Local leaders and experts gathered for a virtual town hall Monday evening at the first of several planned panels to discuss the new coronavirus and its disproportionate impact on the black community.

Panelists fielded questions from community members about coronavirus testing, prevention, and safety. Once the state starts to open up as planned later this week, social distancing is critical to keeping everyone healthy, said Jay Hall, Texas Department of Emergency Management assistant chief.

“If [personal protective equipment] is available to you, and it should be, then you should wear it,” Hall said. “If not, then practice the social distancing of 6 feet so you can keep yourself safe.”

Hall joined Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), state Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio), San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Junda Woo and San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood for a live-streamed panel on Monday hosted by Black Video Network. 

Calvert said he was concerned about the lack of planning from the state on how to distribute masks to underserved communities. San Antonio and Bexar County began requiring people to wear masks in public places where it is difficult to maintain social distancing on Monday.

“A lot of people are not necessarily tuning in to the news, and there have to be more ways of reaching people than just expecting folks to do that,” Calvert said.

Woo reminded listeners that masks were not a substitute for social distancing, and cloth masks needed to be washed after every day of use. The City is encouraging people to use cloth masks instead of N95 or surgical masks.

Though Bexar County’s population is only 7 percent black, that community is overrepresented in Bexar County’s coronavirus count. Black residents make up 28 percent of deaths and 10.8 percent of overall cases as of Monday

Though Monday’s panelists did not touch specifically on that disparity, Woo said the disproportionate impact on African Americans reflected already existing inequalities. African Americans are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, and other health conditions that put individuals at greater risk of contracting coronavirus, she said.

“We can go into all the reasons …  structural racism is a part of it,” she said. “But, this [pandemic] just amplifies the inequities that were already there before.”

Coronavirus response in the black community also includes helping small business owners, Andrews-Sullivan said. The District 2 councilwoman said she was working with San Antonio for Growth on the East Side (SAGE) to partner with LiftFund, a micro-lender based in San Antonio.

“The reason why I’m asking for SAGE to be an advocate within the community is because a lot of the owners that we know in our community are not able to leave their businesses and go over to another area of town to get LiftFund [assistance],” Andrews-Sullivan said. “We need someone that’s here that can be boots on the ground, going to these businesses where they’re actually working, taking them the paperwork, making sure they understand how to fill it out properly.”

Gervin-Hawkins also said Monday that she was concerned about the lack of minority representation at all levels of coronavirus management. She pointed to the all-white-male leading members Gov. Greg Abbott’s “strike force” aimed at reopening the state of Texas, which he announced Friday

“[They] were not representative of the minority community,” she said. “But I think that what we’ve got to do is get back to contacting our elected officials and making sure that our voices are heard … not just at the state level but the local level, too, because a lot of it is driven by what the local level does.”

Calvert said he worries for the residents of his precinct for a multitude of reasons, including feeling “angst” as officers on the streets and detention deputies at the county jail work without proper protective gear

“I certainly have angst for the community because in so many ways we feel under attack,” he said. “This is a very heavy time, as history will tell. It’s a very, very heavy time. And there’s a lot of unknowns, and there’s just a lot of things that we haven’t traversed before, but we just got to keep it in prayer.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.