A deserted Mission playground, with only a team of soccer players playing the background.

Miniature golf, regular golf, tennis, skate parks, children’s playgrounds. Pick the two the lockdown left open. And how did you decide?  More importantly, how did city officials decide? 

Mission Local asked this question at a press conference on Friday where Mayor London Breed and her Director of Public Health Dr. Grant Colfax announced news of the new lockdown. “What activities are most tied to new cases, and is that how these closures were determined?” Juan Carlos Lara asked Dr. Colfax, who tells us often that he follows the data, the science and the facts in directing the city’s response to Covid-19.  

 “We know that the more we move around, the more we engage in gatherings, interactions, particularly indoors, the more likely it is that we will see the spread of the virus,” Colfax said. He offered no data, no science, no facts for residents to understand why some places were left open and others shuttered. 

The shutdowns “punish the poor.”

Jon Jacobo, health committee for the Latino Task Force

There’s no doubt that the city faces a crisis, or that something had to be done to stop the spread of Covid-19 so that hospitals don’t become overwhelmed. But the closures announced Friday seemed to contradict what the city had been warning against for months: the danger of indoor activity. Nevertheless, most indoor retail, save restaurants and personal spa services, were left open, albeit with orders to reduce capacity to 20 percent (from 25 percent). But the new lockdown orders closed outdoor dining, outdoor playgrounds and limited outdoor gatherings to 12 people from your household. 

But not all outdoor activities. To answer our earlier question: Tennis and golf are fine. Miniature golf and skate parks are closed. As are playgrounds. (Updated 10 am.: This morning, Mayor Breed embraced the state’s guidance and reversal that will reopen playgrounds.)

Surely it wasn’t planned this way. But, as it turns out, the closures disproportionately impacted low-income families. With outdoor dining gone, so too are many jobs. And now, too, many a cook or waiter will be crowded into small apartments with young children who no longer had the respite offered by city playgrounds. 

“If I am poor and don’t have a big backyard, where are my children supposed to play?” asked Dr. Monica Gandhi, a researcher and medical director of the HIV Clinic, Ward 86, at the University of California, San Francisco. 

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney posed the same question on Twitter. 

The shutdowns, said Jon Jacobo, who heads the health committee for the Latino Task Force, “punish the poor.”

Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, the vice dean of population health and health equity at UCSF, added: “Do I think that outdoor dining is what’s causing the surge? No, I don’t. Am I concerned that you move people inside? Yes, I am. But I think there is so much virus around that we have to take some measures.” 

Bibbins-Domingo said she thinks the surge has been caused by individuals expanding their networks, thereby increasing the chances of coming into contact with someone who is carrying the virus. And that seems to be happening all over the city with places that have had few cases suddenly clocking many: The Castro, Presidio, and Inner and Outer Mission all added 30 percent or more of their total covid cases in the last 30 days. 

Bibbins-Domingo had difficulty understanding the closure of the playgrounds as did District Supervisor Matt Haney who pointed out that his Tenderloin families have no parks to go to. The latter is a problem, especially knowing, that children, playing outdoors and masked, don’t represent much risk. Children “are not a major source of transmission” so it “ is harder to support” closing the playgrounds, she said.  But Bibbins-Domingo could live with the decision if it is backed by data. 

 “I presume they have some data behind” the decisions, she said. 

Breed, like Colfax, offered no data in the Dec. 4 announcement. So, we don’t know if gatherings at playgrounds, larger outdoor gatherings or outdoor dining have been factors in this outbreak.  

The failure to provide a rationale, experts agreed, feeds a general mistrust of public officials. It makes residents less likely to follow their guidance. 

“Transparency would allow the public to buy in,” said Gandhi.  “Any person who is told something, who is an adult, who has a reasoned way of thinking … wants to know why” certain actions are being taken. 

Gandhi noted that public health officials suggested last month that the increased cases in the Marina were coming from outdoor dining, but then the data stopped coming. “What is contact tracing telling you?” Gandhi rhetorically asked of our city’s public health officials. “Is it outdoor dining? Is it indoor dining? Is it, you know, all indoor gatherings? Tell us what the risks are, because the point of a strategy of testing and contact tracing is to home in on risk factors and close down those sectors where risk can be occurring.” 

The information gathered by contract tracers, she pointed out, is paid for by residents. It belongs to us and it helps us understand why the city is making certain decisions. 

