A COVID-19 safety sign last year in Austin.
A COVID-19 safety sign last year in Austin. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

By Duncan Agnew | The Texas Tribune

As small-business owners and managers across Texas went to work Wednesday morning, they faced yet another 2021 headache: deal with losing business from customers who don't want to wear face masks during the pandemic or from patrons who will only frequent places that require them.

The dilemma was abruptly thrust upon them after Gov. Greg Abbott announced yesterday afternoon that the state will lift its mask mandate and allow all businesses to operate at 100% capacity starting March 10.

Some businesses barely had an opportunity to reopen after last month's deadly winter storm and power outage crisis before hearing about this massive change to the state's COVID-19 safety protocols.

"I do feel that we'll probably lose guests based on whatever decision we do make, but I guess that's just part of the environment that we are in now," said Jessica Johnson, general manager of Sichuan House in San Antonio. "It's either you wear masks and piss a couple people off, or you don't wear masks and you piss a couple people off."

At least one business owner, Macy Moore of HopFusion Ale Works in Fort Worth, said Wednesday on CNN that he had not slept since Abbott's announcement because he's so worried about the health and safety of his staff. Others, like Anne Ng of Bakery Lorraine in San Antonio, have decided to keep mask requirements in place for staff and customers regardless of what Abbott and the state government say.

"By repealing the mandate, the government is putting everyone at risk, and foodservice workers are sadly at the front lines in facing potential hostility from folks who will refuse to respect our mask policy," Ng said. "We don't deserve that."

Meanwhile, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, filed legislation last week that would prevent any business entities from being held liable for exposing people to pandemic illnesses. That provision in House Bill 3 is one of Abbott's top priorities for this year's legislative session. The governor was joined by Burrows in Lubbock on Tuesday when announcing plans to rescind many coronavirus restrictions against the advice of federal and local health officials.

Health experts are still urging Texans to keep wearing masks as new and more contagious variants of the virus emerge. Hospitalizations continue to decrease after January record highs, but the state is also still averaging more than 200 deaths a day.

Because the state's mask mandate will officially end next week, mask requirements around the state now largely come down to the decisions made by Texas businesses. Many took to social media to announce their intentions to continue requiring masks, while others have said they feel powerless to enforce a rule without the state's protection or support.

Christine Ha, a partner and co-executive chef at Xin Chao in Houston, sent out a notice to her whole staff Wednesday afternoon that the restaurant would continue requiring masks and operating at a reduced capacity. She expressed concern about enforcing those policies, though, because local agencies and law enforcement no longer have to support her restaurant's safety requirements.

"This leaves it up to my team to enforce these policies, and they are in the business of hospitality, not policing," Ha said.

Still, other business owners emphasized that all they can do right now is try to keep both themselves and their staff healthy and safe. In a pandemic world full of so many unknowns, many are choosing to focus on what they can control.

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Kristina Zhao, the owner of Sichuan House in San Antonio, said most of her customers have remained loyal and supportive over the last year, and deciding to maintain a mask mandate would not deter that encouragement.

"From my standpoint, I can't really worry about upsetting people because we're trying to make a decision that's best for our team and for the long-term sustainability of our business," Zhao said.

Zhao also questioned whether Abbott's announcement would actually change the current dynamic in Texas. Many grocery stores and other businesses around the state have already faced frequent confrontations with customers who refused to wear masks, and anyone who wants to dine indoors has already had the opportunity to do so, albeit with a mask when they're not seated and with reduced capacity.

Still, some businesses have already reported backlash from social media users over their decision to keep a mask requirement in place despite the governor's move yesterday. Jennifer Dobbertin, who runs a restaurant called Best Quality Daughter in San Antonio, said that an "anti-masker crowd" has already established itself in the restaurant's social media comments.

"If you don't want to wear a mask, fine, we can respect that," Dobbertin said. "Please don't come eat at our establishments, but don't come to the restaurant and try to fight us on it."

Some grocery stores have even made opposing decisions about the mask mandate. Tuesday, H-E-B announced that customers would no longer have to wear a mask starting March 10, in accordance with Abbott's order, though the chain is encouraging them to still do so. Kroger, however, will still require any employees and customers to wear masks until all grocery workers have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, according to corporate affairs manager April Martin.

Most low-wage workers in Texas, who are often people of color, have not had opportunities to work from home during the pandemic. Front-line workers in industries like health care, building and cleaning services, social services, public transit, grocery and delivery and warehouse work are predominantly women and people of color.

Texans of color have been disproportionately killed by the virus and impacted by its accompanying recession during the last year. Advocates have reported that these communities have also fallen behind in the vaccination efforts. And Black and Hispanic Texans are far more worried about the coronavirus compared to white Texans, according to a Texas Tribune-University of Texas poll released this week.

Ha, from Houston's Xin Chao, said maintaining the safest and healthiest practices certainly remains worth the small price of rubbing some customers the wrong way.

"There are plenty of people who prefer restaurants continue to follow COVID safety protocols, and these folks will be more likely to frequent and support restaurants like ours," Ha said. "So we lose some, we'll win others. That's fine by me."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org/2021/03/03/texas-businesses-mask-mandate/.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

The H-E-B Christmas tree at Travis Park is decorated earlier this week. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Judge Nelson Wolff have placed a curfew prohibiting people from gathering outside their homes from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. beginning Thanksgiving Day and lasting through Monday morning. Exceptions apply to people seeking services from a business, according to a city press release.

