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Houston Mayor Hon. Sylvester Turner: COVID-19 Resurgence “A Forest Fire Right Now;” Advocates a “Shutdown for a Couple of Weeks;” His Thoughts on Race Relations and Police Reform, and More

Houston Mayor Hon. Sylvester Turner: COVID-19 Resurgence “A Forest Fire Right Now;” Advocates a “Shutdown for a Couple of Weeks;” His Thoughts on Race Relations and Police Reform, and More

July 14, 2020



Houston Mayor Hon. Sylvester Turner speaks with IHS Markit Vice Chairman Daniel Yergin for CERAWeek Conversations. www.ceraweek.com/conversations

Mayor Turner speaks with IHS Markit Vice Chairman Daniel Yergin for the latest CERAWeek Conversations – available at www.ceraweek.com/conversations

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The Mayor of Houston Hon. Sylvester Turner says that COVID-19 is now moving “at a much faster rate” than it did in March, April or May and that “I advocate a shutdown for a couple of weeks, two to three weeks as a matter of fact, to give us opportunity to take the energy away from this virus.”

Speaking with IHS Markit (NYSE: INFO) Vice Chairman Daniel Yergin for a new edition of CERAWeek Conversations, Mayor Turner says that the state of Texas reopened “too quickly” and that “we have exponential growth, a lot of community spread of the virus” in Houston. “We’ve just been moving in the wrong direction. And now we’re seeking ways to reset and to kind of get this virus back in a much more manageable state.”

Mayor Turner also discusses his reaction to the death of Houston native George Floyd, the systemic roots of the protests that followed and his views on police reform.

He says that “we are asking police officers to do too much, way too much” and that “What I believe [people] are saying [in regards to defunding police] is: Mayor, don’t just be placing the investment in building a police force to police communities and neighborhoods, let’s also make sure that we are investing in these communities and neighborhoods to make them communities and neighborhoods of opportunity.”

Mayor Turner also discusses the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on the city of Houston and its place at the center of the energy industry. Houston is “the energy capital of the world and we intend to stay there,” he says.

The complete video is available at: www.ceraweek.com/conversations

Selected excerpts:
Interview Recorded Monday, Monday, July 13, 2020

(Edited slightly for brevity only)

Watch the complete video at: www.ceraweek.com/conversations

  • On the current surge in COVID-19 cases in Houston:

    “Towards the end of April—that last week in April, first week in May—just when states were starting to open things up, I think we opened up a little bit too soon, too quickly. And then when you start looking in that second week in May you start to see the numbers start ticking up.

    “Now, we have exponential growth, a lot of community spread of the virus within the city of Houston and we are reporting now big numbers. The positivity rate is much higher. The number of people going to our hospitals, higher number of people in ICU. We’ve just been moving in the wrong direction. And now we’re seeking ways to reset and to kind of get this virus back in a much more manageable state, similar to what we had achieved toward the latter part of April, first part of May.

    “It’s bad. We take it very, very seriously. The numbers continue to rise. I look at the numbers every single morning with respect to the Texas Medical Center. We’ve been able to take on more cases, and they’ve done an incredible job. But you also have to be concerned about the staffing, the nursing, the medical support. You can have a bed, but if you don’t have the nurses and the support team, then that’s just as important.

    “We are getting more help that’s coming in. Even the military, the Department of Defense, they’re sending some additional people in. But we are also engaged in a very intensive marketing, PR campaign to encourage people to put on their masks, to engage in social distancing, exercise proper hygiene. It’s not enough to just deal with cases as they come to the hospital, it’s very important for us to slow down the community spread.”
  • On the political debate around masks:

    “I think initially the messaging was very conflicting. There were many people who understood the importance of wearing masks. Then there were some who viewed it as an infringement on their individual liberties. And there are some who attempted to make it a little bit more political than it should. But the wearing of masks is not political. This virus is an equal opportunity abuser. It doesn’t matter what your political persuasion [is] or what your social-economic status [is]. So, it was some conflicting messaging at the very beginning.

