Keeping governments open to the public during a pandemic can be a tall order.
When COVID-19 hit, community leaders scrambled to respond to a problem they’d never encountered before: how to maintain open government while also curtailing public gatherings to limit the spread of the highly infectious strain of novel coronavirus.
One approach involved Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff broadcasting a daily coronavirus update. They advised the community on new outbreak numbers, hospitalizations and deaths.
In addition, Wolff said monthly meetings with the county’s other municipalities increased and he became available for whatever the 26 suburban cities needed.
“Bexar County is facilitating $9 million in funding allocated from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, as well as identifying needs within the community to ensure that our citizens are safe and healthy,” Wolff said.
In March, residents were told to stay home unless engaged in an essential business or making a necessary trip — buying groceries, going to a medical appointment and others — and to maintain social distancing and wear protective masks. Many city halls also closed, with permits and services online only.
Classrooms also shut down as students learned from home, often through distance learning.
Technology also came into play to keep people in touch with city councils and school boards. Text messages, social-media posts, automatic phone calls and online-facilitated meetings joined streaming services, public-access television channels and the news media to keep residents abreast of government developments.
According to The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott suspended the portion of the Texas Open Meetings Act that requires the government to provide a physical space for the public to watch or listen to a meeting.
Instead, online or digital services took center stage, allowing for Zoom and other video meetings, or conference calls over the phone.
The provision also requires a government entity to offer the remote meetings publicly and the ability to interact with the governing body during public comment periods.
The governor’s waiver also addressed requirements for a quorum, allowing members of a governmental body to use video or telephonics to attend meetings, rather than being physically present in one place.
San Antonio began assigning half its council members to join sessions by video, which offered space on the dais for 6 feet of required social distancing. It continued to offer its A Session online and in the council chambers, but narrowed its audience space to allow for 6 feet between each guest.
Council’s B Sessions are streamed live at www.sanantonio.gov/TVSA and available to watch later. All committee meetings are available on that page.
These issues were handled differently by each of the separate municipalities in and around San Antonio.
In Olmos Park and Terrell Hills, council meetings continued in the cities’ regular council chambers.
Olmos Park City Manager Celia DeLeon said they are able to create social distancing by moving some council members around, and all members are still in the room.
“We have only five on the dais, and in front of that, we have one council member sitting down below,” DeLeon said. “We usually have six staff members at the meetings, and they’re able to spread out and remain 6 feet apart.”
DeLeon said only three to four residents typically attend the council meetings.
In Terrell Hills, City Manager Bill Foley said only a few residents typically visit each session.
“It’s the same … people … who come to watch just about every meeting,” Foley said.
“We follow social distancing guidelines for everyone in the council chambers,” Foley added. “We have a separate room — a viewing room — where residents can watch the meeting, and we follow social distancing guidelines there.”
On June 19, Terrell Hills held its first council meeting on Zoom. Foley said it was a special meeting to vote on applying for the CARES funds, which will help with extra expenses the city has incurred during the pandemic.
Alamo Heights closed its City Hall March 31. Since then, the city has maintained a telephone meeting over Cumulus HD Audio, a technology-based conference service. City Secretary Jennifer Reyna said the process is easy to work with.
“We set up Cumulus for our telephone conference calls. I log onto our dashboard on the Cumulus website and there, I can see when someone wants to speak or ask a question because they ‘raise their hand’ electronically.”
Reyna said the city posts meeting notices as always on a kiosk outside City Hall, and she notifies residents by email if they have signed up.
Reyna said neighbors haven’t reported any problems with connectivity or other issues.
In San Antonio, District 1 Councilman Robert Treviño said many residents lack consistent digital connectivity, and the city must work to resolve the issue.
“The video conferencing, though, has given us a lot more flexibility,” he said. “Scheduling is easier because people can join the meeting from just about anywhere, as long as there’s internet.”
As pandemic cases began to spike during a second wave, on June 17, County Judge Nelson Wolff issued an executive order mandating that businesses require employees and customers wear protective masks if they are closer than 6 feet to each other.
Businesses had five days to put the order into effect and post signage for their customers. Violators could face fines of $1,000.
The deadly virus originated in Wuhan province, China, late last year and then spread globally. By mid-June, the death toll in the United States had reached more than 100,000 lives.
Medicaleconomics.com publishes a daily running total. San Antonio also maintains a localized database at covid19.sanantonio.gov/Home.
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