People across San Antonio gazed toward the heavens as overcast skies cleared Wednesday afternoon just in time for the roar of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds as six fighter jets streaked in tight formation over the city.

The aerial performance by “America’s Ambassadors in Blue” thrilled onlookers and served as a salute to health care workers, first responders, military members, and other essential personnel. People gathered in parks and yards, on empty streets, and atop buildings to take in the spectacle. Within seconds, it seemed, a rush of photos and videos hit like a sonic boom on social media.

It was an interesting contrast to the vintage open-cockpit flight taken by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller on Monday to proclaim the reopening of San Antonio’s Catholic churches for celebration of Mass and other sacraments starting Tuesday, May 19. Parishioners, clergy, and others must don face masks and practice sensible social distancing.

The local COVID-19 Health Transition Team’s guidance report recommends the continued closure of places of worship until the “epidemic has been controlled.” Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency order authorizing the resumption of church services supersedes local orders and guidelines.

Both aerial flights were a welcome respite from the weekly toll of numbers. Texas recorded its worst day of fatalities on Thursday, with 58 deaths statewide. More than 45,000 have tested positive for the new coronavirus and 1,272 have died. 

The same day, 73 more inmates at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of inmates and detention officers testing positive to more than 400. The jail and a few local nursing homes remain the most significant hot spots in the city’s otherwise relatively contained tally.

By week’s end, 2,120 people had tested positive and 62 have died in Bexar County, still the lowest numbers compared with Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, and Travis counties.

Metro Health announced early in the week that it would expand testing sites in the city and accept individuals for testing who have no visible symptoms, an effort to better gauge the number of people in the city who are positive for the virus though not sick.

The reopening of life and work in the city continued for a second week. The state’s restaurant association lobbied Abbott to reopen bars, even as some local restaurants operated as de facto bars, serving more beverages than food orders. The governor is expected to issue new guidelines on Monday to allow restaurants to expand indoor capacity to 50 percent from the current 25 percent occupancy limit. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for a reopening of sports stadiums and arenas around the state in an op-ed published in the Dallas Morning News.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, meanwhile, continued to urge people to work from home and venture out with caution, wearing face masks, maintaining social distance, and avoiding large groups. A few protesters who disrupted City Council proceedings on Wednesday were a reminder that some in the city are refusing to use facial coverings or follow social distancing guidelines. That opposition is most evident in observing the many people out in public spaces who are not wearing masks.

Still, San Antonio is faring the best among the state’s four major metro areas in terms of people testing positive for the coronavirus case and deaths. Local officials see expanded testing, sanitary practices, social distancing, and use of facial masks as key to preventing a spike in the outbreak.

Paxton Takes Aim at Mayors and County Judges

The tension between Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and city and county leaders intensified after Paxton sent a letter Monday to mayors and county judges in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin threatening legal action if local stay-at-home orders were not relaxed. Paxton claimed provisions of local orders regarding houses of worship, reopened businesses, and face coverings clashed with what Abbott outlined in his May 5 executive order.

The threat was widely dismissed.

“This is not unlike what we’ve seen from the agency’s office recently, in terms of firing off a political letter like this,” Nirenberg said. “And so on the merits we’re not concerned, but it doesn’t stop the AG from seeking a cheap political headline.”

Days later, Paxton sought to sidestep the state’s judiciary and convince the Texas Supreme Court to enter another legal fray and take his side on not expanding absentee voting and the availability of mail-in ballots for voters worried about contracting the coronavirus at poll sites. Various lawsuits seeking to allow Texas voters to join voters in the majority of other states to opt in to voting by mail are pending in the lower courts.

Any rulings are unlikely to impact the state’s July 14 runoff election, but there is a push by plaintiffs to seek relief in time for the Nov. 3 general election. Right now, absentee voting in Texas is limited to people over the age of 65, the sick and disabled, deployed military, those who will not be in the state on Election Day or during early voting, and those who are incarcerated but have not been convicted of a felony.

Click here to download an application for an absentee ballot in Bexar County.

