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San Antonio City Council Approves Stay Home Orders Through May 19, Metro Health Details Testing Goal

The San Antonio City Council voted 10-1 to extend the stay at home orders.
Joey Palacios | Texas Public Radio
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The San Antonio City Council voted 10-1 to extend the stay at home orders.

Residents in San Antonio are encouraged to stay at home as much as possible through mid-May as the city and county issue new “Stay Home, Work Safe” orders.

The latest public health emergency orders include the state’s ease of restrictions on some non-essential businesses to reopen. The city and county orders still require residents to use face masks — even though state orders forbid penalties for not wearing one. San Antonio Metro Health is also planning to rapidly increase testing into this summer. 

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s issued their separate orders on Wednesday night during the daily COVID-19 briefings to the public. The city’s order needed city council approval to extend it to May 19. 

Before the vote, Nirenberg said that opening businesses at the moment is risky

“I think this is a risk we don’t need to take because the gating criteria that have been articulated by public health officials have not yet been met,” Nirenberg said. “We’re not testing enough. We don’t have the contact tracing and isolation protocols within the state well enough. We haven’t seen a sustained two week decline in the data.” 

Texas reported more than 28,000 cases of the virus by Thursday afternoon. Bexar County has 1,374 positive cases. 

“We hope this works, we hope the governor’s actions will not see a regression in the good work we’ve been doing,” Nirenberg said. “But we won’t see that effect for another three weeks but let’s all do our part to continue social distancing, keep each other healthy, and save lives.”

Both orders continue to encourage residents to stay at home as much as possible. Bexar County’s order adds protections for renters by extending the suspension of evictions.

The city council vote was 10-1 with District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry as the only dissent. Gov. Greg Abbott’s order forbids cities and counties from levying fines for not wearing face masks. Perry said if the city can’t enforce it, it shouldn’t be mandated.

“San Antonians are taking this pandemic seriously, and I believe that most people will voluntarily wear masks to mitigate the risks of contracting and spreading COVID-19. Gov. Abbott’s Executive Order clearly states that no locality can enforce penalties for non-compliance. I could not support a mandate that is unenforceable,” he said. 

Testing

Earlier this week, the Health Transition Team commissioned by the city and county released guidelines on how to relax social distancing in phases. Testing is a major component in determining the effectiveness of social distance policies.

San Antonio Metro Health wants to conduct 3,000 COVID-19 tests per day by the end of June. 

That’s one of several indicators the health department will use to determine the effectiveness of social distancing.

San Antonio Metro Health Director Dawn Emerick said Bexar County is seeing the impact of the public health orders by the amount of time it takes for positive cases to double.

“We were seeing a doubling of cases every three days. Since the implementation of the order we’ve averaged a doubling every 2.5 weeks. That’s amazing. That shows that the declaration has worked,” Emerick said.

The increased testing would come in phases. About 1,600 tests per day are being conducted now by several facilities. That will go up to about 2,100 through May and then 3,000. 

“We have to make sure that there’s supply,” Emerick said. “We would love to test everyone but if the supplies are not there then we can’t do it, by doing this over a period of time we will allow the supplies to start to accumulate to be able to do it.”

District 9 Councilman John Courage expressed concern with not knowing how many people have the virus and are not being tested.

“We’re already starting to open businesses and we’re starting to see people become more mobile, I just don’t feel like we’re moving fast enough and I think that (we) need to be putting more pressure on our state government to give us more of what we need to protect the people in our community,” Courage said.

In May, Metro Health  will approach more than 300 random households to study asymptomatic transmission. At the moment prevalence among asymptomatic carriers is unknown. 

Metro Health also plans to increase testing access to marginalized communities — it will also enlist more than 170 contact tracers to help track down contacts of people who test positive. 

Funding The Fight

The City of San Antonio is allocated to receive up to $270 million in coronavirus relief funds from the federal CARES act. San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh says the funds are only allowed to be used for unexpected or unforeseen costs of responding to COVID-19.

“The funds in some of the guidance we’re getting can also be used to respond to — what is called at the federal level — second order effects of the emergency such as providing economic support for those suffering from employment or business interruptions due to COVID-19,” Walsh said. 

The CARES act is providing $150 billion to local governments. The money cannot be used for budget shortfalls and loss of revenue experienced by the city. The city’s revenue loss for this fiscal year is expected to be about $160 million. 

Further details about federal funding are expected at next week’s city council meeting.

Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.

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