What does a modern-day fireside chat look like in Houston? Well, for one thing, instead of being broadcast to radios the way those more informal addresses were in FDR’s days of old, there are online livestreams. And since this is Houston, and it’s in the 80s in November, there’s not a fire in sight.
On Thursday Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo sat down with H-E-B President Scott McClelland for her second-ever State of the County address. With Minute Maid Park in the background, the pair discussed the biggest issues to impact Harris County this year.
While Hidalgo and McClelland touched on subjects like expanding the Port of Houston, early childhood education, and county finances, the majority of the 33-minute conversation focused on the pandemic, connectivity, addressing racial disparities, and the Ike Dike.
They began with what McClelland called “the story of the year,” Covid-19. As of November 11, Harris County has had 170,835 total confirmed cases of the virus and 2,322 deaths. While Harris County’s positivity rate—the ratio of positive tests to the total number of tests administered in Harris County—reached a low of 5.6 percent in September, it’s climbed back up to about 9 percent, said Hidalgo, in recent weeks. In recent weeks the number of overall new cases, Hidalgo said, has also increased by about 40 percent.
“We are headed in the wrong direction,” Hidalgo said. “My concern is this is the result of half-measures.”
Hidalgo largely criticized the state and federal responses to the coronavirus and attributed the increase the area has seen to the state's reopening too soon. She compared Texas’s reopening in May then closing back down in June only to reopen again in September to a yo-yo or “a ping-pong effect.”
What the county needs, she said, is a threshold-based reopening strategy, with science-based parameters that “don’t pick and choose indicators when that indicator happens to look better, and then switch to a different one when it starts looking bad.” This appears to be aimed at Gov. Greg Abbott, who used the decreasing overall positive case numbers to reopen Texas back in May, then switched to hospitalization rates in September.
With a threshold-based strategy, then Harris County would open a little, see how it goes, then slowly open more. But, she lamented, she no longer has the authority to enforce such a strategy (throughout the pandemic, state leaders have consistently blocked local leaders across Texas from implementing stricter Covid measures, like mask orders and school reopenings).
Although the county has invested more than $100 million in different assistance programs, the economy is still suffering. But, Hidalgo said Covid-19 measures and the health of the economy are intertwined. “It’s not that either-or,” she said. “When folks know that it’s safer out there, they’ll have the confidence to go out and engage in the activities that are going to boost our economy.”
One issue that the coronavirus has brought to the forefront, said McClelland, is broadband and connectivity in Harris County.
In the past, people thought about the achievement or education gap, said Hidalgo, but “now you think about the child that has to learn and would love to, but just doesn’t have access to the devices.”
The pandemic has opened people’s eyes to the lack of broadband and cellphone towers in poorer areas, which leads to an inability to access the internet, Hidalgo said. In response, the county has invested more money to help bridge this digital divide and will also be pushing a statewide broadband plan.
Addressing Racial Disparities
“It has been very important, necessary, and, I hope, impactful to see George Floyd’s hometown come together and demanding change,” Hidalgo said.
She briefly discussed misdemeanor bail reform, immigration, and the need to promote minority-owned businesses. When asked by McClelland about what sort of calls to action people should take from the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death, she replied, “Stay on us.”
Stay engaged, she told people, vote and follow up to ensure government is working and passing and implementing policies until a difference can be seen. “I knew that we succeeded,” she said when she saw that 1.7 million people in Harris County had voted in the general election. “That participation is what helps government deliver.”
The Ike Dike
“We’ve had two near-misses this year with Laura and Delta,” McClelland said, “but when you start getting into the Greek alphabet, you know it hasn’t been a good hurricane year.”
He discussed the possibility of a coastal barrier to better protect the region from the effects of a hurricane and asked Hidalgo what needed to happen to get it done.
“We have to call a spade a spade,” she said, calling Houston’s energy industry ground zero for climate change. To remain competitive in the industry and safe from natural disasters, the community as a whole has to recognize climate change, and plan for the future and a direct hit to the ship channel, which would be “catastrophic.”
In September the county commissioned its analyst offices to work with the Port of Houston to figure out who are the stakeholders in building a hurricane coastal barriers, what the options are, what it will take to advance them, and “What should Harris County’s role be.”
She said that same report, which should be ready in January, would come up with some interim options while we potentially wait for the Ike Dike, which is moving forward, but won't be ready for another 20 years possibly. In the meantime, she said, we need a placeholder solution, but “whatever it is, it’s going to take money.” Harris County, as well as the surrounding counties, she said, will need state and federal support.