COVID-19 Diaries

I was there . . .

by Russell Howze

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March 25, view of downtown from Bernal Heights

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Sunday, March 15, 2020

There was an 11pm call tonight from a someone we know: “Don’t tell anybody. Don’t post on social media,” the call began. “Tomorrow at noon your mayor is going to announce a shelter in place order. The whole Bay Area is getting it. Go do your grocery shopping now!” We were already in bed and don’t have a car to go to a 24-hour supermarket, if any are left in the City. But we had a serious talk about the near future.

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Stencil on Valencia Street, March 2020.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

We knew that the Coronavirus pandemic was getting worse, and that things weren’t being taken that seriously here in the United States. Prior to the March 11 pandemic designation, a coworker of mine had traveled to Taiwan for the holidays and said that this was a major epidemic. She had also self-quarantined after someone in her Bay Area family had potentially been exposed. Another friend is married to an MD specializing in contagious diseases and also agreed that Coronavirus was going to hit the world in a big wave. Prior to tonight, my partner and I had been taking more trips to the local markets, and the Rainbow Coop, to stock up on a stash of food and medicine in case one of us got sick.

But tonight, we felt helpless, and a bit buzzed from the stress chemicals just released in our brains due to the serious call we couldn’t share. I slept lightly, knowing that I was going to go to the office of the environmental nonprofit where I work Monday morning. My work-from-home set up was not complete, and I needed to go in to pack my bags for the long haul.

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San Francisco Chronicle headline on March 17.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Also, being an avid reader and writer of history, tomorrow was going to be an unprecedented announcement that the whole world would hear about. I had to experience it firsthand. I felt safe with the idea of going to the office, because we worked out of a small Financial District building. Most coworkers were already at home working, the FiDi had been a ghost town for at least a week, and I ride a bike. My distancing parameters were fine, and I was going to go in to get out with a few much-needed work items while being out there when the shelter in place got announced.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The bike ride in looked like a holiday commute. I always take Eddy down into the Tenderloin to get on Market Street for the final leg onto Front Street. There is quite a bit of traffic around Van Ness due to the ongoing street improvement construction. Polk Street usually has traffic backed up from McAllister past Eddy. Today, I heard birds in the trees and saw very little traffic. On the new car-free Market Street, I pedaled East with only one other cyclist. All the tech companies were in mandatory work from home (WFH) orders, so there were zero Uber/Lyft bikes and scooters. The DPT workers tasked with keeping private cars off of Market had little to do. And my funky left turn onto Front opened up to several car-free blocks littered with delivery trucks.

As I assumed, I was the only worker that came into the nonprofit’s office. I specifically had to find a working monitor and a dock for my work laptop and break it all down into my bike bags. I decided to grab a few other items I may need while WFH. The whole time, I felt like I drank a pot of coffee. I guess it was cortisol racing through my nervous system. I’m buzzing. “Remember to breathe,” I kept saying.

Around 11am, I decided to text a few friends about the upcoming announcement from Mayor Breed. Hard to keep this secret! Not soon after, local media was scooping the announcement, which came closer to 1pm. I began telling coworkers I was at the office at that I could mail them anything they thought they needed to WFH. The week before, our home office mailed us a box of N95-rated masks. We got one each. Our West Coast director ordered bottles of rubbing alcohol and small spray bottles since hand sanitizer was sold out everywhere. I mailed some empty spray bottles to her home that day, and also bought stamps for possible work mailings while I WFH.

I decided to leave early, since regular routines were being upended. But then our director contacted us all with the announcement that our landlord was changing the code on the building’s front door and possibly the elevator code. There had been a recent burglary via jacking the elevator, so I guess the landlord was taking the shelter in place order seriously. I spent the last hour of work throwing out items in the fridge, overwatering the plants, and stuffing every centimeter of my bike bags with office items (including two tasty bottles of microbrew stout). I should have grabbed more masks, forgot to get the work credit cards, and maybe even some paper towels and toilet paper, but my bags were stuffed. I had to tie one bag down with a cut telephone cord, improving when there was no rope or bungee cords.

