Ron Nirenberg is serving his second term as San Antonio’s mayor. During his second term, he is leading the city through the COVID-19 pandemic and related damage. Ron joins us to discuss the state of the city, moving forward, and some of the things he loves about San Antonio. He also discusses how he had a short affair with electronica music.
Justin Hill: Hello and bienvenidos, San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonian, and keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you’ll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best-kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here.
All right. Welcome to this episode of The Alamo Hour. Today’s guest needs little introduction Mayor Nirenberg joins us. He was District 8 city councilman. He’s been elected to two terms in office as our mayor. He’s currently guiding our city through what has to be unprecedented strain economically and just generally for all the citizenry. I met Ron in 2015 when he was a city councilman, his mutual friend introduced us, I asked him to come on to the show whenever we started then the pandemic happened. I’ve pestered him for a while to come on so, Ron, thank you so much for coming on and doing this.
Ron Nirenberg: Thanks for having me, Justin, I’m excited to be here.
Justin: The goal of our show is to give a little bit of color to the people that are making decisions and doing fun things and have passions about our city. I don’t think you can be much more passionate about the city than being serving as the mayor. Everybody has to go through a top 10 I’m going to go through that with you just some general questions about who you are, bounce around when and why did you end up moving to San Antonio?
Ron: Yes, sure. Well, so thank you for having me, it’s been a while since I saw you so-
Justin: I know,
Ron: -this will have to suffice for now. Now I grew up just north of here in Austin, Texas. I was actually born on the East Coast in Boston. We moved to Austin, Texas in 1980, my dad’s job moved us down there. I loved Austin in the ’80s growing up there a residential neighborhood-friendly type of community. I was about to go back to the East Coast for school and my dad convinced me to come down to San Antonio to check out some schools and I went down to Trinity and I fell in love with it. I decided to enroll at Trinity and after four years at Trinity, I fell in love with San Antonio. It was in the mid-90s.
San Antonio was coming into its own at that point. I remember that Mayor Peak was in office towards the end, and he had a great vision for the city, embracing green spaces, building an urban environment, and embracing all the cultural assets of the city. That’s the San Antonio that I grew up with, for lack of a better phrase and I went away for graduate school and met my wife and we decided we’re going to plant our roots in San Antonio we’ve been here ever since.
Justin: We’re happy to have you. I’m happy to have you.
Justin: You’re very prominent on social media so I follow everything you’re doing and this is a tough time to have a light-hearted conversation, but I want to ask about some things you’re not covering. In our house, we are trying to support a bunch of our local restaurants and do things that probably is not the most economical thing to do at this time, but we know our friends need it. Any places you’re frequenting eating out are you trying to spread the love or ya’ll cooking at home? What are y’all doing?
Ron: All of the above. Erika, my wife bears the brunt of the burden. When it comes to my son during the days at school, he’s at home in school, he’s in sixth grade. We try to eat together. It’s amazing this pandemic has brought us closer together in many ways, the community. Certainly, we have regular meal times now which is strange but we try to pick up food from as many different local restaurants as we can. Every Friday, Erika goes and gets a ton of dishes from Clementine which is really close to Northwest military.
For Mother’s Day, I picked up a meal kit that Southerleigh was doing so we’re really trying to support local as much as we can. Of course, all the other meals were home cooking.
Justin: Yes, I was just looking at Clementine’s thing yesterday but I-
Ron: Great place.
Justin: -prefer burgers so I’ll do Clementine later. You always hear the phrase that sometimes people are thrust into leadership roles or these things are thrust upon you. You’re in a leadership role in our city and you’re in a guiding tire guiding our city through a very tough time. Are there any sort of leadership styles or figures you’ve looked upon and you thought that’s the type of leader I want to be, that’s who I want to emulate when I lead people in a tough time?
Ron: It’s not anyone single person, I think everyone I’ve ever come in contact with and had the pleasure of being mentored by. I try to take something from them but I think the person I’ve gotten to know the most as a leader and emulate styles and someone who I admire very much is Mayor Hardberger. It’s strange because he and I have become very good friends. He’s been a mentor of mine since my political life began. It is strange because Mayor Hardberger of course, had a full legal career before he came into public office but he became known as our mayor through a time of fairly significant crisis, particularly with Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, and how we rebuilt or helped our neighbors rebuild.
You’re right and I agree with that 100% that you don’t pick moments, moments pick you and if I could have the choice of things that would happen externally during my time as mayor, I certainly wouldn’t have picked a pandemic but yes, you deal with that. Certainly, the lessons I’ve learned from Phil have helped in this time for sure.
Justin: I like you calling out Phil because Phil did the type of law that I do so he’s a legend in our world as well. I ask everybody what are some of your hidden gems in our city? I’ve heard everything from generally the pearl to I mean very specific little restaurants or churches so what are some of your favorite little off the beaten path spots in San Antonio?
