As fatigued San Antonians endure yet another spike in the spread of the coronavirus, including a rising death and hospitalization count, the evening briefings by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff continue to stress social distancing practices and the use of facial masks.
Most of us are listening and putting into practice proven methods to contain the spread of COVID-19.
At the same time, City officials seem to be turning a blind eye to public gatherings that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would cite as a danger to public health and control of the pandemic while the nation awaits widespread access to vaccines.
The Dec. 19 world championship boxing match between Mexico’s Canelo Alvarez and the United Kingdom’s Callum Smith drew 11,423 fans to the Alamodome, the maximum allowed in for the prize fight that saw the popular Alvarez win in a unanimous decision. City officials promised safe social distancing and mask use, but images circulated on social media belie that commitment. Fans are seen standing, shouting, and packed in closely at ringside, some wearing masks, many not.
Even if both fight teams kept their camps in a bubble, it only takes a single individual to spread the virus in such tight quarters.
Circumstances will be similar Tuesday evening when the University of Texas Longhorns meet the University of Colorado Buffaloes in the annual Valero Alamo Bowl. Regardless of the safety protocols put in place by local officials, monitoring thousands of fans streaming through the concourses, lining up at concession stands, and watching the game is simply impossible. Some individuals will break the rules. Some will be caught, but others will not be caught.
At the same time, City officials have canceled smaller outdoor gatherings that could have become superspreader events, such as the Conservation Society’s Fall Heritage Festival that was scheduled to attract 1,000 people to La Villita on Nov. 6.
The difference? The City owns the Alamodome and big events bring in significant rent and concession revenues.
The biggest superspreader threat in San Antonio is not inside the Alamodome, in my opinion. It’s on the narrow sidewalks of the River Walk in the downtown commercial district, where thousands come nightly to see the holiday lights and enjoy dinner and drinks at restaurants and bars along the river.
I’ve ventured down there on three occasions this past week and each time witnessed people, including families with children, strolling along without masks. Even the pedestrians wearing masks come within close proximity to the many al fresco diners who are unmasked. People who want a barge ride are required to wear a mask. I saw many waited in long lines, seated and standing right next to one another, with masks in hand, donning them only as they boarded.
On my first visit last week, my wife Monika and I walked from our house to downtown to see the lights, naively expecting a light turnout. Instead we quickly found ourselves caught in a sea of people, many without masks. We had to turn sideways to navigate the crowd. It was impossible to avoid close physical contact. We made our way to the first available bridge and didn’t look back.
Along the way, I stopped to photograph a City sign urging mask use. Why isn’t mask use mandatory all along the River Walk, I wondered? Clearly, the City’s messaging is inconsistent. Cash registers are ringing again on the Paseo del Rio, which is good, but that commerce could come at a high price. No local authority is addressing the larger threat such crowds pose to public health, despite the rising number of San Antonians who are testing positive for the virus. We are now in a cycle where the numbers are approaching record levels.
Yet it’s also Christmas and merchants are desperate for revenue. It becomes easy to look the other way. Voters might one day punish officeholders for their steadfast commitment to defending public health in a pandemic and employing unpopular restrictions necessary to contain the virus.
Even so, the obligation should be to do what is right, even if it means further economic and social restrictions. Of course, we could have it both ways. Restaurants, bars, and shops could stay open for business, and public venues could remain safe if people would play by the rules and wear masks and observe social distancing, and if elected leaders enforce those rules fairly and equitably without exception.