Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Road work ramps up as a city shuts down

There could be a (small) silver lining to Houston's Coronavirus-related economic hiatus:
A lighter load on Houston-area freeways and COVID-19 concerns have not slowed the heavy machinery making way for more lanes or new ramps along many of the routes seeing unprecedented drops in traffic.
Some crews will even ramp up work as traffic takes a coronavirus-induced holiday.
“Lighter traffic on our roadways potentially presents some opportunities to advance some of our work, and that is being assessed on a case-by-case basis,” said Raquelle Lewis, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston. 
All TxDOT projects remain active, Lewis said.
Houston Public Works and contractors on city jobs also remain out tying steel, pouring concrete and smoothing asphalt, Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones said this week.
Of course, this is only for projects already in progress. Given how Coronavirus is affecting the business environment, it will be more difficult to prepare construction documents and bids, gather materials and manpower, and complete other tasks needed in order to undertake new projects.

(I should know. I tried to have an online meeting with TxDOT staff earlier today about a future planning study. It was a comedy of errors of lagging computers, reverbing microphones, and malfunctioning "virtual" computer displays. We continue to have actual, in-person meetings in this day and age precisely because they do not "malfunction." I don't think technology will ever replace the primacy and legibility of actual, physical interpersonal interaction.)

There’s also the question as to how work crews will be able to stay healthy and practice "social distancing" while still getting construction tasks completed.

All in all, however, it's generally a good thing that projects intended to improve mobility can be accelerated (and hopefully be closer to completion) by the time the city's traffic returns. It's also good that, even as so many businesses are shuttered and workers sidelined during this crisis, the region's construction workers will still be receiving a paycheck.

I also thought this tidbit was interesting:
Automobile traffic may be down, but bike use in Houston appears to be surging. Trips on Houston B-Cycle — each time one of the bicycles was checked out from a kiosk — were 51 percent higher from Feb. 23 to Tuesday, compared with last year, bike share officials said.
“It’s often more than one factor,” B-Cycle spokesman Henry Morris said. “Personally, I think the combination of good weather, spring break, school and work closures, and the need for solo or small group transportation/recreation options because of social distancing rules are all contributing to the rise in trips.”
Gyms also are closed, leading many to venture out in the pleasant weather.
This is good news. Between the reduction in automobile traffic as well as the nice spring weather, now’s probably a perfect time for a bike ride. As long as bicyclists sanitize the bikes before or after each use and stay six feet apart from each other, of course…

