San Antonio City Council voted 10-1 Thursday to extend through April 30 an emergency order that keeps nonessential businesses closed and implements social distancing requirements for residents to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The local Stay Home, Work Safe order is in line with those of Bexar County and the State of Texas that were recently extended.

The emergency situation likely will not be over by then, Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger said. “We are not returning to normal on April 30.”

Several council members and Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the order probably will be extended past this month, but it is too soon to tell.

“These dates are not magical,” Nirenberg said.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) was the lone Council member to vote against the measure, telling reporters after the vote that the City’s response as a whole wasn’t robust enough.

Sandoval supports “the spirit” of the emergency order as being “completely critical and necessary … and City staff is going above and beyond what the CDC is [recommending] on a number of things.” But she said she wants to see other elements of the City’s response strengthened such as testing, isolation of potential patients outside of their home, and planning for the future.

The City and County already have identified several hotels and city-owned venues that can serve as isolation facilities. Metro Health is constantly monitoring testing and updating protocols as the situation evolves.

“I think it’s important that we have a coordinated communications plan going forward for the public,” said Sandoval, who has a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University’s School of Public Health. “Things are changing every day – I get it, we have to be flexible and adaptive – but I think we also need to know: who are going to be our targeted audiences, when are we going to talk to them.”

Municipal guidelines for communications during a health crisis compiled by the World Health Organization have been distributed throughout the City organization, a City spokesperson said.

Sandoval also wants Council members to be involved in public health conversations – or at least made aware of decisions being made.

Last week, Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff established five working groups to tackle the region’s response in the areas of federal and state advocacy, philanthropy, food security and shelter, business and employment, and social services. All 10 council members and all four county commissioners serve on at least one committee along with community leaders and their staffs.

“The working groups do not address health during the pandemic,” Sandoval said.

Public health amid the pandemic is being addressed by experts in the Metropolitan Health District, area hospital systems, and regional agencies. Local government, for the most part, has been following the guidance of health experts.

“From the first public health emergency order … the intention was to make sure that the public health authority was in the driver’s seat guiding us through this situation, which now is a pandemic response,” Nirenberg said after the meeting. “It’s critically important that the decisions we make are guided by health experts and not by politics.”

As of Thursday afternoon, 20 people in Bexar County have died from complications of COVID-19. There are 554 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) asked City staff if the order should be updated to require gloves, masks, and other protocols for businesses that stay open. Bridger, who previously led Metro Health, said it would be difficult to craft a single policy for such a wide range of operations.

“Masks are a secondary line of defense. Our first line of defense is social distancing,” Bridger said. “We don’t want to put a false sense of security that if I’m wearing a mask I can go hug my friend.”

Budget adjustments

In anticipation of an historic budget shortfall due to the economic effects of the coronavirus, City Manager Erik Walsh announced Wednesday that 270 City employees whose positions were funded through the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) would be furloughed effective April 23. The City also will stop payments to arts and cultural agencies for the rest of year starting in May.

Asked Thursday by reporters if he expects to furlough more employees, Walsh said, “I think there is still a lot of uncertainty. We’re focused on response and basic operations.”

The preempted cuts in expenses – along with the suspension of more than $82 million worth of street maintenance, economic development incentives, hiring, and other programs – is in anticipation of the unknown economic conditions ahead, Walsh said. “It’s all projection.”

Best-case scenario projections show a $110 million impact to the current fiscal year budget. The worst-case projections show that climbing to $158 million.

These adjustments and others that have been made to the budget, including a hiring freeze, balance the budget for fiscal year 2020 so far, said Deputy City Manager Maria Villagómez.

Sandoval and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) objected to covering some of the costs by slashing $2.9 million in bike lane projects from the minimal slate of infrastructure work the City plans on carrying out this year.

Walsh told Council he would try to find another nearly $3 million in the budget, adding, “I’ll take that into consideration.”

Golfing and vaping

A greenskeeper mows the lawn at the Willow Springs Golf Course which are now no longer in operation due to restrictions from local government. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) has said that golf courses should be exempt from the business closure order because, like parks, they provide a safe way for some people to enjoy recreation.

The Texas Department of Emergency Management is handling requests for interpretation of the statewide order and is maintaining a list of types of businesses that are ordered to close here.

Conversations have been had about golf courses, City Attorney Andy Segovia said, and “we are monitoring that website.”

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As of Thursday afternoon, cosmetology salons, gyms, massage establishments, tattoo studios, piercing studios, and dining rooms of restaurants, bars, and food courts are prohibited from operating.

Attorneys representing Mega Vape, a vaping supplies stores located at 2603 SE Military Dr., sent a letter to the mayor and City Council demanding that it be considered an essential business and allowed to reopen.

The City revoked the vape shop’s certificate of occupancy after several citations, which could carry up to $2,000 fine and possible jail time, meaning the business’ electricity and water services could be disconnected. The city also has revoked the certificate for at least one Planet K head shop.

Attorneys Warren V. Norred and Gerrit Schulze argued that, like liquor stores, the vape shops provide a product that if not consumed may drive customers to experience withdrawal symptoms, try to make dangerous homemade products, or cause them to start smoking carcinogenic cigarettes for nicotine.

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Vaping devices should be considered exempt from the order because it is a “consumer electronic,” they argued.

They also challenged the City’s authority under the state’s superseding order, calling the designation of essential business “arbitrary notions.”

Click here to read the demand letter. Click here to view the City’s response.

Segovia told the Rivard Report on Thursday that the legal arguments presented by Mega Vape attorneys were “misinterpretations” of the law.

The governor’s order didn’t take away the City’s ability to close what it deems nonessential businesses, Segovia said. “The governor’s order essentially took away the mayor’s ability to override the governor when it comes to essential businesses … as long as he’s being consistent with what the Governor’s order says is essential businesses.”

The vape shop could ask the state if it’s an essential business, he said. “I don’t know if they’ve done it or not, but that seem the most appropriate way to become a designated exempt business,” Segovia said. “…. If the state says yes, they’ll add [Mega Vape] to this list of exempted businesses.”

The City would then allow the business to reopen.

“My sense is they don’t want to ask [the State] because they’re afraid the answer will be no,” he added.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com