The number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases continued to climb Tuesday but the rate of positive test results dropped for the third week in a row as Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff extended their emergency orders until June 4 to help prevent a resurgence of the disease.
The new orders “strongly encourage” residents to wear masks, rather than make it mandatory as previous orders have done.
Nirenberg said that change was made to align with Gov. Greg Abbott’s superseding orders that prohibit penalties for mask violations, but he emphasized that wearing masks and maintaining a 6-foot social distance are still necessary because the crisis isn’t over.
“The world didn’t change overnight with regard to the guidance on masks,” Nirenberg said. “It is extremely important for people to maintain the guidance of the public health professionals and wearing of masks when you’re within 6 feet of someone who’s not in your household is one of those very important measures that we can take to make sure we limit and slow down the spread of the virus.”
San Antonio has had a consistently lower infection and death rate than many of the nation’s largest cities, such as Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago and many others with half as many residents, but Nirenberg and Wolff cautioned against complacency as bars and restaurants begin to open more fully this coming weekend.
Nirenberg noted there were 65 new cases reported Tuesday, pushing the Bexar County total to 2,278. Of those, 23 were the result of community transfer and the rest came from congregate settings, including five from Bexar County Jail and seven from nursing homes. But 51 are still pending the results of contact tracing investigations.
No new deaths were reported Tuesday, for the fifth day in a row. The COVID-19 death toll for Bexar County stands at 62.
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The mayor said testing continues across the county to ensure that every resident in every nursing home is checked for the virus. That process was expected to take two weeks and has been going on for about a week now.
As of Tuesday night, 339 residents at four nursing homes had been tested, of which 39 turned out to have the virus, according to Metro Health data. Of those, 21 showed no symptoms. Also as of Tuesday night, 498 staff members from the same four nursing homes had been tested, of which 32 had the disease. Eight showed no symptoms.
The county now has the capacity to test 3,960 people per day at public and private facilities, Nirenberg said. The goal had been 3,000 daily.
Other indicators watched by health officials and community leaders also continue to show San Antonio is improving, the mayor added.
The percentage of tests that were positive for the virus, known as the positivity rate, had dropped for three weeks in a row, to 3.5 percent at the end of last week, Nirenberg said. The previous week it was at 4.3 percent.
Of those who are still ill, 80 were in the hospital Tuesday with 35 in intensive care and 20 on ventilators to help them breathe.
That leaves 78 percent of ventilators and 30 percent of staffed hospital beds available citywide. Officials say those percentages indicate the area is well prepared for a sudden outbreak, if it were to occur.
In regard to enforcing the city and county orders, officials at Tuesday evening’s briefing indicated penalties can be imposed in certain cases.
District Attorney Joe Gonzales said so long as the governor doesn’t specifically reserve an authority for himself, as he did with masks, local governments can impose penalties.
“With regard to masks, we’re prohibited from enforcing any civil or criminal penalties,” Gonzales said. “We can’t jail anybody for refusing to wear a mask, we can’t impose a civil fine.”
But there are other areas where the city and county have the authority to impose fines, Gonzales said, such as, possibly, limits on gatherings.
City Attorney Andy Segovia agreed, adding that officers are looking for high-risk violations that could provoke the spread of novel coronavirus.
“What we’re trying to avoid in terms of our enforcement is large gatherings where you would have a highly increased risk of spread,” Segovia said. “We’re looking for birthday parties of 20, 30, 40 people, graduation parties in households where clearly you have a lot of people from outside the household.”
Nirenberg repeated that citing and jailing people for violations isn’t the best way to stop novel coronavirus.
“Our ability to be successful in this pandemic response has much less to do with the threat of punishment and more to do with the transparency of data and information and making sure people know what the right thing to do is,” the mayor said, holding up his mask to make the point.
Bruce Selcraig is a staff writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Bruce, become a subscriber. BSelcraig@express-news.net