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A women in San Francisco, wearing a face mask, crosses a deserted downtown street.
A pedestrian carries toilet paper as she crosses a nearly empty Market Street on March 17.
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Shelter in place: What life is like in the Bay Area right now

Residents discuss how life is changing under the new shelter-in-place restrictions

Canceled events, lost work, shuttered stores, empty public spaces, and panic shopping: Life during coronavirus has rapidly, and overwhelmingly, changed.

Now San Francisco, which was one of the first cities to declare an emergency over the spread of the disease, and the greater Bay Area have become the first to institute shelter-in-place restrictions. These orders now cover Napa and Sonoma counties as well as the six-county area that went under shelter-in-place orders on midnight Tuesday. On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all of California to “stay at home.” Other cities in the U.S. are considering similarly serious policies.

What does it mean to live under shelter-in-place restrictions? Officially, the order mandates that “all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a household or living unit are prohibited,” and that “essential businesses,” like pharmacies and grocery stores, will remain open, with restaurants and cafes on takeout-only status. But that hardly captures the upheaval, perspectives, and creative problem-solving that come with life under a form of lockdown.

Curbed spoke with Bay Area residents to get a sense of how their lives have and haven’t changed since these orders were announced earlier this week, and the advice they’d provide to other Americans who may soon by living under similar restrictions. If you’d like to share your own stories, please reach out to Curbed San Francisco at

A street with no cars on it, flanked on both sides by tall buildings.
California Street in the Financial District is seen nearly empty on March 17.
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“It’s hard to shift your priorities so quickly and dramatically.” —Beth Spotswood, 42, Novato

A freelance writer for Alta Magazine and a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Spotswood, who lives with her husband and her 16-month-old son, Leo, says the shelter-in-place order has “dramatically changed her lifestyle,” with child care quickly becoming an immediate, pressing concern.

“My parents live 20 minutes away, they’re both in their 70s, and the plan was once day care closed, they would be primary babysitters for my son and nearby niece,” she says. But that plan has been upended by increasing restrictions on travel and movement.

“We need to get our work done,” she says. “We’re all concerned about our jobs and having income and making mortgage and car payments, and affording the overpriced toilet paper at the store, and keeping our fridge stocked, and we need to work. And it’s impossible with a 16-month-old pulling at your leg and wanting apples. Right now, I’m finding things to worry about. He’s at an important stage of his social development. If he can’t interact with kids for a number of months, will he be like a feral child who came out of the woods after being raised by wolves?”

She notes upfront that the family is healthy, that they have a roof over their heads and food in the fridge, and that she’s lucky to have a job, especially one with coworkers with kids who understand her struggles. But she still needs to get the work done. And it’s difficult to balance competing impulses, especially around health and safety.

“One of the things I’m considering is should our parents stay with us,” she says. “Will that protect them? It’s hard. They’re pretty stubborn... they want to see their grandkids, and I totally understand. And I’m selfishly thinking, I need child care, but we need to have a discussion moving forward. Staying healthy is the most important thing—if we’re bored, lonely, and not the best at our jobs for a couple of months, it’s going to be okay.”

When the order came, she says, the family was already doing their own version of shelter in place. She says that the idea of an emergency, as a general concept, wasn’t unfamiliar in a part of the country that prepares for wildfires and earthquakes. But what took a while to sink in was the projected length of time these social distancing orders will be in place. Neighbors are still going for walks in the wilderness near her home, and now keeping a safe distance, but there’s a new sense of loneliness.

“It’s hard to shift your priorities so quickly and dramatically,” she says. And the unknown is difficult to process right now. Two weeks ago, she was wondering if the family would still be able to take a planned cruise to Vancouver later this year on the Grand Princess. Concerns are much more immediate now. “I can’t plan right now. I just need to sit in the discomfort of it. I can’t shop it out, meet my girlfriends, do playdates ... so much of our life is up-close social interaction. It’s a very uncertain time, and people have survived far worse and we will get through this. But I look forward to getting through to the other side.”

