In the face of a resurgent virus powered by the highly transmissible Delta variant, some businesses in San Antonio are bracing themselves to return to COVID-19 safety measures. Many business associations are encouraging it.
San Antonio’s Chamber of Commerce emailed its roughly 1,750 business members on Wednesday to encourage them to take heed of the Centers for Disease Control’s new recommendation that people in high-transmission areas like Bexar County return to wearing masks, regardless of vaccination status.
“In my estimation, this mask recommendation should not in any way hinder our welcomed economic recovery,” wrote the chamber’s president, Richard Perez. “We are not shutting down. This is a logical precautionary recommendation designed to stop the surge in infections. San Antonio and our business community are moving forward and with everyone’s help, this too shall pass.”
Perez told the San Antonio Report that at the Chamber’s monthly meeting held Thursday, the overwhelming majority of attendants wore masks. But as far as their own businesses are concerned, “everyone is in the process of figuring it out right now.”
Cristina Aldrete, president of the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said that based on her conversations with members, many are keeping a close eye on the numbers and may be holding possible action until after this weekend.
A spokeswoman for the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, director of communications Janna Andrews, said the organization has been “hearing more concern” from businesses trying to figure out the best way to maintain consumer confidence in the face of the spreading Delta variant. She said there’s been concern among members that the rise in cases could also prolong the workforce difficulties plaguing restaurants, bars and tourism businesses.
COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to increase, rising from 629 on Wednesday to 695 on Thursday. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said this week that roughly 95% of those currently hospitalized were not vaccinated. Officials estimate 88% of all local COVID-19 cases are attributable to the Delta variant.
Major employers in the city are taking note as some workers have begun returning to offices.
Frost Bank will adapt its return-to-work plans based on conditions and the recommendations of health officials, adjusting if needed, the company said in a statement. Currently the bank is still on track to begin a “hybrid” program in September in which branch employees and other customer-facing roles will work in the office, while certain other employees, such as those that work in back-office operations, will have the option of working remotely on some days.
USAA said in a statement that it is “confident in our safety measures,” which include social distancing, “daily personal screening,” and making COVID tests available. The insurance giant said it was encouraging employees to get vaccinated, and will “continue to closely monitor pandemic conditions across our communities and make adjustments to help protect employees and serve members as appropriate.”
Like other major employers, NuStar Energy also said it is monitoring the situation. The company noted that a majority of its employees are fully vaccinated, and those who are not are required to wear masks and practice social distancing throughout the building, which is still operating at 50% capacity.
Geekdom is reviewing its policy but has not made any changes to date. “At this time, Geekdom encourages members to wear masks when in common areas and to get vaccinated,” said Phillip Hernandez, Geekdom’s chief operating officer.
Some employees, like those at Visit San Antonio’s Visitor Information Center, have elected on their own to mask up again.
No businesses have yet said they were re-introducing a mask mandate for customers.
HEB did not respond to a request for comment. In June, it ended its policy requiring masks at its stores. The San Antonio-based grocery chain said at the time that masks would not be required for fully vaccinated customers and employees, though it does not ask customers entering about their vaccination status.
Bigger moves may be yet to come.
Prof. Thomas Tunstall, director of research at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development, said there’s typically a lag between pandemic developments and the response of the broader public, including the business community. If the current slate of COVID-19 vaccines prove to hold up against the delta variant, Tunstall said he predicts more large companies will require employees to get vaccinated.
Vaccine mandates have so far been rare among employers, in part because of concern over employee lawsuits and the terminations that could ensue, especially in a tight labor market. Hospitals are at the forefront.
Baptist Health System announced Thursday that it would require all staff at its five San Antonio hospitals to get vaccinated.
The move follows a federal judge’s decision last month to uphold Houston Methodist’s decision to require the roughly 26,000 people on its payroll to get vaccinated, the first major U.S. healthcare system to do so.
Until employer mandates become more common — if they ever do — many employers and large associations are opting for strong encouragement of vaccination.
The Chamber of Commerce statement sent to members Wednesday ended on that note, encouraging vaccination as the “best layer of protection.”
For businesses, stakes in the ongoing effort to vaccinate are high. Last quarter’s growth in gross domestic product brings the United States’ economic output back to its pre-pandemic level. A fourth pandemic surge could put that rebound in jeopardy.