The lack of transparency around the city’s decision-making process has been an issue from the start of the pandemic. Early on, for example, public health officials and the mayor repeatedly blamed transmission on gatherings at Dolores Park — but, when pressed, they were unable to trace any actual cases to the park. 

And getting data on how the city is using its testing resources remains a struggle. Adding data files on testing by ethnicity to the city’s tracker has been promised, but that has yet to happen.

We are still waiting. 

Just as we are still waiting for the data, the science and the facts behind the city’s covid strategy.  

Update, 9:50 a.m.: The State of California has altered its orders such that playgrounds can stay open. The city of San Francisco has commensurately altered its orders.

When the pandemic hit, Mission Local went into overdrive. Keep us running.

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I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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29 Comments

  1. Months and month into this, and Breed’s DPH has been unable to use contact tracing to provide any finer grained data to drive rational decision making.

    Jacobo likes to claim that the LTF tiene connecion a la communidad, su pueblo. But it turns out that what the LTF has a connection to is London Breed. Had the LTF been comprised of activists with connection to the community, then months into this, it would have become apparent that the City was phoning it in, that the Mayor was okay with it because she led us here, and that this most dramatically impacted our Latinx Mission neighbors.

    The ethical conflict between LFT contracts and access to government meant that crossing the Mayor in any meaningful way was impermissible. Their job is to talk a radical game, score some contracts, and provide the fig leaf, illusion, that someone is doing something and mark time until the next funding cycle.

    A pox on the houses of both neoliberal moderate/conservative Democrats and their corrupt patronage networks of nonprofits, the former responsible for getting us into this mess and the latter ethically constrained from doing anything about it but blocking the way despite protestations to the contrary.

    Odds are they get more upset about being named as complicit than they do about the atrocious public health outcomes on their watch.

    1. Marc, you’re always reliable for ‘concern troll’ Bingo. I always have ‘neoliberal’ on my center square for you.

      1. What’s most important here as our Mission Latinx neighbors bear the brunt of the pandemic, are the feelings of a Noe Valley cyclist as to the word choice and demographic standing of a Mission resident commentator.

    2. You’re wrong Marcos; this is not a remix of the Mission Mafia from 40 or 50 years ago. Since June, the LTF has loudly and consistently protested the City’s inaction with respect to test-trace-quarantine in the Mission and the southeast neighborhoods. The City should pay them to do jobs like wellness teams and expand their food hub operations. It’s not just about the Latinx. Had DPH acted sooner to empower the LTF and other community groups, we might not be in the mess we are now.

      1. The DPH’s public health operation survived neoliberal austerity because we built it up through direct action activism during the HIV/AIDS pandemic 30 years ago. The DPH’s other operations, on the other hand, got mangled in the corrupt outsourcing of public health function to unaccountable private nonprofits. That is why the DPH is incapable of mounting an effective testing and isolation program: the agency had been hollowed out into a slimmed down contracting operation.

        There is no evidence at all that government provided health care is in any way superior to health services provided by outsourced nonprofits. Had there been any real connection to community by these employees and any sense of urgency driving it, then we would have seen the kind of activism we did in 35 years ago when we were dropping like flies that got the goods and saved tens of millions of lives worldwide. The range of these agencies is constrained by their immediate funding requirements. This ethical conflict puts residents last.

        That AIDS activism also ensured that the clinical trials that validate these interventions are representative of the demographics, not just straight white men as previously.

    3. Marcos, you clearly aren’t reading our coverage. The LTF is still waiting for funding. Along with UCSF, they’ve done the lion’s share of testing in the Mission – to say nothing of all the other support. Anyone reading our coverage would say that they are dying for more help from the city. Lydia

      1. Lydia, “waiting for funding” means marking time when the Mayor is slow-walking relief. ACTUP did not take this la-dee-dah approach to HIV/AIDS 30 years ago, because the then-nascent health nonprofits, for all of their efforts to tamp down the movement, were not allowed by the community to call the shots.

        Testing is meaningless from a public health standpoint without robust contact tracing and isolation. This was well understood in March. Yet the pieces have yet to be put together to turn the tide on the expendability of Latinx.

        Just like the Mission had to suffer 25 years of gentrification and displacement before the affordable program began to kick in, all we get here is action after the fact.