    “Initially, locally we imposed the requirement; then the state removed that and made it optional. Now the state has come back and it is now a requirement throughout the state where there are more than 20 cases of this virus. That has been helpful. Now we are all on the same page in terms of the messaging and more people are now wearing them. But the question now is should we hit the rest button for a couple of weeks, kind of pull back even more in order to work to get this virus under control?”
  • On reinstituting temporary shutdowns in Houston:

    “I think it’s important to reset. Bear in mind that this virus is now moving at a very fast rate, much faster than in March when CERAWeek was cancelled, April, and May. I call it a forest fire right now. The wearing of the masks, if it had been implemented much earlier, I think would have helped out quite a bit.

    “It’s coming kind of late, so I think it’s going to take a host of things. I think we need to kind of reset and then gradually come back. I advocate a shutdown for a couple of weeks, two to three weeks as a matter of fact, to give us opportunity to take the energy away from this virus. And you do that by separating and then gradually work back to open again, because you do want the economy to open up.”
  • On the responsibilities, authorities, and limitations as mayor to address the pandemic:

    “In March and April local governments, county judges, people like myself, the mayors, we had the authority to impose various restrictions [and] requirements. Once the state announced the last week in April and in May that we were going to open up, the state also took away the local authority’s ability to impose any of the requirements. So, all of the tools that I had prior to May 1, I don’t have those tools anymore.

    “I appreciate the fact that the state has now put in a requirement for masks. I appreciate that. I appreciate that the state has given us the ability to place restrictions on outdoor activities of gatherings of greater than 10. I appreciate that. For right now, the state has closed bars and clubs. That’s a move in the right direction. I appreciate that. But quite frankly, we don’t have—the local authorities—we don’t have the authority to shut down things for even a day or two weeks or longer.”
  • On the decision to cancel the Texas State GOP convention:

    “The state Republican party’s convention was scheduled to meet on the 16th through 18th of July at the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown, about 6,000 people in an indoor facility. The hope was that this particular convention would not occur, and they would agree to go virtual, like most conventions or conferences have. They elected to move forward with it in person. My medical health director wrote a letter to me saying that if this convention moved forward it would pose a clear and present danger; not only to those attending, but to the employees, the staff, the people in the city, and the communities from which these delegates would be coming from.

    “With that in hand, I elected to cancel, exercise the provision in the contract that has defined force majeure as an epidemic. And so, based on that we cancelled the contract. Unfortunately, they have filed the lawsuit. But the initial judge refused to grant their wish. Then it went up to the Texas Supreme Court over the weekend and I am told that as we speak the Texas Supreme Court has rejected their plea as well. And so, it’s not moving forward. But this is not the time for large gatherings to be take place, especially in the city when we are trying to regain control of the virus.”
  • On the long-term impacts of the coronavirus on the city of Houston:

    “We know that there are going to be some long-term impacts. We did close down in terms of businesses, retail for a period of time; may have to do it again. We know that there has been a significant reduction in sales tax receipts for cities and counties and others. We understand that.

    “The energy sector has been hit hard. This is the energy capital of the world. There have been a number of layoffs, cutbacks, people pulling back. We know the recovery is going to take some time. And it’s a global situation. It’s not just something that we face locally or nationally, but it’s global. We live in a global economy, the global marketplace. And as long as this virus is here and there’s no vaccine, all of us across the globe are going to have to make adjustments, be more innovative and creative. And we’re going to have to learn to manage, to learn to live with this virus until such time as a vaccine comes on the scene.”
  • His reaction to the George Floyd killing and the systemic roots of social protests:

    “When I saw the video, it was piercing. Before I became mayor, I’m an African American. And after I’m no longer mayor, I’m African American. George Floyd grew up on the south side of the city of Houston in the Cuney Homes public housing development. It was a low social income background. My background and the background of George Floyd are very similar. I grew up “in the hood,” as we would say, and then I still live in the hood—I still live in the same neighborhood in which I was born and bred. I can identify with George Floyd on multiple levels.

    “What took place to him should not have occurred. But it didn’t just start with him. It was happening even before, over the years, if not over the decades. This was the situation in which as he took his last breath and said to the police officers he could not breathe, he made a pronouncement that so many people in this country, if not in other parts of the world—people could identify with him taking his last breath. The frustrations, the anger, the raw emotions are clearly understood, and people took to the streets unlike we have seen in a generation.

