Reflections on “Shelter in Place” in the Bay Area

By Fred Huxley

Most of us in the U.S. are now addressing threats from the Covid-19 pandemic.  The San Francisco Bay Area was the first region in California (and in the nation) to adopt “Shelter in Place” restrictions on daily activities as a means toward reducing the spread of this disease and -- so far at least -- they seem to have slowed the rate of virus transmission.  But what is “Shelter in Place” here?  How has it worked, how has it changed, and how has it affected individual lives to date?

In a time of general fear and anxiety, it may seem paradoxical to start such reflections with a “joke,” but please bear with me.  I will first tell the joke exactly as I heard it and next deconstruct it a bit in response to various criticisms.  Then I will use a deconstructed version to illuminate how key aspects of daily life in the Bay Area have changed for me and many others with whom I have spoken or corresponded here.

Once upon a time, experts from four European countries were trying to summarize for each other one basic principle underlying the legal system in each of their countries.  The Briton said, “in my country, all behavior is permitted except what is illegal.”  The German said, “in my country, by contrast, nothing is permitted except what is legal.”  The Russian said, “in my country nothing is permitted, even if it is legal.”  And the Frenchman said, “Well, my friends, in my country all is permitted -- even if it is illegal.”

When I told this joke to a French acquaintance, she objected: “That’s just like you Americans, telling other people about their affairs.  What about the Indians in your country; what were their legal rights when you killed them and stole their land?  And what about Black Americans; do they have the same rights as the Whites?  You and the English are such hypocrites.”  Of course, she might instead have said, “No, you got the joke wrong.  You should have put an American in the last place because in your country a person can do anything, even if it is illegal, so long as that person is rich.  And White.  And male.  Your movie Chinatown already showed us that.”

One may thus spin the country affiliations/ethnic stereotypes of the joke in different ways, but I’d prefer to drop them and focus on another aspect.  The frameworks of permissions and obligations legally associated with behaviors – “all is permitted except what is illegal,’ “nothing is permitted except what is legal,” etc. – can be seen as a typology; that then can be used to illuminate approaches toward dealing with Covid-19 in the Bay Area.  For example, many like to see the U.S. generally (and the Bay Area within it) as places where a person is considered innocent until proven guilty of breaking some law.  That view suggests a Type 1 framework as the default case here.  By contrast, the Shelter in Place Order issued on March 16, 2020, by the Health Officer of the city of Berkeley (and by six others in surrounding jurisdictions) seems more a Type 2 framework.  This order (which can be called Shelter in Place A) directed all residents of the city – except individuals experiencing homelessness – to stay where they live, permitting them to leave only “to provide or receive certain essential services or engage in certain essential activities and work for essential businesses and governmental services.”[1]  

For example, getting food is certainly an essential activity for everyone.  But for a resident of Berkeley now, getting food typically means having someone deliver it to your home, going to markets to buy it yourself, or picking up take-out from restaurants (which are closed to in-place eating).  With all three of those permitted activities, it is recommended that you deal afterward with possible contamination (e.g., from an infected person coughing or breathing on you and/or the food, or something contaminated with coronavirus touching you and/or the food) by wiping containers with antiseptic, washing off fruits and vegetables, etc.  So after a trip to the grocery, I usually spend a half to three-quarters of an hour “decontaminating” – first by washing hands, next wiping with antiseptic the counter space where food will be taken out and cleaned, then actually cleaning the food and items used to buy it (like credit cards and the wallet where they are kept), and finally putting the food away in the refrigerator, pantry, or closets.

As noted above,  Shelter in Place A has been widely viewed as effective in “flattening the curve” of infection.  Three days after it started, Governor Newsom established similar (but less stringent) measures for the whole state of California.  Nonetheless, there were some bumps in the rollout of this directive.  For example, so many residents followed the direction to get outdoors for exercise that some parks (or even just their parking lots) became overcrowded, and many were unable to maintain the six feet of space that is required for proper social distancing.

To address such issues, the Berkeley Health Officer declared a tightened Type 2 framework on March 31, 2020.  The new order (Shelter in Place B)[2]  noted that the earlier one had been generally effective in encouraging social distancing. However, it also said that additional restrictions were necessary to slow further the spread of Covid-19, avoid overloading the healthcare system, “and prevent death.”[3]  Accordingly, the new directive superseded the prior version:  it ordered local residents to continue staying at home as the general rule.  Again exempting homeless people from the directive, it nonetheless urged government agencies “to provide them shelter and hand-sanitation facilities.”[4]  It also restricted access to parks and other recreation areas by all residents, required essential businesses to implement social-distancing protocols (adding an Appendix to illustrate such protocols), clarified and limited further “essential business activities,” and called again for all businesses and government agencies to end non-essential operations within the city.