  2. This is not just about transparency. The fact is, people are doing wildly risky things, quietly, under the radar, because the data is not forthcoming to help people assess risk. They’re ignoring all guidelines and doing indoor social gatherings because that’s what they *can do. If SFDPH put out data showing how risky each activity was, then maybe people would meet for an outdoor brunch rather than an indoor dinner party.

    1. That info is readily available! Daily headlines re how indoor gatherings are unsafe. Hard to know how SFDPH can move the needle on those who don’t notice or care.

      1. I think the point is not that people think indoors is *safe, it’s that they have a strong desire to socialize, see loved ones, and are willing to take those risks (perhaps low to them personally) however they are available. People who are offered the choice for something outdoors will take it, but if not offered, they’ll go indoors. Also, having talked with friends, even savvy people don’t seem to understand the way risks change — that socializing outside for hours with masks might be as risky and popping into a corner store for 15 minutes with a mask and not talking. Actually data from our city would really help in that way I think.

  3. Excellent, thank you for finally pushing back after such a long wait.

    Now, please demand that DPH stop hiding the PCR cycle threshold for the testing that SF has contracted out. They have been denying sunshine inquiries from the public, but MLocal, you have press access. This is the critical distinction between a pandemic and a casedemic

  4. Seeing just as many people – if not more – out and about this week in supposed lockdown as I did in the weeks prior.

  5. indeed, the outdoor dining & drinking closures seem unnecessary unless there is solid evidence that gathering outside in groups causes virus propagation.

    this reminds me of the burden placed on bars (for outdoor drinking) requiring that patrons purchase “bona fide meals” to be allowed to sip. unsure what problem this requirement was meant to prevent.

    related to this, it appears that the restaurant association won a preliminary ruling down in LA, though the judge didn’t lift the ban on outdoor dining.

  6. Flying blind without hard data is no way to get us out of our troubles.

    My family in Toronto, Canada, are back in total lockdown, but public schools remain open. They have the hard data to prove that cases are present at schools, but they are not transmitted there. They have a system of isolate and quarantine.

    Also, what is the rate of students who didn’t show up this year to SFUSD? NY Times has reported that upwards of 4% of students in MA have all but disappeared, 37K never showed up in NYC.

    The longer our schools stay closed, the wider the achievement gap becomes, the higher the drop out rate becomes, and the more fearful some families will be to send their children back.

    SF is always the first to prioritize the wealthy and young adults. Private schools are open and operating (and managing their covid cases with the support of DPH, we know this first hand), and of course restaurants and personal services will open long before schools.

    I am so tired of people stroking the ego of this city because of our low case count. I am ashamed of how we are treating our most vulnerable.

  7. just heard today for the first time that the vaccine testing has been based only on visible symptoms, meaning that as people get vaccinated, they may actually become superspreaders if they and everyone else don’t keep masking.

    it seems the only thing we really know about minimizing the spread of covid-19 is distance and air. in our culture, people will always gather. pushing people inside for gatherings, instead of letting them occur outdoors, is crazy. with ICUs so dangerously full, something needs to be done, but restricting outdoor gatherings does not seem to be the right alarm to hit.

  8. I’d also like to understand the numbers of infections associated with outdoor dining. The closure of outdoor dining feels like an overreach, and we’re really impacting people that need those jobs.

  9. I understand that California needs to take action to keep our hospitals from being overrun. But, with no national strategy, it’s not going to do much. Looking at the data, 37 out of 50 states are worse in terms of transmission, new cases, deaths, and hospitalizations per capita — some FAR worse — like 3-5x our numbers. But they have very few business closures and are still free to drive here, fly here, do whatever. The fact that there isn’t at least mandatory testing to get on a plane is insane.

    Even folks in Santa Clara County can do whatever and then come into the city introduce the virus here. It’s all feeling rather pointless. Really sad that as a country we are totally lost.

  10. Thank you for finally pushing back. It has been clear for months that our “leaders” are implementing policies not backed up by any data. They then try to shame people and take away work from people while eating a meal that costs as much as our rent. Please keep the pressure up, they’ve only been able to lie to us for so long because the press is just regurgitating their talking points.