Ron: There’s a lot. I had the pleasure of being a council member in District 8 for two terms. There’s a place I don’t think many people know very well but is an extraordinary estate and park and that’s Denman Estate Park, there’s a beautiful pond there. It doesn’t have a natural water source it just stays full and every once in a while we have to go in as a city and fill it but it’s got a Korean pavilion that was a gift to the city. Actually, when Mayor Hardberger was mayor, he established a sister city relationship with Gwangju, South Korea and part of that relationship was the gift of this Korean pavilion.
It’s amazing, it’s beautiful, ornate, doesn’t have a single screw, It’s all wood. We had the pleasure of reciprocating that gift just this past fall. It took 10 years for us to really find the perfect thing and have a local artist create a monument for them and we took it over there. That’s one place–
Justin: What was it? What was the monument?
Ron: It was a monument to friendship and it was a local artist that had to be assembled it was lighted sculpture. I’ll send you a photo, it’s pretty amazing.
Justin: Yes, please.
Ron: Unfortunately, I had to come back early, so Councilman Kearns had to stand in the actual ceremony for me, but we finally made a trip out to South Korea and so that’s one. There are so many amazing places in San Antonio because we have such a massive footprint and I find myself increasingly spending a lot of time on the south side particularly some of the ecological systems that have been restored by the river south projects, and that’s amazing. Of course, we love Norteños to go and have lunch there the drive-in awesome. Yes, there’s too many to list.
Justin: Sure. You’ve been highlight some I’ve never heard of, is it, Denman Park?
Ron: Denman Estate Park.
Justin: Yes, I’ve never heard of that so we’re going to put-
Ron: You need to go, it’s beautiful.
Justin: -some stuff up about that. Yes, I will of course. Other than weightlifting, what other hobbies do you have?
Ron: I love music.
Justin: Do you play it?
Ron: I used to be in a couple of bands.
Justin: What instrument?
Ron: I was not great. Out front.
Justin: [laughs] You were the singer or-
Ron: Yes, I just sang a little bit.
Justin: -did you play rhythm guitar as well or just sing?
Ron: What’s that?
Justin: Did you play rhythm guitar too or did you just sing?
Ron: Yes, just vocals.
Justin: What kind of bands? Metal?
Ron: No, it was mostly classic rock and cover.
Ron: Not great but we had fun.
Justin: All right.
Ron: I did have a band that played originals and we did our own stuff in Philly when I was there for grad school, so that’s fine. I love all kinds of music and one of the things that I do every day, just to unwind is when everybody goes to sleep, I get to go out on the back porch and just put on some earphones and even if it’s just 5, 10 minutes, I just kind of zone out, listen to some good music, all kinds of genres. I have a beer on occasion and just let the day escape me before we get back into it.
Justin: Anything you’re listening to on repeat right now?
Ron: On the drive-in, we just noticed that, I guess because of furloughs that Siri or something, the truck we drive-in has a subscription. Because of the furloughs, they couldn’t put a lot of automated DJs on. There’s a Led Zeppelin station. I’ve strangely enough been listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin in the last couple of days.
Justin: Not strange at all. They’re incredible.
Ron: You get into a phase. It’s been a while since I really listened to Led Zeppelin.
Justin: I’m in a Pink Floyd phase right now.
Ron: Are you?
Justin: Yes. It’s just for whatever reason.
Ron: My favorite band of all time is The Doors. I always go back to that. I’ve been reading that there is a strange nostalgia for old time rock and roll right now, the ’50s, late ’50s rock and roll, do up.
Justin: Like Elvis.
Ron: Elvis, you remember that song, Sleep Walk by Santo & Johnny?
Ron: It was featured in La Bamba. Anyway, I found that song and I just– You know you listen to a song you hadn’t heard in a long time, but it’s so familiar to you so you just end up listening to that one song for about an hour on repeat. That was one of those things. My favorite song of all time is Crimson & Clover, Tommy James, and the Shondells. That was my wedding song too, believe it or not.
Justin: All right. Well, my mom made me listen to all of that growing up, so I probably am more well versed than I should. You should listen to Orville Peck if you have not.
Ron: Orville Beck?
Justin: Orville Peck. He sounds like a mix between Elvis and old swing Western almost. It’s this weird super cool sound. He’s been on repeat for me lately. It’s got a familiar sound even though it’s new music.
Ron: You should be able to do work and read on a plane because it’s a good, quiet time. Usually, I can do some reading but I’m always listening to music. It’s a good relaxation time on a plane. I always discover new old things or old new things when I’m on a plane. In the fall, actually, the trip to Asia, I was starting to listen to a lot of electronica
from Canada and from Europe. There’s a band called Grimes that I got into for a little while. I never thought I’d like electronica.
Justin: Yes, I know.
Ron: That had ended up getting on repeat for a while. All kinds.
Justin: You check out Orville Peck, I’ll check out Grimes.
Ron: Yes, do it and let me know.
Justin: All right, no favorite Fiesta Event?
Ron: There’s a few. We love PACfest at Palo Alto College.
Justin: Never been.
