In a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner straddled the two crises gripping the nation: the troubling spread of COVID-19 and the mounting pressure to reform our country’s police departments in the aftermath of the tragic deaths of black Americans like George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement.
“The governor indicated that the state is facing a massive outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. I would agree with that assessment,” said Turner. He then announced that the Houston Health Department reported seven new coronavirus deaths and 987 new COVID-19 cases in Houston, bringing the city’s cumulative case count to 16,253.
All of the new fatalities announced by the city health department on Wednesday were elderly Houstonians. The Houston Health Department’s Dr. David Persse made pointed remarks toward community members he’s heard express skepticism toward the need to practice public health measures like wearing face masks in public and social distancing solely because the virus has killed mostly older residents.
“If we were talking about children’s lives, I think our conversation with the community would be much different,” Persse argued. “We’re fiercely protective of our children, and so I don’t think we’d be seeing people walk around without masks and in large gatherings.”
“The lives of older people are not without value,” Persse continued.
Statewide, the coronavirus pandemic has continued to run rampant. The Texas Department of State Health Services once again reported shocking record-highs on Wednesday, announcing 4,289 new COVID-19 hospitalizations and 5,551 new positive cases across the state.
Turner explained that despite the rapid spread of the virus throughout Texas and other parts of the country, President Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Association announced that it would stop providing federal funding to state testing sites at the end of the month.
That includes the currently federally-funded, city-run free testing locations at Butler Stadium and Delmar Stadium, which have been maxing out at their 500 test per-day capacity before noon over the past several weekdays, Turner said. Despite the incoming loss of federal funding, Turner promised that the Delmar and Butler test sites would stay open and free to the public come July.
In response to a question from the Houston Press about stories of long wait times and difficulty in getting COVID-19 tests in a timely fashion, Houston Health Department Director Stephen Williams described the free city testing sites as more of a “safety net” for low-income residents without health insurance, and encouraged Houstonians with health insurance to get tested through their existing healthcare providers.
However, one of the main reasons the city’s free testing sites have become inundated is because they do not require residents to be currently displaying symptoms of COVID-19 to get a test, which many traditional healthcare providers still require proof of in order to administer a test for the coronavirus.
Due to having his authority to impose strict local guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus limited by Gov. Abbott, Turner seems to be getting more creative in planning next steps for local response. He announced on Wednesday that his office plans to create a public “wall of shame” for local businesses, bars and restaurants who are caught not abiding by state mandated occupancy limits and ignoring the Harris County order for businesses to require the use of face masks on their premises.
“In the end, the confidence of the customer would determine the viability of that business. And so we want people to be good partners, to be good citizens,” said Turner. “But if you’re not, then you need to go on the wall of shame. We’re not going to jail you, but I think information is important.”
Turner said he’s determined to keep doing what he can to limit the pain caused by COVID-19 in Houston, “even if it means, depending on what I continue to see, if I have to push the envelope and assume even authority that some say I don’t have.”
Earlier in the press conference, Turner officially unveiled that the new Task Force on Policing Reform will be led by Laurence “Larry” Payne, who is currently the Director of Strategic Partnerships, Civic Engagement and Critical Conversations for the Houston Public Library. Payne has previously served in numerous public roles within the City of Houston government over the years, including stints as Chief of Staff for former Mayor Kathy Whitmire, as Director of Community Initiatives for former Mayor Lee P. Brown and as Deputy City Controller under former Houston Controller George Greanias.
After thanking Turner and the City Council for their leadership in recent weeks, Payne said his goal as chair of this new task force will be to bring about “long overdue” change and reform to the Houston Police Department “so that future generations will not have to live through this nightmare that current boys and men of color have to go through, and mothers who have to wonder if their child will make it home safely at night.”
The mayor’s task force will be tasked with reviewing HPD policies related to the use of force, evaluating the way the Independent Police Oversight Board functions, creating criteria for when police body camera footage should be released to the public, said Turner. They will also work on best practices for crisis diversion, decreasing the “overt” presence of law enforcement in communities and will assess what steps HPD should make to build better bonds with the community at large.
In addition to Payne, the mayor’s task force has 45 members and a handful of special advisers, who were chosen to make sure the new group “reflects the diversity within our city,” said Turner. These members include Greater Houston Partnership President Bob Harvey and community activist and rapper Trae tha Truth, as well as various business people, academics, nonprofit representatives and millennials from across the city.
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Turner expressed his hope that the task force could complete their mission of providing recommendations for necessary HPD reforms along with proposed timelines “within 60 days,” but no later than 90 days from now.
“What we can all agree on is we don’t want it drawn out,” said Turner.
When asked about the need for a new task force given Turner’s Transition Committee on Criminal Justice that made HPD reform recommendations several years ago, Turner cited the necessity to take into account new concerns about policing in light of “the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others.”
“This is another step,” said Turner. “It’s not the final step.”