  11. The problem with outdoor dining on Polk Street is that it began with very open air parklets, but week after week many of them added more and more plexiglass windows and roofs and inner partitions, as they saw what others on the street were doing. Currently on Vallejo near Stockton there is an outdoor dining casetta completely enclosed on four sides, with a entrance door. So we may all be talking about different situations when we think of outdoor dining.

    Yes, it would be great to get some hard core and even anecdotal examples (from doctors and health care workers) on the transmittability of covid in outdoor dining structures of various configuations. Otherwise the mayor and public health officials lose credibility just when they need it most.

  12. Thank you, Lydia. Could you research another question when you can? Why are private schools allowed to stay open? Indoors for extended periods of time with lots of kids. Doesn’t that contradict the science? Public school kids are told to shelter in place, get online, and deal with it not matter how poor or hungry you are. Private school kids are protected to go to school even in the dangerous surge. Is this just raw privilege and power? What is the rationale? Thank you if you can ask this question.

  13. I’ve been a Mission Local reader since you launched. I’m also a biology professor working on covid research. I’m very disappointed to see this reactionary article in a news outlet that I’ve always respected. We are in a crisis. Exponential growth means it can tip over into an awful situation faster than you’d think. Morgue trucks. People turned away from hospitals. It’s not that far off. The increase is terrifying to me, and I’ve been watching all the numbers and all the science as closely as I could since January.

    We were doing so well, and then we weren’t. Outdoor dining is a problem. It was fine while numbers were low, but it’s not fine now. We all did so well in April, but we’re not doing fine now, and it’s on us. We need to get our shit together and stay home.

    I am gutted at how much this hurts restaurants. There needs to be a federal financial response. We can’t just throw people out of work. We can’t ruin our city. It’s awful. But that doesn’t change anything about the health risks.

    1. L: I’m glad to hear you have been reading us since 2008. I do think city officials ought to provide data. You say outdoor dining is a problem, but how do you know that? For months the city has been saying contact tracing is reaching some 80 percent. So what have they learned? Transparency inspires confidence. Journalists aren’t stenographers. We ask questions.

    2. I don’t agree that asking government officials to explain their policies is “reactionary.” This is their job. Even more so in a crisis like today’s, when yes, the virus is running rampant, and it’s the worst it has been. They should be communicating more, not less. It’s not March. We’ve all been through a lot and we’ve got a ways to go. They can’t expect people to be compliant merely because they send out an order. SF is not Wuhan, for better or worse.

  14. Why can’t these restaurants just “follow orders” from our government betters — no matter how broad and/or arbitrary ?

    You know, it’s just so simple to “pause” and hire and fire people on a capricious moment’s notice — it’s done in government all the time, dontcha know!

    The COVID Command Center said in an email this “pause” in outdoor dining is designed to limit activities that “encourage people to leave their home and where people interact with others from outside of their household, particularly where those interactions have additional risk factors.”

    Pause a moment and soak in that statement from the “COVID Command Center”.

    Just “pause” running your business for 4 weeks — what’s the big D?

    Now if everyone could just “pause” breathing for a mere 5 minutes, this whole COVID crisis would be over.

    Come on, it’s the responsible and patriotic thing to do!

  15. Thank you for investigating and reporting on our City leaders. Data and honesty are both important – we have been too long operating under a City government operating on contacts and patronage. We need new people to run for office — and as soon as possible!
    Another request for Mission Local: will you explore the environmental consequences of the throw-away culture that has re-emerged under the guise of preventing covid-19? No evidence for transmission via cups, bags, and other surfaces or items, as far as I know.

    1. China has some evidence of fomite transmission from frozen goods, New Zealand has evidence of fomite transmission as well (from the surface of a trash bin in a quarantine facility). Clearly it’s a much lower percentage of transmission than through direct contact, but it’s not zero.

  16. FYI, SFDPH has just released new data on contact tracing– it’s broadly similar to data they provided in a study a few months ago. But it’s … not great. Basically, while they’re reaching people, less than half of those people are identifying at least one contact. Is that because they literally are hermits who magically caught COVID-19 in some kind of immaculate infection? Or more likely they don’t trust people and aren’t disclosing their contacts. Rates are broadly similar across racial categories. Anyways, someone needs to look into the raw numbers — based on the estimates here, it seems like all this contact tracing is shaving *maybe 2-4% off total transmission. Clearly something needs to improve. https://data.sfgov.org/stories/s/Case-Investigation/k6sv-294m/

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