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Answering the most searched questions about living in SF under coronavirus

People are turning to Google for answers as they wait out the Bay Area’s COVID-19 outbreak

A man stands in the middle of a cable car tracks on a near empty street.
California Street in San Francisco on March 21, 2020.
Photo by AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

With San Francisco, including most of the country, under a broad shelter-in-place order and the number of detected COVID-19 infections on the rise, people have turned to Google to answer questions about what life is like in their town amid unprecedented circumstances.

Curbed SF examined Google trends for the past seven days to see what people are searching for and also what terms Google deems related to searches about novel coronavirus in San Francisco. We’ve compile the most reliable and up to date answers here in one place.


  • “San Francisco shelter-in-place”: By far the most popular topic of inquiry. For full details on the ongoing shelter order, including what businesses are open, when residents are permitted to leave their homes, and how conditions in SF compare to those in cities around the world, consult Curbed SF’s “lockdown” guide here. Presently, schools and large gathering places, such as temples and entertainment venues, are closed, as are most businesses except for essential spots like grocery stores, pharmacies, laundry services, mechanics, hardware stores, and businesses that allow people to work from home. Restaurants and cafes are open but only for delivery or to-go orders. Parks and public spaces are open and daily exercise permitted, although Mayor London Breed warns some may close if people don’t observe social distancing guidelines more strictly. See also similar phrases such as “lockdown” and “quarantine.”
  • “San Francisco COVID numbers”: The San Francisco Department of Public Health updates the publicly disclosed count of positive COVID-19 tests and related deaths every day at 9 a.m. As of March 25, the city of San Francisco has 178 diagnosed cases and one fatality. It’s difficult to tell whether the increase in cases reflects more infections, more frequent testing, or a combination of both. This week the city began requiring labs to report all of their tests—rather than just the positive ones—in an effort to better understand those distinctions.
  • “San Francisco Unified School District”: Queries about SFUSD are up more than 100 percent in the past seven days, possibly on account of Google users attempting to confirm that all district schools are closed. On Monday, district administrators extended school closure through May 1. The San Francisco Unified School District updates its site with new information every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening.
  • “San Francisco population density”: Queries using this phrase are up 400 percent in the last seven days. “Density” becomes a critical point in an outbreak where the virus can spread by casual personal contact. According to the most rent U.S. census in 2018, SF’s population grew to an estimated 883,305 persons. If we treat the city as roughly 47 square miles (opinions about SF’s strict dimensions vary), that’s 18,973 persons per mile. For comparison, according to World Bank estimates, Hong Kong has more than 11,200 persons per mile, New York City nearly 30,000 people per mile, Paris some 55,000 people per square mile, and Manila nearly 110,000 people per square mile. But for the entire state of California, that number is only 256 people per mile. Generally speaking, it’s not useful to fret about density since the shelter-in-place order almost completely nullifies this as a variable if people abide by it.
  • “San Francisco Coronavirus cruise ship”: The Grand Princess cruise ship ferrying passengers exposed to COVID-19 docked March 9 in Oakland, not San Francisco, although the ship did anchor in the San Francisco Bay while some of its crew remained in quarantine onboard—where it remains still. Passengers and some crew members were sent home and instructed to keep in isolation for 14 days. The California State Department oversaw the departures to ensure passengers didn’t contact the general population. The ship had over 3,000 people onboard, a little less than half of them from California, 21 of whom tested positive for the disease. Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state chose to dock the ship in Oakland because the city could provide a secure disembark zone close to an airport, and there’s an Air Force base in nearby Solano County.
  • San Francisco Coronavirus testing”: The San Francisco Department of Public Health says no on-demand testing is available in the city right now. The only people who qualify for testing are those who “who have been hospitalized with pneumonia, but the cause cannot be found,” and/or “who have symptoms of fever and cough and were in close contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19.” The department cautions that common symptoms of COVID-19—e.g., fever, dry cough, shortness of breath—are also common for cold and flu sufferers, so the public should not panic but instead “seek medical care as you normally would.” We would add that since a lot of people never seek medical care for these symptoms, it’s prudent to seek care perhaps more zealously than you normally would.
  • “Looting”: According to Google Trends, use of this word is up 350 percent alongside “San Francisco” and “COVID.” Thus far the city hasn’t seen a wave of property crime lately, nor even much of a ripple. In fact, crime seems to be down, with San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott saying that calls to SFPD dispatch declined 25 percent since residents began sheltering in place. However, the Tenderloin Merchants Association has complained about an increase in break-ins and vandalism in that neighborhood. The surge in “looting” searches could, in part, be driven by questionable media outlets trying to make hay off of a video that purportedly captured a shoplifting incident at an area Walgreens.
  • “Homelessness”: The city is still struggling to figure out how to help the thousands of unsheltered and vulnerable homeless residents at risk of infection on the streets, and could actually be at even greater risk in the close quarters of homeless shelters or navigation centers. A group of SF supervisors want to move most of the homeless population into thousands of empty hotel rooms (the bottom has fallen out of the hotel sector in the past three weeks), with home hotels already starting the process. Meanwhile, SF’s Department of Homelessness is figuring out how to keep shelter residents safe, but right now there’s not enough space and shelter management have been told not to attempt spacing yet.
  • “Carbon health”: Like most cities responding to the outbreak, carbon pollution is down in San Francisco, but these searches might be looking for info about the Silicon Valley-based startup Carbon Health, which recently started offering at-home testing kits to diagnose the novel coronavirus. However, the FDA quashed those designs last week, warning that the agency “has not authorized any test that is available to purchase for testing yourself at home,” leading to the suspension of testing.
  • “Fine”: Yes, you can be fined in SF and other Bay Area counties if police suspect you’re flouting the public health officer’s shelter-in-place order by doing things like gathering in large public groups or traveling to non-essential business. However, enforcement seems to be a light touch so far; SFPD claims it hasn’t yet cited anyone. Many shelter-in—place orders include language assuring the public that “the intent is not to get anybody in trouble.” If you are ticketed, a misdemeanor charge can result in a fine of up to $1,000.
  • “Coronavirus racism”: SF’s Asian-American and Asian immigrant residents have reported an increase in racist, xenophobic, and otherwise hostile interactions in recent weeks, with slurs and harassment often accompanied by references to the outbreak. Researchers at San Francisco State University say that between early February and March 7, news accounts about attacks against Asian Americans increased 50 percent, from 93 stories weekly to 140.