Ron: You got to go. Good bands, good food, good people. Also, love Taste of New Orleans, obviously. NIOSA, classic. They’re all good, man.
Justin: King William Fair seems to be the runaway favorite of the show so far.
Ron: Yes. The parades are fantastic.
Justin: Fiesta Arts Fair is my favorite.
Ron: King William Fair is in a different league.
Justin: No, it’s its own thing. I put up on our social that you were coming on the show and I asked people to give me questions. One of them, it was a great question is, in this very stressful time you’re seeing the best come out of people, are there any stories that maybe people haven’t been told of some of the best of humanity coming out the silver linings to what our city is doing right now that you can share with us? Like the guys at Folklore Coffee are doing some incredible stuff, feeding elderly people. You never even hear about that. Somebody put me on to that and I looked it up. That’s a fantastic story that nobody’s telling. Anything else like that?
Ron: Every day, all day every day. Something that doesn’t really get told so much, when you see the iconic photos of the food bank lines. That has become one of the pictures of this pandemic is the lines of cars. What was extraordinary to me, the last couple of times I went out there, is the lines of cars are exceeded by the number of volunteers that are there. It never fails San Antonio that whenever there’s a crisis, that people just come out in droves to help, whether it’s our own community or it’s someone else. That’s pretty remarkable.
I keep seeing photos of friends children on social media, where people who work in the health care field and they have used sidewalk chalk to welcome their parents home and they’re calling their parents heroes and redefining what that term means for kids growing up. My hat’s off to all the teachers that are dealing with the extreme pivot that we’ve had to do and in school. There’s just a constant source of compassion and examples of solidarity that we draw from to get us through. I think San Antonio continues to exemplify the very best of people when it comes to getting through this pandemic.
Justin: I couldn’t agree more with you. The last question, then we’re going to get into what’s going on with the city. How many tattoos do you have?
Justin: Hey, the public wants to know these things.
Ron: Though it’s two. One on either forearm.
Justin: The ones that have been highlighted.
Ron: It’s the only ones, I promise you.
Justin: Okay. Ron, you’re the mayor of the seventh-largest city in the United States. You recently were named a new deal leader. You’ve done great things. I love the stuff you’ve done with the AlamoPROMISE and transportation and addressing housing issues. How much money did you raise for the food bank on your birthday give? It kept going up and up and up and up.
Ron: I was amazed by that because I started with $1,000. I thought, “Okay, I got to get this. I can put my own end just to make sure we get there.” $65,000.
Justin: I think it was 58 the last time I looked and you kept moving the goal.
Ron: I got egged on by friends who helped do that. It was pretty awesome. Another great display of support and compassion in our community.
Justin: I think it’s important that people ask. There’s this funny thing where you see when people ask for help, they get it in this town, but when they don’t, maybe they don’t, but you asked for people to support and people came out in droves, small amounts, big amounts.
Ron: That’s a huge amount of food for people.
Justin: Yes, because it’s what? $1 or seven meals or something like that.
Ron: That’s right.
Justin: San Antonio so far, I was looking at the numbers two days ago, I don’t think they’ve changed much. San Antonio, in terms of sickness per thousand, we have been doing better than Harris, Dallas, Terran, Travis, El Paso. Really, we’ve been doing a great job as a city. What are the big metrics that you’re looking at as a leader of the city because you hear all kinds of stuff? They’re saying, “Well, doesn’t look at sickness, because that doesn’t account for testing. Don’t look at death, because that doesn’t account for these types of injuries that are happening.” What are the main metrics you guys are looking at when you’re making decisions?
Ron: Well, that’s a really important point to make that it’s not just one [unintelligible 00:17:49] of data because I think it’s a mistake to just zero in on one data point. It’s all part of the picture that you have to put together. It’s a bit of a puzzle. We look at obviously, the infection rate, but not just the raw number. In fact, the raw number is almost meaningless. You have to look at how fast that raw number is doubling, the doubling rate. When we started, we’re at doubling the number of infections every three days. We’re now at 28 days. It slowed down the doubling rate of infection.
You also look at the level of testing that you’re doing per capita. I don’t know what our number is, but generally, based on our peers in Texas, we are doing very, very well in terms of testing. Also, you look at your- what we’ve been looking at is your positivity rate. When your infection starts to slow down in terms of the doubling, you want to make sure that you’re not missing things. As you increase testing, you see your doubling rate slow down. You also want to see your positivity rate go down. We started roughly around 10%, 11%. Last time we talked about it, last week, we were at about 6.3%. It’s come down significantly.
You also look at hospitalization data. That’s probably the most important one because ultimately when we talk about flattening the curve, we’re making sure that our ability, our capacity to treat the ill and infected is not exceeded by the level of infection that’s out there. We’ve been watching our hospital capacity in terms of beds, ICU, ventilators. That’s dealt with in a number of ways. One is, you increase capacity and supply of things like PPE and staffing and ventilators, things like that, but you also can control the flow within your hospitals.