Violators could be punished with a $1,000 fine.

During normal times, this is the weekend that kickoffs the holiday season in San Antonio, when thousands of locals flock downtown to take in the H-E-B Christmas tree, the River Walk, and other light displays.

These aren't normal times as Covid-19 cases continue to rise locally, and as temperatures are expected to drop on Thanksgiving Day.

The holiday tree lighting ceremony at Travis Park will be shown virtually on H-E-B's Youtube channel. Thought, undoubtedly, many will make the trip downtown for a selfie in front of the 50-foot Concolor Fir.

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During curfew hours, restaurants will be required to close for dining service from 10 p.m. to 6 p.m. They may continue drive-thru, curbside or takeout services after 10 p.m.

"The last two surges in cases followed holiday weekends; in this case, the numbers are already increasing exponentially, so the Judge and I decided to impose a curfew to limit the spread over the Thanksgiving holiday," Nirenberg said in a press release. "We are counting on each and every San Antonian to take personal responsibility for protecting themselves and others."

The moves comes as local leaders have resorted to pleading with San Antonians to stay at home as the holiday season begins to kick off. At the same time, Nirenberg has said he's ramping up enforcement on business who violate the local Covid-19 order.

Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

The 36th Annual H-E-B Tree Lighting ceremony at Travis Park will take place virtually this year as a safety precaution amid the pandemic.

Which What exactly does that mean? It means the ceremony already happened. The pre-taped ceremony will air on H-E-B’s YouTube channel starting at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27. The Christmas tree lights will be illuminated at 7:20 p.m. Mariachi Las Altenas will serve as the musical entertainment.

In normal times, the River Walk lights are lit minutes after the tree lighting ceremony, which kicks off the Ford Holiday River Parade—which, of course, has been canceled. Mayor Ron Nirenberg lit the lights virtually last week.

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The 50-foot Concolor Fir hails from Northern Michigan near Lake Michigan. The tree arrived at Travis Park last Tuesday, and crews have been busy decorating it with more than 10,000 red, white, and blue lights, and dozens of handmade ornaments. H-E-B has committed more than $250,000 to transport, decorate and light the tree.

The Christmas tree lighting ceremony used to take place in front of the Alamo. But it was moved in 2017 by city officials to Travis Park's center and replaced the Confederate monument, which had been removed a few months earlier. Among the reasons for moving the Christmas tree was that Alamo Plaza would be under construction for the master redevelopment. The plan has been suspended. Read the latest from the San Antonio Express-News.

[ Photos by Ben Olivo | Heron ]

Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

HERON FILE PHOTO

After announcing its upcoming Fall Heritage Festival, an event meant to soften the fundraising blow suffered from Fiesta's cancellation, The Conservation Society of San Antonio is taking criticism from local business owners concerned the group is hosting a “superspreader” event during the pandemic.

Recently, as Covid-19 case numbers have plateaued and restrictions slowly eased, the Conservation Society received approval from the city and Mayor Ron Nirenberg to hold its Fall Heritage Festival, a one-night fundraiser Nov. 6 at La Villita for a limited crowd of 1,000 people.

The festival is meant to mimic A Night in Old San Antonio, or NIOSA, but on a much smaller scale. Every Fiesta, NIOSA serves as the society's primary fundraiser, hauling in roughly $1.5 million, most of which benefits historic preservation in San Antonio. La Villita alone receives more than $100,000.

When Fiesta 2020 was postponed from April to November, and then canceled because of the coronavirus, NIOSA was moved to April 2021 to adhere to the City of San Antonio’s restrictions on large gatherings.

“It’s not just a fundraiser—it’s a celebration of heritage,” said Patti Zaointz, the society’s president. “We’ve been under this pandemic cloud for so long—it’s an opportunity to come out and have a good time."

According to Zaointz, the $125 festival tickets are all-inclusive, meaning guests can visit any food and beverage booth spread throughout La Villita without exchanging coupons or other forms of payment. Unlike at NIOSA, guests must sit down while eating, which is the only time they will be allowed to take their masks off.

After the festival was announced, the La Villita Tenants Association issued an open letter Oct. 14 to Nirenberg, the City Council, and the city’s Center City Development and Operations department in opposition to the event. With input from members of the association, the letter was written by Deborah Sibley, the association’s treasurer and immediate past president.

In an interview, Sibley said the event’s announcement came as a surprise to members of the association.

“We weren’t informed by the city, which is unfortunate,” Sibley said. “Being a stakeholder, it would have been nice to be consulted about the potential plans, and for us to be able to contribute our position as they gave consideration to what they wanted to do.”

The festival also received criticism from some local bar and restaurant owners as first reported in the San Antonio Current.

“This news of a very expensive fundraiser comes just four days after our mayor went on TV pleading for restaurant, bar owners, event venues and PATRONS to ‘carefully consider the risk among the pandemic’ in regards to reopening any further,” Braunda Smith, owner of Lucy Cooper’s Icehouse, said in a Facebook post.

