Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Marvin Odum

Still trying to avoid total budget disaster

That federal money sure would help.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As the prospect of mass furloughs and severe spending cuts looms over the city’s next budget, Houston officials are sitting on a pile of coronavirus stimulus money that amounts to more than double the shortfall projected by Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The rub, at least for now, is that the strings attached to the $404 million Houston received from the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund — a $150 billion trove sent to states and local governments as part of the roughly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — bar officials from spending the aid on expenses they already had budgeted.

Mayors, governors from both parties, congressional Democrats and even some Senate Republicans have pushed for looser restrictions that would allow sales tax-deprived governments to use the money to plug budget holes, instead of limiting them to expenses tied directly to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, as Congress weighs a second stimulus package for local and state governments that may earmark funds for lost revenue after all, Turner is under pressure to squeeze as much money as possible out of the initial round of CARES Act aid.

Prompting the tension was the Treasury Department’s April 22 guidance that eligible spending includes payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care and other employees “whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding” to the pandemic.

Last week, City Controller Chris Brown penned a letter to Finance Director Tantri Emo and Turner-appointed COVID-19 recovery czar Marvin Odum in which he urged the administration to craft a spending plan for the funds. He told city council members last week that officials in other Texas cities have begun determining how much of their public safety expenses are directly related to COVID-19.

“The potential exists for these costs to be offset by CARES Act funds, which could help alleviate added pressure placed on the General Fund,” Brown wrote, referring to the city’s $2.5 billion tax-supported fund that pays for most day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries.

See here for some background. Let’s be clear, it’s more than just Houston facing this kind of problem. Every city, every county, every state has been affected. Federal funds, and a lot of them, are going to be needed. All this caterwauling you hear from haircut-freedom-fighters and grandma-sacrificers about getting the economy going again, none of it means anything if they aren’t willing to save local and state governments from making devastating cuts, which among other things will cause loads of people to lose their jobs and act as a huge drag on any economic recovery. If we could be sure we’d get this in the next round of stimulus then fine, use this money for whatever other purposes it’s intended for. But really, why wait? Let’s get a bit of certainty to bolster confidence.

Reopening roundup

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

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, our local czars have their own plans.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Asia Society is also following a cautious path.

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

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

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

Movie theaters:

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

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

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

Restaurants are more likely to be available.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet your recovery czars

For Harris County:

Rep. Armado Walle

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday named state Rep. Armando Walle the county’s COVID-19 recovery czar as local leaders determine how to eventually ease restrictions on public life meant to slow the spread of the disease.

Walle, a Democrat, has represented the Aldine-area House District 140 since 2009. He serves on the appropriations, higher education and redistricting committees and was a state budget conferee in 2019. Hidalgo said Walle understands the needs of the more than 2 million residents of unincorporated Harris County.

“We need someone who will be laser-focused on helping families right now and combating the long-term economic effects and the long-term human impacts of this crisis,” Hidalgo said at a news conference.

[…]

Walle echoed Hidalgo’s pledge to base decisions to remove restrictions on data rather than arbitrary deadlines. He vowed to work with business, nonprofit, philanthropic and faith-based leaders as well as elected officials across Harris County.

“We need to work together on an inclusive recovery that responsibly ensures the economic health and well-being of the people of Harris County,” Walle said. “We need to save lives and also save livelihoods.”

And for the city of Houston:

Going for the tried and true, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner Monday named former Shell president Marvin Odum to the position of Houston COVID-19 Recovery leader.

Odum was also the first Hurricane Harvey recovery leader appointed by Turner in 2017. Saying Odum had performed to “rave reviews” the last time he led the city’s recovery efforts, Turner said Odum will be working with a number of groups including business leaders , non-profit groups, members of the mayor’s exectuive team, as well as just-announced Harris County COVID-19 Recovery Czar Armando Walle.

Critical issues, the mayor said, include how to restart the economy, specifically how to send people back to work and the need for robust testing. Odum is also charged with coming up with a plan if the area starts to see an increase in the number of positive cases and developing some way to implement contact tracing so the city knows where the virus is traveling.

Another area of importance will be making sure at-risk, vulnerable populations are not left behind, the mayor said, as well as: “How do we prepare for the next pandemic?”

In turn, Odum pledged to “act as quickly as possible.” He said collaboration with other governmental units was key because “We don’t want to duplicate work or waste any time.”

Both task forces will work with each other. I would expect there to be more of these, perhaps from other cities within the county, and perhaps they will work with other task forces from other counties. Lord knows, there will be plenty to do, and right now no one knows what a lot of this looks like. Both men are good choices – Odum has the experience with Harvey, and of course is very well-connected in the business world, which will need to buy into whatever the plan is. Walle is a terrific member of the Legislature, so he has that going for him, and he’ll be a voice for working people and their needs. They, and whoever they work with, will have a lot of responsibility, and may very well run into obstacles at both the state and federal levels, especially if their ideas of when and how “reopening” should occur are in conflict. I wish them a lot of luck, and I think they will need it.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the Chron story that includes the Odum appointment.