San Francisco Hits Pause on Reopening With COVID-19 Cases Ticking Up

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 (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

San Francisco is pressing pause on its reopening plans, Mayor London Breed and Grant Colfax, director of the public health department, announced in a press conference Friday.

City statistics show that coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are once again rising, albeit at a much slower pace than in the spikes and surges across the Midwest and elsewhere in the U.S.

“It's a reminder that we are in the midst of this pandemic,” Breed said, announcing that some reopenings that had been planned for next week would be delayed.

“The last thing we want to do is tell a business or a school or some place that they can open and then tell them that they have to close,” she said. “So, we're proceeding with caution.”

A majority of the businesses that were preparing to reopen for the first time in months on Tuesday, including indoor pools and bowling alleys — will now have to wait. The city has also put the brakes on allowing restaurants, places of worship and museums to increase their indoor capacity from 25% to 50%.

The city will not restrict business operations that are currently permitted, and it's moving ahead with its plan to reopen some private schools next week.

In the past two weeks, San Francisco's case rate rose from around three to four people, about a 25% increase, according to Colfax. At the same time, the number of coronavirus hospitalizations in the city went from 23 to 37.

“That might not sound like a lot, but when this virus starts taking off, it takes off quickly,” Colfax said, adding that “data are telling us it is time to pause and to extend the time before we reopen the next phase of indoor activities.”

Bob Wachter, chair of UCSF's Department of Medicine, said San Francisco is acting prudently and described the uptick in cases and hospitalizations as "early warning signals that we might be heading in the wrong direction."

"They are absolutely nothing like we're seeing in the rest of the country," he  said. "They are little blips in some of the measures that show that things might be getting a little hotter here."

Wachter said the city could consider its COVID-19 prevention efforts successful even "if the numbers go a little bit in the wrong direction."

"We'll have announcements like the ones we had today, and we'll pull back on the opening a little bit," he said. "People will begin thinking about their behavior and say: 'Yeah, I have gotten a little complacent. I've been getting together with friends. I don't always wear the mask.' And then take it seriously and turn it around again."

San Francisco remains the only Bay Area county in the state’s yellow tier for reopening. The city last week became the first large, urban county to be assigned to that least restrictive category in the state’s color-coded system that governs what businesses and activities can resume during the coronavirus pandemic.

Colfax said the city had expected "to see the virus circulate” as additional activities were allowed.

“We have always focused on making sure our health care system can handle cases, and while system capacity remains adequate, we know this virus can move fast, so we are pausing to evaluate and to ensure we can continue to manage the impacts of the virus and keep our communities safe," he said.

Speaking on KQED’s Forum radio program earlier in the day, Colfax urged San Franciscans to avoid large holiday celebrations in person.

“Do a Zoom holiday,” he said. “Do a Zoom Thanksgiving. The virus is counting on us going back to our normal behavior. That’s how this virus has spread so quickly across the country. We need to hold our ground.”

While more than 100 private schools have applied to resume live instruction, San Francisco appears no closer to opening its public schools.

Breed acknowledged that many families in San Francisco are frustrated and said it’s “very sad that so many children in this city are still not back in school.”

“We're still having some challenges with getting our public schools to a place where they are planning to open,” she said.

Breed said her office is working with the school district to evaluate facilities and to build testing capacity.