More than 100 Diamond Princess cruise ship evacuees were released from federal quarantine at Lackland Air Force Base on Tuesday. The evacuees' completion of a 14-day quarantine came just as city and county officials declared public health emergencies to delay the evacuees' departure. An updated plan from federal health officials eased city concerns and cleared the way for the evacuees' departure.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, evacuees would be escorted to the San Antonio International Airport in buses. From there they were to be escorted to their flights or take rental cars to their homes. Only evacuees who completed two weeks in isolation and do not show symptoms would be released.
In a statement on Tuesday, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he was comfortable that the plan as presented would minimize the risk of exposure to the community.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said that by Tuesday evening, only a handful of the Diamond Princess evacuees remained at Lackland.
“I believe we still have about seven or so left at Lackland," he explained, "and maybe another 12 or so at the Texas Center for Infectious Disease. So we still have some folks here that have got to go through additional testing.”
The evacuees were originally scheduled to be released on Monday but the City of San Antonio and Bexar County issued public health emergencies restricting the evacuees' travel outside of the base. The city and county wanted further testing to be done. The city also filed a restraining order against the CDC but a judge sided with the federal agency.
'Extraordinary and immediate measures'
Nirenberg and Wolff said the declarations were not because of an increased risk to public health but instead an attempt to stop the CDC from ending the federal quarantine of evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. On Monday, Nirenberg followed up the declaration with a tweet, emphasizing that "This is NOT to signify that the public is at any increased risk."
The mayor's declaration explained that he "determined that extraordinary and immediate measures must be taken to respond quickly, prevent and alleviate the suffering of people exposed to and those infected with the virus, as well as those that could potentially be infected or impacted by COVID-19."
It added that the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 appointed him the "emergency management director of the City of San Antonio" with the authority to "declare all rules and regulations that may inhibit or prevent prompt response to this threat suspend for the duration of the incident."
The declaration activated San Antonio's emergency management plan. It was to remain in effect for at least seven days, beginning on Monday, March 2. It may not continue beyond that seven-day limit "unless continued or renewed by the City Council," according to the declaration document.
BREAKING: San Antonio Mayor @Ron_Nirenberg declares public health emergency regarding COVID-19. Part of the hope of this is getting the CDC to respond to and address the city’s concerns about moving evacuees from Lackland. @TPRNews pic.twitter.com/4HStB6xI2k
— Joey Palacios (@Joeycules) March 2, 2020
North Star Mall temporarily closed
The confrontation between the city and county and the CDC followed a separate but related drama over the CDC's weekend announcement that it had released one asymptomatic patient who tested positive and visited North Star Mall before being re-quarantined.
San Antonio Metro Health Assistant Director Anita Kurian explained on Monday that the patient was among a group of people brought back from Wuhan, China, and quarantined at Lackland. Because she had twice tested negative for COVID-19, CDC protocols allowed for her release on Saturday.
"At the time of discharge from the facility," the CDC said on Sunday, "the patient was asymptomatic and met all of CDC’s criteria for release – resolution of any symptoms and two consecutive sets of negative test results, collected more than 24 hours apart." The results of a third sample, the CDC said, were "determined to be weakly positive."
Kurian said the patient visited North Star Mall for about two hours. She added that the patient was not showing any symptoms.
“Based on the history we’ve gotten from her and based on our risk assessment the exposure at the mall is deemed to be low.” However, she said, people who may have been at the mall should monitor themselves for symptoms.
City health officials said they encouraged mall officials to conduct a deep cleaning. Mall officials said on Monday they would close the mall for 24 hours. The shopping center reopened on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
The patient also stayed at a Holiday Inn hotel near the airport and was in contact with about 18 people at the Texas Center for Infection Diseases.
The primary elections
The latest developments in San Antonio came after New York City and Rhode Island reported their first infection cases, joining more than 70 other cases in the U.S. Washington State has also reported at least six deaths from COVID-19. The World Health Organization has confirmed more than 87,000 cases of COVID-19 in at least 60 nations, and it estimated almost 3,000 people have died throughout the world.
The developments also came before and during the 2020 primary elections on Tuesday.
Bexar County elections official Jacque Callanen said at a Monday press conference that she strongly recommended that election judges concerned about the coronavirus use hand sanitizer at polling places.
She said she could not guarantee election judges at all 280 polling sites across the county will provide hand sanitizer but she praised those who made plans to do so.
“I applaud them if they do precautions as far as ... keep wiping down the equipment," she said. "Hand sanitizers will be there.”
Callanen added that voters could bring their own hand sanitizer too.
By Tuesday afternoon, the vote was underway.
Kate Carey voted at the Laurel Heights United Methodist Church after waiting for some time. "I would say about 45 minutes," she said.
The polling station offered three bottles of hand sanitizer.
Blair LeBatt voted at Lion's Field and hadn't given coronavirus a thought. He joked that he hadn't thought about it until TPR asked him about it.
Robert Miggins said coronavirus was on his mind but, he added, common sense caution was caution enough. "No, not concerned," he said. "I mean, I will I suppose be more cognizant of people sneezing and door knobs and germs and stuff, for sure, but it didn't change whether I would turn out."
Changes to Mass
Concerns over the coronavirus also came from the religious community. The Archdiocese of San Antonio recommended on Tuesday that parishes alter procedures for Mass.
Parishes were encouraged to distribute Communion into the hand instead of the tongue, remove holy water from church entrances and avoid physical contact.
A statement from the archdiocese said pastors have discretion in instituting these directives in their parishes, in light of local needs.
Catholic schools were also encouraged to frequently sanitize tables in the classrooms.
San Antonio residents and businesses may learn more about COVID-19 and other related information in English or Spanish by calling Metro Health's hotline at 210-207-5779, Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or at a dedicated website. Information is also available in American Sign Language at this website.
Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.
Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie.
Jack Morgan, Brian Kirkpatrick, Kathleen Creedon and Fernando Ortiz Jr. contributed to this report.