On Valencia Street, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Photo by Lydia Chávez

Community partners in the Tenderloin decided to shut down the COVID-19 pop-up testing site a day early, and declined an offer from Verily to extend testing for another week, saying protests and curfews made operating the mobile site untenable.

Del Seymour — founder of Code Tenderloin, one of the community partners for the site — said they did not open Monday, which was originally scheduled to be their last day of testing.

“We did not open at all, out of respect for the moment,” he said. “The priority of our community is to mourn and reflect on the tragedy that happened in Minneapolis.”

Seymour said there was a sizable group  of protesters that came within 300 feet of the site on Saturday, with helicopters flying right above them.

“That put a little frustration on folks. We don’t need to be doing this; they don’t need that,” he said. “Our community is faced with the problems of homelessness, drug dealing, COVID-19, and now the response to the tragedy in Minneapolis. This is not the time for us to be putting an additional task [of running the testing site] on this community when we are very unstable right now.”

The Tenderloin site opened May 20. As a pop-up, temporary testing location, the city initially stated that after a two-week run it would be relocated to “another high-need neighborhood,” although that new location was never named. 

Then Verily — a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which runs the tests — offered to keep the site open for another week in the Tenderloin. The neighborhood has been particularly hit hard by COVID-19, with 40.78 cases per 10,000 people. The citywide rate is 26.84.

But the community partners, including Code Tenderloin, Glide Memorial Church, and the Coalition on Homelessness, decided not to take up that offer.

“There were folks in the community, including us, that didn’t feel it was right to go on with business as usual,” said Ken Kim, senior director of programs at Glide. “For Glide, a big part of it right now is we need to tend to our own community. It just doesn’t feel right.”

Kim said many Glide staff members are African American, and dealing with curfews around the Bay Areas has been an additional strain for them. They had to scramble to be sure staff who use public transportation could leave work in time to get home without police citing or attesting them for being out too late.

“The last thing we want to do is put one of our African American staff in one of the same positions George Floyd was in,” Kim said.

Seymour lives in San Leandro, where the curfew starts at 6 p.m. “I don’t want to be stuck on the bridge, not get home, and have to deal with the San Leandro Police Department, which is the most racist in the U.S.,” he said.

Brian Edwards, an advocate with the Coalition on Homelessness, agreed with the decision to shut down the site.

“That was a very difficult decision we came to, but it was from the community, and pretty unanimous,” he said. “So many of the people who staff the site are going through not just mourning, but outrage. The idea that we continue to do the thing in this country where we add a black body to the pile and then the next day is just another day… I think the thinking was, let’s try something different.”

“In the past, we usually have one of these things happen, and it’s usually just another day with a hashtag, and then nothing. Our thought was no, we have to try something different,” he added. “Yes, there is a pandemic. But there’s also a pandemic of brown bodies being added from blue guns.”

Edwards said they’re not viewing this as a permanent halt to testing in the Tenderloin, but rather as a pause of perhaps two weeks — provided, of course, that another testing company can be brought in to resume testing. He hopes a more permanent site can be established in the neighborhood, “designed with community input from the beginning, so that it actually suits our community,” he said. An ideal site would have fewer barriers to be tested, including easier options for walk-up testing.

“Our mission, to have testing in the Tenderloin, has not diminished whatsoever,” Seymour said. “We will continue to … advocate for a permanent testing site in the Tenderloin to be set up very soon.”

According to figures released from the Department of Public Health, 949 people were tested at the Tenderloin site the first week it was open. Numbers were not immediately available for the site’s second week, but Edwards said they had dropped to below 200 people a day by this past weekend.

“We’re hitting outreach saturation,” he said. “If you’re an English speaker, or you live in the Tenderloin, you know about the testing site.”

Edwards said the next challenge will be to reach communities which can be harder to target, such as monolingual communities, who only speak Cambodian, Vietnamese, or Thai. It can sometimes take weeks of sustained outreach to get word to them.

Those communities, Edwards said, likely wouldn’t have received word in time to use the site even if it had been decided to keep it open for another week.

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Michael Toren is a reporter in San Francisco. He can be reached at michael.toren@gmail.com

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