be too late for many people…. We are at the beginning of a potentially very dangerous fourth wave of this pandemic.”

The guidelines for the orange threat level are voluntary, and urge residents — namely those who are not vaccinated — to avoid large gatherings and businesses with poor safety procedures.

Hidalgo also said “everyone” should resume wearing masks to protect the County’s population who are not fully vaccinated. Currently, about 2.1 million county residents are fully vaccinated — 44 percent of Harris County’s total population.

She noted the county’s positivity rate is now doubling about every 17 days, quicker than any other point in the pandemic.

Get your masks back on, and hope for the best. I trust Judge Hidalgo to do everything she can to ameliorate this situation, but as we know, there’s not a lot she can do. Greg Abbott has seen to that.

One thing that could help is if more places of business begin putting in their own vaccination requirements, mostly for employees but also possibly for customers or business partners, depending on the situation. Putting some limits on what one can do as an unvaccinated person is one of the few effective ways to compel people to get their shots. That will have to come from the private sector, because it sure won’t come from the state. The FDA giving final approval to the Pfizer and Moderna shots will help, too. I just don’t know how long we can wait.

Abbott affirms he will take no action to mitigate future COVID waves

He’s on brand, that much is for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he will not impose another statewide mask mandate, despite COVID-19 cases being on the rise again.

“There will be no mask mandate imposed, and the reasons for that are very clear,” Abbott told KPRC-TV in Houston on Tuesday. “There are so many people who have immunities to COVID, whether it be through the vaccination, whether it be through their own exposure and their recovery from it, which would be acquired immunity.”

It would be “inappropriate to require people who already have immunity to wear a mask,” Abbott said.

During a news conference Wednesday in Houston, Abbott went further and expressed blanket resistance to any new restrictions to fight the virus. He said Texas is “past the time of government mandates” and “into the time for personal responsibility.”

[…]

Abbott reiterated Tuesday that Texas schoolchildren will not face mask requirements as they return to school later this summer.

“Kids will not be forced by government or by schools to wear masks in school,” Abbott said. “They can by parental choice wear a mask, but there will be no government mandate requiring masks.”

Well, he answered my question, and that answer is “You’re on your own, it’s not my problem if you get sick”. What happens when and if hospitals begin to get overrun remains a mystery. The most charitable explanation of this stance is “Look, we all know that the idiots who haven’t gotten vaccinated are the same idiots who refuse to wear masks, so what’s even the point?” If only he as Governor had some power to enforce compliance, or to be a voice of persuasion to those who have refused to bear any responsibility. But at least he cleared that up for us, so thanks for that. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Austin tries to slow down the Delta spike

Not really much they can do, though.

Austin city and public health officials on Thursday raised the city’s coronavirus risk-based guidelines for the first time since the winter surge, urging unvaccinated people to avoid non-essential travel and take other precautions after seeing a dramatic increase in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent days.

Officials placed at least part of the blame on the dangerous and highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus, which has contributed to similar spikes in more populous areas across Texas recently.

“We cannot pretend that we are done with a virus that is not done with us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said during a Thursday news conference.

But the city’s move to Stage 3 guidelines has no weight of law behind it because Gov. Greg Abbott banned pandemic mandates in May. It also only applies to the city’s unvaccinated population; the guidelines recommend that vaccinated people only need to take precautions while traveling.

The move marks the first time a major Texas city has reinstated increased health protocols since dropping mask mandates, dialing back business restrictions and allowing large events to resume in the spring and summer as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations plummeted.

Stage 3 guidelines mean unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated residents should avoid gatherings, travel, shopping and dining out altogether unless it’s essential, and mask up when they leave their homes. Officials say they are weighing further precautionary recommendations in case these measures don’t reduce the numbers.

[…]

Among the alarming trends cited by Austin and Travis County health officials on Thursday: The average number of daily new cases has tripled, COVID-19-related hospital admissions are on the rise, cases of COVID-19 in children are rising, and 20% of the more than 100 people with COVID-19 in area hospitals are on ventilators, while 41 are in the ICU.

Almost all of the hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County Health Authority.

“This has to stop, and we know how to make that happen,” Walkes said. “We are hoping that this self-correction that we’re doing with the change to the stage three status will help bring us back to a place where our cases are again declining.”

At least 60% of Austin residents are fully vaccinated, and Travis County, where Austin is located, has the third highest vaccination rate among the state’s urban counties, which are also beginning to report increasing cases and hospitalizations.

Note that this is happening in one of the most-vaccinated counties in Texas. It’s much, much worse in other parts of the state, but we all know the politics of this. What might end up happening is for Austin and/or Travis County to encourage businesses to re-impose mask requirements, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they mostly go along with that. I’m sure Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is keeping a close eye on things here, and on how they go in Travis, and may take similar steps. It’s deeply annoying as a vaccinated person, because we all know why this is happening, but here we are anyway. All you can do is try to protect yourself, because Greg Abbott sure as hell doesn’t care. The city of Austin’s news release is here, and the Austin Chronicle has more.

Our Delta future

Don’t expect anything to change, except for the number of people getting sick and dying.

The new and highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus may have sparked the recent outbreak of 125-plus cases of COVID-19 linked to a Houston-area youth church camp, and a Texas virologist says the breakout should be a wake-up call for communities.

“Clearly, COVID is not over,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor at Texas A&M University.

“COVID isn’t ever gone until it’s completely gone,” Neuman said. “And I think we’ve made the mistake of assuming that the virus would go away or assuming that the virus wouldn’t affect children … We keep stumbling into the same mistakes over and over, and that is not a way out of COVID-19.”

The Galveston County church camp took place in June with more than 450 adults and youth in attendance, according to the Houston Chronicle. More than 125 COVID-19 cases have been reported, of which three thus far have been confirmed to be the Delta variant.

The Delta variant is poised to become the leading strain in the United States in coming months according to Texas health experts, whose top concern is the risk it represents for those who are unvaccinated.

That strain, known by scientists as B.1.617.2, now accounts for about a quarter of virus infections in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. First discovered in India, it triggered a devastating outbreak there in April and May and has since spread to 85 other countries, attacking areas where vaccination rates are the lowest.

While dozens of strains have spawned from the original COVID-19 virus, the Delta variant is the most transmissible so far, said Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health. It is also leading to higher rates of hospitalization for those infected, according to research.

[…]

DSHS said it recommends people protect themselves from the variant the same way they do for other strains of the virus.

“The best protection from all strains of COVID is getting fully vaccinated,” the statement said. “People who are not vaccinated should continue to follow COVID precautions, like wearing a mask and social distancing.”

Though the CDC says people who are fully vaccinated do not have to wear masks in public spaces, Neuman is pleading for everyone to continue wearing them, especially with the Delta variant spreading in Texas.

“The only confirmed cases that we know are cases that spread through the air,” he said, and those are “from somebody’s mouth to somebody else’s mouth.” Because of that, “blocking one or both of those mouths is really the ultimate way to stop the virus from spreading.”

Some more data, if you need it.

More than 40 percent of new COVID-19 hospitalizations at Houston Methodist are the Delta variant, researchers said Wednesday, a number expected to rise as travel returns but vaccination rates stagnate nationwide.

“The number of Delta variant COVID-19 cases at Houston Methodist has nearly doubled over the last week and is sixfold higher than in May,” said Houston Methodist spokesperson Lisa Merkl. Delta variant cases made up just 20 percent of hospitalizations at the hospital system the week prior.

COVID-19 vaccinations are critical to reducing infection rates, epidemiologists said, especially as the more contagious strain of the virus spreads worldwide. Positive case and hospitalization rates are also trending upward at Houston Methodist.

Experts expect that Delta, which is thought to be 60 percent more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain, will soon become the dominant coronavirus variant in the U.S. Houston Methodist’s models estimate the Delta variant will make up 92 percent of all new infections within the coming weeks.

Not sure what more you need to know. The people who are vaccine hesitant, or who have obstacles in their way for getting vaccinated, will for the most part eventually get vaccinated. It will take too much time and I doubt there’s anything we can do now that we haven’t already tried to speed it up, but this group will steadily shrink. The anti-vaxxers are not going to get vaccinated, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. They’re also not going to wear face masks – they were the most whiny and resistant about it when that was the only mitigation available for when you had to be among other people. There’s also basically no chance Texas will impose any face mask requirements again, and local governments are prohibited from doing so. I wouldn’t even expect Greg Abbott to make a timid suggestion that maybe some people should think about wearing masks again.

If the Delta variant really takes off in Texas and we start looking like Missouri, I have no idea what happens. I have a hard time imagining Abbott even asking for federal help, though maybe the locals can do that. In many ways, we are where we were before, which is to say we’re on our own as far as Texas government is concerned. At least this time, some of us have more protection than others.

Here’s your special session agenda

They call this “red meat”, but it’s really just bullshit.

Gov. Greg Abbott has announced the agenda for the special legislative session that begins Thursday, asking lawmakers to prioritize 11 issues that largely appeal to conservatives who wanted more out of the regular session.

The announcement of the agenda came just over 24 hours before lawmakers are set to reconvene in Austin.

The agenda includes Abbott’s priority bills related to overhauling Texas elections and the bail system, as well as pushing back against social media “censorship” of Texans and the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Those issues were anticipated after they did not pass during the regular session and Abbott faced pressure to revive them or had already committed to bringing them back.

[…]

The special session agenda also includes funding for the legislative branch, which Abbott vetoed last month. He did so after House Democrats staged a walkout in the final hours of the regular session that killed the priority elections bill. The inclusion of the legislative funding raises the possibility that lawmakers could restore paychecks for their staff — and other staff at the Capitol — before the next fiscal year begins on Sept. 1. More than 2,000 staffers are affected by the veto of the Legislative funding, which Democrats have called an executive overreach of power.

Late last month, House Democrats and legislative staffers asked the state Supreme Court to override it. The court had not ruled in the case yet.

The Democrats’ walkout prompted a flood of national attention, and now the minority members must decide how to try to derail it in the special session with their staff pay on the line. Republicans also have their work cut out for them in the special session, faced with preventing another embarrassing defeat of the elections bill and remedying two provisions they claimed after the regular session were mistakes.

The special session is set to start at 10 a.m. Thursday and could last up to 30 days, with the potential for Abbott to add more items as it proceeds. It is one of at least two special sessions expected this year, with a fall special session coming to address redistricting and the spending of billions of dollars of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Abbott’s agenda for the first special session notably does not include anything about the state’s electric grid, which was exposed as deeply vulnerable during a deadly winter weather storm in February that left millions of Texans without power. Lawmakers made some progress in preventing another disaster during the regular session, but experts — as well as Patrick — have said there is more to do. Last month, calls for the Legislature to take further action to fix the power grid were renewed when grid officials asked Texans to conserve energy.

Despite Abbott’s recent claim that grid is better than ever, he sent a letter Tuesday to the state’s electricity regulators outlining a number of steps he would like them to take to “improve electric reliability.” But it appears Abbott does not want to reopen legislative debate on the issue for now.

Just to recap, I continue to expect the Supreme Court to delay and hope the legislative budget veto issue becomes moot. I don’t think there’s much if anything that Democratic legislators can do to stop any of these bills if Republicans are determined to pass them – it’s not out of the question that on some of them the Republicans are not sufficiently unified – so the best thing to do is to try to at least make sure everything has a real committee hearing first. Finally, I’m not surprised that Abbott has no interest in revisiting the power grid, not when he’s already staked his claim on everything being just fine now. The other piece of business for the Dems is to hammer this point over and over again, until it seeps into the public consciousness. Good luck, y’all. This is going to suck. The Chron has more.

What was the effect of Texas’ early re-opening?

Here’s a new study by a trio of economic researchers that attempts to answer questions about the behavioral, public health, and economic effects of Greg Abbott ending the statewide mask mandate and all restrictions on how businesses can operate, all on March 3 of this year. Short answer: Pretty much nothing changed.

