Doors across the Mission District are seen with paper placards discussing preventive measures to Covid-19.

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Think of it as a chocolate and peanut butter situation — but that’s not chocolate. 

We have a pandemic, and empty hotels, and large numbers of San Franciscans who are sick, or showing symptoms, or at great risk of all of the above. Any fears major hotels and hotel chains — and we do mean major — harbored about being branded as some manner of plague sanitarium has long since given way. Iconic San Francisco institutions are reaching out to your elected officials and making deals. 

“I am picking up units, in the hundreds, by the hour,” one official tells me. 

We are told the mayor will be updating us on this effort today. It’s not certain just what she’ll say, but Mission Local is told that 3,000 to 4,000 rooms may be in the city’s grasp by next week. (The price tag for this, per a city official in the know, is “who cares?”). 

For those of you keeping score at home (and many of you may well be at home), this is what it took for San Francisco’s government to perform at an effective level. Our spectacularly wealthy city struggles to tie its own shoes during the best of days. But, in the face of a global pandemic, we’re overachieving. 

The city has acted to stem the health and economic effects of a plague. Was San Francisco slow to do so? Yes. Notably so. The Warriors rebuffed the city’s requests to shut down and were still playing games barely over a week ago; we could’ve been far more aggressive.

And yet, we’re still ahead of virtually every other municipality. 

Your humble narrator wrote earlier this week that crises expose — and enhance — the problems you already had. That’s true, and that could well be our undoing. 

The rampant income inequality and housing crisis this city couldn’t or wouldn’t address loom ever larger now. And this city’s inability to stem the staggering number of unhoused San Franciscans could well lead to a humanitarian crisis — and undo every other well-laid plan. 

Also, underlying every move San Francisco and its neighboring counties makes, is the cold realization that a county can only do so much. 

“On the national level, the lack of preparedness, the inability to ramp up testing capacity, is perhaps the biggest failure in the history of this country in terms of preparedness,” says Dr. Jake Scott, an infectious disease physician and assistant clinical professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. “Hundreds of thousands of people are going to die unnecessarily because of this horribly slow response.”

“The horse,” he continues, “is out of the barn. Hospitals all over the country are going to be quickly overwhelmed with a surge of patients. There is only so much a county can do.” 

Line at Duc Loi Supermarket. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

That’s not cynicism and that’s not meant to drain your hope. That’s just real talk. And, again, there’s only so much a county or even region can do, even a region as rich as ours. Even and especially in the face of the federal government’s staggering neglect and ineptitude. 

The Trump administration’s response to this pandemic brings to mind the ABC Wide World of Sports intro during which ski jumper Vinko Bogataj crashes spectacularly — only with the addition of ongoing denials that there’s skiing or crashing and an inexcusably lengthy delay before having commenced the skiing and crashing. (For all of this in a nutshell, see Matthias Gafni’s amazing and maddening report in the Chronicle about the passengers on the stricken Grand Princess turning down COVID-19 tests, often at the urging of federal officials).

“This is a war. You do not fight a war in a piecemeal fashion; you don’t fight with each state deciding how it’s going to fight,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, a UC Berkeley clinical professor emeritus specializing in infectious diseases and vaccinology. “A national plan would be very helpful. National leadership would be most appreciated. You’re not going to get it with this government.”  

While Swartzberg had praise and cautious optimism for San Francisco’s sweeping shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, he noted that if and when outsiders from less-restrictive areas dropped into town, it undoes the effort. 

San Francisco may have water on three sides of it, but no moat. 

He also noted that panicked shoppers crowding grocery stores also “defeats the whole purpose of sheltering in place.” This could’ve been better planned for. 

But the underlying shelter-in-place orders are not just feel-good busywork. This is not a scrap-iron drive or countryside Britons drilling on how to repel Nazi invaders by painting over street signs or tossing dinner plates in the road to mimic landmines.

Sheltering-at-home and social distancing are real, and how strictly we follow the rules is going to matter. 

“Take it seriously,” says Scott. “Remain at home or, when you’re outside, keep a good distance from people. If you do that, hospitals are going to be less overwhelmed than they would be.” 

“There is nothing else we have in our toolkit but social distancing.” 

We’ll know how well the moves we undertook today worked out in two weeks’ time after the COVID-19 incubation period lapses.  

As seen on Balmy Alley. Photo by Contributor.

The Navigation center on the Embarcadero damn near ran out of toilet paper.

Elected officials hustled to drop off 30 rolls earlier this week. Toilet paper is hard to find. Again, this could’ve been better planned for. Soap, hand sanitizer, and other COVID-19 necessities were also in short supply.

Shelters are, in almost any event, desirable to living on the streets. But it is not clear if our shelters are prepared for what’s already here. It’s not clear if social distancing is being practiced or is even possible. When the first COVID-19 case is confirmed in a shelter, it could be the spark that ignites a humanitarian wildfire.

“How can we expand what we want to see in society in times of crisis? I do want to see more shelters with lack of housing — but I am worried about what it means to be in a congregate setting,” said Chris Herring, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in sociology who often works with the Coalition on Homelessness.

He predicts we will — inevitably — see a confirmed case in one shelter, then another, and a series of reactive mass shuntings of sick or at-risk people into the hotel rooms.

Waiting for people to get sick, however, is not an ideal move. “We have to be proactive, not reactive,” says Scott. “When you’re knee-deep in a crisis, it’s too late.”

