The Rand building on East Houston Street prominently features the Geekdom logo.
The Rand building on East Houston Street is home to the co-working space Geekdom and was once bustling with startups and tech workers. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The once-bustling Rand Building, home to the city’s largest co-working space, has been largely vacant since coronavirus began sweeping through Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott declared a statewide public health disaster in mid-March. 

Geekdom closed its doors to its nearly 1,500 members shortly after that and remained closed until early June, when members slowly began trickling back in to work at 110 E. Houston St.

But the dozens of members opting to return were nothing compared to the hundreds who frequented Geekdom’s four floors before. It’s a situation that Geekdom CEO Charles Woodin said dampens the ability of entrepreneurs and small business owners to “progress their ideas into viable businesses” because less collaboration is happening. 

But Geekdom leaders are hoping a new coronavirus testing pilot program will help people feel safer and more comfortable in the co-working space. Under the program beginning Monday, all Geekdom members can get tested at no cost, and no one will be able to use the Rand Building facilities unless they test negative.

The plan is based on a testing program developed by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a biomedical and genomic research center located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that tested its more than 4,000 employees consistently with the goal of detecting infections before there was much opportunity for transmission, said Geekdom Media CEO Lorenzo Gomez. 

“They didn’t want to close their facilities, and science suggests that the only way to suppress this is if we test our employees” to ensure any potential outbreak is controlled, Gomez said. “They wanted to keep their employees employed and going into work, and make sure that the employees felt confident that the person next to them also tested negative.”

Geekdom’s event center at 131 Soledad St. will be turned into a coronavirus testing site, where medical personnel will administer nasal swab tests to Geekdom members wanting to work in the building. Gomez said San Antonio-based Pathology Reference Lab agreed to process the samples and provide results within 24 hours, a shorter turnaround time than many testing facilities. 

If the member’s results are negative, he or she will be permitted to work in the building, but will still be tested three more times, Woodin said, because Geekdom wants to make sure that any positive results are detected within the 14 days it can take for symptoms to show up. And if someone has symptoms, multiple tests have the opportunity to detect the virus. 

The program’s goal is to ensure people feel safe to frequent the collaborative workspace to hash out their ideas. 

“The small business community has been the worst affected by this pandemic, and we see so many small businesses that are going under and struggling,” Gomez said. “The entrepreneurs [still working] need the collision of ideas and the brainstorming and the mentorship now more than ever if we want the economy to survive and for people to go back to work.”

Geekdom currently has 1,000 tests available, but will expand testing capacity as more people test negative, which Woodin and Gomez hope will prompt more people to return to work out of the Rand Building. If members have health insurance, Pathology Reference Lab will bill the insurance provider for processing. Otherwise, the cost for testing for anyone with valid identification will be reimbursed to the lab through federal coronavirus provider relief funds.

If any member lacks proper ID, Geekdom will cover the cost for testing.

Graham Weston, the philanthropist and former Rackspace chairman who was one of Geekdom’s founders, became passionate about expanding coronavirus testing when he was appointed to Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas, a team of medical experts, business leaders, and others advising the governor on safely and strategically reopening the state.

“We as a team dove in to see how we could make mass testing available in our community” at no cost to suppress the rate of infection, Gomez said, “and we are very confident that we’re the first private company in San Antonio doing it.”

Woodin said in addition to ensuring safety and confidence among employees, Geekdom is hoping that the information gathered by frequent mass testing will help to inform procedures and policies at other local businesses looking to have employees return to work safely even as the number of new coronavirus cases remains high.

“If we end up seeing success in catching people who test positive for COVID-19, we hope this pilot program becomes something that others can model,” Woodin said. “We really believe that this is a way to instill confidence for people to feel comfortable coming back to work.”

Disclosure: Graham Weston’s 80/20 Foundation is a Rivard Report business member. For a full list of supporters, click here.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.