For San Antonians sheltering at home, it was another week of watching the numbers. The numbers change daily, come from all directions, and do little to predict the city’s eventual escape from the COVID-19 outbreak and its stranglehold on public health and the local economy.
The profound changes people are experiencing in their home and work life is a story not gleaned in the daily and weekly compilation of statistics. Storytelling drives home how people are really doing. Still, elected officials, public health workers, first responders, all of us, remain captives of the numbers.
Last week marked the start of mandatory face mask use for people venturing into grocery stores and other indoor essential businesses. Panic buying must be subsiding somewhat as H-E-B announced a resumption of regular store hours, which had been shortened. Meanwhile, its Favor business announced two-hour “express delivery” service for grocery orders, a reflection of the growing, highly competitive market for same-day home delivery.
By week’s end, people were anticipating Gov. Greg Abbott’s planned Monday announcement detailing the phased-in openings of nonessential businesses around the state, including restaurants and hair and nail salons. The tension between maintaining the shutdown and restarting the economy here, in Texas, and across the nation remains an issue of intense debate and disagreement.
The number of coronavirus-related deaths surpassed 50,000 in the United States last week. San Antonians can take comfort in the relatively low death toll in the city, which increased to 43 last week. All but a few of the victims suffered underlying conditions, including many of the 19 who died after contracting the virus at the Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
The low number of people tested remains an issue, and it has hampered public health experts modeling the spread of the virus and efforts to contain it. By April 25, fewer than 20,000 of Bexar County’s 2 million-plus population had been tested. Of the 18,691 who had been tested by that date, 1,292, or 6.9 percent, tested positive.
Public health experts believe far larger numbers of people have contracted the virus without suffering identifiable symptoms. The city first welcomed evacuees from China who arrived to be quarantined at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in mid-February, while the first local resident tested positive on March 13.
Individuals who cannot get approved for a free test at one of the city and county’s official sites can now pay $143 to be tested for the coronavirus and antibodies at a physician-owned mobile site that opened last week. At least two more free coronavirus drive-up testing sites have opened in San Antonio, one in the parking lot of a Westside Walmart Supercenter and another at a Texas MedClinic urgent care center on the South Side.
Seven Community Health and Prevention Teams have been deployed to vulnerable neighborhoods to educate businesses and residents about best practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The economic numbers continue to show rising unemployment, growing food insecurity, calls for more public spending to help protect small businesses, and individuals and families struggling to pay for housing or make ends meet. Various small businesses that received Small Business Administration loans, most of which are designed to be forgivable, reported the arrival of that funding.
With a 10-1 vote Thursday, City Council increased its housing assistance program by nearly $25 million to help as many as 20,000 families pay rent, utilities, and internet bills and provide cash to purchase groceries, gas, and medicine as they cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
In Texas, the number of unemployment claims now stands at 1.7 million after 365,700 filed for unemployment last week. The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) reported three industries taking the biggest hit: retail, accommodation and food services, and health care and social assistance.
One only has to survey leading hotels to see the damage: the Grand Hyatt, Mokara, Crockett, Marriott Plaza, St. Anthony, Omni La Mansion del Rio, Hyatt Hill Country Resort, JW Marriott, Landmark Embassy Suites, Westin Riverwalk, and La Cantera Resort are all shut down.
Visit San Antonio CEO Cassandra Matej said 28 convention contracts valued at $15 million have been canceled.
In Bexar County, TWC data for the week ending April 11, the latest available, shows jobless claims at 15,718, up from 727 in the same week last year.
Some good news: The City of San Antonio has received $270 million in CARES Act funding, and Bexar County has received $79 million. Local officials await federal guidance on spending the funds, which cannot be used to cover current budget shortfalls. Texas cities and counties, constitutionally required to operate with balanced budgets, face serious budget shortfalls. The hard choice is to raise taxes or cut services.
VIA Metropolitan Transit estimates a loss of $51 million in sales tax revenue this year and hopes to use CARE Act funds to cover that loss. Its drivers, meanwhile, are the latest to demand hazard pay.
Economist Tom Tunstall, the senior director of research at UTSA’s Institute for Economic Development, estimates the 2020 decline in San Antonio’s GDP – $121 billion in 2018 – could exceed $10 billion. Unemployment here, he said, likely will reach 14 percent, nearly quadrupling the pre-COVID-19 unemployment rate, yet still lower than what is predicted for other Texas cities.
Acts of kindness and philanthropy continued to sprout organically in San Antonio. Last week Tech Bloc organized a town hall fundraiser hosted by CEO David Heard that succeeded in raising more than $37,500 to provide 150 families in the San Antonio Independent School District internet service at home, a visible effort to address the city’s deep digital divide.
That digital divide may very well be why district officials throughout the county report that thousands of public school students have not been heard from since spring break and are not participating in distance learning classes.
The AT&T Center is offering free Wi-Fi for anyone who needs it, while the City partnered with VIA and SAHA to help SAISD and Northside ISD families get more access to the internet by dispatching Wi-Fi buses.
This is an election year, and local and statewide primary runoff elections will be held on July 14. Registered voters already have requested 25,422 mail-in ballots, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen told county commissioners on Tuesday. The Elections Department has 141,000 mail-in ballots prepared in case more people request mail-in ballots.
There is still plenty of time to register to vote in the runoff elections, even if you did not vote in the first round. Individuals who qualify for mail-in ballots can request one here.
Beyond all the numbers, people are still finding ways to connect with one another. Music is one way to leaven the impact of the shutdown. Grammy-nominated conjunto accordion player Santiago Jimenez delivered a free performance to residents at 1221 Broadway last week. Readers can enjoy this Rivard Report video, Staying Home With Santiago.
Classical music aficionados, meanwhile, were treated by the San Antonio Symphony to an artfully edited video featuring nearly 40 orchestra musicians performing a final passage of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, with strings opening, horns and woodwinds following, and then, one and all playing in concert.
A symphony orchestra is one of the greatest creative expressions of collaborative work, one requiring precision timing and peak emotion at the very same instant. Accomplishing that remotely is an even more impressive feat and a metaphor, perhaps, for the importance of individuals working in unity to accomplish something for the greater good. Even while we are sheltering at home.
Alas, the performance lasted only 2 minutes and 51 seconds. Everything these days seems so fleeting.