One of the things that we did early was end elective procedures that helped us get a real head start on hospital capacity. We’ve now gone back to elective procedures and we’re still maintaining capacity. It’s a very good thing. All those things together I think give you a more complete picture of how we’re doing. When it comes to opening things up, we also want to have the capacity to understand where we are in terms of the virus and its presence in our community.
I don’t think anyone is under the assumption that we’re going to be able to say the virus is completely gone. We’re not going to be there until we have 100% vaccinations and frankly, we don’t have that for anything anymore because of the anti-vaccine. We’ve got to ensure that we have the ability to identify where infections occur, viruses being transmitted, we want to have the ability to trace where that virus has moved. Then, we have to have the ability to isolate that virus to keep it from spreading elsewhere. Testing, tracing, and isolation becomes the currency for us to be able to open things up and we’ve been moving aggressively since it started.
We’ve obviously had federal and state issues to work through but we’re working aggressively to meet the health transition team standards.
Justin: Yes, and I think that’s a really good point. You talk about testing, tracing, and isolating and it seems like there really is no coherent statewide or nationwide policy on this. Dr. Allegrini was on our show, and we talked a lot about that. She said that’s going to be the gold standard to getting back to our day-to-day. Is the county or the city taking sort of up the reins of hiring and providing tracers? That’s a lot of manpower, where is that manpower going to come from?
Ron: We are and it’s really about– And there’s not a magic number. You got to be able to trace comprehensively every infection that comes through and we’ve been able to do that. We want to be able to do that, as the number of infections increases, or if we hit a spike, we want to be able to conduct all that properly. We have obviously the Metro Health staff. We also have staff within STRAC, which is the regional emergency coalition. Then of course, we’re working with various partners within the medical community on a number of different things now and that includes tracing. Medical students are starting to come on board and have been doing tracing with us.
I believe the number is 70 tracers. We’re training cohorts of, I believe it’s 40. We just had the presentation yesterday. Our goal is by June 1, to have 175 tracers available to us during the next phase of the pandemic. The tracing work, which is a lot of interviews of people is very time-intensive. It’s not extraordinarily complex work, but it’s very time intensive and it takes a lot of patience and compassion. One thing that I want to compliment our team about is that they have been able to stay on top of tracing at a fairly high rate.
We have never seen up but for one day, the number of cases that we’ve reported, that are still under investigation exceed 100, which, compared to the other peer cities, I’m told that is a really good standard to maintain. We’ve been working aggressively on tracing for a second, third level contacts.
Justin: Well, I think the information that you’re putting out on your Facebook and those press conferences is fantastic. I think it really answers a lot of the questions that everybody has nationwide, statewide. You all just have hit them in stride. I just personally want to know from a pull-back the curtain, what is the information flow like? Is it every hospital and facility? Do they call Metro Health? That’s just so much information to synthesize on a day-to-day basis.
Ron: It is and I don’t see the team’s compiling that data but I know what they’re doing. We have South Texas Regional Advisory Center, STRAC which is coordinating all the hospitals within our eight-county region. San Antonio is the center and STRAC is the coordinating arm. Eric Epley, is a director of STRAC and so, he coordinates that activity, and they basically track all the hospitalization. They work with our fire department to look at transport data and see what triggers there are, if there is a number of transports, for instance, coming from a particular nursing home, they know they’ve got a problem.
A truck that transports on a daily basis in all the counties and they track hospitalization. That’s data that is brought into our Metro Health Department. In addition to that, Metro Health is the receiving entity for all the testing data that occurs. All the numbers of people who have been tested positive, negative from different places, all the private labs, the state labs, the local labs, they all coordinate and they dump into Metro Health. With one exception, the private labs have not been doing it very well, despite our orders. We have to go pull that data down from the state.
Metro Health is doing all that work on a daily basis, and sometimes an hourly basis. In addition, Metro health is also coordinating the contact tracing. We have congregate settings that we report, nursing homes, jail, other types of facilities where there’s a lot of people residing in one small place. We track those separately and they coordinate that information as well. Then, there’s the testing arm, which is mainly a STRAC function. All of those pieces of information are brought together by Metro Health and every day at 4:30, Judge Wolf and I get briefed. We sit down with the entire team and we go through each one of those sections.
We get that data and that’s when we go immediately onto the air and we report to the public. We’ve obviously had some hiccups at the very start in terms of what we were reporting and what the media and the public wanted to hear. I give the whole group, our community a lot of credit, because people were very candid, some uncomfortable still about what we need to hear. I think on the medical side, the administrative side, there was a great degree of humility to take that, take the criticism from us and from the public and improve.
I’m happy to say that today, I think we’re kind of a bit of a gold stand– We are a gold standard in terms of the data that’s being reported publicly. We’re going to continue to do that and it may change that the things that people need to see and what they want to have access to. I’ve always maintained and the judge has, that our ability to fight this pandemic, to bring it to an end depends much less on ordering people to do things than it is on putting public health professionals out front, putting the information out accurately, timely, and transparently.
