When the City of San Antonio and Bexar County update their Stay Home, Work Safe orders this week, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Judge Nelson Wolff will be signing a document that represents a series of compromises with Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order.

The State order allows phased-in reopening of so-called “nonessential” businesses such as restaurant dining rooms and movie theaters starting on Friday, but new guidelines from a local health expert task force suggest such a move is likely coming too early for the San Antonio area. State rules supersede local ones, but there are a number of other measures Nirenberg and Wolff can add to local orders as long as they don’t directly conflict with Abbott’s.

For example, the City can still mandate the use of face coverings in public areas, it just can’t enforce it, because Abbott’s order prohibits penalties for not wearing masks.

“We will update a new Stay Home order that doesn’t conflict with the state but that fills in the gaps and offers strong guidance in areas where we can only offer recommendations,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the Rivard Report.

The City also will be relying on employers and businesses to educate their workers and customers about how to safely interact while conducting business. Several grocery stores such as H-E-B require customers to wear masks while shopping.

Where the rules can be enforced – restaurants, malls, movie theaters, museums, and other businesses – monitoring will be needed to make sure these businesses are adhering to the state’s 25 percent occupancy mandate, Nirenberg said.

“The mayor and I will be having to meet with lawyers and figure out what we can do and cannot do to strengthen the [order],” Wolff said Tuesday during what may have been the first meeting of its kind involving the full County Commissioners Court and City Council. “And we’ll have to act pretty quick, because our current order expires at the end of Thursday.”

As the County’s top government official, Wolff can act unilaterally to update its order. The City order will require ratification by the full City Council.

The revised stay-at-home order will be driven by a plan presented Tuesday by the COVID-19 Health Transition Team. It recommended opening the community after meeting certain progress indicators, including a 14-day decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases, testing everyone with symptoms and their close contacts, effective contact tracing, and a prepared health care system.

“We do have a decrease in the number of cases,” said Dr. Barbara Taylor, associate professor of infectious diseases at UT Health San Antonio who serves as chair of the health transition team. “Would everybody define it as a sustained decline over 14 days? I think not yet.”

As the State starts its phase-in, San Antonio isn’t quite ready yet, Nirenberg said.

“I hope that we continue to trend in the right direction and contain this virus, but without those criteria being met, it is a risk for which we won’t know the effect for several weeks.”

Along with requiring masks, the City can also decide which – if any – public buildings such as libraries and senior centers can reopen, said City Attorney Andy Segovia. “They may reopen – they’re not required to.”

Abbott said during a press conference Monday that sporting activities may resume but only outdoors and with no physical contact, Segovia said. A checklist produced by the governor’s own team of experts indicates that no more than four people should participate at once.

That’s already reflected in the local order, Segovia said.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), the Council’s liaison to the health transition team, said more enforcement will be needed.

“The opening of certain businesses I would say is … too early,” Sandoval said. “It is going to put some of our community at risk.”

Because San Antonio has to comply with the state order, she added, it’s incumbent upon local officials to keep residents safe.

“This may mean having us expand our order or expand enforcement in a way that is supportive of those businesses,” she said. “We need to be absolutely careful with the businesses we reopen.”

An economic transition committee, which formed last week, will be developing best reopening practices for businesses in each sector as social distancing guidelines are scaled back. Nirenberg and Wolff asked the team to report back by Friday. 

The local and state reopening plans are “aligned in many ways,” Taylor said. Differences arise in how businesses are classified and the use of specific, data-driven indicators.

The local guidance includes indicators for when it’s likely safe to reopen or potentially close businesses; the State order does not. Additionally, the local plan categorizes businesses by assessing the risk level of person-to-person contact, while the State categorizes them as either essential or nonessential.

The COVID-19 Health Transition Team used a Risk Assessment model developed by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health Security in its guidelines for reopening the local economy.
The COVID-19 Health Transition Team used a risk assessment model developed by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health Security in its guidelines for reopening the local economy. Credit: Courtesy / Dr. Barbara Taylor

The local report also outlines what types of activities, events, or businesses can be modified to reduce contact risk and how easily they can be modified to be safer.

For instance, under the State rules that go into effect Friday, public swimming pools will remain closed. Under the local guidelines, pools would be able to reopen when goals for increased testing and tracing are reached and the number of new COVID-19 cases decrease for 14 days or more.

The revised stay-at-home order will be “a mix of local and state guidance – some of which we do not have control over,” Nirenberg said. “The success of our ability to flatten the curve and slow the spread of this virus ultimately has depended on our community taking action on behalf of their neighbors. … Regardless of what happens at the state [level], we can depend on that.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org