Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff will form a task force that will work to take steps to restart the economy of San Antonio and Bexar County. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff will appoint a task force this week charged with determining the incremental steps toward reopening businesses and relaxing social distancing measures, Nirenberg said Tuesday.

“Metro Health, medical professionals, and public health experts in our community have been monitoring data, protocols, and conditions – and have guided me and the judge – as we have implemented these unprecedented social distancing measures and orders,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report via text. “They have been subsequently reviewing the research and case studies for lifting them.” 

The task force will assemble a plan based on medical judgment and data “to establish the conditions and circumstances that should exist when these measures should be lifted (and possibly re-established in the event of subsequent infection waves),” he said.

Details about the yet-unnamed task force, including who will be on it, are still being finalized. At least four City Council members said Tuesday during Council’s weekly videoconference briefing that they would like to see at least one member on it.

“I’m not a [medical doctor or epidemiologist],” said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) who has previously criticized the City’s communication about and planning for its coronavirus response. “We get great updates from [City] staff but usually all the long, thinking process has already happened, and I would love to be in the room when that happens and to contribute as far as I’m able to.”

Sandoval pointed to what she saw as three main requirements for a transition out of stay-at-home orders: widespread testing for the coronavirus, contact tracing of those infected, and isolation of people who have tested positive.

Those are all things the City and County are working on and need to be scaled up, she said. “Let’s go ahead and identify some targets for those so that we can, as a community, look forward to those and say: ‘We’re making progress on these. … We’re looking at those elements that can get us ready to get back to business.'”

The City’s Metropolitan Health District is working on a formal review of literature and case studies on what elements need to be in place before restrictions can be lifted, said Dawn Emerick, director of Metro Health. “It’s not quite ready to be shared yet, but we know that is on the horizon.”

Another element needed to better understand when businesses can reopen is the curve of local virus infections over time. Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger announced Tuesday that the City will publish four models of that infection curve on its website starting Wednesday.

The models indicate a range of when infections in Bexar County are predicted to peak or begin a steady decrease, between late April and mid-May. They also vary in their estimates of total cases: from 1,100 to more than 10,000. Those estimates include continued social distancing efforts, including the stay-at-home order, and will likely change as more data is collected, Bridger said.

Two models were developed by researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio, one from the University of Washington, and the fourth from private consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

Each Council member serves on working groups comprising elected officials, community leaders, and their staffs charged with addressing federal and state advocacy, philanthropy, food security and shelter, business and employment, and social services.

Working groups have replaced the policymaking Council committees to include Bexar County commissioners, businesses, and nonprofits in the region’s immediate and long-term responses to the pandemic. A previous attempt Sandoval made at establishing an ad-hoc committee related to COVID-19 and public health was unsuccessful, and all committee meetings were canceled indefinitely after spring break last month.

None of the working groups specifically focus on the public health response or how to transition to some semblance of normal life, Sandoval said.

“There should be medical and science-based guidelines for us to go into and out of these kinds of stay-at-home and other types of social distancing restrictions,” Nirenberg said after hearing Sandoval’s comments during the meeting. “We’re guided by the public health authority. We’re not doing this politically, we’re doing this to save lives.”

It was unclear Tuesday if the new task force will include elected officials.

Local, state, and national elected officials are under increasing pressure to balance public health concerns with the economic crisis triggered by stay-at-home orders. Open too early, and COVID-19 infections could spike; open too late, and businesses and employees suffer perhaps irreparable damage.

“Today I think it was clear that there was a number of council members who support greater council representation” on the new task force, said Andrew Solano, Sandoval’s chief policy advisor, who noted that Sandoval has a master’s degree in public health. Her studies at Harvard University related to air quality and other environmental factors on public health.

“[The City should] look to council colleagues who have different expertises,” Solano said.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said Council members need to be engaged in the task force because they bring localized experience from across the City and know where the gaps in resources are.

“I think council members need to be a part of it,” Viagran said. “We are team San Antonio.”

Councilwomen Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) and Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) also supported Council representation on the task force.

As the city transitions into a post-COVID-19 world, Viagran said, it’s important to remember where the gaps were – in internet access, for instance – and develop a plan to fix them, rather than allowing past inequities to persist.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org