Despite a rise in the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19, not all parents are accepting of the new mask mandates issued by local officials earlier this week. 

More than 50 people congregated in downtown San Antonio Friday to protest the mask mandates issued for the city, county, and local public schools Tuesday. The protests come as local hospitals report they’ve seen an increase in pediatric patients over the past few weeks. 

The mandates were made possible after a temporary court order on Tuesday allowed the city and county to bypass a statewide ban on mask mandates. Gov. Greg Abbot and Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a petition Thursday in an attempt to block San Antonio and Bexar County from enforcing the mandates, but the petition was denied. The city and county have a hearing scheduled for Monday to extend the temporary restraining order. 

Protesters pose for a photo on the steps of San Antonio City Hall during a protest against wearing masks on Friday.
Protesters gather together for a photo on the steps of San Antonio City Hall during a protest against wearing masks on Friday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Holding signs such as “Make masks optional” and “My child, my choice,” several of the protesters spoke into a portable microphone and loudspeaker in defense of Abbott’s executive order. Several children stood in the front of the group holding similar signs, asking to be unmasked and stating that mask mandates go against parental rights.

The protest was organized by groups calling themselves “Unmask.San Antonio,” “Unmask our Kids San Antonio,” and “Parents United for Freedom,” according to a press release issued Thursday. The event was supported by the Republican Party of Bexar County, according to the release. 

“Parents are the best arbiters of what is best for their children, and these mandates are against parental rights and the rights to parent our children in the manner we see fit,” stated John Austin, chairman of the Republican Party of Bexar County. “We are not co-parenting with the city and county.”

Bill Librera, one of the protesters present at City Hall, said as a father he is against any mandates telling him how to parent his child. Another protester, Ione McGinty, said she doesn’t believe that masks work.

Invited to cover the event, journalists faced heckles from protesters, who called them “vultures” and “fake news.”

“Masks don’t work,” they shouted at mask-wearing reporters.

Other San Antonio parents told the San Antonio Report on Friday that they support the mask mandates. They feel requiring masks protects children too young to get vaccinated. Only children 12 and older are eligible for vaccination.

“I’m for it,” said Jessica Smith, a local mother of a 9-year-old boy. “Anything and everything we can do to protect our children that aren’t old enough to be vaccinated. It’s no different than having a dress code — it’s not that difficult of a rule to follow. Better safe than sorry.”

Masks have shown to be an effective tool at slowing the spread, said Cara Nichols, another local parent. 

“We need to show our children that we care about their health and safety and that sometimes we must do inconvenient things for the good of the whole community,” Nichols said.

In the past few weeks, local hospitals have seen an uptick in pediatric hospitalizations for not only COVID-19 but a slew of respiratory illnesses. University Health and Baptist Health System each have seen higher-than-usual numbers of patients with viruses such as the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can spread in children quickly. Methodist Children’s Hospital is “substantially full,” said Dr. Kelly Smith, a pediatric pulmonologist who specializes in children’s respiratory systems.

Only 15 of the hospital’s beds are occupied by children who contracted coronavirus, Smith said, but that’s a significant increase from the first wave of the pandemic. Then, only about three kids were in the hospital at any time for COVID-19. Now, it’s consistently in the double digits. A handful of children are in intensive care for COVID-19 at Methodist.

“Fortunately, most kids do really pretty well in general with COVID; kids have amazing immune systems,” Smith said. “But since kids aren’t vaccinated, some kids do have really bad outcomes. I think there’s two kids on a ventilator at the hospital. You don’t know if that’s going to be your kid, or your neighbor’s kid, or your kid’s classmate at school — there’s no good way to predict who’s going to [get sick], and since they can’t be vaccinated, they’re all at risk.”

Local officials could not provide an exact number of pediatric hospitalizations for COVID-19 on Thursday but said they asked hospitals to share that information with them. A request for data to the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council (STRAC) was not returned. But on Thursday, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said that of the 193 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Bexar County, 28 were children, or 14.5% of new admissions.

“During our fall surge, I looked at our [epidemiological] report, and we were only about 4% to 5% pediatric in the hospital at that time,” Nirenberg said. “So the numbers that are coming in our new admissions are significantly higher.”

Though the school year just started for some districts, 50 cases from schools have already been reported to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, said assistant director Anita Kurian.

Disclosure: Cara Nichols is a San Antonio Report board member.

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the general assignment reporter for the San Antonio Report.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.