“The stress of that has started to prepare me for what’s coming.” —Emily Chapman, 42, Alameda

This isn’t Emily Chapman’s first experience with a shutdown. Her husband, who works as a helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard, wasn’t paid during the most recent government shutdown.

“The stress of that has started to prepare me for what’s coming,” she says.

But now, with the shelter-in-place orders, she’s the one without a job. The orthodontic office where she works as a treatment coordinator closed indefinitely Monday, and with economic uncertainty ahead, her family is about to dip into savings. It’s challenging, and she’s filing for unemployment.

It’s also challenging for her entire family. She’s been watching and teaching her two children, a 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, and trying to stick to the curriculum her first-grader’s teacher emailed all parents. Her husband has also been incredibly busy, working with the cruise ships that recently docked in Oakland with passengers who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The family is taking all the necessary safety precautions.

She’s starting to see the effects of people hoarding food when she shops at nearby stores..

“I hope other people think about others, especially those who really need it,” she says. “All of my coworkers are putting on a brave front and we’re pretty stressed out, especially the single moms working in my office, who aren’t sure what they’re going to do. This could last into the summer, who knows?”

She says the challenge so far has been finding ways not to drive yourself crazy. Organizing around the house has helped, giving her something to do to pass the time. FaceTime conversations also help. The lack of social interaction has been hard, especially for someone who works with the public for a living.

The marquee and entrance to the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
A healthy reminder from the Castro Theater.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“We’re already all connected online.” —Robert Gatdula, 29, Sunnyvale

A hardware engineer working in Silicon Valley, Robert had already prepared for working from home before the shelter-in-place rules went into effect. He took a few spare monitors from the office and set up a cubicle-like workstation on a table in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment. But since Tuesday, he’s become much more aware of every inch of the unit’s 676 square feet.

“I tend to be on the more homebody side, when it comes to regaining my energy throughout the week, so in a sense, I haven’t been negatively impacted too much,” he says.

Like many, he’s found new ways to interact and socialize using technology. He’s been meeting with friends via video services like Zoom; they’ve even experimented with watching movies together via screen sharing, and may move to playing board games together remotely (though that means everyone needs to buy their own board). He says that while we should certainly abide by the spatial guidelines provided by health officials, in this time of physical isolation, we should retire the term social distancing, since “it implies we’re all going to be socially inept.”

“The thing we need to realize is that we’re already all connected online,” he says. “This is how we primarily interact ever since smartphones have become ubiquitous in our lives. People already know how to use these things—they maybe just need to do it more often.”

Gatdula has gotten into his hobbies, too, especially swing dancing. There’s a community of thousands of swing dancers in the Bay Area, and the two- or three-night-a-week events can’t happen anymore, a realization that “sunk” Gatdula. But that doesn’t mean the community has disappeared; it’s just moved online. Many of the musicians who play at larger dances have create virtual events where they stream music they play at home, and dancers have performed “together,” dancing on video with each other along to a streaming soundtrack.

While he’s found new ways to maintain social ties, he also says the shelter-in-place order has made him take the disease even more seriously. He’s shopping on off hours, trying to go during the week or very late at night to stay away from crowds. He’s also seen friends who even a few days ago weren’t taking the novel coronavirus seriously suddenly be much more diligent about keeping their distance. Still, when he’s at home looking off his balcony, enjoying the relative quiet of less traffic, he feels things will work out.

“This area is full of smart and creative people, so I think we’ll get through this,” he says.

“We smile more, and I hope that stays as a norm.” —Kate Aishton, 37, San Francisco

When Aishton first heard about the shelter-in-place order, it didn’t change how her family reacted to the new coronavirus. An attorney, she works remotely from their home near Balboa Park as her husband, a writer, watches their two boys, 2 and 5 years old. But it did change her mentality. She’s been stress-baking a lot, and the combination of the new order and the release of federal recommendations earlier this week caused her to think a lot about her parents, who live in Florida and Georgia.