The bike ride up to the Western Addition was quieter than the morning commute. More cyclists pedaled by as I listened to birds chirping along Market Street. Many businesses were already closed, and the afternoon car commute was basically nonexistent. Even at Market and McAllister, usually a happy hour destination that makes Lyft/Uber cars jam up the intersection, the ride was smooth. No one talked on the sidewalks, adding to the eerie feeling that I already had since no one was coughing in public anymore.

I intentionally biked home via McAllister because I wanted to bike past the government buildings. “This is all getting shut down,” I told myself. And the City leaders are going to lose sleep over the next month or so. On top of the unusual rush-hour quiet, a pall of unease floated around City Hall and Civic Center. Things haven’t gotten bad. Yet.

I wheel up to my gate on Divisadero and see the next door landlord packing his SUV. His children come out their gate with hands full of luggage. The landlord looks stressed out and only give me a quick nod when I make eye contact with him. When our brains scream fight or flight during dangerous times, my neighbor is getting the hell out of the City!

Tuesday, March 17

The morning was spent dialing up my new WFH station and staying in touch with coworkers. My Director decided to buy a laser printer for my set up in case I had to mail service copies, etc. out (I work for an environmental nonprofit that mostly sues government agencies). We also have a petition to file with the Ninth Circuit today, putting Impossible Burger and US FDA on the grill for shady ingredient approval. We also had two other big filings coming up this week, so this first-ever week WFH will be busy.

My first day WFH went quite smoothly, and went by fast. Since San Franciscans can leave their shelter for essential exercise, I decided to take an after-work walk around my neighborhood up to Alamo Square. The first thing I noticed were the lack of tourists. There were none! “San Francisco is tourist free,” I mused. The hill across from the famous Painted Ladies held maybe a dozen people. One small group, others appeared to be distancing, were wearing green. Ah. Today is St. Patrick’s Day. No pubs were open for the amateur night. The parade had been cancelled. Peter Kuper had tweeted a great cartoon about it: One poor leprechaun marching down the street, with “Luck Has Been Cancelled” under the image.

I had a few anxious moments on the walk. Runners passed me a bit too closely a few times, making me avoid anyone that appeared to jog my way. I assumed the huffing and puffing could be a vector to the COVID-19. And I noticed that the dog owners were not being distant enough in the dog play area of the square. Another possible social vector for spreading the virus. Distancing is going to be tricky.

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A folk quartet serenades a smattering of physically distanced couples in the Panhandle on March 21.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Lack of traffic kept the birdsong going. Most people were avoiding each other. Someone had posted a flyer offering to get groceries for elderly folks who couldn’t manage it. While some media pundits and channels complained about panic, my first day of shelter in place felt more supportive and chill. San Francisco had my back.

Went home that night to a beautiful sunset. With pollution at low levels, especially with jets and cargo ships getting grounded, the sky is full of dramatic clouds, deep blues, and gasp-inducing sunsets. That, and having meals with my partner today, were good positives. The smooth filing of the petition with the Ninth Circuit was too.

Wednesday, March 18

This afternoon, I posted this on Facebook:

SF COVID19 Shelter in Place: Day 2 — To be simple and brief, staying in side makes way more sense once one tries to wipe down their apartment's "high touch" surfaces with a bleach water spray bottle. "Holy hell! What haven't I touched?" "Cripes! COVID is on my outdoor clothes!" Once the OCD panic attack ends, it is best to stay inside as much as possible.

I’ve stepped up the social media postings since the pandemic was announced, and friends and family have personally thanked me for the updates. Cleaning surfaces became a new routine to work into my morning this week. I also decided to not use an alarm clock and read the news before settling in for work. I still need to work on lessening the news streams.

Sanitizer wipes have been sold out for days here in San Francisco, but we have bleach in our house. And one roll of paper towels to use to wipe down surfaces. Where to even begin with the surface wiping?! I’m sure we’ll work it out, and I’m sure we’ll have time to create systems to keep the virus out of the flat.

After another mostly smooth day at WFH, I decided to take an essential walk to Lucky on Masonic Street in search of paper towels. I walked up the NoPa hills to get down to the store, and mostly avoided people who may be walking and running along Divisadero and the flatter streets. Though the City seemed very quiet, there was still low-level amounts of traffic, and people walking along Divis as I headed up Turk.

