The San Antonio Botanical Garden had big plans for its 40th anniversary celebration on May 3. Then came the coronavirus. On the evening of March 18, the garden closed to the public indefinitely as part of a series of shutdowns across the country aimed at slowing the spread. No one was sure when it would be safe to reopen.

With new admission and health protocols – and an OK from the State of Texas – the garden was able to reopen Sunday, the exact anniversary of its 1980 opening.

“It’s total serendipity,” said CEO Sabina Carr. “We were just waiting for the right day.”

Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency order issued last week allowed museums, shops, movie theaters, restaurant dining rooms, and other “nonessential” businesses to reopen on Friday, May 1, at 25 percent occupancy.

Families, friends, couples, and people on their own started to show up at 9 a.m. to stroll through the colorful gardens and some exhibits, watch bees investigate the flowers, and listen to purple martins move into birdhouses in the vegetable garden. Most of the buildings and conservatories – especially the smaller ones – are closed due to social distancing guidelines that call for at least 6 feet between people from different households.

A vast majority of visitors wore face coverings, though some families choose not to. Masks are not required inside the garden but are strongly encouraged.

“We’re trying to strike a balance between the State mandate and the local mandates,” Carr said. While the State encourages face coverings, the City of San Antonio requires them when engaging in activities where social distancing isn’t possible. The garden shifted its cleaning protocols to in-house staff, and they can be seen wiping off railings, tables, and the big lawn chairs at least once an hour. The No Name Creek, a watery play area, is also closed.

Most buildings at the San Antonio Botanical Garden remain closed as they do not allow visitors to maintain social distance.
Most indoor exhibits at the San Antonio Botanical Garden remain closed as they do not allow visitors to maintain social distance. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

With 38 acres and dozens of pathways, people can easily keep their distance from others in the garden, she said. “People need nature now more than ever and if we can provide that for them in a safe, secure environment, why not [reopen]? We call it ‘nature Rx’ in the garden world. We know nature can heal and inspire, make you feel human again.”

San Antonio Botanical Garden Tickets and Hours:
A reservation is required and tickets purchased online only (no tickets will be sold onsite).
Monday-Friday: 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

For Meghan and Joel Lugo, who are frequent visitors and members of the Botanical Garden, they bought tickets online to return as soon as they were available.

“We’ve always loved nature,” Joel said, his young daughter Rosanna strapped to his chest. Their toddler son, Finn, started to squirm in Meghan’s arms. The pandemic has only strengthened their appreciation for places like the garden.

“Being quarantined makes you realize how much you rely on these institutions … especially if you have kids. When they’re closed you’re really left at a loss,” said Meghan, who is an associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She works from home and looks after the kids while Joel goes to work at a medical device manufacturing company.

The Lugos are not ready to go back to places where it’s harder to stay away from other people. “We feel a little bit more comfortable coming to a place like the Botanical Garden where you can effectively socially distance,” she said.

Megan Lugo holds her son, Finn, and her husband Joel holds their daughter Rosanna after a morning spent inside the reopened San Antonio Botanical Garden.
Meghan Lugo holds her son, Finn, and her husband, Joel, holds daughter Rosanna during a morning spent inside the reopened San Antonio Botanical Garden. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

The garden can have 225 people inside at a time to comply with the 25 percent capacity rule, Carr said, so it started taking reservations for intervals throughout the day. There are 100 member slots per hour each day and 125 general admission.

“The member spots sold out for every hour today,” she said, though the garden had yet to reach 25 percent capacity.” A lot of families are coming out. I know a lot of people aren’t ready to come out yet. And that’s fine, too. That’s just the way the city is going to be for a while.”

As a nonprofit, the Botanical Garden relies on membership, admission, event revenue, and corporate sponsorship and other private fundraising. For each month it’s closed, it misses out on $150,000 in admissions, and there aren’t large events, such as weddings, on the horizon.

It has some events tentatively scheduled for the fall – such as Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks – but they’ll be much smaller than originally planned. The garden had planned a member preview to celebrate the new Betty Kelso Center and Greehey Lawn on the day it shut down, so Sunday was the first time the event center could be seen and the large lawn were open to the public.

A $40 million expansion brought extra space, a new entrance, and other amenities to the garden in 2017, but some of those resources have to be rethought, Carr said. The Culinary Garden and the Family Adventure Garden now produce vegetables that are donated to COVID-19 hunger relief efforts.

“It feels like there’s going to be a next normal,” Carr said. “Then there will another next normal. Then we’ll pivot again. We’ll adapt and be creative as much as we can.”

Fundraising and community engagement are especially hard for tactile experiences like parks and museums, she said. “There’s nothing like being in the garden.”

She expects to start seeing the growing trend of “micro” events – such as very small, live-streamed weddings – popping up in the garden and at other venues.

While some events have been postponed there, plans to open a new restaurant in the garden are moving forward.

Prominent local Chef Jason Dady plans to open a Mediterranean concept in the former carriage house that served as the admissions facility before the renovation. The restaurant name and opening date are pending.

San Antonio Botanical Garden CEO Sabina Carr admires the flowers during a tour of the grounds on its 40th anniversary and first day open since the coronavirus pandemic reached San Antonio.
San Antonio Botanical Garden CEO Sabina Carr admires the flowers during a tour of the grounds on its 40th anniversary and first day open since the coronavirus pandemic prompted the closure of various public spaces in San Antonio. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

While the timing of the governor’s order allowing places to reopen falling just before the garden’s 40th anniversary was serendipitous, the planning around best practices to reopen was anything but accidental.

“The minute [the spread of coronavirus] started to get pretty serious we wrote a crisis preparedness plan,” Carr said. “It had three levels of crisis – we blew through those levels in nine days – like everyone did.”

After it closed, she added, “we immediately turned around and wrote a comeback plan: How is this garden going to relate [to the community] over the next days, weeks, the year.”

Carr, who was hired in August, is the former president of the American Public Garden Association. She serves on a committee that’s formulating a document that outlines reopening best practices for gardens across the U.S.

The San Antonio Botanical Garden is one of the first to reopen in the country, she said, but she and her staff are well aware that everything could change again.

“We’re flexible,” she said. “If this starts to look a little shaky or the city starts to spike up again we’ll adjust numbers and be nimble. We’re in such a dynamic environment right now.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org