This study explores a unique policy shock in Texas to identify the causal impacts of a statewide reopening on public health and economic activity. Texas was first state in the United States to enact a “100% reopening.” Executive Order GA-34, issued by Governor Greg Abbott, (i) eliminated statewide capacity constraints on all businesses, and (ii) abolished the statewide mask mandate (Abbott 2021). Texas’ “first mover” position makes the state’s reopening plausibly exogenous relative to other later-reopening states that followed suit and eased restrictions. Under Governor Greg Abbott’s order, local businesses were free to impose their own voluntary restrictions. Furthermore, unlike the imposition of local shelter-in-place orders which were permitted and widely adopted (Dave et al. 2020a), Governor Abbott advanced the legal position that no local order can supersede the state’s reopening order and legally impose COVID-related capacity constraints on local businesses or fine local residents for not wearing masks.4 At the time the reopening was announced, the state of Texas had administered 5.7 million vaccine shots to its residents, fully vaccinating 11 percent of its adult (ages 16 and older) population Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2021b). By March 29, all adults 16 and older were eligible to obtain a vaccine (Harper 2021) and by April 13, 15.2 million vaccines had been distributed in Texas (Johns Hopkins University 2021), with 26 percent of the adult population completely vaccinated.5 This share had reached nearly 40 percent by mid-May 2021.

This study is the first to examine the impact of a statewide reopening in the midst of a mass statewide vaccination effort. We document three key findings. First, using anonymized smartphone data from SafeGraph, Inc. and a synthetic control approach, we find that the Texas reopening had little impact on stay-at-home behavior or on foot traffic at numerous business locations, including restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, retail establishments, business services, personal care services, and grocery stores. Second, using COVID-19 case and mortality data from the New York Times, we find no evidence that the reopening affected the rate of new COVID-19 cases in the five-week period following the reopening.6 In addition, we find that state-level COVID-19 mortality rates were unaffected by the March 10 reopening. These null results persist when we explore heterogeneity in the state reopening by urbanicity and political ideology of Texas counties. We find no evidence of social distancing or COVID-19 effects of the reopening across more urban versus less urban Texas counties as well as across counties where the majority of residents supported Donald Trump or Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

Finally, we explore whether Governor Abbott’s reopening order generated short-run economic growth in Texas. Using weekly state-level data on UI claims per 1,000 covered jobs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), synthetic control and difference-in-differences estimates show that neither continued UI claims filed nor new UI claims filed (per 1,000 UI covered job) fell in the five “full week” period following the March 10 reopening. Moreover, using state-level data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), we find no evidence that the Texas reopening reduced the short-run (March 2021) unemployment rate or employment-to-population ratio. Supplemental analysis of microdata from the Current Population Basic Monthly Survey (CPS-BMS) show no evidence that that the reopening affected employment-to-population ratios at bars, restaurants, or entertainment venues. Taken together, our findings underscore the limits of late-pandemic era changes in COVID-19 reopening policies to alter private behavior.

See here for my post about the end of the statewide mask mandate, which I contended should have waited another couple of weeks until more people were vaccinated. I still think that would have been the smarter policy, but what this study tells us is that a lot of people – both mask-wearers and mask-resisters – kept on doing what they’d been doing. In addition, localities that had mask mandates (at least up until recently) largely kept them in place, and businesses that required people to wear masks continued to do so.

That combination of factors is very likely why not much changed despite the new, relaxed rules. Cellphone mobility data was used in May last year to predict the second-wave summer spike, and the reason for it was that with the initial lifting of stay-at-home orders, people went back to pre-pandemic levels of activity, with predictable results. The authors’ point is that at this later stage of the pandemic, people’s behavior was much more accustomed to being restricted, so a change in government policy had much less effect on them. That also means it had much less effect on economic activity, contra what Abbott promised, for the reason that many had proclaimed for months, namely that you can’t really reopen the economy until most people feel comfortable enough to get back out there and shop and dine at restaurants and go to the gym and movies and whatnot. And they won’t feel that way until the pandemic is well and truly beaten, which means taking it seriously until it’s been controlled.

Anyway, there’s grist for a lot of mills in there, so check it out. It’s kind of dense, so if you’d rather have someone else summarize and analyze it for you, there’s this Atlantic story. If even that is too long for you, or if like me you have run out of free Atlantic articles to read, this Twitter thread from the author will have to suffice. He doesn’t touch on the economic stuff, just the health and behavior stuff, but his explanation of the theories about this are nice and succinct. I’m sure we’ll see further study on this topic – it’s too interesting and important for there to be just this one – but for now, this is what we have.

No limits imposed on Governor’s powers in an emergency

So much for that.

The state Legislature won’t curtail Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic powers, after members of the House and the Senate failed to hash out their differences over it.

The measure, House Bill 3, was priority legislation in the lower chamber, and variations of the bill had passed both the House and the Senate. But representatives appointed to find a compromise missed a key deadline late Saturday to release new bill text, killing the measure.

It was not immediately clear why the bill died. Representatives for House Speaker Dade Phelan, and the two members who led negotiations, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

Phelan previously said the measure was “the House’s blueprint for pandemic response.” His office has also said the speaker believes the Legislature should have a “seat at the table” when determining how the state would handle future public health crises.

The bill’s failure was somewhat surprising given bipartisan support for scaling the governor’s powers during the pandemic. Abbott faced criticism from both sides of the aisle last year for his near-unilateral decision-making in the state’s COVID-19 response, as he issued monthly emergency declarations and changed rules at will.

The governor faced especially harsh pushback from right-wing members of his party, who called him “King Abbott” and lambasted his decision to implement business restrictions and mandate that Texans wear masks. Some challenged him, unsuccessfully, in court.

See here for the previous update. Conference committee negotiations are done in private, so we don’t know what the sticking points were, though perhaps we’ll hear something from one or more of the disgruntled parties. As you know, I was ambivalent about this, so I have no particular reason to mourn the demise of this proposal. Honestly, if we had just had a governor who made better decisions and was more collaborative we probably could have avoided a lot of the fuss. Not all of it by any means – the wingnut faction that completely lost their shit during lockdown was always going to seethe and try to do something in the session, but that would have been less likely to succeed. This has no chance of coming back in a special session because Abbott has no reason to put it on the agenda, so it’s a matter of what things look like in 2023 as to whether the issue comes up again. For now, barring anything unexpected, you can bury this one.

Threat level down again

Nice.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday downgraded the county to the yellow COVID-19 threat level, citing improving metrics for the virus here coupled with increasing vaccinations.

“This is an important and encouraging, but still fragile, milestone in our fight against COVID-19,” Hidalgo said. “Our community is doing what it needs to do to move the needle in the right direction, but the threat of stalling or moving backwards remains very real.”

Hidalgo urged unvaccinated residents to avoid gatherings over Memorial Day weekend and implored them to get inoculated.

Friday’s move was the second downgrade in two weeks, following months of criticism the threat level had become meaningless as COVID numbers improved and the governor opened the entire state for business.

See here for the previous update. You can complain if you want, but Judge Hidalgo was just following the data and not screwing around with the agreed-upon metrics for the sake of politics. If you want to keep this moving along, go convince your unvaccinated friends and family to get the shot or stay masked up. The path forward has always been simple, the problem has been the unwillingness of too many people to follow it.

Are we headed for a June special session or not?

Too soon to tell. Right now this is just the usual end-of-session venting and frustration.

With the future of the power grid and voting laws in Texas hanging in the balance, tensions among the top political leaders in the Legislature are fueling a round of political gamesmanship that has even the future of the Texas Holocaust & Genocide Commission caught in the crossfire, one of many pawns in a larger battle over GOP priorities.

There are just four days left in the legislative session, which must end by midnight Monday. Yet with so much still unresolved, top Republican leaders in the Texas House and Senate are publicly accusing one another of torpedoing important legislation.

[…]

Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the Republican infighting during a news conference in Fort Worth on Thursday.

“If the leaders in the Legislature will stop fighting with each other and start working together, we can get all of this across the finish line,” Abbott said.

End-of-session drama is almost a given in Texas, where top leaders often clash in the closing days. But this year it is different as the Senate appears ready to take important political hostages in an attempt to force Abbott to call a special session in June, whether he wants to or not.

Just past midnight Thursday morning, the Senate appeared to try to force Abbott’s hand by refusing to take up House Bill 1600, which, if passed, would have assured the continued operation of 18 state agencies — including the Holocaust & Genocide Commission, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and the Racing Commission. There are other bills to keep those agencies operating, but HB 1600 is considered a backup to make sure those agencies are not placed in jeopardy unintentionally.

In Fort Worth, Abbott sent a public message back to Austin that he will not be pushed around.

“Not only am I the only one with the authority to call a special session, I get to decide when, and I get to decide what will be on that special session,” Abbott said. “And here’s what I would do if, if anybody tries to force this: It’s not going to be like it has been in the past, where we’ll have 40 items on a special session.”

Abbott said that if there is a special session, “the only thing that we’ll be putting on there are things that I want to see passed.”

Patrick, a Republican from Montgomery County, went on Spectrum News 1 on Thursday afternoon to deny he’s threatening state agencies to pressure Abbott or the House.

“I’m not holding anything hostage,” Patrick told host Karina Kling.

Instead, Patrick says the special session is necessary after the House refused to advance a bill to ban transgender girls from playing on girls scholastic sports teams.

Patrick has a long history of fighting for measures to restrict or regulate transgender Texans. In 2017, a similar bill to stop transgender children from using the bathrooms they are most comfortable with also triggered calls for a special session after the House refused to take it up. Abbott did call a special session, and the so-called bathroom bill still didn’t pass.

Patrick on social media listed other failed bills — a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbyists by city governments and legislation to stop social media companies from “censorship” — as important measures the House has blocked.

See here for the background. As the Trib notes, Abbott supports the things that Patrick is whining about, so this may be just a little show of dominance, or it may be Abbott’s usual fecklessness, or it may be that he had indigestion after ordering the burrito supreme platter for lunch on Thursday. As I said, he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do, and he may telegraph it or he may not. He’s the guy with the power, and he wants to make sure we know that.

One more thing:

All of this is happening as lawmakers still have not reached a final deal on a plan to require electricity grid suppliers and operators to winterize their facilities to prevent a repeat of the mass power outages that left millions of Texas freezing in the dark in February.

The House and Senate passed different bills, but despite that legislation being listed as a priority of nearly every elected official, lawmakers still have not announced a compromise on it.

Eh, who cares about the grid.

The Republican leaders and majorities in both chambers, though, did exactly what I feared they would do. None of the bills heading for Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature address core problems, such as the wholesale market design or the $9,000 price cap. Nothing they did will prevent another blackout of equal scale.

They did agree on more than $9 billion in bailouts for the electric utility industry that Texans will pay off over the next 20 or 30 years through mandatory charges on their utility bills. The goal is to spread the cost of the disaster to all Texans and make the monthly fee so low we do not complain.

This will bail out electricity providers who guarantee customers a set monthly rate, even though electricity is sold on a wholesale market where the price changes every 15 minutes between free and $9,000 a megawatt-hour.

When the February freeze hit and prices maxed out, many retail providers went bankrupt and left behind $2.5 billion in unpaid bills. House Bill 4492 allows the state to issue bonds to pay off those bills and charge customers a monthly fee to repay them.

Electricity co-ops also ran up huge bills for electricity used to power critical facilities. Senate Bill 1580 allows them to issue bonds estimated to total $2 billion. Again, the co-op’s customers will repay those bonds through their monthly bills.

Winter Storm Uri also triggered a 700 percent spike in natural gas prices, creating all kinds of financial pain for another sector that typically guarantees a set price. To help natural gas utilities, the Legislature authorized them to issue $4.5 billion in bonds. We will repay these on our gas bills.

“Considering the extraordinary costs incurred in the recent winter storm, customers could see a dramatic increase in their monthly bills,” Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, wrote as his intent for the bond authorizations. “This financing mechanism will provide rate relief to customers by extending the time frame over which the extraordinary costs are recovered.”

Magic of the free market, baby. Socialize that debt, and focus on the important things. It’s what they do. Reform Austin and the Trib have more.

Anti-trans sports bill dies

Good news, with the usual caveats.

A controversial Texas bill that would restrict the participation of transgender student athletes in school sports ran out of time for consideration in the House as the lower chamber hit a crucial deadline Tuesday night for passing all Senate bills.

Senate Bill 29 would have mandated that transgender student athletes play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity. The bill’s proponents said it was necessary to protect girls’ sports, arguing that allowing transgender girls to play on school sports teams gave them an unfair advantage because they have higher levels of testosterone.

LGBTQ advocates said the legislation was harmful and discriminatory against transgender Texans. It is among a slate of Texas bills aimed at transgender people this legislative session and the latest to miss a House deadline that needed to be met so they could advance and eventually become law. No legislative measure can be considered dead, though, until the session ends Monday.

No matter the success of the legislation, LGBTQ advocates say the mere specter that such measures could become law has already damaged the mental health of transgender people.

Debate on SB 29 was delayed until 11:30 p.m. Tuesday night, leaving only half an hour for the chamber to pass the bill. Then several other delayed bills ahead of it ran down the clock until there was no time left for the imperiled bill.

House Democrats spent much of Tuesday’s marathon session using delay tactics to keep several GOP-backed bills, including SB 29, from coming up in time to be debated. With less than 10 minutes until the deadline Tuesday, Democrats offered an amendment to an unrelated bill and then asked each other clarifying questions about it as a way to run out the clock.

As the deadline crept closer, representatives circulated transgender pride flags on the floor in an obvious nod to their tactic and target. Austin Democrat Gina Hinojosa smiled and waved the flag alongside members of the House LGBTQ Caucus as the clock hit midnight.

“Democrats had a long, aggressive floor strategy to keep a number of bills, most notably SB 29, from affecting the people of Texas,” said state Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch, treasurer of the caucus, told The Texas Tribune. “I’m really happy we were able to end the session by preserving the dignity and rights of the children of Texas to be free of discrimination.”

See here for the background and here for one of the celebratory photos. The tactic involved is called chubbing, and it has been used to some extent or another in most recent sessions. I’ll return to that in a minute, but first we should note that as is always the case, other bills met their demise as well on deadline day.

In the final 14 hours before the final midnight deadline for advancing Senate bills in the Texas House, Democrats pulled out all the stops Tuesday to keep the body from considering GOP-backed legislation they opposed, spelling death for some of the Senate’s priority bills.

The House had on its calendar several of the Senate’s priorities, including a bill banning social media companies from blocking users because of their viewpoint or their location within Texas, another that would ban local governments from using public funds to pay for lobbyists, and another that would force transgender student athletes to play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity.

Republicans control all branches of Texas government, and Democrats have been trying to fight back these bills since the beginning of the legislative session in January. The midnight deadline to pass the bills was the minority party’s last hope. And though they ended the night with hoarse voices, House Democrats landed a rare victory this session, killing all three of those bills, and only ceding one other Senate priority bill that banned cities and counties from requiring companies to pay workers more than the federal minimum wage or provide them with benefits like paid sick leave.

Dan Patrick took these defeats about as well we you might imagine.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Wednesday is asking Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session of the Texas Legislature in June to advance three pieces of GOP-backed legislation that died in the Texas House at midnight on Tuesday.

The bills sought to ban transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity, prohibit local governments from using taxpayer funds to pay for lobbyists and punish social media companies for “censoring” Texans based on their political viewpoints.

In a statement Abbott said the call was premature and instead urged lawmakers to “work together to get important conservative legislation to my desk.”

“Some are trying to end the game before the time clock has run out,” Abbott wrote. “Members in both chambers need to be spending every minute of every day to accomplish that mission.”

In his call to bring back the Legislature, Patrick said the bills in question have widespread support.

“The TxHouse killed these conservative bills that majority of Texans in both parties support,” Patrick tweeted, without evidence. A Patrick spokesperson did not immediately respond to a question about evidence of such support.

If Dan Patrick says that everybody supports these things, who are we to argue? We know there will be a special session in the fall for redistricting and appropriating federal COVID relief funds, but that’s a lot already for thirty days. Would Greg Abbott accommodate Patrick’s request for an immediate special session for these undone bills? On the one hand, they were on the “emergency items” list, so for sure Abbott supports them. On the other hand, the fact that these bills, which had more time to get passed than any others, couldn’t make it to the floor until the very end, when they were susceptible to this well-known tactic, should tell you something. It is more than a little likely that some number of Republican legislators would have preferred to not have to vote on them. The first job of the Speaker is to protect the members, after all.

Look, Abbott’s gonna do what Abbott’s gonna do, and we should know soon enough what he intends. In the meantime, celebrate the wins that we got. Lord knows, there were plenty of losses. The Chron has more.

Threat level down

Been waiting for this for some time.

Harris County finally will downgrade from its highest COVID-19 threat level, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday evening, after 47 weeks of urging residents to stay home.

Hidalgo said the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines and improving local metrics were among several factors that convinced her to revise the threat level system the county debuted last summer. The U.S. Centers From Disease Control also told fully vaccinated Americans last week they may resume their pre-pandemic lives.

“We’re very much at a turning point,” Hidalgo said. “We don’t want to claim victory because there certainly there’s a possibility that amongst the unvaccinated, the virus gets out of control. But we do have reason for celebration.

Hidalgo said she would make a formal announcement Tuesday. Remaining guidelines would only apply to unvaccinated residents.

The two Republican county commissioners had urged the Democratic leader for weeks to abandon Level Red, which states that virus outbreaks are uncontrolled and worsening; data show the opposite is true.

The pair, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, have said that while COVID-19 still must be taken seriously, the Level Red designation obscures the progress the county has made in containing the virus.

[…]

Currently, Harris County meets four of five criteria to downgrade to the next-highest threat level, including 14-day averages of new cases below 400 and share of ICU beds occupied by virus patients below 15 percent.

The remaining barrier is a test positivity rate below 5 percent; currently that metric stands at 9.4 percent. That result differs greatly than the positivity rate recorded by the Texas Medical Center system, which currently is 3.7 percent.

The TMC rate comes from tests conducted on patients at member hospitals in the Houston region; the county rate comes from tests taken by the Houston and Harris County health departments, as well as local pharmacies.

Hidalgo said experts she consulted said since few residents were being tested, Harris County’s rate likely was artificially high. She said her team would revise the metrics so positivity rate and new cases are secondary criteria.

See here for the previous update, which was a month ago. We’re a lot farther along on vaccinations, and all of the numbers have moved in accordance with that. I like the fact that we’re being true to the metrics, and that we are making adjustments to them based on new facts on the ground. I commend Judge Hidalgo for consistently doing the right thing, which would have been a lot easier to do if we didn’t have Threat Level Super Duper Bright Red stupidity and malevolence from other parts of our government. The later story also notes that government buildings would reopen to 50 percent capacity, and the county is reviewing that dumb anti-mask mandate order. The Press and the Trib have more.

House passes its bill to limit Governor’s emergency powers

Not sure if this is going to make it through the Senate.

The Texas House on Monday gave preliminary approval to a sweeping bill that would reform the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic and involve the Legislature during such instances.

House members voted 92-45 for House Bill 3, which will need another vote in the lower chamber before it heads over to the Senate for consideration.

“We must now take what we have learned in dealing with the pandemic and set a different framework for future pandemics,” state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican and author of the proposal, told House members as he laid out the legislation. “As a baseline, you will not government your way out of it.”

HB 3 as advanced Monday would give lawmakers more oversight of the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic and specifically carves out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters, such as hurricanes. One amendment added Monday, for example, would require the Legislature to convene for a special session if a disaster declaration lasts longer than 120 days.

The wide-ranging legislation would affirm the governor’s ability to suspend state laws during a pandemic and allow for overriding local orders issued by county judges or mayors if they’re inconsistent with state orders.

Members drastically changed the legislation Monday with a number of amendments during the floor debate, including one that would create the Texas Epidemic Public Health Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. That entity would make recommendations to a 12-member legislative oversight committee that also would be created if HB 3 became law. The committee, which would consist of the lieutenant governor and speaker — who would serve as joint chairs — and a number of committee chairs from both chambers, could in certain cases terminate pandemic disaster declarations, orders or other rules issued by the governor or local governments. It would only be able to act though when the Legislature is not convened for a regular or special session.

Ahead of Monday’s debate, the legislation was tweaked by Burrows to allow the Legislature to intervene on certain executive orders or proclamations issued by the governor. The governor would need permission from the Legislature to extend beyond 30 days an order or proclamation related to requiring face masks, limiting certain medical procedures or closing or capping business operating capacity. If the Legislature wasn’t already in session, the governor would be required to convene a special legislative session for lawmakers to consider modifying or terminating that order. If the Legislature was already in session, the governor would still need to ask state lawmakers for input to modify or terminate an order.

See here, here, and here for some background. You know how I feel about this – I generally agree with giving the Legislature a broader say in these matters, but I recognize that there can be logistical challenges with that, not to mention concern about speed of response. I also have serious concerns with the philosophy embedded in this bill – to say “you’re not going to government your way out” of a pandemic is, to put it mildly, wildly misinformed. I also have great concerns about the neutering of local officials, which the Chron story goes into.

The bill prohibits local governments from closing businesses or limiting their maximum occupancy, plus any local government deemed by the governor to have required a business to close would be prohibited from levying certain tax increases.

The bill also includes protections for most businesses from civil suits related to the pandemic.

Some of the more recent additions to the bill have helped it win the favor of conservative legislators who were skeptical, such as Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who commended the bill’s author, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, for addressing his concerns.

Texas House Democratic Party Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said the deal breaker for many members of his party came down to limits on local control.

“There were some positive things in the bill, but a lot of us were not comfortable with restrictions on local officials,” Turner said. “Local officials led our state through the pandemic and the Legislature should not limit their ability to do so in the future.”

I will admit to mixed feelings on this as well. We saw last year that the response to the pandemic varied greatly between urban counties and their neighbors. Harris County was serious about masking and social distancing and limiting gatherings, which meant putting more restrictions on businesses, while Montgomery County was the exact opposite. Which is all well and good until you remember that viruses don’t respect borders, and Montgomery’s laxness had a negative effect on Harris. That’s the argument for limiting what local officials can do, which sounds great until those limits are on actions you approve of. This bill ratchets that debate in the Republican direction, which at least clarifies the ambivalence I feel. The Senate bill is more limited in its approach. I have no idea which bill will win out. There’s only so much time left for a compromise. Reform Austin has more.

The Senate is an obstacle to permitless carry

A small bit of hope. Don’t rely on it too heavily.

While a bill to allow most people to carry a handgun without a license sailed through the Texas House, it now faces a Texas Senate where the leader, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made his support for law enforcement a critical part of his political identity. And a large contingent of Texas law enforcement officials have adamantly opposed legislation that would allow unlicensed carrying of weapons, despite some gun-rights groups pushing Republicans to make the bill law.

“This bill does not make officers more safe,” Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said at a rally in front of the state Capitol that included Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and dozens of other law enforcement officials. “It makes us less safe.”

Patrick, who has the authority in the Senate to quell most any bill he wants, said on Monday the votes are not there in the Texas Senate right now to move the legislation.

“If we have the votes to pass a permitless carry bill off the Senate floor, I will move it,” Patrick said Monday. “At this point we don’t have the votes on the floor to pass it. I plan to meet with law enforcement who oppose permitless carry and with the NRA and GOA (Gun Owners of America) who support it to see if we can find a path that a majority of senators will vote to pass.”

It’s not dissimilar from what Patrick has said about the issue in the past. During a 2017 radio interview in San Antonio, Patrick told host Trey Ware that “law enforcement does not like the idea of anyone being able to walk down the street with a gun and they don’t know if they have a permit or not.”

See here for the background. One should never invest too much time waiting for Dan Patrick to do the right thing, but I believe him when he says it is opposition from law enforcement that is the issue for him and his minions. I do not think this is a line in the sand for him, though. If there’s an incremental loosening of gun laws that he can sell to law enforcement, it’ll happen. I’ll be more surprised if nothing passes than if some watered-down version of HB1927 passes.

Of course, there are other ways to make us all less safe.

Federal calls for action after recent mass shootings have put Gov. Greg Abbott and GOP state lawmakers on the defensive. Now they’re laying the groundwork to block federal gun regulations through legislation that would make Texas a “Second Amendment sanctuary state,” prohibiting state agencies and local governments from enforcing new federal gun rules.

But legal experts say the move is largely symbolic, and that its practical effect would be to make it harder — but not impossible — for federal officials to enforce new gun control measures.

The push to steel Texas against federal rules comes amid several instances of gun violence nationwide — including a shooting in Bryan on April 8 and another in Austin on Sunday. The longstanding debate in Washington, D.C., over gun control has reignited, moving Democrats in Congress and the White House to call for an assault weapons ban and stronger background checks, among other changes.