Smith was joined by other restaurant owners who took to social media echoing her sentiment. In a Facebook post, Tim McDiarmid, owner of The Good Kind, Ivy Hall and Tim the Girl catering, pleaded with Nirenberg for the city to support the local restaurant industry.

“We have been forced to shut down, some of us for months, with no city aid and CONSTANT blame and criticism,” McDiarmid said.

As local coronavirus case numbers began to decline, Zaointz said the society submitted a festival proposal to the city, which approved the plan.

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“We submitted (the festival proposal) with the expectation that if it went, great; if it didn’t, it’s OK,” Zaointz said. “We placed it in the hands of the city and as things settled down, they thought this might be something that’s doable.”

In a statement, Nirenberg said:

“Every event must have an operational plan approved by Metro Health and the city manager, and finally by the Mayor. The operational plan will be reviewed and modified if necessary by the public health authorities. Public health guidelines will be strictly enforced and approval can be revoked if public health conditions change or it is otherwise determined to be necessary.”

After receiving approval, Zaointz said the society worked closely with the city to meet public health standards and Covid-19 safety protocols. For example, during the festival, guests will have access to hand sanitizing stations, be required to wear masks, and social distancing will be encouraged throughout the 4-acre venue; society volunteers will walk the event to make sure attendees adhere to protocols. Currently, there are no plans to require temperature checks before entering the festival, but Zaiontz said the society will continue to explore all safety options available.

The festival is not the first event to draw a potentially large crowd since quarantine started, Zaointz pointed out. In September, the first large convention was held at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, Six Flags Fiesta Texas reopened June 19, and museums are now open to the public.

The La Villita tenants letter expresses concern that bringing a crowd of 1,000 people to the village “has all the components of a potential “superspreader” of Covid-19. An Oct. 12 quote by Nirenberg, which said “the virus is still active in our community and is transmitting person to person,” was also included in the letter.

According to Sibley, if an outbreak did occur, publicity for the businesses in La Villita would be negatively affected.

Businesses in the village are operating at reduced days and hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

The festival will take place 6-9 p.m. on a Friday, which is after operating hours for the businesses. But Sibley said the event will disrupt their shops regardless.

“They plan to host this event on a Friday, staging on Thursday and tearing down on Saturday,” Sibley said. “That takes up three of the four days we’re open for business. We know from other events and even from NIOSA how we are affected and how tourists are deterred from coming in while these things are ongoing. So, we have a financial stake in this event.”

La Villita is owned by the City of San Antonio and managed by Center City Development and Operations (CCDO). To host the festival, the society had to book the village venue through CCDO, which declined an interview and did not provide any additional information.

As property owners in La Villita, the Conservation Society is a member of the La Villita Tenants Association. According to Zaointz, the event is meant to highlight the unique location. She also noted the society’s support of La Villita, including providing funding for the maintenance of the buildings with NIOSA proceeds, which annually exceed $100,000.

“We value our relationship with the tenants and we really value our relationship with the village itself,” Zaointz said.

The society is also partnering with the San Antonio Food Bank and will have donation drop-offs at each festival entrance.

NIOSA originally began as the “Indian festival” held at Mission San Jose in the 1930s. It became an official event in the late 1940s, and eventually moved to La Villita. Since then, it has grown to a four-night event drawing more than 85,000 locals and tourists.

Brigid Cooley is a Heron intern this fall. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, where she also serves as editor-in-chief of The Mesquite newspaper. She can be reached at brigid@saheron.com, @brigidelise1 on Twitter

Diners seated on the outside patio along the Riverwalk at Casa Rio Sept. 24, 2020. Photo by Victoria Martinez
Dining groups are socially-distanced along the River Walk at Casa Rio. Photo by Victoria Martinez | Heron contributor

Downtown restaurants, especially those on the River Walk, continue to take a financial hit during the pandemic due to low tourism and new social distancing protocols.

Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott loosened restrictions beginning Sept. 21, allowing restaurants to reopen at 75% capacity, businesses are finding they must sacrifice seating space in order to create socially-distanced dining rooms.

“Once you start seriously socially distancing your tables, that means removing a large portion of the seating capacity,” said Terry Corless, CEO of Mad Dogs Restaurant Group. “We’ve lost more than 50% (of seating). So if the governor says you can go from 50% to 75%, it’s negated by the loss."

Mad Dogs Restaurant Group is composed of well-known establishments Maddy McMurphy’s, Mad Dogs British Pub, Bier Garten Riverwalk and On The Bend. Because of their large alcohol sales, the restaurants were categorized as bars during the government mandated shutdown.

Food establishments are classified as bars if over 50% of sales are made from alcohol, otherwise known as the 51% rule. Because they cater to late-night crowds, the Mad Dogs restaurants’ liquor sales exceed the percentage despite making over $1 million in food sales. Loosening previous restrictions in late August, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) began allowing bars to reclassify as restaurants by increasing their food sales.

On Sept. 22, all of Corless’ restaurants received approval to reopen, and are now required to only sell alcohol when combined with a food order, to keep liquor sales below 50%. Having to limit these sales results in less profitable workdays, making it difficult to pay rent and other operating costs, Corless said.

