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COVID-19 Public Policy Update: March 19, 2020

Published Mar 19, 2020 by Taylor Landin

In response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Partnership will provide a daily update on public policies and other newsworthy items from local, state and national levels of government. Today all levels of government continued to focus on strategies to contain COVID-19.

Executive Summary

At the federal level, there is an emphasis on supporting hospital preparedness. Today, President Trump is invoking the Defense Production Act to spur the domestic production of personal protective equipment and critical medical supplies, including ventilators and respirators. Federal legislation also continues to move forward. The Senate sent the House's Phase 2 coronavirus package to the President today, and he is expected to sign it. A third package providing loans to the airline and other industries, direct payments to American taxpayers, and small business loans, which the Treasury Department would like to be considered, is being negotiated. At the state level, Governor Greg Abbott has requested designation from the Small Business Administration's (SBA) Economic Injury Disaster Declaration in order to access the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, which would provide long-term, low-interest loans to qualifying businesses across the state. At the local level, Fort Bend County implemented new guidance effective until April 1st closing bars and requiring that restaurants limit operations to delivery, take-out and drive-through service to help contain the spread of COVID-19. This is consistent with actions taken by Harris County and the City of Houston this week.

Federal

President Trump/Task Force Press Conference

  • The border between the U.S. and Canada has been closed for all non-essential traffic. This will currently not affect trade between the two countries.
  • HUD will suspend all evictions and foreclosures until the end of April.
  • President Trump plans to impose emergency border controls on the Mexican border that immediately send back migrants who cross the border illegally, including those seeking asylum.
  • 50 four-person FEMA teams will deploy to help state governments with procurement processes and providing financial resources.
  • While not mandatory, CMS has instructed hospitals to postpone elective surgeries in an effort to preserve masks, gowns, gloves, and other equipment used in surgeries or other invasive procedures.
  • The Senate has passed the House’s coronavirus package (Phase 2) with a 90-8 vote, sending it to President Trump, who is expected to sign it. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the bill will cost $104 billion.
  • President Trump did not confirm what they were discussing in terms of working with Congress on a legislative aid package, but noted it would be large. Reports indicate the White House is considering a package that could send Americans direct payments, with amounts varying by income and family size, and $300 billion in small business loans.
  • Attached is the proposal the Treasury Department would like to be considered. The proposal includes $200 billion in loans to the airline and other industries, $500 billion in direct payments to American taxpayers, and $300 billion in small business loans.
  • President Trump is invoking the Defense Production Act to help make up for potential medical supply shortages and deploy two hospital ships. While typically a wartime authority, FEMA describes the authority as “the primary source of presidential authorities to expedite and expand the supply of resources from the US industrial base to support military, energy, space and homeland security programs.”
  • Defense Secretary Esper said that DoD will make available up to five million N95 masks and other personal protective equipment from US strategic reserves, with the first one million masks being made available immediately.

DoD Response

  • In addition to working to deploy protective equipment and hospital ships on the east and west coast, the Pentagon is putting mobile hospitals on alert. This action would add 1,000 beds. The beds would not be used for COVID-19 patients; rather, they would be used by hospital patients without an infectious disease to free up room in hospitals.

Surgeon General

  • U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said today that a 15-day lockdown will not likely be enough to stop the spread of COVID-19. It is about “flattening the curve,” and another assessment can be taken after 15 days. He stated, “We should all be acting as if we have the virus.”

Numbers

  • CDC numbers as of 3/18/20: 7,038 confirmed cases; 97 deaths, 54 jurisdictions reporting cases (50 states, D.C., PR, Guam, and U.S. Virgin Islands).
  • For comparison: CDC numbers as of 3/17/20: 3,487 confirmed cases; 68 deaths, 53 jurisdictions reporting cases (49 states, DC, PR, Guam, and US, Virgin Island

State

Numbers as of 2pm, March 18, 2020

  • 83 Confirmed cases in Texas across 23 counties. 3 deaths.
  • More than 1900 being monitored.

Texas Now Qualifies for Small Business Disaster Loans

  • Governor Greg Abbott has requested designation from the Small Business Administration's (SBA) Economic Injury Disaster Declaration in order to access the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program. If granted, the SBA would provide long-term, low-interest loans to qualifying businesses across the state. The SBA disaster loan information may be reached here:

Governor's Call with Hospital CEOs and Representatives Across Texas

  • Governor Greg Abbott held a call yesterday with hospital CEOs and representatives across Texas to provide an update on care capacities as COVID-19 response continues. On the call, the Governor and hospital representatives discussed the supply, staffing, and bed capacities of hospitals to ensure care providers have the support they need to assist patients. They also discussed strategies to further increase these capacities. The Governor provided an update on Texas' testing capabilities, and announced a survey on capacity needs for hospital networks so that state agencies can ensure adequate resources are continuously provided. The Governor also announced a temporary waiver for hospitals to increase unused bed capacity without submitting an application or associated fees. During a press conference in Arlington this afternoon, the Governor said he expects in the next several days the state will have the capacity to test 15,000-20,000 people per week for COVID-19 in concert with private labs.

