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Patricia Chang

Bay Area ICU Availability Drops Below 1 Percent, Leaving SF’s Outdoor Dining Setups Empty for Weeks to Come

The Bay Area’s COVID-19 spike is only getting worse

As the Bay Area’s COVID-19 case rate continues to skyrocket, hopes that outdoor dining would resume any time soon have been dashed by state health officials, who have announced that the area’s available hospital bed numbers mean it must remain under the state’s stay-at-home order for now. It’s frustrating news for restauranteurs who spent thousands on outdoor dining setups this summer, only to be forced back into a takeout- and delivery-only model in December, as the state reached its highest level of coronavirus cases to date.

The hope, then, was that the stay-at-home order would only be in place for a few weeks, with January 7 as an expected reopening date. But according to health officials, the numbers got worse from there. According to Dr. John Swartzberg, a public health professor at UC Berkeley, Thanksgiving gatherings are to blame for the current spike.

Speaking with KPIX, Swartzberg says that about 20 percent of the people who contracted COVID-19 over Thanksgiving (when, despite health orders, many folks mixed with other households in an unmasked setting) required hospitalization, sending the state’s bed availability plummeting.

According to the state’s current numbers, California Governor Gavin Newsom said on January 11, the Bay Area’s bed availability is at 0.7 percent. That’s only slightly better than the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, which are both at 0 percent, but is still a long way from the 15 percent availability required to be released from the state-mandated shutdown.

According to the SF Chronicle, while San Francisco’s bed count is still above 15 percent, in neighboring counties, it’s far, far lower, leaving the full region with just 307 available beds. As of Monday, here’s the county-by-county breakdown, based on state data:

  • Alameda: 29.1% [68 beds available]
  • Contra Costa: 10.7% [36 beds available]
  • Marin: 8% [13 beds available]
  • Napa: 0% [1 bed available]
  • San Francisco: 28.7% [70 beds available]
  • San Mateo: 9.7% [20 beds available]
  • Santa Clara: 7% (includes surge beds) [39 beds available]
  • Solano: 4% [9 beds available]
  • Sonoma: 14.4% [10 beds available]
  • Monterey: Percentage N/A [41 beds available]
  • Santa Cruz: 0% [0 beds available]

We shouldn’t expect those numbers to improve any time soon. At a press briefing on Monday, Newsom said it plainly: “Based upon ICU capacity currently, unless those projections erratically differ, then we can expect that stay-at-home to continue,” vaguely mentioning “several weeks” as when conditions might improve enough that it could lift. Speaking with KPIX, Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams says that we’re at a crucial stage in the pandemic, as “We are extraordinarily concerned about what might be coming in the next few weeks; cases that we are yet to identify coming out of the holidays.”

And, already, case rates are increasing, even in San Francisco, which recorded its highest number of new cases and deaths — 451 cases and 15 fatalities — since the pandemic began on Saturday, January 9, the Bay Area News Group reports. Across the state, this past weekend was the pandemic’s deadliest to date, the Associated Press reports.

And things are likely to get even worse, SF General chief of emergency medicine Dr. Christopher Colwell tells SF Gate. While some of that uptick is a result of unsafe Christmas behavior, “we haven’t seen the full effect of New Year’s gatherings.” Colwell says that the hospital is “still admitting more than we are discharging which is obviously not sustainable long term ... We have never seen it this bad. I was the physician at the scene at the Columbine High School Shooting and in the ED for the Aurora Theater shootings and this is just as bad. Different, but just as bad.”

Despite these stunning statements from health officials, some restauranteurs tell the SF Business Times that they wish that the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) — the lobbying organization for the city’s dining industry — would put more pressure on the city to reopen. Pier 23 Cafe owner Flicka McGurrin, for example, characterizes the stay-at-home order as “San Francisco should be taking on the woes of the entire state” and says that “outdoor dining is essential to our hospitality industry. And to not have it after building parklets and after this big effort is very very difficult.”

One might argue, of course, that encouraging people to stay at home during a deadly pandemic might also help the hospitality industry, as keeping workers and patrons safe from harm isn’t just smart business, but the right thing to do to stymie the virus’s spread. That’s why, GGRA executive director Laurie Thomas says, her group isn’t encouraging lawsuits or other protests against the state’s current ban on outdoor dining.

Instead, she says, San Francisco should make the decision to fall in line with the reopening levels mandates by the state in its color-coded reopening plan. “If the state lets us off the hook of this deep purple thing that we’re in, this Bay Area regional shutdown, then we go to the color code, and that’s clearly laid out,’’ Thomas tells KTVU. That would mean that under the next reopening stage, “purple,” outdoor dining could resume in San Francisco.

San Francisco officials haven’t responded to questions on if this adherence to state guidelines is a possibility, or if — as it has throughout the pandemic — if SF will take a more conservative approach to outdoor dining and other activities deemed as “high risk.” But for now, this is all academic, as local officials don’t have any more insight into what the state is planning for the region. As it stands, California health officials will only say that the Bay Area’s “four-week ICU projections will be assessed in the coming days,” which means that, for now, parklets across SF will remain empty and dark.

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