COVID and political divisions played roles in San Antonio’s 10 biggest news stories of 2021

click to enlarge Even as vaccinations and better treatments appeared, healthcare workers valiantly fought through a second year of surges and rising hospitalization rates. - Courtesy Photo / University Health System
Courtesy Photo / University Health System
Even as vaccinations and better treatments appeared, healthcare workers valiantly fought through a second year of surges and rising hospitalization rates.
After 2020’s pandemic lockdowns and divisive election, many hoped this year would bring a return to “normal,” whatever that means these days. Needless to say, normal isn’t what we got in 2021. Here’s a rundown of the 10 biggest news stories affecting San Antonio during another turbulent and trying year. They’re listed in no particular order.

1. A persistent and deadly virus. This year, it became increasingly clear that the coronavirus isn’t going away just because a portion of the U.S. population rolled up its sleeves and got jabs. We saw just how prevalent vaccine hesitancy — and plain old bullheadedness — are in our politically divided times. What’s more, the realization is dawning that unless we do a better job getting vaccines to developing countries, the risk that COVID-19 poses could continue to worsen.

2. Conservatives’ war on education. Following a legislative session long on culture-war issues, the Texas GOP revived its age-old interest in book bans. San Antonio’s North East ISD is now “reviewing” hundreds of books after a crusading member of the Texas House demanded districts account for works, largely by LGBTQ authors and people of color, that he said make students uncomfortable. Gov. Greg Abbott threw gas on the fire by demanding an agency with zero law-enforcement authority root out “pornography” in schools. Meanwhile, angry parents turned local school board meetings into shitshows by claiming mask mandates were destroying their kids’ lives.

3. Recognizing San Antonio’s status quo is broken. This year may go down as the one where local leaders finally admitted business as usual in San Antonio has done nothing to erase the generational poverty holding our city back. And that may be one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic. Voters overwhelmingly supported a massive job-retraining program this year, and elected officials are making more noise about housing affordability. However, the jury remains out on the outcomes of both.

4. Struggling healthcare heroes. Even as vaccinations and better treatments appeared, healthcare workers valiantly fought through a second year of surges and rising hospitalization rates. They did so while dealing with the emotional turmoil brought on by long hours and the strain of watching the unvaccinated succumb to the virus. Compounding the stress, hospital staff here and around the state have suffered verbal and physical attacks.

5. Texas is winning its war on women.
Months after its passage, the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature’s near-complete ban on abortion — including in cases of rape and incest — remains in effect. Clinics have stopped providing the service, fearing a provision in the law that allows virtually anyone to sue someone who helps a woman seek abortion care. The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the Texas law to remain in effect while it debates the measure’s constitutionality, and observers worry the conservative-skewed high court may soon overturn Roe v. Wade.

6. The implosion of public trust in CPS Energy. San Antonio’s city-owned utility didn’t just fail to keep the lights on during February’s deadly winter freeze, it failed to communicate with customers as rolling blackouts coursed through the city for four days. In the wake of those stumbles, key employees have left in droves — including its CEO and second-in-command, who resigned after a TV news report on their freewheeling spending of public money. But none of that is stopping CPS from asking city council for a rate hike come January.

7. The Beto factor. This fall, former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke announced he’ll run against Gov. Greg Abbott, becoming the first genuinely formidable Democratic opponent to do so. That comes as Abbott goes into 2022 damaged by February’s power grid meltdown and the Legislature’s hard-right turn. Recent polls suggest O’Rourke’s candidacy is a longshot, but it could energize enough Democratic voters to pose threats lower on the ticket — particularly to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, both of whom won their last elections on narrow margins.

8. Police accountability demands aren’t going away. In May, San Antonians by a 2% margin rejected a proposition that would have stripped the city’s police union of its collective bargaining power. The initiative arose from a petition drive by police-accountability group amid nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd. While Prop B didn’t fly, its near miss shows that roughly half of the city’s population has real concerns about police abuse of power. In the vote’s wake, the city of San Antonio has prioritized disciplinary reform as it negotiates a new contract with its police union.

9. The great resignation comes to SA. Roughly 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. San Antonio has experienced its share of walkouts, especially in the low-wage hospitality sector, forcing some businesses to cut operating hours or limit service. Other local employers are responding by raising wages. Alamo City-based Frost Bank, for example, increased its starting pay to $20 per hour in December, affecting 1,800 Texas workers. Stay tuned. Economists predict this won’t be a short-term trend.

10. Will the grid hold up? “I can guarantee the lights will stay on,” Abbott assured Texans during a TV interview last month. That remains to be seen. The Texas Legislature passed bills aimed at avoiding another power failure like last February’s. However, those measures lack teeth, experts argue, especially when it comes to requiring natural-gas providers to winterize their equipment. The implications are big. As many as 700 people died in the last catastrophe, and another statewide outage would be a gut punch for Abbott and other Republicans as they seek reelection in 2022.

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