It’s well known by now that business at bars and restaurants in cities like San Francisco have sharply dropped in recent months, a decrease attributed to fears of and policies around novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Restaurant owners say that things took an even greater hit on Tuesday, when San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency regarding the disease, prompting diners frightened by the alarming tone of a phrase like “state of emergency” to tell restauranteurs that they’re afraid to travel to the city to dine.
So we had 1/3 of our reservations @sfnightbird cancel tonight due to a "Coronavirus alert". Said they were afraid to come to SF. Did this happen to anyone else?— Kim Alter (@KimAlter1) February 26, 2020
Kim Alter should have been walking on air when she spoke with Eater SF on Wednesday: Earlier that day, she’d been named a one of the James Beard Awards’ semifinalists as Best Chef: California, for her work at 38-seat tasting menu destination Nightbird, a Hayes Valley restaurant she launched in 2015. Instead, she was anxious, because a full third of the venues’ reservations were canceled Tuesday, and even more reservations were dropped on Wednesday or Thursday.
Several of the reservations, Alter says, were canceled by people who’d seen the announcement of the state of emergency, and said that they were now afraid to come to San Francisco. Alter says that one eight-person reservation cancellation told her that they “didn’t feel comfortable coming into SF because of what Mayor Breed said.” The caller said that the mayor “had ‘declared a coronavirus alert,’ and when I said I didn’t know what he was talking about, he said, ‘well maybe then you should watch the news.’”
In order for SF to be as prepared as possible for COVID-19 (novel coronavirus), today I made an emergency declaration to strengthen SF's response in the case of an outbreak. To be clear, there remain no known cases originating in SF--this is about preparedness.— London Breed (@LondonBreed) February 25, 2020
Eater SF took Alter’s caller’s advice, and turned on CNN Wednesday afternoon. Its headline crawl read, “San Francisco declares state of emergency over coronavirus.” One can see, perhaps, why people might decide that traveling to San Francisco for a meal would be a mistake. As Alter says, “When you hear ‘state of emergency,’ you imagine, well, an emergency!”
Other local local restauranteurs, like Uma Casa owner Telmo Faria, have publicly decried the declaration. Saying that Alter has Breed to thank for the cancellations, Faria tweeted, “Even there are zero confirmed cases, she decided to declare an ‘emergency’ because you know, small businesses are closing fast enough around here.”
You have @LondonBreed to thank for that. Even there are zero confirmed cases, she decided to declare an “emergency” because you know, small businesses are closing fast enough around here. Maybe all her developer friends can buy up the buildings that end up vacant. pic.twitter.com/NcUA3eMdUb— Telmo (@ChefTelmo) February 26, 2020
It’s unclear if San Francisco has seen an additional drop in tourism following the declaration, as SF Travel, the organization responsible for attracting visitors to the city, declined to speak with Eater SF. But according to Jay Cheng, the spokesperson for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce (the city’s business lobbying association), he’s heard that the city’s already-struggling bars and restaurants took another hit this week.
Even so, Cheng defends the state of emergency declaration. “It’s (the Chamber’s) responsibility to remind consumers, eaters, and visitors what (the declaration) really means,” as “there’s a public misunderstanding” about its purpose. According to Cheng, the declaration is primarily a way “to unlock state and federal resources” in the case of an actual outbreak, even though as of publication time, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the city. That’s an assertion supported by news outlets like CNN and the San Francisco Chronicle, which wrote in its report on the declaration that “declaring a state of emergency allows San Francisco officials to marshal resources and personnel to accelerate emergency planning measures and to expand capabilities for a rapid response to a potential coronavirus case in the city.”
(In fact, Santa Clara County declared a local emergency over two weeks before San Francisco did, saying then that the move would allow the region to “receive mutual aid resources from the state and neighboring jurisdictions.”)
“The fact that the mayor is being so proactive should be a comfort,” Cheng says, and the Chamber would be more concerned if “the local government wasn’t doing anything.” That’s not to say that the Chamber isn’t taking the issue seriously, as margins for San Francisco restaurants are already “razor thin,” and an ongoing drop in business could force many to shutter.
While Alter’s Nightbird isn’t at that stage, she says that things have definitely been tough since the declaration. “I’m here with two farmers markets’ worth of produce and a full staff, and we’re like, what do we do?” “I am all for being prepared,” Alter says, “but people already give us so many reasons that they don’t want to come to San Francisco anymore, and it’s a bummer that they have one more. We’re all staying open and we’re working so hard, but now we’re hearing from people who think that there’s literally an outbreak of coronavirus in San Francisco, and I don’t know if we’ll ever get them back.”