Restaurants will bear the brunt of this crisis

As bad as this Coronavirus crisis is going to get (and it's going to get really, really bad), it is going to be especially devastating for bars and restaurants:
Across America, restaurant dining rooms are empty. Some have locked the door; others have skeleton crews working to fulfill delivery and carry-out orders as customers hunker down in their homes, waiting to see what happens next. 
The coronavirus pandemic — fast-moving, and endangering people who spend time in public spaces — is uniquely poised to take down the restaurant industry as we know it. As if tailor-made to render restaurants unusable, the pandemic is a time bomb. And restaurants will not be able to delivery or takeout their way out of it. 
Many of the restaurants that close during the pandemic will not reopen their doors. Diners should also brace for a restaurant landscape that will be entirely different by the time — however near or far off it may be — they can be safely encouraged to enjoy a crowded night out again. 
“We are about to see a lot of places go broke forever.”
I've already begun seeing local restaurants put out pleas for gift card purchases, "virtual tip jars" for their staffs, and other requests for support on social media. It's heartbreaking. Corinne and I are trying to do our part by ordering takeout from our favorite local restaurants, but it's not particularly good  for our pocketbooks or our waistlines and it's not something we can do indefinitely.
A crisis of this scale and scope, so uniquely damaging to restaurants, is indeed unprecedented. And for now, restaurants are doing their best to stay afloat, ramping up delivery, offering curbside to-go service, promoting merch, offering gift certificates, begging diners to reschedule rather than cancel pre-paid reservations. But the truth is, compared to full dining rooms night after night, these are Band-Aids, temporary stopgaps to stop hemorrhaging money. Gift cards, which are effectively microloans to the restaurant owner, also do little to help workers in the short-term — or restaurants that don’t have the infrastructure to sell them. 
Independent operators need a major infusion of cash — cash that’s more readily available from the government than from their stressed-out customers — to make it. They need rent alleviation, eviction protection, and tax deferrals, at a minimum, to live through this body blow. Who knows what they’ll end up getting.
Restaurants operate on thin margins as it is; even a bad week or two can doom them. There's no telling what a shutdown of this magnitude will do to the industry. 
Both the large groups that have enough cash at hand to “mothball” and the restaurants that can run a successful delivery operation are on borrowed time. This outbreak has no clear end date. There will be businesses that simply cannot afford to stay furloughed or continue doing delivery. 
And when those restaurants that survive do reopen, they’ll do so with their pocketbooks depleted, without an emergency fund to spare should some other unexpected issue hit (and in the restaurant business, there’s always an expense around the corner). They will also reopen their doors to a new world of challenges, not least of which is facing a dining public likely either coming out of or in the midst of a global recession. Those diners who lost income after supply-chain disruption and nationwide business closures due to social distancing will simply have less money to spend on dining.
Chronicle food critic Alison Cook fears for the future of Houston's unique and vibrant restaurant culture:
I could go on at length about the ways in which our Houston restaurants and bars are a powerful economic engine we can’t afford to lose. About the fact that they’re the city’s fourth largest industry, and the dire social consequences of all those jobs evaporating. About the whopping sales taxes restaurants and bars feed into the Texas treasury, gone like the wind. 
All that pales, however, next to the particular cultural importance restaurants have to Houston. Here in a city that has been on the leading edge of demographic change in America since the 1970s, restaurants have functioned as a kind of crossroads and social glue. 
Dining rooms, food truck and barbecue lines alike are public squares where different kinds of Houstonians come together to check out each others’ cuisines — and each other. If we think of ourselves as a tribe these days, and I maintain that we do, much of that awareness has sprung from our collective enthusiasm for our freewheeling culinary mix. Thanks to Viet-Cajun crawfish, Tex-Mex barbecue and a hundred other manifestations of our diversity, it always tastes as if there is more that unites us as a city than divides us.
I’ve watched it all happen over my long career as a student of Houston foodways. And that is where my grief gets so personal. I grew up along with the city’s growing worldliness and embrace of a riot of cultures. It has been my privilege to chronicle that change, to dissect and try to explain the restaurants big and small that helped make it all happen. 
Our vivid regional cuisine, once ignored by the world at large, is now celebrated as the city’s foremost attraction. We built this, fellow citizens, with our skills and curiosity, our adventurous spirit and our financial support. To see it all threatened now seems unbearable to me. 
I have a lot of friends and acquaintances that work in the service in food and beverage service industry. They are going through very tough time right now. I hope everything works out in the end, but I'm also bracing myself for a future in which some of my favorite dining spots and watering holes are no more.

Kuff is just as concerned as I am.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Love (and Marriage) in the Time of Coronavirus

Yesterday was supposed to have been the Big Day for Corinne and me. It was supposed to be the day our friends and family came to New Orleans to celebrate our wedding. We had spent well over a year (and many thousands of dollars) meticulously planning the entire experience: the venue, the food, the music.

Of course, none of that happened yesterday. Neither we nor our friends nor our families went to New Orleans. We did not have a ceremony. We did not eat and dance at a reception afterwards. The wedding that we so carefully planned did not happen.

We had been approaching the wedding date with a background awareness of the Coronavirus situation, but it wasn't until a couple of weekends ago - when SXSW in Austin was canceled and the first guests informed us that they would probably not be attending out of concern for their safety - that we began to become truly concerned. Over the following days more events were canceled - the Rodeo, sports - and more of our guests expressed concern about traveling to our wedding. We found ourselves among those with upcoming wedding plans who were agonizing about what to do: continue as planned, even though many people - our parents included - might not be able to attend due to the risk involved, or cancel, disrupting everyone's plans at the last minute and potentially incurring thousands of dollars in lost deposits and cancelation fees.

