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Castro Merchants will seek to close parts of 18th Street for outdoor dining

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District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman talks to members of Castro Merchants during a July 2 Zoom meeting. Photo: Screenshot via Zoom
District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman talks to members of Castro Merchants during a July 2 Zoom meeting. Photo: Screenshot via Zoom  

The Castro Merchants business association plans to apply for a Shared Spaces permit to allow street closures on 18th Street, according to Jacob Bintliff, a legislative aide to District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

"Castro Merchants Association plans to submit a Shared Spaces permit for a street closure on 18th from Collingwood to Castro, and Castro to Hartford," Bintliff, who is gay, wrote in an email to the Bay Area Reporter July 2. "The proposal is for a closure to traffic Friday evenings through Sundays, and we believe this can be activated before the end of the month."

The street closure would allow restaurants to serve customers outdoors while allowing patrons to maintain physical distancing in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Already, some restaurants in the Castro have reopened for outdoor dining, but some in the community have complained that the tables on the 18th Street sidewalks make it hard for people to physically distance.

"We've been having preliminary conversations with MTA and city agencies facilitated by our office over the past month," Bintliff wrote, referring to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. "The plan to start will be for the businesses directly facing the closure area to have tables and chair service they control access to. This is a requirement of [California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control] for the purpose of alcohol sales."

He added that businesses along Castro and other streets may apply individually, or in partnership with neighboring businesses, for sidewalk or curbside space here.

The Muni-33 bus that normally operates on 18th Street has been suspended as part of SFMTA's response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and so Muni service would not be affected by the proposed street closure.

Castro Merchants President Masood Samereie stated to the B.A.R. that the association will make an announcement with further details when the proposal is completed.

Mandelman, also a gay man, is on the city's economic recovery task force. As the B.A.R. previously reported, Mandelman said at a virtual Castro Merchants meeting in May that "There may be times Castro Street is closed off to traffic."

Some merchants asked if Jane Warner Plaza could be turned into a Shared Space. Bintliff and others agreed this would be trickier than doing so for 18th Street because the plaza is under San Francisco Public Works jurisdiction.

City pauses reopening
At the Castro Merchants' virtual meeting July 2, Mandelman said that a rise in the proportion of COVID-19 tests coming back positive, and an increase in the hospitalization rate, is behind Mayor London Breed's decision to pause the city's reopening efforts.

There has been a rise in cases nationwide, and although San Francisco's is not as steep, public officials have stated they do not want to reverse the progress made through months of shelter-in-place.

Businesses including hair salons, barber shops, nail salons, tattoo parlors, museums, zoos, outdoor bars, and outdoor swimming pools had been scheduled to be allowed to open Monday, June 29. On Friday, June 26, Breed said that current restrictions would remain in-place.

"Our public health experts will evaluate the data over the coming days to determine if it's safe to move forward. I know people are anxious to reopen — I am too," Breed stated in a news release. "But we cannot jeopardize the progress we have made."

According to the city's Department of Emergency Management, the seven-day average of new cases more than doubled from June 13 to 27 (24 to 54). Hospitalizations increased more than 50% from June 22 to June 29 (43 to 67), though most of those patients were transferred from San Quentin State Prison, as well as Fresno and Imperial counties.

"We've made it some way down the path of reopening and we don't want to have to pull any of that back," Mandelman said.

Mandelman thanked Samereie for signing onto a statement last week asking people not to "come to the Castro looking for a party" during Pride weekend.

"We were successful in that until Sunday afternoon," Mandelman said, adding that the People's March down Polk Street to City Hall (which he attended) "was amazing."

He said that he was disappointed that people later came to the Castro neighborhood and destroyed property.

"The vandalism and graffiti was disappointing and frustrating. Thanks to the CBD, the Castro is looking much better and was looking much better quickly," he said, referring to the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District.

It's a difficult balancing act, Mandelman said later in the meeting, between wanting to discourage crowds and wanting to encourage people to patronize small businesses.

"I think people are correctly going to feel anxious about going out right now," Mandelman said. "It's hard to simultaneously tell people 'we're surging' and 'get out there,' so the middle path is we want you to patronize small businesses, wear your masks, and limit your set of folks you engage with socially to a smaller group."

Homelessness
Much of the meeting was consumed by discussion of homelessness in the Castro neighborhood.

After the imposition of the shelter-in-place order by Breed in March, it became city policy to avoid making unhoused individuals move their tents. One consequence has been a rise in homelessness in the city's residential and neighborhood commercial spaces.

In response, Mandelman spearheaded the creation of a safe sleeping site at Everett Middle School at 450 Church Street.

"The results of Everett are mixed," Mandelman said, acknowledging "sizable encampments" on 16th Street south of Market Street.

Mandelman said that while the Everett site is safer than sleeping on the street, and has showers, meals and drug treatment, some people did not want to move — and the city was not going to make them.

"The experience of Everett was enlightening to me. ... There's a lot of reasons for someone to accept that offer of services," Mandelman said. "People were committed to remaining on the street."

Mandelman said that merchants should apply political pressure to other members of the Board of Supervisors who do not want to see forcible removal of tent encampments from sidewalks.

Terry Beswick, a gay man who is the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, said that alternatives to police sweeps need to be explored.

"I think it's wrong-headed to ask [Mission Station] Captain Gaetano [Caltagirone] to come here and clean it up," Beswick said.

Responded Mandelman: "I hear you and I'd say that view is strongly represented among city policymakers and I think there is a real tension — our direction to our police is incoherent because we are not unified about what we want them to do."

Mandelman subsequently brought up a tragic event from earlier this week as a reason why camps should be cleared — an individual who allegedly set themselves on fire near the 16th Street encampment.

According to a San Francisco Police Department spokesperson later Thursday, a 25-year-old San Francisco resident "was transported to a local hospital for burn injuries."

"On Sunday June 28, 2020 at approximately 5:04 p.m., San Francisco Police officers from Mission Station responded to the area of 16th and Pond Street for a report of a person on fire," the spokesperson stated to the B.A.R. "Prior to police and fire department arrival, passersby assisted by using a fire extinguisher to help extinguish the fire. A tent was also reportedly on fire."

Beswick suggested that Breed tour the Castro to observe the encampments with regard to how well physical distancing is being observed. He also suggested he could go on such a tour with Mandelman himself if the mayor was too busy.

Breed is scheduled to be on a 30-minute Zoom call with the merchants on Friday, July 10, at 12:30 p.m.

Flore Cafe to reopen
The 47-year-old Flore Cafe on Market Street (also known as Cafe Flore), which was originally going to become a private event space, is going to return as a restaurant, according to gay owner Terrence Alan.

"Cafe Flore will reopen but we are looking for a venture partner with a history of success," Alan said. "If you know someone, if you have interest, please reach out to me directly."

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