“We need to erect a complete barrier against any government official anywhere from treading on gun rights in Texas,” Abbott said during his annual State of the State address in February.

If the legislation passes, Texas would join Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Wyoming and Arizona – along with more than 400 local governments in at least 20 states – in declaring themselves sanctuaries for gun rights.

“This is what I’m seeking for Texas — a law to defy any new federal gun control laws,” Abbott said in a tweet April 7 about Arizona’s recently approved new law. “I look forward to signing it.”

So what impact would the law have if Congress passes stricter gun laws, like ones floated by President Joe Biden last week?

The sanctuary law would not allow Texas to nullify or override federal gun laws, said Sanford Levinson, a University of Texas School of Law professor. Instead, “what they can say [to federal officials] is, ‘If you want to enforce them, do it yourself.”’ Levinson said.

“The practical effect, if anything, is really at the margins,” added Darrell Miller, co-director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law. “It doesn’t mean the Department of Justice can’t enforce federal firearms laws in the state of Texas. It just makes their job more difficult, because they can’t rely on assistance from state or local government agents to help them out.”

[…]

Under House Bill 2622 by state Rep. Justin Holland, which cleared its first committee April 6 in a 11-2 vote, Texas state and local governments would be prohibited from enforcing or providing assistance to federal agencies on certain federal gun regulations that do not exist under state law, such as registry, license and background check requirements and programs that would confiscate guns or require people to sell them.

Among the new federal rules the bill would block Texas from enforcing are mandatory background checks for private gun sales.

[…]

Noteworthy in Holland’s proposal is that it threatens to deny state funds to any government agencies in Texas that enforce certain new federal restrictions, Miller said.

“Not only is this saying state police can’t help out the feds in enforcing federal gun legislation, it’s also saying the city of Austin Police Department can’t do it as well,” Miller said.

Holland said “there has to be teeth to the bill” to ensure consistent enforcement across the state.

“We can’t have standalone cities, counties, jurisdictions running around state laws as some sort of a political statement,” Holland said. Dozens of Texas counties have already declared themselves sanctuaries for gun rights.

Lawmakers said it’s possible Texas could lose some federal funds if the legislation passes.

“While there is no significant fiscal impact to state funding as a result of the bill, the impact on federal funding cannot be determined at this time because the response by federal agencies to this legislation is unknown,” the bill’s fiscal note reads.

One assumes that law enforcement doesn’t much care for this bill as well, but whether that’s enough to derail it remains to be seen – HB2622 hasn’t been voted on by the full House yet, much less the Senate, so there’s still a chance that it goes the way of all flesh without any further action. I personally would be in favor of Congress making various federal funds contingent on not doing stupid crap like this, but that feels a bit remote. I wouldn’t mind seeing someone with budget clout in Congress saying something about this, but let’s be honest, that’s more likely to make Republicans dig in their heels than reconsider their actions.

First attempt to redefine the governor’s powers in an emergency

I’m still conflicted about this.

The Texas Senate backed a potential constitutional amendment Tuesday that would substantially rein in the power of the governor during emergencies like this past year’s coronavirus pandemic.

Texas voters would have to approve the amendment Nov. 2 for it to take effect. And before it could get on a ballot, the Senate action must still be approved by the House.

The amendment would require the governor to call a special session in order to declare a state emergency that lasts more than 30 days. The special session would give lawmakers the chance to terminate or adjust executive actions taken by the governor, or pass new laws related to the disaster or emergency.

The Legislature did not meet last year as the pandemic swept the state, so Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the largely unprecedented situation with executive orders and declarations spanning several months, citing the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.

Abbott issued what essentially amounted to a statewide shutdown order last year, and he kept in place some level of capacity limitations for businesses until early March of this year. In July, he mandated that Texans wear masks in public. He also used executive authority to lift other state regulations to help businesses struggling during the pandemic, such as allowing restaurants to sell groceries and mixed drinks to go.

But many state lawmakers say the Legislature should be the government body to make decisions that affect businesses and livelihood of Texans.

“Early on, people understood [business closures] because they’re like, ‘we don’t know what this is,’” Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said on the Senate floor. But as the pandemic and business closures wore on, Birdwell said the anger grew as the mandates continued.

Birdwell said if the governor believes the situation is dire enough that businesses need to close, then he needs to get the Legislature involved.

[…]

“I don’t see this Legislature being able to convene fast enough to answer … in the kind of disasters I have seen and expect the state to see in the future,” said Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who used to serve as Travis County judge.

Meanwhile, a priority bill filed in the House would carve out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters.

That bill, HB 3, has not yet made it out of committee, but would allow the governor to suspend state laws and require local jurisdictions to get approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic.

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, previously told the Texas Tribune that the proposal was meant as a starting point to map out responses in the event of another pandemic.

“HB 3 was trying to set structures, predicting the disaster or the emergency,” Birdwell said. “What I did was set a baseline…It is impossible to predict the disaster.”

As I’ve said before, I think the Legislature should have a say in these matters, and that calling a special session last year would have cleared some things up and maybe prevented a lawsuit or two. I think Sen. Birdwell’s proposed resolution is more or less okay, though I don’t trust his motives and I agree with Sen. Eckhardt about the Lege’s lack of ability to move quickly in times of crisis. Hell, unless we’re willing to allow a Zoom legislative session, having that special session I mentioned could have been a superspreader event. HB3 is completely off the rails – again with the fixation on preventing counties from making it easier to vote – so if I had to choose between the two I’d take the Senate’s version, but I’m a very qualified and uncertain supporter. The system we had now wasn’t great. My fear is that we’ll make it worse.

Austin mask mandate somehow still in effect

I admit, I did not expect this.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County can keep requiring masks for at least a bit longer after a district judge denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request for a temporary block of the local mandate.

Paxton sued the local officials for refusing to end the mandate after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted state restrictions earlier this month. Paxton will likely appeal the decision.

District Judge Lora Livingston has yet to issue a final ruling on the merits of the case, meaning Austin and Travis officials may later be told to comply with state officials.

But in the meantime, County Judge Andy Brown said Friday’s ruling at least prolongs the amount of time masks are required in their communities — which gives them more time to vaccinate their residents.

“I’ve been doing everything that I can to protect the health and safety of people in Travis County,” Brown said in an interview. “And Judge Livingston’s ruling today allows us to keep doing that.”

[…]

The final outcome of the case could have implications for other Texas cities and counties on how local governments can enforce their own public health mandates, even after the state ordered them to end.

During Friday’s hearing, discussion broadly centered around the question: What powers do local public health departments have, and how do the governor’s emergency powers affect them?

Austin and Travis attorneys said public health officials have the authority to implement health measures — like mask mandates — outside of the context of the pandemic, and therefore should not be affected by Texas’ latest order.

State attorneys argued that Abbott’s emergency powers because of the pandemic trump any local orders.

Livingston pushed back on some of the state attorney’s arguments that not requiring masks allows for individual freedom.

“I’m trying to understand why the person with the deadly virus should have more power than the person trying to stay alive and not catch the deadly virus,” Livingston said.

See here and here for the background. Note that the judge still has not issued a ruling, she just hasn’t granted the state’s motion for an injunction while she makes her decision. The usual trajectory in this sort of thing has been for the good guys (i.e., whoever is on the opposite side of Ken Paxton, whether as plaintiff or defendant) to win in round one and sometimes in round two, but to ultimately lose. Since the legal question at hand in these matters is the imposition of a restraining order or injunction, and since Paxton loves filing emergency appeals, the outcome that matters in the short term – that is, whether or not the good guys get to do what they want to do or force their opponents to do or not do something – is decided quickly, and often renders the actual litigation moot. In this case, the judge has taken her sweet time issuing a decision, so there’s been nothing for Paxton to appeal. Plus, even if all they get out of it is a couple of weeks’ extra time, that extra time is consequential in terms of slowing the spread of COVID. I just did not see it playing out this way. So, whatever happens in the end, good for Austin and Travis County for finding a way to do something in the short term. I don’t know how replicable this is, but it worked this time and that did matter.

Austin mask mandate enforcement still in place for now

No ruling, just a delay for a fuller hearing.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County officials can continue enforcing their mask mandates after a district judge delayed action on the Texas attorney general’s request to immediately stop the mandates.

That means city and county officials can continue to require masks until at least March 26, when District Judge Lora Livingston will hold a trial.

“People have been wearing masks for a year. I don’t know that two more weeks is going to matter one way or the other,” Livingston said during a Friday hearing, according to the Austin-American Statesman, which first reported the news.

[…]

Paxton’s lawyers pushed for an injunction hearing Friday, but Livingston said it wouldn’t be fair to give the defendants only a day to prepare, the Statesman reported. Livingston said after she hears arguments March 26, she’ll rule the same day.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown counts the two-week delay as a win. It buys the area some time to keep requiring masks while residents get vaccinated. It will also keep the mandate through most schools’ spring break holidays.

Abbott’s latest order states “no jurisdiction” can implement local restrictions, except a county judge and only when hospitalizations in a region exceed 15%.

“This case raises a pressing question: who is ultimately responsible for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies?” Paxton’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. “The Texas Disaster Act charges the Governor—not an assortment of thousands of county judges, city mayors, and local health officials—with leading the State’s response to a statewide emergency.”

But Brown and Adler argue that local public health officials maintain the authority to create orders on the local level to protect their community from pandemics. It’s different, they argued, from using emergency powers.

Brown said if the judge rules differently, it will have “huge ramifications” on local government moving forward.

Local government needs to be able to move quickly on issues of public health, he said, emphasizing that it’s “the whole point of the way our state government is set up.”

See here for the background. I certainly agree with Andy Brown about the ramifications for local governments, but it’s not like this is a surprise. Our Republican-dominated state government has been very clear about its priorities with respect to cities and (Democratic) counties. This is and will be just another example of that.

In the comments to the earlier post I was asked what would I have Austin and Travis County do about this. My deeply unsatisfying answer is that there isn’t anything they could do right now. The law and the courts are against them, and there isn’t even a symbolic win available. Paxton will prevail in court, very likely in swift fashion, and he’ll gloat about it. The only thing that can be done is to work extra hard to elect a better state government in 2022. Nothing will change until that happens. Believe me, I wish there were a better answer.

Paxton sues Austin and Travis County over its mask mandate

Completely expected.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing Travis County and Austin officials in an effort to force them to rescind their local mask orders, he announced Thursday.

“I told Travis County & The City of Austin to comply with state mask law,” Paxton tweeted. “They blew me off. So, once again, I’m dragging them to court.”

Texas on Wednesday lifted nearly all coronavirus restrictions, including Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide mask mandate and occupancy restrictions. Abbott’s order said that “no jurisdiction” can require a person to wear a mask in public if the area doesn’t meet a certain number hospitalizations for the coronavirus. But Austin and Travis County health officials have said they will continue to enforce the safety protocols, setting the stage for yet another fight over pandemic response between state and local officials.

“[Travis County] Judge Brown and I will fight to defend and enforce our local health officials’ rules for as long as possible using all the power and tools available to us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Thursday in a statement. “We promised to be guided by the doctors, science and data as concerns the pandemic and we do everything we can to keep that promise.”

[…]

Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who presides over the county government, said the authority to impose the local mask mandate comes from the county health authority, not from Brown’s emergency powers. Brown told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that means the order should hold up in court.

“I listen to doctors, not to politicians like our attorney general,” Brown said.

As noted, Travis County and Austin extended their mandates on Wednesday, then Paxton sent them a letter saying basically “take that back or I’ll sue”. When they didn’t, he did. And look, no one holds Ken Paxton in greater contempt than I do, but he’s going to win this case. He may have to appeal it up a level or two to get there, but there’s just no way this story ends with the locals winning. I get the urge to defy the dumb order from Greg Abbott and to take a stand, but you gotta have a strategy and some reasonable expectation of achieving the outcome you want. This is not going to help.

Memorial Hermann CEO begs for Abbott to reconsider maskless mandate

He won’t listen, but maybe some of the people who would have stopped wearing their masks will.

On March 2, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the issuance of a new executive order, which “re-opens” Texas. The new order, which takes effect Wednesday, March 10, also terminates the statewide mask mandate.

