Reopening businesses must work to regain the confidence of wary San Antonians slowly returning from a monthlong lockdown during the coronavirus crisis, the leaders of a team charged with guiding the local economic transition said Tuesday.

Kevin Voelkel, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas, Inc., and Julissa Carielo, president of Tejas Premier Building Contractors, Inc, served as co-chairs of the economic team. They told San Antonio City Council members and Bexar County commissioners that restoring confidence in consumers was paramount so that people would feel safe going back to businesses.

“We believe what makes San Antonio great is our ability to collaborate together, to move forward in a meaningful way,” Voelkel said. “So we propose a promise or a pledge that local businesses can stand behind, embrace, and reopen safely together.”

That pledge includes seven points of promises from businesses, such as using face coverings, practicing social distancing, and implementing contactless payment where possible. 

“We invite all San Antonio businesses to take this pledge,” Voelkel said. “Committing to these seven health and safety protocols as part of your business practice will help balance the safety and well-being of employees, customers, and the restart of our economy.”

The economic team’s report serves as an addendum to the report from the COVID-19 Health Transition Team. The report laid out safety recommendations for 13 industries, including manufacturing, construction, and hotels. Those three industries were not included in the health transition team’s report. Recommendations include daily sanitizing, keeping doors open to help people avoid touching more surfaces, and not providing valet parking services at hotels.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said if there is an opportunity to investigate further into these guidelines, she would like to look into staggering when people work in offices to limit how many individuals are in an enclosed space, as well as how air ventilation affects coronavirus transmission. She praised the recommended screening measures for employees, but asked if testing employees would be addressed.

“What will happen when an employee becomes infected?” she asked. “What sort of support can they expect or should they expect to receive from their employer? Are their bills going to be paid or covered in the event that they do need medical care?”

The economic team report also listed local organizations, including LiftFund and San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE), that can assist businesses with immediate needs.

Carielo said the economic team worked with the health transition team to understand the challenges marginalized populations faced in reopening businesses.

“No one should ever have to choose between physical and economic health,” she said. “If we want our residents to have better-paying jobs with health care, sick leave, and retirement savings, we have to concentrate on growing our local, small minority- and women-owned businesses.”

Bexar County needs to prop up minority- and women-owned small, local businesses if residents are to have better-paying jobs that come with health care benefits, sick leave, and retirement savings, Carielo said.

The economic transition team found that 90 percent of small businesses were not able to access emergency funds, and had to consider shutting down after one month.  

“They should have had a bad quarter – [at] the very least a bad year – but not a complete shutdown,” Carielo said. “This magnified the health of our small businesses immediately.”

In its report, the economic team recommends prioritizing businesses with less than 50 employees that are women- and/or minority-owned.

The transition team also directed the City and County to purchase protective personal equipment and cleaning products to distribute to small area businesses. City Manager Erik Walsh said the City had already begun purchasing supplies for businesses with 25 employees or fewer that had to shut down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. So far, San Antonio has ordered 6,500 thermometers, 14,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, and 38,000 face masks with the goal of purchasing a total of 46,000 face masks, Walsh said.

“We’re looking at a total of about $1.4 million dollars,” he said. “We will be packaging those up in sets for businesses and targeting between 5,600 and 6,000 businesses with a thermometer, two or three gallons of sanitizer, and face coverings. We will be working with the chambers, to help secure volunteers to distribute and show some unity.”

Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) applauded the decision to buy sanitizer and masks for local businesses for small businesses.

“In local government, we’re all too familiar with unfunded mandates,” he said. “I think this is a positive step that we’re asking folks to save. We’re also providing them resources to keep their employees and customers safe.”

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said he was glad to see San Antonio and Bexar County following the state’s lead on reopening businesses.

“We’re not really changing anything that the state is recommending and saying, ‘This is what we’ll open up’ and the timeline associated with that,” he said. “This is just a resource for those businesses to look at and get that additional help that they need to open up and get Texas working again.”

Rodriguez disagreed with Perry’s sentiment, saying leadership has come from the City and County to put public health measures in place that bolster local economic health.

“I think we’re going to have to have a broader conversation at some point about what that means as people get back to work, or health care, what it means for transportation services, for paid time off … but I think this is a great start,” he said. “And the work that has been done up to this point is leading the state, and not the other way around.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.