The Long Dark: A 2020 Year in Review

The worst year ever was not without moments of absurdity, levity, and hope.

It started promising enough: A new decade brought the possibility of a new presidential administration and a new direction for America. The economy was humming, and the city and state governments had big plans to tackle issues like housing, climate change, and labor rights. The Warriors were filling up their gleaming new Mission Bay arena and the Niners were looking like they did back when Eddie Debartolo was still signing the checks.

And then… well… You know the rest.

The novel coronavirus swept into the country, derailed the economy, and worse. To date, COVID-19 has killed more than 300,000 Americans. More than 1.5 million people have died of the virus worldwide.

But as much as the pandemic dominated headlines this year, there were many more noteworthy stories. Some of them were flat out grim, such as the horrific wildfires that ravaged Australia, and then, half a year later, California and the rest of the American West. Other stories were equally horrific, but came with a silver lining. The public lynching of Ahmaud Arbery and the numerous instances of police violence captured on video made painfully clear to more people than ever that racial injustice is alive and well in America, inspiring people, companies, organizations and city governments to actually do something about it. 

SEIU Local 1021 members block traffic outside City Hall while protesters paint a street mural stating “Defund The Police, Fund Black Futures” during a Black Lives Matter protest in July. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

While stories about COVID-19 and combating racism circulated at a national level, the same topics played out in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area. As the year came to a close, locals cast ballots — both for the president and for city officials and state propositions. We grappled with the unique nature of income inequality in Silicon Valley. And we cringed as our high-profile (and high-income) local leaders stumbled from gaffe to gaffe. Through it all, we still found ways to enjoy our beautiful city, and commune with the people who make it so special. 

What follows is a synopsis — by no means complete — of the news that mattered to San Francisco in 2020.

A COVID Success Story?

On March 16, San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area became the first major city in the country to initiate a shelter-in-place policy. This likely helped the region avoid the horrifying situation in New York City, where COVID-19 spread like wildfire and killed thousands of people in a matter of days. As a result, Mayor London Breed received significant praise from the national media for the role her decisive actions played in flattening the curve.

Since then, San Francisco has managed to keep the virus relatively under control, with infection and mortality rates far below other major cities. However, there have been major disparities across income, race, and neighborhood, with low-income and Latino areas seeing a disproportionate number of cases, and Asians seeing a disproportionate number of deaths.

But even the best laid plans couldn’t stop a virus raging across the country — and an astonishing level of inaction from the federal government. San Francisco will spend the final days of 2020 back in lockdown, attempting once again to bend a new cases curve that is at its highest point yet.  

Mayor London Breed also addressed concerns about her dinner at The French Laundry in November. Photo by Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner

Pain, Pain Go Away

All of that sheltering in place has taken its toll on the local economy. San Francisco’s unemployment rate jumped to a staggering 12.7 percent at the beginning of the pandemic, and remains at 6.9 percent, well over twice its pre-pandemic rate. Countless small businesses have closed. Bars, music venues, restaurants, and gyms are among the businesses that have suffered the most, although no sector was immune. Chinese-American owned businesses have had a particularly rough year, as sinophobia stemming from President Trump’s rhetoric on the coronavirus led to cancelled restaurant reservations and tourists avoiding Chinatown.   

In response, the city has initiated several grant programs to help small businesses and organizations, and has forgiven some taxes and fees. But those efforts have been a drop in the bucket when these businesses are bringing in little to no revenue. It doesn’t help that San Francisco’s public schools have been closed for in-person learning since the beginning of the pandemic, forcing many parents to do their jobs, or look for a job, while also playing teacher. 

Far East Cafe, one of the Chinatown businesses economically impacted by the pandemic, will be closing in its 100th year on Dec. 31, 2020. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

Tech Exodus or Boom?

Once-bustling downtown has become a ghost town as white collar workers continue to work from home. Many of them, it appears, have simply left the city entirely. This “tech exodus” has been good for rents, which are down more than 20 percent year over year. But that doesn’t help the many, largely low-wage service workers, who have lost their jobs, and are at high risk of eviction in the coming months, despite progressive lawmakers’ best efforts. 