Mayor Taylor Becomes President Taylor

Former Mayor Ivy Taylor, largely secluded from public life since her defeat in the 2017 mayoral race by Nirenberg, has completed her doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania and accepted the presidency at Rust College, a historically black college in Mississippi. The news immediately provoked speculation in the Dignowity Hill Historic District that the Taylors’ showcase home atop Dignowity Park would come on the market. Alas for would-be buyers, the family is hanging on to their property, a suggestion the move to Mississippi might not be permanent.

Taylor isn’t the first former mayor to decamp from San Antonio. Dr. William Thornton, an oral surgeon who served one term as mayor from 1995 to 1997, later retired from his medical practice and moved with his wife, Carolynn, to New York City, where he maintains thethorntonsinnyc blog.

Arts & Culture: Online and Reopening

Some cultural destinations are reopening, while others are not.

Three museums have announced reopening plans: the Witte Museum, the Briscoe Western Art Museum, and the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg. The McNay Art MuseumSan Antonio Museum of ArtThe DoSeum, Blue Star Contemporary, and  Villa Finale are staying closed for now, with online programming developed amid the shutdown.

The future of the arts and performing arts in San Antonio is one of many pressing issues that civic and nonprofit leaders, patrons, and donors will face in the coming year. San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, who will conduct his farewell performance at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in the announced 2020-21 season, published a commentary on the Rivard Report urging civic, business, and philanthropic leaders to reconsider existing funding models, which have long proved inadequate and are now under new levels of duress.

The San Antonio Zoo also is preparing to reopen, depending on Abbott’s anticipated Monday order. Hundreds of cars a day have been snaking their way through the San Antonio Zoo since it began offering drive-thru tours on May 1.

Higher Ed Leaders Cautious About Next Academic Year

San Antonio college leaders are optimistic about reopening campuses for the 2020-21 academic year, but not at full capacity.

During a one-hour panel Wednesday about how the novel coronavirus has impacted higher education, the leaders of the Alamo Colleges District, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and the University of the Incarnate Word said their schools would be open in the fall. But how the reopened campuses might look has not been determined, they told Rivard Report Education Reporter Emily Donaldson, who moderated the virtual event, “Higher Ed: Assessing the Damage, Looking Ahead.”

“Opening up could mean still the majority of our academic content is delivered online,” UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said.

School districts also are focused on reopening at the end of the summer, knowing it will not be business as usual.

Meanwhile, graduating students of all ages adorned in caps and gowns could be seen with friends and family members at various public venues throughout the city, posing for photographs in the absence of formal ceremonies, proms, yearbook signings, and other missed traditions.

Acts of Kindness Abound

Of all the spontaneous philanthropic endeavors that have sprung to life during the outbreak and shutdown, few if any are likely to surpass the #GiveMamaCoffee campaign conceived and staged by San Antonio Spur Patty Mills and participating brick-and-mortar and mobile coffee shops.

Mills announced Wednesday on Instagram that the #GiveMamaCoffee campaign raised $103,965.76 to benefit Family Violence Prevention Services (FVPS).

Customers used Cloosiv, the coffee-ordering app, to preorder their beverages and donations before showing up at one of eight venues to collect their beverage. If they were lucky, they encountered Mills on the scene as he made the rounds. The Spurs point guard matched the funds raised Sunday and thanked coffee shop workers for opening on Sunday amid strict social distancing protocols. Afterward, Mills bought lunch for everyone.

David Robinson and David Robinson Jr. appeared together in a joint online press conference Thursday, inviting people to contribute to the $1 million Spurs Give Together Fund, which is now within $300,000 of reaching its goal. The fund is addressing a range of needs amid the coronavirus outbreak: providing Wi-Fi access to inner-city families; food assistance; joining Mills in his campaign to help nonprofits helping domestic violence victims; and providing child care funding for workers returning to their jobs.

Each passing week seems to give rise to new and creative approaches where people come together to help the most vulnerable in San Antonio. Small acts add up.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.