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The week began with Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller celebrating Easter Sunday Mass in an empty San Fernando Cathedral while parishioners and other Catholics watched from their homes on television or the internet.
The following day marked one month since San Antonio’s first locally diagnosed COVID-19 case. The week saw positive cases in San Antonio increase from 723 to 992, a 37 percent increase, and deaths from 27 to 38, a 40 percent increase. Of those, 17 are traced to the outbreak at the Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where 74 residents and 28 employees have tested positive. The nursing home drew fire from Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) in a letter to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff sent last week.
Still, there were fewer positive cases on a per capita basis here than in Austin, Dallas, or Houston. That is likely the result of San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Wolff issuing early emergency orders mandating social distancing, work from home, and business and public space closures.
Where the outbreak goes from here depends on a number of unpredictable turns. Starting Monday, people in San Antonio and Bexar County must wear cloth face coverings in public spaces. The addendum to local stay-at-home orders is the clearest indication that the spread of the virus continues.
Different models being tracked by local health care experts and elected officials all agree that San Antonio has not seen a peak in COVID-19 cases and a lifting of emergency orders now would lead to a worse outbreak. On Friday, Nirenberg said social distancing measures were working and warned that “we are not out of the woods” yet.
Another concern is the growing number of people who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent business and economic shutdown. Local unemployment claims, for example, rose from 762 filed in early March at the start of the coronavirus outbreak to more than 20,000 filed in both of the weeks ending March 28 and April 4.
Nearly 135,000 of the 1.6 million forgivable business loans approved by the Small Business Administration before funds were rapidly depleted went to Texas business owners – the most of any state. Gov. Greg Abbott held a Friday press conference to announce plans for a phased reopening of the Texas economy and the appointment of a “statewide strike force” of business leaders and some medical experts to help guide the process. Five members of the task force are prominent San Antonians.
Abbott also issued a school closure order. All public and private schools and colleges and universities would end the academic year without reopening, and state education officials confirmed there would be no grading of schools or testing of students.
San Antonio City Council will vote later this week on a $15.8 million supplemental aid package to a rent and mortgage housing assistance program that will begin including gift cards for households struggling to pay for groceries, internet access, and gas during the coronavirus pandemic.
The new COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program draws money from both federal and local funds and uses the same eligibility criteria as the City’s Risk Mitigation Fund, established in 2018 as part of its affordable housing policy.
That $1 million annual fund has already paid out roughly $650,000 to needy residents this year. Calls for housing assistance have jumped from an average of 47 per week before the pandemic to 5,300 last week, said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston.
The San Antonio Food Bank continued to experience record demand for assistance from unprecedented numbers of families. Even a “scaled-down event” at the Alamodome on Friday drew 2,000 families seeking relief packages with two weeks of supplies.
Acts of philanthropy continue to underscore the level of community outreach underway to help the city’s most vulnerable families and individuals. Shiner Brewery announced a $500,000 donation by Spoetzl Brewery to the Texas Restaurant Relief Fund to provide financial assistance to the state’s independent restaurants impacted by COVID-19.
San Antonio author Shea Serrano demonstrated the power of one with a social media call to action that raised more than $100,000 for the San Antonio Food Bank.
The scheduled start of Fiesta on April 16 was notable mostly for subdued virtual celebrations while the real thing remains postponed until November. Organizers also announced the cancellation of Luminaria, the annual light and arts festival, originally scheduled for Nov. 14.
The week ended with a defiant public rally at the state Capitol in Austin protesting continued closures and social distancing, an event fueled by the conspiracy website InfoWars and its discredited founder, Alex Jones, who appeared at the rally to blame the spread of the virus on the Chinese government. A similar rally is scheduled for Saturday afternoon at the Alamo Plaza.
Such protests violate state and local emergency orders prohibiting gatherings of 10 people or more, but there was no enforcement activity by the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin on Saturday, and city officials have indicated they will allow the Alamo Plaza rally to happen.
Nirenberg and Wolf announced their own nine-member COVID-19 Health Transition Team last week. Local elected officials and public health experts will likely face a growing partisan political divide. Protesters in a growing number of states, encouraged by President Donald Trump in a series of Twitter messages, are ignoring emergency orders and demanding an immediate opening of the economy and a relaxation of distancing measures.
Keeping the public united will be put to the test.