The store had no line to get in. A coworker had told me that Trader Joe’s had lines to get in, which made shopping less stressful. For this trip, I brought my hand-made hand sanitizer (mostly rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle), but saw other shoppers wearing latex gloves and masks. As I meandered over to the paper aisle at the far end of the store, I grabbed some dry beans, a 6-pack of the trendy alcohol-infused water, and chocolate. You know – the important items! The paper aisle was completely sold out. A posted sign said that items would be rationed to two per customer. I made do with more expensive paper napkins since the cheap napkins were also sold out (they did not do well with the bleach water wipe downs).

At the register, there were no distance restrictions. A worker bagged people’s items. It didn’t feel safe, but I got through it. Around the corner, I ran into a friend as he headed out for a bike ride. His partner teaches nursing, but had been laid off. She was about to get hired again to go on the front lines as a working nurse. It was good to see him, and his being on the bike on the road kept things naturally distant. I wished him health and safety as he pedaled away.

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Line outside Rainbow Grocery on 13th Street, March 18, 2020.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Up the hill at Lyon and Turk, I saw no cars driving for blocks down and towards Sutro Hill. I had dreamed of a car-free city, and this sight made me smile.

Heading back home, the sky was beautiful yet again for what was going to be another nice sunset.

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Bernal Heights ring road has become much busier with dozens of people walking in ones, twos, and threes, often with dogs and children, all day every day.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Monday, March 23

Six days into the shelter in place order and things are hard to comprehend beyond the WFH situation. I am in good spirits, but a strange spectacle happened outside my window today. The DPT stopped traffic on our block while several workers sprayed the parked cars with a kind of backpack pump. None of the workers were keeping a safe distance from one another, and I didn’t want to open my door to ask them what they were doing. Later in the day, my partner went on NextDoor to see if anyone knew what they were doing. There were only questions (and still no answers over a week later).

The economic fallout is starting to feel closer to my own situation. I have friends that have been laid off, artists I know who have lost all their work, and a niece who was sent home from medical school. My other niece has lost all her contract photography work and my sister’s new business has been shut down in South Carolina. Other friends are already stressing about the upcoming rent and mortgage payments, while one friend is surely freaking out in his jail cell in New Jersey. My elderly uncle is now stuck in his room in a care home and two of my cousins have developed COVID-19 symptoms in the UK. Their daughter is currently stuck in the US since she cannot fly home to London.

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Interstate-280 at 6:45 pm on Thursday March 23, Mission Bay medical offices in background.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

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Homemade signs in a window on the west side of Bernal Heights: Stay Apart! Stick Together!

Photo: Chris Carlsson

I’ve been obsessively looking at the news up until now, marveling at the dramatic historical swings of the stock market and not surprised at all with the federal government’s slow and sad response regarding testing, bailing out the people, and all the other balls they’ve dropped. Democracy Now has been giving cold, hard facts about the growing curve in the US and in New York, while those in the front lines are starting to feel the wave as it pushes into every state. Twitter feeds cover the rising rent strikes and worker walk-outs that are starting to happen across the country.

In normal times, there is too much information to follow. Now I’m overwhelmed. I promise myself that I’ll back off on the news streams while I settle in to the shelter in place routines and now wait until the afternoon to click the news feeds.

Tuesday, March 24 (Week Two of Shelter In Place Begins)

Car free.... Masonic? Today was a long work day that ended around 11pm with an important amicus brief filing for one of the lawsuits that Monsanto lost regarding glyphosate. Needing to move, and slip a service copy of the amicus in a mailbox, I went on a midnight bike ride over to the Upper Haight (Haight-Ashbury). I decided to go to the Clayton St. post office, and wandered through NoPa to get there. Masonic Street was empty and I ran a red at Fell, usually an unthinkable action. Meandering up Page, over to Stanyan, and onto Haight, I passed one runner, one walker, one Vespa rider, one cyclist, six empty buses, and a handful of cars. At Haight and Ashbury, I saw clusters of homeless sleeping in the shadows. The City seems to be moving to put the homeless into empty hotels, but I’m not sure if they’re being serious about helping this already vulnerable group of folks.

