San Francisco, CA

Looking Back at the Beginning of the Bay Area's Lockdown

Thomas Smith

As the Covid-19 pandemic wears into its second year and things are beginning to reopen in the Bay Area, I wanted to share an article I wrote right at the beginning of the pandemic. I originally wrote this on March 17th, 2020, a few days after the Bay Area's lockdown began. It's a reminder of the uncertainty which was present at the beginning of the pandemic, and also of how much has changed locally over the last year.
Gado Images
March 17, 2020

Today was the first day of a general lockdown in the San Francisco Bay Area, amid a global, escalating outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus. All businesses were ordered to close — except for those on a list deemed essential — and residents were asked to shelter at home.

I’ve been writing extensively about COVID-19 and its impacts on the Bay Area. I’ve talked about data privacy during a pandemic, common sense steps to reduce transmission, and the resiliency of the Bay Area in the face of shocks and disasters. I’ve also written about how to cover a pandemic as a creator, and about a photo series I undertook to document the early impact.

As a professional photographer and member of the news media (who are exempt from the travel ban) and for a personal reason which I won’t get into here, I will be in a position to document more of the outbreak than a typical citizen — albeit often without leaving my car, and always following stringent safety standards and the orders of authorities. That will allow me to share updates on current conditions. I plan to do so here.

At the moment, Bay Area residents appear to be following the lockdown order. Traffic from SFO airport to downtown San Francisco was showing 16 minutes driving time. On a typical Tuesday afternoon at rush hour, it could easily exceed 1.5 hours.

Malls and other public spaces were mostly empty.

The lockdown applies to most non-essential businesses, including bars, gyms, and the like. It also applies to the dining rooms of restaurants, which were shut down today. Many restaurants are still offering takeout. Some are hard hit, and have closed — perhaps permanently. Others have asked guests to purchase gift cards for future visits, to support them during this time of crisis without physically coming in.

Travel domestically is still allowed, but most international flights have been stopped. Many travelers at SFO wore personal protective masks and other gear, including full respirators.

In essential spaces like hospitals, social distancing has been the norm. This sounds good in practice, but can be a challenge to enforce.

The way the shelter in place order was presented created a lot of challenges last night. Most people were informed of the ban at the last minute, either via a press conference or an urgent Public Safety text message.

Many immediately flocked to supermarkets to buy supplies. This resulted in both shortages at many stores, and large groups of people congregating in small spaces. While these exposures may have been unavoidable, I fear that they could result in more transmission down the line.

Overall, the climate here is one of shock and anxiety, tinged with a good deal of resilience, with locked-down citizens connecting over Zoom, swapping kids’ activities, etc. At the moment, the number of cases is relatively small, albeit escalating daily. There is a lot of uncertainty about what will happen next.

Hospitals are preparing, but they could quickly become overwhelmed. There is also uncertainty about the next round of measures, like a possible travel ban, stricter quarantine orders, and the like. People are watching the spread of the virus, staying at home, and trying to anticipate what will happen next.

Some appear to be in denial about the seriousness of the situation — I’ve received messages from wineries suggesting that people stock up on wine and chocolate, a stance that may look shockingly tone deaf a few weeks down the line.

People here are watching, staying in, and waiting. We have no idea what to expect.

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Thomas Smith is an award winning entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of Gado Images. Thomas writes, speaks and consults about artificial intelligence, privacy, food, photography, tech, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As a professional photographer, Thomas' photographic work regularly appears in publications worldwide. Pitches/news tips:

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