“We’ve had very little or no assistance from landlords in terms of our long going obligation to pay rent,” Corless said. “We’re some of the highest real-estate rent in San Antonio being on the River Walk.”

The Mad Dogs restaurants have been serving guests at 10-15% capacity on weekdays while having to turn diners away on weekends to keep their dining areas properly socially distanced and below capacity, Corless said.

For The Republic of Texas, a family owned and operated restaurant, the tourism downturn has resulted in steep losses.

"Ninety percent of our business is made on tourism and conventions; it’s not locals,” said owner Will Grinnan, whose father Rick opened the River Walk staple in 1975.

Before the pandemic, people visiting The Republic of Texas and other River Walk restaurants had to weave their way through crowds of diners and pedestrians. Now, the sidewalks are mostly empty while the patios of some riverfront eateries, like Boudro’s Bistro, are closed until further notice.

“It’s a scary, eerie situation down here: People are not walking around and we’ve seen businesses open up and then have to close back down because there’s just not enough revenue,” Grinnan said.

The Mad Dogs restaurants and The Republic of Texas received funding from the Federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a federally-funded coronavirus relief program allowing small businesses to apply for loans to keep staff employed. As of Aug. 8, businesses are no longer able to apply for these loans. Politicians and small business owners across the country are calling for a second round of PPP to continue the aid.

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Grinnan said the PPP funds The Republic of Texas received made it possible to keep them open. However, they continue to struggle to make a profit and keep their staff, which has shrunk from 95 to 24 employees as of Sept. 25. In addition to payroll, restaurants must pay for personal protective equipment (PPE), operational costs and rent. Without crowds downtown, restaurants will not be able to pay their bills, Grinnan said.

“We have to get the convention center back open and we have to get airplanes back in the air, people traveling,” Grinnan said. “Without that (the River Walk) may not survive.”

Last week, the Women of Joy conference was hosted at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, the first large event since March. Most events on the convention center’s 2020 calendar have been postponed until next year, with few exceptions.

While advocating for restaurants, the Texas Restaurant Association worked with the state government to create the Texas Restaurant Promise, a set of guidelines restaurants must follow to meet the Minimum Standard Health Protocols enacted in Texas on May 1.

Requirements include providing guests with disposable menus, spaced out tables and hand sanitizing stations. These new guidelines bring additional costs to businesses.

Diners have a meal at La Panadería located Downtown Sept. 24, 2020. Restaurants can increase occupancy to 75 percent of capacity according to Gov. Greg Abbott. Photo by Victoria Martinez
People dine at La Panadería on East Houston Street. Photo by Victoria Martinez | Heron contributor

When La Panaderia’s East Houston Street location closed its doors in March, the business relied on its Broadway location up north to keep it afloat by delivering bread and selling baskets of eggs, beans and other hard-to-find grocery items, at the time.

Since reopening, the location is taking advantage of its large dining room and newly added outdoor patio to accommodate customers and increase sales. Location manager Tiffany Cabrera said they are hopeful the loosened capacity restrictions will continue to benefit the business, but won’t know for some time.

“Overall, we are hoping things get better by the end of the year, like November or December,” Cabrera said. “We’re just hoping everything gets more stable.”

For Casa Rio’s, the oldest restaurant on the River Walk, and Schilo’s, the oldest restaurant in San Antonio, the absence of tourism and big conventions has impacted profits. Both locations are only meeting 30% of their regular sales despite their historic reputations, said Tom Furgerson, director of operations for both restaurants.

Two people sitting at each end of the bar at Schilo’s Sept. 24, 2020. This restaurant offers dine-in, takeout and no-contact delivery. Photo by Victoria Martinez
Schilo’s on East Commerce Street has made every other table available for dine-in. Photo by Victoria Martinez | Heron contributor

Unlike La Panaderia, Casa Rio and Schilo’s were unable to adopt food delivery or curbside pickup services during the lockdown because of their East Commerce Street and River Walk locations.

“You can’t drive down, park on Commerce Street, get out, run in and get food,” Furgerson said. “The logistics of it made it impossible.”

Neither restaurant can rely on local support to sustain them as many San Antonio residents are unwilling to pay expensive downtown parking fees, Furgerson said.

To safely bring in more customers, Schilo’s will be placing barriers between tables to lessen the distance required between them. Casa Rio will hang similar barriers from the umbrellas covering the tables on their riverfront patio. The restaurants will also offer guests free parking in their small lot if they spend at least $20 inside; they hope waiving parking fees will encourage guests to attend.

“We’re going to have to operate under these circumstances for quite a while longer,” Furgerson said. “It’s a whole combination of things: people have to feel comfortable and safe about going out and we have to figure out ways to operate within the guidelines we’ve been given.”

