Code enforcement and police officers conducted more than 12,000 inspections of potential violations of the City and County’s emergency coronavirus prevention orders between March and August but issued fewer than 3,000 warnings, records show.

The number of citations issued was even smaller – only 167 between March 19 and Aug. 26. Those were mostly for not social distancing, gathering in groups larger than 10 people, and exceeding allowed occupancy at restaurants.

“Educating citizens on the orders and the violation committed is our priority” rather than writing tickets, said San Antonio Police Department spokeswoman Alisia Pruneda.

In most of those cases, officers did not observe a violation of coronavirus health orders, including the statewide mask mandate issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in July. Only 2,929 of the visits made between March 19 and Aug. 26 resulted in representatives from the Development Services Department (DSD), Center City Development and Operations (CCDO), the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, or the San Antonio Police Department seeing a violation and issuing a warning. 

Bexar County residents can call the SAPD non-emergency line at 210-207-7273 to report violations, but whether a warning or citation is issued is up to the responding officer, DSD spokeswoman Ximena Copa-Wiggins said.

“Most of the time we go in and we tell somebody, ‘Hey, don’t forget, we should be wearing masks,’” she said. “A lot of them have masks and will put it on. Some may not have masks, and we have some extra ones that we’ll give to the person, [or] we’ll give them a new one. It just depends. A lot of it is up to the discretion of the officer.”

Many of the violations reported and witnessed by enforcement officers happen at restaurants and bars, Copa-Wiggins said. About 10 to 15 code enforcement and SAPD officers comprise a specialty group focused solely on those establishments and visits them on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, she said.

One bar recently had its liquor license pulled by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Association. According to information provided by the City of San Antonio, The Well had received 12 complaints about crowds there in the last five months. The most recent complaint led to the restaurant/bar near the University of Texas at San Antonio receiving four citations.

TABC pulled The Well’s liquor license for 30 days, issuing an emergency order to the establishment on Aug. 21. TABC decided to take action “following multiple complaints about large crowds and insufficient social distancing,” according to a news release from the commission.

While DSD leads the effort to enforce public health orders, SAPD officers respond to calls made between midnight and 9 a.m., Pruneda explained.

“As we receive calls for such an ordinance violation, it is our desire to educate the violator and instruct them to cease whatever violation was reported or observed while on scene,” Pruneda said in an email. “This would constitute a warning. It is at the officer’s discretion to issue a citation to the said violator.”

People who receive citations are scheduled to appear later in front of a municipal court judge. Businesses can be fined up to $1,000 if found guilty of violating an emergency order, while individual violators can be fined up to $250.

Since April, 58 citation cases have been filed, Municipal Court Clerk Fred Garcia said Thursday. But because all citations must first be reviewed by the city attorney and city prosecutors before going forward, the process is slow. Twenty defendants have gone before a judge and have either paid their fines or are making payments, he added. Most were assessed $500 fines.

Overall, however, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he thinks there’s “marked improvement” from San Antonio residents and businesses following public health orders simply because of the severity of the pandemic.

“Obviously, enforcement activity has increased over the last couple of months,” he said. “If that is a factor [in people following health orders], that’s a small one. I believe that we’re seeing more compliance with public health guidance because people are now seeing the real consequences of COVID-19 from the sheer number of infections and the loved ones we’ve lost.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.