As a health system, we respect the governor and recognize that he has an incredibly difficult job right now; however, we disagree with the terms and the timing of this new order, and strongly encourage him to reconsider this decision.

[…]

Additionally, we are deeply concerned about the timing of this decision, especially as we have just learned that all of the major new COVID-19 variants, which seem to be more dangerous and more transmissible, have now been identified in Houston; in fact, we are the first major U.S. city to confirm that all of these new variants are active in our community. Even more, for the first time in many weeks, the number of new cases reported around the world is higher than it was a week ago. Finally, we are gravely concerned that upcoming Spring Break gatherings will result in surges similar to those caused by holiday get-togethers, or worse.

The pandemic is not over, and our safety measures should not be, either. We hope that by continuing to practice the proven safety measures and encouraging others to do so as well — and as more and more people in the greater Houston area become vaccinated — we can happily support lifting masking restrictions in the future, maybe even as soon as several months from now. But we feel that issuing this order at this time, considering the current environment, is premature. In the greater Houston area, it is clear that COVID-19 is not yet under community control.

You may think this is not particularly remarkable, but hospital bigwigs have tried very hard to stay out of political fights surrounding COVID:

And as for that mention about COVID variants in Houston, consider this:

Read that whole thread and maybe be a little scared. Definitely keep your mask on, and stay away from any business or other indoor location that doesn’t require masks. If we truly are on our own, we’ve got to take this a lot more seriously than Greg Abbott does.

Again with defining the Governor’s powers in an emergency

The legislative process has begun, and I feel like we’ve already lost the plot.

For roughly the past year, Republicans and Democrats have picked apart the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — and particularly how Gov. Greg Abbott has wielded his power along the way.

Now, with less than 90 days left in the 2021 regular legislative session and as Abbott has moved to lift most of the restrictions he imposed, the Texas Legislature is setting its sights on addressing the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic. And while many differences remain on the approach, members of both parties and both chambers of the Legislature appear intent on doing something.

In the House, a top lieutenant of GOP Speaker Dade Phelan has filed a wide-ranging bill that would affirm the governor’s ability to suspend state laws and require local jurisdictions to get approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic, among other things. The measure has been designated House Bill 3, indicating it’s a top priority for the new speaker, behind the lower chamber’s proposed state and supplemental budgets in House Bills 1 and 2, respectively.

The author of House Bill 3, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, has said the proposal can serve as a starting point for lawmakers to begin to map out what the state’s response should look like in the event of another pandemic.

“After going through the last year of a pandemic and the government reaction to it, we owe Texans a healthy and robust debate about what we agree and disagree with,” Burrows said in a statement to The Texas Tribune for this story. “I filed HB3 so we could have a holistic review of state governance and to make sure we protect our liberties during a state emergency.”

The Senate, meanwhile, is appearing to take a more piecemeal approach. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has included several pandemic-related proposals as part of his 31 legislative priorities for the session, including a “First Responders Pandemic Care Act” and a “Family Nursing Home Visitation Rights” bill. Patrick’s office has remained tight-lipped so far about the substance of those proposals — many of which have not yet been filed — or his chamber’s contrasting approach. A Patrick spokesperson declined to comment on the record.

“Things are off to a slow start, and I think we’re probably in wait-and-see mode” when it comes to reforming emergency powers, said Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “There seems to be more going on on the Republican side of that, but as far as doing something like an HB 3 goes, I’m not sure.”

There are broad areas of agreement between the two chambers on issues like protecting businesses from certain lawsuits related to COVID-19, which is among Patrick’s and Abbott’s priorities and is included in the House’s omnibus proposal. But the more tricky territory could be reforming the parameters of a state pandemic response.

[…]

As filed, House Bill 3 would carve out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters, such as hurricanes. For roughly the past year throughout the pandemic, the state has been operating under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which Abbott has used to issue statewide guidelines. Some have argued that the disaster statute did not fit the circumstances brought on by the unprecedented pandemic and that tweaks would be needed should a similar crisis happen in the future.

The bill would also require local jurisdictions to receive approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic — an attempt to avoid the headlines and confusion that defined much of the 2020 general election, such as court battles over mail-in ballot applications and drive-thru voting.

“All of these jurisdictions, especially in [Harris and Dallas counties], the more blue areas, we’re not going to let them use a pandemic excuse to change the rules of the game to try to get more Democrats out to vote,” Burrows said last week on the Lubbock-based Chad Hasty radio show, noting that the Republican Party of Texas has named “election integrity” a top priority this legislative session.

Among its other provisions, the bill would affirm existing protections for places of worship remaining open during a pandemic, and for the sale or transportation of firearms and ammunition.

See here for the background. Keeping churches and gun stores open, while making it harder to vote – you have to hand it to these guys, they never miss an opportunity to follow their zealous little hearts. Kind of quaint to think that the heart of the matter would be about the relative roles of the Governor and the Legislature, or that a lightweight like Steve Toth would have the more serious and constructive proposal, but here we are. Speaking of which, the Chron adds a few details.

Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, filed a bill that would give the Legislature the power to intervene midpandemic if voters approved a constitutional amendment. Toth’s bill, House Joint Resolution 42, was one of at least eight that have been filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on the subject.

Last year, Toth and other conservative lawmakers were also party to lawsuits against the governor claiming Abbott abused his emergency powers when he extended the early voting period and when he signed off on a deal with a contact tracing company.

But Toth said Wednesday that he felt confident that Phelan and Burrows are listening to feedback and willing to make changes that other members deem necessary to strengthen the bill. Whether that will include a requirement for a special session, however, remains to be seen.

“I’d be seriously disappointed if they weren’t welcoming input,” Toth said. “I’d be disappointed if they weren’t saying how can we change to make it better, but they are, enthusiastically.”

Phelan, for his part, has supported Abbott taking charge during disasters, something he’s said helped his community of Beaumont during Hurricane Harvey. In a statement Thursday, Phelan called HB 3 “the House’s initial blueprint for our pandemic response.”

“Our chamber welcomes healthy debate over the best way to defend our liberties, create predictability in times of crisis and safeguard our economy,” he said.

Rep. Chris Turner, House Democratic Caucus chair, said in a statement that while the bill will likely go through many changes as the session goes on, “there is broad interest in addressing how future governors respond to future emergencies, given Gov. Abbott’s confusing, slow and often inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic — not to mention last month’s winter storm.”

He added that he hopes the legislation will give local leaders the chance to make rules for their own communities without being preempted by the governor. As of now, the law does the opposite, affirming a clause that most of Abbott’s orders have included stating that a governor’s emergency orders supersede local ones.

“Beyond that, we need to prioritize fixing our broken data reporting systems so we can make decisions based on science rather than politics,” said Turner, D-Grand Prairie.

I mean, I don’t really want Steve Toth to be happy, but he did have one halfway decent idea, and I do like to encourage that sort of thing. The Senate still has to weigh in, not that they’re likely to do anything to improve matters. As the Chron story notes, limiting the Governor’s powers was not something Dan Patrick considered to be a priority. He has more important things on his mind.

Abbott lifts statewide mask mandate

Unbelievable.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he is ending Texas’ statewide mask mandate next week and will allow all businesses to operate at full capacity.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” Abbott said from a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, arguing that Texas has fought the coronavirus pandemic to the point that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate” any longer.

Abbott said he was rescinding “most of the earlier executive orders” he has issued over the past year to stem the spread of the virus. He said starting next Wednesday, “all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100%” and masks will no longer be required in public. The mask requirement has been in effect since last summer.

Meanwhile, the spread of the virus remains substantial across the state, with Texas averaging over 200 reported deaths a day over the last week. And while Abbott has voiced optimism that vaccinations will accelerate soon, less than 7% of Texans had been fully vaccinated as of this weekend.

Texas will become the most populous state in the country not to have a mask mandate. More than 30 states currently have one in place.

Abbott urged Texans to still exercise “personal vigilance” in navigating the pandemic. “It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” he said.

Currently, most businesses are permitted to operate at 75% capacity unless their region is seeing a jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations. While he was allowing businesses to fully reopen, Abbott said that people still have the right to operate how they want and can “limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols.” Abbott’s executive order said there was nothing stopping businesses from requiring employees or customers to wear masks.

[…]

Texans have been under a statewide mask mandate since July of last year — and they have grown widely comfortable with it, according to polling. The latest survey from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune found that 88% of the state’s voters wear masks when they’re in close contact with people outside of their households. That group includes 98% of Democrats and 81% of Republicans.

The absence of statewide restrictions should not be a signal to Texans to stop wearing masks, social distancing, washing their hands or doing other things to keep the virus from spreading, said Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force.

Carlo declined to react specifically to Abbott’s order, saying he had not had a chance to read it. He also expressed concern that new virus variants, specifically the U.K. variant, could still turn back the positive trends cited by Abbott.

“We’re facing unacceptably high rates, and we still hear every day about more and more people becoming sick. And it may be less than before, but it’s still too many,” Carlo said. “Even if businesses open up and even if we loosen restrictions, that does not mean we should stop what we’re doing because we’re not there yet.”

It was clear from what Abbott said during President Biden’s visit that he was planning to take action to loosen restrictions. I was prepared for him to announce a step-down or a schedule or something more gradual. I did not expect him to just rip the bandage right off. I don’t know what to say, but Judge Hidalgo does, so let’s listen to her.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner slammed Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday for allowing all businesses in Texas to fully reopen next week and lifting his statewide mask mandate, suggesting the governor timed the move to distract angry Texans from the widespread power outages during the recent winter storm.

“At best, today’s decision is wishful thinking,” Hidalgo said. “At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”

Turner said Abbott’s decision to rescind the COVID measures marked “the third time the governor has stepped in when things were going in the right direction,” a reference to the surges in cases, hospitalizations and deaths that ensued after Abbott implemented reopening guidelines last year.

“It makes no sense,” Turner said. “Unless the governor is trying to deflect from what happened a little less than two weeks ago with the winter storm.”

[…]

Before Abbott’s announcement, Hidalgo and Turner sent the governor a letter urging him not to lift his statewide mask mandate.

“Supported by our public health professionals, we believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose widespread adoption of this preventative measure,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote, arguing the mandate has allowed small businesses to remain open by keeping cases down.

The disparity between Hidalgo and Turner’s concerns — that Abbott would simply lift the mask order but keep other restrictions intact — and his decision to fully reopen the state puts on full display the diverging messages Houstonians are receiving from their local Democratic leaders and the Republicans who run the state. While Hidalgo is telling residents to stay home and buckle down, Abbott is giving the green light for a return to normal life, albeit one where Texans govern themselves using “personal responsibility,” he said Tuesday.

We know how well that’s worked so far. The irony is that other parts of state government still understand what’s at stake:

I’d love to say that Abbott will suffer political blowback for this, but polling data is mixed and inconsistent.

Texas voters’ concerns about the spread of coronavirus are higher now than they were in October, before a winter surge in caseloads and hospitalizations, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) said that they are either extremely or very concerned about the spread of the pandemic in their communities — up from 40% in October. Their apprehension matches the spread of the coronavirus. As cases were rising in June, 47% had high levels of concern.

Caseloads were at a low point in October, as was voter concern about spread. And sharp increases through the holidays and into the new year were matched by a rise in public unease.

Voters’ concern about “you or someone you know” getting infected followed that pattern, too. In the current poll, 50% said they were extremely or very concerned, up from 44% in October, and close to the 48% who responded that way in the June poll.

“The second, bigger surge seems to have had an impact on people’s attitudes,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “In October, there was a trend of Republicans being less concerned, but this does reflect what a hard period the state went through from October to February.”

While their personal concerns have risen, voters’ overall assessment of the pandemic hasn’t changed much. In the latest survey, 53% called it “a significant crisis,” while 32% called it “a serious problem but not a crisis.” In October, 53% called it significant and 29% called it serious.

Economic concerns during the pandemic remain high. Asked whether it’s more important to help control the spread of the coronavirus or to help the economy, 47% pointed to the coronavirus and 43% said it’s more important to help the economy. In a June poll, 53% of Texans wanted to control the spread and 38% wanted to focus on the economy.

“The economy/COVID number is 2-to-1 in other parts of the country. Here, it’s almost even,” said Daron Shaw, a UT-Austin government professor and co-director of the poll. “What was a 15-point spread is now a 4-point spread.

