A press conference is hosted by the City of San Antonio during which Alamodome and Valero Alamo Bowl officials highlight safety precautions ahead of the socially-distanced bowl game. Photos taken on December 28, 2020.
Seats are blocked to promote social distancing at the Alamodome as part of the safety precautions for the Valero Alamo Bowl. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Perhaps President-elect Joe Biden’s most famous quote, one that got its share of mileage in 2020, is this: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”

Those who tuned into the local coronavirus briefing on Monday heard a similar response, at least where college football games are concerned. Facing a flurry of questions from media members about Tuesday’s Valero Alamo Bowl game that could draw more than 11,000 fans – 17 percent of Alamodome capacity – City Attorney Andy Segovia pointed north.

“If I could just remind the community, as well, that you’re going to have, on Jan. 4, the Rose Bowl in Dallas,” Segovia said of the game to be played at AT&T Stadium. “And their capacity limits are going to be much higher than the 17 percent we’re going to have at the Alamodome for the Alamo Bowl.”

Of the wintry mix of media questions officials weathered on Monday, most focused on why events like boxing matches and bowl games should be allowed at the Alamodome, while many businesses struggle to survive with reduced occupancy. Reporter Waylon Cunningham toured the site for the San Antonio Report and detailed the many restrictions that await attendees.

Reporters were trying to expose the hypocrisy of allowing mass gatherings in a City-owned arena while businesses such restaurants struggle under regulations that limit their customer numbers. In response, officials pointed to who’s actually doing the regulating.

During the briefing, Nirenberg and Segovia pointed that restrictions on business come from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who since May has superseded most local public health orders.

Nirenberg referenced GA-32, Abbott’s Oct. 7 order that requires restaurants to drop from 75 percent indoor dining capacity to 50 percent. That regulation went into effect Monday as the percentage of local hospital patients with COVID-19 exceeded 15 percent for seven days in a row.

“That is what’s causing the rollbacks of businesses like restaurants today,” Nirenberg said. “It also governs the level of occupancy at sporting venues. For the Alamodome, we’ve gone way below that occupancy level and have governed it strictly by the public health authority’s guidance in how we can space people properly and have a safe event.”

This debate comes as the pandemic worsens in San Antonio, even though Monday’s report of new cases doesn’t show it. Due to a lack of health data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, San Antonio officials reported only 43 new cases, drastically fewer than the previous day’s report of 1,282 new cases.

These data are incomplete and don’t include counts from many private labs that report their results to the State, where the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District gets a significant share of its data. Officials expect to receive the missing data by Tuesday or Wednesday.

Monday wasn’t the first time that data issues have made it difficult to follow the curve of the pandemic’s trajectory. A backlog of cases reported July 16 was a significant sign of the challenge of gathering and organizing data from dozens of laboratories and testing sites.

The most reliable data has always focused on hospitalization, as reported to Metro Health from the South Texas Regional Advisory Council (STRAC). These data show a worrying trend.

The number of people with COVID-19 in local hospitals topped 1,000 over the weekend for the first time since July 29. On Monday, it jumped from 1,000 to 1,079. No new deaths were reported on Monday, keeping the total at 1,510.

“You’re seeing the same level of transmission and rise in infection, acceleration of cases, pretty much everywhere you go in this country, regardless of the measures that are being put in place,” Nirenberg said. “That tells me it is likely happening in places where people feel comfortable, where the arm of regulation cannot reach. It’s likely happening in people’s homes.”

Here are the local numbers as of 7 p.m. Tuesday:

  • 112,261 total cases, 43 new cases
  • 1,510 deaths, no new deaths
  • 1,079 in hospital, 14% beds available
  • 299 patients in intensive care
  • 164 patients on ventilators, 54% ventilators available

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.