San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order has shuttered businesses and seen San Franciscans sequester behind closed doors, fearing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
But for married couple Jeffrey Fang, Zhenzhen Xu and their three young children, this is nothing new.
In fact, despite not having tested positive for coronavirus, it is their fourth time living under quarantine across two countries, tracing a journey from just outside Wuhan itself back to San Francisco.
Fang has been a U.S. citizen since 2005, and has called San Francisco home for two decades, after falling in love with its “very relaxed spirit” and “the unique spunk of San Francisco.” Like many San Franciscans, he works in the vulnerable gig-economy, driving for Lyft and Uber.
He had hoped coming home to San Francisco would keep his wife and children — who had, until now, lived in China — safe.
But to Fang, the stark difference in the responses of the governments in China and in the United States demonstrates a serious need for San Franciscans to pull together and place their duty to their neighbors above their need for individual movement.
He said it was “disheartening” to see the number of people out and about in San Francisco, not practicing social distancing or other safety measures.
“People really need to take it seriously,” he said. China initially downplayed the severity of the virus, as did President Donald Trump, “and look how long it took for them to flatten the curve, and look how much it cost them.”
He doesn’t want the same to happen in his home of San Francisco.
China has largely wrestled coronavirus to a halt, reports the New York Times, and on Thursday reported no new cases since the outbreak began. In California and the United States, however, experts say we are still in early stages. Just Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in a letter to Trump that with no extra measures, more than half of Californians — as many as 25 million people — could be infected.
I’ve known Fang for almost a decade. I first interviewed him back when he was a City College of San Francisco board student trustee, and I was a student reporter for the college paper, The Guardsman; we’ve remained in touch since.
But I was amazed to hear of his journey through the various shelter-in-place orders across both countries.
Their recent journey began on Jan. 20. After working for years as a Lyft driver to afford to bring his family to the U.S. to live, Fang flew to Beijing to celebrate the new year with his extended relatives, and to finally bring his wife and three children, who at the time were 9 months old, 3 years old and 5 years old, to the U.S for good.
It was only two weeks after Chinese authorities identified the new type of coronavirus. On Jan. 23, Fang, Xu and family packed up and drove south of Beijing to a rural village in Shandong province, a drive similar to that from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Xu’s family lives in a small, rural village in Shandong, and the family was set to celebrate the new year.
The celebrations this year would be far more muted.
The same day they arrived in Shandong, neighboring Wuhan province, about 10 hours south, was placed under quarantine. Hubei province, which Wuhan is within, was placed under quarantine days after that. Fear rippled to Shandong province, and roadblocks were placed at the entrances to the farming village.
“Our family, we were worried, we were very worried. The village itself was baffled,” Fang said. “The reason the village went into lockdown, as Wuhan went into lockdown, there were people fleeing en masse. There was one or two (people) who snuck into a neighboring village of my wife’s. They found out right away, literally in hours.”
With that exception, what Fang found was a village of people that largely worked to keep each other safe, and practicing social distancing. But his father-in-law is a local doctor and his family worried that would endanger their infant, so they fled Fang’s parents’ apartment in Beijing, which was empty, after finding one road leaving the village without a roadblock. This would be their second quarantine.
It was on the road, and after arrival, that Fang would see a response to coronavirus by a government and its people alike that was far more robust than he’s seen since being back in San Francisco.
At every freeway exit, the temperature of car occupants were tested. The shelter-in-place order in Beijing limited all gatherings. “They didn’t give a number. Just do not gather,” Fang said. And everyone was wearing masks, something Fang and his family do not see in San Francisco.
Now it is true, basic surgical masks “won’t protect you,” Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health told me earlier this month. And certainly, there is a national shortage of N95 respirators, which do offer protection.
But to Fang, seeing people wear masks and maintain strict social distancing as they performed essential chores between the towering apartments, even in a city with a population bursting past 21 million souls, at least demonstrated a concern for the community he has not seen as widely here.
Neighbors concocted their own hand sanitizer and distributed it to other neighbors in his apartment complex. Other tenants put communal wipes in the elevator. People endured public shame if they didn’t wear face masks or gloves.
Fang, however, is focused on warning San Franciscans about what he views as lax standards he saw as soon as he flew home. That was Feb. 28, a day before the first COVID-19 death in the U.S., and more than a week before the viral outbreak would be declared a pandemic.
Both Chinese and American authorities measured his family’s temperature as they flew out from Beijing to Los Angeles, on their way home to San Francisco. Both governments, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and China’s equivalent, issued questionnaires to Fang’s family focused on COVID-19.
But Fang was shocked that upon arriving at LAX, the most his family was asked to do was self-quarantine for 14 days, their third go-round at staying inside.
Then, three days after their self-quarantine ended in their Bayview District home, Mayor London Breed announced a shelter-in-place order for San Franciscans — essentially the Fang family’s fourth quarantine.
It will be their lightest. And that scares him.
“I hope there’s a wake-up call to the people. I have relatives in Arizona, my brother in L.A., who are still talking about preventing hysteria,” Fang said.
But from his own eyes, flying from China to the United States, watching firsthand the growth of confusion and fear give way to strong resolution from Shandong to Beijing, the comparative eerie calm of San Francisco has Fang convinced.
People think “what we’re doing is enough,” Fang said. “It’s not.”
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.