San Francisco was nice at lockdowns. What’s the plan for restoration?

San Francisco’s approach to dealing with COVID-19 has been hailed as a national model. But the economic recovery of the inner city after these strict security measures? Not as much.

Business owners in The City remain frustrated with the slow pace of economic recovery, citing empty office buildings, battered restaurants and a stagnating hotel and convention business.

“We have to find a way to make people feel comfortable and want to return to the Financial District in large numbers,” said Steve Sarver, owner of Ladle & Leaf, a soup and salad joint located between SoMa and downtown.

Some business owners fear another brutal winter as local COVID cases increase. And they are concerned about the town hall’s economic recovery plans or the lack thereof. However, for many city guides, how to move forward on the business problems in downtown San Francisco is still an open question.

“I can’t care why people want or want to be here,” Mayor London Breed told The Examiner when asked about downtown offices that are still vacant. “All I can do is the best I can do to clean up this city so people can feel safe and change people’s hearts and minds in the process. I hope that will happen in time. “

San Francisco was one of eight Bay Area counties to implement an on-site placement order at the start of the pandemic, perhaps one of the most difficult times a San Francisco mayor has faced since the HIV epidemic. The move was later followed by mask requirements and vaccination requirements for food indoors and for all city employees.

The proactive approach has worked for many health interventions: San Francisco had some of the lowest COVID deaths and hospital admissions compared to other major cities in the United States.

But now, Breed stands between maintaining an aggressive COVID security strategy and leading The City to a place where people can relax, work, and visit San Francisco. Even compared to other tech hubs like Austin, San Francisco has seen remote work have a stronger impact, data from the Office of the Controller shows.

“The general story of San Francisco recovering, but not as fast as other places, still holds true,” said Ted Egan, chief economist for San Francisco. “Our office jobs have a high tech focus and it looks like a lot of technicians will be staying out of the office this year. The fact that we have more technology than anywhere else will slow our recovery. “

The loss of foot traffic and tourism has been devastating for many small business owners across San Francisco, but especially for those downtown like Leo Go, owner of Kirimachi Ramen at the Embarcadero Center.

“The business is still pretty flat. We haven’t even recovered 50% of what we lost. Nobody is here in the Financial District, ”said Go, who had to consider closing his business because of the drop in sales. “Because of our location, we don’t have many DoorDash or pick-up orders. That makes it difficult. “

Other companies like Ladle & Leaf are struggling to reopen. Before the pandemic, Ladle & Leaf had 13 locations in the Bay Area. Five reopened and two were permanently closed during the pandemic. Sarver said his business was making less than 20% of pre-pandemic sales.

“The city’s COVID restrictions aren’t doing us any harm because we’re all take-away, but our customers just aren’t there,” Sarver said. “As an entrepreneur, it’s really frustrating. We have invested a tremendous amount in building our restaurants with the expectation that we can operate them. Now our investment in San Francisco is really challenging. “

Back to business or not?

In a recent neighborhood cleanup in Tenderloin, one of the city’s hardest hit communities during the pandemic, Breed downplayed the challenges posed by high office vacancy rates.

Mayor of London Breed participates in a Tenderloin cleanup with volunteers from Nextdoor, a social media company that recently started returning workers to the office part-time. (Sydney Johnson / The Examiner)

The trash collection event brought together Urban Alchemy, The City’s new street ambassador program, and about 50 employees from Nextdoor, a neighborhood-based mid-market-headquartered social media company that has been bringing back employees in person on a part-time basis.

“The people next door are coming back to work and taking the opportunity to invest and clean up here,” said Breed. “It shows that hopefully they are part of the community and not just come here to work and then hide.”

But Egan and others say Nextdoor’s decision to return to the office is rare in San Francisco.

“Companies have plans and are trying to bring the workforce back in 2022. It won’t be a complete return, ”said Jeff Bellisario, executive director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. “Jobs that were five days a week are now an average of three days a week, with two days being remote.”

The office vacancy rate, which is currently estimated at 20%, has risen steadily since the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020, according to a report by the San Francisco controller in October.