“I moved from the south to this city that shares my values and views toward community and taking care on each other, and has enacted concrete policy steps, such as putting a moratorium on evictions,” she says. “I left behind all these people I love in a place that doesn’t value the social safety net as much.”

The pace of life has shifted, she says. It’s been nice to work from home, and her company has been supportive. This week has been “leveling” for people at the office. Day care is closed, nannies are on lockdown, public and private school are shuttered, and everybody has accepted that not having child care makes many things impossible, and not as much is getting done.

“This would be a lot more painful at a typical law firm,” she says. “I can’t imagine trying to bill hours for clients, or meeting for the sake of meeting right now.”

Norms have also shifted in the neighborhood and in the city. Aisles in grocery stores “look like the apocalypse,” while staff remain thoughtful despite customers being on edge. Over the weekend, the city turned into a ghost town. On family walks, they’d see maybe one other person walking a dog.

“People are extra friendly because it feels bad to physically avoid your neighbor,” Aishton says. “We smile more, and I hope that stays as a norm. ‘Don’t touch me, just make it clear with your face you’re a nice neighbor.’”

Fortunately, her kids haven’t run into any of their school friends on walks, an inevitability she feels will be difficult. How to explain the situation in a way that doesn’t make them feel bad, or isn’t scary?

Sheltering in place has been, if not easy, at least consistent, says Aishton. They have the luxury of being able to do this without a tremendous financial burden or immediate risk of losing their jobs. With her local government making explicit policy choices, it’s easy to communicate the social limitations to kids. Nobody is allowed to meet outside the house, and kids look out the window and see everybody is in the same boat.

Another norm she hopes changes? People stay home if they’re sick.

“It’s just so clearly this cultural more that’s helped lead us here,” she says. “I’m hoping that this will lead to things like better public health care.”

An aerial view of a curvy street with no cars on it.
The curves of Lombard Street are empty from above, as seen on March 17.
Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

“We’re in a particularly difficult time period.” —Cary Gold, 63, San Francisco

As the director of litigation and policy for the Eviction Defense Collaborative, Cary Gold is used to helping those going through tough times. Right now, however, she’s facing her own challenge at home. Her older husband was recently diagnosed with Stage 3 esophageal cancer, and is scheduled to start treatment at a cancer hospital on March 30.

“We’re in a particularly difficult time period,” she says. “I think my husband’s deepest fear is that he’s not even going to make it to get his treatment for cancer. It’s hard enough to have hope when faced with this diagnosis, and we’re working hard to keep that hope, so our children feel hopeful. But when you overlay it with COVID-19, it’s very hard to keep that mindset.”

The family has been overly cautious at home, so the shelter-in-place order hasn’t significantly shifted their everyday. The dog still needs to be walked. Her son, who’s now living at home after in-person classes shut down at City College, wakes up and attends classes virtually in his pajamas. Her daughter, who had been working as a waitress, was terrified she’d get exposed and bring the virus home, putting her father at risk, but now that she’s not going in to work anymore, that’s not as much of an issue. Gold is also still busy at work. Despite the eviction moratorium, it’s still legal for evictions around health and safety issues to proceed, so her office remains open, working with a skeleton crew of three or four workers, rotating staff so people aren’t taking risks.

“The world didn’t shut down,” she says. As we spoke, she received three texts from clients inquiring about support services and what the new regulations meant. She’s now working from home, but last week, it was tough to decide to go into the office, due to the existing health concerns at home. “I felt like I was being torn between my commitment to my family and my commitment to my community.”

She has no idea how busy her office will be going forward; a third of eviction cases typically fall under the health and safety category.

“This is very hard,” she says. “I’m asking staff to go into the office and take these risks every day. But we do need to keep the clinic open.”

“We’re already on a crisis baseline.” —Anonymous nurse, 36, San Francisco

The anonymous medical staffer who spoke to Curbed works in an outpatient capacity as a nurse practitioner at an area hospital, meaning she doesn’t treat emergency cases. She lives alone in her apartment, and instead of seeing patients at work right now, she holds endless telemedicine appointments with those not directly affected by the pandemic, carrying on the regular work of the health care system as COVID-19 cases surge nationwide. She’s been slammed, working nonstop, and has been completely alone for the past five days.