However, after Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards decreed two Fridays ago that schools be closed and that all public gatherings larger than 250 be canceled, we saw the writing on the wall. Even though our gathering would be smaller than 250 people, we knew things would only get worse as the number of positive Coronavirus cases in the New Orleans area increased. We couldn't ask our guests to put themselves at risk by attending our ceremony.

So we called our wedding off.

After hurriedly working with our venue and other vendors (all of which have been awesome!), we tentatively rescheduled for a date in July of this year and informed our guests as quickly as we could.

There's no telling if the Coronavirus situation will have passed by July - Louisiana is being badly affected by the virus outbreak right now and some epidemiologists are forecasting that it will take 18 months before this plague is brought under control - but it's the date the venue had available. Even if the Coronavirus threat does pass, there's no guarantee that the society and economy on the other side of it will even let us have a wedding. We're very worried about our vendors - our venue/caterer, our baker, our photographer, our deejay - and can only hope that they make it through the difficult weeks ahead.

Sure enough, last Monday the Centers for Disease Control suggested that all events of fifty or more people - weddings included - be canceled. That same day, the Mayor of New Orleans ordered that all "public and private gatherings" be canceled and that people not gather in groups larger than "the number of people in a reasonable household" in order to reduce social interaction and transfer of the virus. Had we not postponed our wedding, the decision would have been made for us.

But that's not the end of this story.

As the seriousness of the Coronavirus situation unfolded over the last week, Corinne and I began to discuss the need to be able to make legal and medical decisions for each other, should the need arise. We also found ourselves in a defiant mood: why should we allow this pandemic to interrupt our plans for our relationship?! It didn't hurt that we also had in our possession a marriage license from the State of Louisiana that would be valid through the end of the month.

So we made a few phone calls, and last Friday morning we drove from Houston to Lake Charles, Louisiana to meet our pastor, Tommy Dillon (the rector at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge) at a park on the south side of town. A couple of our friends drove separately and met us there in order to serve as witnesses. My son was with us as well, but unfortunately our parents were not as they are elderly and high-risk. (There were seven of us total, so we complied with the Governor's most recent prohibition of gatherings of ten people or more. We were careful not to touch each other and sanitized our hands frequently.)

It was raining, so we ended up having a brief ceremony underneath a picnic pavilion, with our bottles of hand sanitizer serving as paperweights to keep our marriage documents from blowing away and my son serving as photographer. It was not the most romantic setting, but it was nevertheless a moving and meaningful ceremony.

Afterwards we bid our pastor and witnesses farewell and drove to the Calcasieu Parish Clerk of Court to file the marriage license. All the bars and restaurants in Lake Charles were closed, so we couldn’t celebrate there. Corinne and I drove back home in the rain as husband and wife.

Even though we are now legally married, we still want to have our full ceremony in New Orleans with all of our family and friends. Corinne still plans to get her hair done and wear her wedding dress. We still plan to serve delicious food and dance to party tunes at our reception.

But as of right now, who knows when, or even if, it will happen.

UPDATE: Episcopal News Service interviewed Rev. Dillon regarding his ministry during the COVID-19 crisis. He used Corinne and I as an example of his work:
With the situation changing swiftly and unpredictably, Dillon is working with those he serves to meet their needs in a flexible way. He was scheduled to marry Corinne Perez and Thomas Gray of Houston, Texas, in New Orleans on March 21, with a full Eucharist and a reception. When those plans were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dillon encouraged them to get married anyway, recognizing that a couple’s legal status would be critically important in the event of a medical emergency. 
“I talked to them and I was like, ‘You know what? This is a time when the wedding needs to happen. Because, no matter what happens, you need to be legally married,’” Dillon said. “And so I said, ‘Let’s make this happen." 
The couple had a Louisiana marriage license, so Dillon suggested they meet in Lake Charles, Louisiana – near the border with Texas, and about halfway between Houston and Baton Rouge – on March 20 and have a big celebration with friends and family later. In keeping with health officials’ guidelines on physical distancing, it was a very small service: just Dillon, the couple, and a few friends as witnesses, who drove in separate cars. Standing by a picnic table in a park, Perez and Gray became husband and wife. 
“It was one of the holiest weddings I’ve ever officiated at,” Dillon said. “I said, ‘The kingdom of God is right here in the middle of this pandemic.’”

