The Municipal Plaza Building at Main Plaza. Photo by Scott Ball.
Many members of the City of San Antonio staff are working from the Municipal Plaza Building at Main Plaza. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

This article has been updated.

Despite government-mandated shutdowns across large swaths of the city this week to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the vast majority of workers at the City of San Antonio and its utilities are coming to work as usual.

While many businesses have let as many employees as are able to work from home in an effort to slow contagion and avoid overwhelming the health care system, the City has not initially been as flexible or as strict about using telecommuting to halt the spread of coronavirus among workers who do not have to be at a physical location to do their jobs.

As of Friday morning, the City has not required any of its roughly 12,500 employees to work from home. The City has allowed around 1,200 of them to telecommute, City Manager Erik Walsh told the Rivard Report on Friday.

Between police officers, firefighters and sanitation, public health, airport, human services, and development services workers, there are roughly 3,000 employees in other departments who might be able to work from home or be redeployed, Walsh said.

“Even if we had all the technology [we needed] those 9,000 employees can’t work at home because we have services to provide and a community to protect,” he said. “We turned an aircraft carrier-size organization on a dime last weekend. … Everybody’s job has changed and we need to keep focused on the task at hand.”

On Wednesday, the City issued an emergency order shutting down bars, dining rooms in restaurants, gyms, and other businesses to prevent large gatherings that might spread the virus within San Antonio.

The shutdown is meant to slow the contagion and avoid overwhelming the health care system, as has happened in hard-hit regions like northern Italy. On Thursday, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District for the first time publicly confirmed the virus is spreading from person to person within Bexar County. Health officials say 29 people have tested positive for coronavirus, with six of those cases clearly tied to community spread.

Like the City, CPS Energy officials also say they have not implemented any mandatory work-from-home requirements for their roughly 3,000 employees. Around 15 percent, or 450, logged in to work remotely on Thursday.

The San Antonio Water System, by contrast, is moving more aggressively to require some of its employees to stay home to avoid spreading the virus to those workers who are critical to keep the water and sewer system running.

Around 450 people out of SAWS’ total staff of 1,700 will be required to telecommute starting by the end of Friday’s business day, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said. Those include customer service representatives, accountants, data entry workers, and others who do not need to be present physically at a certain location to do their work.

“We want to protect our employees from getting sick,” Puente said. “We fully understand and know that, with all due respect to other businesses and employees, this is an essential business and service to provide.”

As of Thursday evening, 175 City employees are under self-quarantine, mostly because of national or international trips they or family members recently took, said Ben Gorzell, the City’s chief financial officer. Some are awaiting coronavirus test results, he said.

“None of our employees or their household members have … tested positive” for the virus, said Deputy City Manager María Villagómez.

Villagómez said department heads and managers have been directed to avoid hosting large meetings in close quarters “to ensure that we have that social distance.”

Deputy City Manager María Villagómez
Deputy City Manager María Villagómez. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

However, when a City Parks and Recreation Department employee died this week, the department’s leadership called a large in-person meeting Wednesday to discuss the incident.

Parks staff filed into the multipurpose room of the department’s headquarters on Enrique M. Barrera Parkway. There, they discussed the death earlier that day of one of their own who was struck by a vehicle in front of headquarters. Attendees numbered between 100 and 150, according to a Parks employee who attended the meeting.

“We did convene … as many people as were available,” said Parks Director Homer Garcia said. Garcia did not say how many people were in the room other than that it was “more than 10” but not “hundreds.”

Under normal circumstances, gathering staff to collectively process such news would be routine for any caring employer. However, it happened during a global pandemic, a time when political leaders from President Donald Trump to Mayor Ron Nirenberg are urging people to restrict in-person gatherings to groups of 10 or less.

Asked about the in-person meeting, Garcia said the death of one their employees was “an extenuating circumstance.”

“When you have these extenuating circumstances, you take the necessary precautions and you make sure you’re adhering to those,” Garcia said. “I was there, and I was the one that shared with staff an update, and I know that we were spread out, and that is the largest room that we have.”

Many City employees – including those who work on construction projects, solid waste collection, and facilities management – have to be at a physical location to do their jobs. So do many CPS Energy employees, such as power plant operators and line crew workers.

“The reality is, there are employees who can’t work from home because of the nature of their work and the need to keep our systems operational,” CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams said in a prepared statement. “We are however, paying close attention to the direction from our owners, the City of San Antonio, and will follow guidance there as well.”

One of the biggest barriers to having more City employees work from home has been technology. Some lack the necessary software to do so, City officials said.

“For some employees, they have to be trained on how to access their Workspace [software from home],” Villagómez said, and the City has to acquire the proper licenses to install that software.

Many employees may not have the right laptop or desktop computer to handle that software, she added, which adds another barrier for employees who want or need to work from home.

Asked if there is an urgency to implement a work-from-home policy citywide given community spread of coronavirus, Villagómez said, “We’ll be having conversations [this week] about that. … Things are changing day-to-day.”

SAWS faced some of the same technology barriers, though the utility has in recent years been replacing more of its staff’s desktop computer with laptops, said Gavino Ramos, SAWS vice president of communications. The utility also held a series of meetings earlier this week to make sure that employees could connect remotely to its network to share files securely, Puente said.

“The hardware was not the issue, it was actually the bandwidth to get inside our network in order to download files,” Puente said.

Asked if more City employees would be asked to stay home after community spread was identified in San Antonio, Nirenberg said that “obviously we want to make sure that people stay home as much as possible; that includes employees at this organization.”

“[City management] is evaluating that now,” Nirenberg said. “We also know that this City is delivering core services that this entire community depends on and some folks don’t have the luxury of [working from] home – but we want to protect everyone’s health and safety as best we can.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at