Inside California’s great lockdown, glimpse America’s stay-at-home future

More than 6 million people in the Bay Area have been ordered to stay home since Tuesday, prompting empty streets, cabin fever, creativity and acts of kindness
San Franciscans enjoy the fresh air and views along a stretch of beach at Crissy Field on Friday. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

SAN FRANCISCO — Nearly a week into an unprecedented health and social experiment, more than 6 million people here are asking: Just how long can one stay at home?

On Monday, San Francisco and five other Bay Area counties were among the first in the nation to officially order residents to stay home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. By penalty of law, going outside is allowed only for certain jobs, food shopping and other “essential” activity.

Life inside low-key lockdown is a battle against boredom, isolation, anxiety and the fear of no end in sight. The region known as the heart of the tech industry is both inventing a new online reality and feeling the strains of economic inequality. As the rest of California and more states issued stay-at-home orders this weekend, the Bay Area’s lesson to the 1 in 5 Americans now affected is: This is harder than you think, but you’ll be surprised at your creativity and the kindness of neighbors.

Tumbleweeds might as well have rolled across the Golden Gate Bridge during rush hour Friday, though cooped-up people filled nearby Crissy Field to exercise, mostly keeping a respectful distance. Boarded-up display windows for Christian Dior, Fendi and Louis Vuitton lined the city’s deserted Union Square shopping district. At 5:40 p.m., just one car was driving down the city’s windy Lombard Street.

TV weatherman Lawrence Karnow from KRON-4 now reports the forecast from a room at home decorated with a few candles and a WiFi router. Inspired by the 2010 World Cup, fourth-grade teacher Tom Culbertson and his 16-year-old son blow vuvuzelas at 6 p.m. every evening to encourage their Palo Alto neighbors to step into the street and say hi.

“We feel like we need to bring some kind of silliness to this as best we can,” Culbertson said.

Everyone is learning the self-quarantine rules.

Tom Culbertson blows a vuvuzela on Friday to encourage families to join their neighbors on Amarillo Avenue in Palo Alto, Calif.
Shoppers pick through fresh produce at Weirdly Farmers Market in Oakland, Calif.
With help from her roommate, Pilates instructor Carley Henning streams a class from her apartment in San Francisco.
TOP: Tom Culbertson blows a vuvuzela on Friday to encourage families to join their neighbors on Amarillo Avenue in Palo Alto, Calif. BOTTOM LEFT: Shoppers pick through fresh produce at Weirdly Farmers Market in Oakland, Calif. BOTTOM RIGHT: With help from her roommate, Pilates instructor Carley Henning streams a class from her apartment in San Francisco.

Allowed: walking your dog, ordering takeout food and cocktails, farmers markets, biking, getting gas, using laundromats, and shopping at some liquor stores and medicinal marijuana emporiums.

Not allowed: petting someone else’s dog, dinner parties, going to hair and nail salons, in-person yoga classes, shopping for nonessentials and even throwing Frisbees.

“Look, I don’t make the rules, okay? That’s the department of public health,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in an interview, adding that she would have to do her own hair, too. “I know it’s not in our nature to not be close to one another or interactive or social when we’re around one another. But unfortunately, this is necessary for getting through this and also for saving lives.”

So far, so good, she said. “I’m really proud of this city,” Breed said. “But this is week one. And I’m sure that in the beginning it might be a lot easier. And as time goes on, it’s going to get more challenging for people.”

For the most part, violators aren’t being arrested, although it carries a potential misdemeanor charge. A spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, Officer Robert Rueca, said enforcement is a “last resort” and the goal is “voluntary compliance.”

Still, cracks appeared as the weekend approached and the weather turned sunny. Some residents were spotted holding picnics, while others reported receiving citations for going to parks. The East Bay Regional Park District said it voided some parking tickets issued Tuesday, and California’s state parks authority said it was not ticketing but was urging people to leave parks “where social distancing cannot be implemented.”

San Jose had to officially order a gun store to shut after lines started building out the door Tuesday. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office advised Tesla to close up shop, issuing a ruling that the electric carmaker is not an “essential business” after chief executive Elon Musk had thousands of employees report to work.

In an interview, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said the Bay Area may have it relatively easy when it comes to compliance, thanks in part to a highly educated population, including many who can continue to draw a paycheck by working at home with a computer.

“And yet even here in the largest city in Silicon Valley, we have this enormous divide with hundreds of thousands of residents facing horrific choices about how they’re going to make ends meet,” he said.

