The continuing coronavirus pandemic and what to do about it locally dominated the Schertz City Council’s April 7 meeting.
The issue before the city’s governing body was whether or not to extend the state of emergency the group, in a strongly divided March 25 vote, had set to expire April 14.
After much debate, city council voted unanimously to extend the emergency declaration through May 5.
Mayor Ralph Gutierrez pointed out that, while the number of coronavirus cases in Schertz was low, citizens should not let their guards down. He added various studies had predicted the peak of the infection would Íhit Texas around April 30 but, due to isolation and social distancing, that estimate is now April 20.
Fire Chief Kade updated the council on area testing for the virus conducted by local health districts and private, state and federal entities, estimating that, by April 11, some 100,000 Texans will have been tested.
“We just don’t have a good number of how many of those are in our county or region yet because of all those different sources (of data) coming together,” he said.
Kade explained that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had, via executive order, extended the state ban on social gatherings and in-person contacts through April 30, clearly defined what is an essential business or service, and included some key enforcement actions counties and local municipalities should follow.
Assistant City Manager Charles Kelm told city council that all three counties that Schertz straddles — Bexar, Guadalupe and Comal — have adopted stay-home declarations through April 30, and recommended Schertz extend its directive to do the same through May 5.
May 5 was chosen because that would be the first council meeting after the governor’s declaration expires, Kelm said, and, if that expiration occurs, City Council could repeal its local ordinance to officially comply with the state. If the state’s order is extended, he noted, council could set a new extension.
“We tried really hard to make sure that our ordinance was almost a duplicate copy of the declarations of the counties, and they all fall in line with the governor’s (order),” he said, adding Schertz added a prohibition for door-to-door solicitation and that only Bexar County has closed its local golf courses.
Kelm noted that Schertz police and city code enforcement officers continue to be proactive and focus on education rather than handing out tickets.
“Most of our residents are doing a really good job of trying to comply,” he said. “A lot of it that we’re finding is that they just want to know what the rules are.”
Debate on extending the emergency declaration followed the same basic divide as it did for the original issue on March 25.
Councilwoman Rosemary Scott, citing her background as a researcher, called the various studies and predictions “deeply flawed.”
On April 3, estimates of potential COVID-19 deaths were 6,000, she said, but as of April 7, those estimates dropped to 2,025.
“That’s a decrease of 66 percent in a matter of four days. That’s statistically so improbable that I couldn’t even quote you what the statistics are,” she said.
Scott emphasized she was not implying people shouldn’t be protected, but she protested what she called draconian prohibitions by some Texas communities and an overreaction by local and national media.
“The media just feeds on this stuff, and it feeds on people’s fears,” she said. “We have to step back and look at the reality and the numbers and what it means.”
Saying she agreed with Schertz’ efforts, — “I support my government and I think it is the appropriate thing to do.” — Scott added she did not favor a continuing series of extensions for the local emergency declaration.
“But I also understand a lot of people are dying and Schertz is going to look bad. I get all of that,” Scott told the council. “But if you look at the actual statistics and you look at what’s going on and you made intelligent decisions based on that — you know, their livelihoods, their families turned upside down — this is going to haunt us for decades to come.”
Councilman David Scagliola agreed with Scott that estimates might be overblown, “but we also have a lot of evidence that this social distancing is working. I’d like to believe we’ve hit the peak.” he said.
Noting that President Donald Trump had announced he’d wanted the crisis to be over by Easter, Scagliola said that everyone would like that to be the case, “but I think the reality is, though, we may not have hit our peak yet.
“I don’t have a crystal ball and I’m going to rely on the experts to give us their best guess,” he added. “I’m not going to play expert in this situation. I think we have enough experts out there, and they’ve told us what we need to do.”
Councilman Michael Dahle echoed the concerns over the virus’ continuing crippling effect on local businesses, but he pointed out that the Methodist Health System was now estimating the local COVID-19 peak in Bexar County was going to be in mid-May.
“I don’t think we have enough information right now to make very accurate decisions on that,” Dahle said, “and I certainly don’t want to be on the side of this where I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Man, we should have done more.’”
In the end, the council voted unanimously — Scott said she was doing so “reluctantly” — to extend the emergency declaration through May 5.