Related
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town
» San Antonio landlords now obligated to inform tenants of rights
» Downtown economy struggles to return to the new norm, much less the normal norm
» City Council narrowly rejects proposal to give renters 60 extra days to pay overdue rent
» A commission of renters? In San Antonio, the debate rages early on
» Landlords asked to forgive 25% rent for tenants impacted by coronavirus

Brigid Cooley is a Heron intern this fall. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, where she also serves as editor-in-chief of The Mesquite newspaper. She can be reached at brigid@saheron.com, @brigidelise1 on Twitter

An apartment complex near downtown Waco. Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday that he was dedicating $171 million in federal coronavirus relief money to helping renters avoid evictions.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday that he was dedicating $171 million in federal coronavirus relief money to helping renters avoid evictions. Photo by Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune

By Juan Pablo Garnham, The Texas Tribune

Texas is using $171 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to provide financial and legal aid to renters facing eviction, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday.

The vast majority of that money — $167 million — will go toward rental assistance. Another $4.2 million will be used to fund legal services for Texans.

Abbott's office also said in a press release that the state is creating the Texas Eviction Diversion Program, which will coordinate state agencies, local governments and nonprofits to help renters avoid evictions and catch up with missed rent payments.

It wasn't immediately clear how the money would be divvied up, but Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs spokesperson Kristina Tirloni explained that cities, counties and nonprofits will manage the application process. Although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development needs to approve the funding, the state estimates that the money will be available by the winter holidays in communities with existing rental assistance programs, and by the start of 2021 in the rest of Texas.

"The Texas Eviction Diversion Program is crucial to our state's response to COVID-19, and it will help many families recover from the impact of the pandemic without the looming threat of eviction," Abbott said in the release. "This innovative partnership, coupled with the renters assistance provided through CARES Act funding, will strengthen our economic recovery efforts and provide a lifeline to renters and property owners alike."

Since the pandemic began in March, more than 3.5 million Texans have filed for unemployment, and staying current on rent has become a main concern of Texans who have lost their jobs or had their hours cut. According to a survey done in late August by the U.S. Census Bureau, 36.8% of Texans said they were somewhat or very likely to face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months. Data from the Princeton-based research center The Eviction Lab shows that eviction filings have increased in some of Texas' largest cities since a statewide moratorium ended in mid-May.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a new nationwide eviction moratorium earlier this month that will last until Dec. 31.

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Since then, the Texas Supreme Court ordered every eviction citation to include information about the moratorium, as well as the form that tenants are required to fill to seek protection from being evicted.

Christina Rosales, deputy director of the advocacy organization Texas Housers, said that Abbott's new program was "unprecedented" and a "good start," but more needs to be done to avoid an increase in evictions in January, when the CDC moratorium expires.

"In Texas, tenants can be evicted because of nonpayment of rent. The thing that will keep them housed is rent assistance," Rosales said. "Legal assistance, right to counsel and eviction diversion will help manage the crisis, but if we want to steer our way out of the crisis, we will need more rental relief."

Texas' most populated cities and counties have created similar rent-assistance programs, mostly using CARES Act funding, too. These have experienced high levels of demand. San Antonio offered residents $50.3 million for rent and legal assistance, which city officials expected to be tapped by the end of this month. Since then, the city has added $24.1 million to the program, which is expected to last until mid-December. In Houston, the first round of a $15 million rental assistance program was drained in 90 minutes. Since then, the city announced a new $19 million program.

This article is republished with permission from The Texas Tribune. Read the original post here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

hello@saheron.com | @sanantonioheron on Twitter | Facebook

Housing file art San Antonio Texas.
The city's housing assistance program has been funded for the fall. Photo by Gonzalo E. Pozo | Heron contributor

Just as funding was drying up, the City Council on Thursday approved another $24 million toward San Antonio's Covid-19 emergency housing relief program, an amount intended to help keep renters and mortgage holders from being evicted at least through the fall.

The allocation was a fraction of the $2.9 billion fiscal year 2021 budget, which the council unanimously passed while spending more on San Antonio police amid calls from local activists to defund the department.

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» To apply for the City of San Antonio's emergency housing assistance and right to counsel programs, click here
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» Browse the city's other Covid-19 relief options

In a separate vote, the council unanimously approved changes to the housing program, which will lessen the amount each San Antonio household impacted by the pandemic receives—from three months of rent or mortgage payments covered, to two. So far, 15,971 families have been approved for assistance since April 23, when the council supersized and rebranded a similar program in light of the pandemic.

In a new strategy, the city will also direct recipients of housing benefits to its job training program for those whose employment was impacted by the coronavirus. The program offers potential jobs in healthcare, manufacturing and IT industries, and targets people in the most impacted industries, such as hospitality, food service and retail.

The new direction has been criticized by District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, who's been the most ardent council member in fighting for more housing relief dollars. He has argued publicaly that the city should prioritize emergency relief dollars toward keeping people housed, rather than on job training, as the crisis rolls on.

"The program changes are not one a compassionate city would make," Treviño said at Thursday's meeting. "And they are made solely at the benefit of extending or expanding the workforce plan."

However, Treviño tempered his criticism with the understanding that the pay-out amounts and eligibility requirements, could be discussed and potentially restored to their current state at a council subcommittee in early October.

In addition to paying people's rent or mortgage, the program also pays utility bills, including internet, and offers up to $500 cash. Households have received an average of $2,851, the majority of which make less than 30% of the area median income, which is $21,600 for a family of four. The vast majority of recipients, 85%, are renters, according to the city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department.

