Their seats spread far apart from each other, Bexar County commissioners on Tuesday approved a loan program to tide small business owners over amid the economic strife caused by the pandemic.

In an effort to practice social distancing, the commissioners sat in separate desks instead of on the dais at their regular Tuesday meeting. They discussed the “Stay Home, Work Safe” orders issued Monday by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, which directs people to stay home as much as possible to avoid spreading COVID-19.

“Basically, what we’re trying to do in the order is try to get a balance as best as we can between the public health challenge and the economic consequences of that,” Wolff said. “The order is telling people to stay at home unless they’ve got an essential trip or they’re one of the employees designated by their business to be there.”

Several businesses and activities, including exercising outdoors or getting gas for your car, are exempt from the order that takes effect at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. Still, many local businesses have been feeling the pinch as some have been forced to temporarily shutter. To help small businesses struggling to earn money during the novel coronavirus pandemic, county commissioners on Tuesday approved the use of $5.65 million to give them loans and grants.

Applications will be handled by microlender LiftFund, a company based in San Antonio that will also distribute the money. Of the total, $5 million will be distributed as loans to small businesses and $250,000 will be given as grants to businesses with very few employees.

The loans are intended to help keep local businesses afloat during economic impacts caused by the novel coronavirus. Because of that, the loans won’t accrue interest.

“We’ll probably take some losses,” Wolff said. “It’s 0 percent interest loans. We had to take that responsibility.”

Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2), who introduced the program last week, emphasized that he wanted to see flexibility in the loans approved, such as allowing people with lower credit scores to qualify.

“We just want to make sure that this is deployed as easily as possible and helps as many people as possible,” he said. “I want to make sure we’re doing this the right way.”

The remaining $400,000 will go to LiftFund as an administrative payment.

Individuals can apply by visiting the LiftFund website or by calling 888-215-2373.

Food services for the jail

After much discussion, County commissioners selected a new company to provide food services to the Sheriff’s Office and to the Bexar County Jail. Local company Selrico and the county’s purchasing office will negotiate a final contract. The jail’s current contract is with Aramark.

Though the bidding committee actually scored Trinity Services Group Inc. higher in the evaluation process, Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) argued that Selrico had more merit as a local company and scored higher on the “contingency emergency plan” category. He also pointed to lawsuits that Trinity Services Group has been involved in, including a recent case where people incarcerated in a New York State facility who were served by Trinity Services Group sued for inadequate nutrition.

Commissioner Chico Rodriguez (Pct. 1) said Selrico had built a good reputation in the area during its 31 years in business. The company serves seniors, and those customers have talked about how much they enjoy their meals, Rodriguez said.

“If these guys can feed our seniors, they sure can take care of our prisoners,” Rodriguez said.

Commissioners also gave their support to a letter that Wolff, Nirenberg, Chico Rodriguez, and Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) sent to Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday, asking him to freeze the property tax rate and apply 2019 property tax rates to 2020.

“[Bexar County Appraisal District] expects property values to go up across the board by 7 to 8 percent [in 2020] because they have to use values as of Jan. 1,” Tax Assessor-Collector Albert Uresti said. “But property values are also going to decline. They are declining now. That’s another reason we need to push for that freeze.”

The county appraisal board has already decided to delay distributing appraisal notices until April 18, Uresti said.

Working from home

As local leaders ask members of the community to stay put, the county is attempting to set an example by working from home, too. About 50 percent of employees in the county’s biggest departments – the district attorney, county clerk, district clerk, and tax assessor-collector – are working from home, County Manager David Smith said.

“The DA’s office is particularly well suited for work from home, given the court system have deferred all jury trials to a future date and restricted the number of proceedings to those only absolutely necessary,” he said.

The sheriff’s office has been running normally, Sheriff Javier Salazar said, though the county jail population dipped below 3,400 on Tuesday. That was a decrease of more than 400 since last Tuesday when the jail population was 3,837.

“We haven’t cut back on staffing much,” Salazar said. “There are a whole lot of things going on.”

The County is treating the work-from-home period as a test, Smith said.

“For the next two weeks, we’re using this as a jump-start on a future remote-work County organization,” he said. “We’ll make some mistakes. But we’re also learning some valuable lessons about how to virtually work in the future.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.