Assisting Ourselves: The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Challenge San Antonio To Rethink Its Economy — And Its Future

Jeph Duarte San Antonio News

click to enlarge AIMEE WYATT

  • Aimee Wyatt

Editor’s Note: The following is CityScrapes, a column of opinion and analysis.

San Antonio, like every community across America, faces an unprecedented public health crisis. That crisis will tax every part and resource of our healthcare and emergency response systems.

Our elected officials have done the right thing in imposing a stay-at-home order and limiting business. And they will likely have to do more to buttress our first responders and healthcare workers. But the impact of the coronavirus extends well beyond public health to the very fabric of our economy and society. The dramatic fall-off in travel has shuttered local hotels, and the stay-at-home order has shrunk the business at local bars, restaurants and entertainment venues. And this impact has extended well beyond the hospitality sector to a host of firms and businesses, including the Current.

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is also being felt by local governments, particularly the City of San Antonio and suburban cities. The sharp fall-off in retail activity is shrinking sales tax dollars, and effectively non-existent travel has carved into local sales and hotel tax revenues. The city has already taken steps to reduce and focus its spending, and likely far more drastic efforts will be needed as stay-at-home requirements stretch into and even through May, and perhaps beyond. Yet even as local governments are being forced to reconsider spending priorities and cut back, the needs of San Antonio residents are growing and becoming more apparent every day.

We need our city and county governments to step up and play a far larger role in supporting the neediest and most vulnerable in our community. The city charter includes a specific provision, “Public Assistance,” that provides for just that role. It allows the city government to “appropriate its funds, in the exercise of a governmental function, for the assistance of needy persons to provide for them the basic necessities of life in accordance with categories of such persons as may be defined by ordinance.”

That charter provision grew out of the failure of the city to aid its distressed populace during the Great Depression, and it was the focus of some serious debate in writing the 1951 charter. But it is clear that the city has a role to play in providing “the basic necessities of life,” not just public services and infrastructure.

That assistance needs to be focused on those made most vulnerable by the coronavirus threat and the stay-at-home requirements, particularly the elderly, the disabled, the homeless and the unemployed. Our local network of nonprofit organizations has long provided much of our community safety net. But now the role of the Food Bank, Meals on Wheels and their counterparts has become even more crucial. Local government needs to provide increased financial support to these organizations so that they can greatly expand their services and outreach.

Just as it needs to assure basic necessities, the city needs to work with local school districts in providing a continuity of education for our next generation. The longstanding digital divide in this community has become a yawning chasm as families struggle to connect to teachers and educational resources online. As a community, we can ill-afford to lose months of schooling, just as we need to ensure that all students at all levels can take part in online teaching.

Finally, as this crisis abates — and it will abate — we need to have a far broader community conversation about our economic future. We have spent literally decades investing in tourism and the visitor economy, expanding the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, financing the city-owed Grand Hyatt, improving the Alamodome, spending on the River Walk and visitor amenities. The future of tourism and the convention business will likely look very different from the past. We need to show the courage required to debate and plan for a different San Antonio economy.

Heywood Sanders is a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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