On March 15, officials in six of the nine Bay Area counties issued a health order directing citizens to shelter in place as a response to the Covid-19 epidemic. This order closed most businesses and activities, except for those deemed essential, and directed people to stay in their homes for the most part. Over the next few days, the remaining Bay Area counties joined the order, placing the entire region and its 8 million people into an economic freeze. California governor Gavin Newsom has now extended the order statewide. The coming weeks will show which is worse: the near-term toll of Covid-19 or the longer-term economic impact of the fight against it.
The Bay Area was the first major region to issue such a health order, though the Covid-19 outbreak is larger in New York and Washington State. It was characterized in the media as a form of lockdown, though the actual order is a far cry from house arrest. The list of essential businesses or services permitted to continue is long, running from the obvious—grocery stores, sanitation, and emergency medical services—to the convenient (such as hardware stores) to the unexpected (such as dry cleaners and even accounting firms, when necessary for legal compliance). Reflecting Silicon Valley’s status as the world’s tech capital, operations to support global Internet and telecommunications got an exemption. Recognizing California’s continuing housing crisis, all residential construction was deemed essential, too.
On the first full day of the new regime, CNN commentators criticized San Franciscans for going out on the street, but the order was never intended to confine people in their homes—it made clear that they could still go to the supermarket or drug store, walk their dogs, or exercise, as long as they didn’t congregate in groups. The authorities are imposing no restrictions on freedom of movement, though most people are staying close to home anyway.
Life in the Bay Area is not quite at a standstill, but it’s crawling: all offices and most businesses are closed. On Tuesday, parking officers were out ticketing cars parked in street-cleaning zones. This led to such an outcry (moving your car is not an “essential activity”) that the city not only voided the parking tickets but suspended all parking enforcement, except for parking meters and offenses such as blocking fire hydrants.
Otherwise, San Francisco has been taking it in stride. Immediately after the order was announced, lines stretched out the door at most stores. The wait was often fruitless, as toilet paper and other essentials were already gone after people stocked up over the weekend, expecting some sort of restriction. The line at the meat market was longer than the one at the grocery store; the line at the marijuana dispensary was the longest of all, stretching around the corner. Pot dispensaries were reclassified as an essential business the next day. Marijuana is considered a medical treatment in California, but with recent legalization, many people stopped getting medical-marijuana prescriptions. Closing the dispensaries was considered akin to closing a pharmacy.
At one grocery store, all canned goods were gone, except for one brand that remained on the shelf. Nearby, jars of fruit or peanut butter, just as long-lasting as canned food, were untouched. Sweet potatoes were gone, but regular potatoes and yams were plentiful. Many grocery carts were full of bottles of wine and liquor, reflecting a different concern about being homebound for weeks. Others were full of bottled water, though there is no reason to expect the health crisis to affect tap-water supplies. Wags have noted that if a big earthquake were to strike now, the city has never been better prepared.
Anxieties have largely been kept private. Some people deliberately cross the street or stand aside on the sidewalk to avoid passing within six feet of another person. Others walk by and say “Hello” as normal. In tech-savvy San Francisco, digital communication is more central than ever. Children talk to their friends on FaceTime instead of meeting for play dates. Preschool teachers send out video “circle time” with activities to keep children occupied. Friends meet up in Zoom chat rooms for “Quarantini hour” to discuss the day’s events, instead of gathering at a bar.
What’s not much discussed is whether the juice will be worth the squeeze. A local recession, to say nothing of a national and global one, looks unavoidable. Small retail will be hard-hit. Already under pressure from online delivery, local businesses now face an impossible situation. Delivery services were classified as essential businesses, giving Amazon a de facto monopoly on most retail within the region. Restaurants and bars are in trouble. Since delivery and takeout are permitted, a few restaurants quickly pivoted from onsite service to taking orders over the phone. Still, almost every food-and-drink establishment in the city is laying off workers.
The shelter-in-place order is often described as “work at home,” but that arrangement is available only to an elite segment of the workforce. Remote-working across time zones and continents is familiar to professionals at big tech companies, but store clerks and bartenders can’t do their jobs by logging into a Virtual Private Network. Once laid off, they can claim unemployment insurance, but this just shifts the burden to a state budget about to get hammered through loss of sales taxes and other revenue.
The Bay Area shelter-in-place order is preemptive: no health crisis exists in the region—yet—and the order is intended to prevent one, if possible. We have no reliable figures for the number of people infected, but as of Thursday, a few dozen are hospitalized. In Italy, doctors are facing decisions of which patients to let die because of scarce ventilators; at San Francisco General Hospital, more than 80 percent of the ventilators on hand are still available. A YouTube video of Italians saying what they wish they had done a few weeks ago—in particular, taking social distancing and isolation seriously—has been widely shared.
If Covid-19 cases don’t spread throughout the Bay Area, an unanswerable debate will begin between those arguing “the health order worked” and those claiming that “the health order was unnecessary and caused economic harm.” If cases do spread, a similar debate will start between “this proves the order was necessary” and “the order came too late and caused economic harm for no reason.” Italy, of course, is enduring both the health crisis and the economic harm of a stricter quarantine than San Francisco. For now, San Franciscans wave to friends on the street or talk to them through open windows—but most won’t open the door.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images