Just who gets those hotel rooms, and when, and how many we need — and when — figures to be a point of extreme contention. Lives will be saved, no doubt, and our hospital system will, undoubtedly, be spared a crush of people. But the post-facto analysis promises to be damning — no matter what option is taken.

And yet, San Francisco will still suffer because of the lack of a coordinated national response.

“We need a national program,” says Swartzberg. “Appoint a national czar to handle and coordinate this activity. Somebody with intelligence and experience in public health and public issues — not Mike Pence, who was an absurd person to have there.”

But that’s not going to happen. So we need to continue acting at the state and local level, and sheltering-in-place. This is going to drag on for a while. Many weeks if not months.

“It’s hard to say when this is going to peak. The latest models say 30 to 60 days,” said Scott.

“What we’re doing now is good. Sheltering-in-place is good,” adds Swartzberg. “The measures will go far, as long as we continue them. And we will feel the strain as this extends into many weeks, if we still have to do this. Which I am sure we will be.”

Swartzberg, himself, is sheltering-in-place. He has not touched his children or grandchildren for two weeks.

“And it’s heartbreaking,” he confirms.

Local journalism is critical. Please continue to help. We’re trying to get useful information up as quickly as possible. 

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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. “Our spectacularly wealthy city struggles to tie its own shoes during the best of days.”

    Your assumption that Sf is inevitably “spectacularly wealthy” and conclusion that derive from that assumption is speculative. As of this minute, the City financial situation is very uncertain.

    In principle , there are basic two mechanisms to close the wealth gap, raise the wealth of the lower or reduce the wealth of the upper. The idea of doing both is appealing but proven to be politically unacceptable(e.g. creating some affordable housing is politically possible only as a byproduct of much building much more unaffordable housing). The second way has long been pooh poohed by those in the middle who are experiencing their personal boats being lifted in the “rising tide”. They’re rising on the coattails of the wealthy while the people on the bottom have no place.

    Well it just might be that the predictions of some who’ve been welcoming a recession as a great leveler, will come true. That would result in housing costs becoming affordable and SF trending to it’s historical working class ethos. Even before covid, Mayor Breed’s budget called for cuts to expected City budget increases. It’s now fairly likely there will be cuts that actually reduce the City budget. The wealthy can easily skedaddle for greener pastures in the wake of covid. While SF won’t implode, it certainly won’t be “spectacularly wealthy”..

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    1. Our city’s budget approaches $13 billion and it has built up a (much needed) and huge reserve. There are rich and poor among our population but, as a municipality, we are spectacularly wealthy. Period. Full stop.

      How things will lookin the next fiscal year are not certain and I predict pain. But let’s not tumble down a semantic or philosophical rabbit hole to deny the incredibly obvious.


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      1. Normally, I don’t do rebuttals. This is a rare exception.
        Joe, You’re whistling past the graveyard. The spigot to the surplus is wide open with extraordinary expenses. The City has already announced to mitigate the effects of shelter in place on workers and businesses and to quarantine and treat many covid cases. Some already see the open spigot as means to to realize their long held goal to house every street homeless person.

        Since 1849 wealthy people have been in SF. That didn’t eliminate the recent downturns of the 1970’s, 2000 dotcom, or 2007 financial crisis. Economists say a recession is now certain. The critical part, how deep and long it will be is still unknown, critically dependent on the covid curve.

        Much wealth is held in a stock market that has fallen 36% in one month (and still falling) and real estate whose value is determined by market rate rent the last 10% of tech employee arrivals can pay. If a small sliver of wealthy workers disappear in the upcoming recession, real estate values will go with them. In any event, the wealth of the wealthy accrues to the City only to the extent wealthy people are here to fund taxes/philanthropy/consumption. Or wealthy people invest here because they anticipate high returns. Already, rising costs are slowing construction investment. The recession will essentially stop investment for a unknown period.

        My point here is this isn’t your flippantly dismissed philosophical rabbit hole. It’s a scenario that economists say is already happening. The only valid question is how deep and how long the recession will be. You’re a follower of Mr. Trump’s certainty it will be shallow and short.

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      2. Are those who make this argument looking only at the celeb billionaires who live here (their wealth – not ours), or the size of the budget (typically a red herring) – or are they looking at the City’s balance sheet. Cuz from what I see we have enormous assets (Airport, Hetch Hetchy, real estate valuations, port, parks and good will), but also an unfunded mandate of pension obligations for all the 6-figure employees who are and will be getting 6-figure pensions (like the recently ‘released’ DBI chief).

        After one does all the math – then, where do we stand?

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  2. Thanks, please follow up on how hotel rooms are being used. It is probably only lack of testing that is leading us to believe there is so little coved 19 “on the street.”

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  3. The lock-down in the Bay Area will certainly “flatten the curve” here. But can we lift the lock-down before the virus spreads through the rest of California and the nation? Doing so just risks a second wave of infections. So I’m wondering why Sacto isn’t also on lock-down?

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  4. Where are all those problem-solving geniuses when we need them? Zuckerberg lives in a huge house on 21st Street. One of how many? Is he ever there? Time to turn it over to the City Mark. How about turning the Lacob Palace into a giant hospital facility? It’s right next to UCSF! Lacob can get it power cleaned after the thing passes (and you do promise it will pass, don’t you Joe?). Among other things, the pandemic has exposed the pompousness, and preening of the over-privileged who claim to be solving problems to better the world. Here’s the problem. Here’s the world. Where’s the solution? We’re waiting. Waiting for a Billionaire Godot to finally step up.

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