Through it all, San Francisco and Silicon Valley’s tech industries kept on humming. Doordash and Airbnb had massive IPOs. Startups like Patreon and Discord raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital. Tech giants like Apple, Google, Netflix, and Facebook helped bring the stock market to new heights, even as food banks around the country buckled under unprecedented demand.  

Sharing the Streets

One upside of all this COVID-related devastation is the way the city has begun to rethink how streets are used. The Shared Spaces program has enabled thousands of stores, restaurants, and other businesses and organizations to spill out into parking spots, and even entire streets, like Hayes and Valencia. Shared Streets, with limited or no car traffic, like Page and The Great Walkway, have proved tremendously popular. The city has also moved faster to add new bike and transit-only lanes.

Fire Season

Highlighting the need for more environmentally friendly ways of getting around was… the sky. On Sept 9, the sun never rose. Instead, the city was blanketed by a dull orange glow. It was the most dramatic moment in a hellish fire season, the most severe in California’s recorded history. Sheltering in place got a lot easier when stepping outside meant a scratchy throat and itchy eyes.

A person takes a selfie along The Embarcadero under a dark, orange haze on Sept. 9. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

The ordeal revealed that climate change is already taking its toll, pushing Governor Gavin Newsom to take aggressive actions, like banning the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035. But the fires were also a result of a century of poor forest management, and the suppression of “cultural burns” that California’s Indigenous people had practiced for millennia. 

All Politics is Homelessness

Mayor Breed may have won national renown for her COVID-19 response, but many of her political foes would say that she has taken her emergency powers too far. Breed’s choice to ignore the Board of Supervisors’ directive for the city to lease more than 8,000 hotel rooms for the homeless became a potent symbol of her willingness to go it on her own. Those debates persist, as the mayor and some progressive supervisors clash over when and how to wind down the shelter in place hotel program. 

Homelessness continued to be a defining political and humanitarian issue in the city. COVID-19 made plain just how many people in San Francisco have nowhere to go. The pandemic also turbocharged the city’s escalating drug overdose crisis, as people sheltered in place without their usual friends and companions. As of the end of November, 621 people died of an overdose this year, up from 441 last year. 

Voters Spoke

In case you hadn’t noticed, 2020 was a big election year. The race at the top of the ticket offered good news for Democrats and all those who dislike President Trump. San Franciscans took to the streets of the Castro in a classic style street party the day it became clear Joe Biden had won the electoral college. Victory was particularly sweet for supporters and friends of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who began her meteoric political career as San Francisco District Attorney back in 2003. Harris, of course, also made history as the first woman and the first Asian American and Black American to serve as VP. 

A person pops champagne in the Castro in celebration of President-elect Joe Biden and Oakland-born VP-elect Kamala Harris’ victory. Photo by Samantha Laurey

At the city level, however, the political status quo largely remained intact. Every incumbent in a major race won reelection, including state Senator Scott Wiener, who faced a surprisingly strong challenger in the young socialist Jackie Fielder. San Franciscans also passed several contentious tax measures that helped to stabilize the city’s budget at this difficult economic moment. (Although huge funding gaps loom in the future, especially for Muni, BART and other transit agencies in the Bay Area, even after the recent stimulus bill.)

Things got a bit more interesting at the state level. San Franciscans’ preferences on several key issues were overruled by voters from elsewhere in the state. Measures to expand rent control, end cash bail, reinstate affirmative action, tax large property owners and make gig economy drivers into full time employees, were overwhelmingly supported in the city, but failed statewide. The people of California voted a lot like the state legislature itself, which adjourned in August without accomplishing much on key issues like housing and criminal justice reform. 

Leaders Misbehaved

Over the course of the year, bureaucrat after bureaucrat has stepped down or been indicted, or both, as part of a wide-ranging FBI investigation targeting corruption at San Francisco City Hall. Some of the most prominent figures whose misdeeds have been exposed include Mohammed Nuru, longtime head of the Department of Public Works, Public Utilities Commission head Harlan Kelly and, by extension, his wife, City Administrator Naomi Kelly, the highest ranking unelected official in the city.

So far, no electeds have been ensnared, although mayors past and present, including Breed, Willie Brown, and the late Ed Lee, have numerous connections to the officials under investigation. 

Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, seen above in 2019, was arrested and charged by FBI. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

And Misbehaved…

The big names have simply found themselves in more classy scandals. In August, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi went to a hair salon in Cow Hollow unmasked, in violation of COVID-19 guidelines, leading Fox News and other right wing outlets to opine on the homeless “defecating” throughout the city. San Francisco’s other octogenarian matriarch, Senator Dianne Feinstein, gaffed in October, when she hugged Trump attack dog Senator Lindsey Graham and praised him for his handling of the Amy Coney Barrett hearings. This was before the New Yorker report revealing that the 87-year old Senator, whose term ends in 2025, is widely thought to be in mental decline. 

Then in November a Los Angeles Fox affiliate obtained photos of  Governor Gavin Newsom dining with about a dozen people at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, violating his own coronavirus recommendations. The story became a national media sensation, encapsulating all there is to hate — and love — about the Gavinator. The incident, along with California’s strict coronavirus regulations, also helped inspire Republicans’ longshot bid to recall Newsom in a special election. 

Governor Gavin Newsom. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

As this story was blowing up, imagine how Mayor Breed felt, knowing that she had dined at the French Laundry just one night after the governor. The Chronicle came up with the scoop about a month after the fact. To their credit, both Gavin and London offered sincere apologies, acknowledging how difficult it is to stay disciplined as the pandemic drags on. Our homegrown leaders might be hypocrites, but at least they know how to enjoy being the highest-paid mayor and governor in the country, respectively. Not that the French Laundry needed their support. The restaurant was the beneficiary of $2.4 million in CARES Act money. 

Reckoning with Racism

While leaders dined in semi-outdoor yurts, the most vivid, passionate in-person events that many locals took part in this year were the Black Lives Matter protests against racism and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police. Massive peaceful demonstrations brought thousands of people to the Mission District, Civic Center, and even the Golden Gate Bridge in a show of collective mourning and solidarity. In June, San Francisco’s own Sean Monterossa was shot and killed by the Vallejo Police, prompting new waves of demonstrations and mourning. 

Among these protests, there were also isolated incidents of looting and civil unrest around Union Square and in Downtown Oakland. Boarded up windows became a common sight, especially in the lead-up to election day. 

Protestors take a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on the Golden Gate Bridge to remember George Floyd who died while being detained by Minneapolis Police. Photo by Chris Victorio

While activists continue to push for further defunding of the police, this year the city did decrease the police budget and began a pilot program to replace police officers with healthcare professionals for certain types of 911 calls. In October, Supervisor Shamann Walton called for a task force to study the possibility of reparations for African Americans. 

Additionally, as part of the growing consciousness around racism and injustice, many local businesses and organizations looked inward at their own makeup and practices, and asked themselves if their actions reflect their values. Still other businesses and organizations were called out, in the press and on social media, for unjust or racist practices, including Boba Guys and SFMOMA, to name just two examples.

Organizer Simon Jacques speaks at a rally for George Floyd and those killed by the police on June 3, 2020. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

Still a Sports Town

As part of this reckoning with racism, this year the NFL welcomed the kind of protests that former Niners QB Colin Kaepernick pioneered, and which ultimately forced him out of the league. It’s bittersweet redemption for Kaepernick, an all-time Niner great on and off the field, and an embarrassing display of hypocrisy for the NFL. 

It’s hard to believe that the Niners were in the Superbowl this very year. And they came damn close to winning it, too, if not for Chiefs’ QB Patrick Mahomes’ transcendent performance in the fourth quarter. The red and gold returned this fall with high expectations, but injuries for what seemed like every star player — Jimmy G, Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, George Kittle, etc — turned this into a lost season. 

The Giants, too, had a “rebuilding year,” although they actually performed better than expected. New manager Gabe Kapler (we’ll miss you, Boch!) showed some promise — and some pecs — as did up-and-comers like outfielder Mike Yastrzemski.

By the time 2020 rolled around, the Warriors were already in the doghouse, following Stephen Curry’s season-ending injury. But at least they got to play in their shiny new Mission Bay arena. As they return to the court this week, the Dubs will be without a Splash Brother, Klay Thompson having suffered his own season-ending injury before the season even started. We’ll see if the Warriors can reignite their old dynasty, even without Klay.  

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