Virginia Kowalik works part-time selling small paintings of the San Antonio missions and seasonal handicrafts at an antiques mall in the city.

Even after a decades-long career, mostly as an insurance adjuster, she has little regular income – $1,000 a month from Social Security, plus another $75 from a small retirement account. But that’s not enough to cover her living expenses, plus homeowners’ insurance and property taxes. That’s why she supplements it with around $300 to $400 a month selling her art.

Editor’s Note

Disconnected is a series about economic segregation in San Antonio.

The series debuts a new story every Monday and looks at economic segregation through the lens of the major beats the Rivard Report covers. The goal was to create a human-centric look at one of the city’s biggest problems.

For more information on why we chose this project or to catch up on any missed stories, visit the Disconnected home page.

“I had to work today, and I was terrified to work,” said Kowalik, who’s in her 70s and is concerned about catching the coronavirus as it spreads across the country. “I don’t know what I’m going to do about next week.”

The coronavirus outbreak has not only upended San Antonians’ daily lives, it has put the city’s persistent economic disparities into sharp relief. For residents like Kowalik, an unexpected crisis like a pandemic hits especially hard.

Americans – Texans especially – are a proudly independent people. Most don’t want government handouts. They want to work hard and climb the socioeconomic ladder on their own to reach the prizes they believe await them at the top, if only they climb fast enough.

Here, people who are struggling rarely want to share their situations with reporters. Many of those who do tend to put a positive spin on their situations, knowing there’s always someone worse off than they are. Kowalik is no different: She owns her own home, where she lives alone with her 7-year-old dog, Sami. “She’s my policeman,” Kowalik said.

In a phone interview Friday, Kowalik insisted several times that she’s “doing OK.”

However, as coronavirus spreads across the U.S. and governments impose increasingly strict lockdowns to slow the contagion, the rungs of that socioeconomic ladder are crumbling. Those at the bottom who were barely making ends meet are now taking life one day at a time, the future a vast uncertainty.

Streets normally full of activity have slowed to a drip as San Antonio residents stay inside their homes. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“I’m just going to keep it in God’s hands and let it ride out because right now, from the looks of it, we’re probably going to be stuck here at home,” said Gabriella Pansza, a mother of three who this week was laid off from her restaurant job. “My main focus is just making sure my kids have something to eat.”

Pansza and her partner, Joseph Valle, were barely scraping by under normal circumstances. She shared her family’s story in the first article of the Rivard Report‘s Disconnected series on Feb. 3 as she discussed how she was working to help her children have a better life.

But normal circumstances ended this week. On Thursday, health authorities publicly confirmed that the virus is spreading from person to person in San Antonio. A day earlier, City officials imposed mandatory closures of restaurant dining rooms, bars, and other businesses to slow the spread of the virus and prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed. On Friday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made the ban statewide.

The economic ripples in Texas started even before the statewide ban. Though official jobless numbers aren’t available for March, signs of the looming disaster abounded. Dan Price, CEO of Seattle-based credit card processor Gravity Payments, said in a tweet March 18 that the number of transactions his company processed in Texas declined 20 percent compared to the week before.

The sudden loss of income is sending many families into an economic tailspin. As shutdowns went into effect last week, Texas Workforce Commission officials were telling reporters they expect a wave of new unemployment claims.

From March 8 through March 14, there were 19,968 unemployment insurance claims filed with the Texas Workforce Commission, 7,383 more than were filed during the same week in 2019, The Texas Tribune reported Thursday. The numbers don’t include those affected last week by shutdown orders like the City of San Antonio’s or the State’s.

For Pansza, the forced closures meant that business at the dining room at Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen where she worked as a server dropped off entirely. Her location went from having 16 to 18 servers working the floor on a normal day to two on Wednesday, her last day at work before the location went to takeout only. She only made $30 that day.

“It’s been definitely rough,” Pansza said. “And it’s going to get more rough.”

Gabriella Pansza Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Some restaurants, such as the downtown Tex-Mex hotspots Mi Tierra and La Gloria, are trying to keep some employees working by transforming into takeout shops and groceries. Others, meanwhile, have been closing down entirely to wait out the emergency shutdowns, leaving their workers without income.

Although applying for unemployment benefits is an option for some, Texas has multiple exceptions that block people from qualifying. Claimants must have properly registered for work at an employment office, be “medically able” to work, and be unemployed or partially employed for at least a week, among other requirements.

This week, a manager at Pei Wei, an Asian food chain with locations across much of the U.S., found himself suddenly without income. Even before the San Antonio restaurant shutdowns, Pei Wei at first tried shifting to to-go service only but later chose to close down all locations until at least April 5.

On Monday, only six stores out of more than 200 nationwide did more than $1,000 in daily sales, the manager said. The Rivard Report agreed to withhold the manager’s name in this article because he fears losing his job. He was among those who escaped layoffs this week, but in the meantime he’s not getting paid.

The company is allowing people to use paid time off to fill the gap until the restaurants reopen. The manager instead decided to hang on until reopening. He thinks he might need that time off later on.

“For me, this is more of a time to reconsider my future career,” the manager said by text on Thursday. “Honestly, the service industry sucks for most people.”

He has mechanical, engineering, and electrician skills he plans to put to use. He had three years of college under his belt before he had to put his education on hold. He’s got a daughter to support.

Thanks to the economic havoc caused by the virus, those who may have thought they were on the middle rungs of the socioeconomic ladder are finding the bottom is much closer than they they realized.

Some of those hit first in the economic shock wave have been people who provide what are ordinarily considered discretionary goods: tourism, events, hospitality, musicians, catering, and others.

David Garcia, who owns Statue of Design, a floral and events business that has provided floral arrangements for weddings and other occasions at venues like Hotel Emma and the St. Anthony hotel, said he lost $15,000 in revenue last week as one client after another canceled events. He was forced to lay off his employees and has begun applying for unemployment and jobs at grocery stores like H-E-B and Costco, which are hiring. He’s not sure whether he will ever reopen his business.

“It’s a really tough question to answer,” Garcia said. “As of last week, we have zero revenue coming in. One hundred percent, all of it is gone.”

For many, the crisis is laying bare flaws in the U.S. economic system and social structure. Many experts are saying the pandemic could lead to long-lasting effects on health care, working life, science and research, voting access, and technology, to name a few.

For Susan and Ben Ennis, the crisis has driven home their belief that health care should be universally available, affordable, and not tied to an employer. Both are in their 60s, just shy of the Medicare threshold of 65 years old.

For 47 years, starting when he was a student at Churchill High School, Ben Ennis worked as a printer, a job he loved for its creativity. He enjoyed working for Next Day Four Color, which printed business cards and fliers for car shows, Fiesta events, and other gatherings.

With events like that canceled for the next several weeks at least, he lost his job last week. He’s understanding about it, and he knows that many others are in the same situation.

“It just crashed our business,” he said. “Everybody else can say the same thing, except grocery stores.”

The Ennises are grateful that Ben will be able to afford to continue his employer-provided health insurance through the COBRA program, with Susan getting insurance through her job in municipal government.

But with some projections showing that between 20 percent and 60 percent of adults are likely to eventually be infected with the coronavirus, the need for universal health care has never been clearer, they said.

“I feel like it’s so important,” Susan Ennis said. “We can afford it. This is showing us we can’t afford not to have it, because we’re all in it together.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.