Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town

by Ben OlivoMarch 23, 2020
Republic of Texas Restaurant on the River Walk on Friday, March 20, 2020. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron
The River Walk, during what is normally one of the busiest weeks of the year, was nearly deserted on Friday, March 20. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

The bartenders, restaurant servers and hotel housekeepers carried plastic bags of food from the pantries of the River Walk establishments where they work up Losoya and South Presa streets. Some walked to pick up points. Others carried their hauls to a vehicle parked at one of the abundantly available meters nearby.

Friday afternoon, downtown streets were closer to looking like those surreal scenes we keep seeing from Italy, and now major American cities, which are on lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This stretch of Losoya and Presa is where the River Walk bends south toward the Torch of Friendship. Normally, the kitchens inside the restaurants, bars and hotels are slammed with Spring Break orders. On Friday, most, if not all, restaurants downtown either furloughed or laid off most, if not all, of their staff. So they emptied their pantries, which had been stocked for the normal rush of tourists, and made care packages. Workers picked them up, as well as their last checks, for who knows how long.

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It was the hospitality workers, the homeless, Centro ambassadors in their yellow raincoats, the occasional jogger, the occasional tourist cluster or office worker walking around downtown by the time last week ended. First Mayor Ron Nirenberg, then Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars and restaurant dining rooms closed. Earlier in the week last week, downtown seemed to be operating at less than half-speed. By Friday, it was 10% at best.

"It affects the service industry hard," said Brandon Lara, a server at Paesanos Riverwalk, who was carrying a couple of bags packed with packages of beef, chicken, spinach, bread and toilet paper. "Because a lot of people who didn't save, or didn't know anything about it, are living off fumes."

There was a pattern to every interview I had with downtowners last week. Somewhere in the conversation, they worried about the uncertainty of it all. And then somewhere in there, they couldn't help but say some version of, "I've never seen it like this," speaking of the empty streets, of the many businesses closed. One, a dive bar on Losoya, boarded up the windows.

"My kids don't know how to ration," Lara said. "They wake up and eat like nothing’s wrong. Like I said, I have maybe $50 to my name and we’re saving that as much as possible for toilet paper, Kool-Aid, and tea. Stuff that actually goes a long way."

Lara said later, "I’ve never seen a ghost town like this (on the River Walk). It’s insane."

As I was talking to Lara, I noticed a young couple down on the river level below had ordered food from Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. The couple sat at one of the empty tables and had lunch on the River Walk. I walked down and introduced myself.

"What happened is causing stress on everyone," says Afaque Hussain, a concierge at a hotel, the name of which he asked me not to mention. "Of course, the hospitality industry and everything that has to do with tourism in San Antonio is getting hurt so bad."

Hussain had come downtown with his girlfriend, Amanda Cunningham, to pick up his check and have lunch—a couple of orders of fried shrimp and fries.

"For me, truthfully, I think most Americans are living paycheck to paycheck," Hussain said. "I am in no different case. I make my credit card payments as much as I can, and live through my credit card. But now I don't know how I'm going to be able to make full payments. I'm just going to be making minimum payments. Most likely, I will have to apply for unemployment."

Oh, the other topic that keeps popping up: The stimulus package from the federal government and the prospect of receiving a $1,200 check.

...

'It's scary. It's tough.'

Maribel Mendoza, owner of Oasis Cafe on North Main Avenue, takes an order Friday afternoon.
Maribel Mendoza, owner of Oasis Cafe on North Main Avenue, takes an order Friday afternoon. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

On Friday at Oasis Cafe on North Main Avenue, the orders were coming in via phone, but not at their usual pace.

"Right now we're fortunate that we do have carry-out," said owner Maribel Mendoza, who had to cut four waitresses after restaurant dining rooms were closed mid-week. "We do have several customers that come in from Frost Bank and then the construction guys."

Typically, there are up to eight employees running this small taqueria, where the tables stood solo, without their chair companions.

"It’s scary," Mendoza said. "It’s tough. We’re just taking it day by day."

Most restaurants on street level seemed to be open for carry out service last Friday. Some, like La Panaderia, were completely closed.

Royal Blue Grocery Store on Houston Street has remained opened, because it is technically a grocery store.

Co-owner Jessica Povost said downtowners are calling in to see if they carry items like eggs and other essentials. Upon entering the store, patrons are asked to sanitize their hands. It's people who live in the downtown area who are having trouble finding products at the H-E-Bs, and who are looking for a less-hectic grocery shopping alternative.

"We’re here for the community," Povost said. "We’re trying to really focus on training people to sanitize their hands when they come in, and do the right things, keep six feet away. It’s slow. We don’t have a lot of people who live in downtown San Antonio, but the people who do are coming out trying to spend their money."