No-so-good monarch news

Just in case things aren't depressing enough right now:
The number of monarch butterflies that showed up at their winter resting grounds decreased about 53% this year, Mexican officials said Friday. 
Some activists called the decline “heartbreaking," but the Mexico head of the World Wildlife Fund said the reduction “is not alarming.”
WWF Mexico director Jorge Rickards said the previous year's large numbers were "atypical" and the monarchs had returned to their average population levels of recent years. 
The government commission for natural protected areas said the butterflies' population was “stable,” even though they covered only 2.8 hectares (6.9 acres) this year. That was down from 6.05 hectares (14.95 acres) the previous year. Because the monarchs cluster so densely in pine and fir trees, it is easier to count them by area rather than by individuals.
Not everybody agrees with Rickards' assessment, however.
In contrast to Rickards' view, Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, wrote that “scientists were expecting the count to be down slightly, but this level of decrease is heartbreaking."
"More protections are clearly needed for this migratory wonder and its habitat,” Curry wrote.
Environmentalist and author Homero Aridjis said that “the decline of over 53% of populations in the butterfly reserve is worrisome, above all because of the effects of climate change on the migration route and on the wintering grounds in Mexico.”  
Aridjis said crime and deforestation in Mexico is also a cause for alarm. One butterfly activist and a part-time guide in the reserve were murdered earlier this year.
Monarch Watch director Chip Taylor had predicted that the overwintering population would be lower this year than last, based on the following factors:
Population growth
• Less than optimal egg distribution in March and April
• Later recolonization of the Upper Midwest
• Low monarch production in Iowa and maybe western portions of the upper Midwest
• Lower summer temperatures than in 2018
• Late migrations are associated with lower numbers reaching Mexico
• Droughts are associated with lower numbers reaching Mexico
• High numbers in the northeast do not translate to high overwintering numbers
• Northeast butterflies take too long to migrate southwest
Even so, Taylor expected the overwintering population to occupy 4.7 hectares, which means that the actual numbers were worse than his prediction.

As good as last year's numbers were, they very clearly appear to be an outlier in the Monarch Watch graph:
The bottom line: the monarch butterfly migration continues to be threatened by herbicide and pesticide use along the migratory path, illegal logging in the overwintering region, and climate change in general.

Since people have a lot more time to do things like gardening these days, my suggestion is the same as it's always been: plant that milkweed.

Local football musings: Roughnecks season cut short, Bill O'Brien is an idiot

A couple of weeks ago the reformulated XFL followed the lead of other sports leagues in the face of the Coronavirus crisis and shut things down, canceling its halfway-finished regular season. There was an initial possibility that some type of postseason could still occur, but as a of a couple of days ago that wasn't happening, either:
The XFL left open hope of playing a postseason when it suspended its season March 12. It has become clear that won’t happen, and with XFL players interested in signing with NFL teams, the league has pulled the plug on the rest of the season. 
“The COVID-19 pandemic, and the most recent local and state regulations, have left the XFL no choice but to officially cancel the remainder of the 2020 season,” XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck said in a statement. “This decision has been made with the health and safety of the entire XFL family as our top priority.” 
Luck reiterated in the statement that the league plans to return in 2021.
It sucks, because the Houston Roughnecks were the only team remaining undefeated in the new league after five weeks of play. (Does this mean that the Roughnecks are league champions?)

I attended all three Roughnecks home games at TDECU Stadium and had a fun time. The play was sloppy at times - too many dropped passes, missed tackles and penalties - but Roughnecks quarterback P. J. Walker was fun to watch (and will probably be playing in the NFL this fall, provided the Coronavirus crisis is over by then). Here are a few pictures I took of the action:

Roughnecks QB P. J. Walker throws a pass from the 50 yard line at TDECU Stadium.

The Roughnecks line up for a red zone play against the St. Louis Battlehawks.

Fans fill up the lower bowl and second deck of TDECU Stadium to watch the Roughnecks play. The Roughnecks actually saw their highest attendance of the season in what would be their final game.

