Mayor Ron Nirenberg is earning words of praise for the leadership he has demonstrated over the past two months as San Antonio has come to terms with the coronavirus pandemic.
“He’s walked a fine line between acting responsibly with the measures the city has taken, including the state of emergency, while not sowing panic,” former Mayor Phil Hardberger said in a conversation with me last week. “It’s been his most successful moment as mayor.”
The cancellation of Fiesta and virtually all other public events, Hardberger said, was the right decision for the city, regardless of public opinion.
“There are tough decisions yet to be made,” he said, “but I think Ron has done a fine job.”
Hardberger, who served as mayor from 2005 to 2009, knows that moments of crisis can define an elected official for better or worse. Early in Hardberger’s first term, he opened the city’s arms to tens of thousands of displaced persons after Hurricane Katrina struck the Texas Gulf Coast and New Orleans in August 2005.
The spontaneous decision defined Hardberger forever in the minds of voters and put San Antonio on the map as a city willing to help others in their most vulnerable moment.
Hardberger has long served as Nirenberg’s mentor, so his assessment of the second-term mayor who was nearly ousted last year after one term by rookie City Councilman Greg Brockhouse is bound to matter greatly.
I’ve been raising the issue with others in San Antonio in recent weeks, and there is a consensus that Hardberger is right. Crisis puts leaders to the test, and Nirenberg has emerged as the right leader for the right time.
He and the City’s team under City Manager Erik Walsh, who also is being put to the test early in his time in that position, are working closely and effectively with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and federal officials.
Their job has been made that much harder by the Trump administration’s lack of planning and understanding of what the World Health Organization declared a pandemic last week. Local officials are operating on the premise that the COVID-19 virus will spread through community contact in San Antonio or already has. A lack of capacity to test has left leaders and citizens with uncertainty, which easily leads to panic.
The widespread cancellations are critically important to contain any outbreak.
“It’s far better to take preventative measures than have to react to unanticipated developments,” Nirenberg told me last week on the eve of the announced cancellations.
There is no medical crisis in San Antonio, or anywhere else in Texas, at this juncture, but there is a confidence crisis. It’s not easy to counter the fear of the unknown that has swept through the city. Containing that fear with prudent measures is important.
Just as citizens are looking to President Donald Trump to quell fear and doubt across the nation, Nirenberg must manage the local groundswell of concern. He and Walsh’s team have responded with reason and rationality.
That builds confidence that leaders are doing what they can even as financial markets plummet, widespread closures are put in place, and employers impose work-from-home and no-travel policies. San Antonio’s visitor and retail economy is taking a beating, so nothing is easy.
Much of the community concern was brought about by the arrival of several waves of evacuees, first from China and then from cruise ships, who have been under federally supervised quarantine at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
Nirenberg had to declare a public health emergency earlier this month to get the attention of federal officials and convince them to tighten their protocols for releasing individuals after the quarantine period. That has made the rest of us feel better about continuing to serve as a city willing to do our part.
“The quarantined people from the cruise ship that are here now are Americans, many of them Texans,” Hardberger said, “and the City has taken a prudent approach to making sure they are kept at Lackland while keeping San Antonio a welcoming city, the kind of city we want to live in.”
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t the first crisis that Nirenberg and City workers have weathered.
Less attention was paid in spring 2019 when U.S. immigration officials started to bus tens of thousands of asylum-seeking Central Americans from border camps and detention facilities to San Antonio. There was no federal planning, no funding, and no coordinated communications from Washington. City public health officials and nonprofit and church workers often didn’t know when the next busload was arriving.
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Anti-immigrant sentiment only grew across the country as the months went on and migrants continued to stream north, taxing local resources. Policies eventually were put in place by the Trump administration forcing the migrants to stay south of the Texas-Mexico border in squalid refugee camps.
Nirenberg, then fighting to hold on to the mayor’s seat in an ugly and divisive election campaign, never wavered. San Antonio treated every migrant parent and child with care and dignity and helped them on their way to meet family members or sponsors elsewhere in the country.
That experience touched fewer lives locally, however, and thus drew less appreciation. A pandemic is different. Everyone is watching, everyone is waiting.
It has taken this pandemic to redefine Nirenberg as mayor of San Antonio, but he has risen to the occasion, firm in his resolve, calm in his demeanor. It’s exactly what San Antonio needs as we work to return the city and economy to good health.