Officials at San Antonio’s two public utilities are focused on preventing outbreaks of the coronavirus among their employees, though they have not yet started requiring most of them to work from home.
The vast majority of workers at both of San Antonio’s municipally owned utilities showed up Monday at their usual workplaces, according to CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams and San Antonio Water System Chief Operating Officer Steve Clouse.
CPS Energy has approximately 3,000 employees serving 840,000 electric and 350,000 natural gas customer accounts; SAWS has 1,700 employees serving 453,000 accounts.
Customer service centers for both utilities remain open, though CPS Energy’s starting Wednesday will be open from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. instead of opening at 8 a.m., Gold-Williams said.
On Tuesday, SAWS officials announced they will close access to their customer service center at SAWS headquarters at 2800 U.S. Hwy 281 starting Wednesday, though customers can still drop off payments at a lock box just inside the outer doors.
Starting Wednesday, SAWS’ West Side Customer Center will be open 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Its East Side Customer Center will remain open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The utilities are among the institutions bracing for confirmation of person-to-person spread of the coronavirus within San Antonio, where only four travel-related cases have been so far confirmed. On Monday, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg issued a third public health order banning all public and private “mass gatherings” of 50 people or more. The order does not apply to SAWS or CPS Energy, along with most businesses, churches, medical facilities, residential buildings, and other locations.
Clouse and Gold-Williams both described their utilities as prepared to require many of their customer service staff and similar positions to work from home, if necessary, though neither has made it mandatory as of late afternoon Monday.
CPS Energy has had an official plan on the books to address a public health crisis since 2015, officials said. SAWS has also had a “business continuity plan” on paper for several years, Clouse said, which addresses catastrophes like the utility’s headquarters burning down. As the coronavirus threat has loomed larger, SAWS has applied some of those concepts to the viral threat.
“Doing those exercises helped us, and I think gave us a huge head-start in where we’re at,” Clouse said. “But I can’t tell you of any business that really contemplated some of the things we’re working with today.”
CPS Energy has been testing electronic devices and tech services to prepare for having people telecommute, Gold-Williams said. At SAWS, some employees are already telecommuting in a “very limited capacity,” Clouse said, though most came to work in-person on Monday.
At CPS Energy, where staff travels more frequently than their counterparts at SAWS, officials have stopped all international business travel, Gold-Williams said. Those returning to San Antonio on personal trips from countries more severely affected by the coronavirus have been required to stay home for at least 14 days under self-quarantine. CPS Energy has been putting those employees on administrative leave so they don’t have to worry about depleting sick or vacation time, Gold-Williams said.
CPS Energy employees have continued to travel within the U.S., though many of the events they would ordinarily attend have been canceled, she said.
“We have not officially stopped all travel,” Gold-Williams said. “We would prefer for people to not go through big international airports. We would prefer people to do more teleconferencing and phone calls … and just trying to make it so they understand they could do business locally in this tough time.”
Clouse said he was not aware of any SAWS employees needing to be quarantined for travel. Neither Gold-Williams nor Clouse were aware of any CPS Energy or SAWS employee who has needed testing for coronavirus.
Both Gold-Williams and Clouse emphasized that their utilities are prepared to continue providing reliable electricity, natural gas, water, and sewer services, even if the virus spreads throughout San Antonio.
“When you’re municipally owned, you have to understand we’re here because of the community,” Gold-Williams said. “Our customers own the company, and we have to be there for them.”
To help their customers weather the virus’s economic impact, both utilities announced last week they would suspend disconnections of customers with unpaid bills.
Clouse said that while SAWS might slow its work on some “peripheral things,” San Antonio residents can continue to count on its core functions.
“If you want us to come [and] give you a water conservation assessment of your house, we’re going to take longer to get to that,” Clouse said. “But when it comes to providing water and wastewater service, we’re redirecting the whole organization to make sure those most fundamental things are absolutely bulletproof.”
Over the past few days, officials have sought to reassure people that stockpiling bottled water is unnecessary. Like other cities across the U.S., San Antonio has had customers stripping the shelves of local supermarkets of goods such as toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and canned food.
“There’s no water emergency,” Nirenberg said at a Monday press conference. “There’s no need to buy all the water on the shelf.”
Asked about whether the virus could spread via water or sewage, Clouse said that SAWS experts have reviewed the recent scientific literature, which states that the virus cannot remain under the disinfection methods used in water and sewer treatment.
He also emphasized how water travels slowly in the Edwards Aquifer, San Antonio’s main water supply source. Some of the water that flows up out of SAWS’ most prolific wells is likely around 200 years old, Clouse said.
“I think we have the [soundest] defense system possible against that virus moving through water,” Clouse said.
Both Clouse and Gold-Williams said officials’ main goal as of Monday is preventing their workforces from contracting the virus while putting in place back-up plans to deal with a situation in which large numbers of their employees get sick.
For CPS Energy, having even around 300 unexpected absences from its line crew workers could significantly affect the utility’s response time to power outages, Gold-Williams said.
“That would affect how quickly how we could respond in a storm, or if someone hit a pole and took a line down, how quickly could we get out there to restore power,” she said.
Clouse said SAWS officials have been discussing “multiple scenarios” of how to protect their employees from a viral outbreak at SAWS headquarters or one of its service centers. For example, the SAWS employees responsible for operating the controls that run the water and sewer pipeline network have been pulled out of the headquarters building and isolated to protect them, he said.
“They’re at a back-up facility, they are the only people working in that facility so we’ve minimized their chances of exposure if … somebody showed up sick,” Clouse said.
In such a case, other workers would be “waiting in the wings” to relieve those who got sick, Clouse said.
For CPS Energy, it can take around 50 people to run one of its power plants, Gold-Williams said. If some plant workers were to get sick, workers could move from one plant to another to fill in if necessary, she said. If a plant were to go down, the utility could purchase excess power from the Texas grid to fill the gap, she said.
Many of its power line crews often work in small groups of three or so, Gold-Williams said, adding that the utility has been stressing hand-washing and standing the health-expert-recommended six feet apart.
“We got really serious in January telling people not to shake hands, not to hug,” Gold-Williams said.