This is no time, San Antonio, for a party. No, I don’t mean your family’s backyard barbecues over the long Fourth of July weekend. Make visiting friends and relatives wear masks and practice social distancing. Protect your elders. Enjoy yourselves.
I mean Fiesta, that annual spring tradition when work takes a back seat to play in San Antonio, when hundreds of thousands turn out for parades down Broadway, when faux kings and queens race around in SUVs with police escorts, when people beg for medals, feast on baked oysters, and engage in 10 days of general indulgence.
Fiesta 2020, reluctantly postponed after the arrival of the first local case of COVID-19 on March 13, is rescheduled for Nov. 5-15. Months ago, no doubt, those distant dates seemed safe to the Fiesta Commission. We know better now.
The coronavirus is a dangerous contagion that is sweeping through the city and state. The public health crisis has only grown worse after three and a half months, and there is simply no way to predict its eventual retreat or the arrival of a safe and effective vaccine. Even Gov. Greg Abbott has conceded mandatory mask use is essential.
“Our goal is to have a safe Fiesta that poses no risk to our attendees, our participants, or our volunteers,” Fiesta San Antonio Commission President Jeanie Travis said in March.
That’s a worthy measure, and it’s one organizers cannot guarantee come November. Despite polling place precautions, many people feel uneasy about standing in long voting lines for the Nov. 3 national election. Does anyone really think people will want to line Broadway for parades, flock to Carnival grounds at the Alamodome, or crowd into La Villita for A Night in Old San Antonio?
For those ready to party hard, it’s up to local officials to stop them. There is no shortage of people, unfortunately, who reject the use of facial masks and social distancing, just as there are many people who embrace disinformation on the internet to reject vaccines. Everywhere one turns, even now, people can be seen selfishly disregarding City and County emergency orders and the pleas of public health experts.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the two elected leaders with the political throw weight to make a tough decision stick, should intervene. Their decision just became an easier one: The Austin City Limits Music Festival, set to take place in October, was canceled Wednesday by festival organizers concerned by the worsening spread of the coronavirus.
I had written the first draft of this column before organizers made their announcement in Austin, but that news confirmed my belief this is no time to party in San Antonio. The public health risk is the main reason, but don’t discount what it would say about economic segregation in the U.S. metro area with the highest percentage of people living in poverty.
It’s impossible to separate Fiesta tradition from the public expressions of celebration by wealthy families who spend tens of thousands of dollars on a single gown for Coronation and as much or more on their many parties. People are free to do as they please with their money, of course, but imagine if the money spent on parties and gowns this year was matched by contributions to the COVID-19 Response Fund established by San Antonio Area Foundation and United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County. The fund is underwritten by a who’s who of San Antonio major employers and family foundations, yet it is not nearly enough to meet the community’s growing needs.
To their credit, the Texas Cavaliers announced shortly after the first COVID-19 case was detected in March that it would distribute $1.5 million to nearly 70 area nonprofits. That need will be amplified when federal stimulus funds distributed months ago are exhausted Nearly 300,000 people in the San Antonio-New Braunfels metro area filed for unemployment in April and May. That staggering number excludes March and June job losses.
The San Antonio Food Bank can hardly keep up with the growing food insecurity in the county and surrounding counties. It’s serving 120,000 families each week now, double the number pre-pandemic. Hospitality industry workers in this city lost their jobs en masse early in the pandemic and few have been called back to work. Schools have lost track of at least 10 percent of students since campuses closed.
This is no time for a party that so many San Antonians cannot afford to attend.
Austin City Limits and Fiesta are signature cultural and economic events in each city. Both generate tens of millions of dollars in economic activity and account for hundreds of jobs. This year, however, public health must come first. Fiesta and all those who live it and profit from it should wait until next April – if the situation merits it by then. For this year, the Fiesta Commission should acknowledge that a good idea in March has become a bad idea in July.
If organizers balk at recognizing the importance of acting in the public interest, the emergency order prohibiting gatherings of more than 100 people should be cited by elected officials in ordering Fiesta canceled.