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New legislation would bar COVID-19-related commercial evictions

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“The last thing our community and our economy need is permanent mass closure of small businesses,” says Sen. Scott Wiener

A postponed sign is displayed on a movie poster at Balboa Theater.
A screening postponed at the Balboa Theater, which has closed its doors for the first time in decades.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Just when you thought it could scarcely get harder for small businesses to make ends meet in San Francisco, along comes the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and the public campaign to stifle its spread via “social distancing.”

On Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom pushed for bars to temporarily close across the state. He also directed restaurants to reduce capacity by 50 percent, stopping short of making it a mandatory order. A few days earlier, the San Francisco Department of Public Health closed bars and clubs with a capacity of 100 or more closed—and that one is mandatory.

These are all sound measures for safeguarding public health during a period of uncertainty, but it’s hard not to wince at the plight of small businesses that may not be able to absorb the lost revenue. On Friday, SF-based State Sen. Scott Wiener and Souther California-based Sen. Lena Gonzalez said that they will push new legislation to shield businesses from eviction over nonpayment of rent during the public health emergency, similar to protections now in place for some residential renters in cities like San Francisco and San Jose.

“As we move through the COVID-19 emergency, people must be able to focus on our community’s health—slowing the virus’s spread—and not on economic survival,” said Wiener.

Both senators said in a written statement, “The last thing our community and our economy need is permanent mass closure of small businesses.”

In addition to an economic safeguard, the senators framed the plan as part of a public health campaign—some businesses may want to close to correspond to the current, sedentary zeitgeist, but still stay open because they lack monetary security without such a provision.

The pair also asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order barring commercial evictions while the legislation—which will likely take months—brews, and pushed for a general ban on residential evictions.

On the latter point, SF-based Assemblymember Phil Ting said last week that he will introduce a statewide ban on residential evictions, modeled on the one in effect in San Jose.

“We already have a homeless crisis,” Ting said via Twitter. “We can’t let it get worse.”

San Francisco presently has an eviction moratorium in place courtesy of a mayoral order, but it applies only to renters who miss rent payments as a direct result of COVID-19.