The covid-19 pandemic is a global nightmare, but its immediate impact is local and we all experience it in different ways. I live in San Francisco, and like everywhere else we are wondering when we can safely revert to a more normal life. Like everywhere else, people are divided, with diverging opinions on what “safely” means, on how much risk they are willing to take, on their degree of tolerance for the current restrictions.
Relaxing social distancing restrictions and reopening the economy should be an exercise in risk management: assess the trend in covid-19 cases and deaths, the pressure on the health care system, and weigh the risk of the virus against the public health and economic costs of the lockdown. Or so we had been told.
Last Thursday San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced the reopening timeline for the city. She started by saying “we have good news”. However, if the question is, when will our lives be fully back to normal?, her answer was, possibly never.
The timeline looks like this (details here):
- This Monday (June 1st ) we can enjoy botanical garden, and child care will be back.
- June 15: outdoor dining (socially distanced), most indoor retail, and professional sports sans spectators
- July 13: indoor dining (socially distanced) and hair salons
- Mid-August: schools, bars and gyms
Live audience sports, nightclubs and “all hotels and lodgings for leisure and tourism”: one day, maybe, we will see — stop asking.
This timetable is contingent on the good behavior of us San Franciscans, and in this paternalistic spirit one key restriction gets tightened: we are now required to wear a mask outdoors whenever we are within 30 feet of someone else. I have not seen which scientific research yielded the 30-feet rule, but I imagine it came from an epidemiological model that factors in average wind speeds as well as the average loudness of a San Francisco conversation (given that loud speaking appears to spread the virus far and wide, according to some scientists).
If this 30-feet rule remains in place past June 15, it should make outdoor dining quite interesting.
For some local government officials, even this pace of reopening borders on the reckless. One is quoted as saying “How do you give people relief without making too many promises if our numbers start skyrocketing? We shut everything down with a dozen cases and now we’re reopening with thousands.”
Mayor Breed ominously warned: “The last thing we want to do is begin the process of reopening, see a surge of cases and then have to go back to closing the city completely.”
Thousands of cases, risk of our numbers skyrocketing: It sounds like San Francisco is on a knife-edge, and this reopening strategy a daring gamble that might tip the city back into the covid abyss.
How bad is San Francisco’s situation?
So far (as of May 29), San Francisco has 40 covid-19 deaths. Forty. Four-zero. By comparison, Los Angeles has over 2,000 and New York City over 20,000. The charts below show how San Francisco compares to other major US cities in cases and deaths per million people:
With 44 deaths per million, San Francisco ranks on a par with Norway (yes, the same Norway that is constantly taken as a benchmark to criticize Sweden.)
Covid-19 hospitalizations have been declining since end-April, and have never breached 100. That’s infinitely better than local officials expected: at end-March, Mayor Breed said San Francisco would need 5,000 additional beds and 1,500 additional ventilators. (The chart below comes from the city’s website here).
Perhaps San Francisco does social distancing better than anyone else — though on local social media I have often seen pictures of dense crowds outside popular take-out restaurants and more recently in parks (triggering an avalanche of on-line outrage).
The bottom-line is that the Mayor expected we would need 5,000 additional beds, and we needed none; we have one of the lowest rates of mortality and infection. But now we’ll have to don a mask if we spot anyone within 30 feet.
Some people will say you can’t be too careful. San Francisco maybe shows that yes, you can.
San Francisco was the first U.S. city to go in full lockdown (on March 17). It’s beginning to feel — aptly — like Hotel California: “You can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave (the house).”
And of course…
“And she said, ‘We are all just prisoners here of our own device.’”