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Former SF Mayor Pushes ‘Risk-Free’ Restaurant Testing Plan

Willie Brown says restaurants should advertise mandatory COVID-19 tests

Fogg Fest - San Francisco CA 2006
Former SF Mayor Willie Brown says restaurants could bring back diners by requiring COVID-19 tests
Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Willie Lewis Brown Jr., San Francisco’s mayor from 1996 to 2004, says that he has a solution for San Francisco’s struggling restaurants: Require diners to take a COVID-19 test within 72 hours before they sit down to eat. Implementing a rule like this “would do a lot to bring people back,” Brown says, adding that the program would make dining out “risk-free.”

Brown made this suggestion from the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, where his “Willie’s World” column has run since 2008. Saying that “downtown San Francisco, especially Union Square, looks and feels like a ghost town,” Brown argues that restaurants across the city could bring in more diners if they would “advertise that your store, your restaurant or your public space is available only to people who had a negative test in the past 72 hours.”

“Just think, instead of a Michelin-approval restaurant, you had a risk-free space where all employees and customers knew everyone was infection-free,“ Brown writes, saying “it would do a lot to bring people back.”

It’s also a plan that could lull diners into a false sense of security, public health officials argue. San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Grant Colfax has said, in a media event reported on by the SF Chronicle, that “people who test negative can still harbor the virus if they are early in their infection,” and that “we have seen the repeated failure of this testing strategy across the country, including in Washington, D.C.”

UCSF epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford agrees, telling ABC 7 that “no amount of testing is going to absolutely guarantee you’re safe.”

Writing for CNN, ER doctor Megan Ranney explains the issues with testing strategies like Brown’s, saying that “a test just represents a moment in time. Just like you can have a negative pregnancy test today, but already actually be pregnant, similarly — unless you’ve been quarantining for the last 14 days — you could have a negative test today, but still be contagious” the day following.

“The purpose of testing is not to provide a free pass,” Ranney writes. “It does not prove that you aren’t infectious today, and it certainly doesn’t prove that you’re not infectious tomorrow.”

It’s unclear if Brown’s testing plan is intended as a way to return to indoor dining, or if he’s suggesting it as a way to fill seats at outdoor dining venues. If it’s the latter, he might be wiser to focus his attention on the national shortfall of outdoor heaters, as Bay Area restauranteurs say the biggest issue they’re seeing in terms of attracting outdoor diners is the cold weather, not any diners’ health status. Restaurants like Valencia Street’s popular Puerto Alegre tell KPIX that as temperatures turn colder, business has dropped by about 35 percent. Instead, diners are turning to takeout or delivery — which suggests that when Brown sees empty seats at a restaurant, diners might be turned off by the chill, not by if or when their fellow diners were tested.


Would you rather eat at a restaurant that requires a COVID-19 test?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Yes, I’d feel safer
    (62 votes)
  • 45%
    Requiring tests isn’t a factor for me as a diner
    (142 votes)
  • 34%
    No, in fact, I’d avoid any restaurant that requires a test
    (108 votes)
312 votes total Vote Now