San Antonio – CDC planned to drop quarantined cruise passengers outside The Cheesecake Factory

Zeba Kurji

People arrive at the San Antonio International Airport Tuesday, March 3, 2020 after being released from quarantine at JBSA-Lackland. The people were evacuated from the coronavirus-infected Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan and had been held in quarantine at Lackland to ensure they were not infected with the virus. (William Luther/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)

Federal health officials planned to drop off some cruise ship passengers at a shopping mall after their release from a two-week quarantine at a Texas air base, one of several reasons the city declared a public health emergency over the new coronavirus, a city spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The city filed a lawsuit Monday to halt the plan after a woman was mistakenly released from quarantine at Lackland Air Force Base over the weekend despite testing positive. She had visited the North Star Mall — the same one where the others were to be dropped off — before the mistake was discovered, prompting the mall to shut down for deep cleaning.

Laura Mayes, spokeswoman for the city of San Antonio, said that knowing about the plan from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was “part of why the city wanted to pause it, to minimize the threat to the community.”

“We wanted to make sure things were orderly and done with as limited exposure as possible to the public,” Mayes said. City officials also wanted more patient testing to assure nobody who was released tested positive.

A CDC spokesman reached after hours Tuesday said she could not immediately respond. North Star Mall officials did not immediately respond to a message left after hours.

Mayes said 122 passengers were released Tuesday, while seven remained in quarantine. Many passengers were bused to San Antonio International Airport, where they were escorted to ticket counters and through security. Others who live in Texas were escorted to car rental counters.

Passenger Terri Feil of Houston said a CDC official told them in a conference call Sunday that the mall, about 17 miles (27 kilometers) from the base, was chosen to avoid the media.

Feil said only people who were not going to the airport were to be dropped off at the mall. The Feils showed The Associated Press a text message they said was from the CDC indicating they were to be dropped off at the entrance by The Cheesecake Factory.

“My husband was asking, ‘who made this decision?’” said Feil, who added that the couple’s son was driving from Houston to pick them up.

Feil and her husband, David Feil, were among at least four passengers released late Monday after CDC officials said they were free to go. Their son picked them up at a Lackland gate around midnight.

“We were jumping up and down for joy,” said Terri Feil. “We were not going to give one person a chance to change their mind.”

She said being isolated from family and other passengers since February “was like a nightmare you just kept waking up to each and every day.”

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who had earlier said that only passengers who were symptom-free for the entire 14-day quarantine period would be released Tuesday, issued a statement saying he was “comfortable that the plan … will minimize the risk of exposure,” and that passengers would not stay in local hotels and would go directly to the airport.

The patient who was released over the weekend visited the mall and the airport before she was brought back into isolation once the positive test was discovered, city officials said. There have not been any known cases of the illness being transmitted in the community, Nirenberg said.