Bars began to reopen at 50 percent capacity in San Antonio on Friday. Days earlier, 450 people gathered on the grounds of the Witte Museum for the 50th Annual Game Dinner. More than 1,000 people will gather for food, drink, and fellowship in historic La Villita for the annual Fall Heritage Festival on Nov. 6 staged by the Conservation Society of San Antonio.

It’s obvious that people are fatigued by the prolonged shutdown and hungry for company after nearly eight months of sheltering at home and watching public life and the economy grind to a hard stop.

Elected officials who approved the bar openings and public events, as well as event organizers and restaurant and bar managers, appear to be adhering to public health guidelines, requiring mask use, social distancing, and heightened sanitation protocols.

Still, is it safe to venture back toward the normalcy each one of us craves?

The psychological impact of isolation in a prolonged shutdown is an aspect of the pandemic that has drawn less attention than the toll of COVID-19, which has claimed more than 220,000 lives in the United States and more than 17,000 in Texas. Still, the effect on people’s mental well-being is palpable and is leading more and more people to act in defiance of the data.

Coronavirus cases are surging in Texas and in many other states across the nation. On Oct. 22, more than 75,000 people were diagnosed with the virus nationwide, the second-highest daily number since the pandemic began. One day later, the U.S. set an all-time high of 82,154 new cases as spread of the coronavirus spread across the American Heartland and the Mountain West.

On the same date last week, the Texas Tribune reported, “COVID-19 hospitalizations and the 7-day average of cases have each risen more than 40 percent statewide this month after plateauing in September, including in El Paso and the Amarillo and Lubbock areas. Experts blame social events like birthday parties and game day gatherings, and they say there is widespread fatigue for following stringent public health guidelines.”

Clearly, the pandemic is not trailing off, even as record numbers of voters head to the polls in advance of the Nov. 3 general election. Yet public sentiment clearly has shifted, with a growing number of elected officials responding by seeking to reopen public life even as they work to limit the spread of the virus and prevent new outbreaks.

A large crowd visits the Alamo on Saturday. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“The hope is that we can see a reasonable level of activity return as long as people comply with the health directive,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report when asked if the gathering in La Villita risked a super spreader event. “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, the La Villita Tenants Association unsuccessfully lobbied 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. Flu season is bound to complicate things. In the 2018-19 flu season, 400 people died in Bexar County, according to UT Health San Antonio, while slightly less than half of the county’s residents had flu vaccines.

Elected officials can’t mandate vaccines, which are widely available via area pharmacies and at family medical clinics and private practices. Their challenge is to balance the reopening while monitoring public behavior.

University Health System employees prepare syringes for a drive-thru flu shot event in the Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium parking lot. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Other than the big hotels, [restaurants and bars] have suffered more than anybody,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said in his annual State of the County address on Wednesday. “They’re struggling to keep up and going.”

The Witte Museum raised $1 million at its gala, which also drew 500 supporters who participated online with catered at-home patio parties, enjoying the broadcast of a performance on the museum’s outdoor grounds by Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen.

“Since reopening in May, the Witte Museum has been a beacon of safety, putting protection protocols front and center. The Witte Game Dinner celebration was re-imagined to operate with the community’s best interest at heart, with both onsite and online experiences,” museum officials stated in a press release. “From the start of the on-campus, riverside Game Dinner experience, a seamless, physically distanced atmosphere was mapped out, going above and beyond the successful safety protocols put in place by the CDC, State Health Department and the City of San Antonio’s safety guidelines. The celebration was held outside on the Witte’s 8-acre campus.”

Are people ready to attend public festivals and other large gatherings? The answer, obviously, depends. For many of us, the answer is a firm no. For others, attendance at events like the Witte’s, or game-day backyard barbecues is a way of defying the virus, a risk worth taking.

That social divide is not only informing voter sentiment. It presents a clear dilemma for Nirenberg, Wolff, and other local officials, who have sparred on several occasions with Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders over management of the pandemic and shutdown. Can they continue to manage the city’s positivity rate at an acceptable level, generally considered 5 percent, as the pace of openings picks up?

“We’re always up here asking people to be vigilant, but it’s more important now,” said Dr. Junda Woo, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s medical director. “It’s in your hands whether we have a big and long surge or whether it’s a surge at all. We can make a difference this early on, if it is a surge, by our behaviors today.”

It’s not only a matter of how adults behave.

Educators made it clear in the fifth annual PK-12 Public Education Forum last week that they want students back in the classroom, even as most school districts continue to operate with a majority of students staying at home. Teachers and school leaders were responding to the challenges of conducting distance learning in a city with a deep digital divide and data that suggests more and more students are falling behind amid the pandemic.

Newly released Texas 2036 data tracks the number of “lost students” resulting from school shutdowns. More districts, meanwhile, are undertaking enhanced testing of students and educators.

The coming months promise to be the winter of our discontent as we watch rising numbers here and abroad, await the outcome of COVID-19 in the flu season, and struggle to find ways to safely return to life before the coronavirus. Pandemics show no sympathy.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.