Other Proclamations

  • Governor Greg Abbott today issued a proclamation allowing local governments now have the ability to postpone their May 2, 2020 elections until November 3, 2020.
  • Expiration dates for driver licenses, commercial driver licenses, and other identification forms have been temporarily waived as part of the State Disaster Declaration. This suspension will be in effect until 60 days after the DPS provides further public notice that normal Driver License operations have resumed.
  • A proclamation was issued allowing for telemedicine care for patients with state-regulated insurance plans to help doctors across Texas continue to treat their patients while mitigating the spread of COVID-19. The suspensions and emergency rule will work together to allow telemedicine visits for patients with state-regulated plans to be paid the same as in-office visits for insurance purposes.

Local

Closures

  • Effective today, Fort Bend County implemented new guidance regarding the operation of bars and restaurants, similar to rules in place in the City of Houston and Harris County. Fort Bend County ordered local bars, nightclubs, gyms and facilities that do not serve food to close. Restaurants may only provide take-out, delivery or drive-through. These rules will be in effect through April 1st.
  • No significant news from Judge Hidalgo's Office or Mayor Turner. No other major news from Brazoria, Galveston or Montgomery Counties.

Education

Public School Closures

  • Nearly all school districts in Texas have announced closures as of this morning. Many have extended closures to April 10

STAAR Assessment

  • The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) has announced plans to create an online form for states to submit requests for the department to waive accountability and testing requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
  • We anticipate the USDE to grant one-year waivers to the majority of states who request a waiver due to the growing number of school closures across the country.

Distance Learning and Student Supports

  • We are still waiting to hear from other districts in our region on their timeline for distance learning implementation.
  • The greatest concern with distance learning is reliable student access to the internet or a phone, especially in school districts with a majority economically disadvantaged students. Education leaders are concerned that extended closures will disproportionally impact outcomes for students without this access, unless we are able to find a way to provide every student with access. As such, some school districts have begun parent surveys to assess students’ ability to access technology outside of school.
  • We continue to be in contact with the Region 4 Education Service Center and many area school district leaders to coordinate assistance as necessary.
  • There is growing concern from school districts and community members about the need for affordable and safe childcare as school closures are extended.

