It’s been a little over eight weeks since San Francisco shut itself down to fight the spread of COVID-19. It was one of the most dramatic, sweeping moves in the city’s history, and with horror stories emerging from China, Italy, and New York, every politician in San Francisco’s City Hall was on board for the drastic shelter-in-place measure. Restaurants were shuttered, tech workers went remote, and tens of thousands rushed to file unemployment claims online.
But two months in, it’s proving much harder to reopen this city than it was to close it. Decisions are being made behind closed doors, without evidence to back them up. Construction sites and golf courses are once again bustling, while small businesses remain closed. Strict social distancing standards are being enforced when people picnic in Dolores Park, but massive tent encampments are being ignored. As quarantine fatigue sets in, our collective complacency during the beginning of the crisis is shifting into scrutiny. People are now asking why these decisions are being made — and the Board of Supervisors is leading the hunt for clarity.
Unfortunately, answers are hard to come by. On Tuesday evening, Department of Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax and Chief Health Officer Dr. Tomas Aragon were called in front of the full Board of Supervisors to answer no fewer than 40 questions compiled by its 11 members. It’s the third time they’ve been summoned in as many weeks.
“Please explain the public health rationale to open up San Francisco golf courses,” read one question, that then snarkily refused to define golf as a form of exercise.
“Given the 100+ cases in the City’s shelter system, what is the public health rationale for not having a Health Order mandating and outlining a process for testing in shelters?” reads another.
“The Asian Pacific Islander population represents over 50 percent of the deaths in San Francisco, but only a small percent of those tested positive,” grills a third. “Is there a reason why this discrepancy has not been investigated? Is there a lack of testing being done for the API population?”
From the get go, the hearing seemed doomed to fail; it was budgeted only an hour of time, and the 40 questions — some of which required extensive scientific responses — were only submitted to Aragon and Colfax 27 hours before the meeting began. But even with those caveats, the answers given by the pair were far from satisfactory for the supervisors.
When asked by Supervisor Hillary Ronen why the city hasn’t issued a health order requiring that thousands of people access shelter and showers during this crisis, Aragon replied: “It didn’t seem to me to make sense to do an order if the city has the capacity to negotiate and get hotel rooms,” sidestepping the fact that the city has ignored the Board of Supervisors legislation to commandeer 7,000 hotel rooms for the homeless. Instead, the city has rented a fraction of that amount, making them available to only a very small amount of people who need them — those who are over 60 years old, or who have specific health issues that would make COVID-19 particularly dangerous for them to contract.
As decisions on what can reopen are pushed forward, there is a rising concern that the new rules are not centered on public health, but on politics and money.
“When the health officers collectively came up with a notion that construction could go forward… that did not appear to this supervisor as a health decision, per se,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said. “There was an element of non-health politics in that. How did you come up with that? Did you look at if people could safely be in an elevator together, or they could socially distance themselves while putting up sheetrock?”
“We knew the shelter in place was going to have a big economic impact, people were going to lose jobs, become homeless,” Aragon answered, without citing any studies done on whether construction could be conducted safely during a pandemic. “We’re thinking, ‘Boy, this is really a long haul, we gotta make sure some of that pipeline of housing continues, because we’re probably going to need it. We were outside our comfort zone in making some of those decisions, and they were challenging.”
Speaking to SF Weekly after the meeting, Ronen expressed concern that there is a collapse in democracy in this top-heavy political response to the pandemic.
“We live in a city where the mayor’s power is so great,” she tells SF Weekly. “The power of 11 members of the Board doesn’t get to match the power of the mayor, and her power increased 10 times over in the midst of a public health emergency. But as time has gone on, these random decisions are made without any input from the Board of Supervisors… if they made common sense we’d just let it go. But these decisions make no sense.”
Supervisor Aaron Peskin worries that the lack of transparency around both shelter-in-place mandates and reopening policies could dissolve the public’s trust.
“This is going to go on for a long time, and the only way for the public — and elected members of the Board of Supervisors — to be able to live with this is for the doctors to open up and tell people what they’re doing,” he tells SF Weekly. “If that doesn’t happen they’re going to lose the trust not only of politicians, but of 800,000 mostly good-hearted people who are getting increasingly frustrated.”
Peskin acknowledges that Colfax and Aragon “have a tough bureaucracy that was never meant to be a fast-moving army, and they’re going to have to work through that.” But, he continues, “San Franciscans are smart people. If you don’t tell them why you’re doing something, they’re going to lose confidence in you.”
Extracting answers for the Board’s 40 questions — and the many more that will no doubt arise in the coming weeks — is no small feat, and Board President Norman Yee is realistic about the outcome; Yee opened the meeting by asking Colfax and Aragon to simply do their best.
Still, Yee wasn’t willing to make too many concessions to the health officers. The first meeting the Board had with Colfax and Aragon three weeks ago was “almost useless,” according to Yee.
With that in mind he compiled Tuesday’s list of questions beforehand, albeit with the understanding that a day wouldn’t be long enough to find answers for all of them. But he’s not letting Aragon off the hook, either, even as the chief health officer bowed out of the meeting (which ran late) over concerns his wife “was going to be very upset with me.”
“There are some fundamental questions that we have frustration about that are going to come up over and over again,” he told Aragon before he left. “Next time you need to have a definitive answer, because it’s not going to go away.”