San Francisco’s Shelter-in-Place Order Shows U.S. What’s to Come

San Francisco’s first day of coronavirus lockdown dawned clear, cool and empty.

Lone janitors on Tuesday swabbed down train stations typically packed with commuters. A morning ferry docked to disgorge a mere dozen passengers. A smattering of cars raced across the Bay Bridge — even on weekends a notorious slog — to nearly vacant streets. Construction sites stood silent, cranes locked in place.

It was a taste of what other cities may soon endure, including New York, where the mayor cautioned residents Tuesday to get ready. In California, with confirmed cases of the new coronavirus rising fast, San Francisco and five of its surrounding counties Monday ordered most of their 6 million residents to stay home for three weeks, avoiding all but the most essential excursions — the nation’s strictest virus-fighting measures to date.

In response, a frantic, over-caffeinated hub of technology and international trade largely shut down. Some citizens still ventured onto the streets and mass transit, walking dogs and running errands — but in numbers reminiscent of Sept. 11, 2001. Those still going to their jobs were there because they were deemed essential, or couldn’t afford not to.

“This stay-in thing — some people are millionaires and billionaires. They can just fly somewhere else, but most people live paycheck to paycheck,” said Tim Deasy, who was manning a fruit stand at the deserted Ferry Building. He set up shop despite the restrictions because “we need the money.”

Being Standoffish

The shutdown orders didn’t forbid all public outings or commerce. Unlike in Wuhan, China, where authorities keep people off the streets, Bay Area residents could go out, although they were advised to steer at least 6 feet clear of each other. Grocery stores, cafes and other food vendors were allowed to stay open, although restricted to take-out service only. Police and trash collectors made their rounds, transit agencies ran their buses and trains. But most shops shut down, and most residents were immured, some to their chagrin.

Brandon Smith, director of estate planning at Wetherby Asset Management, was holed up in Oakland with his wife and two children, trying to balance work and childcare. Entertaining and educating toddlers during a shelter-in-place is simple work.

“We are literally counting all the doors, beds and windows in our home. This afternoon, if I’m lucky, we’ll attempt some addition and subtraction with my son’s toy trucks,” Smith wrote in an email. It can get frustrating, he said.

“I love my son, but his shouting ‘No’ at the top of his lungs doesn’t help our mental state when we know there is at least another month to go.”

States and cities across the U.S. have closed schools, bars and restaurants, but that still allows residents to roam free on streets and in parks. The federal government has recommended banning gatherings larger than 10 people. But a shelter-in-place order is meant to keep people largely sequestered.

“My fellow San Franciscans, what we are asking everyone to do is to remain at home for all but the most essential outings, for your safety and for the safety of those around you,” Mayor London Breed said Monday. “It’s the new normal temporarily in an effort to protect public health.”

Gotham Lockdown

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday afternoon that residents should be ready for similar measures within 48 hours, even as Governor Andrew Cuomo said he alone could make that call and had no plans to do so.

“I believe that decision should be made in the next 48 hours,” de Blasio told reporters. “The decision is particularly difficult in a city with such a large population so densely together.”

Some San Franciscans clumped together despite the order.

The North Beach neighborhood’s Trader Joe’s had a line wrapping around the block, including people who had been waiting more than an hour as employees cleaned and restocked the store.

An elderly woman directed her empty cart toward the liquor shelves and grabbed a handle of vodka. A man in a bright yellow safety vest took two armfuls of organic olive oil popcorn to the register.

“I kind of wish people were standing farther apart,” said Sandra Hess, standing in line and wearing clear gloves. Before this morning, Hess hadn’t left her house for two days.

Last week, she was in an Uber on her way to the theater when she developed a bad cough. She paid her driver cash to turn around and take her home. Since deciding to stay home, she said she’s been chatting on the phone a lot with friends.

The stay-in-place order didn’t shock Hess, considering what she’d seen elsewhere, but she added “Would I have ever thought this would happen in this city? I’m totally surprised.”

Not all markets were packed. Across the bay in Oakland, Whole Foods was nearly empty of people after a crush of shoppers in recent days. “Finally, I can breathe again,” one cashier said, remarking that the day before the shelter-in-place order went into effect, lines had been as bad as the day before Thanksgiving.

In north Oakland, bars, a bike shop, a tattoo parlor, a shoe store and a community acupuncture clinic were all closed. A Peet’s coffee shop had closed off the seating area and removed tables and chairs, while patrons were no longer permitted to bring their own mugs. At McDonald’s, the seating area was roped off with yellow caution tape.

Deliveries of many kinds were the order of the day. A man in North Beach took a bag from someone in a car and removed its contents excitedly, showing it off to strangers on the street around him: five pre-rolled joints in individual plastic tubes. A few minutes later, he was smoking one on the street corner.

Elizabeth Byrd caught an N-Judah streetcar with eight passengers at 8 a.m., a time when cars on the popular line often fill with so many commuters that the doors struggle to close. Her job as a nurse practitioner in occupational health can’t be done from home, she said.

“I’m just trying to stay safe and not be a vector,” Byrd said.

— With assistance by Kristen V Brown, Dana Hull, and Kartikay Mehrotra

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