I also enjoyed the wrinkles that the XFL added to the rulebook: the kickoff formations that were designed to make the game safer, the after-touchdown conversion attempts that would be worth one, two or three points depending on where the ball was placed, and the faster play clock designed to speed up the game. I commend the XFL 2.0 for taking these chances to improve the game of football in general.

The XFL says it's committed to returning in 2021. But will it be able to do so? Ben Kercheval of CBS Sports is confident that the league will return, but Awful Announcing's Joe Lucia is more circumspect, especially given the nation's uncertain financial future:
Overall, the XFL is in a precarious position. The first five weeks went about as well as anyone could have expected, yet the league was unquestionably trending in the wrong direction over those five weeks. The way this debut season ended, in lockstep with the other sports across the country and the world, does give the XFL something of a mulligan. But there are so many other factors regarding the league’s second year (including the length of the state of emergency surrounding the coronavirus, to the inevitable resumption of the other major sports leagues in America, to even the NFL’s new CBA and the sliding stock market) that we can’t even begin to process what a second year for the XFL would look like. On the bright side for the XFL, McMahon didn’t torpedo the league like he did 19 years ago, and if the XFL doesn’t return, you can’t put all the blame on the league and its decision makers.
ESPN's Kevin Seifert surveyed the state of the XFL right before the season was canceled and was generally positive about the league's overall state but expressed concern about uneven quarterback play and declining attendance and television ratings. Viewership for the latest incarnation of the XFL started out well but declined as the season wore on. (It suspended operations before it ever had to go up against the spring's premier sporting event, the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament.) While the Seattle and St. Louis franchises did well at the gate, the Los Angeles and New York teams struggled. (Given that football-hungry fans showed up to support the XFL in St. Louis, one wonders if it makes sense to move the Los Angeles team to San Diego?)

Spring football – whether it be the USFL, the WLAF/NFL Europe, the first iteration of the XFL or the AAF – simply does not have a good track record. Why should the new XFL be any different? We'll find out in February of 2021.

I hope the Roughnecks return in 2021, because this city's football fans are going to need something to cheer about after Houston Texans head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien, fresh off his spectacular quit-while-ahead loss against Kansas City in the playoffs, once again managed to show the world how much of a idiot he is by trading three-time all-pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals.

Trading one of the best wide receivers in the league and, along with Deshawn Watson and J.J. Watt, one of the faces of the franchise, is a stunningly idiotic move. Especially since all the Texans got in return was an injury-prone running-back and a couple of draft picks.

But don't take my word for how stupid this decision was. Here's Sean Pendergast, who calls the deal "a soul-crushing, disastrous move" Or ESPN's Bill Barnwell, who describes it as a "jaw-dropping, mind-bending, inexplicable trade."

It's probably bad form to spend a lot of time getting worked up over this - again, who knows if there will even be an NFL season once this Coronavirus crisis is all over - but the Texans franchise clearly has two problems on its hands: Bill O'Brien, and a fanbase that enables him.

As long as Texans fans continue to blithely support the franchise, paying big bucks for their season tickets and buying overpriced merchandise, they will get what they deserve: a crappy, underachieving team helmed by an utterly incompetent head coach/general manager.

Sportsmap's Paul Muth is "punting" on the Texans, and urges others to do the same:
So I declared that day that until Bill O'Brien is gone, I will take my fandom elsewhere. And that's what it's going to take from everyone.
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of [terrible coaching/ownership] is for good [fans] to do nothing." 
-Edmund Burke, sort of. 
It's true though. I've been called a quitter and a fake fan (of 18 years I guess) since I made that announcement. But if anything is going to ever actually change, it's going to need to come from the stands. Only when the McNairs see a change in their balance sheet at the end of the season will they consider removing O'Brien from the obscene amount of power he currently holds. If you truly love your Texans, the best thing you could do is not "weather the storm," but walk away. Most wont, though, and that's why Grumpy Bill will keep his job.
Unfortunately, he's probably right; Houston's is a notoriously fair-weather, front-runner sports town except when it comes to the Texans, who somehow manage to keep their fans coming to games no matter how crappy they are.

That has to change. As O'Brien continues to run this franchise into the ground, and as the losses continue to pile up, it just might.