Jennifer Esteen and other members of SEIU 1021 temporarily shutdown a section of Market Street on Feb. 17, 2021 to advocate for paid personal protective equipment for gig drivers. Photo by Juan Carlos Lara

During the first week of March, 2020, few residents or even government officials knew much about the deadly virus rolling through the city — nothing except that its spikes hardly seemed to slow its momentum, and doctors could see the beds at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital filling up. 

No one knew if the virus was airborne or could be picked up by simply using a door handle that someone with the virus had touched. On March 5, 2020, two schools closed over concern of an outbreak, and also that week, organizers canceled Sunday Streets. The city halted large gatherings on March 11, but the Golden State Warriors still balked at telling fans they could not watch a game in person

Many of us wanted to believe the crisis wasn’t real. On March 12, public schools began a three-week hiatus. Returning after spring break seemed a possibility — but only briefly. The hiatus was extended until May 1, and then indefinitely.  

Teachers, parents, residents — everyone — was stunned by how quickly the city was shutting down and coming to terms with what this would mean. 

We have gone back to stories from March, 2020, and talked to some of the people featured in them. 

March 5, 2020, was the day San Francisco recorded its first two confirmed cases of coronavirus, but the import of those cases hardly prevented gatherings or any of the closings that would quickly ensue. 

On that day, psychiatric nurse Jennifer Esteen gathered with fellow nurses at City Hall to protest long-term understaffing at San Francisco General Hospital and warn of a coming crunch a the region’s trauma hospital.  

Mayor London Breed, Esteen said that day, says she wants to be responsive, and “yet she  was proposing 3.5 percent budget cuts.” 

The 12-hour shifts that nurses talked about that day would only get worse. 

Soon after their protest last March, the city gave full-time city healthcare workers extra paid leave, but contracted workers did not qualify. 

“What the city has done is brought in an entire workforce of temporary staff, including nurses … so we have this whole set of hundreds and hundreds of temporary workers who are doing the exact same work as everybody else and the city is not giving them the same benefits and protections,” Esteen said. 

In response, Esteen and the other members of her union, SEIU 1021, “waged a war over the last 10 months to make sure that nurses who work per diem also have access to leave,” she said. 

And the work was successful. In early February, the city extended those benefits to contract nurses. But still, there is exhaustion.

“What we’ve seen is a lot of nurse burnout, we’ve seen that nurses are extremely exhausted,” Esteen said recently as she considered the past year. 

Trying to communicate a crisis with residents who speak multiple languages

Benson Lee. Photo by Juan Carlos Lara.

For Benson Lee, a housing administrator at Bethany Center on the corner of Capp and 21st streets, the biggest priority at the start of the pandemic was keeping the 160 seniors living within the facility as safe as possible. 

Back on March 12, 2020, he said, “We’re struggling a little bit but, for the most part, what we’re saying is, prevention is our number one concern right now.” At that point the city had documented 18 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and banned gatherings of 250 people or more. 

His biggest challenge was keeping his multilingual residents informed as the crisis unfolded.

“It was chaos, but the most important thing is communication,” Lee said. “About 55 percent Chinese, 25 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Russians, so everything we do has to be translated so the message is clear and in writing.”

Some residents also can’t read in their own language, necessitating individual conversations to answer questions. 

They also had the issue of caregivers — many of the residents have them — but more people meant more risk, so everyone coming in and out had to be registered and tested. 

One year later, Lee says the work largely paid off. To date, the Bethany Center has only recorded two cases of Covid-19 among residents. The first case, in May, was a woman who was also battling cancer at the time and passed away. The second was a woman who contracted the virus at some point during a trip abroad in December, and quarantined in her apartment until she recovered. 

Lee acknowledged, however, that communication hasn’t been perfect. The woman who contracted Covid-19 in December did not alert staff to her positive test result, endangering the entire community. 

“She didn’t want to share with anybody; she was afraid she would be shunned by the program,” Lee said. 

Now, the center’s main focus is communicating with residents to help them get vaccinated, Lee said. Sometimes, it involves translating forms and helping with online systems, but other times it involves dealing with vaccine misinformation. 

Lee recalled asking residents who had declined the vaccine about their decision and having some answer, “my family member said not to and I trust them more.” 

Luckily about 90 percent of the site’s residents have already received both doses of the vaccine now, according to Lee. 

How cases and testing increased over the year

Families adjust to remote learning, face language barriers

Regina Ramirez was walking home with her two nieces after school at Buena Vista Horace Mann on March 12, 2020, the day San Francisco first decided to close public schools for three weeks. 

At the time, she said that her family had already been talking about what they would do if classes were suspended. “They have their grandmother, who can take care of them,” she said and others would “rotate in” to help out.

At first, the majority of her family members, who work in construction and retail, found themselves without jobs.  “Nobody knew what was going to happen,” Ramirez says. But with time, her family members got back to work, and they adjusted. 

Almost a year later, Ramirez echoes how grateful her family is to have each other to offer support. 

Her sister chose not to work full-time to be home with her children while they do remote learning. She takes advantage of resources in the Mission, such as the Mission Food Hub on Alabama Street, and support with remote-learning technology from the School District, since English is not her first language. 

Ramirez says the biggest challenges are trying to find quiet spaces for her nieces, ages 9 and 11, to focus on their remote schoolwork, and “just trying to figure out how everything was going to be.”

“It’s kind of crazy to think that it has been almost a year!” Ramirez adds. 

Local art stopped and then turned global

Ashley Voss poses in her gallery’s window. Photo by Juan Carlos Lara.

On Saturday, March 14, 2020, Ashley Voss, owner of Voss Gallery, hosted an exhibition for artist Jennifer Banzaca. She told Mission Local the day before that she was, “closely following the situation with COVID-19 via the CDC and SF Department of Public Health.” 

“I still wanted to keep the artists happy, and have people come in and see the show, because artwork is something you really want to see in person,” Voss said. 

The “afternoon soiree” that Saturday, with 20 guests, was the last exhibition with a live crowd Voss would host for a long time. 

“I remember constantly hitting refresh online, trying to figure out what was going on,” Voss said of the first days after the shelter-in-place order was announced. 

“How do you find guidance when nobody knows what to do?” she asked.

The artists Voss partnered with and the patrons who frequented her gallery had as many unanswered questions as Voss.

“Honestly, it was a state of chaos. I was just trying to update the artists as best I could, because when the gallery’s not open, it’s hard to sell art,” Voss said. 

Voss has since hosted many live exhibitions online, which often appear in our Neighborhood Notes coverage

“What’s nice is, we’re able to reach people outside of the Bay Area who wouldn’t be able to come to our openings. Our online sales have gone up, too. Now I’m sending art to India and New York,” Voss said. 

Lots of work, closings that make a grown man want to cry, and a resilient city

Supervisor Aaron Peskin speaking with photographer Jason Hu, owner of Jason Studio, a long-standing Chinatown business at risk of closing due to the pandemic. Photo by Juan Carlos Lara.

When we interviewed Supervisor Aaron Peskin for a March 16 story announcing the shelter-in-place order in six Bay Area counties, he was equivocal. “To quote someone else, everything we do before a pandemic seems alarmist, and everything we do afterward seems inadequate.” 

In retrospect, Peskin says now, he had no idea that this would go on for as long as it has. Peskin said he almost started crying when he got word in mid-February that Hang Ah Tea Room — the oldest dim sum restaurant in Chinatown, which has been open for 100 years — would permanently close its doors this year. But its owners recently decided to hang on for a little longer.  

Peskin said he has been bracing for emergencies like earthquakes and tsunamis for two decades, but this “slow-moving disaster has had new twists and turns at every moment.” 

It meant that he’s never “worked harder and slept less than I have in the last 20 years.” Peskin was elected to the Board of Supervisors for the first time in 2000. 

Yet he is optimistic.

“This town has reinvented itself for over 100 years and we are going to come out okay on the other side. It’s been a long tough slog, but we’ll be back.” 

A missed opportunity

Chris Herring is a UC Berkeley doctoral student who studies sociology and often works with the Coalition on Homelessness was interviewed by Mission Local on March 19 about San Francisco’s handling of the homeless and housing. 

At the time, he asked “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.”

A year later, Herring says that although San Francisco has done a decent job creating space in hotels for unhoused people — at present nearly 2,000 homeless residents are living in hotels — but not enough. The mayor, he said, failed the supervisor’s call to place nearly all unhoused San Franciscans into hotels. 

“In retrospect, it’s hard to see a downside, and it could have been an incredible legacy of emergency response and cities utilizing vacant properties to address public needs, and in this case supporting hotels that have closed or remain distressed.”

And, as it turns out, that experiment would have been fully funded by the federal government.

Does anyone have thermometers? 

The top priority for Shari Wooldridge, the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco, is keeping the frontline staff who work in the shelters safe. On March 25, 2020, that appeared difficult. “We have requested thermometers. We haven’t received them yet. If you know a place we could buy some, that’d be helpful,” Wooldridge pleaded. 

At the beginning of April, the MSC Shelter, which used to house 340 people and now houses only 111, had to close down because of an outbreak. Since this outbreak, Wooldridge says, she has learned how to safely protect both her staff and clients, with the direction of the Department of Public Health and the Covid Command Center. 

She says, “Our mission is to take care of the most vulnerable in the communities. I work with the staff — that is my job: to give them what they need.”

A year later, she has done exactly that, and her frontline staff has sufficient personal protection equipment, which includes masks, gloves, and extra cleaning supplies. “We also had to put barriers in the community area,” Wooldridge adds. 

During the past year, it has become increasingly challenging for nonprofits to support frontline workers, and ensure that they remain safe.

Sheltering in place is only possible for some 

Erica Kisch stands outside of Compass Family Services. Photo by Juan Carlos Lara.

Erica Kisch, the executive director of Compass Family Services, an organization that helps families who are experiencing homelessness, says she has struggled with the fact that while some staff members can work safely from home, others, such as those working in the Early Childhood Programs, have to put their lives at risk. 

Back in March, Kitsch was quoted in Mission Local saying that she had no estimates as to how many additional families would apply for services. In the first six months, she found out: some 1,730 new families came to Compass Family Services for help, more than twice the number seen the entire year of 2019. 

Families are suffering from unemployment, mental health conditions brought on by the inability to pay rent, and challenges in assisting children with distance learning. 

“The emotional toll of this debt is huge. Our families can not just easily pay it off,” says Kitsch. What’s more, many undocumented families are living in unofficial housing without a lease or proper documentation, so getting them assistance has been difficult.

Generous donors stepped up, she said. Compass raised over $300,000 for rent support. Yet in many instances, undocumented families fail to get full support because the IRS sets $599 as the maximum contribution legally available for those without tax documentation, she said.

“Equity issues are exacerbated by the pandemic,” Kilsch said adding that she is proud of the support Compass has been able to offer during this tumultuous time in San Francisco.

Juan Carlos Lara

Juan Carlos Lara covers business and development in the Mission. Juan Carlos, a San Francisco State alum, is as much a photographer as he is a writer and previously worked as the campus news editor at...

Clara-Sophia Daly

Clara-Sophia Daly is a multimedia storyteller and reporter who has worked both in print and audio. A graduate of Skidmore College where she studied International Affairs and Media/Film studies, she enjoys...

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