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San Antonio Tourism Is Bleeding As Fears Of COVID-19 Persist

Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
AWP began Thursday, but thousands backed out of attending

For weeks William Fargason was excited to travel for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference hosted this year in San Antonio. The poet and editor published his first book of poems this year after five years of trying to get it published. 

“And it finally happens. And this is supposed to be kind of the the moment where I get to celebrate with other writers, my book and their books, and it was just, it's such an important community event for all of the writers,” said Fargason. 

His book is in San Antonio, but he won’t be. Fargason suffers from an auto-immune disease that makes him especially susceptible to COVID-19. So when news broke that a Wuhan evacuee was re-quarantined after a weekend jaunt to North Star Mall, he knew he couldn’t go. 

The spectre of the COVID-19 disease loomed over San Antonio already and the CDC misstep didn’t help. Follow that up with a public health emergency declaration from the mayor, and people take notice. 

While there aren’t any confirmed cases outside of the quarantine the news has already had an impact for the tourism and convention industry.

Fargason and thousands of others have backed out of the AWP conference over concerns about the pneumonia-like disease that has spread around the globe killing more than 3,200.

Listen on Fronteras: Writers Conference Resurrects Issue Of Diversity In Publishing

“I think they should have canceled. I think that would have been the best decision for everyone's health locally, nationally, and globally,“ he said.

Many on social media called for it to be canceled after Mayor Ron Nirenberg declared a public health emergency.  Conference co-executive director Diane Zinna eventually stepped down in protest of the decision to continue the events. 

Instead of an expected 12,000 people, AWP board members like January Gill O’Neill don’t know what to expect.

“I don't know if we can give a number. I mean, it's certainly more than half of that number. But, you know, I'm optimistic that, you know, it'll grow,” she said.

They hope to grow it with locals turning out for their Saturday Book Fair. 

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
January Gill O'Neill and Rigoberto Gonzalez

Panels have been canceled, a party put on by Trinity University Press has been scratched and organizers are rearranging to help ensure the production comes off at a high level.

“We had to sort of tailor the conference schedule a little bit, maybe move things around in the book fair so it doesn’t look desolate,” said board member Rigoberto Gonzalez.

They didn’t cancel because 30 or so city and state health officials assured them the risk of spreading the disease is very low, the organization planned for three years to bring the conference here and many members still wanted it.

“We understand that that was enough for some people to convince them not to come and it can come to cancel. But we also had plenty of people that are still very enthusiastic,” Gonzalez said.

But in San Antonio — where tourism is the third largest industry bringing in more than $15 billion annually — concern around COVID-19 is a problem according to Visit San Antonio’s Richard Oliver.

“It makes our job a little bit tougher,” he said.

The city hasn’t lost any conventions yet, but he says the city is bleeding as a result of this and it isn’t clear if it is a paper cut or a gash. Either way hotels are feeling the effects right now, especially as spring break begins for many schools next week.

Oliver says in the era of social media many aren’t reading past the headlines, and they see “Public Health Emergency” and “San Antonio” in the same line. They don’t know that most of the evacuees are gone, and they don’t know that no cases are confirmed outside of the quarantine. 

So, he said his team has to get out there and tell them.

“I think on the front end, yeah, We’re, ‘Ok, we got our finger on the pulse on our wrists’ and trying to keep our heart rate down, because it's not looking all that as promising as it was,” he said. ”But on the back end of it, you know, we're hoping things kind of work themselves out, at least to stem some of that bleeding.”

He hopes to ensure San Antonio doesn’t lose any more of its estimated 39 million annual visitors due to COVID-19.

For William Fargason, he hopes those 6,000 or so people that attend don’t come back to communities like his and endanger people like him.

“And then they spread it and it can snowball in a way like that,” he said. “That it is a little terrifying when stepping back and thinking about.”

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive