On Wednesday the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference announced it will go virtual for the second year in a row due to concerns over COVID-19, marking yet another in a long procession of setbacks for San Francisco’s recovering hospitality industry. According to the San Francisco Business Times, the conference organizers’ decision was influenced at least in part by a handful of high-profile crimes in Union Square this November; had the conference gone forward, the retail hub would have played host to some 15,000 attendees, providing an influx of customers to the surrounding hotels, restaurants, and bars. Instead, those businesses find themselves bracing for the possibility of another surge in COVID-19 cases as the Omicron variant spreads across the country.
Downtown San Francisco restaurants and bars spent much of 2021 fighting tooth and nail to recover from the pandemic’s worst months, but with concerns over the new variant, restaurant and bar owners aren’t likely to see a reprieve from the ups and downs they’ve navigated for the past two years. Non-profit trade organization the Golden Gate Restaurant Association called the decision to move the JP Morgan conference virtual “disappointing” not only because of the immediate impact on the hospitality industry, but also because of how it bodes for the industry’s long-term recovery. “This conference is not just a significant business driver for San Francisco restaurants, hotels, and catering, but marked a return to large business events in the city,” the group’s statement reads. “Unfortunately the move to virtual will also significantly impact the ability of our businesses to bring back more workers.”
Bluestem, the double-decker restaurant with a prime vantage of Market Street, fully reopened for indoor dining on Black Friday after a year-and-a-half-long closure — specifically to ply holiday shoppers and conference goers with festival cake and cocktails. The owners say the strategy has and hasn’t panned out. Stacy Jed, who’s also a former president of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and in touch with many downtown hotels, says she wasn’t expecting pre-pandemic holiday sales, but even so, it was hard to anticipate the confluence of factors impacting restaurants this strange season.
Despite increasing anxiety over the new variant, Jed said she hasn’t received a rush of regular reservation cancellations — at least not yet. But there’s another concern for downtown diners: the specter of crime. After a rash of robberies in San Francisco and the Bay Area, crime in California has been the subject of nonstop media coverage, both in local news and international outlets. Now, at least once a day, Jed says, a customer comments on the blocked off streets, boarded up shops, increased police presence, and homeless population; some diners now request a seat on the rooftop, where they’re up above the street and can breathe fresh air.
The Bluestem crowd tends to be a mix of locals and travelers, and out-of-towners say they are particularly shocked by the state of things. “There is not a day that goes by that a guest doesn’t mention the conditions in our streets,” Jed says. “Our hope is that the mayor follows through and takes strong action.” In a press conference Wednesday, mayor London Breed announced a handful of new public safety initiatives in an attempt to end “all the bullshit that has destroyed our city” and on Friday declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin, clearing the way for city officials to “bypass some laws and bureaucratic hurdles” in the name of stopping crime.
Planned changes include amped up police presence in the Tenderloin neighborhood, and granting police access to additional surveillance tools, which Breed says could help prevent more of those coordinated smash-and-grabs. But while police say their increased presence in Union Square has already decreased crime, many doubt that more police is the right solution considering the national reckoning around police brutality, during which thousands of San Franciscans took to the streets in protest — resulting in the movement to “defund the police” that Breed is now walking back from. Laura Thomas, the director of harm reduction policy at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, told the San Francisco Chronicle she was “disappointed and discouraged” by the change, which she doubts will improve “the quality of life for Black, Indigenous, people of color who have experienced violence at the hands of police.”
Shoppers also say police presence dampens the festive mood; others point to studies showing that the presence of guns actually decreases the safety of an event or location. And critics have concerns proposed changes to the surveillance law would undermine privacy rights. Tenderloin residents, meanwhile, are wondering why police haven’t been doing more to stop crime in the neighborhood before now.
The types of reservations the restaurant’s seeing have also shifted: This time of year, Bluestem usually host big parties, from seated dinners for 50 to 60 to standing receptions for up to 200 people. Instead, they’re getting smaller parties of mostly family pods of 10 to 20. That means even more than Omicron or crime, the JP Morgan conference cancellation means dollars lost. “That one’s going to sting,” Jed says. “I spent my day licking wounds with event planners.” Months of plans were cancelled with only three weeks notice. One company booked out the restaurant for three full days — from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. — to hold back-to-back meetings, plus private parties every night for 20 to 100 people. Even though Dreamforce is a bigger event, JP Morgan is more beneficial to restaurants because of when it’s held, Jed says. “January is a quiet month for restaurants,” she explains.
Christian Ciscle, chef-owner of SF Chickenbox, a counter service fried chicken restaurant in the North Beach neighborhood, maintains things aren’t as bleak as they might seem. Since March 2020, he’s learned to roll with the punches — first transitioning his business from a pop-up inside a SoMa bar, then over to the Mission, before securing his current spot in August. Having tapped out his SBA loan money, he recently launched a GoFundMe to raise $35,000 for security upgrades that would allow him to safely stay open for late-night diners; Chickenbox is on Broadway, a busy stretch with a handful of nightclubs and bars, which means dealing with “masses of people” out celebrating, who may or may not be on their best behavior.
But staying open later and increasing to seven days a week is what it’ll take for the business to survive so he has to make it work. “It was scary before [the pandemic] and now it’s just like, you kind of do day by day,” he says. And he expects nothing to get easier in the coming year. “Anything can happen. You really have to plan for the worst. It’s not gonna necessarily get better, it’s just gonna get different.”