Houston Chronicle. July 2, 2020.

Mask up, Texas. That’s an order from your governor — finally.

With COVID-19 infections soaring and hospital ICU capacity reaching critical levels, Gov. Greg Abbott finally did the right thing Thursday and ordered everyone in most Texas counties to wear a mask in public.

The order requires those in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases to wear a covering over the nose and mouth whenever social distancing is not possible. That includes inside businesses or other buildings open to the public as well as outdoor public spaces.

The order takes effect at noon Friday. It is expected to impact almost 200 of Texas’ 254 counties.

First-time offenders of the order will receive a warning. Second and subsequent violations are punishable with a fine of up to $250, but no jail time will be meted out.

This editorial board and many local officials across Texas, including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, have urged Abbott to mandate masks for months. His only concession had come recently, when he allowed local governments to require businesses to mandate masks.

That changed Thursday.

“Wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19,” the governor said in a statement. “We have the ability to keep businesses open and move our economy forward so that Texans can continue to earn a paycheck, but it requires each of us to do our part to protect one another — and that means wearing a face-covering in public spaces.”

His about-face came as Texas recorded 8,029 new positive coronavirus cases in a 24-hour window from Tuesday to Wednesday, the first time single-day cases have eclipsed the 8,000 case mark, and it’s the second record-setting day in a row for Texas single-day case counts.

On Thursday, Dallas County officials announced they expected for the first time 1,000 new cases in a single day on Friday.

Texas Medical Center hospitals exceeded their normal ICU capacity this week and began implementing COVID-19 surge plans by opening additional beds — both intensive care and regular floor beds — to accommodate a surge in COVID-19 patients that has grown exponentially in the past two weeks.

Abbott did the right thing. Moving to save lives and protect the public health is especially urgent as Texans head into the Fourth of July holiday weekend when large public gatherings have been the norm for celebrations.

We commend Abbott’s leadership on Thursday. We can only hope it’s not too late.


San Antonio Express-News. July 4, 2020.

In aftermath of CRE8AD8 failure, pain for families

Let’s remember, the USDA should never have awarded a $39 million contract to CRE8AD8, a San Antonio event planner we wouldn’t entrust with putting tchotchkes in a bag, let alone delivering food for struggling families.

While it is welcome news the USDA won’t renew its contract with CRE8AD8 — as in “Create A Date” — and its assailable owner, Gregorio Palomino, this is only a decision that prevents future harm.

It does nothing to ease the pain Palomino’s abject failure has created for families and communities across Texas and beyond.

It does nothing to explain how an event planner with no experience in food distribution, who has misrepresented himself to the public, would land such a large contract at such a critical moment.

What does harm look like? In this case, it looks like the number zero, which is exactly how many food boxes CRE8AD8 delivered to the North Texas Food Bank in Plano, and the Southeast Texas Food Bank in Beaumont, and the West Texas Food Bank in Odessa, and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona in Tucson, and the Utah Food Bank in Salt Lake City.

“We have received zero loads, zero boxes, zero of anything” from CRE8AD8, Libby Campbell, executive director of the West Texas Food Bank, told Express-News reporter Tom Orsborn.

Even in those instances when CRE8AD8 delivered something, it was inadequate. At the San Antonio Food Bank, which has been serving 120,000 people a week in this crisis, CRE8AD8 was supposed to deliver 57 truckloads of food. It delivered an estimated 22.

Likewise, it was supposed to deliver 87 truckloads to the Houston Food Bank, but it only came through with 15.

Every failure by CRE8AD8 had the potential to leave someone hungry. This was a contract for 750,000 boxes of food through the USDA’s deeply flawed $3 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program. It should have gone to a proven supplier, and our congressional delegation needs to keep pressing on why it didn’t.

As we have learned since the contract was awarded in May, Palomino has brazenly misrepresented himself and his company, claiming associations that were not true — and were easily checked.