That way the community trusts the process, trusts the medical professionals, and also is given the information they need to make informed decisions for the safety of their families. That ultimately has saved us over the last couple of months and certainly over the last several weeks as we’ve seen mixed messaging from the state. Because we’ve been able to say, “Okay, well the state is saying, you don’t have to wear a ma–” Or the state is saying, “We can’t fine you for not wearing a mask. Okay, we never fined anybody to begin with.”
You know what, everybody was wearing a mask because Dr. Emmerich, Dr. Taylor, Dr. Bridger, the entire health transition team was telling us, we can slow the spread of this virus, we can prevent the virus being picked up by someone from an asymptomatic carrier, who might infect someone who could very well be severely ill or die. You can prevent that, you can break that chain if you wear a mask. Wear a mask even if we’re telling you, the state says, “We can’t fine anybody for not doing it.”
Most people have been complying with that and I’d give– That is where the credit is due. That information, the process, the transparency, and ultimately the individual decision making on behalf of the very compassionate community to do what’s necessary to save people’s lives.
Justin: You haven’t seen some of the problems here that you’ve seen in other cities in terms of the populace rising up against some of these very simple measures.
Ron: The faith community is one huge example of that. It was in, I think the governor’s first order where he made great pains at saying churches are an essential service. Well, of course, but we also know that in church settings, that’s where some of the worst outbreaks have originated in other parts of the world and in this country.
We follow that order by convening with the faith community who is already proactive in maintaining safety for their congregants, said, “Look, the services can go on, but what we would urge you to do is take a look at your congregations and understand the vulnerabilities there are there and where we are in terms of a substantial community spread of this virus.” If you have the ability to conduct services online, that’s what you should do, if you’re interested in really preventing the spread of this disease within your congregation.
Nearly all of the faith community continue to do what they were doing, which is to host services online, maintain social distancing, and so forth. You even saw some of the faith leaders help those who didn’t have the capacity to conduct their services. Everybody worked together, it was beautiful and it was despite the fact that we’re getting mixed messages and some politicization from other areas of the state.
Justin: I had a deposition yesterday and a client who I thought there was no chance she was going to know Zoom. She knew Zoom because that’s how she’d been going to church every Sunday. It was a lot of people getting exposed to this. I want to talk about your wonderful relationship with Ken Paxton in a little bit.
Justin: I’m just kidding about that, but first, let’s talk about the current challenges for San Antonio, you started splitting out that information as well, where it looks like we have the jail is a problem, nursing homes are a problem. Those are going to have to, I would assume, be dealt with differently than the population as a whole. What is the plan on handling those two really fragile populations?
Ron: We’ve seen nationwide nursing homes, long-term care facilities are extremely vulnerable to outbreak. Let me get to that in just a second, I will say that prisons and jails are probably, less so prisons and the state has a big problem on its hands, I believe, the judge believes, with prisons, what’s in our control is jails. I have to say that jails probably present the single most challenging setting to control the spread of the virus because of the fact that in a jail setting, you have people coming in and out all the time in close quarters. I give the county a lot of credit when they saw the first signs of infection, they went to the potting in isolating the people who are symptomatic.
The other thing they’ve been doing with the cooperation of San Antonio Fire Department, UHS, and even the Texas Guard, is testing everybody. They’ve been testing all the guards, they’ve been testing all the inmates, but the challenges the inmates, the population changes every day. What we’ve been doing, again, is trying to identify where the infections are, isolate those that are there, it’s a mini-city in there so you try to do everything testing, tracing, and isolation.
Justin: Has there been large scale releases of non-violence or some of those? Has anybody been released or we not doing that?
Ron: That happened well before the first infections here. They reduced jail population over the county many, many weeks before an infection occurred. It was very important because it helps with social distancing. To be clear, no one released was someone who did anything more than a minor offense, no violence, threats to the public were released to the public, or released from jail, but the jail population was trimmed of non-violent offenders and then, of course, the testing, tracing and isolation. On the nursing home side, this is one area where I think we have provided a good standard for other communities to follow.
First thing we did was we inspected and worked with all of the long-term care facilities in the county. There’s over 150 of them in the city, to talk to them about proper donning and doffing of PPE. That was done throughout March. Of course, there was an outbreak at Southeast Nursing Center, that mushroom, but the way we were able to identify it as a new protocol that was established for this occasion called AITAC, you’d have to ask chief what that stands for, but what it essentially means is that there is a real-time monitoring of nursing homes and long-term care facilities in terms of their transport cases.
Anytime a EMS unit or any resident is transferred off of a long-term care facility, it flags. The profile of the case is a marker of whether or not we’ve got a problem. They immediately go in there and they begin the testing, tracing, and isolation. In nursing homes, what we’ve been doing is preparing, monitoring for the AITAC, and then also 100% testing, that includes asymptomatic testing. The state recently ordered that, but that’s something we had already been conducting as universal testing, especially when there was, we prioritize if there was a single infection.
