Resilient
Residents

written by
Carmen Chu

How the newly formed Economic Recovery Task Force
is reopening and rebuilding an equitable San Francisco.

This year’s Women’s Equality Day in August marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Earlier this year, San Francisco Assessor Carmen Chu, the founder of the W Challenge—a civic engagement project started in 2018 to raise women’s voices and voting power—was still planning a series of events to elevate women’s leadership in celebration of this historic milestone. However, like many of us, her 2020 plan made a sharp turn with the unforeseeable COVID-19 crisis. Quickly, she found herself in a new leadership role as the only female co-chair of the city’s newly created Economic Recovery Task Force, responsible for helping San Franciscans get back on their feet while building a resilient and equitable economic future.

Never one to turn away from a challenge, Assessor Chu is using her fiscal expertise and knowledge of public sector finance to lead San Francisco through the unprecedented economic impacts from the COVID-19 crisis toward a successful reopening and recovery for small businesses and residents, reducing recovery time, and mitigating losses.

How was the Economic Recovery Task Force created?
In San Francisco, we are fortunate that city leaders made the tough decision to order shelter-in-place early to slow the spread of COVID-19. San Franciscans did their part to flatten the curve and prevented a surge in cases and hospitalizations, which allowed hospitals to take good care of the sick. However, putting a hard stop on our economic activity had immediate and devastating impacts on the city’s residents, businesses, and finances. The unemployment rate in San Francisco rose from below 3% in February to 12.6% in May, and the city’s budget deficit is projected to be $1.7 billion over the next two years. 

Unlike the Great Recession, this is an unprecedented crisis connected with public health, requiring us to be thoughtful yet flexible during our economic recovery until an effective treatment or vaccine is available.  Therefore, Mayor London Breed and Board President Norman Yee convened the Economic Recovery Task Force to develop strategies and recommendations to reopen the economy and address challenges with our sights on a more equitable and resilient economy.

The Task Force is comprised of representatives from a wide cross section of industries, neighborhoods, and stakeholders, including our partners from non-profits, academia, research institutions and labor.

What is the purpose of the Task Force?
 The purpose of the Task Force is to build resiliency into our interim economy, through the next one to two years, while also facilitating long-term investments recognizing that how we do business and how we utilize public spaces are being reshaped through our COVID-19 experience. A safe economic reopening is critical for businesses to survive, putting people back to work and safeguarding city services. We are also seeing that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated inequities and vulnerabilities in our current economic system. Vulnerable populations, such as immigrants, low-income families, communities of color and seniors are disproportionately impacted by the crisis. For example, more than half of the cases that tested positive are among our Latinx population and close to half of the deaths have come from our Asian American population. It is also important to acknowledge that, even before the pandemic hit, that the benefits of San Francisco’s booming economy after the Great Recession weren’t felt by all.

That’s why our Task Force members are diving into policy ideas for a more resilient and equitable economy. We’re organized around four main areas: (1) vulnerable communities, (2) jobs and business support, (3) economic development and (4) arts, culture, hospitality and entertainment. There are separate efforts underway to think through services or activities that are underpinnings for an open economy, including public transportation and education.

What has the Task Force accomplished so far?
We know that the success of our reopening is rooted in San Francisco business owners, workers, industry experts and community leaders. That’s why we conducted an extensive outreach campaign to hear directly from the experts. Since the end of April, the Economic Recovery Task Force has received and evaluated more than 1,200 emails and surveys from San Franciscans. We’ve conducted more than 40 public virtual events to solicit input and feedback. These efforts included a joint session with the city’s Immigrant Rights Commission, interviews with restaurants, and engagements led by Task Force members. This feedback has been critical in shaping work and has informed the city in areas where we needed to do better.

Given the dramatic and immediate impact COVID-19 has had on our economy, one of the programs launched recently was the Shared Spaces program.  The goal of the program was to support local businesses and remove as many barriers as possible to operate, understanding the challenges that new public health restrictions may pose.  Through the Shared Spaces program, the city moved quickly to establish a program that allows businesses flexibility to operate outside, on sidewalks and streets, without an overburdensome application process for sidewalk uses. Though this may not work in every community or for every business, it was one way the city thought creatively to support outdoor dining and retail. 

Task Force members and San Franciscans also expressed a need for more certainty.  In May, the city announced a Roadmap to Reopening (Roadmap).  The Roadmap communicates the city's approach to reopening and the sequence in which reopening might happen so that businesses and San Franciscans can prepare and plan ahead. The city’s intent is to continue to update and refine the Roadmap based on data (i.e. new health findings, local health conditions) and state direction. In late June, with the resurgence of COVID-19 cases, the city has had to pause reopening and monitor health indicators. San Francisco has not had to roll back openings because of our deliberate process, but how we do moving forward will depend on all of us continuing to do our part to drive down and keep down the spread of COVID-19.

