Eateries in The City, including 1428 Haight Patio & Crepery, are open for what seems to pass as outdoor dining. (Saul Sugarman/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Last Call with Saul: Feeling alone in a pandemic

People must make their own decisions about risks of gathering outdoors

My social life is strained of late, and of course, I’m putting it mildly.

In quarantine, my life is probably different than yours— worse, I meant worse.

Most people I know have family and friends they’re staying with, or they’re in a relationship. Or they have a “social bubble,” or as one friend insufferably keeps referring to it, a “QuaranTeam.” I have none of that, just a roommate terrified of coronavirus to the point he barely leaves his room. He reads my columns about my time outdoors, and I sense he quietly seethes over them.

I don’t hug other people, and I rarely eat out with them. We don’t get together in each others’ homes for board games and wine. The social highlights of my weekly routine include watching my flamboyant draping teacher fuss with a dress form on Zoom, and Slack discussions with a pinched editor who knows I don’t have time to write the stories I bring up. My ex also calls many days, while I try to convince him to dump his current boyfriend and get back together with me.

I’ve had sex, occasionally. Sometimes there’s a brief and—in my opinion—useless discussion preceding: “What’s your living situation? Have you been distancing? Can you still taste your coffee?” Most of the time, however, I’m spending time with someone who agrees the desperation of our situation outweighs the obvious irresponsibility of meeting, even if that’s never said. In my head, I imagine us also patting ourselves on the back for San Francisco’s lower infection rate in comparison to other cities, and feeling reassured the meeting is relatively safe.

I’ll note here the rising urgency from the guys asking for sex and dates. Whereas in March I heard a lot more “We’ll meet when it’s safe,” now it’s more like, “What do you mean, you’re not free Friday?”

“Before the pandemic, technology was dismantling social interactions and people’s ability to navigate social situations. With social distancing and lack of interaction, we need something to hold the pieces together,” someone pointed out to me.

So enters outdoor dining: tables spread out enough so your QuaranTeam can sit far enough apart to not cough over coronavirus onto someone else’s social bubble. I’ve eaten out a lot this past month, and it all feels a little off to me. Decorative planters, heat lamps and faux candles attempt to lighten the mood on a crummy situation. Meantime, with friends, there’s this uneven protocol about wearing masks between chewing and conversation. Others express discomfort with seating.

People in social bubbles, and no masks, patronize Crepevine on Irving Street. (Saul Sugarman/Special to S.F. Examiner)

“I was invited to a restaurant the other week, and I took a pass because the restaurant assumed all of us were in the same household and was going to place us all at the same table,” Dan Doyle, a San Francisco resident told me. “I tried outdoor drinking, same deal … I felt uncomfortable the entire time, so I’m not going there again.”

I am not of this camp. I wrote in June already about the safety of dining out, but specifically this week I’m focused on dining out alone, and living alone generally. Isolation has brought back some pretty bad hoarder tendencies, so in addition to needing food, I also don’t want to mess the kitchen up and further piss off the roommate. Still, I actively think of all the dangers of what I’m doing. I wandered into Haight Patio & Cafe the other day, for example, and thought, “OK, this is barely outdoors.” The patio has a plexiglass roof covering that’s vented, so essentially it’s between that and the open window in back that’s keeping the place circulated.

Then there are all the people preparing the food, touching the plates, flatware, the tables and serving it. None of it feels safe, but in that boat, neither does getting delivery or going out for groceries, where the product touches many hands, too before reaching me. You know what else doesn’t feel safe? Social bubbles. I’m not bitter, I swear: A friend who went wine tasting with me actually ended our in-person interactions after his social bubble saw my story on it and shamed him.

I mostly walked around after that moment wondering—and again, totally not incensed—exactly how safe it was to trust upwards of four to 10 people to remain in a closed network, and to also be so safe in their private lives to not catch coronavirus at the store or getting a quick smoothie down the street, or simply lying about who they’re spending time with or what they’re doing. The whole thing felt like an impromptu trial, all of a sudden my phone exploding in messages asking those super scientific questions: Who had I been socializing with? What was my home life like? When was I last tested?

I still don’t know the correct course of action here, except to say that being alone in this pandemic plainly stinks. For several months now, I’ve expressed freely my adventures and cautions for no other reason than to facilitate conversation on these issues. Ultimately, I think most of us are not scientists and, after informing ourselves, it is a personal choice to decide what risks are acceptable.

Usually at this point of a column I’d kick the conversation of safety to bartenders and bar owners, but I think it’s safe to assume they all want to keep working. Nearly all of them tell me they think the situation can be handled responsibly. I did pose the question to some San Francisco residents this week. I didn’t do a lot of cocktail sampling recently, so I end here with what they had to say:

George Hope, South of Market: “As long as all the guidelines are being followed, I’m good with it. We’ve been enjoying the outside service since they’ve started. I’ve seen some places that were not following the guidelines and we just don’t go to those.”

Sarang Bhatt, Mission: “Ethics are so rough on this one. Restaurant workers are working only because they are paid so little that they couldn’t survive without it. But they have no health insurance or PPE, so they are taking huge risks to give us….beers?”

Rodney Pruitt, Mission: “When it’s done correctly, I am for it and have dined at a few. But, I have seen some that obviously don’t care and really are just using it to get open. When they first reopened with outside dining, I went to two places but after seeing many break the rules I quit and haven’t been going out at all … I just don’t want to add to the bad behavior I’m seeing so much of. As someone that has had asymptomatic COVID, I know how easy it is for people to not know, and maybe not care and go to these places when they shouldn’t.”

Shad Stallians, South of Market: “As someone who lives alone, I’m hesitant to do outdoor dining, but I have a few times for my mental health. Zoom hangouts, game nights and watch parties were a reasonable supplement for the first few months, but it’s not a replacement for seeing people in real life. I’m still wary of any place that seems to be busy or draw a significant crowd, because it substantially increases risk as more people are gathered in a single place.”

Brian McConnell, Twin Peaks: “The evidence so far indicates that outdoor with social distancing and people mostly wearing masks is pretty safe, though not zero risk. As to San Francisco, it is generally pretty windy in the afternoons, which probably helps as well. My take on it is that we have a couple months until the weather turns to crap, and then we will all be in a hard shutdown until next spring unless someone pulls a rabbit (vaccine) out of a hat. So enjoy what little social interaction you have while it lasts because this fall/winter is really going to suck.”

Darren Footé, Excelsior:“It’s great that people have the option and it is good for businesses, but it is concerning that many people don’t follow best practices.”

Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer and apparel designer. Last Call with Saul appears every other Sunday in the Examiner. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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