The Crown: The Order of the Alamo Nelson Puett Foundation float.
Amid fears of the spread of coronavirus, Fiesta is being postponed until November. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, Fiesta San Antonio is being moved to Nov. 5-15, Fiesta Commission officials and Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced Friday.

Over the last month, we have evaluated the concerns of our health professionals, the impact on our hospitality industry and the desire to continue a San Antonio tradition,” said Fiesta San Antonio Commission President Jeanie Travis. “We want to assure all of you we are listening to your concerns and wishes. Throughout all of our discussions and decisions. Our goal is to have a safe Fiesta that poses no risk to our attendees, our participants, or our volunteers.”

The announcement came just minutes after Nirenberg and other officials said the first local case of travel-related coronavirus had been confirmed.

Event organizers and institutions across San Antonio – and worldwide – have postponed or canceled gatherings, while others are taking extra sanitation precautions and monitoring the situation but moving forward. Most are weighing the economic impact of cancellations – often not covered by event insurance – and the public health risk of a highly contagious virus.

Until now, the Fiesta Commission was in wait-and-see mode, but an announcement Friday by the City prohibiting gatherings of 500 people or more made it necessary to postpone Fiesta, which organizers estimate has an annual economic impact of $340 million on the city.

“It’s been our tradition for almost 130 years and we’re counting on a collective effort by those venues and suppliers … to work with the nonprofits to move their events to the fall in a cost-effective way,” Nirenberg said. “To the citizens of San Antonio and surrounding communities, thank you for your continued support of Fiesta to San Antonio. It’s 100-plus nonprofits and 100-plus important causes that Fiesta patrons support. It is a party with a purpose, and the party will go on. I’m truly happy that San Antonio’s party with a purpose will continue this fall.”

(center) San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg looks on as (left) Fiesta Commission President Jeanie Travis announces that Fiesta San Antonio will be postponed until November. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Fiesta Commission will be working with Fiesta event organizers on rescheduling venues, said Amy Shaw, executive director.

The financial impact the postponement will have on vendors and others who rely on Fiesta for income was central to discussions during the Commission’s executive committee meeting Friday morning, Shaw said.

“We realize that it takes an awful lot of people to make Fiesta happen,” she said. “And a lot of people count on the revenue that they earn during that period. That was probably the biggest driver of not canceling but instead postponing and still trying to do it this year safely.”

South by Southwest Conference & Festivals was canceled last week as the City of Austin declared a state of emergency, the NBA suspended its 2019-2020 season, and the Valero Texas Open was canceled. Local colleges and universities extended spring break and moved courses online.

Officials with the City’s Metro Health Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have said that the risk to residents and visitors in San Antonio remains very low. However, in addition to patients that have been brought to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland for quarantine, as of Friday, there is one confirmed case in the San Antonio community.

The decision to postpone Fiesta was likely driven more by political pressure than medical reasons, said Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, a local epidemiologist.

“The fact that every other city is canceling large events, it’s hard to argue that [Fiesta] shouldn’t cancel or postpone,” Allegrini said Thursday before the official announcement was made. “For public health reasons should they cancel? Maybe. Probably. But part of that is helping to qualm the public’s fears of [the virus].”

Fiesta, which takes place citywide, was scheduled for April 16-26. About 2.5 million people attend more than 100 official events, according to the Fiesta Commission. Dozens of nonprofits and charitable causes use the occasion to fundraise, including the Conservation Society of San Antonio, which organizes Night in Old San Antonio.

NIOSA raises $1.5 million each year, funding the bulk of the Conservation Society’s work restoring and preserving historic buildings, objects, places, and customs in the area with advocacy and grants, according to the nonprofit.

Rohr-Allegrini, who is also president of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association, recognized the grave impact a postponement will have on participating nonprofits and businesses who rely on Fiesta.

“Canceling it is … a huge loss to the community but it [would] be smaller and less financially productive anyway [because of concerns over the coronavirus],” she said. “Maybe the cost of postponing is worth it. … In the long term, they’ll be able to recoup those losses.”

The 129-year-old Fiesta celebration, which started as a much smaller, single event to honor those who fought in the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto, hasn’t been canceled since World War II when it paused from 1942-1944.

“There is an enormous amount of financial and symbolic commitment to Fiesta here,” said Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “I would be certain that folks would read the issue of cancellation or postponement with a great deal of concern and have a reluctance to do it.”

SXSW shut down, universities went online, and the NBA canceled, Sanders noted. “The reality is we’re in a public health crisis … such events [like Fiesta] should, in fact, be either canceled or postponed. … Large events where people are packed closely together are precisely the kind of environment where this virus is going to spread most easily.”

Concerns about the economic impact of postponing Fiesta need to be put in perspective, he said. “Frankly it’s very clear we’re on the verge of a national and possibly worldwide economic downturn. That’s far-and-away the more serious issue here.”

It’s possible that San Antonio area officials have been slower to cancel events because the city has remained relatively insulated from it, he said.

“The reaction of the NBA was far quicker and more dramatic when a player got sick,” he said. “When we begin to see people that we know [get sick] it brings it home.”

Coronavirus likely won’t have disappeared by the time Fiesta takes place, Rohr-Allegrini added, so there will still be risks. “Given the timing, I suspect we’ll see a decline in the number of severe cases by June or July … [depending on its] epidemic curve.”

During November, other large citywide events include Day of the Dead and the holiday lighting on the River Walk that could compete with Fiesta. To that issue, Nirenberg responded, “Is San Antonio the kind of town that can’t have more than one party?”

“Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where the Fiesta begins and ends – we’re in a constant state of community celebration,” he added. “What we’re saying is we’re going to take precautions necessary to protect your health.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.