People wear masks in San Francisco in November 2018 during a 13-day run of bad air days. (S.F. Examiner/Kevin Hume)

San Francisco plans to better protect residents, visitors during bad air days

City could shut down events, improve health and safety measures for vulnerable populations

San Francisco’s new draft emergency response plan for dealing with unhealthy air from wildfires contemplates cancelling permitted events such as farmers markets, improving education around the use of respirators and compiling a comprehensive list of buildings where people can go to breathe clean air.

Mayor London Breed directed city departments to revisit emergency plans in December after San Francisco experienced 13 days straight of unhealthy air in November from the smoke of the wildfire in Butte County.

The plan, presented Friday to the Disaster Council, remains a work-in-progress but will also address The City’s response for when the air quality is unhealthy and there is also extreme heat.

“It’s a place where we are going to start should we have another air quality event like we had back in November of 2018,” Tomas Aragon, health officer for the Public Health Department, told the council. “It’s going to be an iterative process because there still needs to be ongoing collaboration and planning with our regional partners.”

There’s a section about N95 respirators, which became a controversial issue politically for Breed during the Butte fire. The San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Coalition on Homelessness faulted The City for not handing out more respirators to homeless people and others.

Breed’s chief of staff Sean Elsbernd referred to the controversy Friday and emphasized the importance of educating the public about the value and risks of relying on masks.

“[Breed] was very frustrated by those who simplistically said ‘masks, masks, masks everywhere fix the problem,’” Elsbernd said at the council meeting, adding that “it is very clear that is not the answer.”

The plan says that N95 respirators “are not a replacement for staying indoors” and “can be dangerous for some people” because they “increase the work of the cardiovascular system.”

The plan also addresses hot weather, noting that when both high temperatures and unhealthy air are ocurring simultaneously, protection protocols for extreme heat take precedence.

“Air quality messaging must change when the temperature is 85 degrees or higher,” the plan said. “Messages to the population that people should stay indoors because of air quality, without cooling available to people, could result in increased deaths, particularly among vulnerable populations.”

When deciding whether to halt outdoor events, everything from farmers markets to festivals, Department of Emergency Management would work with the Department of Public Health on advising event organizers whether to cancel events.

“The cancellation of outdoor events can be a complex process and have unintended impacts, including adverse economic impacts,” the plan said.

Also as part of the planning efforts, the City Administrator’s Office is working with city departments to identify buildings that are currently adequate to serve as “Cleaner Air Centers” as well as cooling centers.

“The goal is to identify which facilities are best positioned to be used for these increasingly needed emergency response centers and to document the kinds of improvements that will help create those spaces as quickly as possible,” according to DEM.

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