    “I am proud of the city of Houston in the sense that people, like others, stood up, marched, demonstrated protested, but in the city they did it in a very peaceful way. But there are major reforms, initiatives that need to take place. We want to remember George Floyd, it’s justice for George Floyd, it’s recognizing that communities like the one in which he grew up in, we need to significantly invest in these communities. Communities that have been underserved and under resourced for decades.”
  • On an agenda for police reform:

    “I signed an executive order that says to our police officers you have a duty, a right, a requirement to intervene; you have a requirement to provide a verbal warning, while practical, before using deadly force; that you have a requirement to de-escalate before using deadly force; that you can’t just go and get these “no-knock warrants” and busting into somebody’s home without the police chief or surrogate signing off; reporting incidents where deadly force has been used.

    “But that was the first step, not the last, where I put forth this task force that’s currently meeting on reforms about [the] police department. Looking at body camera footage—when to make that available. We ask our police officers to do everything, so much: respond to people who are homeless; people who are on substance abuse; people who are suffering from mental behavioral health issues; people who are involved in domestic violence situations. So, what’s the best model, the best practice to instead of sending a police officer to these incidents, sending other people who are skilled and [with] training and can better handle these incidents so we can reduce the amount of police interaction, especially where we need crisis diversion.

    “Lastly, it’s not just about police reform. It’s about transforming communities that have been overlooked for decades and investing in these communities. And if you invest in these communities in a real way, then you don’t have to spend a lot of time in policing and incarcerating people from these communities.”
  • On reforming vs. defunding the police to transform communities:

    “Every police force in many ways is different in terms of where they are. One solution doesn’t fit every solution. What people are looking for, they want policing that’s accountable, they want good solid policing. They want positive community interaction. Because you need the community and police officers working on the same page moving in the same direction. They should not be warring against one another.

    “What I believe [people] are saying is: Mayor, don’t just be placing the investment in building a police force to police communities and neighborhoods, let’s also make sure that we are investing in these communities and neighborhoods to make them communities and neighborhoods of opportunity. Make sure that when you're looking at people coming from communities that have been overlooked, that you see kids, black kids, boys and girls, Hispanic children that can achieve and can be the mayor of the fourth largest city. So, invest in these communities so that [in] these communities people can grow up and thrive and succeed.

    “There’s a lot of frustration across the country because there are a lot of communities, like the community in which George Floyd grew up in that simply have been overlooked. And people have become frustrated. And they’re angry. And the only people, that they see on a regular basis, often time, are police officers in their communities. We are asking police officers to do too much, way too much. And quite frankly, we are not investing enough in communities that have been overlooked and underserved, like the community in which I was born and still live in. That’s what we’re trying to reverse in the city of Houston.”
  • As an African American mayor of one of the country’s largest cities, how his voice influences the national conversation:

    “In this city we are highly diverse. But you can be diverse, separated, segregated, and apart. The question is: can you be diverse and be inclusive at the same time? And then can you build us a society where people can aspire to be and achieve their God-given potential? And can you build a society where people have their dreams, and their hopes, and their aspirations? (Not one where) people lose hope, when people come to the conclusion that the system doesn’t care. Or that the only thing that the system wants is to contain, and suppress, and incarcerate, then you have a problem.

    “One of the reasons why I’ve chosen to remain in the community in which I grew up—and I say “the hood” and I say it in an affectionate way—it’s my way of providing a very public statement that I’m here, I grew up here, I still live here, I’m not running away. But I cast my anchor down. And now as the mayor of this city and even before I need to do everything that I can to uplift communities like the one in which I live and so many other communities just like the one in which I live.”
  • On the role of the business community to promote social justice and inclusion:

    “I’m encouraging the private sector, endowments, and others to invest, not in an incremental way, but in a transformational way. If you want to talk about racial equity and social equality, people don’t want to hear the talk anymore. They want to see the investment in a real, substantial, transformational way occurring in these communities.

    “People in the communities in which I grew up in they don’t want to feel as though they have to leave their neighborhood in order to go across town to take advantage of the American dream. They want to be able to live in their communities, in their neighborhoods and they want to see the improvements. They want quality parks, they want quality schools, they want economic, business, and job opportunities. They want good infrastructure. They want to see that in their neighborhood. Certainly, in this city I have asked the business community and others to respond in a very transformational way.

