The San Antonio City Council engaged in an important and interesting discussion Thursday on how to safeguard public health while restarting the economy. Are the two a contradiction? The possibility that reopening will trigger a spike in the coronavirus spread if people do not adhere to social distancing protocols has local leaders acting with caution.
The conversation followed the latest order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday authorizing the reopening of most businesses while also still advising people to stay at home except for essential outings. That seemed like its own contradiction this Memorial Day holiday weekend.
There is a visible pent-up urge among people eager for social contact. It’s evident already as Friday saw the reopening of bars, bingo halls, gyms and workout facilities, public pools, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys, hair and nail salons, massage services, and expanded indoor seating to 50 percent capacity at restaurants. People are expected to head to Texas beaches and Hill Country rivers in search of outdoor recreation and an opportunity to party. Just about everything other than sports stadiums and music venues is cleared to open this weekend or by month’s end.
Texas is among the leaders in states reopening public life and the economy, according to a New York Times survey. How that will affect the number of people contracting the virus remains to be seen. More and more people are openly disregarding the advice of public health officials to don facial masks and practice prudent social distancing. It’s evident from a walk through local malls, at The Pearl, along the San Antonio River, and elsewhere.
Everyone wants to return to life in the city before the virus was first detected here in mid-February and the first recorded death in mid-March. To date, 2,418 people in Bexar County have tested positive for the coronavirus and 66 have died, the lowest per capita rates among the state’s five major metro areas.
Subtract the number of positive cases and deaths recorded at area nursing homes and inside the Bexar County Adult Detention Center and the success of locally-mandated stay-at-home policies become even more evident. Whether that community resolve will now hold, or weaken, as people assume the worst is past, remains to be seen in the coming months. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff continue to urge citizens to wear face masks and follow social distancing guidelines to keep the virus under control in the city and county.
The need to restart the economy and stop the record job loss in Texas was underscored with last week’s news that that jobless rate had hit 12.8 percent, a staggeringly high rate in the state, with the previous record for unemployment registering at 9.2 percent in 1986. More than 2 million people statewide have filed for unemployment since the outbreak arrived here in February.
About 1,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus each day since the state began to authorize a reopening of the economy at the start of May. That is serving to slow any economic recovery, even with the openings.
It’s also overshadowing all other public business in the city as high school and college graduates around the city complete the year without public ceremonies or strong prospects for employment. The hospitality industry remains on life support. Low wage workers remain the most vulnerable to not being able to pay rent or meet other expenses.
The negative impact of the COVID-19 outbreak surfaces daily in one corner or another of the city. On Friday, St. Mary’s University announced layoffs and pay cuts amid a $10 million budget shortfall and anticipated drop in enrollment. The university has long maintained one of the highest graduation rates in the state, but such performance is no protection right now.
Those who have lost their lives in war and other conflicts are remembered on Memorial Day, which has been commemorated for more than 150 years, dating back to the end of the Civil War. Families who gather in public parks, in back yards, and for visits to gravesites to remember veterans and other lost loved ones, will experience the day of remembrance unlike anything seen in past years.
Four World War II-era planes will fly over the city Monday. Lewis Air Legends, an organization dedicated to preserving and maintaining historic aircraft, collaborated with the City for a 30-minute airshow to honor those who have died serving in the armed forces. This is the second flyover San Antonians will get to enjoy in the span of two weeks; the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds visited on May 13.
A measure of patriotism and nostalgia seems right for the moment.