The Conservation Society of San Antonio is staging the Fall Heritage Festival designed to recreate its signature Fiesta event, A Night in Old San Antonio (pictured here), on a smaller scale with safety precautions employed to reduce risk of spreading the coronavirus. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Amid calls for reconsideration from some merchants in La Villita, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he has no plans to cancel the Fall Heritage Festival set for Nov. 6.

The Conservation Society of San Antonio is staging the one-night festival designed to recreate its signature Fiesta event, A Night in Old San Antonio, on a smaller scale with safety precautions employed to reduce risk of spreading the coronavirus. The event is limited to 1,000 ticketholders.

The safety measures, including a mask requirement for attendees, put in place satisfied local health authorities and Bexar County’s status for community spread is currently “low risk,” Nirenberg said.

If those measures aren’t followed or Bexar County’s coronavirus numbers change significantly, Nirenberg said he reserves the right to revoke the event permit.

“The hope is that we can see a reasonable level of activity return as long as people comply with the health directive,” he told the San Antonio Report. “It’s behavior, not place. … Unless we’re willing to remain completely dormant until there’s a vaccine, we’ve got to learn how to do this right.”

In an open letter to the mayor and City Council last week, the La Villita Tenants Association asked the mayor to rescind his approval.

“We cannot think of a more irresponsible action during a coronavirus pandemic,” the association’s board wrote. “It would be unmanageable, perhaps impossible, to monitor and enforce masks and social distancing in this setting. This has all the components of a potential super-spreader event as the COVID-19 positivity rate is again on the rise.”

The positivity rate in Bexar County increased from 4.9 percent to 5.8 percent last week and remained at 5.8 percent this week.

The association’s leadership also is concerned that having the festival will mean fewer operating hours for already-struggling shop owners. The nearly 30 shops, restaurants, and galleries in La Villita close at 6 p.m., and the festival is scheduled from 5:30-10:30 p.m., though it will take time to set up and take down booths.

Nirenberg said he is confident the community and the Conservation Society have the tools to put on the event the right way.

“We don’t want to have to shut things down,” he said, so the community has to remain careful and vigilant during their daily lives and at events such as the festival.

Because La Villita is owned by the City, it can enforce public safety measures that may not be required by private venues. Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent executive order increased the occupancy levels for all business establishments other than bars to 75 percent. The occupancy limit outdoors is 10, but the order allows the mayor to approve larger events.

“City Staff would not have recommended approval if the  proper public health standards and protocols not been in place,” City Manager Erik Walsh wrote in a response to the association. He cited UTSA football games and other large events with more than 1,000 people.

“The football games and conference had similar protocols, and we have not had any incidents,” Walsh wrote. “These events were inside and exempt from the Governors order. The order gives the Mayor the authority to approve events if they are outside and in excess of 10 people.  Had the Conservation Society decided to hold [a] similar event indoors, then the Governor’s Orders would have prevented the City from reviewing and ensuring public health standards and protocols are in place.” 

The City recently set up a permitting process for groups that want to rent its facilities for large, outdoor events. The Metropolitan Health District reviews event proposals and makes recommendations for adjustments, approval, or denial to the city manager, Nirenberg said. Ultimately, the mayor has the final say.

Every week before an event is scheduled, Metro Health will reexamine the progress and warning indicators for the virus and make additional recommendations for events as needed.

Approved events are “tentative depending on conditions in the community,” Nirenberg said.

“Each individual event is unique,” he added, so one of the considerations for the festival next month is the fact that it’s outdoors and the organizers will be actively monitoring attendees.

Other commitments from the Conservation Society include that clusters of people dancing, eating, or talking will be limited to 10; volunteers will be screened for symptoms; attendees will be required to undergo non-touch temperature checks upon entry; booth workers will be required to wear masks and gloves behind Plexiglas; organizers will use robust sanitizing protocols and offer multiple hand cleaning stations; a 12-foot to 15-foot buffer will separate musical performers and the crowd; and touchless tickets will be used.

The Conservation Society’s major fundraising event, NIOSA was canceled along with all Fiesta events. The Fall Heritage Festival is an attempt to regain at least a fraction of the funds that would have been raised by NIOSA, which brought in $1.4 million for the society in 2019.

In addition to live music and history and cultural learning opportunities, food and drinks will be included in the $125 festival ticket to reduce the number of transactions during the festival.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org