After more than a year of “you’re muted” and other technical difficulties of virtual meetings held amid the coronavirus pandemic, some City of San Antonio boards and commissions will resume in-person meetings next week. But some commissioners have questioned whether it’s the right time to go back while masks are making a comeback amid an increase in COVID-19 cases.
Vaccines and masks will be strongly encouraged for city staff, board members, commissioners, and visitors in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, said city spokeswoman Ximena Copa-Wiggins.
“These will mirror protocols used in City Council meetings and we will continue to monitor as the situation evolves,” Wiggins said.
City Council returned to in-person meetings in April, though smaller council committee meetings have remained virtual. In-person meetings of Planning, Zoning, and Historic and Design Review commissions as well as a few other boards will continue to be livestreamed and recorded, she said. Under the new rules for groups under the Development Services Department and the Office of Historic Preservation, the public can still submit written or voicemail comments before meetings, but live comments can only be made in person. Previously, residents could call in to speak during meetings.
As long as a quorum — a minimum number of voting members — attends a meeting in person, other members can still attend and vote virtually.
The virtual meeting environment for public meetings was made possible through Gov. Greg Abbott’s COVID-19 disaster proclamation, which suspended certain provisions of the Open Meetings Act.
In June, Abbott approved a request by the Office of the Attorney General to lift the suspensions that allow virtual meetings starting Sept. 1.
It’s unclear if other boards and commissions will also start hosting hybrid in-person and virtual meetings, but they too will be subject to the restored Open Meetings Act.
“I’m glad to be getting back [to] in-person, too, I just wish the circumstances were a little bit better than where we are right now with a new spike [in COVID-19 cases] coming,” said Zoning Commissioner Francine Romero (D8), who is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas in San Antonio.
While more than 62% of Bexar County residents are fully vaccinated, the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus has increased infection rates and hospitalizations. More than 95% of the 585 people hospitalized are unvaccinated. The local positivity rate rose to 17% this week, a rate not seen since January.
Reports of breakthrough cases — vaccinated people getting COVID-19, but with less severe symptoms — also give Romero pause.
“I’m vaccinated, but I prefer not to get a breakthrough infection,” she said during a July 20 meeting.
The format and protocols that will be in place next week will not be a 100% return to the pre-pandemic normal, city staff explained. Room capacity will be monitored and seating will be spread out as some meetings, particularly HDRC and Zoning, can attract hundreds of people.
But the city can’t require anyone to wear a mask due to Abbott’s May executive order.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff sent a letter to Abbott this week asking the governor to amend that rule “to prevent the continued spread by the highly transmissible delta variant, and potentially any other variant.”
John Bustamante, who chairs the Zoning Commission, said he has concerns about in-person meetings.
“That being said, I worked hard to make sure that we will have a quorum [of six members] on Tuesday, because these zoning cases need to go forward,” Bustamante said. “We can’t stop the business of the city.”
He anticipates that the Zoning Commission, and other groups, will continue to fine-tune the hybrid in-person and virtual model throughout August.
“We’re going to look at how we’re bringing people in for public comment for presentations, and try to make it as efficient but also as safe as possible,” he said.
Unless Abbott extends the relaxation of Open Meetings Act rules, he said, “we will be back to the everyday, pre-pandemic” routine in September anyway.
Disclosure: John Bustamante is the husband of San Antonio Report story editor Tracy Idell Hamilton.