About a month ago, crowds filled Majestic Theater to hear the music of Mexican acoustic-metal guitarists Rodrigo y Gabriela, and the San Antonio Spurs beat the Dallas Mavericks 119-110 at the AT&T Center.
The March 11 game would be the Spurs’ last for the foreseeable future. Only a few days later, the cascade of effects caused by the spread of the coronavirus began, and there seems to be no end in sight.
One month after San Antonio’s first local coronavirus case, the number of new cases per day has risen, and the local economy is in freefall. With San Antonio’s peak number of cases still unknown, public health officials say there’s little chance restrictions will be eased by the end of April.
“I do not think this is going to be over April 30,” Colleen Bridger, assistant city manager and former director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, said at a City Council meeting last week. “I don’t know what that means for extending or not extending the order, but I do think we need to prepare ourselves for not returning to normal on April 30.”
In a press conference Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told residents they should expect updates as soon as this week from a “comprehensive team of experts” with more details on when lockdowns can be lifted or, more likely, replaced with milder restrictions.
“This is not going to be rush-the-gates, everybody is suddenly able to reopen all at once [situation],” Abbott said. “We have to understand that we must reopen in a way in which we are able to stimulate the economy while at the very same time ensuring that we contain the spread of COVID-19.”
So far, San Antonio has fared better than other major Texas cities in terms of the number of confirmed cases. As of Monday, Bexar County had 794, just slightly above the 774 cases confirmed in less populated Travis County. Counties in the Houston and Dallas metro areas have seen the highest caseloads in the state, with nearly 3,700 positive tests in Harris County.
However, large gaps remain in the testing, both in San Antonio and across the state. Texas has the lowest rate of testing for coronavirus per capita, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.
In many ways, March 13 marked the beginning of when the pandemic began to change life in the U.S. On that day, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to combat the virus during a press conference in the White House Rose Garden. Exactly two weeks before that, the president had said the virus was going to “disappear” like a “miracle.”
Also on March 13, San Antonio health officials confirmed the city’s first case of coronavirus affecting a Bexar County resident. Previous cases had been attributed to passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, who had been quarantined at Joint Base San Antonio – Lackland. The local had contracted the virus while traveling to another affected area, health officials said, and ultimately, gave the virus to others who were identified and quarantined.
A wave of restrictions and closures that San Antonio residents are still living under soon followed. That week, school districts announced they’d be extending Spring Break – since then, schools have remained closed and classes have only resumed virtually.
On March 16, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg banned gatherings of more than 50 people, the first step in an ever-tightening clampdown meant to slow the spread of the virus and avoid overwhelming the local medical system.
The next day, City and Bexar County officials’, in cooperation with the South Texas Regional Advisory Council, opened up Freeman Coliseum, San Antonio’s only mass testing site. During the next few weeks, San Antonio received shipments of thousands of coronavirus tests from the federal government.
Early on, testing was only open to health care workers, first responders, the elderly, people with severe fevers, and those with travel history. Local officials said those restrictions came from the federal agencies providing the tests.
“From a local boots-on-the-ground perspective, we’ve had the tests, we just haven’t had the authority to widen the testing criteria,” Bridger told the Rivard Report in a March 17 interview.
On March 18, Nirenberg acted alongside other mayors and governors around the U.S. to close bars and restaurants.
At the time, officials had not yet confirmed the virus was spreading from person to person within Bexar County. That changed on March 19, the date local community spread was first confirmed.
“We are now are entering the most difficult phase in the rapidly-changing battle against this virus and we must stay the course,” Nirenberg said when the first case was confirmed.
Since then, cases tied to community spread have far overtaken travel-related cases in Bexar County. As of Monday, 251 cases were tied to community spread, compared to 166 travel-related cases.
As coronavirus hotspots popped up around San Antonio, officials on April 3 stopped requiring a doctor’s referral for people to receive testing and broadened the testing criteria. Now, anyone showing symptoms consistent with the virus is eligible to receive the free testing available at Freeman, though residents must still make an appointment.
As of April 13, more than 8,100 people have been tested for coronavirus in Bexar County, according to Metro Health, though that number could be higher, as private labs have been slow to report comprehensive numbers.
Even so, that would only represent 0.4 percent of Bexar County’s population of 2 million. One local scientist told the Rivard Report that a better testing target would be 30 percent of the total population to fully understand the outbreak. That would mean testing 600,000 people, a number that at this point seems out of reach.
Despite slow ramp-up in testing, Texas has seen relatively low death tolls compared to hard-hit cities on the East and West coasts. So far, 30 people have died in Bexar County, with 44 deaths in Harris County and 31 in Dallas County.
New York City, by contrast, has experienced nearly 7,400 deaths, more than any other U.S. city. In King County, Washington, some of the earliest U.S. cases were found in Seattle, officials have logged 4,400 deaths.
San Antonio also has not come anywhere close to the kinds of hospital bed shortages seen in other areas. Area hospitals as of Monday had 2,000 staffed beds and 546 available ventilators, according to Metro Health. Only 150 people in San Antonio have been hospitalized for coronavirus. Of those, 77 have been in intensive care at some point, with 41 on a ventilator.
Last week, Councilman John Courage (D9) attributed San Antonio’s relatively low numbers to the “the collaborative sacrifice that everybody’s making for the health and wellbeing of all of us.”
“What we have done, the steps we have taken … have significantly made this community much healthier than many other communities around the country,” Courage said.
However, some officials say people shouldn’t compare how the virus spreads in San Antonio to how it has spread in other cities.
“It would not be the wisest comparison to look at San Antonio compared to New York City,” Bridger said last week. “Their density is much different than ours.”
So in this climate of uncertainty, the public is waiting on more detailed information from officials like Abbott and Nirenberg, who have been meeting with academics and others from the private sector. Both have assured their constituents that they plan to release more information this week on how long restrictions are expected to continue.
The answer likely will not point to April 30 as an end-date to all social distancing restrictions, even though City and State stay-home orders are currently set to expire on that date.
In San Antonio, with a high number of new cases being confirmed every day, Nirenberg said City Council will revisit the issue “on a weekly basis to see where we are.”
Last week, Bridger said that City officials have been working with “federal, state, and local experts” to figure out when restrictions could be lifted and how exactly it would work.
“The simplest answer to that question is if we go two weeks without a new case, then we know that we’re in good shape,” Bridger said. “There are a lot of details that we can work out for when do we start loosening some of these restrictions, can that happen before that two-week mark? Do we have to wait until after that two-week mark?”
But with new daily cases still trending upwards, they don’t know what the future holds, Bridger said.
“Because we haven’t even hit the peak yet, it’s hard to think that far in advance,” she said.