But that doesn’t mean she’s not intimately aware of what her colleagues have experienced.

“I’d say 50 to 75 percent of us are working on coronavirus,” she says. “It’s literally survival mode every day. The rules keep changing as we go.”

Up until a few weeks ago, she was working with patients without any personal protective gear. When one of her patients showed symptoms and got tested for COVID-19, she began to worry she’d unknowingly passed it to friends (thankfully, the test came back negative).

Stockpiles of necessary supplies are running low at her hospital, she says, and staff has been told to reuse masks and plastic gowns. The CDC says to use bandanas in lieu of masks; she says it’s “crazy,” like they’re doing “cowboy medicine.”

“The U.S. health care system operates at max capacity as it is,” she says. “We don’t have tons of excess space, supplies, or human resources. We’re already on a crisis baseline. Our health care system was already under-supported.”

Her grandpa was a physician who voluntarily enlisted to serve in World War II, leaving his wife to take care of wounded soldiers overseas for two years. That example, which inspired her to get into medicine, is one she’s been channeling lately, trusting that if he could do it, she can do it.

“People are in a constant state of adrenaline rush right now,” she says. “They’re putting their heads down, taking it one step at a time, and know this is a huge sacrifice. If we don’t do it, nobody else will; there isn’t much of a choice. It just feels alone, like we’re not being supported, and it’s scary. I feel supported by my local government. San Francisco led the way in the shelter-in-place order. But not by the federal government.”

“Worry is a conversation you have with yourself.” —Carol Gordon, 75, San Francisco

An older adult living alone in a subsidized apartment near Union Square, Carol Gordon, like everyone, is coping with a new social reality. The street outside her home has grown quiet, and even in her building, which consists mostly of single-bedroom apartments for seniors, most of whom are Cantonese-speaking Chinese-Americans, options for interaction have shrunk. Management canceled the twice-weekly morning coffee hour.

“I appreciate the quiet, but it’s taking a terrible toll economically,” she says. “I’m on a small Social Security benefit, and I’ll be able to cover my rent. I worry about the coffee shop and the New Delhi Indian restaurant next door. The owner said he’s never been so scared in his life, now that everything he’s worked for in his life is in danger of being lost.” But she still finds ways to stay connected. She talks to family on the phone, and says she’s been practicing playing her penny whistle, or tin whistle (a common instrument in Irish music).

After her sister died unexpectedly seven years ago, she joined a choir—“I couldn’t afford therapy, so if you can’t scream, sing, it’s good for your cardiovascular system”—and while she hasn’t performed in years, she’s still in touch with friends from the ensemble. Since the coronavirus arrived and shelter-in-place was mandated, she’s started sending the group periodic emails, collecting things she’s seen in the paper that were interesting, including COVID-19 news as well as short videos, cartoons, memes, and GIFs. She read part of her March 19 letter: “I hope you’re doing well and using your indoor time for all the things you always wanted to do: read, relax, talk with friends, study other languages.”

She’s a bit of an insomniac, and says she’s found herself up at 3 a.m., laughing at stand-up videos posted by a comedy club in Utah.

“I’ve never watched so many comedies in one night, there are so many on,” she says. “It’s so important emotionally to find some humor now.”

She notes that there’s no use right now in panic, and “worry is a conversation you have with yourself.” Food is being delivered to the building, so she hasn’t gone out, and she really doesn’t want to, at least until people stop being crazy. She’s read stories about people running out to gun shops and buying guns and ammo and wonders what they’re going to do, rob someone for toilet paper?

“I’m 75, life expectancy isn’t very long anyway, and I’ve pretty much concluded that I’m going to die alone, which is very different from being lonely,” she says. “From the moment you’re born, you’re headed toward death, the only question is how and when. I’m sort of a fatalist in that respect. I’m not going to panic about this. Once we all get through this, we can look back and collapse, or maybe play our penny whistles. I do consider myself fortunate.”


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