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The Partnership convened nearly 700 business leaders, diversity and inclusion officers, HR professionals, recruiters and ERG leaders at the third annual Houston NEXT: An ERG Summit October 15-19. The summit explored how Houston can and should take a leadership role in addressing diversity, equity, inclusion and justice for our region and workplaces. Through presentations and discussion groups, thought leaders and attendees shared best practices, challenges, recruitment/retention needs and suggestions on championing D&I in the workplace. Here are 10 key takeaways:  Diversity and inclusion should carry as much weight as any other business measurement in your organization. Diversity of thought and including different voices at the table can help drive business impact and outcomes. Encourage leaders to include a diversity and inclusion component within their performance review metrics.    Use employee resource groups (sometimes called business resource groups) and employee networks to engage people around common passions and interests. Dr. Terri Cooper discussed how Deloitte uses their employee councils as a source to host courageous conversations. “The purpose of these councils is to bring together people of different backgrounds and different experiences to engage in conversations regarding what’s happening in the community, employee well-being, professional development and perhaps most importantly, issues relating to diversity and inclusion.”   Executive sponsors, allies and advocates are key supporting elements that allow for employee resource groups (ERGs) to have the greatest impact. Organizations must consider how to measure the success of their ERGs. Are they tied to your talent attraction and retention efforts? Do you look to ERGs for promotions, leadership abilities, etc.? Do you source ideas from your ERGs for innovation within your organization, like policies and procedures?   ERGs and employee networks are all about deliberate action and driving culture. Jeff Dingle shared that accountability, matched with elaborate training and a culture of inclusive thought, is the deliberate action Jacobs is taking to drive culture further toward an inclusive environment.   It is important to continue to drive research to understand the needs of each generation in the workplace. In a 2017 Deloitte study, it was apparent that many new professionals in the workforce no longer wanted to be seen from a one-dimensional perspective. Young professionals were looking for ways in which they could embrace their multi-dimensional characteristics, come together and create a more collaborative environment to learn from each other, share experiences and truly create an inclusive culture.      Waste Management's Tiana Carter emphasized organizations are reevaluating all aspects of business as a result of the pandemic. Take the step to consider a workforce evolution taskforce, comprised of individuals with different backgrounds, at different levels and different subject matter expertise, to evaluate the need to evolve an organization's business model, workforce, processes, procedures and pandemic response efforts. Be in a position where you are ready to act. You may not have all the answers right now, but transparency is more important and valuable for employees and team members. 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Everyone has a voice and access to resources.    The distributed approach adopted by Matt Mullenweg's company Automattic gives employees a great deal of personal freedom and autonomy to get the job done in a space of their choosing and in their own way. “When people are really happy and fulfilled in the rest of their life, they bring their best self to work,” Mullenweg said. He interviews managers in his Distributed podcast to share best practices and he also shares his Distributed Work's Five Levels of Autonomy and encourages companies that can "enable their people to be fully effective in a distributed fashion can and should do it far beyond after this current crisis (the pandemic) has passed."   Mullenweg shared there is a difference between remote and distributed work. "The work must get done. When you're in the early levels of distributed autonomy, the people who aren't in the office might actually be remote. 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10/19/20
Houston’s position as an epicenter of international business and global trade is strengthened by our robust regional port system. Port Houston, the largest port by foreign tonnage in the nation, continues to show strong performance and contributions to the local and national economy. In recent months, however, shipping logistics and traffic have had to deal with their share of challenges brought on by the economic downturn. Ric Campo, chairman of Port Houston, spoke about how the port has had to adapt at the Partnership’s State of the Port event on October 13. Impacts Brought on by Pandemic, Energy Downturn  Port Houston continues to see solid traffic, but Campo said the port is not immune to COVID-19 and its economic impacts and has seen declines in volume in 2020. The chairman reported that as of the end of September, Port Houston is down 3% year-to-date in container traffic, adding that total tonnage along the Houston Ship Channel is down 5.5% year-to-date through July. Houston is familiar to the cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry. Though that is now coupled with a pandemic, Campo said Houston is sure to rebound, returning liquid bulk facilities and crude oil exports to pre-COVID volumes. “Port of Houston international tonnage is still 70% ahead of the next closest U.S. port," he said. “Even with a weak year in 2020, the greater Port of Houston will remain the number on U.S. port for international trade.”  An Emphasis on Community, Environmental Stewardship  “One thing we cannot ignore in 2020 is the topic of racial equity, diversity and inclusion. This is also part of Port Houston’s strategic plan and we believe strongly that we need to be part of the solution,” said Campo.  He pointed to one example of how Port Houston is addressing this through a recently commissioned study on the port’s small businesses and accessibility for minority-owned businesses. The report will help guide the system on how it can ensure suppliers and partners doing business at the port reflect the diversity of the region it serves.  Campo said Port Houston became the first port authority in the world to make the switch to 100% renewable electricity this year. The move is estimated to eliminate 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the system’s footprint each year, equating to $250,000 savings annually. Campo noted that this switch is truly a win-win for Port Houston and serves as a model for how other major port authorities can maintain operations while lessening impacts on the environment.  The chairman also discussed the port's efforts to engage in communities surrounding the ship channel through two-way communication opportunities, which open a dialogue to foster strong relationships with stakeholders and neighbors. Campo cited a partnership with Buffalo Bayou Partnership where the port has been working with the non-profit for decades to help keep the bayous clean and are embarking on the development of new green space on port property.   Work on Port Expansion Continues  Campo concluded by providing an update on perhaps the biggest initiatives in the systems recent history – the Houston Ship Channel Expansion known as Project 11, which is vital to maintaining the Houston Ship Channel as the economic powerhouse that it is today. “We know the urgency of this expansion. It’s crucial and the time to act is now,” Campo said. Port Houston is leading efforts to get the necessary federal appropriations to start the construction project sooner and to begin work in 2021. During the 116th Congress in 2019, both the House and Senate authorized Project 11 in their respective versions of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) legislation. While congressional approval is pending, Port Houston continues to lead discussions with industry to find ways for industry to participate in half the cost of the channel expansion.  Campo ended his address on an optimistic note. “We are ready now and we will be ready then. Port Houston, and the Houston Ship Channel, have always been something you can count on during times of prosperity, times of recession, and now, times of pandemic. It will continue to bring economic value and jobs to our region today, tomorrow, and in the future.”   Click here for more information on Houston’s transportation and logistics industry. For more on Houston’s international business landscape, click here. 
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