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When will it be over?

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It’s not up to the mayor, the governor, or even the president of the United States to decide when Bay Area living will return

Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America
Signs reading “Ahead of the Curve” are displayed on an empty Howard Street in front of the Moscone Center in San Francisco.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s been over a month since San Francisco and the Bay Area began living under a shelter-in-place edict. Although these measures may prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, there’s concern about how much longer people can keep on like this—in terms of both economic and psychological strain.

On Tuesday, a string of statements from different California and Bay Area public officials walked a fine line between cautious optimism and hard-nosed realism, warning residents not to relax their discipline and preparing everyone for a longer haul.

While these parties do have control over when restrictive policies like the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place might be lifted, when it comes to exactly how that might look or when that could happen, their assessments might be closer to informed speculation. Here’s what many had to say this week about the near future of life under COVID-19

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom declined to set any kind of timetable for when statewide restrictions on movement and business might change, saying in a Tuesday statewide address that “there is no light switch.” He suggested that reinstating the public sphere will be a gradual process with multiple steps. Dr. Sonia Angell, California’s director of public health, laid out a series of goals that the state must meet to tamp down on the COVID-19 outbreak, including introducing systems to protect the most vulnerable people, pioneering ways for businesses and public gatherings to maintain social distancing standards, more tracking and testing, increased hospital capacity, and guidelines to determine when future stay-at-home orders might be necessary again. Angell employed careful language, saying that these guidelines are only for the purposes of “a roadmap to modifying our stay-at-home orders.”
  • In response to Newsom’s address, SF Mayor London Breed told KCBS that reopening much of San Francisco will demand conceptual changes in the way that public spaces work, saying that “we will need to make some adjustments in how we come together for large gatherings, how we come together in businesses, especially in places where we eat.” Some local businesses are already attempting experimental means of reopening, such as Philz Coffee, which closed stores en masse in March but at the beginning of April reopened more than two dozen Bay Area locations for limited service taking mobile orders only, while eateries struggle to expand and promote delivery service. Newsom on Tuesday suggested that when eateries finally reopen, they’ll feature safety measures like masks and gloves for staff and disposable menus at tables.
  • Note that it’s not the mayor, the governor, or the president of the United States who manage shelter-in-place orders in San Francisco, but instead County Health Officer Tomas Aragon. According to the California health and safety code, “The health officer may take any preventive measure that may be necessary to protect and preserve the public from any [...] local emergency,” including epidemic, granting Aragon and other Bay Area health officers almost sweeping authority in cases like the pandemic. While Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued his own stay-at-home orders for the entire state, even when those orders lift, county health officers may continue to impose sanctions locally if necessary.
  • In Santa Clara County on Tuesday, where the Bay Area’s volume of COVID-19 cases is highest, Health Officer Sara Cody said at a press conference that the South Bay is “by no means out of the woods” and that easing or lifting the orders would require certain benchmarks such as increasing hospital capacity to deal with potential future outbreaks, greater volume of testing to catch contagious people who aren’t showing symptoms, and more robust systems for finding and testing people who have been in contact with those who test positive for the disease.

Cody—who, again, is one of a handful of people with direct authority to expand or curtail the shelter rules—called the current situation a marathon, “perhaps the ultra-marathon.”

Gov. Newsom says he still anticipates that the state’s infection rate will peak in May.

San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order is set to expire on May 3, but an extension seems more than likely. The state’s stay-at-home provision has no set end date. When state and county orders conflict, people are expect to abide by whichever set of rules is the most restrictive as long as the public health emergency continues.