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North Central San Antonio: The ‘new normal’

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced area cities and school districts to postpone their May elections to November, among other disruptions, but communities are responding to the outbreak with restraint and ingenuity.

San Antonio, Alamo Heights, Terrell Hills and the North East Independent School District were set to hold contested elections May 2.

With the state’s permission and because of Bexar County’s social distancing requirements and limits on crowds, local contested city and school district elections are now delayed until the Nov. 3 general election.

Area voters will then cast ballots on: Alamo Heights’ Broadway improvements bond, a new Terrell Hills mayor, an NEISD District 4 trustee, and whether to renew sales taxes to fund San Antonio’s Pre-K 4 SA program.

The ways that the outbreak has changed daily life vary city to city.

Terrell Hills modified its trash collection schedule, and has temporarily halted recycling.

“There were a couple of families that were disappointed we were not doing recycling during the stay-at-home time (period), but they mostly came around when we explained we are trying to keep our staff safe and healthy,” Mayor Anne Ballantyne said.

Alamo Heights closed its municipal complex to the public, reduced the frequency of garbage collections, and extended its public health emergency.

“I believe that the vast majority of our residents are complying with the social-distancing requirements,” Mayor Bobby Rosenthal said.

Olmos Park City Hall has stayed open to the public for most city business, but permit applications must be completed and paid online.

City Manager Celia Deleon said residents have stayed calm, and police have not seen any increase in service calls.

“There’s been no real changes there,” she added.

No changes in bond-funded construction projects are reported by either NEISD or the Alamo Heights Independent School District. The state has deemed construction an essential activity.

Work at Woodridge Elementary School is winding down, and improvements at Alamo Heights High School will continue through this fall.

School districts are doing what they can to care for their employees while schools are closed. NEISD paid all employees their existing salaries and hourly rates.

The San Antonio Independent School District is raising pay for hourly on-site workers by 20 percent.

Abbott in mid-April ordered all public, private and charter campuses to remain closed through the spring semester. Students are continuing their education through distance learning or paper handouts.

San Antonio parks were closed to campers during Easter, including Brackenridge Park, which for generations has seen families stake out traditional spots as they enjoyed the weekend break.

While it will take a bit longer to determine the pandemic’s long-range impact on smaller cities and school districts’ finances, San Antonio is taking measures to offset an estimated $100 million hit in revenues.

Staffers recently briefed City Council about stopgap measures, including furloughing 270 employees in select city departments, suspending funding to arts agencies, cutbacks in scheduled road maintenance, and delaying installment of new bicycle lanes.

District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales lamented the bike lane cuts, particularly for residents who rely on mass transit: “We know this is critical. We know that people aren’t taking public transportation anymore. Some people still need to get to their jobs.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff appointed local officials, business and civic leaders to working groups to help develop solutions on issues affected by the pandemic, including food security, housing, social services and business. Gov. Greg Abbott in mid-April announced a plan to partially reopen retail outlets.

Despite challenges resulting from the outbreak, neighbors are helping neighbors in various ways.

Monte Vista Historic District resident Krissy Gutierrez launched a “little free pantry,” a spin on the “Little Free Library” concept, on East Norwood Court.

Neighbors sign up at the LittleFreePantryMonte Vista Instagram profile to donate non-perishables to keep the pantry filled. People in need take what they require.

Gutierrez bought a used cabinet, spray-painted it and set it up for her Monte Vista neighbors.

“We are seeing things come and go on a daily basis, it’s really great,” she said.

More Little Free Pantries have since popped up at Corona Avenue and Columbine Street in Alamo Heights, and on East Craig Place in Tobin Hill.

Pearl Farmers Market is closed to public crowds, but visitors may safely pick up orders from market vendors on Fridays.

“I love the way Pearl finds to help,” resident Lynn Knapik said.

Schools such as SAISD’s Bonham Academy surveyed families’ needs, identifying those most at risk. Bonham’s staff is partnering with the campus PTA to coordinate drop-offs of food and supply donations to families.

Bonham also worked with the SAISD Foundation to create an online fundraiser, https://tinyurl.com/BobcatsLendAPaw, to keep the food and supply line running.

“Now that stay-at-home orders are in place, we are working with the foundation to continue to reach families at a distance,” Principal David Nungaray said.

Other area residents strive to find positives in the pandemic. Matthew Snyder, a Southwest Research Institute research engineer, works from his King William Historic District home while his wife helps patients as a Baptist Health System physician.

“I’m impressed with the solidarity and community response to the current situation, with the neighborhood supporting local businesses and understanding that, even in these strange times, we are all together in keeping each other safe,” he said.

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