On Friday night, the closed-off blocks of Valencia Stret almost felt normal. Cyclists rode freely in the lanes, diners packed the outdoor restaurant spaces and the streets thrummed with live music. Normal, however, has rubbed some people the wrong way.
“It’s our first time out on a weekend night again. It feels strange,” said Emily, who was with two other friends getting takeout from West of Pecos on Valencia Street.
“I didn’t think it’d be this crowded. It feels like a normal night out,” added Eddie, one of Emily’s companions.
“This isn’t safe,” said Jane, who lives nearby. “There is a disease rampant right now.”
Jane said that, during the pandemic, Valencia has been quiet and free from large crowds, with the occasional restaurant “pop-up” on the sidewalks. But the street closure had a whole different atmosphere. “Last weekend, it honestly had a street fair vibe,” Jane said.
Others agreed that the situation was potentially dangerous. But they also understood that businesses need to make money. Indeed, leaving the blocks between 16th and 17th streets and between 18th and 19th streets open to pedestrians has boosted business even for those outside of the car-free portions of Valencia Street.
“I don’t know if it’s justified, but it’s a natural response. Businesses need this to survive,” said Al W., who walked with a friend down Valencia near 18th Street.
The blocked-off streets opened July 23, despite official concerns about outdoor gatherings. “Do not gather … we know that many of our cases can be traced back to social gatherings of families and friends. The birthday party or the barbecue can get many people sick,” Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of public health, warned during his July 17 COVID-19 briefing.
Colfax had good reason to be concerned. A month before, the city reported 3.0 cases per 100,000. By the July 17 press conference, cases per 100,000 had shot up to 13.7, putting the city in what the Department of Public Health considers “red alert” territory.
Nevertheless, the street closure went forward on July 23, when cases per 100,000 were at 12.7. City officials argued that the closures would reopen the economy while minimizing exposure to COVID-19.
Asked about the contradictions, Brian, from the city’s Emergency Command Center for COVID-19, who declined to give his full name, wrote in an email:
“Although the City is encouraging people to stay home, in order to support further reopening of the economy, we need to make San Francisco more welcoming and accessible for people … The goal is to provide more space for social distancing during essential travel.”
It’s unclear if going to a restaurant would be considered “essential travel,” but in an interview, Dr. Tomas Aragon, San Francisco’s Health Officer, explained that the idea behind the street closures is to give people more space, allowing them to patronize businesses while socially distancing from others.
“We don’t want people gathering. I think the idea behind Valencia Street … Let’s say you go to a restaurant there. By closing the street, it allows people to be more physically distant. It decompresses the space there.”
However, Aragon acknowledged the difficult situation of having too many people drawn to a shared space, such as a park or a street closure, and making it crowded enough to risk eliminating the social distancing benefits of wider public spaces. Enforcing crowd limitations in these areas is nigh impossible.
“This is a general problem across the city. People use opportunities to go to a place, and you get too many people coming together. … It’s impossible to prevent and enforce. I’ll have to look more into it, but ideally, it shouldn’t be happening,” said Aragon.
Perhaps no one has watched the evolution of the three-month pilot program as closely as Manny Yekutiel, owner of Manny’s, who helped negotiate the program. Workers on site discourage gathering and will continue to do so, he said. “The part of Valencia chosen for this just-started pilot program to bring small businesses and restaurants outside are likely the two most closely monitored blocks in San Francisco with regards to mask-wearing and social distancing,” he wrote in an email. “We’re proud of the community coming together safely as well as the health and enforcement efforts in place as we give small businesses a fighting chance during this time.”
Many might argue whether Valencia Street’s scene is out of hand, but two outcomes are clear: it has helped businesses, and mask compliance is mixed, at best.
On Friday night, I saw at least one person without a mask roughly every two to four minutes on Valencia Street. Around 9 p.m., I saw 11 people without masks on the block of Valencia near 16th, near Limón Rotisserie, most of whom were in groups of two or three.
Scenes like this – people socializing while unmasked out in public and in groups – upset Nicholas DeLuca, who lives in the southern part of the Mission. “I feel like there’s a lack of solidarity. Why don’t they think of mask-wearing in the same way as a protest … an act of solidarity with the community?” said DeLuca.
But rather than a lack of solidarity, those walking down Valencia without masks did so largely because they felt it was safe.
Joseph Rayo, a New Yorker who has been staying with family in San Francisco for two months, chose not to wear a mask because he believes that as long as he is distant from others while outdoors, he is keeping himself and others safe.
“Personally, I don’t think the shit is airborne. Walking around, it’s safe without a mask,” said Rayo. “People ideally want you to wear a mask all the time, but it doesn’t make sense.”
Ryan and Hannah walked down Valencia together with their masks pulled down to their necks. It was fine, they believed, to forgo a mask if you are not at a restaurant and stay six feet away from others.
“I think you can choose. You’re safer walking around than if you sit down to eat. … It’s okay to put it [your mask] down if there’s space, six feet,” said Hannah.
Eric, part of the trio getting takeout from West of Pecos, was not wearing a mask, and said that wearing one is unnecessary outdoors if you are “with your people.” Emily agreed, although she was wearing a mask.
“If there’s space and you’re with your people, then yeah.”
The owners of Etcetera, Curio, and Tacolicious said that diners largely understand the rules of the July 1 health order requiring them to wear masks for a large part of their meal.
“I have had a few problems getting people to wear masks,” said Alexandra Gerteis, the owner of Etcetera on Valencia near 19th Street, “usually they are younger people; they like to not follow the guidelines so much.”
Gerteis pointed out that it can be challenging to enforce diners to wear their masks.
“It’s hard to say, ‘you have to keep your mask on at all times.’ I know people are going to get upset.”
At Tacolicious, there was only one incident of noncompliance with the health order, from a Texas couple who refused to wear masks while waiting to be served, according to managing partner T. Elliot.
“We had some people in from Texas. I said, ‘Where’s your mask?’ and he said ‘I don’t wear a mask.’ I told him, ‘I can’t have you sit here without a mask. I can’t serve you,’ and then he and his girl got up and left.”
The servers I spoke to also said that people have been largely understanding of the importance of wearing masks at restaurants.
“Everybody has been compliant. We haven’t gotten anybody who’s mad,” said Pedro, a server at Curio.
Pedro said that if customers are noncompliant with the health order, it could threaten his employment.
“If people don’t follow the rules, I don’t have a job.”
Aragon reinforced the importance of minimizing contact and wearing masks as much as possible.
“To the extent possible, covering one’s face when not eating or drinking reduces potential exposures to table guests, and to workers. The more physical distancing, the better, and the less frequency and duration of contact, the better,” said Aragon in an email statement.
DeLuca had more straightforward advice.
“If you don’t want to be a dick, wear a mask.”
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