Two other things, the cohorting of positive cases, whether they’re symptomatic or not, you take a resident who has a positive infection, you move them somewhere else so they don’t have to isolate on the property because it’s very difficult to contain that. We have the cohorting facility at River City and that was a bit of a challenge and then finally– The last thing is, we also, in orders very early on, prevented the movement of staff from one facility to the next. If you work at a long-term care facility, you have to work at only one and that prevents us from transferring infections that may not be detected yet from one facility to the next.
Justin: They’re limiting visitors and all that in all the nursing homes now, aren’t they?
Ron: Right, absolutely yes. In the first order also, we limited, unfortunately, you can’t have visitors on and off for the long-term care facilities, that population is especially vulnerable to infection and severity of disease.
Justin: A buddy of mine, his mother’s in one and he applied and got a job so that he can see his mom because otherwise, they weren’t going to let him in and see him. He’s a saint. What is our turnaround on testing now because I know that we had these just wild leaps in our infection rates and you would say, we just had a tranche of results come in. Are we quicker on getting results back now?
Ron: Much quicker and I will say there was a federal backlog and we weren’t able to get our day of pull-down from the state because of the two companies that the federal government contracted with. They had literally hundreds of thousands of test results waiting to come out of the labs and it was taking upwards of nine days to get those test results back. That was early, mid-April. We decided to get rid of that and go with a local app. We’ve been contracted with CPL, here in town, that has been able to turn over test results now in 24, sometimes 48 hours so it’s moving very quickly.
Now, there are some private labs that are conducting tests, if you go to your own private provider and they have tests, they could be contracting with a company that takes longer to get your test results back, but if you’re going through Freeman or one of our pop-up facilities, you know that we’re at Frank Garrett in Las Palmas and we’ll be on the southeast side and the east side this coming week, or this week, I think starting tomorrow, you’ll be able to get your test results back from the local labs 24, 48 hours.
Justin: That’s important if we’re going to try to have any response. I’m blessed to have one hour of your time, but I want to make sure we cover some things. One of the things I heard a lot from when I said that you’re going to come on the show was that San Antonio is a different city than Houston and Dallas in terms of how we survive economically and that we have Austin dictating our economic transition, even though they are looking out for a state that really doesn’t look like San Antonio.
Do we have a seat, as San Antonio, at the table when these discussions are happening in Austin to look out for our city that is very heavily hospitality, very heavily tourism, very heavily military? Do we have a say in this or are we just having talked down dictator orders?
Ron: You’re talking about the reopening of the economy?
Ron: We do have San Antonians on the economic team or the strike-force, I guess he’s calling in, but I’ve had many conversations with him and I’ve had many conversations with the governor. As it relates to the reopening, what he’s doing is he’s taking feedback and he’s making a decision on his own and that is, it’s coming directly from the team. They’re providing him feedback, but he’s making a decision. I agree with you, not every city functions the same, which is why we’re going to the extent that the law allows make sure that it’s calibrated properly for San Antonio.
I think we’re a little ahead of the game in terms of the health measures. Speaking with Dr. Taylor and other members of the health transition team, their focus is making sure our economic transition team has the data and builds their plan on top of the health priorities. If you look at our economic transition team report, it is grounded in the science and it also establishes best practices. What you’re seeing from the state, from the governor’s open Texas manual and he opens up different businesses as you’re seeing a set of minimum standards.
It may be true that we can’t necessarily restrict certain things beyond that, but what the economic transition team has done is articulate what best practices should be. They’ve also created a expectation on the part of these sectors, which I think is a correct one, that it’s one thing to open a business, but it’s another thing to get the economy started. You will not succeed in business if you can’t get people in the door and your employees and your customers don’t feel confident that they’re going to be safe and that you’re going to be able to maintain a service of a level of quality that they expect.
That’s what the economic transition team report is built on, restoring consumer confidence, which is derived from the science, the health transition team report.
Justin: Maybe I haven’t paid good enough attention, but it seemed early on that the governor took a position of local control, let our cities do what’s best for their cities. Now, it’s gone into the hell with that. Y’all need to not do too much that I don’t agree with. Am I misreading this or is it gone? This like local control back to the old way of we don’t like local control anymore in a span of 60 days.
Ron: It could be characterized that way. We certainly had in the absence of any emergency order from the state the locals were left to do what was necessary. We didn’t have a template sitting on top of us in terms of what we needed to do as a state. I would say that it was helpful to us to be able to move quickly and appropriately for San Antonio. Not to have a one size fits all approach. I will also tell you that it’s the opposite of logical to take a one size fits all approach to open any things up. The nature of this virus in any infection really is that, a single point of entry, a single point of leakage is what ultimately can create an outbreak.
