The electronic squeal of hand sanitizer squirting out of automatic dispensers echoes through the jarringly desolate corridors of City Hall. 

Those who can (or must) sequester themselves are doing so. The anxious present day feels like the phony war before the blitzkrieg and the preamble to a dark and lengthy book. 

But, at the very least, City Hall feels cleaner now. Both physically and metaphysically. 

San Francisco government is — again, physically and metaphysically — cleaning house. But not exactly because we wanted to. Rather, outside events forced our hand. 

Faced with the noxious COVID-19 pandemic — and the federal government’s incompetent response — states and municipalities are forced to bear an undue burden. In San Francisco, our notoriously filthy trains and buses and many of our (notoriously filthy) gathering places are being buffed to a dull shine.

The key to “flattening the curve” — preventing large numbers of people from becoming simultaneously infected in short order and overwhelming hospitals — is in part stuff we should’ve been doing anyway: Cleaning stuff up, maintaining proper hygiene, spending more time with our families, and listening to doctors and scientists. A number of the rules or requirements suspended in the face of an epidemic were arbitrary or even cruel and draconian; in an ideal world, maybe they won’t return. 

Faced with the noxious San Francisco culture of casual corruption — and the federal government’s competent response — San Francisco is making belated attempts to cleanse itself as well. The FBI’s Jan. 28 arrest of ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru on fraud charges has necessitated a long-overdue internal crackdown; a probe led by the City Attorney and Controller’s offices is — at long last — rounding up this city’s usual suspects

This, too, is something we should’ve been doing anyway. Several of this city’s most notorious and longstanding ganefs have been plastered with subpoenas or hounded out of government. In an ideal world, maybe they won’t return either. 

In any event, we’re now in a crisis. And crises provide clarity. Crises provide the opportunity for expedited change. 

Crises expose — and enhance — the problems you already had. In short: Crises reveal who you are. 

Shy, who lives in a homeless encampment on Alameda Street at San Bruno Avenue, watches as Public Works cleaning crews sort through her belongings. Photo by Laura Waxmann, 2017

Last week, your humble narrator wrote about the strange and terrible saga of Mohammed Nuru’s penthouse. In short, Nuru’s monomaniacal desire for the top-floor luxurious office he felt was his due led him to cash in on his prodigious City Hall connections and bulldoze even his ostensible equals. He got what he wanted, per the usual: The design of the 16-story tower at 49 South Van Ness, originally envisioned without an “executive floor,” was altered to meet his whims. Meanwhile, the public-serving employees who’ll be toiling on lower floors here say they’ve been given substandard accommodations.  

So, that’s who we are. But, facing the crisis of self-reflection due any city when federal agents arrest long-serving senior employees and level extensive allegations of entrenched corruption — is it who we want to be? 

That remains to be seen. A good test case for this may be found in Nuru’s former stamping ground, the Public Works Corporation Yard on Cesar Chavez. Workers here didn’t miss the article about Nuru and his machinations to carve out a corner penthouse for himself. Far from having half a dozen underlings and three outside contractors poring over their office decor details, as Nuru did, workers at the corporation yard tell your humble narrator they’re dealing with coyote incursions, infestations of raccoons, possums, and skunks — and mounds of excrement from all of the above. 

There are buildings and trailers with no hot water and visible mold and grunge and buckling surfaces. There are, workers say, only two janitors for the entire vast complex. 

As seen on the Public Works corporation yard.

These, by the way, are the workers often tasked with seizing homeless people’s things. Which is also something we’re still doing during a pandemic. Dispersing homeless people — an incredibly vulnerable, compromised population — around the city to mix and mingle would seem to be a terrible idea, both from a humanitarian and an epidemiological point of view. 

San Jose has suspended homeless sweeps for just this reason. San Francisco has not; a Public Works spokesperson told the San Francisco Public Press that the city continues to break down homeless encampments and “bag and tag” residents’ possessions because “that’s what we do.” 

Of note, a homeless San Franciscan contacted by the Public Press noted that she and her colleagues are reticent to leave their possessions and see doctors because of fears that Public Works will make off with their worldly goods. 

That may be what we do, but workers in the corporation yard tell me they do not want to do this. They do not feel good about doing this. And they do not feel safe about doing this — they claim they’ve had no COVID-19 training, do not have regular access to running water or soap, and are only assigned one disposable Tyvek HazMat suit and two disposable face masks per day. One worker on this yard years ago came down with SARS, longtime Public Works employees recall. Another developed shigella after stepping in a heap of human excrement. 

In a March 10 email obtained by Mission Local, Nuru’s successor, Alaric Degrafinried, said workers shouldn’t be concerned in the era of COVID-19. “According to our environmental health and safety manager, it is very hard to get exposed when working outside,” he wrote. “As long as the employees are wearing the [personal protective equipment] we offer to them, they should be at low risk.”

You’re not going to believe this, but that response wasn’t well-received. 

“I have lived in San Francisco for my whole life. My dream job was to go work for the city,” says a veteran Public Works employee. “Sometimes I feel like I sold myself short.” 

Contractor and permit expediter Walter Wong, right, pictured here in 2018 with ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru. Photo by Susana Bates for Drew Alitzer Photography.

Journalists are trained to obscure what they don’t know. But uncertainty is the hallmark of this burgeoning pandemic. The dearth of federal leadership is also forcing difficult — and bad — choices on cities and states. 

What seems more certain is that COVID-19 and corruption scandals have laid bare the faults in the city’s deeply ingrained status quo that were, previously, seen but tolerated. On the other end of this tunnel we may, for good or ill, be a changed city. 

There is a fire here. It may burn us. It may purify us. It may do both. I just don’t know.