More than 200 San Antonio-area developers, builders, and other industry stakeholders gathered in the Grand Oaks Ballroom at the JW Marriott resort last week, seated at cloth-covered tables to hear the business forecast for the new year.
Multiple hotel staff said it was the biggest event hosted at the luxury resort since the summer – and perhaps since the coronavirus pandemic began last March.
The Greater San Antonio Builders Association held its 2021 Housing Forecast meeting on Thursday with between 220 and 250 people in attendance, said the association’s executive vice president, Kristi Sutterfield, who presided over the annual event. Slightly more than 100 others chose to attend virtually.
The builders association’s event was one of many in-person business gatherings in San Antonio that have continued as the pandemic rages and as other organizers have chosen to delay such gatherings or move them to virtual platforms.
“We want to meet the needs of our members. This forecast is invaluable to them,” Sutterfield said, calling attendence a personal choice.
She said that in planning for the event, the builders association took care to adhere to health guidelines from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention. “Everything we did, I took into consideration the spacing,” she said. “We just need to take a common-sense approach. My own hands are raw because I sanitize so often.”
It’s a calculated risk at a time when the pandemic is by some metrics the worst it has ever been.
On Sunday, San Antonio set a record for the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, a total of 1,439, straining the capacities of local hospitals. Officials reported 1,676 new cases in the county, along with an alarming surge in the virus’ death toll. There have been 102 fatalities reported in the previous two weeks, bringing the official count to 1,809. Statewide, more than 32,000 have died.
“We are not out of the woods yet,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at a coronavirus briefing Sunday. “There is a breaking point, and we don’t want to reach that.”
Details for recent and upcoming industry conventions, showcases, and trade expos can be found on Facebook and on sites like Eventbrite.
A trade expo for San Antonio barbers was held Sunday at the Voigt Center, an event space owned and managed by the City of Hollywood Park.
A wedding industry show advertising itself as the “biggest little wedding show in the Hill Country” is planned at the end of this month at the City of New Braunfels’ Convention Center. More than 60 vendors will participate in the indoor show, according to the event’s website, and its Facebook event page shows more than 350 have marked themselves as “going” or “interested in going.”
The New Braunfels Convention Center also hosted the Premier Gun Show this past Saturday and Sunday.
Michelle Finucane, who organizes the event with her husband in cities around Texas, said the city removed tables to make the aisles wider. In addition, she said the building’s occupancy limit has been reduced but declined to provide specifics.
“When the public sees that number, they think it’s too low or they think it’s too high,” she said. She said the number is shared only with the event’s cashier and the workers who give out wristbands to patrons.
A spokesman for the City of New Braunfels said the venue is limited to 50 percent capacity and that a number of other precautions are put in place for every event at the venue, available on the city’s website.
While Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order on the pandemic prohibits most gatherings of groups larger than 10 people, exceptions are made. Most indoor gatherings in the region are limited to 50 percent of a building’s occupancy, following a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations last month.
For the builders association meeting at the JW Marriott, Sutterfield said the association’s staff was dedicated to enforcing its COVID-19 precautions.
She said the staff was “religious” about checking in attendants and at some points asked attendees to put their masks back on. A maximum of five people shared a table – a reduction over years past – and tables were spaced farther apart than usual. There was no table service, and a refreshment station with juice was placed at a distance from the coffee and tea.
Still, slips inevitably occurred. Some in the audience were observed without masks. At the conclusion of the roughly two-hour presentation, which doubles as a business mixer, attendants stood up en masse and crowded as they filed out.
Sutterfield felt the measures taken were enough for the risks.
“Life’s not safe,” she said. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Management at the hotel did not respond to a request for comment. Marriott’s corporate office said its hotels are operating at 50 percent capacity.
Other associations have opted to continue to delay in-person meetings, leaving operators of event spaces stuck with empty ballrooms and meeting halls.
At the same time the builders association was holding its event Thursday morning, the San Antonio Board of Realtors hosted its own 2021 Housing Forecast – exclusively online and livestreamed.
“The health and safety of our members is always a priority,” the organization said in a statement explaining the decision. “Overwhelmingly, the feedback we have received has been extremely positive.”