The counties made the drastic decision to force residents to stay at home in an effort to “flatten the curve,” essentially spacing out coronavirus cases so they don’t overwhelm local medical and emergency resources and contribute to rapid community spread. It will take weeks to know whether the measures prove effective. By Sunday, there were 1,468 confirmed cases in California and at least 27 deaths, less than a month after the state reported its first case of community transmission. The Bay Area was the first part of the country to report cases spreading in the community, in Solano and Santa Clara counties.

California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris said that while necessary to stop the spread of disease, the orders also have the potential to exacerbate depression, anxiety and such chronic health problems as diabetes and high blood pressure. Social connection is vital, she said, particularly for children.

“Whether it’s virtually — phone, text, FaceTime,” she said, “I would say it’s more important than ever for our communities to stay connected.”

While municipalities have published lists of rules, interpreting the orders is happening one household at a time.

Corinne Downey, 41, of Palo Alto, said her 11-year-old son was begging to see friends in person, so she invented a new game: quarantine basketball. Each boy brought his own basketball, which only he was allowed to touch. The kids would sing “social distancing!” whenever they got too close.

Love in the time of coronavirus requires creativity, too. Matthew Cooper, 37, proposed a first date at a park just kicking a soccer ball back-and-forth. “It feels like we can do that from a safe distance,” said Cooper, who lives in Oakland.

The vital organs of urban life still mostly function. Trash largely gets picked up on schedule. Trains are still running, though often empty. Crime reports are down, but officials worry about a potential increase in domestic abuse. Several local jails have released prisoners early, in hopes of reducing the risk of an outbreak. San Francisco has also ceased evictions and issuing parking tickets.

Kitchen workers take a break outside Nico's Restaurant in quiet downtown San Francisco.
San Francisco residents ride an eerily quiet Bay Area Rapid Transit train on Friday.
A traveler arrives to a quiet Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport.
TOP: Kitchen workers take a break outside Nico's Restaurant in quiet downtown San Francisco. BOTTOM LEFT: San Francisco residents ride an eerily quiet Bay Area Rapid Transit train on Friday. BOTTOM RIGHT: A traveler arrives to a quiet Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport.

Some residents are choosing to severely limit their activities to avoid exposure. Kimberley Gilles, 63, of Piedmont, asked on for strangers to help with grocery shopping. She got seven responses in about an hour.

Gilles said self-quarantine has left her with a “low-grade melancholy” but given her a new appreciation for community. “One of the things we are all questioning is our ability to control everything,” the high school English teacher said. “I can control kindness. I can do that. But almost everything else is beyond my control."

Things have gotten especially tricky in “co-living” houses, where young professionals cram together and share the cost of exorbitant Bay Area rents. Melissa Wong, one of 14 roommates in an Oakland home, faced a weighty decision when the house collectively decided to require residents to either socially distance themselves from significant others or stay with their partners during the outbreak. Wong, 32, chose to move in with her boyfriend of a year and a half while still paying $1,650 in rent to keep her bedroom. She said she and her boyfriend had been looking for a “more celebratory context” to live with each other. Fortunately, “it’s been pretty positive,” she said. “We will get our moment to actively choose living together.”

For many, the biggest challenge is passing time while normal life is on hold. Ashleigh Azzari, a 36-year-old manager at Anthropologie in Palo Alto, is still collecting a paycheck but can’t go to work or leave the house, except to walk the dog and grocery shop. She and her husband are trying to conceive, and even fertility treatments have taken a pause. To pass the time, she bought an unlimited annual subscription to Rosetta Stone for $99 to brush up on Italian and learn Japanese. At 6 p.m., she joins a virtual happy hour with co-workers.

She’s also a puzzle enthusiast but has been finishing them too quickly, piecing together a 1,000-piece art deco set in a couple of hours.

By the end of the day, “you can go through all the emotions,” she said. But it’s also been a reminder of what’s important to her. “Like hanging out with my husband. He’s a nice guy. We get along,” she said. “We are all taking a step back from how fast we were moving.”

A worker disinfects an elevator at a BART station in San Francisco.

Other people have had to choose between income and their health. Steve Gregg, 51, of Antioch, drives for Uber and on Friday decided to log off the app because his lungs don’t handle infection well. He’s now reliant on a side gig of writing.

“It went from ‘I can do this’ to ‘this is Russian roulette, I’m not playing it,’” he said, describing dropping off a passenger near a hospital that triggered a panic attack. “I went home and I haven’t driven since.”