It’s really important and I’ve stressed this to the governor and his team, that we need to have the ability, the authority to act quickly, to clamp down if there’s an outbreak or an infection. That requires us to have the ability to calibrate when things open and how they open. I think with the exception of our attorney general, there is a common understanding that that’s the way it ought to work even if you listen to the governor himself because he’s been at least clear about this point is that if there is an outbreak that happens in any part of the state, we’ve got to manage it and contain it and he’s taking a state control perspective on that. We would disagree with that.
Obviously, we’re going to do what we need to do locally, but at least there’s an understanding that you can’t just let an outbreak happen and expect the rest of the state to be okay.
Justin: Then Paxton is threatening to sue San Antonio over face mask and things like that. Has that been a slow run-up to that threat? I read the press release, if you want to get into litigation, has that been a slow run-up to that hostility or was this sort of the first just opening salvo from Ken Paxton?
Ron: Ken Paxton likes to make a lot of threats over press releases. We’ve gotten used to that from him and so we’re going to continue to do what we need to do. It’s logical that science-based that’s gotten us to the point where we’ve saved thousands of lives and if there’s disagreement about that, he can talk to my attorney.
Justin: Fair enough.I talked about it early on, San Antonio has done great comparatively to a lot of cities in America and most of the cities in Texas. We have the crushing economic concerns that are plaguing a lot of small businesses and things like that. What is the evaluation in terms of our numbers look good on infections and fatalities? Our numbers look really bad economically, is this a health transition team that’s going to make these final decisions, economic transition team or are we still waiting on Austin to give us the leeway that we can or cannot operate within?
Ron: What, say that again? I’m sorry.
Justin: From the economic standpoint, since our health numbers are looking good comparatively from the economic standpoint, do we have the freedom to open up as needed or are we still being told what we can and can’t do by Austin?
Ron: Unfortunately, I think it’s a lot of the ladder. In terms of the opening of things up, the governor wants to take it upon himself to define what an essential businesses and what an a reopened businesses, and unfortunately he has that authority through the Texas division of emergency management. Now, I will say that, it seems to be that his advisors and in my conversations with him is that he wants to do this the right way. He’s taken a lot of cues from the folks here in San Antonio as having demonstrated the ability to control this virus and do it in a safe and logical manner, but like I said, the state has taken the approach of minimum standards.
We’re going to continue to leverage our authority everywhere we can to do the right thing. In the event there is a conflict, we’re going to put all the information out there that if this is something dumb that we’ve heard from somewhere else, do the right thing in the meantime.
Justin: I wanted to talk to you about the health transition and economic transition committees and the working groups. Early on there was a bunch of work in groups designated. Then after some time there was a health transition group, a committee and then there was an economic transition committee. There’s a lot of different working groups and committees. Can you just generally give us an idea of what they’re doing and who’s doing what?
Ron: Yes. The enemy of pandemic emergency response is bureaucracy and we recognize that fully. In order for us to deal with this, we’re going to have to work through a bureaucracy. What the judge and I decided to do was basically restructured government for lack of a better phrase and do so in a way that the city council members and commissioner’s court members can work together on the urgent crisis at hand and not be siloed.
We paused the typical city council committees that meet every month that work on policy and legislation and said, “Okay, let’s put a pause on those and let’s form new committees, but except just city council committees and others. Let’s bring commissioner’s court and city council together and shape and form them around these urgent issues that we know are incredibly important and let’s get them moving and they can meet as often as necessary to identify the needs and fill the gaps.”
We established a social services working group. We established a food and shelter working group and we establish the housing, I’m sorry, the employment and small business working group. Those groups of council members and commissioners, court members and some community members dug into how do we solve these issues because one thing that was immediately evident that we couldn’t just stick to the all bureaucracy is that, we had all of a sudden 120,000 families in the food bank line. How are we going to solve that from a resource standpoint? They were working on issues like that.
In addition to that, you had an intergovernmental relations committee, the federal and state advocacy committee, it was made up of commissioner’s court and council members and community members and then in JBSA and folks like that. Then you also had a philanthropy committee. Those two committees were identifying where the resources come from so that we can pair them up with the needs of the city. Worked extraordinarily well. They’ve been working for the last six weeks or so. They’re going to wind down here at the end of the month as we get back into the old committee structure again. That was the urgent, immediate crisis needs of the city and the families of the city.
In addition to that, we wanted to make sure that we’re doing this in a methodical way as we begin to open up. Then we didn’t just carelessly go into this and we don’t carelessly get out of it. We formed a health transition team and I should also credit Gordon Hartman coordinated the working groups. He did an extraordinary job. We decided also to form the health transition teams to make sure that as we contemplate opening up that we do so based on some strict health guidance and conditions that we need to be cognizant of that would allow us to open things up safely.
What kind of testing capacity we have to have. What kind of tracing. What should the data look like and what triggers should be aware or should we be aware of to know that we might be going too far? That’s what the health transition team did. Dr. Barbara Taylor’s team. Then finally we formed economic transition team that was representative, all of the small businesses and sectors in our community that we asked to layer on top of the health transition team guidelines, take a look at the local health guide mines and give individual businesses based on what business they are guidance into how they can start up again and begin to restore our economy.
