Many shoppers continue to peruse Rivercenter Mall. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As other state and local governments around the U.S. implement aggressive shutdowns to halt the spread of coronavirus, San Antonio officials on Tuesday explained their decision to keep most businesses open.

In a Tuesday interview, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg described most of the country’s response to the spread of the virus first as “lackadaisical” followed by a “near frenzy which seems like a race to shut down.”

“What we’re saying is we’re going to continue to take a rational approach,” Nirenberg said.

On Monday, Nirenberg issued an emergency public health order banning all “mass gatherings” of 50 people or more, while carving out exemptions for almost all businesses. The order does not apply to bars, restaurants, shopping centers, churches, and many other areas where people congregate.

That’s in contrast to all other major Texas cities – Houston, Dallas, Austin, and El Paso – that have moved to close down bars, restaurants, and similar businesses, along with many other states and cities across the country.

In a 5:30 p.m. Tuesday interview, Nirenberg and Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger, former director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, said they did not implement a shutdown because testing has not yet confirmed the spread of the virus from person to person in the city.

But that could change as more positive test results come back.

“If we don’t implement good social distancing practices in the way that the health guides dictate … we could find ourselves in a totally different situation 24 to 48 hours from now, in which case we will have to shut things down,” Nirenberg said.

As of 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, San Antonio has 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among local residents.

All of the confirmed cases are travel-related, City officials said.

Of the 11 positive cases, four were travel-related, diagnosed in people who traveled outside of San Antonio, and four were people who were in close contact with someone who was already infected. Three cases are currently under investigation.

On Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced San Antonio would the first Texas city to roll out a mobile coronavirus testing center. That’s a result, Nirenberg said, of evacuees from cruise ships being brought to military bases in the city.

The situation heightened local officials’ awareness of coronavirus weeks ago, Nirenberg said, especially earlier this month when an evacuee who later tested positive for the virus was released, checked into an airport hotel, and visited North Star Mall.

“That caused a stir and an immediate response from us,” including City attorneys pursuing a restraining order to keep the person isolated from the rest of the community, Nirenberg said. The incident “finally loosened up some of the dialogue” with federal health officials “in regard to the protocols we’ve been asking for,” he said.

That meant San Antonio was ready to receive the state’s first mobile testing center when other cities weren’t, Nirenberg said.

For now, City officials are prioritizing coronavirus testing for health care workers, first responders, and seniors over age 60 who have a temperature of 99.6 degrees or higher.

Medical professionals at a COVID-19 drive-up testing station administer tests for the virus. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Asked about the low number of tests, Bridger said that’s been a result of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s protocols for testing people for coronavirus. Across the U.S., the CDC has recommended testing only people who show symptoms of COVID-19, have tested negative for other respiratory viruses, and have traveled to an affected area in or outside the country, she said.

“From a local boots-on-the ground perspective, we’ve had the tests, we just haven’t had the authority to widen the testing criteria,” Bridger said. “We’re getting more and more authority to widen the testing criteria, but two weeks ago, everybody was using the same testing criteria that the CDC put out across the nation.”

Because that testing criteria is the same throughout the country, Bridger said it’s logical to assume that cities where local health authorities found the virus actually have more widespread passing of the virus among the community than San Antonio does.

“They identified community spread by the same criteria that we are using,” Bridger said. “So comparing apples to apples, we, using the same criteria they use, don’t have community spread.”

The decision to avoid a business shutdown was welcomed by many restaurateurs, many of whom are already suffering from a collapse in their customer base as people stay home to avoid spreading the virus.

Service and hospitality industries make up a significant piece of San Antonio’s economy. As of January, workers in food and drink businesses made up nearly 10 percent of the city’s labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another 11 percent are employed in “leisure and hospitality industries,” including hotels.

“I think the City’s made a good decision in allowing” businesses to stay open, said Geoffrey Bezuidenhout, president of the San Antonio Restaurant Association and owner of Picnikins Café and Catering. Bezuidenhout said many residents rely on restaurants for their sole source of nutrition.

“It’s imperative that we’re able to operate as long as we possibly can,” he said.

However, voluntary precautions against the disease have already emptied out dining rooms and are leading to tough decisions, he said. On Tuesday, he and his staff were holding a meeting to decide whether they would have to lay off some of their 20 employees.

“We’re going to have to,” Bezuidenhout said. ”We’re a family business. We just don’t have the reserves that other people might to be able to weather the storm.”

Nirenberg said that San Antonio must use “self-policing” to enforce the kind of handwashing and social distancing measures that will keep the virus at bay.

“I hope we can do that because as we ratchet up the restrictions, there are additional secondary consequences to those decisions,” Nirenberg said.

Nirenberg admitted, however, that he’s “skeptical” that voluntary measures will be enough in the end.

“As Dr. Bridger will attest, I’ve been grilling our public folks every day about these measures,” he said. “We have to remain skeptical, which will focus us in on the data. I am hopeful that these measures will work, but we have to maintain a level of skepticism.”

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Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.