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These neighbor-to-neighbor outreach signs appeared on Folsom near 24th in the Mission. Similar ones with different typography and different neighbors' numbers were seen in other neighborhoods too.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Looked like the Haight Street improvements continued to be worked on, and I had the whole street to weave in while looking at the different projects. Heading back to Divisadero on Page, I looked down at the sight of empty blocks stretching North above the Panhandle. Car-free streets allows for long gazes, and I felt safe not really paying attention to where I was riding. Down on Divisadero, the street lights were out, making the empty street all the more eerie as I headed home. Turns out there must have been an accident where one light got taken down. Cars will be cars; they eventually hit something.

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Walkers out on Bernal Heights on March 25 during another spectacular sunset.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Wednesday, March 25

After a few visits to local markets, I had to visit the Rainbow Coop. Rainbow has changed policies to respond to the pandemic, and to protect the worker/owners and customers. Entry is controlled, the bulk items are not available, and Rainbow sent out an email saying wait times can be up to 30 minutes. My friend said that midday is usually a good time to go, but the line wait can vary. They have also reserved the first few hours for folks over 60 and immune-compromised, and their hours have been cut back.

After a few days of trying to get there, I showed up around 2pm today. The line was around the corner on Folsom, just at the edge of 14th St. People were standing about six feet apart and the line moved somewhat regularly. Across the street at Food Co., the line looked about 20-people long. Rainbow was at least twice that long!

Fifteen minutes into my wait, a Rainbow worker/owner, masked and gloved, handed out this era’s new sacrament: hand sanitizer. The store had bought a large bulk supply of hand sanitizer made with natural ingredients (even the alcohol), and bottled it themselves to sell 2 per customer. It went onto my hands creamy, smelling better than the mainstream products.

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It's about an hour wait from here on Folsom near 14th, to get to the door of Rainbow on 13th.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

My wait lasted over an hour. The people in line were quiet and respectful of the distance, but other people had to walk by us all down the sidewalk. The corner of 13th and Folsom proved to me to be the stressful place to stand while folks walked by to cross the street. There seemed to be too much traffic on Folsom and 13th. Are all these people driving somewhere essential? The bike ride down had light car traffic, but now it seemed busier.

At Rainbow’s 13th Street entrance, the second sacrament was available before going in: latex gloves. I brought my own just in case. Cars were queued up in a line to park in Rainbow’s garage… before getting in the long line to get into the store. An elderly woman tried to break in line to enter the store and they held her back. As I was next to go inside, a man came out and gave her one item. She gave him cash. I overheard them speaking Russian, and she finally left. At the stash of shopping carts, a worker sprayed and wiped them down. More sanitizer was available with the gloves.

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Sanitizing station and Rainbow workers cleaning carts at entryway, April 1, 2020.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

After almost 1.5 hours, I got inside! Most shoppers were nice, but the Instacart proxy shoppers got a bit too close at times. For some reason the canned goods aisle was always crowded with too-close shoppers. Customer Service kept announcing new policies: specifically there was only one line for the registers. Personal containers had been banned, but it appeared that personal bags were OK. Many of the bulk items were closed up, but there were pre-packaged bulk olives, nut butters, etc. to grab. The store appeared mostly well-stocked, but some items were out. Zinc supplements, which were completely sold out the last time I shopped at Rainbow, were back.

At check out, one worker/owner facilitated the single line to the registers. There was no wait when I rolled up. At the register, I had to stand behind a yellow line to put my items on the moving belt. When done, I had to walk past the cashier/owner to another yellow line to bag and pay for my items. That was possibly the safest distance I’d had while inside the store.

When leaving, a Rainbow worker/owner working the entrance said “Thanks for shopping the apocalypse,” and I responded “Yes. You won't see me again for another month.” However, lines are forming all across the Bay Area. Here on Divisadero, Bi-Rite has a line. Trader Joes up on Geary does too. I just recently saw a line of eight people at The Mill café. Gladly, San Franciscans seem to be patient and peaceful at these lines. Prepared for the worst, we seem to be showing our best.

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Chris Carlsson and Russell Howze beyond the end of the Rainbow line on Folsom Street near Rainbow on March 25.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

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Stencil outside the South Van Ness post office, created by Fernando Martí for Spanish speakers, seen April 2020.

Photo: LisaRuth Elliott