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'If We Go, We Go' — Tourists In San Antonio Ignore The Pleas Of Public Health Experts

As the nation’s top public health officials tell people to stay home, many tourists are still coming to San Antonio and going out on the River Walk, a hub of tourism.

On Monday, the CDC told people to avoid unnecessary gatherings of more than 10 people. One of San Antonio’s biggest tourist attractions, the Alamo, quickly closed its doors. Even before closing, it was already taking precautions.

“(On Monday) we went to the Alamo,” said Tenessa Gambrell. “They had us stay six feet apart from any other parties, and they limited the number of people that could go in.”

Gambrell is from Kansas City. She also took a river tour on Go Rio Cruises, the city’s exclusive river boat contractor. The boats have a capacity of 40 people. Occupants sit in four rows — close enough to bump knees and rub shoulders — facing each other for a 35-minute tour.

“It was all full except for like four seats,” Gambrell said. The crowd didn’t make her nervous.

Employees with Go Rio declined an interview, and Landry’s — a partner corporation of Go Rio — did not respond to repeated requests for comment. As of Tuesday morning, Go Rio said they will continue river tours with limited capacity.

Credit Dominic Anthony / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
The Go Rio cruises are often crowded, with 40 people sitting in close proximity. The city contractor said Tuesday it will continue tours with a limited capacity.

Gambrell and her group are healthy, but even at-risk groups have been going on tours.

Sheila Roche and Gary Bennett are 70-year-old cancer survivors from the West Coast. They took a bus tour of the city.

“We were visiting our 92-year-old aunt who lives here,” Bennett said. “And so it was just a short visit to see her, and we hope to catch the Alamo and some other things while we're here, but it's all closed.”

Their aunt isn’t worried about coronavirus, and neither are they.

“Well, we had made all these plans before the virus hit. So we questioned it, but we decided that we're old enough,” he said. “If it gets us, it gets us.”

“If we go, we go,” Roche said. “I’m not gonna stay home right now.”

Many people who already made and paid for travel plans were reluctant to cancel them. Tourists said they’d rather risk their health than lose money. But health experts say social distancing measures aren’t just about your individual health — social distancing is about the health of the community.

“If you care for your fellow human being, you want to make sure that you don’t get it so that you don’t infect some other people,” Dr. Ruth Berggren, an infectious diseases expert with UT Health San Antonio, told TPR’s Bonnie Petrie on Friday.

Berggren said social distancing is key to avoid an overwhelmed hospital system and preventable deaths.

“You don’t want to get it so that you don’t clog up the emergency room when somebody else needs it,” she said. 

On Monday, hours after the CDC issued guidelines against gatherings of more than 10 people, shops and restaurants along the Riverwalk remained crowded. That same day, San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg banned all gatherings of 50 people or more, but the order doesn’t apply to restaurants, bars, grocery stores or offices. Unlike New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston and Austin, the city has not closed bars or limited restaurants to take-out only.  

On Tuesday, a utility service truck sat on the river’s banks. It broadcasted the live White House coronavirus task force press conference. Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the taskforce, said every generation has a role to play.

“We’re asking our older generation to stay in their homes,” Birx said, as elderly couples strolled along the river.

She also said young people need to make changes.

“We’re asking the younger generations to stop going out in public places — to bars and restaurants — and spreading asymptomatic virus onto countertops and knobs, and grocery stores and grocery carts,” she said, as a Go Rio river tour passed.

If those changes don’t happen, the pandemic curve could overwhelm the public health system.

Dominic Anthony can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony.

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony