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Pandemic leaves mark on North Central

Community comes together to assist neighbors

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Carter Ray, co-owner of Wiatrek's Meat Market, gives a thumbs-up as volunteers help Holy Smoke BBQ and Taquitos hand out 15,000 free tacos on May 5 in front of Paper Tiger on North St. Mary’s Street. Photo courtesy/Holy Smoke BBQ

The state’s easing of restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is allowing more businesses the leeway to gradually open, while local programs continue to offer assistance.

San Antonio and Bexar County, meanwhile, have kept requirements for social distancing and continue to urge the wearing of facial coverings in public. Gov. Greg Abbott encourages the use of protective masks, but said they’re not mandatory.

The city and county, along with organizations and establishments, are striving to help people most adversely affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Two teams of appointed local experts and civic leaders have recommended further safety measures, increased testing and surveillance of the virus, and ways merchants could safely operate.

County Judge Nelson Wolff and Mayor Ron Nirenberg agree wearing masks outside is key to slowing the spread of COVID-19.

“(The governor’s plan) is not going to be successful without the guidelines we put in,” Wolff said during a recent press briefing.

“Social distancing and other commonsense measures recommended by our public-safety officials have been successful,” Nirenberg added in a statement.

Most Alamo Heights stores reopened by mid-May, but Mayor Bobby Rosenthal said on May 12 some owners were reluctant because Texas’ initial 25-percent-capacity rule wouldn’t allow for profitability.

Abbott increased the business-occupancy limit to 50 percent May 18.

Alamo Heights utilized social media to remind residents to support these eateries and companies, so they can survive this troubling period, Rosenthal said.

“We also continue to stress the importance of social distancing as more and more people venture back out into the community,” he added.

Some Pearl commerce is back, with representatives saying safeguards are in place. However, a few observers went to social media to criticize what they called large numbers of people neither wearing masks nor practicing social distancing.

Dozens of visitors enjoy Pearl on May 8, although many could be seen not wearing masks or socially distancing. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

“Pearl is working every day with its operators and the city on figuring out how to responsibly start the reopen process,” said Natalia Prieto, a spokeswoman for the complex. “They are experiencing some challenges in the public spaces with occasional crowds, much like public parks, and continue to work with its security team, approach to signage and messaging to address the situation.”

Abbott ordered schools and colleges to remain closed through the rest of the spring semester, but said summer school could start in June.

San Antonio Independent School District officials warned to expect many on-campus changes this fall, including no contact sports, even if institutions reopen.

Alamo Heights Independent School District Superintendent Dana Bashara said plans for 2020-2021 “will take multiple formats to try to address many unknowns in what our local and state leaders could decide about the reopening of our facilities. The priority of any planning will be around the safety and wellness of our students and staff.”

San Antonio received $270 million in federal funds to help offset costs of responding to the pandemic.

The city also created a $25 million program to assist eligible residents with rent, mortgage, utilities, internet access, groceries, medicine and fuel.

“Many in our community are falling between the cracks of federal and state support. We, the local government, are their last line of defense for our community and so our policy recommendations should empower City Council’s decision,” District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño said in a statement.

In addition, San Antonio launched a “Donate to the Arts” feature on its website, www.getcreativesanantonio.com/, to support local nonprofit arts agencies hit hard by the crisis.

The county began a $4 million pool to provide a maximum of three months of rental aid for residents affected by job loss or furlough.

On May 19, Bexar County commissioners voted to set aside $1.5 million in federal relief funds for small business grants.

Meantime, merchants have taken the reins to help the less fortunate during the pandemic.

Holy Smoke BBQ and Taquitos food truck has been stationed in front of Paper Tiger, an otherwise empty, quiet, live-music venue on North St. Mary’s Street.

One afternoon, the food truck provided free tacos to all comers.

Then, owner Ricky Ortiz and barbecue pitmaster David Romero brainstormed with Carter Ray, co-owner of Wiatrek’s Meat Market. They came up with the idea to give away thousands of free tacos.

Ortiz and Ray originally thought of serving 500 tacos, but that number grew to 15,000 in time for May 5, the day of the giveaway.

A continuous line of cars rolled past Holy Smoke for six hours, as passersby safely received two tacos each.

According to Ortiz, the event was one way of showing appreciation to patrons, and helping the community in a trying time.

“I’ve been seeing family members lose jobs, lose businesses they’ve spent years building,” Ortiz said. “Part of my responsibility is to help as many other people as possible.”

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