San Francisco Bay Area Counties Order Residents to ‘Shelter in Place’

A man looks toward the skyline from Bernal Heights Hill in San Francisco, Monday, March 16, 2020.

A man looks toward the skyline from Bernal Heights Hill in San Francisco, Monday, March 16, 2020. AP Photo


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Counties in the San Francisco Bay Area became the first jurisdictions in the country to order residents to “shelter in place.” Across the country, some governors and mayors ordered bars, restaurants, movie theaters, and gyms to close.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since initial publication.

State and city leaders across the country are beginning to order restrictions that seemed unthinkable merely a week ago, with counties in the San Francisco Bay Area becoming the first to order residents to “shelter in place” in order to blunt the spread of the coronavirus.

The six counties in the Bay Area that have adopted the measure say that residents may need to remain at home for the next three weeks. People will still be allowed to go out for food and household supplies, as well as to take a walk (as long as they meet certain "social distancing" guidelines), care for elderly relatives, or to operate “essential businesses” like pharmacies, gas stations, banks, trash collection services, or food delivery services.

Dr. Grant Colfax, director of health for San Francisco, said in a press release that the situation on the ground required the drastic steps. “I want to make sure that all San Franciscans understand that we are entering a new phase in our response,” Colfax said. “Based on what we can predict, now is the time to do everything we can to prevent the situation from getting much worse in a matter of days or weeks. Every hour counts.”

The measure came after several governors took steps on Sunday and Monday to shut down high-traffic businesses like restaurants, bars, movie theaters, gyms, and casinos. The governors cited concern about restaurants and bars that were packed over the weekend for brunches and celebrations, despite pleas from state and local public health officials for people to stay home and avoid large crowds. This is because the respiratory illness spreads through contact between people, with many now suspecting asymptomatic carriers are contagious. 

Brian Castrucci, the president of the de Beaumont Foundation, a community health organization, said that people haven’t been taking the pandemic seriously enough. “Diseases like Ebola freaked us out because when you see someone bleeding from the eyes, ears, and nose, it makes an impression,” he said. “Covid-19 is a numbers game. If even 10% of the U.S. gets infected, that’s an insane number. But it’s not real to people yet.”

On Sunday afternoon, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced his state would be the first to order the closure of all sit-down bars and restaurants, though establishments can remain open to take-out and delivery. “What we can't have is people congregating and seated,” DeWine said. “Every day we delay, more people will die. If we do not act and get some distance between people, our health care system in Ohio will not hold up.”

DeWine has led the proactive coronavirus response among governors and last week was the first to close all public and private schools for at least three weeks. The governor this weekend said he would not be surprised if schools do not reopen this academic year, while also saying on Twitter that he will likely soon order for daycares to close. “What we've done this week is drastic action, but we're taking these steps to save lives,” DeWine tweeted.

But even as more governors followed DeWine—some ordering very similar restrictions on Sunday and others on Monday—other city and state leaders have taken more tentative measures or none at all. 

For example, the state of Idaho's advice on its coronavirus website on Monday doesn't suggest residents stay home from work if possible. "At this time, we are suggesting you live your life as you would normally. Rely on your best judgment as you determine your own risk," the website reads. 

In some locations, leaders initially ordered partial steps to curb gatherings before eventually changing course. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser on Sunday mandated certain limits for restaurants, but then on Monday toughed that stance, ordering all bars and restaurants to close for on-site service. 

For their part,  the Trump administration has not taken any actions to require people to stay inside, leaving many of those decisions to state and local officials. On Monday afternoon, President Trump and his coronavirus task force for the first time recommended that officials in states with evidence of community spread take the steps already spearheaded by many governors: close schools, as well as shuttering bars, gyms and restaurants. 

Castrucci said that he wasn’t surprised by the crackdown some states were taking. “The guidance to social distance was provided by CDC. When we don’t adhere to that guidance, more draconian measures have to be implemented,” he said. “We need to be super cautious and aggressive, but have some semblance of an economy and keep people employed.”

Several governors have said their administrations were working with restaurants to ensure that food can still be safely prepared and delivered to those who rely on take-out meals.

After Ohio took the lead, Illinois, Washington and Massachusetts similarly announced on Sunday they would temporarily shut down bars and restaurants to on-site dining, while California ordered bars and nightclubs to close. On Monday, many more states followed, including Louisiana, Michigan, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut

Castrucci said that states and cities that start to shut down businesses need to be prepared to help workers who don’t have paid sick leave but still need to pay rent, phone bills, and address other immediate needs. “People making these rules have paid sick leave and money in the bank,” he said. “If you shut the restaurants down, then you have to be ready to answer the critical question: How are these workers going to live? If you close restaurants, you need to stop evictions and take other emergency measures. Otherwise you’re putting everyone in more danger.”

Several cities and states have already moved to halt evictions, but other emergency financial needs for utilities, food, and bills, have not been as widely addressed. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney from Utah on Monday proposed giving every citizen $1,000 every month during the outbreak to help them survive this period of forced isolation.

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Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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