    “What has come from George Floyd’s situation is that people are saying listen to what we are needing, listen to what we are asking for. And then they are saying be willing to assist in a very transformational way to make those things happen. I think in the city of Houston, I think the business community and others are beginning to get it.”
  • On Houston’s continued future as the energy capital of the world:

    “It’s the energy capital of the world and we intend to stay there. At one point in time we were talking just about oil and gas, fossil fuels. Now we’ve expanded, it’s not just oil and gas it’s the energy sector. Now we’ve been talking about the energy transition. And we discuss that at CERAWeek. And now we’ve incorporated all the talk about innovation, digital innovation within the energy sector. And now we’re talking about renewables. In the city of Houston, for example, just in April of this year we put forth our climate action plan supported heavily by the energy sector. We’re talking about carbon neutrality by 2050, working in adherence with the Paris Agreement. There are a lot of things that are taking place, taking shape within the energy sector right here in the city of Houston, because the crown that we have worn in the past, being the energy capital of the world, we are not yet ready to relinquish that crown.”
  • On Houston’s innovation agenda:

    “Within the various companies within the city of Houston there’s been a lot of innovation. But what we have found is that we have not been at our best in creating this robust, integrated ecosystem. And now we’re doing that. We’re not just walking, we’re jogging, we’re sprinting to that ramp.

    “In Houston we have the diversity, we have the young talent, we have the industries—all of the things that are needed to create a very strong innovative ecosystem we have that. And quite frankly it’s right here in the city of Houston. We simply are now needing to do a better job of integrating that talent, working in collaboration. We’ve got some of the smartest intellectual capital right here and we recognize that if we want to continue to be very competitive, you have to work every day to earn it.”
  • On being a mayor in the current time of crisis:

    “It is a privilege. You either want to be on the field playing, or you’re going to be on the bench, in the stands. And I’d rather be in the field playing than in the stands. I’ve heard this old preacher once say that God gives his hardest exams to his best students. I’ve never forgotten that line. We certainly have been faced with a number of challenges within this city. But we have proven to be highly resilient. What place in the world doesn’t face stresses and shocks? But we’re resilient. We bounce back, we learn, and we try to put ourselves in a better position such that when the next event occurs, we’ll be in a much better place to handle it.

    “We’ve been tested; the city has been tested. And on several occasions people have counted us out. Each and every time they have been wrong. Now we find ourselves facing this virus like others. We’ve dealt with Hurricane Harvey and the other disasters that you have talked about, but we are still ‘hashtag Houston Strong’.”
  • On lessons for leadership:

    “You have to be calm in the midst of the storm. You also have to be confident. You have to be very attentive. You have to be very out front. People will take their cue from you. You have to be very upfront with people, transparent. You have to identify with the challenges and then you have to come up with the solutions. And then you have to implement. And you don’t have a lot of time to be going back and forth.

    “You assemble a good team. You want advice, people’s suggestions, their ideas, their recommendations. And then you have to decide what’s the plan and then you have to tell your team now let’s execute it. People have to have confidence in their leaders. And there has to be a trust relationship. As long as you can maintain the trust and as long as people believe that you are acting in their behalf with the best information that’s available, then people will follow, and people will listen.

    “In any crisis, no matter how bad it is, people have to feel as though we’re going to come through it and we’re going to come out stronger on the other end. You have to be very clear with them as what the problem is, what it’s going to take to get us through it and then this is how, once we come through it, then this is how we’re going to move forward. If you do that people then will rise to the occasion because most people underestimate their strength. Sometimes you have to let them know you can do this.

    “Then you have to be honest with people. Because it’s not about one and done. Life presents a series of challenges. And sometimes it’s not just one at a time. Sometimes you have to deal with challenges two and three. We’re in the midst of the coronavirus, we’re dealing with the George Floyd situation; it’s not just one. It’s two and three things at a time. And for some people it may be overwhelming. And so, you have to—in some way—you have to find a way to show them just how strong we are.”

About CERAWeek Conversations:

CERAWeek Conversations features original interviews and discussion with energy industry leaders, government officials and policymakers, leaders from the technology, financial and industrial communities—and energy technology innovators.

The series is produced by the team responsible for the world’s preeminent energy conference, CERAWeek by IHS Markit.

New installments will be added weekly at www.ceraweek.com/conversations.

Recent segments also include:

A complete video library is available at www.ceraweek.com/conversations.

About IHS Markit (www.ihsmarkit.com)

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