San Antonio City Council unanimously voted Thursday to extend Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s Stay Home, Work Safe order through April 9 as the city faces a huge jump in unemployment and a multimillion-dollar reduction in revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Best-case scenario projections developed by the City show a $110 million impact to the current fiscal year budget. The worst-case projections show that climbing to $158 million.
That means some operations will need to be cut, but the City plans to continue to provide high-priority services such as police, fire, trash pick up, and infrastructure maintenance.
Preliminary estimates show local unemployment could rise to 12 percent to 14 percent for March as businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, shut down or reduce operations to comply with the order. During the Great Recession, San Antonio’s highest unemployment rate was 10 percent in October 2009.
“We know these are difficult measures that we have to impose to ensure that we limit the spread of this virus, but it’s critically important that we’re aggressive,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Limiting human-to-human contact hurts the economy, but that’s how “we can get out of this as quickly as possible and really end this global pandemic.”
Some Republicans, including President Donald Trump and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have suggested that stay-at-home measures should be abandoned to save the U.S. economy. Health experts say that shuttering nonessential businesses and limiting contact between people will, in the long run, help nations avoid a collapse of existing health care systems.
“By making the pandemic worse we do not improve the economy,” Nirenberg said, quoting former Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus. “We’ve got to protect people’s health and save lives if we’re going to save the economy.”
Two more deaths in Bexar County linked to the coronavirus were confirmed Thursday, bringing the total to five, and the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rose to 113. Numbers are expected to increase locally and nationally as testing becomes widely available.
“Issue number one is: save lives,” Nirenberg said. “Then we will work to rebuild together.”
To determine the economic impact of the coronavirus, the City worked with local economist Steve Nivin, chair of the department of economics at St. Mary’s University and author of several local economic impact studies.
His estimates suggest that the San Antonio International Airport potentially stands to lose $12 million to $22 million in 2020 revenues, the hotel occupancy tax – which funds arts, culture, and historic preservation efforts – could decrease by $29 million to $44 million, and the Henry B. González Convention Center and Alamodome could lose $12.4 million to $17 million. In addition, the City’s general fund could lose out on $57 million to $75 million, mostly because of lost sales tax revenue.
City departments have been directed to prioritize programs into three categories, said Deputy City Manager María Villagómez. “Those services that are being [used] to address the response to COVID-19, to continue operations during this time, and [those that will be used] for recovery.”
Programs or services that don’t serve those functions will be considered for potential reduction or suspension, Villagómez said.
It’s too soon to tell which services will be cut, Nirenberg said.
In the meantime, the City is “going to be very conservative in expenditures and make sure that we take care of the very basics. That’s why we’re focused on essential services,” he said, including public safety, food, shelter, utilities, and health care.
“There are large impacts to our budgets,” City Manager Erik Walsh said.
“The priorities that existed two weeks ago are no longer priorities,” Walsh said later. “The priority is responding to the public [health crisis].”
More than 155,000 Texans filed for unemployment last week compared with less than 17,000 the week before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the 2007-2009 Great Recession, an average of 50,000 people filed in a week.
Local numbers aren’t yet available, Villagómez said, but the City is taking into account that 18.5 percent of metropolitan area jobs are in “especially vulnerable sectors” such as tourism and hospitality in its estimated unemployment rates.
The federal government will be issuing reimbursements for qualified expenditures that City’s undertake while responding to the threat of COVID-19, Villagómez said.
“Our goal is to get federal reimbursement, however, local governments are required to assist with 25 percent of the cost,” she said.
Releasing the Data
By the end of next week, the City will release a more comprehensive display of testing and coronavirus case data obtained by the Metropolitan Health District, said Director Dawn Emerick.
Emerick presented a rough draft of what that data may look like. For the first time, it shows areas in the county in which those who have been tested live, but not where they contracted the virus.
Metro Health staff, with the help of the City’s Office of Innovation and Information Technology Services, is working on the map for internal use first, Emerick said, “so that we can ensure we’re making good, informed decisions. … Then the next phase was to do a [public]-facing [platform].”
Some other Texas counties, such as Dallas County, release information about whether those who tested positive have been hospitalized or required a ventilator. New York City’s health department releases daily updates on the number of cases, which borough they live in, number hospitalized, age range, and gender.
Metro Health currently provides the age range and gender of total positive cases and a breakdown of positive, negative, and inconclusive tests performed by the department.
More data will be available on cases in Bexar County, Nirenberg said, once the department can manage privacy concerns of those who have gotten the test.
“The other issue is there’s been so many evolutions of the federal testing process and protocols for reporting that we haven’t been able to get the data in a form that was useful,” he said.
The emergency declarations that Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued require private labs to report their positive and negative tests to Metro Health.
“We’ve just started to get that data in,” he said. “Over the next week, you’re going to see a much clearer picture [on test results].”
Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), and Councilwoman Adriana Rocha-Garcia (D4) attended the meeting on Thursday via Skype out of a “preponderance of caution,” Nirenberg said.
“I can tell you that nobody on the Council has tested positive for COVID-19.”