All of these were iterative processes, brought the community together, but kept everybody in our limited bandwidth focused on the task at hand. I think when it’s all told, our success will be tied to the fact that people were nimble, they were able to reform under duress into these areas that helped us point path forward and get it done effectively.
Justin: It does the economic transition and health transition committee have ongoing duties. They’re going to keep going until we’re out of this or they got a lifespan.
Ron: They had a lifespan for the guidelines related to the health opening and it’s an extraordinary report and Rick Casey had a wonderful column about Barbara’s team and the report they had compared to the state. That report is what we’re focused on. The economic transition team also had their guidelines for sectors. They’re loosely still coordinated and we may go back to the economic transition team. Maybe there’s some sector guidance that we’re missing. Maybe there’s some advisory functions that they can serve as we begin to establish. There’s a PPE pipeline that they recommended. There’s also the guidance for a local type of campaign. We’re going to need to tap the well with the expertise there.
On the health side of things, we need experts that have a 360-degree view of the city to be able to tell us, “Heads up, you got something coming down the road, there’s a trigger that you needed watching out for people that are familiar enough with the process and the pandemic itself to be able to help us through that.” They’re loosely formed as well. I do see us tapping their expertise.
Justin: Ron, I know you’ve got important things to do. I want to leave it. There was, the reporter asked Trump a lot of people are scared and all those things. He said, “Well, you’re a terrible reporter.” I think it’s a real question that I want to know. I hear from people, I feel the anxiety and I’m not a high anxiety. What do we hold on to, what do we look forward to let us know we’re coming out of this to let us know we’re going to fiesta again, to let us know that we get to continue to be this city at some point. What is your advice for your constituents?
Ron: We will get through this. You just have to have faith that we will, and where I derive my faith that we will get through this from is those compassionate acts, but also knowing that this community is poised to be better than it was before. It’s not going to look the same and six months from now when we’re enjoying some of the things that we can’t do right now, it’s not going to look the same. People are going to have to get used to wearing masks and stuff until we have a vaccine. We’re just going to have to do things that we just never thought were strange maybe six months ago. I will say this that’s a city and a community that maybe looks a little strange.
I’m sitting here right now or maybe two months ago it would have, but also consider the fact that as we’re getting out of this, we’re not trying to go back to the old way. We’re really not. I think it would be a huge mistake. We should not be rushing to get back to the way things were. We can be a whole lot better than that. Keep in mind that this city was blazing in terms of its economy. We had a 3% unemployment rate for six months, I think. Meanwhile, we had 15% poverty in this community. How has that compute? It’s shocking that our food bank lines doubled to 120,000 people when there’s pandemic began.
That means the way things were before. On a normal day in San Antonio, that 60,000 families were depending on the food bank for food. 40% I think or some astronomical number of families in San Antonio didn’t have access to the internet to do homework, to order food and that was the way things were. I don’t want to go back to the way things were. We’re not going to be able to go back things the way things were. We have the ability to use what we’ve known and what we can do and be a city that is, we’re much prouder to leave our children, our grandchildren. It’s going to feature things for awhile, like masks and things like that.
What I see out in the community and compassion and the outpouring of support for one another is something that the city can be built from and a foundation that’s equitable, more resilient and stronger than it ever was before. I’m excited to get through this because that’s what we’re going to
Justin: Ron, I’m proud of you. I’m proud of San Antonio. I’m proud that we have done as well as we’ve done under such terrible circumstances. I hope you continue to kick ass and do a great job and know that I’m pulling for you and everybody I know is pulling for you right now. Thank you for making some times for us to chat to give a little color to what’s going on and a little levity. Good luck and hopefully you’ll come join us again, maybe, when we’re not wearing masks,
Ron: I look forward to adjust and I can’t wait to see you in person and let’s go get a [unintelligible 00:56:29]friendly spot real soon.
Justin: I’m in for it. Thanks, Ron.
Ron: All right. [unintelligible 00:56:33]
Justin: Take care.
Ron: Take care.
Justin: All right. That about does it for this episode of The Alamo Hour. Again, thank you so much to Ron Nirenberg taking time out of his busy schedule leading the seventh largest city in America to come and talk to us. It’s a great thing for our show. It’s great to see that our mayor supports these small podcasts like myself and gives a little bit of levity in a little bit of humor on occasion to a tough time. We’re continuing with our guest wishlist. Shea Serrano, we have tweeted to you, same for Jackie Earle Haley, we’ll hope that one of them will come on.
We’ve gotten Ron Nirenberg now at this point to come on after he has been on our wishlist and Robert Rivard is going to come on and the consummate wishlist is always going to be Coach Pop. Thanks for joining us and we’ll see you on the next episode.
Justin: Thanks for joining us on this episode of The Alamo Hour. You are all what make this city so great. We hope you join us next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our podcast and check us out on Facebook at facebook.com/alamohour or our website, alamohour.com until next time, viva San Antonio.
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