Then there are the 28,000 Bay Area residents who have no home in which to quarantine themselves. T.J. Johnston, 53, has been living in the same San Francisco shelter since November, where he sleeps in a room with about 10 sets of bunk beds. “There’s literally another person on top of me,” he said. The city has told shelters to extend their reservations until the end of April. “I tried myself to maintain social distancing,” he said. “It is kind of difficult when you put so many people inside a confined space.”

Some restaurants are shuttering, unable to balance high rents with a decline in customers. Others are finding unexpected ways to adapt. The Los Gatos restaurant Manresa, which boasts three Michelin stars, has closed for dinner and told its hourly employees to sign up for unemployment. But it’s now transformed into a takeout joint, offering a gourmet “family meal to go” for $35 to $59 per head. Friday’s menu included Japanese medai a la plancha and seasoned sushi rice along with pineapple upside-down cake.

Ericka Wells was laid off as a waitress from Grand Lake Kitchen in Oakland on Thursday as the restaurant shut down. So the aspiring pastry chef took to Nextdoor to inform her neighbors she was officially open for business. She’s delivering 14 pastry boxes this weekend (she plans to leave them on porches in sealed plastic bags to avoid germs).

Her business, Layers By Xanthe (her middle name), has turned into a bright spot in an otherwise dismal time, she said. “The universe just put a stop button for all of us and told us to reevaluate our lives,” she said.

There are still moments of fear. Walking in the park or on the sidewalk — while technically allowed — prompts many passersby to swerve roughly six feet out of the way. Doctors and nurses keep going to the hospitals, where cases are starting to mount. Coronavirus testing sites have not been made public, in an effort to guard them from an overwhelming crowd.

Pigeons gather on an otherwise empty street in San Jose.
Dennis Wishnie and his daughter Lauren Altbaier practice social distancing near the Embarcadero in San Francisco on Friday.
A San Francisco postal worker delivers packages.
TOP: Pigeons gather on an otherwise empty street in San Jose. BOTTOM LEFT: Dennis Wishnie and his daughter Lauren Altbaier practice social distancing near the Embarcadero in San Francisco on Friday. BOTTOM RIGHT: A San Francisco postal worker delivers packages.

The stay-at-home order can be especially terrifying for people with families who are feeling sick and can’t get tested. Pat Burtis, 50, a venture capitalist in Corte Madera, was coughing and had a fever of about 102 earlier in the week. He drove to an urgent-care clinic, a walk-in clinic and called his county health department, but he couldn’t get anyone to test him. So he grabbed a couple of extra masks from the hospital and has been isolating himself from his wife and 8-year-old daughter. “When I come downstairs, I am wearing a mask as much as possible and maniacally washing hands and wiping things down,” he said.

Still, there are many silver linings. One is how technology is bringing people together in new ways, from Zoom teleconference happy hours to online play dates for closed schools.

Amanda Deering, director of operations and strategy for Mariposa Kids, an after-school program in San Francisco, sent an email to all the parents in the program with a link to a free Google Hangout, where recreation leaders and a program director host two-hour virtual programs.

During the first session on Monday, there were plenty of kinks to iron out. Kids accidentally muted one another, and the rec leader was even silenced at one point. Things were going more smoothly by the end of the week, when staff members came up with creative ideas to keep kids engaged without just staring at the screen, including exercise classes, coloring contests and scavenger hunts in which kids find an object in their house that begins with a certain letter and then show it to the class. Students can earn “tickets” if they are well-behaved, letting everyone have a chance to speak and participate. When real-life class resumes, the tickets can be redeemed for prizes, like toys and ice cream sundaes.

“What we would like to create for kids is a space where they’re hanging out with friends but they’re also engaged with environment,” Deering, 29, said.

Even religion has found a home online. Cody Harris, 41, a lawyer in Mill Valley, held a virtual Jewish shabbat ceremony on Friday night with 20 other families over Zoom video conference. Attendees lit candles and sang together. “It’s just about being together and trying to bring some order and ritual and tradition into this situation,” he said.

A few people walk the streets of San Francisco on Friday.

Correction: Pat Burtis went to an urgent care clinic and a walk-in clinic to seek testing. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said he went to a hospital emergency room.

Nitasha Tiku contributed to this report. Photography by Melina Mara. Video by James Pace-Cornsilk. Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg. Design by Audrey Valbuena.

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