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Why SF is not quite on ‘lockdown’ right now

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The Bay Area’s shelter-in-place directives are sweeping, but far less so than the lockdowns in some European countries

A worker in an orange vest and white hardhat, spraying a plaza of red bricks with a hose. In the background, a white building with a black and gold dome is visible.
Power washing at Civic Center on Monday. SF Public Works is still operating.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As six Bay Area counties, including San Francisco, adopted a shelter-in-place directive on Monday, “SF lockdown” and “Bay Area lockdown” began trending on social media, recalling the language used for dramatic anti-COVID-19 measures in countries like Italy.

Although there is no formal definition of a “lockdown,” right now SF enjoys more freedom of movement than many European cities—despite the fact that in both cases the goal is as little movement as possible.

In Italy, where novel coronavirus infections are most active on the continent, Business Insider describes a host of prohibitions now in effect. Virtually all public spaces are closed, with grocery stores and pharmacies being the only retail sites still open. People who leave their homes to buy essentials (one of the only permitted reasons to move about) must carry paperwork justifying their travel.

Public transportation and even the airports are still open, but police routinely question anyone traveling. People must sign forms testifying to their reason for excursion. At hospitals, no one is allowed inside a hospital waiting room except those waiting for treatment. Banks and lending agencies in the country have also suspended all mortgage payments.

The BBC reports that anyone caught violating the lockdown rules faces a $235 fine or up to three months in prison.

Countries like France and Spain have less stringent measures in place, but are in some places requesting military enforcement, with French President Emmanuel Macron declaring “we are at war” with the disease.

By comparison, the provisos for movement and business in San Francisco are less extensive:

  • Residents should stay home as much as possible. The order permits leaving one’s home to get food, medicine, and other necessary supplies, or to get to an essential job (see below). People can leave to take a walk to stave off cabin fever, but should travel individually when possible and maintain six feet of space between yourself and the nearest person. The exception to these advisories are “vulnerable populations”—i.e., the immunocompromised or those over the age of 60—who should always remain at home.
  • Essential jobs and services that are not suspended include the following: government operations like emergency services, trash pickup, and public transit (including BART), hospitals and healthcare providers, banks, sanitation, and stores or nonprofits that provide services deemed crucial for basic needs, including grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, hardware stores, and laundry services. Restaurants and cafes can open but may only provide food to go, and deliveries are allowed. (Best to tell them to leave it at the door though.)
  • There are also some specific exceptions: Most childcare services are shutdown, but centers providing care that allow people with essential jobs to work may remain open, as long as they abide by certain regulations. Most retail businesses not listed above are closed, but “businesses that supply products needed for people to work from home” may be open. If you need something and aren’t sure if a store is open, call ahead.
  • People are allowed to travel to take care of friends or relatives who need care because of chronic sickness, disability, or other overriding reasons. However, the guidelines still recommend practicing social distancing whenever possible, including staying six feet from other persons as much as can be managed. For the most part, you should not visit people in the hospital or accompany them there, unless they’re a minor or someone else who needs supervision.
  • What you should not do: Don’t have people over to your home, don’t leave to shop for anything non-essential (essentials in this case are basically food, medicine, anything you need to work if you are working, and home supplies), don’t attend religious services, don’t gather in groups anywhere for any reason. Public transit remains in operation, as are taxis and ride services. The roads are open, of course, but travel should be limited to only the most important trips. Medical care that is not essential, like dentist appointments and eye exams, should be canceled.

These rules are mandatory. Flouting these rules is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine or even jail time. (Ninety days is the max for a misdemeanor charge). The rules are strict—but not quite so serious as in some other places.

And that’s the point: If this plan works, SF and the surrounding areas will not need to adopt any more stringent measures. But the plan depends on people adhering to the rules.

Per the Department of Public Health, San Francisco had 40 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 as of Monday. The CDC warns many people will be asymptomatic or suffer from only light symptoms—socializing risks infecting those around you, even if you don’t feel sick.

The shelter order is set until April 7, but may be shortened on the advisement of Bay Area health officers—or it may be extended and the rules made even more strict if cases continue to multiply. The more people stick to the plan, the less likely that will happen.