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[ View the city's Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program dashboard for more data. ]

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Change in strategy

On Monday, city officials revealed a modified version of the housing assistance program.

Rather than offering up to three months of assistance, the revised program offered residents making less than 50% of the area median income (AMI) the full benefits for one month. The second month, the family would only receive up to $500 in cash, and no other benefits.

Residents making in the 50%-80% AMI range would receive rental or mortgage aid for on month, minus the utility bills aid, then $250 cash for the second month. The revised plan also would exclude people making between 81% and 100% AMI.

Residents who already received aid could receive one month of cash assistance beginning Oct. 1.

During Thursday's meeting, the council heard from Rick Treviño, a volunteer at St. Mary's University's eviction legal advice hotline.

"Thousands of people have been helped by this program the way it is," Treviño said. "It doesn't have to get too complicated."

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The council also heard from Jessica Guerrero, chairwoman of the Housing Commission, who read a letter from the commission: "We have heard from countless residents, advocacy groups, resident associations, community leaders, institutional experts, and others, with a unifying theme: That our housing system in San Antonio required continuous improvement, investment and leadership."

When asked whether lessening the benefits was a means to extending the funds, the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD) said in a statement that strategy shift was intended to make funding available to people who have not yet applied for assistance.

"It was intended to help a larger number of applicants," Edith Merla, NHSD spokeswoman, said in an email.

Treviño felt the lessening of benefits would lead more renters in arrears with their landlords, which would lead to the landlord imposing more fees and eventually an eviction filing.

At Thursday's council meeting, City Manager Erik Walsh said his staff modified the program to two months of benefits followed by one month of cash after hearing feedback from Treviño and other council members this week.

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said the city would resolve any back rent or mortgage payments owed—up to $5,000—should a resident find themselves in eviction court.

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed an eviction moratorium Sept. 4 through Dec. 31, the order doesn't absolve debt owned by tenants, nor does it prevent landlords from filing eviction lawsuits.

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Boost in spending

The $24 million approved Thursday was an increase from $5.25 million that was originally earmarked in the proposed FY 2021 city budget.

The new funding brings the total amount San Antonio has devoted to housing relief to $76.5 million.

Treviño said he was pleased with the continued commitment to the program, but worries it's not going to last the year, and has lobbied for more funding to help families at the very end of this year and beginning of 2021.

The councilman said he's been working with the city auditor on the numbers, and has concluded the $24 million will run dry by Dec. 1.

Houston told Treviño on Monday that the funding would last through the end of the year.

The $24 million is being pieced together using general fund dollars, Community Development Block Grant funding, Covid-19 relief funds, $1 million from the San Antonio Housing Trust, and other sources.

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Workforce training

The city's "Train for Jobs SA" program is partnership with various workforce training organizations locally, including Workforce Solutions Alamo, Alamo Colleges, Project Quest, Chrysalis Ministries, Family Service, and Restore Education.

The program provides an opportunity to land a short-term or long-term job that pay up to $15 per hour in one of the aforementioned industries.

JOB TRAINING
» To apply for the city's job training program, visit either Workforce Solutions Alamo, Alamo Colleges District or Restore Education.

"Within three months of training completion, our goal is that 50% of program graduates secure employment within a demand occupation," Alejandra Lopez, director of the city's Economic Development Department, said in an email.

Before landing a job, participants can earn up to $15 an hour for time spent training, for a maximum of $450 a week. Depending on which program is chosen, a participant can receive a stipend from two to 36 weeks.

The council approved the $75 million program in early June as part a larger $190.9 million Covid-19 recovery strategy, which included funds for housing security, small business aid and digital inclusion efforts. That day, council members heard from several citizens who said the strategy lacked public input.

City officials expect the program to help 10,000 San Antonians receive training or employment by September 2021.

Unemployment claims in Bexar County have stabilized in recent weeks—but that's only in the context of the new norm, according to data from the Texas Workforce Commission.

The week before the pandemic, less than 1,000 people filed unemployment claims locally. That figure soared the week of March 21, when 14,312 claims were filed. In the subsequent six weeks, an average of 15,882 claims were filed.

In recent weeks, from Aug. 1 to Sept. 5, an average of 3,426 claims have been filed in Bexar County.

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Related
» Online dashboard shows housing relief spending, number of households assisted
» San Antonio earmarks $21.9M for housing relief, but Treviño says city’s not doing enough
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town
» San Antonio landlords now obligated to inform tenants of rights
» Downtown economy struggles to return to the new norm, much less the normal norm
» City Council narrowly rejects proposal to give renters 60 extra days to pay overdue rent
» A commission of renters? In San Antonio, the debate rages early on
» Landlords asked to forgive 25% rent for tenants impacted by coronavirus

Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

for rent stock image san antonio texas
Another $21.9 million is being reserved to help people stay in their homes. Photo by Andrea Moreno | Heron contributor

At the request of some on City Council, an additional $21.9 million has been earmarked to help San Antonians stay housed during the Covid-19 pandemic, an increase from the $5.25 million allocated under the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget.

The new funding, which becomes available Oct. 1, may also come with new guidelines. City officials are recommending the eligibility requirements and pay-outs for its emergency housing assistance program be scaled back, while directing recipients toward the city's workforce training program for those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

The shift in strategy has drawn the ire of District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, who has openly questioned the city prioritizing workforce training over housing assistance during the crisis. He's also been the most influential on the council in augmenting the emergency housing assistance fund.

