Relics of the pandemic scattered across the Mission District

‘We’re sort of easing into it’

Approaching the corner of 16th and Valencia streets, I start to feel panicky in my chest.

About five people stand at the corner, waiting for the light to signal it’s safe for them to cross.

They’re all wearing masks. Mine is in my jacket pocket, recently stowed there after a Muni ride. Face coverings are still mandatory on public transit until September due to federal guidelines.

Questions flood my head as quickly as the nervousness rises in my throat: Should I put on my mask, or embrace city rules that say I’m free to go without? Will they give me dirty looks or make snide remarks? I’m vaccinated, but what about the Delta variant?

I cave, pulling last year’s favorite accessory — a lime green and white polka dot face covering — over my nose and mouth as I speed walk by them in the crosswalk.

It’s June 15, the day that San Francisco reopens and ditches the vast majority of city-mandated pandemic safety measures. And if my first few minutes in the Mission District are any indication, a simple date change on the calendar won’t erase the deeply embedded anxiety of the last fifteen months.

A banner outside Bi-Rite Market on 18th Street proudly flies: “Let’s Begin Again.” On the inside, though, masks are still required, and customers are encouragd to stand on painted yellow footprints on the ground that mark a socially-distanced queue to the cashier.

Two people enter the store, maskless, stopped quickly by an employee. They begrudingly remove masks from their pockets to comply.

This specialty grocer isn’t an exception in the Mission.

Almost every business I walked by or into on Valencia and Mission streets will continue asking customers to wear masks if they aren’t eating or drinking, maintain some social distance and use hand sanitizer upon entrance.

“We’re really optimistic and thrilled,” Ryan Smith, the manager of Dog Eared Books on Valencia Street, told me. “We really feel safe now and trust the state, but we’re sort of easing into it until all our staff feels comfortable.”

Before the pandemic, the shop relied heavily on tourists. Smith said the local community stepped up to keep the independent bookstore alive. Sales have now almost returned to what they were before the shelter-in-place order.

He’s so busy that, while we chat over my purchase of a novel, he’s fielding phone calls about online orders, answering questions from staff and cashing out customers.

Still, relics of the pandemic are ever-present, scattered across every block.

Parklets jut out into the street, and they’re often more crowded than their counterparts inside. Shuttered storefronts are boarded up, “for rent” signs posted on awnings.

The Chapel, a performance venue on Valencia Street, says “C U Soon” on the sign hanging over its front door. Meanwhile, it still has a concert lineup posted outside its door that dates back to March 2020.

I make my way to Mission Street, home to a slew of family-owned restaurants that serve much of San Francisco’s Latino community.

First stop, Taqueria Cancun. A steady stream of lunchtime customers order burritos and tacos, mostly for takeout. Masks are required here, as well as at the three joints I pop into over the next couple blocks.

Juana Escamilla, one of the owners of Liam’s Restaurant nearby, tells me she hasn’t changed the rules for her restaurant for now. She has a parklet set up outside, and her staff wears masks.

We speak in Spanish. I’m not sure if I’m rusty because it’s been 18 months since I last lived in Argentina, or because it’s been almost that long since I’ve engaged in small talk with a person face-to-face.

The last year has been extraordinarily difficult for the business, she says, but she’s finally noticing people feel more free, more willing to sit down at the restaurant for mole rojo, a classic dish from Mexico.

My day ends at Zeitgeist. Sure, maybe it’s cliche, but I had to check out the divey Mission District watering hole.

What was once a communal, often rowdy beer garden transformed during the pandemic into a grid of outdoor picnic tables separated by plastic dividers. Those are still there, along with the ban on indoor dining, the QR-code menu and the mask requirement when not seated at a table.

A waiter takes my order and lets me pay by credit card — it used to be cash-only — before telling me the bar is “testing things out” for the next week or so before making decisions about opening up inside.

San Franciscans enjoyed the sun at Mission Dolores Park on Tuesday. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

San Franciscans enjoyed the sun at Mission Dolores Park on Tuesday. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

But as lunch hour spills into early afternoon, the music volume turns up, the tables around me start to fill and I hear the pleasant chatter of friends over cold, weekday beers.

Maybe it’s the slow realization that I can still be vigilant without being scared, the unspoken camararderie shared by everyone there that we’ve endured one hell of a year, or it could just be the Pacifico kicking in. But, damn, it feels good.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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