7 million in San Francisco area wake up to empty streets

Jocelyn Gecker and Janie Har
Associated Press

San Francisco – About 7 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area woke up Tuesday to nearly empty highways, shuttered stores and vacant streets after officials issued an order for residents to stay at home and only leave for “essential” reasons in a desperate attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Miguel Aguirre, 38, his wife and two children were the only ones along a street near San Francisco’s City Hall, an area normally bustling with office workers and commuters. Tuesday morning, only two coffee shops were open and empty.

Traffic at right is light on the Golden Gate Bridge heading toward San Francisco Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in this view from Sausalito, Calif.

Aguirre and his wife are janitors at the Boys and Girls Club and he said they heard on television of the shelter-in-place order but decided to show up to work anyway because they need the money. His supervisor texted that he should leave.

“It’s really a scary situation for us because if we don’t work, we don’t eat,” said Aguirre, of Oakland, who brought his two daughters with him because schools were shuttered. He already lost his second job at the Hotel St. Francis when tourism conferences began cancelling a month ago.

“There been days when I want to cry but I have to keep going, this is a very difficult situation,” Aguirre said.

The measures are the strictest in America, mimicking orders in place across Europe and they raised new questions. What exactly is an essential need to leave home? What happens if you go out for a non-essential reason?

“No one has a clear interpretation as to what’s going to happen economically or the trickle-down effect that local businesses are experiencing because of this,” said John McClinton of Oakland.

Under the order, supermarkets, pharmacies, banks and gas stations remain open, along with other essential government functions and businesses.

Restaurants are open only for takeout, gyms and bars were closed. Outdoor exercise is fine, as long as people practice “social distancing.”

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said over the weekend he would like to see aggressive measures such as a 14-day national shutdown that would require Americans to hunker down.

President Donald Trump said Monday he was currently not considering a nationwide lockdown.

The new order in California applies to about 7 million people. It includes the cities of San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland.

A woman wears a mask and gloves while carrying toilet paper across the street in San Francisco, Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

“History will not forgive us for waiting an hour more,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, whose city is the epicenter of the area’s outbreak. “This is our generation’s great test, our moment to stand together as a community.”

Across California, and the nation, the scene at supermarkets has been chaotic with lines forming before stores open in the morning with restocked shelves. Once open, shoppers jam the aisles and clear out the stock of toilet paper and other paper goods, canned beans, pasta and rice.

“I saw the headline and got this pit in my stomach,” Caroline Park said as she put on plastic gloves before pushing a shopping cart into the Berkeley Bowl grocery store on Monday.

California’s national and state parks remained open, but many shut indoor spaces.

The state has confirmed nearly 500 cases of the virus and 11 deaths. The virus usually causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, but can be deadly for older people and those with underlying health conditions.

The order came a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom told all residents ages 65 or older to stay at home and also called for all bars, wineries, nightclubs and brewpubs to close. Newsom upgraded the orders with more force on Monday.

In Los Angeles and San Diego counties – the state’s largest, with a combined 13.4 million people – ordered bars to close and restaurants to stay open only for pickup, drive-thru or delivery orders.

San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said violating the order is technically a misdemeanor punishable by a fine or jail time but authorities will take a “compassionate, common-sense approach” to enforcement.

At San Francisco’s infamous Alcatraz, the shutdown closed tours of the shuttered island prison until further notice. Tour guide Manuel Gomez, 49, who supports a wife and two children, said he hadn’t yet come up with another plan to make money.

“It’s devastating,” Gomez said. “We only have enough savings to last us for 10 days.”

Elsewhere, the city of Beverly Hills ordered the closure of all non-essential retail businesses, including those on the famed fashion destination, Rodeo Drive, except for pickup, delivery and certain transactions by appointment.

In Orange County, Costa Mesa’s fashionable South Coast Plaza, the largest mall on the West Coast, began a 14-day closure.

The Los Angeles Unified School District abandoned plans to open 40 centers intended to provide a range of services from meals to childcare while classes are suspended. Instead, it will open 60 “grab and go” locations for quick pickup of boxed meals.

The Los Angeles Police Department assigned 50% of detectives into uniform for high-visibility patrols, including at stores with large crowds. Station front desks were closed.

The American Red Cross Southern California Blood Services Region put out an urgent call for donors because of a severe shortage.

After initially giving Catholics dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles suspended public Masses altogether.