Be sure your mask is apropos for wildfires — an N95 mask will protect you while a surgical mask or single-string mask will not.

Update, Nov. 15, 5:30 p.m.: With the city’s air quality reaching the purple “very unhealthy” level on the chart — and being ranked as the worst air quality among well-known world cities — San Francisco will open up additional shelter beds and urge the unhoused to head toward filtered air facilities.

For those who must travel, Muni will be free on Friday.

Seventy-five more beds are now available at 525 Fifth Street and 60 have been opened up at St. Anthony’s.

The map of filtered-air facilities can be found here.

Libraries: Main branch, Chinatown, Glen Park, Mission Bay

Malls: Westfield, Stonestown, Japantown

Museums: San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery (401 Van Ness Ave.), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Contemporary Jewish Museum, Museum of the African Diaspora, De Young Museum.

Senior Centers: Dr. George W. Davis Senior Center, 1751 Carroll Ave.

Original story, Nov. 13: City health officials are urging San Franciscans to stay indoors as fires render air quality so bad you can see it, and wear masks if they have to go out. “Stay inside if you can,” says Linda Acosta, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Public Health. “Otherwise, go to a library, a mall, a movie theater.”

But, for those living out of doors and without popcorn money, this may not be an option.

As such, the city has put more Homeless Outreach Team members on the streets, and instructed them to do wellness checks on unhoused individuals and disseminate water and particulate masks. The city has, as of Monday, handed out 900 masks and will restock Tuesday.

Several dozen additional shelter beds have also been opened up for anyone wishing to come inside out of the haze. It is unclear if anyone has done so, but Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that anyone suffering smoke-induced respiratory ailments will be accommodated.

In past years, when wildfires darkened Bay Area skies, the city opened up “respiration centers” where people could get out of the toxic air. Almost nobody did so and, this time around, San Francisco officials have determined they won’t open up such sites unless we reach “purple” on the air quality chart (purple is, counter-intuitively, worse than red, which is where things have hovered for the past few days. In ascending order of awfulness, the chart goes: green, yellow, orange, red, purple, maroon.)

This visitor to San Francisco from New York, pictured in 2011, was ahead of his time in donning a mask. Incidentally, a surgical mask like this one won’t help with wildfire smoke.

Brent Andrew, a spokesman for San Francisco General Hospital, says that there has not yet been any noticeable uptick in patients suffering from respiratory ailments.

Unhoused people who haven’t yet received a mask can get one for free at Tom Waddell urban health clinic at 50 Dr. Tom Waddell Place, in the shadow of City Hall. Or they can call 311 and work out a deal with the outreach team.

Particulate masks are sold out at stores across the Bay Area, and that goes here in the Mission, too (we checked). But you need to know which mask will protect you. A two-strap N95 particulate mask can be of aid against wildfire smoke. A single-strap mask (like the one in the photo above) will not help, nor will a surgical mask.

An informal poll of homeless folks in the Mission revealed most had not been approached by outreach workers with masks, nor did they desire them. “I’m alright, thanks,” said Ariel, a tent-dweller on 19th Street.

“You probably can’t tangibly tell the quality of the air, but, at this point, I don’t really want one,” added Kyle, who sat on 24th Street plaza with a large, mellow dog.

Four Spanish-speaking men in Alioto Park said they’d take a mask if offered. But no one had. “We are homeless,” said one. “No one gives it to us.”

Well, stick around. They just might. And the smoke isn’t going away anytime soon.  

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. All the local stores are sold out – are these masks available for all San Francisco citizens who want them?

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    1. These are for the unhoused. I’ll see if there is any recourse for others.


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      1. This is my problem too, everyone has been calling stores everywhere and no one has any, and I need one for tomorrow

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