The Task Force is focusing on developing recommendations for middle and long-term policy ideas for San Francisco's economic recovery. The first draft of the recommendations will be available in mid-August at onesanfrancisco.org/covid-19-recovery. Final recommendations will be available in October.

Resources for the real estate industry
Because so much information is constantly being updated, I wanted to share a few critical links to stay informed:

  • San Francisco's Local Reopening Roadmap shows the latest phased reopening plan for our city—this will be updated and adjusted based on health indicators, state guidance and new developments in our understanding of COVID-19: sf.gov/step-by-step/reopening-san-francisco
  • San Francisco Department of Public Health Indicators provides an up-to-date status report on all the local health indicators DPH is monitoring to guide their reopening decisions: data.sfgov.org/stories/s/epem-wyzb

For a comprehensive list of San Francisco’s Health Orders and Directives, visit: sfdph.org

Office of Economic and Workforce Development website aggregates resources for businesses and workers: oewd.org

California Reopening Guidelines shows sectors and industries allowed to reopen in the state (local counties may re-open at a different pace based on local health experience): covid19.ca.gov/roadmap-counties

My personal experience and reopening strategy
The past few months have been incredibly difficult. So many San Franciscans have shared what it has been like to lose their jobs and their businesses. So many people are barely hanging on. As a daughter of small business owners, these stories especially hit home. Many businesses were already operating on the margins and the prospect of opening back with limited capacity is untenable. For others, the uncertainty of when they might open and what their customer base will look like when they open is also extremely stressful. Even though my parents have long since retired, I can understand how devastating this would have been for their business, and I want to help businesses and people avoid the whipsaw of having to close, reopen, and close again. I worry that not all businesses, especially small neighborhood businesses, will have capital to reopen again. Small businesses are not only the backbone of our economy, they are also what make our city vibrant and unique.

In addition to the economic and health stresses, as a city, we are also deeply challenged by the racial inequities, which have been exposed. Growing up, my parents owned a family restaurant in South Central Los Angeles, the epicenter of the 1992 riots. The riots were sparked with the acquittal of four police officers in the excessive force case involving Rodney King. As a young girl, I remember the smell of ash in the air and the endless news coverage of protests across the city. I remember fear and confusion as my parents were held up at gunpoint. Sixty-three people died and more than 2,000 were injured during the riots. I remember talks about the need for change and almost thirty years later it feels, in some respects, like we are in the same place. As we think about economic recovery, I want to make sure we think about how policy recommendations impact our diverse communities and whether those impacts impart for the future a San Francisco that is more resilient and that shares prosperity more equitably. 

My worries and hopes as a city leader
In June, the country saw surges of cases and hospitalizations and, unfortunately, the Bay Area and San Francisco are not immune to these trends. We must protect the public, especially our vulnerable communities and our essential workers.

We also need to help create safer environments for people to get back to work, take care of their families, and reopen our economy. To do that, our reopening plan must continue to be grounded in data, facts, and our emerging knowledge around the coronavirus. While our federal administration still lacks the leadership to provide the resources and support that we need to better control the spread and safely reopen, it is important to remember that our success is up to us.

Let’s not forget that we have been reopening the economy for the last month and a half. We were able to keep the transmission rate low by taking precautions. If we want to continue to reopening the economy, I believe we need to double down on our personal efforts to keep safe distances, to limit interactions with people outside our immediate households, to wear a mask and to practice good hygiene. We also need to do everything we can to get the Bay Area counties more aligned in their reopening actions because so many of our residents and workers move freely around the region.

It is worth repeating the simple public health guidance we can all follow to help: Wear a face covering when you go out; practice physical distancing; wash your hands often; and stay home if you are sick.

Go to sf.gov/knowbeforeyougo for more helpful tips on how to be safe in the age of COVID-19.

The 2020 W Challenge
Even with COVID-19 we are trying to honor the civic celebrations that highlight important milestones and issues—after all, we should not let COVID-19 take everything away from us! In May, for example, we celebrated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by inviting rising APA chefs from some of our favorite local eateries to join us for an online “Cooking with Carmen” series.  Through the series we had a chance to meet the talents behind the scene, to pick up a cooking tip or two and to learn how to support local restaurants at the same time. (Visit: instagram.com/carmenchusf to catch our ongoing series).

For Women’s Equality Day (August 26, 2020), commemorating the 100-year anniversary of women winning the right to vote, we will be taking our W Challenge celebration online! This year our social media campaign will spotlight the 100 years of women leaders before us, while continuing the important message of voting and civic participation. Follow us at @CarmenChuSF on Facebook or Instagram to stay connected.

The W Challenge is a collaboration led by the San Francisco Assessor’s Office, the Department on the Status of Women and the League of Women Voters San Francisco with a simple goal of raising women’s voices. Each year we design a new “challenge” to encourage women to take action to shape the future they want to see.

Carmen Chu is the Assessor-Recorder of San Francisco.