Implementing a “Stay Home, Work Safe” order was the right call for our city and county during this coronavirus pandemic. However, the list of “essential businesses” that are exempt is quite long.  Those businesses, if not further regulated immediately, pose a huge gap in our plan to protect the health of our community, and that will only delay us in creating an environment where everyone can get back to work.

Many businesses designated as essential are stepping up and trying to do the right thing. Some businesses, like Home Depot, are now sanitizing their shopping carts between uses. Yet when customers go to the commonly used self-checkout lane at Home Depot, they grasp the same scanning gun to scan their items for purchase. There is no hand sanitizer for customers to use before and after handling the scanning gun. The scanning guns are not being sanitized between uses. The same goes for the touch screens. This is not unique to Home Depot. There are many businesses that are leaving customers and employees vulnerable. 

Liquor store clerks are handling customers’ money, as well as the bottles that their customers held. The clerks bag bottles and then hand them back to their customers. Gas stations, drug stores, and many other businesses aren’t properly promoting social distancing. Following the announcement of “Stay Home, Work Safe” orders, customers at one H-E-B could be seen lined up close together instead of heeding the recommended six feet of spacing.

Health professionals are telling us to wash our hands, yet we have all been in a public restroom at times and found that the soap dispenser was empty. Now that people are washing their hands more often, some places are bound to run out of soap more often, but are dispensers being refilled more often? There are countless examples of how we risk spreading COVID-19 at essential businesses that remain open, and we need to act to curtail them. 

Most governments typically move slowly. At City Hall, an elected official may circulate a proposed regulation among individuals and businesses that it is likely to impact. After receiving feedback and buy in, they introduce a draft resolution or ordinance in a committee that meets once a month. That committee deliberates, and either chooses to take action or push it to the next month’s meeting so that elected officials can do more research before taking action. If the committee votes to take action, then the proposal goes to one full council meeting for discussion, and then to the following full council meeting for a final vote. Throughout this lengthy process, members of the public may give additional input and the proposal is refined.

Our city and county have called some emergency meetings and fast-tracked some items in response to the coronavirus crisis. However, many of our responses are still taking too long. We need to throw out the old rulebook on creating government ordinances. A set of imperfect, common sense regulations applied today to businesses classified as essential will protect us more than waiting several weeks while we try to work out the details to get them exactly right. 

Throw out the old playbook on how to draft and implement regulations. Go over the walls. Go around the walls. Go under the walls. Knock down the walls. Make it happen. Stop the spread. 

Pick 10 business leaders who represent a variety of types of business that have been classified as essential. Get them all on the phone tonight. Come up with 10 common sense practices. Call an emergency meeting to pass them tomorrow, while committing to local business owners that you will spend the next two weeks revisiting the details of the regulations to refine them.

The story of a long line that lacked social distancing at H-E-B may have been an outlier, as H-E-B has begun implementing spacing guidelines in their stores by placing footprint stickers on their floors, serving as a great visual guide for six-foot spacing when in line to check out. Not every business has the resources that H-E-B does, but there are still measures that can be taken to encourage social distancing. Placing duct tape or masking tape to mark spacing would suffice.

People can be ingenious in innovating to solve problems. Let them lead the way, but give them an ordinance with a set of guidelines to meet. Write into the ordinance a requirement, but add that essential businesses can comply with the ordinance if they can demonstrate that they made a good faith effort in attempt to do so.

Provide structure for social distancing. If someone is going to handle money, don’t let them handle food. If there is an item that every customer is going to touch, make sure that it is sanitized between uses, or require customers to use hand sanitizer before and after each use. 

Push these regulations out in any way possible. Don’t wait another week to develop a communications plan. Pass the regulations and then hold a press conference. Distribute the ordinance on social media. Ask local businesses to post them on their entrance doors. Record and send out the dreaded robocalls.

Lead so that other cities may see and follow our example. The health of our community depends on it. Our school children depend on it. And the many San Antonio residents who live paycheck to paycheck depend on it so that they can get back to work. Let’s emerge from this crisis with the nation pointing to San Antonio as the example of what was done right. 

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Mario Bravo

Mario Bravo is San Antonio's District 1 councilman.