NEED ASSISTANCE?
» To apply for the City of San Antonio's emergency housing assistance and right to counsel programs, click here
» Call the St. Mary's University hotline at 210-570-6135 if you need legal advice.
» Browse the city's other Covid-19 relief options

The housing assistance fund, which helps families struggling during the crisis with rent and mortgage payments, and other cost of living expenses, has about $5 million left from the roughly $50 million approved since the program launched in late April. The new monies will bring the total allocation to $74.4 million.

So far, 15,441 households have received an average of $2,851 in emergency benefits, Edward Gonzales, assistant director of the city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, told the council's Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee on Monday.

The program's current incarnation offers rent or mortgage aid to needy households for up to three months.

Under the revised program, residents making less than 50% of the area median income (AMI) would receive the full benefits—rent or mortgage; water, CPS Energy and internet service bills; as well as up to $300 in cash—for one month. The second month, the household would only receive a cash grant of up to $500—no other benefits.

[ Scroll down for a chart showing AMI levels. ]

Residents making 50%-80% AMI would receive rent or mortgage assistance only for one month—no utility aid—then $250 cash the second month. Also: Under the revised program, people making between 81% and 100% AMI would be excluded.

If a resident already received aid, they would be eligible to receive one month of cash assistance after Oct. 1.

The shift in strategy is intended to help people get back to work, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told Treviño during the meeting. The workforce program offers participants up to $450 per week while they complete their training.

Earlier in the year, "the economy was still closed. There weren't a lot of job opportunities," Houston said. "But now those are opening up. We're going to be encouraging people to go through our workforce training program."

BY THE NUMBERS
Here are figures for the city's Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program as of Sept. 11:
» Total recipients — 15,441
» Average age of applicant — 39
» Average AMI — 29%
» Average household assistance — $2,851
» Percentage renters — 85%
Source: City of San Antonio

Treviño disagreed, at one point calling the reduction in housing benefits "egregious."

"I don't believe we should force them into a workforce program if they want to have continued assistance," Treviño said. "Offer it, yes. If they want to take it, that's fine. But it shouldn't be their only option if they pass the one month of assistance. I think that's just egregious."

Treviño has said he believes in workforce development, but he's also stated publicly that keeping people from being evicted should be prioritized before job training during the crisis.

Houston added the city would still cover debt for renters or mortgage holders who are in arrears, should they find themselves in eviction court. There are still cases pending for lawsuits filed before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium began Sept. 4. Houston said the city would provide up to $5,000 for back payments owed.

Treviño also fears the $21.9 million, which will be voted on by the council this Thursday, will last through the first week of December, according to calculations he asked the city auditor to conduct. He said the city should be planning to provide assistance for the rest of December and beginning of 2021.

"Winter is coming," Treviño said. "I'm not trying to make a 'Game of Thrones' joke. This is a real thing. The calculations we see with this funding level—which, again, I appreciate that we did move it up from where it was—is only going to last us to just before winter. These funds are not meant to cover the winter months. Unless I'm completely off here, my math shows this money runs out the first week of December."

Houston told Treviño her department expects the funds to last through Dec. 31, which is when the CDC eviction moratorium ends.

Either way, more money is needed, Trevino said.

The $21.9 million is being cobbled together using general fund dollars, Community Development Block Grants, Covid-19 relief funds and $1 million from the San Antonio Housing Trust.

The CDC's eviction moratorium does not absolve tenants from back rent owed.

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2020 Area Median Income

Here are the latest area median income (AMI) levels for the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties), according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Want to know more about how AMI works? Click here.
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Related
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town
» San Antonio landlords now obligated to inform tenants of rights
» Downtown economy struggles to return to the new norm, much less the normal norm
» City Council narrowly rejects proposal to give renters 60 extra days to pay overdue rent
» A commission of renters? In San Antonio, the debate rages early on
» Landlords asked to forgive 25% rent for tenants impacted by coronavirus

Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

Photo by Michelle Del Rey | San Antonio Current contributor

By Michelle Del Rey | San Antonio Current

Carlos Vasquez was eight years old when his parents left behind their village in Zacatecas, Mexico, 732 miles from the Texas border, and carried him and his siblings across the Rio Grande on a black inner tube.

A decade later, Vasquez, 36, became a U.S. citizen. That makes the mason stand out among the undocumented day laborers gathered outside a San Antonio Home Depot in the early hours of the morning as they wait for anyone willing to offer them construction work.

These days, Vasquez joins Ignacio, Joe, Saliaz and Martin — all of whom declined to give their full names due to their undocumented status — as they wait with their few possessions for someone to hire them. If there’s no work by mid-morning, the men head home again.

Before Covid-19 hit, the men routinely earned as much as $180 a day. But things have gotten tight, as they have for many of the people who would normally pay them for their work. Now, their income barely provides enough for rent, food or a new pair of work shoes.

Making matters worse, the pandemic has the Mexican economy teetering on collapse, igniting a financial crisis unheard of since the Great Depression. U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials worry that deteriorating economic conditions in Mexico and Central America could send a surge of migrants northward.