So people are concerned about the pandemic, but also about the economy. Some of that may just be a reflection of the partisan split, but I have no doubt that Abbott thinks the politics of this are good for him, and that’s even before we take into account the distraction from the freeze. The scenario where he’s most likely to take a hit is one in which the numbers spike and a lot more people die. Nobody wants that to happen, yet here we are at a higher risk of it because of Abbott’s actions. It’s just enraging. So please keep wearing your damn mask, even after you get your shots. Wait for someone with more credibility than Greg Abbott to tell you it’s safe to do otherwise.

One more thing:

We both know how plausible that is. Texas Monthly, Reform Austin, the San Antonio Report, the Texas Signal, and the Chron has more.

Our petty Governor

Sheesh.

Gov. Greg Abbott met with hospital executives in Houston on Tuesday to discuss the state’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, while appearing to snub city and county officials who are overseeing a bulk of the distribution.

The Republican governor said the county, and specifically Houston Methodist Hospital, is leading the state in vaccinations, with more than 250,000 doses administered through the weekend. Dallas County is second for the most shots given, he said.

“Houston Methodist has helped Texas become a national model for the vaccination program,” Abbott said, following a closed-door meeting with executives at the hospital.

[…]

In a tweet over the weekend, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said city and county health officials had not been invited to participate in the governor’s meeting.

“Any roundtable conversation in Houston about vaccine distribution in Houston, Harris County region should include diverse representation to ensure there is equitable vaccine distribution to at risk, vulnerable communities,” Turner wrote.

Abbott has been repeatedly at odds with Democratic municipal leaders including Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who have asked for stricter emergency restrictions to slow the spread of the pandemic. The state has recorded more than 32,000 coronavirus deaths since March, and remains in the midst of a massive second surge.

The city and county are currently receiving about 17,000 vaccine doses each week, combined.

Asked about why municipal health leaders were excluded from the discussion, Abbott said state agencies are in “constant communication with local officials, and that process will continue.”

Abbott’s gonna Abbott. Remember how back at the beginning of the pandemic he was happy to let Mayors and County Judges lead when they were doing the hard and unpopular work, and then later he just cut them completely out of everything once he caught some heat from the wingnut faction over masks and quarantines? It’s who he is and what he is, and we shouldn’t be surprised. No wonder Mayor Turner is asking for more direct control of vaccine doses.

The Republican war against Harris County

To be fair, it’s not just Harris County that’s in the crosshairs, it’s the big urban counties, and cities in general. But it’s real and it’s dangerous and it’s anti-democratic.

Republicans in the Texas Legislature are gearing up to bar local governments from hiring lobbyists, punish cities that reduce their police budgets and restrict county judges’ power during future pandemics when lawmakers convene in Austin later this month.

The measures are sure to escalate the long-running feud between Texas’ conservative leaders and the mostly Democratic officials who run the state’s largest cities and counties. And while higher profile items such as coronavirus relief and redistricting are expected to eat up much of the 140-day session, Republicans have made clear they will carve out time for items such as the lobbying ban.

“In terms of (taxpayer-funded) lobbying, it’s morphed into a kind of partisan struggle,” said Michael Adams, chair of the political science department at Texas Southern University. “The Dems were hoping, particularly in the House of Representatives, they would fare better (in the November elections). But that didn’t happen, and so we still see the dominance of the Republican Party in all branches of the state government. And certainly I think they will send a signal.”

Local officials have been bracing for an especially difficult session since October 2019, when House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was caught on tape saying he had tried to make that year “the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Bonnen said he made his goal evident to “any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me.”

[…]

Last session, Republicans nearly ushered through a bill to prevent large cities and counties from spending tax revenue on lobbying, but the measure died in the final days when voted down in the House. Bonnen in 2019 announced he would not seek re-election after he was heard on the same tape recording targeting fellow Republicans who opposed the lobbying ban.

Though the Legislature does not begin until Jan. 12, lawmakers already have filed numerous bills related to cities and other local entities. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has proposed making cities liable for damages if they release someone from custody who was the subject of a federal immigration detainer request and that person commits a felony within 10 years.

A bill filed by state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, would prevent cities and counties from requiring businesses to adopt labor peace agreements — in which employers agree not to oppose unionization efforts in exchange for employee unions agreeing not to go on strike — in order to receive a contract. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, has filed legislation that would allow business owners to halt local laws in court if the law “would result in an adverse economic impact” on the owner.

Swanson also filed a bill that would abolish the Harris County Department of Education, unless voters decide to continue it through a referendum on the November 2022 ballot. Conservative lawmakers have long sought to shutter or study closing the agency, the last remaining countywide education department in Texas.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Swanson filed the House companion bill.

That’s a lot, and it doesn’t count the revenue cap, or this little gem that I had been unaware of:

During the 2019 legislative session, Abbott quietly backed a bill that would have maintained the current system in Texas’ rural Republican regions while changing it in more densely populated, mostly Democratic counties. That bill, which failed, would essentially have allowed the Republican governor to pick judges in the state’s Democratic areas, while Republican voters picked judges in the conservative areas.

I have to say, on reading all this my first reaction was why would anyone in Harris County want to be governed by people who hate us and want to do us harm? Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Harris County were its own state. We’d have something like ten electoral votes all on our own, and we wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of bullshit.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. It’s not that long ago that “local control” was a Republican slogan rather than a quaint idea. But it’s also not that long ago that Harris was a Republican stronghold, and the radical shift in philosophy isn’t a coincidence. It’s very much of a piece with the Trump administration’s attacks on blue states, and of the increasingly bizarre and undemocratic legal arguments being made about this past election, including the one that the Supreme Court briefly considered that federal courts could overrule state courts on matters of state administration of elections. It has nothing to do with federalism or “states’ rights” or local control or any other mantra, but everything to do with the fact that Republicans don’t recognize any authority that isn’t theirs. If they don’t like it, it’s not legitimate, and the laws and the voters can go screw themselves.

This, as much as anything, is the tragedy of Dems not being able to retake the State House. With no check on their power, the Republicans are going to do what they want, and the best we can do is try to slow them down. It makes the 2022 election, and the continued need to break through at the statewide level, so vital. I’ll say it one more time, nothing will change until we can win enough elections to change the balance of power in this state. And if someone can give me an answer to that “how can Harris County become its own state” question, I’m listening.

The bar conundrum

Ugh.

Halloween this year in downtown Austin was a raucous affair. Nightclubs advertised dancing and drink specials. Thousands of people crowded 6th Street, partying shoulder to shoulder, some with masks and some without.

All of this happened as bars in Austin were still under a shutdown order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Those bars and nightclubs are some of the more than 2,500 so far that have been permitted to reopen by the state on the promise that in the middle of a pandemic, they’d convert themselves into restaurants.

Shuttering Texas’ nearly 8,000 bars has been one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s most drastic safety restrictions. He most recently allowed bars to open in parts of the state where coronavirus hospitalizations are relatively low, with permission from the local officials.

But in areas where bar bans are still being enforced, many of those businesses are still operating like, well, bars. Just weeks after Halloween, with Thanksgiving on the horizon, frustrated health experts and local officials say the loophole is defeating the purpose of the bar ban and could be one reason the state is battling its largest outbreak in months.

“The restrictions were put in place for a reason,” said Dr. Philip Huang, the director of Dallas Public Health. “And if you get around it, if you’re trying to cheat, then you’re sort of eliminating the reduced transmission that you’re trying to achieve.”

Public health officials and experts have said since this spring that bars pose unique dangers for spreading COVID-19. The Texas Medical Association notes it is one of the worst ways to spread the virus.

“Packed bars, where people are talking very close to each other and they’re shouting, or they’re yelling and people are touching a lot — that’s super high risk,” said Aliza Norwood, a medical expert at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.

If the current trend continues — over 8,300 Texans were hospitalized with confirmed coronavirus infections Monday, up by nearly 900 from last week — “there may be a time in which it is appropriate to shut down bars and restaurants completely,” Norwood said.

Austin health officials agree.

“We are at a precarious spot right now where cases are rising across the country,  cases are rising across Texas,” said Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, before adding, “We really have to find a way to stabilize things to avoid that surge.”

But Abbott, who has concentrated power within himself to take action on COVID-19, said he has no plans to do so. He did not respond to requests for comment.

I’ve been an advocate for taking steps to help bars survive, with the rule interpretation that lets them be classified as restaurants a key component of that. I’ve done this because I want to see these businesses survive and their employees keep their jobs, and I believed it could be done in a reasonably safe fashion, with an emphasis on outdoor and to-go service. That obviously hasn’t worked out so well. The best answer would have been to pay the bars to shut down long enough to get the virus under control. It’s still not too late to do that, but that’s going to require Mitch McConnell’s Senate to take action, and I think we both know that’s not going to happen. One can only wonder what some advocacy from Republicans like Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz and John Cornyn might have accomplished, but that would have required them to take this seriously in the first place. In the meantime, just because these places are open doesn’t mean you have to go to them, or that you have to be inside of them if you still want to support them in some way. Keep yourself safe, at least.

Even the White House thinks Texas sucks at COVID response

I mean

The White House Coronavirus Task Force says Texas is in the swing of a “full resurgence” of COVID-19 and the state’s mitigation efforts “must intensify,” while Gov. Greg Abbott and other leaders decline to take some of the steps the Trump administration is recommending.

A report issued by the task force before the Thanksgiving holiday calls for Texas to significantly reduce maximum occupancy for public and private indoor spaces and to conduct weekly coronavirus testing of teachers, college students, county workers, hospital personnel and others.

“Texas continues to be in a full resurgence and mitigation efforts must intensify,” the Nov. 22 report says. “The silent community spread that precedes and continues to drive these surges can only be identified and interrupted through proactive, focused testing.”

The White House sends such reports to states weekly, but they are not typically made available to the public. The report was published by the Center for Public Integrity.

Three days before the report was issued, Abbott was assuring the public that local officials had been provided with all the tools they need to slow outbreaks, including a requirement that Texans wear masks indoors in public places and when patronizing businesses.

Abbott has also enacted mandatory occupancy reductions — including closing bars — in regions where the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients exceeds 15 percent of capacity for seven straight days.

But Abbott has declined to go further, instead focusing his message on treatment, touting a newly approved drug as proof that “the cavalry is coming.”

There are plenty of local officials who would disagree with Abbott’s assertion that they have all the tools they need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday said he agreed with the White House report’s findings and implored Abbott to take a harder line or give local officials back the powers they had in the spring.

“We determined what the occupancy limits were going to be in large part. We had the ability to say ‘no,’” said Turner, who took questions from reporters after a holiday-themed event at City Hall. “The tools that we had in March and April, we no longer have. We are not driving this car. County judges and mayors are more like passengers. The state is driving the car.”

In addition to Abbott’s May preemption of local restrictions, bars that collect less than 51 percent of their revenue from alcohol also can reopen as restaurants, and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in August made that easier by broadening the scope of revenue they can count as not stemming from alcohol sales.

“Bars can be open. So, we’re doing what we can to limit gatherings, but that’s a big, big problem,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting of Commissioners Court. “Because these things have been allowed, we’re seeing the numbers we’re seeing again now.”

Measures of the virus’ spread, Hidalgo noted, approximate the levels being reported when she placed the county at its worst, “red” threat level in June.

“It was soon after that that the governor pulled back a little bit, and the numbers kept climbing until finally they peaked at a level where they routinely exceeded base hospital capacity” in intensive care units, she said. “And so if we go much longer without action, we’re going to be in a bad place.”

One option the city does have is a curfew, which has been implemented in El Paso and San Antonio. Turner said he reserves the right to implement one in Houston, but views that as a “nuclear option” that punishes good actors along with the bad.

The mayor said he is trying to keep people alive for the next few months, until vaccines become available and strengthen the fight to contain the virus’ spread.

“My appeal to the governor is to join with us and do the same,” he said.

Remember how they once had to solve the riddle of the Sphinx to unlock some of those tools in the first place? Boy, those were the days. The Chron story notes that while the local numbers aren’t as bad as they were in July, they are all on an upward trend. That ain’t good.

