San Antonio, Bexar County leaders hustling to develop best phased-in reopening plan

Diego Mendoza-Moyers

Pressure is mounting for city leaders to restart the local economy.

Tens of thousands of workers across Bexar County have been thrown out of work over the last month. Small businesses have been shuttered, and the city is facing a monumental budget shortfall that could drive further job losses and hamper regional recovery efforts.

Six weeks after issuing city and county stay-at-home orders, local leaders are scrambling to devise a plan to safely reopen businesses in the coming weeks, even as COVID-19 cases and deaths in the city continue climbing.

To balance the competing concerns — containing the virus and getting people back to work — Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff have created two transition teams: one focused on public health, the other on the economy. Those groups will work together to recommend how best to reopen businesses while continuing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

So far, members of the city’s 21-member economic transition team are off to a quiet start. They said they’d received virtually no word from the city on how the group will work.

However, they expect to go to work soon — and at a breakneck pace.

“They told me to expect a significant amount of information in the next couple of days,” said Jody Bailey Newman, owner of the Friendly Spot Ice House. “It’s going to be a short, intensive time frame.”

The panel, co-chaired by Kevin Voelkel, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas, and Julissa Carielo, president of Tejas Premier Building Construction, will develop a plan to guide best practices for maintaining social distancing across industries and to ensure the health and safety of employees in the workplace.

The team is expected to put the plan together by Friday and present it to the City Council and the County Commissioners Court the following week.

Their efforts could soon clash with Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s looking at a shorter timeline. On a Dallas-area radio station Thursday, Abbott said Texans would be allowed to go to restaurants and hair salons by “the first couple of days in May.”

“You’re going to be able to do things that people have long been wanting to do,” Abbott said. “But we’re going to be sure there are safe standards in place, so that you will be able to do that without spreading the coronavirus.”

Abbott is expected to announce his near-term plan Monday.

Local leaders have emphasized the importance of the health committee guiding the economic committee — and not the other way around.

The health panel will develop guidelines “based on how businesses can ensure that they can operate when it’s safe to open, but in a manner that protects themselves, their employees, as well as their customers,” Nirenberg said.

The economic transition team’s members include local officials and business owners in the restaurant, technology and construction industries, among others.

Last month, the city also established five working groups to address problems such as food insecurity and the local economic fallout of the pandemic.

There’s been significant overlap among the working groups, and members said they want to introduce a more focused approach.

The city is facing a revenue shortfall of up to $180 million stemming from the drop in taxes collected from retail sales and hotel room bookings. That’s made finding solutions even more difficult.

“One of the first questions we had on our first call was ‘What’s our budget?’ And I think it was a little bit of wishful thinking,” said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval, who is heading the business and employment working group. “Things that help us employ our community and get cash into the pockets of residents are important, and the priority right now.”

The five-member group includes one business person — Lisa Wong, owner of Rosario’s and Acenar Mexican Restaurant and a principal in the city’s river barge concession. The other members are Sandoval, County Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez, Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales and Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project.

Sandoval said her group can help coordinate technical assistance for local businesses that couldn’t tap the hundreds of billions of dollars in small-business loans provided by the federal government in recent weeks. Many of the businesses either couldn’t navigate the loan application process or didn’t have a relationship with a financial institution.

Many lenders accepted applications for government loans only from existing customers, leaving “unbanked” small businesses at a disadvantage in seeking assistance.

Initial funding for the Paycheck Protection Program ran dry April 16, but President Donald Trump on Friday signed a relief bill that replenishes the fund with more than $300 billion.

The University of Texas at San Antonio’s Small Business Development Center and the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation partnered to assist businesses with the complexities of the application process.

“Our small-business survey uncovered a surprising number of companies that needed a banking relationship and help preparing for the complex loan process,” said Jamie Bloodsworth, a spokeswoman for the SAEDF.

Rod McSherry, an associate vice president at UTSA who leads the SBDC, said even local lenders were unclear about how the process worked.

“The complexity of the (PPP) program, and the magnitude of the problem, those were the things that were overwhelming,” McSherry said. “And simultaneously, we were getting feedback from the banking community that they were learning as we were going along.”

McSherry said the SBDC is looking to add 20 new employees to handle the demand of businesses seeking help.

He said he wants the center to be “a front door for businesses” in San Antonio to access federal funding now and further assistance during the eventual post-pandemic economic recovery.

“The first phase, let’s say three to four months, is just getting businesses where they can access emergency relief,” McSherry said. “Then we’ll go from the relief and emergency recovery, to a rebooting and rebuilding stage.”

Beyond technical assistance for business owners, Sandoval and members of her group are pushing to offer laid-off workers assistance with unemployment applications, as well as rent assistance for business owners.

They’re also looking at ways to retrain affected workers and provide training for students losing out on summer jobs and internships.

“Probably the toughest part is focusing on one area,” Sandoval said. “This is affecting every single aspect of what we do as a local government. How do we make life better for the people who have suffered the worst impacts right now?”

diego.mendoza-moyers@express-news.net


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