That would bring more competition for these day laborers.

On this morning, the first client arrives around 8 a.m. in a pickup truck, seeking someone to help frame a new building. Saliaz hops into the bed, and the vehicle zooms off.

The other men stand in a dirt divider next to a fast food drive-thru, waiting, hoping they’ll get as lucky as their friend.

'No loitering'

Two months ago, the men say, Home Depot erected a sign next to their old waiting spot that reads, “No Loitering Police Enforced.” In Spanish, “No se permite vagabundos se llamara la policia.” The men simply moved across the parking lot to the restaurant grounds.

Vasquez says the restaurant manager lets them sit outside, as long as they keep the place tidy. Their old spot is now monitored by around-the-clock security.

For some of the waiting workers, today’s breakfast is a can of beer and a cigarette — a little something to take the edge off. As the men bake in the August heat, gossip becomes a form of entertainment.

The men talk about one day laborer who used to haul cocaine around the state and joke that the man is crazy.

The talk seldom turns to how they ended up in San Antonio. However, some mention they only recently fled desperate circumstances in their home countries in Latin America. Others have been seeking day labor gigs at the Home Depot for two decades. For both groups, the work they get here provides their only shot at making a living.

Daily threat

A car pulls up around 10 a.m. The driver offers $50 for a construction job. For a moment, Joe, who just woke up from a nap, stumbles over to consider the offer.

“Take it,” Ignacio advises.

Joe shakes his head. “It’s not much,” he replies.

In this tumultuous environment, Vasquez knows that as a U.S. citizen he’s luckier than the others. Unlike the undocumented men, he’s less worried about whether his employer will pay him on time or will call Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If an undocumented worker experiences wage theft, there’s little they can do without potentially putting themselves in danger of deportation.

It’s a threat Alfonso faces every day. The construction worker says he left his wife and four children behind in Mazatenango, Guatemala, four years ago for the same reason most migrants leave their families: a better life.

“I sacrificed myself for my family,” he said.

Alfonso, 49, trekked for two months through Guatemala and Mexico, until he reached the United States, paying his traffickers $8,000 for the journey. Like many migrants, he says his smugglers exploited him, quoting a lower price in the beginning, then raising it over time until demanding the gigantic sum.

“What could I do?” the short, thin-framed man said, looking down at his blue flip-flops as he recalled the ordeal.

Not enough

Before Covid-19, Alfonso earned enough money applying cement to unpaved roads to provide his children in Guatemala with a quality education. Now, he worries he’ll be evicted from the home he shares with a handful of other migrant workers.

He pays $250 a month for a small room. But since the pandemic hit, he hasn’t been able to scrape together the rent money and now owes his landlord $700.
“There was no work for three months,” he said.

Due to Covid-19, the World Bank predicts remittances to Latin America will fall 20% this year.

Alfonso’s since been able to land odd jobs here and there, he says. But it’s not enough to pay the growing stack of bills — or send money to his family back home.

With no other clients showing up, Vasquez heads to a bus stop so he can catch a ride to his home on the South Side. Ignacio and Joe stay on, with a slim expectation that something might turn up.

For now, all they can do is wait.

This article is republished with permission from the San Antonio Current.

The San Antonio Current, San Antonio's award-winning alternative media company, has served as the city's premiere multimedia source of alternative news, events and culture since 1986.

A health worker conducts a COVID-19 test at one of San Antonio's thrive-thru testing centers.
A health worker conducts a COVID-19 test at one of San Antonio's thrive-thru testing centers. Photo: City of San Antonio

By Sanford Nowlin | San Antonio Current

In an effort to keep local COVID-19 hospitalizations on the decline, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg urged residents to keep their guard up over Labor Day weekend.

In comments during his Thursday night press briefing and on social media, Nirenberg pleaded with residents to avoid crowds, continue wearing masks and to maintain distance from people outside their social bubble.

"Staying disciplined is the fastest way to beat COVID-19," the mayor said in a statement. "By avoiding behaviors and situations that spread the coronavirus over the Labor Day weekend, we will sideline COVID-19 and speed up our return to normal. Although the number of cases has dropped, coronavirus is still present throughout our community. Protect yourself and your loved ones this Labor Day."

View this post on Instagram

Stay safe this weekend, San Antonio.

A post shared by Mayor Ron Nirenberg (@ron_nirenberg) on

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rose significantly following both the Memorial Day and 4th of July weekends. Public health experts attributed the spikes to people gathering with friends and family and ignoring social distancing rules.

At its mid-July peak, the San Antonio area had roughly 1200 cases and hospitalizations per day, pushing local medical facilities to the brink. Since then, the seven-day moving average of cases has dropped to just below 200.

To deter large gatherings, the city and Bexar County have both closed their parks for the weekend. City parks will remain closed through 5 a.m. Tuesday, while county parks will stay off limits through 9 a.m. Tuesday. Pedestrian and bike trails will remain open, however.

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This article is republished with permission from the San Antonio Current.

The San Antonio Current, San Antonio's award-winning alternative media company, has served as the city's premiere multimedia source of alternative news, events and culture since 1986.

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