Povost said there still are workers downtown, but not the usual numbers.

"Of course, tourism is down, that’s the right thing," she said. "And of course, people are staying home, that’s the right thing. We just want to be here for the people who don’t get to stay home. The District Attorney's office, the city workers. There’s plenty of people who still work downtown who still need places for food and coffee."

...

The Alamo is closed on Tuesday, March 17, because of the coronavirus. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

'There's a lot of support from everybody'

Outside Maddy McMurphy's Irish Sports Bar, on Losoya Street, bartenders and servers who work for restaurants owned by the Mad Dogs Restaurant Group, were driving or walking up to pick up bags of food and toilet paper.

Felicia Rios, who's furloughed as a Mad Dogs British Pub bartender, drove up.

"It means a lot, especially because we have kids," said Rios, a single mother of two young children. "It’s been chaos in the grocery store. For them to be able to give us what they can for now has been awesome. We got loaves of bread, eggs, I’m not really sure what else. I didn’t get to see."

Rios said she's been saving a little, and can somewhat weather the storm, especially with some help.

"There’s a lot of support from everybody," she said. "I think it will be OK. As much chaos as it is."

Last week, Rios was one of 200 workers furloughed by Mad Dogs Restaurant Group due to the executive orders which came down from Nirenberg, then Gov. Abbott. In response, the company made stews and other prepared food from what was left in the kitchens. It also supplemented those meals with $2,000 worth of additional grocery products, such as vegetables, pasta, loaves of bread, cookies, crackers, and bottles of water.

"They're all going to have a job when (the restaurants) reopen," said Aaron Selinkoff, director of operations for the Mad Dogs group.

Early afternoon, they had about 150 employees come by, including one worker who pulled her two kids and her grocery bags in a Radio Flyer wagon. The company is closing its other restaurants, which include On The Bend Oyster Bar & Lounge and Bier Garten Riverwalk, rather than trying to stay open when tourism is at rock bottom.

"Right now, most people are working from home," said Selinkoff, who said the workers will retain their tenure and benefits. "There is no traveling tourism. There is no convention business. There’s a multitude of restaurants that are trying it with extremely limited results."

The same afternoon, Hotel Valencia was experiencing the hit of the loss of tourism as it operated at 8% occupancy, where they'd normally be at 100% on the last Friday of Spring Break, said Stacy Seaborn, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. She said most of downtown operates at 90% occupancy throughout March.

Usually, it takes a little more than 100 staffers to run Valencia Hotel. On Friday, there were between 10 and 15 employees running the popular River Walk hotel. Seaborn said the majority of those let loose were furloughed, although some were let go entirely.

"As soon as we get out of this, we call them all back," she said.

...

Maddy McMurphy's, an Irish sports bar, is decked out for St. Patrick's Day on last Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

'This is Twilight Zone'

It was Tuesday, St. Patrick's Day, the day before Nirenberg ordered bars and restaurant dining rooms closed.

We didn't know that then, but everyone sensed the edict was imminent. People celebrated St. Patrick's Day, but in sparse numbers.

At the Texan II, a bartender busted out The Knack's "My Sharona" on the karaoke machine, but instead it was "My Corona." During the head-bobbing chorus break, she said, "Wash your hands. Don't touch you face. All that good $#!@."

Coronavirus is everywhere. The topic, that is. As a journalist, I don't want to be accused of causing hysteria.

Rick, a bartender at the Texas T Pub, said as much. He couldn't understand why all the fuss in San Antonio given the fact that all the cases have been travel-related. This was last Tuesday, mind you, before the first community spread case was announced by Metro Health. In San Antonio, as of this morning, there are 45 total cases, 10 of which are community spread, according to the Metropolitan Health District.

The Texas T Pub is one of the dive-iest of dive bars, where the proletariat drink cheap beers (cash only), play pool and talk about the day's news.

Rick said the media was blowing things out of proportion. Some of the other regulars jumped in and piled on. Until I said I was a journalist, and then the tone changed. We exchanged light-hearted jabs, then talked.

He asked me, in earnest, whether I thought the media was overblowing coronavirus. I told him, in all honesty, that I didn't know. Journalists are not infallible. There's the old "headline bias," which all news organizations, including the Heron, are guilty of. On the other hand, when the mayor and governor shut down bars and restaurants, when the president declarations of emergency—when the number of local coronavirus cases starts to double, then a death—are we supposed to ignore it? Or downplay it?

I also pointed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said if people are panicked, that's a good thing. Seems like the appropriate response to a pandemic, especially one we all have a role in correcting by staying home and practicing social distancing when we have to be out.

