The Tenderloin Endangers Bay Area

by on April 21, 2020

Turk and Hyde, April 16

Coronavirus Can’t Be Confined in Containment Zone

What did we learn? Aggressive social distancing works.”—Sarah Ravani, SF Chronicle, April 19

We learned that, from a community standpoint, if we limit the number of interactions where the virus is transmitted, we limit incidents and we prevent surges, because that is what’s happened.”– Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s health officer.

As the Bay Area mandates masks, social distancing at parks, and chastises Florida for reopening beaches, a question emerges: how does San Francisco medically justify ignoring coronavirus precautions in the low-income Tenderloin?

Medical experts state that for social distancing to work “we have to all do it together. We have to all do it everywhere, and we have to do it right now.”

So why is the city’s Department of Public Health ignoring the health and safety of a neighborhood of over 20,000 residents? Bay Area residents  angry about Florida beachgoers should be a lot more concerned about a Tenderloin health crisis in their own backyard.

When it comes to social distancing enforcement, San Francisco is not “doing it everywhere.” Not even five San Francisco Chronicle stories in the past week highlighting the Tenderloin’s crisis can awaken SFDPH to action. As of yesterday, the city’s Health Department  still had no plan to enforce social distancing in the Tenderloin.

I’ve written about City Hall’s plan to turn the Tenderloin into a ghetto, a containment zone for activities banned from other neighborhoods. But the coronavirus cannot be so confined. Allowing the virus to spread to those living, working or even selling drugs in the Tenderloin also puts those outside the neighborhood at risk

Do you doubt this? Do you think that ignoring social distancing in the Tenderloin will not affect you or your friends? Then why do politicians keep saying that it’s not safe to leave any area off limits?

There is a disconnect between what politicians and physicians say about the importance of enforcing coronavirus restrictions “everywhere” and the lack of enforcement in the Tenderloin. In few places in America are the racial and class divisions around COVID 19 more prominent.

And its not just Tenderloin or even San Francisco residents who are being put at risk. The Tenderloin has a disproportionate number of “essential” workers. Yet despite all the public talk how supporting these “frontline” workers San Francisco continues to put the lives of Tenderloin workers at extra risk. Workers in the Tenderloin’s thousands of supportive housing buildings have to walk by sidewalks lacking anywhere near the state mandated six feet of clearance to get to and from work.

On March 23, Mayor Breed threatened to close the city’s parks if social distancing guidelines were not met. “We will have no choice but to close our parks system, to work on other mitigating suggestions that we need to do in order to ensure people don’t use these spaces. It’s really the last thing I want to do. You’re putting lives at stake, you’re putting public health in jeopardy.”

Police Chief Bill Scott has said “Voluntary compliance is our best way to sustain this effort. If all else fails, enforcement is still an option.”

Hasn’t more than enough time passed to conclude voluntary compliance in the Tenderloin failed? What is the city waiting for? The Tenderloin has 3000 children, nearly all trapped in small apartments and unable to walk down the sidewalk without putting their lives at risk. Also trapped are Tenderloin seniors, disabled persons and low-income working people who are impacted by the lack of social distancing.

Why is City Hall protecting people who criminally breach physical distancing measures? People whose conduct endangers public health and safety?

The police are trying their best. But they need the Health Department to coordinate their efforts. I think DPH is afraid to come to the Tenderloin. The city’s Health Department is entirely missing from the neighborhood, and have ignored offers by the SFPD to work collaboratively. Some argue that the Tenderloin has a far more difficult crowd to manage. But  if these same crowds were on Union Street or in Noe Valley I guarantee the city would find a way to remove them.

Why No Tenderloin Outbreak?

Some may wonder: If the risk is so great, why has there not been a virus outbreak in the Tenderloin?

First, very few people in the neighborhood get tested. Second, test results are not announced by neighborhood so there’s no way to announce a “Tenderloin outbreak” as occurred with MSC South. The city offers results by zip code, but with so few Tenderloin tests the numbers explain little.

But if you think you are safe  because you don’t go to the Tenderloin, that the lack of protections there won’t impact you, that’s exactly what Jacksonville beachgoers are arguing. And what Donald Trump has been arguing—that various places can be opened without risk to those not at those venues.

But medical experts say otherwise. They don’t support exempting restrictions from small parks, not to mention neighborhoods of over 20,000 residents.

I’d like to hear from San Francisco Health Director Grant Colfax on the health impacts of the city’s non-enforcement in the Tenderloin. If it’s not jeopardizing anyone’s health or safety, he can reassure us by letting us know.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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