Associated with these changes, Covid -19 has spread at a rate that seems manageable by the local healthcare system so far.  Residents and institutions I know appear to be following the directives to stay (and work, if possible) at home; neighbors I almost never saw before are now out walking on sunny afternoons while also maintaining social distance from persons outside their households; and businesses are either closed or operating under the new guidelines.  For example, many local groceries have established “Senior Shopping” periods (generally before regular hours of operation) and conditions (generally when shelves have been cleaned and restocked, and the store is as clean as it will get).  Only persons at higher risk from the disease – such as the elderly, persons with chronic illnesses, or pregnant women -- are supposed to shop then.  When these periods were first established, some stores had extra security personnel at their entrances to check IDs and ages; now that seems mostly to have stopped, because most of the shoppers checked were following the guidelines.  Several stores and post offices also have instituted special protections, such as plexiglass shields or plastic curtains to separate clerks from customers or marking spots on their floors (and even on sidewalks outside) where customers can stand while maintaining social distancing from each other or from store personnel.

An important point to highlight about such changes is that they are almost always self-enforced.[5]  People seem to be listening to what medical authorities are saying, watching what political leaders on local/state/and (sometimes) federal levels are doing, and then acting accordingly.  It’s not that Berkeley residents “hide under their beds”[6] in response to Covid-19; it’s more that they got started earlier and now seek actively to protect themselves and those around them via what they consider to be informed and responsible ways.  For example, when leaving home these days, I feel like a soldier going on patrol – closing the door to a relatively safe zone and proceeding into an unknown one where bad things can happen.  I take care, and pay attention, so that I can get my business done safely and effectively, then return to base (where, if necessary, I also “decontaminate” as described above).

Before closing these reflections, I’d like to comment about dealing with people now experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area and California more generally.  As discussed above, Shelter in Place versions A and B both treated the homeless as an exceptional case.  In part this is because homeless people – especially if they are living on the street -- lack a safe zone where they can wash hands frequently, separate themselves a safe distance from their neighbors, or follow guidelines recommended by the CDC,[7] let alone implement the additional restrictions called for in the Orders of March 16 or 31.  Another part is because the people and institutions working with the homeless need to protect their own workers so that they can perform (or continue to perform) this essential activity in a safe and effective manner for all concerned.

I have volunteered with the Berkeley Food Donation Project to provide surplus food from progressive merchants to local shelters, and those whom they serve, for the past 15 years.  Project members are now studying and adapting our actions – which are considered “essential activities” by both Shelter in Place A and B – to deal with the changed environment.  So far, we have changed the donations (from surplus fruit and day-old baked goods to fruit only) and the manner of delivery (from carrying the donations to kitchens inside the shelters to leaving them with staff at shelter entrances) for two of the shelters.  However, we have not yet worked out a mutually acceptable solution for these matters with a third shelter, so deliveries there are on hold, at least for now.  More to follow on these activities as we all – Health Officers, those now experiencing homelessness, shelters serving them, and the Project – manage the threat(s) of Covid-19.

So now I have described Shelter in Place in the Bay Area, discussed how it has worked and changed in Berkeley since mid-March, and recounted how it has affected my life and those of others here.  How’s it going where you live?


[1] “Order of the City Health Officer To Shelter in Place,”, (March 16, 2020), p. 1.  The order also directed all businesses and governmental agencies to end non-essential operations in the city, prohibited all non-essential gatherings of any number of individuals, and forbade all non-essential travel.

[2] “Order of the City Health Officer To Shelter in Place,”, (March 31, 2020).

[3] Ibid., p.4.

[4] Ibid., p. 1.

[5] This appears to be a major difference from the case in many places (e.g., China, Italy, and Spain), where regulations have been enforced by the police and/or military.

[6]  Attorney General William Barr, quoted in “Editorial:  Rush to Reopen Risks Even Greater Coronavirus Toll,” San Francisco Chronicle (April 10, 2020).

[7]  Quezada, M., “Why the Homeless Are Especially Vulnerable during the COVID-19 Outbreak,”, p, 3.

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