I shifted the conversation and asked Rick whether a mom-and-pop place like the Texas T Pub can endure something like this. Rick said the bar will be fine. He's not the owner, but he's worked there more than 20 years. The owner is an older lady whom I've never gotten to know in all my years slinking from downtown bar to downtown bar. But I recognized her. While I was talking to Rick, she was in the corner, next to the big-screen TV, where a couple of announcers were discussing the ramifications of Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots. I didn't want to bother her, but Rick said the Texas T has enough savings to ride out the storm. "Weeks, months?" I asked, fishing for an exact timeframe, but he wouldn't give specifics.

One worker, from IHOP at Rivercenter, who didn't know I'm a reporter, said she didn't know how she was going to pay her rent. Many here work in the hospitality industry. They're talking about applying for jobs at Wal-mart and H-E-B.

"In my 52 years, I’ve never seen a St. Patrick's Day like this," another regular said before starting a game of pool.

Two viejitos were having an intense low-volume conversation in the corner. The conversation, if only for a few minutes, turned to Brady, and the world seemed normal again.

"I thought he was going to San Francisco, or some $#!@," one says.

A black and gray-striped cat walked past the pool table. Another regular.

Everyone seemed to know each other and yet nobody gave me looks. Except the cat, who gives everyone looks. I don't know if it's the bar's intrinsic welcoming vibe, or the situation we're all in.

Down the bar, a construction worker plops two large McDonald's bags. A transaction is made and one of the pool players ingests a Quarter Pounder in under two minutes.

It's like all of the Texas T faithful are assembling at HQ. The super friends unite.

"We need toilet paper and water," Rick said, jokingly, to one customer. "That’s how you pay for beer."

"This is the Twilight Zone," someone says. "This is where it is."

...

Sparse crowds enjoy the River Walk on Tuesday March 17, 2020. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

By Friday, it's become effortless to talk to people, strangers, like the times the Spurs won the championship. Some people I talked to without uttering the word "coronavirus," just to talk, to see how they or their business was doing, not looking for a quote, and they not only knew what I was referring to, but responded with a level of ease that exists only between friends.

Miguel Villarreal, 37, a Centro ambassador, seemed in a state of meditation while standing on the Commerce Street bridge next Royalty Coins. I don't think I'm getting him in trouble by reporting this, because literally, with virtually no people walking around, there was little for him to do. No trash to pick up. No tourists to direct.

As we talked, others came up. Mostly homeless people, who entered our conversation.

"I hope when all of this is over, we’ll treat each other a little bit better," Villarreal said. "I hope this kind of ends racism, in a way. To see we’re all affected the same. That’s what I hope for."

It reminded me of a line from one of my favorite essays called "The View From Mrs. Thompson's," by the David Foster Wallace, published shortly after 9-11. "But now there’s something to talk about that outweighs all reserve, like we were somehow all standing right there and just saw the same traffic accident."

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Some didn't get the memo.

On the river, next to Gourdough's Public House, which was closed, ducks were fighting. At first I thought maybe it was a mating ritual or something. But, no. They were clearly fighting. One larger, white duck grabbed onto a smaller mallard and twisted its neck violently. I tried to break it up by standing next to them, but they ignored me. I thought, this is it: the beginning of the end. Like those Thai monkeys that went hungry because there were no tourists to feed them, and started brawling in the streets. I thought, these are our Thai monkeys. The San Anto ducks losing their $#@! because the tourists are all gone.

I raised this theory with the folks at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, an ice cream and chocolate shop across the stone bridge.

"Was it the one with the crooked neck?," manager Eileen Ramirez asked.

"Yeah," I said.

"He’s always fighting," she said.

"Oh, thank goodness."

Exiting the ice cream shop were the Boecks and the Smiths of Wisconsin. The Boecks—Jeynell and Alan—have a summer ranch in Bandera, and came down to infuse some money into the downtown economy.

"We love your River Walk," Jeynell said. "We've been here several times."

"The few people we’ve seen, the one or two, have been incredibly friendly," Alan said.

I shared with them my experience, about how now there's something for everyone to talk to each other about.

"It proves very clearly that we are social beings," Jeynell said.

Her brother, Peter Smith, jumped in. He wanted to explain why they were out and about during a pandemic.

"It’s good to be safe and not shake hands," Smith said. "I can understand that. But you gotta live, too."

...

It's now Monday and the vibe is still surreal. At times, there are as few people walking around downtown. Early mornings after a hard night of partying, such as New Year's Eve or a major Fiesta gathering—or when a hard freeze hits. This is different. Not as many people walking around when they should be, because most have been told to work from home. No events. Some restaurants closed, some open. No river barges telling urban myths. A closed Alamo. Downtown is more closed than open. It's in some kind of weird and unfamiliar purgatory everyone hopes passes soon.

As a lifelong downtowner, I hope so, too.

Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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