Sidewalks remain crowded in the Tenderloin, as many residents have nowhere safe to shelter inside. (Corey Browning/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

Opinion: Downtown neighborhoods need urgent city intervention to prevent spread of coronavirus

Crowded sidewalks, lack of resources make Tenderloin and surrounding areas vulnerable in pandemic

By Matt Haney

For nearly a month, everyone in San Francisco has been instructed to stay at home and avoid large groups. Yet many of these critical public health directives have failed to fully reach and adequately protect the residents of the Tenderloin, Civic Center, and parts of SOMA.

In our downtown neighborhoods, it can be impossible for residents to leave their homes to walk to the store and maintain distance. Sidewalks are often blocked by people forced to live in tightly packed tents and large groups of people continuing to congregate.

The challenges in protecting the health of residents extends inside as well. This crisis has placed a terrible burden on people who already have very little space of their own, many of whom are seniors or families. People living in shelters or SROs, where kitchens and bathrooms are often shared, cannot maintain social distancing measures and protect themselves.

The under-serving of this community, the lack of adequate open space, failures to address drug addiction and mental illness, systemic racism, street-level drug dealing, homelessness, and brutal inequality all contribute to making this community more vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

If something doesn’t change, and quickly, these downtown neighborhoods could become the site of the next major COVID-19 outbreak, and reverse any progress San Francisco has made in preventing the spread of the virus thus far.

This would be devastating, tragic, and preventable.

Every hour matters to stop the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. There are actions that the Mayor and Public Health Officer, who have been delegated extraordinary powers during this emergency, can take right now that already have broad support from neighborhood leaders, residents, and businesses.

First, the SFMTA and Department of Homelessness should establish open space and clear thoroughfares for people to walk safely and camp safely. It is dangerous and unhealthy for entire sidewalks to be blocked by people living in tightly packed tents.

Camping areas on vacant lots of city land with services, spacing, and hygiene should be designated this week. Streets, particularly those with services like food lines, should be closed down to cars to create more space.

Second, the Department of Public Works must make bathrooms widely accessible, and place hand washing stations on every corner. Many of the handwashing stations are unavailable or broken. Washing your hands and maintaining general hygiene are among the most important things you can do to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.

Third, the Mayor and Department of Public Health should prioritize hotel rooms for vulnerable people living in shelters, SROs, and on the street. It is reckless and unacceptable to have so many people in our city still unable to safely shelter in place or stay at home. There are 40,000 empty hotel rooms in San Francisco right now. I’ve co-authored emergency legislation to require the city to procure over 8,000 hotel rooms, and that cannot happen soon enough.

Fourth, the City must deploy more effective strategies to disrupt the congregation of large groups, including those selling drugs, who are still out there day and night. Additional police foot patrols are needed. There is a real fear among residents that the Tenderloin and SOMA will become even more of a containment zone for crime and drug dealing. There should be new public health orders issued to provide the tools necessary to disperse these groups.

Fifth, our neighborhoods require much more extensive public education, signage, and outreach. Tenderloin businesses and organizations are on the front lines of this epidemic. Yet few have received much support. We need public health workers deployed to walk continuously through the neighborhood to provide education and support to residents and businesses.

Lastly, Tenderloin residents, whether housed or unhoused, need on-demand access to cloth face coverings and hand sanitizer. The neighborhood is dense and many residents cannot procure these items on their own. My office is collecting masks to pass out, but the need is far greater, and the Department of Public Health has to step up.

I’ve communicated these solutions repeatedly to the City’s central Emergency Operations Center and the respective city Departments alongside a broad coalition of neighborhood leaders, residents and organizations. I have also written emergency legislation to implement some of these recommendations.

The Tenderloin, SOMA and Civic Center, must have a specific, targeted intervention strategy from the City, supported by a multi-department task force. By taking immediate steps to protect the residents of our downtown neighborhoods, we can slow the spread of the virus, save lives, and protect everyone in our city.

Supervisor Matt Haney represents San Francisco’s District 6, which includes the Tenderloin, Civic Center, South of Market and Treasure Island.

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