We learned this thanks to dogged reporting from Orsborn, who in normal times covers sports, but in this moment of crisis has chronicled food insecurity. Stories like these are why local news matters.

Bigger picture, we can’t help but wonder if the Farmers to Families Food Box Program is really the best approach to feeding the hungry. With schools and restaurants closing during this pandemic, the program purchases surplus dairy, meat and produce. These items are packaged into family-size boxes and then distributed to food banks.

While that sounds promising, it has opened the door to questionable contracts. Besides, if the primary goal is to feed the hungry and ease overburdened food banks, it would make more sense to funnel these funds to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, providing direct support to families and allowing them to shop at grocery stores rather than wait in distribution lines.

We’re relieved CRE8AD8’s contract wasn’t renewed. But if feeding families is the priority, how on earth did Palomino land this contract?


Austin American-Statesman. July 1, 2020.

Holding Texas GOP convention now would be reckless

This is no time to funnel thousands of strangers into a convention hall. Especially not in Houston, a city that has become an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Hospitalizations there have quadrupled since Memorial Day. The region’s intensive care unit beds are nearly full. Local officials have implored residents to stay home.

The Republican Party of Texas should heed that call and cancel its in-person convention, slated for July 16-18.

Proceeding with such a large-scale gathering at this point would be unconscionably reckless — not only for the roughly 6,000 attendees converging from all over the state, but for the Houston workforce that would be exposed to this mass of people.

After receiving a letter Tuesday from the Texas Medical Association urging the convention be canceled, Texas Republican Party chairman James Dickey indicated the party is evaluating its options. “We are taking all input from those involved with our Convention, including that from our Party leadership and our delegates, very seriously,” Dickey said in a statement.

This shouldn’t be a tough call. Not when Gov. Greg Abbott, the top Republican official in Texas, has already deemed gatherings of just a couple hundred people so risky that he has shuttered bars statewide. Not when Abbott has halted elective surgeries in Harris County because of the need to keep more hospital beds open. Not as long as the Texas GOP can do what so many of us have done in recent months: move meetings to video platforms.

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump has set such a toxic example on coronavirus response — eschewing masks as weak or politically incorrect, barreling ahead with his Tulsa rally, even pressing to move the Republican National Convention to another state after the original host refused to welcome large crowds — that Texas GOP officials are in a bind. Follow the president? Or abide by the science?

This isn’t an abstract exercise. As Texas Monthly recently reported, Texas GOP activists have already lost one of their own to COVID complications: Former Kaufman County Republican Party chairman Bill Baker died in late June of a heart attack while hospitalized with the virus. He checked into the hospital just five days after attending his county’s GOP convention, which drew a handful of people. Imagine if it had been the state convention, expected to draw thousands.

To its credit, the Texas GOP delayed its convention, originally slated for mid-May, over coronavirus concerns. More recently, though, Dickey has suggested that providing hand sanitizer, and encouraging social distancing and masks (though not requiring them), will do enough to keep delegates safe. Given Trump’s dismissive attitude toward such measures, it’s hard to envision all of the party faithful will embrace them.

Some have suggested there is a double standard in calling for large gatherings to cease while Black Lives Matter protests have filled the streets. We see some important differences: The Black Lives Matter protests were spontaneous and urgent, a statement that masses of Americans could no longer tolerate the racism that colors policing. The protests were also outside, which experts say is less conducive to coronavirus spread than indoor arenas. Indeed, a recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found no evidence the protests led to a spike in cases. It’s doubtful the same would be true of a massive indoor conference like the Texas GOP convention.

We recognize the Republican Party of Texas is loathe to cancel its in-person convention, particularly when part of the base believes the coronavirus threat has been overblown. But the worrisome spike in cases is real. The deaths of more than 2,400 Texans are real. The lasting damage this disease inflicts on some patients’ bodies is real.

No convention is worth this. The only option for a party that values people’s safety is to move the event online.