Even most public sector employees return part-time to do personal work. City workers were required to return to work in person at least two days a week after the November 1 deadline for vaccination, with some departments being more frequent.

Adding to the problem is a growing labor shortage due to a variety of factors ranging from fewer customers to the displacement of workers during the pandemic, Egan said.

Entering the endemic

With COVID cases rising moderately again in the Bay Area, the question of what comes next is all the more tricky.

“Everything depends on the trajectory of the virus. When you’re in charge, you want people to be vaccinated and that’s the only way you can really get moving on a large scale again, “said Bellisario, adding that the Bay Area Council, a consortium of local large and medium-sized companies, has encouraged vaccine mandates among the membership workforce.

However, some local health experts say San Francisco is ripe for setting a new example: to overcome pandemic policies once a successful vaccination effort has been made.

“I think we can drop all internal mask regulations now. San Francisco has a really high vaccination rate, ”said Monica Gandhi, who heads the division of HIV, Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine at UCSF. “The city shows no optimism or confidence in the vaccines.”

Gandhi believes the emphasis on COVID also detracts from other urgent health emergencies the city is facing, including opioid overdoses that outpaced COVID-19 deaths by three to one in 2020. “It is not a public health job to keep people away from everyone else at this rate anymore,” she said.

Other infectious disease experts disagree, arguing that cutting back on safety measures this winter could accelerate a spike in COVID.

“Now is not the time to talk about removing protective layers when cases are increasing. We’ve seen this record game time and time again, ”said John Swartzberg, clinical professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley. “We are only a few weeks away from Thanksgiving, and the time will not be good economically for San Francisco, with an increasing number of COVID cases that I believe will be inevitable over the holidays.”

Providing vaccines and booster shots to people who still need them will be critical to both public health and economic recovery, Swartzberg said. Vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds frees more parents from quarantines required if they come into contact with the virus and makes it harder to return to work.

San Francisco and eight other Bay Area counties set criteria in September to trigger changes to health regulations. This includes getting 80% of the county’s residents fully vaccinated, a benchmark that San Francisco achieved prior to the recently expanded immunization eligibility for children ages 5-11.

However, it is unclear whether easing the mask requirement would strengthen areas where the economy is lagging behind. Even after the mask requirement for office work has been relaxed, many companies still allow their employees to work from home. And the San Franciscans continue to spend more time indoors than the state average, according to the controller report.

Sarver of Ladle & Leaf said part of the problem depends on messaging and culture.

“That’s what the city tour has to do,” said Sarver. “It must be desirable that people come to town. Talk about how clean BART is and how good air circulation is. Show evidence that it is safe to drive again. “

The relaxation of mandates could make San Francisco more attractive for conferences, events and tourism again, said Gandhi. The sold out Outside Lands festival shows that there is an appetite for large gatherings.

San Francisco International Airport lost more passengers than 50 other major airports across the country during the pandemic, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The decline took a severe blow to tax revenues in The City, where tourists account for more than half of visitors’ overnight spending.

Meanwhile, cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, Denver, and Las Vegas are overtaking San Francisco when it comes to airport travel, hotel income, and office visits.

“It’s important for The City to update their logs. In this way, you invite tourists and people to the city center. They create a livelier place, ”said Gandhi.

A recipe for recovery

With even medical experts disagreeing on a winter public health strategy, answers to the city’s pandemic recovery won’t be easy.

“It’s just an adjustment that we have to get used to. It’s part of reality now. We know what COVID feels like and what it feels like when our city closes. These preventive measures allow us to stay open and secure, ”said Breed.

To offset the slow recovery, The City has launched a handful of small business support programs, including a recently announced plan to waive first year permits, licenses, and registration fees for new small businesses.

It has also pumped $ 42 million into a staff development program that aims to provide vocational training and employment services to nearly 10,000 San Franciscans.

Despite many efforts, the economic recovery in areas such as public transport and tourism is lagging behind the national average, the controller report shows. With flu season and a possible winter COVID surge, the city’s next steps will determine how long it will take to recover.

“A large part of our city’s sales tax is generated by tourists and commuters,” said Egan. “Until we see a recovery in these things, the economy will feel depressed.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button