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As State Mandates Lift, How San Antonio Mayor Will Keep City Safe Amid COVID-19

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Texas now, which is in flux a day after Republican Governor Greg Abbott announced he is ending the state's mask mandate and allowing businesses to reopen at full capacity.

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GREG ABBOTT: It is now time to open Texas 100%.

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KELLY: The crowd cheering Governor Abbott there in Texas. But today, President Biden had this warning for folks eager to ditch their masks.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything's fine. Take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters.

KELLY: Well, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg is sticking with masks. He says the governor's decision is a huge mistake. He's an independent and he joins us now.

Mayor Nirenberg, welcome.

RON NIRENBERG: Great to join you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: What is the situation in San Antonio that makes this the wrong call for your city?

NIRENBERG: Well, just as we are beginning to gain control of this virus again after a very deadly fall and winter season - and we're trying to get vaccines as fast as we can, but we don't have the doses that we need coming to us from the federal and state government - lifting the mask mandate at this time is a dreadful and unnecessary decision that, unfortunately, will cost lives in our state.

KELLY: Do you have authority as mayor to issue a city mandate?

NIRENBERG: Unfortunately, no. And when the governor previously lifted our mask mandate that was in place in March, we were able to find a loophole that required businesses - we were able to require health precautions within businesses to require masks in facilities. But that loophole has been closed. So this seems like a very concerted effort to appeal to folks who just simply want to ignore what has been the main mode of us containing this virus and stopping the spread from the very beginning.

KELLY: Oh, so what can you do? What's the plan to persuade people to stick with masking, to stick with social distancing when the governor says they're no longer needed? It's time for everybody to practice, his words, personal vigilance.

NIRENBERG: You know, the sharpest tool we have had in the fight against this pandemic has been public trust and information from our public health professionals, appealing to people's common sense. And we have seen too many of our loved ones, our neighbors die from this virus. So we're going to continue to push out the message that our public health professionals have been giving us, that one of the primary ways we can protect one another is to continue wearing masks and to practice social distancing. We're going to continue to do that every day.

Thankfully, here in San Antonio, the vast majority of folks are common sensical, care about one another and are going to continue wearing masks. In fact, many of our businesses, our business associations, our school districts have already declared that this is not a time to let up. They are going to continue to observe the public health guidance.

KELLY: How do you respond, Mayor, to people who might argue, look, of course, COVID still poses a risk, but so does a never-ending shutdown, the economic costs, the lost jobs, the mental health costs and so on. At what point, in your view, should those risks outweigh the risk of spreading COVID?

NIRENBERG: You know, we have been balancing those risks from the very start. And what I would say - and this is borne out in the fact that as we have sped to open up too fast previously, we've had to roll back even further. The damage to this economy is rooted in the fact that we have a virus that's run rampant across our country. A healthy economy starts with healthy people. And the best way to get businesses open, kids back in school and life back to normal is to put an end to this pandemic. And unfortunately, this decision only sets us back.

KELLY: We only have a minute or so left. But are you worried infections will tick up again in your city? If they do, are your hospitals and doctors ready for that?

NIRENBERG: I am concerned, and that is because we are not nearly receiving enough of the vaccines that we should be in proportion of the eligible population and the folks that are more likely to be stricken with serious illness. We need to accelerate the administration of the vaccine and that starts with getting more vaccines our communities. So lifting up the measures that we have available to us to stop the spread, to limit the transmission of the virus right now is foolhardy. I mean, to do that simultaneously with opening everything back up, knowing that we are behind the eight ball with vaccines is just incredibly foolish and an unfortunate mistake that's going to cost many lives in our communities.

KELLY: That is the mayor of San Antonio, Ron Nirenberg.

Thank you, sir.

NIRENBERG: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.