The date went largely unnoticed, but May 17 was Day 100 of coronavirus in San Antonio, counting back to Feb. 7 when the first evacuees from China arrived at Lackland Air Force Base to remain in quarantine for 14 days before returning home.
The events of early February seem like an eternity ago. COVID-19 had swept through Wuhan in China and was spreading in southern Italy and beyond, but the U.S. public had yet to fully glean the coming impact. San Antonio would record its first confirmed case on Feb. 13, one week after the arrival of the evacuees, and one of the early confirmed cases in the United States at that time.
To put into perspective the damage done by the virus in the short space of approximately three months, consider that about 34,000 people worldwide had tested positive and 700 had died when that first charter flight landed here on Feb. 7. Since then, 54,509 people have tested positive in Texas and 1,506 in the state have died. And Texas is not among the hardest-hit states.
Nationally, more than 1.65 million have tested positive and more than 97,000 have died. Globally, more than 5 million have tested positive and about more than 340,000 have died. In Bexar County, 2,418 have tested positive and 66 have died. The first death here was reported on March 22.
On average, one person has died every day in Bexar County since then.
The actions taken in early March by San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to initiate emergency orders mandating business and office closures and countywide sheltering practices have resulted in the city and county posting the lowest per capita infection rates and deaths of the top five metro areas in Texas. While San Antonio can point with some satisfaction to the positive outcomes those measures have yielded to date, nothing could shield the local economy from disaster.
More than 115,000 people in the county have filed for unemployment since mid-March. With a population of 2 million, including about 1.2 million working-age adults (over 18 and under 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), more than 9 percent of the population has been added to the pre-COVID-19 unemployment rate of 3.1 percent. Statewide that number is now 12.8 percent, with more than 2 million left jobless.
Beyond the cold statistics, the last 100 days in San Antonio have changed life and work here in ways that cannot yet be measured. Some things are clearly visible: We have seen the collapse of the visitor and hospitality industry. A downtown long reliant on conventioneers and tourists is now hollowed out. Citywide, there is no reliable measure yet on the devastation visited on working-class families, small businesses, and now, vulnerable nonprofits that are part of the city’s social safety network. School districts and colleges and universities are struggling to construct safe and practical return-to-campus plans for the next academic year.
Recovery of the economy will likely take longer than the recovery of public health, although both remain uncertain as the state’s reopening continues. For those who initially branded the coronavirus a hoax, and those who defy calls today by public health officials to don face masks and practice prudent social distancing, the time for denial is long past.
Local authority has been superseded by state authority, so the mayor and county judge are left to lead by example and hope people will follow. Many, obviously, are not.
On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott cleared the way for bars, bowling alleys, gyms, summer camps, and just about every other business to open except theme parks and concert venues. All Texas beaches reopened on May 1.
The reopening comes with tradeoffs. Texas has seen a steady rise in the number of new cases reported each day since the reopening began. The statewide outbreak has yet to peak.
The actual numbers were muddied by state officials conflating coronavirus tests with antibody tests, an error Abbott disputed last week, although state officials since then have acknowledged the mistake and taken steps to correct the data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged making the same error.
Polls show a solid majority of voters in Bexar County believe it is still too early to lift the sheltering and social distancing orders. Yet many are anxious to abandon sheltering practices and seek a return to normalcy. That was evident early this Memorial Day weekend as bars opened their doors, and highway traffic grew with people headed to Gulf Coast beaches and Hill Country rivers. City and county parks began to fill Friday.
This will be a Memorial Day to remember, or perhaps, one people will want to forget. What will the next 100 days bring? No one yet knows. We are still coming to terms with the first 100 days.
This column was updated to correct the date of the first coronavirus evacuees’ arrival.