Would you dine out if you knew it was safe? A new partnership between local businesses and one international conglomerate hopes the answer is “yes” for many risk-averse San Antonians who might otherwise stay home, even as the City of San Antonio and Bexar County reduce restaurant capacity to 50 percent.

The Breathe Puro campaign, started by San Antonio industrial technology company WellAware in partnership with an air filtration system maker, has drafted more than 25 restaurants and other small businesses to use an air purification system called PureAware to clean the air of their indoor spaces, offering a safer environment for patrons to linger with less risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.

While restaurants have often been cited as among places most likely to spread the coronavirus, health experts have cited indoor ventilation systems as an important factor in preventing spread of infection.

So far, locations that have adopted PureAware technology include La Familia Cortez restaurants, La Panaderia, South Alamode Panini and Gelato Company, Pinch Boil House, Best Quality Daughter, and other downtown eateries that have suffered due to pandemic restrictions on indoor dining. Other indoor-based business are signing on as well, said Matt Harrison, WellAware CEO, including Blue Star Contemporary art space and Magik Theatre.

“Restaurants, retail facilities, anyone that needs foot traffic, people that come to their place of business, they need those people coming back in order to stay alive and to stay in business,” Harrison said, citing the motivation behind the Breathe Puro campaign.

PureAware, the air purification system WellAware and Purafil division of Madison Industries is offering to local businesses at no cost through January, combines the two company names as a direct reflection of how the technology works.

The squat Purafil air filtration machines cycle 250 cubic feet of air per minute, Harrison said, covering 800 square feet of indoor space. The units can be combined to filter and cycle the air in larger spaces. Through QR codes posted to the websites and social media of participating businesses, customers can check in real time whether the air purifiers are in use before they decide to go out to dine.

“You can get your phone out and you can scan a restaurant,” Harrison explained. “You can see if the air inside is safe, is being actively treated, before you go to that restaurant, which is mind-boggling that we’d be having this conversation today. But it’s possible.”

A principal goal of the Breathe Puro campaign is to offer peace of mind, although the PureAware website boasts its devices are proven to “remove 99.996% of virus-containing aerosols from indoor spaces in as little as 15 minutes.”

Jonathan Calhoun, the Atlanta-based vice president of customer solutions for Purafil, attested to the effectiveness of the technology.

“We’re a molecular filtration company … we put 22 pounds of [filtering] material into that scrubber alone,” Calhoun said, pointing to a mini-fridge sized unit in use at La Panaderia. “To put that in layman’s terms, that’s over 32 million square feet of surface area to effectively remove aerosols, viruses, and bacteria.”

Pete Cortez, chief operating officer of La Familia Cortez restaurants, signed on early to the Breathe Puro campaign, installing multiple air purification units in each of the company’s six restaurants.

“It’s been in everybody’s mind [to consider] how do we make the restaurant safe for ourselves and our team members, and then how do we make it safe for guests, then how do we translate that into driving more traffic,” Cortez said.

What will help bring people back out to restaurants and indoor spaces is confidence, Cortez said, and he feels the PureAware technology will be the final piece of the puzzle of safety measures he and others have undertaken during the pandemic.

“This was a great decision on our part, because we’re ahead of the curve,” he said, encouraging other restaurateurs and business owners to join the Breathe Puro campaign and take advantage of the technology. “From our standpoint, we want everybody to do it, because it’s about reestablishing confidence in eating out.”

Daryl Sanchez, manager of La Panaderia’s downtown location, echoed Cortez. “I believe at this time, any little bit helps,” Sanchez said. “Any little bit more peace of mind you can give somebody when they’re going out, we’re gonna try and do it.”

Pinch Boil House owner Andrew Ho signed on for two PureAware units, one visible in the dining area of his 120-seat restaurant — now limited to 60 patrons — and one back in the kitchen for employees and food preparation.

“Whenever [people] eat here, they have the comfort of knowing that in addition to wiping everything down … that the air they’re breathing is being filtered with two different units,” he said.

Beginning in February, PureAware will offer its units for $75-$100 per month, including electronic monitoring and filter replacements, Calhoun said, though specific pricing has not yet been set and depends on a variety of factors. Ho said for that price he would sign on indefinitely.

“The air purifier is just so that the smaller amount of people that are coming here can come here and still have great food and eat in confidence, whether it be inside or outside, responsibly,” Ho said.

If the Breathe Puro campaign is successful, Calhoun said it would provide a model that can be adapted to other cities, but that San Antonio provided an ideal proving ground. The fact that so many River Walk businesses are unable to pivot to curbside service due to the limits of their location is one reason, he said, but also, “there’s something special about this place. We really feel that this should be the model for other states, other cities, and other countries, actually.”

The City of Austin has inquired about the campaign, Calhoun said, and any business interested can apply through the website to join.

For the moment, and at least through January, San Antonians can decide to enjoy a semblance of normal life with less risk to their health. For area native Harrison, the campaign offers his business a chance to give back to others.

“We wanted to give back to the community and do something that really helped them stay afloat through the very important holiday season, all the way through the end of January,” he said, adding, “and to say, ‘Hey, here’s our gift, use it, hopefully it’ll help you stay in business.’”

This article has been updated to reflect the air filtration rate per minute of PureAware units.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...