For more than a year, Mayor London Breed has taken pride in San Francisco’s fight against the COVID pandemic.
The City was among the first in the nation to curb the spread of the virus by shutting down last March, despite the impact on business, and has been highly successful at vaccinating residents.
But as the Delta variant surges, Breed has a familiar challenge on her hands that will once again require her administration to strike a balance between protecting public health and ensuring economic stability.
The question is: How far are Breed and city health officials willing to go?
While San Francisco imposed an indoor masking mandate earlier this week, it hasn’t resorted to a vaccine mandate for restaurants, gyms or movie theaters, like New York City.
But Breed has said publicly that such a mandate is an option being considered.
The one thing that’s clear is no one wants another complete shutdown, with businesses having just fully reopened and the beginning of the school year less than two weeks away.
“Masking and vaccines are how we can address the Delta variant right now and into the future,” said Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for Breed.
He went on to say reinstating capacity limits on businesses is not currently under discussion. And the mayor has taken a hard line on the need for schools to open on time. (The in-person learning decision is ultimately up to the school district, which is moving forward with reopening).
“The mayor believes schools can and should open at the start of the school year and the public health department has been clear that it is safe to have kids back in the classroom with safety precautions in place,” Cretan said. “There should be no delay.”
If Breed and health officials decide a vaccine mandate is the next step forward, she will largely have the support of the local business community.
Rodney Fong, president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said another shutdown would be “devastating” for the remaining small businesses that survived the pandemic.
“We want to do everything possible to not have any kind of reversal or shutdown,” Fong said. “If that means masks indoors, if that means proof of vaccination [to enter a bar], so be it.”
Fong said a vaccine mandate would help inspire confidence in safety for both employees and customers.
“This disease is shifting and changing,” Fong said. “I think we try to take advantage of every tool possible going forward for everyone’s safety.”
Supervisor Matt Haney has also come out in support of a vaccine mandate. He said one reason San Francisco doesn’t have a vaccine mandate yet is The City favors a regional approach, and not all Bay Area counties are currently on board with such a plan.
“If we don’t do this, I think there could be a conversation that nobody wants to have again about reducing capacity or more closures,” Haney said. “A vaccine mandate during a surge like this is what allows us to keep places open.”
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Francisco, does not see another lockdown in the cards for San Francisco.
Even with the Delta variant spreading, he said the issue around whether it’s safe for children to return to school is “kind of a no brainer.”
“It’s not a question for me yet, but I think being open-minded, the tides will turn if kids under 12 who are not eligible for vaccines are going to the hospital in droves and are dying, which I don’t see happening at this moment,” Chin-Hong said.
Chin-Hong said the best way to ensure kids are safe at schools is to “build a wall of immunity” around them by vaccinating teachers and staff. Because the virus is being transmitted throughout the community, he said it’s safer for kids at school than the mall.
As for handling Delta at bars and restaurants, Chin-Hong said The City could consider a vaccine mandate or imposing capacity limits.
He said a vaccine mandate would help on two fronts.
On one, a mandate would inspire confidence that a business is safe for vaccinated people who are too anxious to otherwise enter, allowing “restaurants to continue to make a living,” he said. On the other, “it may encourage people who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated.”
“That’s the route New York has gone and I feel that SF will think about that carefully,” Chin-Hong said.
San Francisco is seeing a rise in cases. But at the end of the day, Chin-Hong believes the Delta surge will be relatively short and less deadly in San Francisco compared to other places like Florida and Louisiana because of its high-vaccination rate among residents.
“Right now the beginning of the story seems the same,” he said. “But the end of the story will be very different.”
David Broockman, an associate professor of political science at UC Berkeley, said the best thing for the mayor to do politically is follow public health guidance.
“We do know that voters reward good outcomes, especially when they are paying attention to a problem closely — so I think the political stakes are high for all politicians to get COVID cases down and ensure parents can send their kids to school,” he said. “If SF manages to do well at educating its kids and keeping COVID cases down, that will almost surely be to Breed’s benefit.”
In the end, Breed’s dilemma — balancing public safety and economic recovery — could prove to be her greatest strength.
Nicole Derse, a political consultant who previously ran an independent expenditure committee supporting Breed, said the mayor’s handling of the pandemic has been incredibly popular and made her stronger politically than before.
“She has even more of a sort of moral authority on the issue in terms of anything she is going to decide to do now than she did 15 months ago because she proved with the decisive action she took early that she has the best interests of San Franciscans at heart,” Derse said.