On Thursday, Oct. 8, San Antonio City Council will meet in person for the first time since June as the region’s risk level of coronavirus is considered “low,” according to several metrics tracked by local health officials.

There has been a sustained decline in cases reported since early August, hospitals have fewer patients, and the positive-test rate is below 6 percent, according to the City’s data.

“Many [Council] members felt comfortable meeting in person with some added safety measures,” said Laura Elizabeth Mayes, assistant director of the City’s Government and Public Affairs department. “We are still enforcing mask-wearing and will maintain physical distance from others.”

Symptom and temperature checks will be performed on everyone as they enter City Council chambers, and seats in the audience will be blocked off to encourage social distancing, she said.

To ensure enough distance between Council members on the dais, some will still attend the meeting virtually: large television screens will be put in their place. They will rotate who attends remotely according to preference, and Plexiglas barriers have been added between council members’ seats, Mayes said.

The municipal body’s return to City Council chambers coincides with most schools returning to in-person instruction this month. The City’s first virtual “A session,” during which Council takes votes, took place Aug. 6. These meetings will continue in person until further notice while other briefings, as well as committee and citizens-to-be-heard meetings, will remain virtual.

“Thankfully, we’re still on the right track,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report on Thursday. “We will remain flexible. If we start to go in the wrong direction, obviously we’ll have to recalibrate.”

To accommodate virtual meetings during the summer, City staff developed a call-in feature for citizens who want to address Council, and that will continue for in-person meetings, Nirenberg said.

“This is a new frontier for every municipality,” he said. “But there are some good, positive takeaways from this. The virtual connection has created access for some people that may not have had it before, and we want to retain that.”

That system, however, has left many frequent users dissatisfied as sometimes they are cut off, skipped over, or struggle with navigating who to call and when. This challenge was highlighted during the budget development process.

The 2021 budget, approved last month, takes into account nearly $50 million in cuts over the next two years in response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Community organizers associated with the Black Lives Matter movement decried the nearly 1.5 percent increase to the police department budget.

Many of those organizers felt unheard. The City will soon embark on a process to address foundational issues within the police department, review police services, and engage the community about expectations they have from law enforcement.

“[Council] heard in full effect all sides of just about every issue … face to face and on the screen,” Nirenberg said. “The feedback loop for City Council decisions is much broader than the times that we’re meeting [in public].”

Still, he values that in-person interaction among his colleagues and the community each Thursday. Important conversations are “just hard to [have] in two dimensions,” he said.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...