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San Antonio City Council voted on Thursday to continue Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s public health emergency declaration, which includes an order to keep all restaurant dining rooms and bars closed to the public, for 30 days (until April 18) to contain the threat of coronavirus.
Council’s vote came moments after Gov. Greg Abbott announced an executive order that implements similar restrictions statewide through April 3. That order includes a directive for residents to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
The shutdown order also includes gyms, bingo parlors, bowling alleys, health studios, commercial amusement businesses, and other entertainment businesses confined to a single indoor space. See the order for more details.
Before its vote, Council heard impassioned testimony from local restaurateurs and the San Antonio Restaurant Association asking the mayor and Council members to compromise with a 14-day extension to align with the state’s order.
Regardless of how long the extension is, Mayor Ron Nirenberg or Council are authorized to lift the restrictions, which still allow for curbside pickup and delivery of food and drinks. Nirenberg and City Manager Erik Walsh committed to scheduling at least once-a-week Council meetings (in-person or via telecommuting) to discuss the status of the public health emergency.
Failure to comply with the orders is a Class C misdemeanor carrying up to a $2,000 fine.
“We’re using every authority and tool necessary and making some very difficult decisions in order to protect our community’s health and safety,” Nirenberg told reporters after the vote. “What we’re trying to do now is save lives. This is a pandemic, and we are keeping two hands on the wheel.”
Earlier this week, Nirenberg and local health officials defended their decision to keep restaurants and bars operating as normal, but the increase of known positive cases of the coronavirus in Bexar County increased to 29 on Wednesday.
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), Councilman John Courage (D9), and Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) voted in favor of a failed motion to decrease the extension to April 3.
“Two weeks will be the death of [my business],” said Gonzales, who owns a pawnshop. “I think 30 days will shut everyone down.”
Courage noted that the health of the community is also tied to people’s ability to earn wages.
“This is a city of compassion,” Perry said. “Why don’t we show some compassion here? … Maybe this [virus] will blow off in two weeks. We don’t know.”
Global experts have said measures such as social distancing and avoiding restaurants and bars would need to be in place for 12-18 months in order to be effective. It could be a year before a cure or vaccine is developed for the virus.
“Working together, we must defeat COVID-19 with the only tool that we have available to us — we must strangle its expansion by reducing the ways that we are currently transmitting it,” Abbott said, according to the Texas Tribune. “We are doing this now, today, so that we can get back to business as usual more quickly.”
The San Antonio and Texas orders follow federal guidelines announced earlier this week.
“This helps ensure that there’s uniformity and not a patchwork of regulations across the state,” Nirenberg said. “That’s very helpful as we all try to contain this virus.”
Nirenberg said he expects that Abbott will likely extend his executive order as the deadline approaches.
“I thought we had given them good reasons, very logical reasons, as to why our restaurants need to stay open,” said Dawn Ann Larios, executive director of the San Antonio Restaurant Association. “We’ve been taking precautions since day one of this crisis. … You’re going to see a lot of layoffs – it’s already happening.”
Larios said there are more than 150,000 restaurant industry workers in San Antonio.
“For [Council] to have taken an issue with us, the restaurant industry, it’s a little [disillusioning],” she said.
Council will continue to revisit the status of the order at least every week, said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7).
“Having a regular convening gives me peace of mind,” Sandoval said. “If things dramatically change within two weeks … we’re able to rescind this.”
Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger said that day is likely months away.
“The way we know [an outbreak is] certain to end is when we stop seeing new cases,” Bridger said. “We’re able to take a deep breath and think it’s over … when we have 14 days without any new cases.”
Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) submitted a council consideration request on Thursday asking City staff to start discussions on how the City can provide economic relief and assistance for small businesses and residents.
The so-called “Revitalize SA” plan, Rocha Garcia said, “would be a multi-department and multi-public entity effort set forth to assist residents and small business owners.”
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But before the City starts its recovery efforts and changing its policies, City Manager Erik Walsh said, it needs to focus on its response.
“The last two phases of emergency are response and recovery. We’re still in the response part,” Walsh said. “We’re going through unchartered territory right now. … While the [full] impact to us is unknown at this time, we will be looking at developing strategies to try to mitigate.”
Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) attended the meeting via Skype as they continue to self-quarantine after their spring break travels. Viagran attended a National League of Cities conference in Washington D.C. March 8-11. Two attendees from Colorado tested positive for the virus, but they did not attend any of the same meetings, she said.
They declined to self-identify, so Viagran doesn’t know if she met them for sure, she said. But “my potential to have interacted with them is extremely low.”
Pelaez traveled to Colombia last week and returned on Sunday.