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Web Extra: San Francisco Mayor On Her City's Coronavirus Response22:08
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San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks during a news conference at the future site of a Transitional Age Youth Navigation Center on January 15, 2020 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks during a news conference at the future site of a Transitional Age Youth Navigation Center on January 15, 2020 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

We talked today about the mismanagement of coronavirus—the ways citizens and leadership have failed to take steps necessary to curb the spread. But in San Francisco, California, it is a different story.

San Francisco is the second densest city in the country. It also has the lowest coronavirus death rate compared to any other major city in the United States, according to San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

So how is a dense city like San Francisco managing the coronavirus pandemic so well?

Breed says the city’s efforts began early. They declared a state of emergency before a single COVID-19 case was identified.

Plus, the city shut down quickly — March 17. And city officials repeatedly told residents that the pandemic was going to have an impact.

"We want people to prepare for it," Mayor Breed says. "Even when we weren't completely 100% sure about how long we'd be shut down, or what we can expect, or whether or not we should socially distance, or wear a mask. ... We did our very best to communicate everything we knew when we knew it."

San Francisco had been reopening. Restaurants were up to 25% capacity, though schools haven’t yet physically reopened. Two weeks ago, Breed announced that the city would be moving into the next phase of reopening, set to begin today (Nov. 3).

And then ... suddenly the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations — while still small in absolute numbers — rose by 50%.

So on Friday, Breed announced a pause on further reopening plans.

"What we didn't want to do is open and close. Open and close. We want to let everything that we've allowed to be open to remain that way. And if we had to hold off on something that had not opened yet, we had more flexibility to do that," Breed says. "Meanwhile, we're able to say that everything that's already opened can stay.  And I think that's a more conservative approach which prevents us from going completely backwards and shutting things down."

Breed says San Francisco’s approach should be a model for the rest of the world. But given that the city had to take that sudden pause, we asked Breed if that model isn’t working.

"There's nothing wrong with the model. I just think that this virus is unpredictable," she says. "Our testing capacity has really been incredible. We do over 5,000 tests per day. And anyone is able to get a test."

So that number – 5,000 test per day in San Francisco. It needs a little shape, a little context. San Francisco is doing well when compared to some other American cities. For example, in Ohio, near the end of last month, roughly 700 tests were collected per day at Columbus Public Health.

Or, you could look at say what a private university is capable of. Boston University (full disclosure, WBUR is on BU’s campus) is testing, on average, just as many people as San Francisco.

But then there’s the other end of the scale. Back in May, China tested 11 million people in Hubei province in just ten days. So here’s a question for us all — what’s the best baseline, the best goal?

Which brings us back to Mayor Breed. Her advice for other mayors? Test, trace, 'watch your numbers' and listen to the experts.

"I don't like that I have to hold off on opening things that I want to open in San Francisco. And I definitely get upset, and get frustrated and angry when I have to go out there and change a decision that I've already announced that I made," she says. "But at the end of the day we have to listen to our public health experts."

This segment aired on November 3, 2020.

Dorey Scheimer Twitter Senior Editor, On Point
Dorey Scheimer is a senior editor at On Point.

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