What could be done? In addition to letting the locals actually do the things they want to do, Abbott could issue a new mask mandate, with enforceable penalties attached, and take the heat from the wingnuts for it. He could order more enforcement of bar and restaurant occupancy limits, to crack down on the bad actors. It also remains true that Abbott could be exhorting our two Republican Senators to get off their asses and support a big COVID relief bill that would get affected businesses through the next few weeks. Even this wholly inadequate effort would be better than nothing. “Doing nothing while we wait for the vaccine and try out new treatments for the many people who get sick” and “completely shutting down everything with no financial relief for anyone” aren’t the only options available. The Trib has more.

Crossing a red line

Will Greg Abbott notice?

North Texas crossed a critical threshold in the number of hospital patients fighting COVID-19 that could trigger bar closings and lower occupancies at stores and restaurants if such cases don’t decrease within a week.

With more than 2,300 patients testing positive for the coronavirus in the 19-county hospital region, 15.05% of all beds were occupied by a person with COVID-19, according to state data.

Hospitals had been approaching the 15% red line — set by Gov. Greg Abbott in October — for several days before the Thanksgiving holiday as the state continued to report record-breaking numbers of new coronavirus cases. On Friday, Texas reported 2,473 new cases and 51 new deaths — a drastic drop compared to recent results likely due to labs being closed for the holiday.

Currently, most businesses in the area may operate at 75% capacity. But under Abbott’s Oct. 7 executive order, businesses will be forced to limit capacity to 50% if they are in a region where more than 15% of hospital patients have tested positive for the coronavirus for seven consecutive days. The rate must drop below the red line for one week before business capacity can rise again.

“As the number of positive cases grows, our health care heroes need your patriotism and sacrifice,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins in a statement Friday. “Please put off get-togethers and avoid crowds to protect public health and the economy.”

The 19-county region includes both Dallas and Tarrant counties as well as smaller counties, including Rockwall, Cooke and Hunt.

A total of 8,518 people were in a Texas hospital Friday with COVID-19, the state reported. That’s about 2,400 shy of the state’s peak, set in July.

Nine of the state’s 22 regions reported at least one day above the 15% threshold this week. And another hovered just below it Friday. The region that includes El Paso was by far the worst, with about 35% of all its hospital patients fighting COVID-19.

Abbott on Friday tweeted a rosier outlook, highlighting that the rate of infected patients at El Paso counties had dropped for two weeks in a row, and the state’s positivity rate has been declining.

Earlier this month, Abbott rejected the idea of once again scaling back the economy statewide. Another shutdown would have a disastrous effect, he said. At the time of his comments — just eight days ago — six of the state’s regions were above the line.

At this point, we’ve basically surrendered. I have no expectation that Abbott will take any action, other than maybe to cheerlead treatment options, for those who will be able to use them. If you don’t want to be complicit in this, do your part – wear your mask, maintain social distancing, avoid public gatherings, and so on. I don’t know why our leadership is so terrible, but it is and it’s up to us to keep our own selves safe.

More on police oversight boards

Ours in Houston isn’t very good. Some other cities do it better. We can learn from them.

Houston’s police oversight board is the weakest among Texas’ five largest cities and suffers from “a complete lack of transparency and public reporting,” a recent study from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research concludes.

The report, released last week, analyzed police oversight institutions in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth, concluding that the agencies in each city need more resources, and fewer legislative hurdles, while its members need more experience and training.

The Independent Police Oversight Board in Houston “has very limited powers to conduct its own investigations, instead being handed completed internal affairs investigations without the ability to independently collect further evidence on the event,” reads the report, co-authored by Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton, a member of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s recent police reform task force.

The group detailed its recommendations in a 153-page report released in late September, about three months after Turner announced his 45 appointees to the board. The group recommended that city officials bolster the police oversight board with paid staffing and facilities outside the police department and by changing policy to allow the board to report some of its findings to the community, which it is currently barred from doing.

Turner has signaled he intends to adopt at least some of those recommendations, saying in early September he is “99.999 percent certain there will be some adjustments” to the police oversight board. The mayor later said he’s “overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas” in the task force’s report, though he said some could be difficult to fund or would require state legislative action.

The task force’s recommendations align with those presented in the Kinder report, which recommends the board be staffed with “people with legal knowledge, police expertise and research skills.” Austin has by far the most paid staff members on its oversight group among Texas’ five largest cities, the report found.

“(M)ost agencies in the state’s big cities have fewer than five employees to oversee forces of thousands of officers,” according to the report. “Houston’s IPOB has no staff or resources.”

See here for more on Mayor Turner and the task force recommendations. For more on the Kinder report, which you can find here, I’ll refer you to this Grits for Breakfast post, which goes into more detail. At this point, we have all the information we need to act. It’s time to act. I’m hopeful we’ll get some at the city level in the upcoming weeks, but as Mayor Turner says, some of this needs to happen at the state level. And there, I fear, we’re more likely to run into obstacles. For instance:

That bill is authored by Rep. Matt Krause, one of the vulnerable Republicans we were unfortunately not able to knock off this election. The problem goes a lot deeper than one State Rep, though. Cities are not going to be able to do what their voters want them to do if the Republican legislature and Greg Abbott have anything to say about it.

Please stay socially distant this Thanksgiving

It’s what we have to do.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday urged residents to limit Thanksgiving gatherings to immediate family to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The county will send an emergency cell phone alert to all residents urging them to get tested for the virus, regardless of whether they have symptoms, as uncontrolled community spread has driven up new case and hospitalization numbers to a point higher than before Labor Day. Hidalgo and health officials fear a sustained surge like the one in June and July, which pushed Houston-area hospitals beyond their base ICU capacity.

“We reopened too soon,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve seen every indicator move in the wrong direction.”

Hidalgo’s requests is voluntary, since Gov. Greg Abbott in April stripped local officials of the ability to issue their own COVID-related restrictions. The governor rebuffed Hidalgo’s request in June for a new stay-at-home order; she warned during her annual State of the County remarks last week that new restrictions may be needed to combat this most recent wave of infections.

Before we get to the very well-known reasons why we should not be gathering in large quantities in our homes, let’s take a moment to consider this.

An estimated one out of every six Texans — roughly 4.75 million people — has contracted COVID-19, according to a recent statistical analysis by the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. The analysis estimates that the virus is spreading rapidly and so far has infected more than 16 percent of people in Texas, far more than the state’s tally.

“The speed at which things can get out of hand is a lot quicker than people expected,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the consortium.

The consortium’s statistical modeling uses cell phone data to measure mobility and state hospitalization levels to determine where the virus is spreading and how many people have been infected. It is not a perfect predictor of the virus’ spread, Fox cautioned, but it dovetails with state estimates.

The researchers’ approximation of 4.75 million cases is “generally in the ballpark” of what state health officials believe is the true number of infections, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which publishes the state’s official COVID-19 infection figures.

“It varies by condition, but we know and expect that all kinds of diseases are underreported,” Van Deusen said in an email.

In the Houston region, the UT consortium’s projections have worsened recently because of the growing number of new infections and hospitalizations. There’s a 76 percent chance the pandemic is growing here, according to the latest modeling, up from 47 percent on Friday. More than 1 million people — about 16 percent of Houston-area residents — have been infected with COVID-19, the UT researchers estimated.

[…]

The consortium estimated in October that there was at least an 80 percent chance the pandemic was growing in El Paso. That proved to be true. Cases and hospitalizations rose in that border city throughout late October and early November, overwhelming the local health care system. The model estimates that one in every three El Paso residents has contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic.

The modeling also shows the potential danger of letting the virus run rampant to establish herd immunity — a strategy that some critics of lockdowns say is worth trying.

In order for herd immunity to work before a vaccine is ready, roughly 60 percent of the population would have to be infected, or more than 17 million people, Fox said. Given the demand on hospitals in Texas now, with an estimated 16 percent of the population infected or recovered, the health care system would be overwhelmed if the coronavirus was allowed to spread unchecked.

“You can just think about what that would look like,” he said.

So there’s an excellent chance that someone at your Thanksgiving dinner has, or has had, COVID-19. If they are sick, they may not know it, which means they’re out there spreading it without realizing it. Why would you want to take the chance?

Look, the weather forecast for Thanksgiving is beautiful. If you want to celebrate outdoors, with family or friends in a socially-distant manner while masked when you’re not eating, you can reasonably do that. But don’t be part of the problem, and especially don’t be an asshole. Let’s all try to live long enough to be able to get vaccinated for this thing. The Trib has more.

Greg Abbott has no interest in fighting COVID

It is what it is at this point.

On June 26, Texas was reporting 5,102 people had been hospitalized due to the coronavirus, breaking a new record for the state. The positivity rate — the portion of tests that come back positive — had hovered above Gov. Greg Abbott’s “warning flag” level of 10% for more than a week.

Abbott swept into action. For a second time in months, the Republican governor shut down bars and rolled back restaurant capacity. Six days later, he took arguably his most drastic action yet, announcing a statewide mask mandate.

This week, more than 7,400 Texans are hospitalized for COVID-19, and the positivity rate has exceeded 10% for over three weeks.

But the governor’s strategy as the state heads into the holidays is to stay the course, relying on a 2-month-old blueprint to claw back reopenings regionally based on hospitalizations. The mask order remains in place, but last week he ruled out “any more lockdowns,” and tensions are again rising with local officials who want more authority to impose safety restrictions.

“We need the state to step in and lead or get out of the way and let us lead,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told reporters Tuesday.

Public health experts and elected officials acknowledge they are up against a stronger sense of “COVID fatigue” than ever — a malaise that appears to be reflected in the state response.

“The numbers are quite alarming, to be honest, because it’s not showing any sign of slowing down,” said Rajesh Nandy, associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. However, Nandy added, “it seems like at this point, there’s not a lot of will, even among people, for a full-scale stay-at-home [order] like [Abbott] did in March because, of course, it has other consequences.”

That much is true, as far as it goes. There are economic consequences for shutdowns. There are also economic consequences for letting the virus rage out of control – restaurants and bars and gyms and so forth may be open now, but lots of people don’t want to go to them because it’s not safe, and no amount of puffy-chested posturing from our Republican leaders will change that. At any time in the past six months, Abbott could have asked one or both of our Republican Senators – publicly or privately – to support another COVID relief bill, so that businesses and their employees that have been affected by COVID could safely shut down and not go bust. You would have to ask him yourself why he hasn’t done that, if he ever deigns to answer questions from the public or the non-sycophantic media again.

I mean, maybe we’ll get some kind of relief package from the lame duck session. Maybe the Dems will win both Georgia Senate runoffs and will have the ability to pass a real relief bill. Maybe enough people will stop doing dangerous things like attending indoor events and going about their lives un-masked, and the infection rate will drop again. Maybe we’ll manage to not die before the vaccines get circulated. Anything can happen, I guess.

Of course, one thing that could happen is that our hospitals get so overwhelmed that the death rate for non-COVID sufferers also spikes:

Since Abbott announced the 15% threshold, it has been the subject of some scrutiny. Abbott initially defined the threshold as 15% of “all hospitalized patients” in a region, though he later changed it to 15% of “total hospital capacity” — or total beds — in a region. That redefinition is problematic, according to hospital administrators in parts of Texas that have seen the most infections.

“They’re assuming that all those licensed beds can somehow be utilized for a COVID-19 surge, and that’s simply not true,” Dr. Brian Weis, chief medical officer at Northwest Texas Healthcare System, said last month during a coronavirus briefing for the city of Amarillo. “By using that number, that overestimates our capacity to handle COVID-19 patients.”

[…]

Exhibit A in the state-local tensions is hard-hit El Paso County. Attorney General Ken Paxton has gone to court to stop the shutdown order that County Judge Ricardo Samaniego issued late last month, saying it oversteps Abbott’s statewide rules. A state appeals court blocked the order for a second time Friday.

Abbott blasted the order shortly after it was issued, saying Samaniego “failed to do his job” enforcing existing rules to slow the spread of the virus “and is now illegally shutting down entire businesses.”

In an interview, Samaniego said the criticism from Abbott felt politically motivated and failed to address the biggest issue El Paso faces — that people are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying at staggering rates. Samaniego said he did everything within his power to limit the spread of the virus. He, like other local officials, wants more authority to take precautions in his county.

“It was about saving lives, not about whether I was right or wrong or he was right or wrong,” he said.

He also noted that El Paso’s share of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients is several times Abbott’s 15% trigger, but it’s still artificially low because the county added 580 spots to its hospital capacity.

