’You don’t see stuff like this’: San Antonio photographer captures surreal sights of empty downtown on a Saturday evening

Photos show a quiet evening that would have been the first Saturday of Fiesta

San Antonio photographer Sophia Mattos captured photos of an empty downtown on Saturday, April 18, 2020, which would have been the first Saturday of Fiesta if not for the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy, Sophia Mattos)

SAN ANTONIO – On a Saturday evening that was supposed to be filled with Fiesta revelry, the sounds of birds chirping, not Tejano music or the clanks of Fiesta medals, filtered through Market Square. And bicycle riders, not flower crown-wearing partygoers, filled downtown streets.

Those surreal, and to a point, eerie, sights were captured by San Antonio photographer Sophia Mattos.

Normally a nature and family portrait photographer, Mattos decided to grab her camera on the evening of April 18 — which in pre-coronavirus times was scheduled to mark the first Saturday of Fiesta — to document an empty downtown.

“It felt weird being down there,” she said. “I’ve never encountered anything like that.”

People were few and far between along the River Walk and other landmarks that evening. Bicyclists, though scattered, were seemingly “taking over the streets,” she said.

Desolate photos show San Antonio River Walk, other tourist spots during coronavirus pandemic

She spent a couple of hours safely driving around downtown, she said. It surprised her that she could park almost anywhere, so she stayed in or as close to her car as possible.

When she arrived at Market Square, she said, the clarity of birds chirping amazed her. One of the photos she captured, seen in the gallery below, shows a deserted Market Square with the exception of a bird walking solo.

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San Antonio photographer Sophia Mattos captured photos of an empty downtown on Saturday, April 18, 2020, which would have been the first Saturday of Fiesta if not for the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a stark difference from what San Antonio residents are used to seeing this time of year, when Fiesta and the sheer excitement of springtime normally charm both locals and tourists.

That’s why Mattos chose to not only witness it but capture it.

“I needed to document it cause it’s history in the making,” she said. “It’s like I was in a Hollywood movie.”

“You don’t see stuff like this.”

Downtown hotspots won’t sit empty for long as state officials begin the early phases of reopening the Texas economy.

Explained: How San Antonio, Bexar County plan to reopen businesses, activities

Gov. Greg Abbott is allowing restaurants, retail stores, malls and movie theaters to operate at a 25% capacity starting Friday. If the state is able to maintain health care capacity and limit the spread of COVID-19, those businesses can expand occupancy to 50%. Bars would also be able to open in the second phase, which would begin in mid-May.

San Antonio photographer Sophia Mattos captured photos of an empty downtown on Saturday, April 18, 2020, which would have been the first Saturday of Fiesta if not for the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy, Sophia Mattos)

Texans are still encouraged to practice safe distancing — an appreciation that Mattos felt when she saw a lack of crowds on a Saturday evening.

While a bare River Walk was “beautiful” to see, she said, the heed to social distancing is what she found the most interesting.

“People were paying attention, they were staying home.”

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, stands for coronavirus disease 2019. The disease first appeared in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China, but spread around the world in early 2020, causing the World Health Organization to declare a pandemic in March. The first case confirmed in the U.S. was in mid-January and the first case confirmed in San Antonio was in mid-February.

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Rebecca Salinas joined KSAT in the fall of 2019. Her skills include content management, engagement and reporting.