Life goes on: a look at the first day of the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place

The Chapel, Coronavirus, COVID-19

The Chapel, closed, on the afternoon of March 17, 2020, the first day of a shelter-in-place to combat coronavirus. Photos: Roman Gokhman.

SAN FRANCISCO and OAKLAND — Six of nine Bay Area counties on Tuesday began an official shelter-in-place to try and prevent the spread of coronavirus.. What this means, practically, is that people are supposed to remain in their homes unless they’re going to the grocery store, or to pick up medication or get medical aid. We’re also allowed to go outside to walk around and get reassurance that the world still exists.

Several types of people with “essential” positions or services are exempt from this shelter-in-place order. It’s the same thing keeping grocery stores and hospitals open. Journalists fall into this group, so I grabbed my press pass, ID and a handful of business cards (it was unclear how police would be enforcing this order) and went for a drive around Oakland and San Francisco to see what the two cities are like as ghost towns.

What I found: While there were fewer people outside, particularly in the two cities’ downtowns, life goes on. There were no ghost towns; only cities catching their breath. For the most part, people seemed to be following rules. Only a few times did I see groups of more than two people walking together. Mission Street was the one significant outlier, with venders hawking hats, sweatshirts and trinkets to crowds. Elsewhere, children and their parents filled the streets. There were dogs—so many dogs.

Fox Theater, COVID-19, Coronavirus

The Fox Theater.

Without a solid plan in place, I decided to drive by several concert halls. Only at one, the Fox Theater, did I see any signs of life. A couple of employees headed inside. Downtown Oakland was far from empty, with passing cars, and some pedestrians on bicycles. But it was also empty enough to pick up conversations from a block away.

It took one a few minutes to drive across the Bay Bridge. But it wasn’t the scene out of “The Walking Dead” that I expected. Where was everyone going? Neither the Financial District nor SOMA were devoid of people. It wasn’t possible to eat indoors, but there were plenty of places to find lunch. Hayes Valley had families and people walking their dogs, even if the Rickshaw Stop sat shuttered. It was one of two concert venues I walked by that didn’t post a sign announcing its closure. Bottom of the Hill was the other one. People walked down the sidewalk without giving these rooms a glance. Elsewhere, the messaging was similar: Stay safe, stay healthy, “we’ll be back.”

The Masonic, COVID-19, Coronavirus

The Masonic.

On California Street near the Masonic, parking remained tight. The sun beat down through its stained glass windows. The only sound other than passing cars was the metal-on-metal clanging of flagpoles and Grace Cathedral’s church bells. So, too, was it quiet outside of the Fillmore, other than a steady stream of people entering the post office next door. At the Chapel, not only was the fencing up, but the box office curtain was drawn. The rest of Valencia Street, however, showed plenty of life. You could get ice cream and do your laundry. But for music, you’d have to go home or sit in your car.

The Independent, Coronavirus, COVID-19

An advertisement that didn’t age well, outside the Independent.

At the Independent, I ran into 20-something passerby Lebron Smith, who was carrying a couple of shopping bags. Unlike dozens of people I watched pass in front of all these prolific music halls, he stopped to to read the sign tacked onto the Indy’s wall. Next door, employees of The Loving Cup cafe power-washed their floor. Across the street, three men drank beers at an outdoor bar.

Smith told me his last two concerts were more than a month earlier; at Bill Graham Civic, and that he looked forward to seeing a show again, soon.

“It’s weird how many places are closed,” he said, after reading the Independent’s sign. He shrugged, picked up his grocery bags, and kept walking.

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at

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