“This is a governor that issued a stay at home order,” Samaniego said. “And now he’s upset that I did when my numbers are 10 times worse than when he issued it. It’s just a political approach to our community.”

It’s not just El Paso County, though, where local officials are pushing for more latitude from Abbott. In Lubbock County, where cases have ballooned to more than 400 per day on average in the last week, the county judge, Curtis Parrish, said he is grateful for the state’s help with hospital capacity — the state has provided three large medical tents and personnel to go with them — but that he wants more enforcement power.

“My hands are tied,” Parrish said. “We operate under the governor’s order. We can’t do any detaining.”

In Laredo, the City Council voted Monday to limit private gatherings to 10 people plus household members. City Council member Marte Martinez said he would have liked to do more, such as implement a curfew and beef up enforcement for businesses that violate state rules.

“I felt powerless in my plight to save people’s lives,” said Martinez, a doctor. “You’re going to be in a full shutdown within a few weeks unless the state allows municipal governments and county governments to make more firm action.”

There is especially an urgency in Laredo and its hospital region, where the number of coronavirus patients has exceeded 15% of the capacity for the past three days. That means the state’s reopening rollback will kick in in four days if the figure remains above 15%.

What’s happening in El Paso right now is grotesque and disgraceful. Maybe what happens is that we begin to see death and misery like Italy had in the spring, at such levels and in so many places that even Greg Abbott will not be able to ignore it. I really hope it doesn’t come to that, but I don’t know what short of that will make him take this seriously.

Who’s concerned about the state’s coronavirus spike?

Not Greg Abbott, or Dan Patrick, or Ken Paxton, that’s for sure.

The Oregon governor is calling it a “freeze.” In New Mexico, it’s a “reset.”

Across the country, state elected officials are frantically rolling back their reopening plans to slow the burgeoning surge in coronavirus infections.

But in Texas, Republican leaders remain unwilling to change course in the face of soaring hospitalizations and an early uptick in deaths from the virus that has public health experts increasingly alarmed.

Gov. Greg Abbott has yet to impose new restrictions or allow county officials to take additional measures. Attorney General Ken Paxton has intervened to strike down locally adopted restrictions. Other requests to further limit gatherings, close nonessential businesses or impose stricter mask requirements have been blocked.

On Friday, a state appeals court halted a temporary shutdown of nonessential businesses in El Paso County, where cases have skyrocketed and mobile morgues have been rushed in to handle all the casualties. Paxton and a group of restaurant owners had sued to block the order, claiming the governor has final say on any new restrictions.

“I will not let rogue political subdivisions try to kill small businesses and holiday gatherings through unlawful executive orders,” Paxton said in a statement celebrating the appeals court ruling. On Twitter, he added: “We must never shut Texas down again!!”

[…]

Since September, Abbott has relied on a reopening plan that ratchets up restrictions in regions that have growing numbers of people hospitalized with COVID-19; the threshold is now seven continuous days of coronavirus patients filling at least 15 percent of all available beds in that area.

Few if any other states are using a similar threshold, and public health experts have long cautioned against relying on hospitalizations alone because they provide a delayed glimpse into the state of an outbreak — it takes someone several days to be hospitalized after they contract COVID.

Rebecca Fischer, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M, said it’s important to consider multiple factors, including the rate at which people are testing positive for the virus, emergency room visits and infections at nursing and other long-term care facilities. And she said local governments need decision-making power to best respond to their situations, which may differ even within a given region.

“When I see county judges that are trying so hard to work toward the public health of their constituents and then are just cut off and told no, it kills me,” Fischer said. “Everybody in the public health realm is left scratching their head as to why that would be the case.”

Let’s be clear:

1. They don’t care. Abbott doesn’t want to talk about coronavirus. Paxton will sue any local official who tries to take action to save lives. Dan Patrick has never walked back his comments about letting Grandma die so businesses can reopen.

2. They will never give any authority to local officials. If anything, there will be further bills in the upcoming Lege to restrict what local officials can do even more.

3. They will go straight to Defcon 1 the minute the Biden administration attempts to take any action to combat the virus.

How many people get sick and die as a result is not their concern. They could not be more clear about this.

The state of the county 2020

Mostly, COVID is bad and we’re not getting much help, and we’re also not allowed to do the things we know we need to do. Other than that…

Judge Lina Hidalgo

The worsening COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, which this week became the first state to exceed 1 million cases, demands a more aggressive response that may include more restrictions, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Thursday.

Hidalgo used her annual State of the County address to criticize what she views as a half-hearted state and federal response that has led to unnecessary deaths and a laggard economy stuck in a cycle of halted reopenings.

She called for the adoption of science-based shutdown thresholds, similar to the county’s threat level system, and lamented that Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year stripped local officials of the ability to issue enforceable COVID-19 restrictions on travel and commerce. The recent, sustained increases in cases and hospitalizations will lead to new shutdowns, she predicted.

“Inevitably, another pullback is necessary,” Hidalgo said. “We see the numbers in El Paso. Our hospitals were almost overwhelmed in June and July, and now our numbers are again ticking up. We have to get this under control.”

Houston region hospitals reported 1,079 admitted COVID patients on Thursday, the highest figure since Sept. 7, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. Hospitalizations peaked in mid-July just below 4,000 and had been steadily declining until October.

The percent of ICU patients who are COVID-positive again has grown beyond 15 percent, the warning threshold used by health officials.

Harris County has been at its highest threat level since mid-June, which urges residents to stay home when possible and avoid unnecessary contact with others. Though some have criticized Hidalgo for sticking to the recommendation, even as most people have resumed some form of normal life, Hidalgo said the county never met all the criteria for downgrading to Level 2. Those include a test positivity rate of 5 percent and a daily new case average of 400.

Hidalgo did not mention the governor by name, but her message to his administration was clear: adopt a set of metrics, stick to them and let science rather than politics guide Texas through a potentially grim winter before a vaccine is ready next year.

Abbott told a Dallas-Fort Worth television station on Wednesday that businesses will be able to remain open so long as Texans “return to those safe practices” that helped the state defeat the summer surge in cases.

I mean, she’s right. Abbott, who never paid much attention to the metrics his own people recommended way back in May, has basically lost interest in COVID. Remember, bars and gyms are open, restaurants can operate at 75% capacity, and there’s no statewide mask mandate. The state of Texas is suing El Paso for attempting to impose a shutdown as cases there go through the roof. I don’t know how bad it has to get for Abbott to care again, and I’m afraid we’re going to find out. And I strongly suspect that when President Biden and his all-star task force try to take action to get this pandemic under control, he’s going to bitch and moan and resist, because he just doesn’t care and would rather play politics. I don’t know what else to say.

Judge Hidalgo did talk about other things, including criminal justice reform, establishing a defense program for immigrants facing deportation, and supporting the Ike Dike. All good things, but all in the back seat until we crush COVID. You can see the video of her address here.

We’re number one (million)!

One million COVID cases in Texas. Hooray?

Texas’ grim distinction as the national leader in terms of COVID-19 infections came as little surprise to some local medical experts, who blamed politicians for conflicting messages about the virus and warned the worst is yet to come.

Texas this week breached a milestone of 1 million cumulative cases since the start of the pandemic, recording more infections than any other state in the U.S. For reference, more people have been infected in the Lone Star state than live in Austin, the state’s capitol.

If Texas were its own country, it would rank 10th in terms of total cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, placing it higher than European hotspots like Italy.

The big numbers are not a shock in a state that’s home to roughly 29 million people. The number of cases per 100,000 residents is lower here than in about half of the states in the country. But Texas also had more newly reported cases in the last seven days — an average of about 8,200 — than other large, hard-hit states such as New York, California and Florida. Only Illinois has a higher seven-day average.

Dr. David Callender, president of the Memorial Hermann Health System, called the 1 million cases “a sobering statistic.”

“It’s not a surprise in the context of all that’s happened,” Callender said. “But it’s a significant number — 3 percent of the population — and cause for worry about the trend continuing as we go forward.”

Callender attributed the high number to “too much division” in the attempt to contain the virus.

“To me, politics entered in an inappropriate way,” said Callender. “People making a political statement with their behavior — that the pandemic is a hoax, that no one can make them wear a mask — really interfered with efforts. It was the wrong mindset.”

To be fair, California is a couple of days behind us, and may have passed one million by the time I publish this. Of course, California also has ten million more people than Texas, so.

The state’s positive test rate is now 11.24%, compared to 7.64% a month ago.

Hey, remember when a 10% positivity rate was considered to be a “warning flag” by Greg Abbott? You know, as part of his famous “metrics” for reopening the state?

Abbott’s office didn’t immediately respond to messages Tuesday.

Too busy propping up Donald Trump’s ego to deal with this kind of trivia, I suppose.

Meanwhile, in El Paso

The number of coronavirus patients in Texas hospitals has nearly doubled since October, and average infections are at their highest point in almost three months — leaving health officials bracing for a potential crush of hospitalizations going into the holidays.

In El Paso, hospitals are so overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients that in early November the Department of Defense sent medical teams to help, and the county has summoned 10 mobile morgues to hold dead bodies. Local funeral homes are readying extra refrigerated storage space, as the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients in the far West Texas city has shot up nearly tenfold since the start of September.

The new wave of infections stands in contrast to the summer surge, when Gov. Greg Abbott held regular press conferences about the virus and mandated that face coverings be worn, earning him the ire of the far-right. Now, state officials seem reluctant to crack down on the virus’ spread by further curtailing economic activity — and are fighting the El Paso county judge’s attempt to impose a curfew and a stay-at-home order in the face of record-breaking cases.

The state will not do anything to help, and you local leaders are not allowed to do anything to help. You’re on your own. If you’re very lucky, maybe you won’t have your health insurance taken away while you recover. Did I mention that disaster and emergency response ought to be a big theme of the 2022 election? Texas Monthly has more.

UPDATE: Nothing to see here.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson files for Speaker

One hat in the ring, who knows how many to go.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving woman and Black person in the history of the Texas Legislature, filed Friday to run for speaker of the Texas House, making her the first to enter what’s been a quiet race so far to replace retiring Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Thompson, a Houston Democrat, has filed ahead of a November general election in which Democrats are confident they will regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades. If elected, she would be the first Black woman to serve as speaker.

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

Thompson is not the only candidate expected to enter the race, which has had a different tempo and tone from the last one in 2018. The uncertainty surrounding which party will be in control of the lower chamber in 2021 has kept the race relatively quiet; by this time two years ago, several candidates had already declared that they were seeking the gavel.

[…]

Thompson, known better as “Ms. T” to colleagues and other Capitol goers, has served in the chamber since 1973, making her the second longest-serving member in the House. She has been mentioned repeatedly among both Republicans and Democrats as a potential candidate, with members pointing to her legislative experience and inroads with colleagues as perhaps her best case for a House that has a challenging agenda heading into the 2021 legislative session.

There are many potential Speaker candidates, but as I said in that post, if Rep. Thompson wants this, it’s hard to imagine other Dems opposing her. I’m sure she will be talking to those other potential candidates over the next few days, if she hasn’t been already. It won’t surprise me if they line up behind her.

There are of course a bunch of important things the next Legislature will have to tackle, from COVID response to a crap-ton of election and voting issues to redistricting to the budget to executive authority and the role of the Lege in dealing with crises. But even before we get to any of that, there’s a big question about how the Lege will operate. I mean, maybe you haven’t heard, but the COVID situation isn’t getting any better right now. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in Greg Abbott to impose restrictions again, so I’m not expecting it to be all that different come January. How exactly is the Lege going to conduct its business if it’s not safe for them all to be clustered in a stuffy room for hours at a time? What are they going to do if twerps like Briscoe Cain ignore a rule mandating masks in the Capitol? I don’t mean to be indelicate, but Rep. Thompson is 81. Rep. Alma Allen is 81, Tom Craddick is 77, Doc Anderson is 75, Harold Dutton is 75, and Phil Stephenson is 75. More than a few others are north of 60; not all of them have their age listed when I look them up on the Trib directory of State House members, but you get the point. The health and safety of every Member, as well as their staff and everyone who works at the Capitol is on the line, and as of today we have no idea what they plan to do about it. The next Speaker has some big things to do before a single vote is taken.