Entering 4th year, Castro grapples with effects of COVID

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 15, 2023
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People cross Castro Street at Market Street. Neighborhood leaders and residents hope the LGBTQ neighborhood can continue recovering from the COVID pandemic. Photo: John Ferrannini
People cross Castro Street at Market Street. Neighborhood leaders and residents hope the LGBTQ neighborhood can continue recovering from the COVID pandemic. Photo: John Ferrannini

The beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020 marked a dark turning point in the lives of many people around the world, and that's as true of San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro neighborhood as anywhere.

But even as the pandemic's direct influence on day-to-day life ebbs and COVID enters its fourth year — President Joe Biden took heat last fall for saying "the pandemic is over" though hundreds of people continued to die on average each day — the aftereffects are hard to overstate.

"It has been a really crazy three years and the impact is still being felt but it's harder to say directly COVID at this point because there's so much on top," Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is general manager of Cliff's Variety, told the Bay Area Reporter. "The war in Ukraine, the gas prices, it has an impact on a number of fronts. ... I saw on the news people saying the supply chain will be fixed in six months and I laughed."

The supply chain has been severely impacted by the pandemic, resulting in delayed shipments of many goods to retailers, car dealerships, and others.

Bennett's shop on Castro Street was a lifeline for many during the pandemic's early years, as it remained open as an essential business. Since then, the store has leaned on the cautious side, providing masks and hand sanitizer, but its policies reflect the general relaxation of COVID prevention measures in the past two years.

"The last time I mandated the public wear [masks] was when we had 10 staff members get it in a week," Bennett said, adding that this was during the late 2021-early 2022 Omicron surge. "That was awful. It was a really awful 10-day period, but when a quarter of the store comes down with COVID, you've got to do something."

Masks have been optional for employees since the end of February, Bennett said.

"Within a week of it being optional people who chose not to [mask] all got the flu," she noted.

San Francisco and California's states of emergency ended February 28, and the federal state of emergency is set to end May 11.

"While the threat from COVID-19 is not over, as both the virus and the tools to respond to it have evolved over the past three years, San Francisco is now in a significantly better position today than at any prior time in the pandemic due to the city's high vaccination and booster rates and the availability of effective COVID-19 treatments," stated a recent city Department of Public Health news release. "SFDPH encourages eligible residents to seek out COVID-19 resources such as at-home tests, treatments for those who test positive, and the updated bivalent booster, which are currently free. Information on all these resources can be found at sf.gov/covid."

Bennett agreed.

"With restrictions having been rolled back and the [antiviral] Paxlovid seeming like it works — and our population seems pretty well vaccinated compared to other places and for that I'm very grateful — people seem to be recovering from [COVID] faster," she said.

'I chose to get out'

Another effect of the pandemic was an exodus of people out of the Bay Area — 125,000 residents, according to the United States Census Bureau, which noted the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley metro area had the largest population percentage decrease of any major American region.

In San Francisco, 55,000 people — about 6% of the population — left, according to census data. This brought the city's population to 815,201, its lowest level since before the 2010s tech boom.

This departure of people and businesses — as well as many people continuing to work from home at least part of the time — has implications for the city's budget, which is projected to see a $728 million deficit over the next two fiscal years, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Terry Beswick, a gay man who'd lived in the Castro for 13 years by 2020, was one of the people who decided to pull up stakes, though only briefly. He's back in town now and is on the board of the Castro Merchants Association.

"The community was experiencing a lot of trauma," Beswick said as he reflected on 2020. "There were other personal reasons for moving too, but what really was demoralizing was the state of the neighborhood for me. It was during the time the shelters were shut down. ... The spaces for services for homeless people were inhumane and I felt helpless to do anything about it. Everywhere was boarded up and shut down, and I chose to get out."

Beswick lived in Palm Springs for much of 2021. Now that he's back he said he's "seen some encouraging signs." For example, the cutting of red tape due to the exigencies of the pandemic can be used to help revitalize the Castro in a post-lockdown world.

"One thing I found encouraging during the pandemic was to see that the city can take action quickly when there's an emergency — regulations can be waived, funds can be materialized, and we are seeing some shift in the zeitgeist that we don't have to do things the ways they've always been done," Beswick said.

"I try to look at the silver linings," he added. "Obviously we lost a lot of businesses, which did not come back. ... But that creates an opportunity for new businesses to come and allows us to be intentional about what community we want to be."

One new business — for which, as the B.A.R. previously reported, Beswick was a fierce advocate — is the Welcome Castro visitor's center and store that will open at 525 Castro Street and is being spearheaded by Robert Emmons, a gay man who is the owner of SF Mercantile in the Haight.

The welcome center was kick-started by a $50,000 grant from the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Emmons pledged up to 50% of his net proceeds to the merchants association for 10 months so that money can be used for "multiple additional pop ups," Beswick said, that hopefully can become viable businesses. The total grant was for $100,000 and the other half is "going on related costs for all pop ups: marketing, administration, visitor programs, etc.," Beswick added.

"If we filled multiple vacant storefronts with $100,000, what could we do with a million?" Beswick asked. "That creates revenue for the city" that could increase its tax base.

Emmons told the B.A.R. Wednesday that he's trying to open in April but is going to be set back a "a couple of weeks" because he was the victim of a hit-and-run. He is "waiting to hear back from the police" after what started as a road rage incident led to him receiving a hip replacement. "It's painful but I'm healing," he said.

Cliff's Variety in the Castro instituted social distancing for customers when COVID first hit in March 2020. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Beswick and others were insistent that the area's housing crisis is an obstacle to restoring vitality to the Castro.

While the median San Francisco rent declined 10.9% from March 2020 to December 2022, according to the San Francisco Business Times, it's still a whopping $2,238 a month.

And the Castro LGBTQ neighborhood is even more expensive, with a median rent of $3,850 per month, according to renthop.com.

"One of the reasons it's difficult for so many people to move into the Castro is the high rent and low availability of housing," Beswick said. "That's also why the Castro is not as queer as it used to be."

George Calderon, a 22-year-old gay San Francisco resident, concurred.

"For young queer folks like myself, I know it can be a challenge securing housing in a housing market such as San Francisco," he said. "Statistically, homelessness tends to skew higher amongst the LGBTQ+ community as well, making this issue that disproportionately affects a community that I and the Castro closely identify with."

Calderon suggested the Castro needs "maybe a brick and mortar Juanita's List housing agency for queer folks," referring to the online housing group created by the drag artist Juanita MORE!

"By providing a Juanita's List styled place that lends resources, information, and support to LGBTQ+ persons and aids them in securing a safe place to live, the Castro can go even further in its institution as an LGBTQ+ haven," Calderon said.

MORE! told the B.A.R. that there are over 12,000 members of the Facebook group, which seeks to connect queer people with supportive rental options.

"The group has become a vital community service," MORE! stated. "Across the United States, many queer people still dream of leaving home to follow the rainbow that glows over San Francisco. Though, the cost of living is so high that it's becoming more and more difficult to survive here. So many people flee rejection from their families, unsupportive schools, and communities due to homophobia and transphobia.

"So many of them are arriving without employment, housing, or a supportive network and face incredible hardship in finding affordable housing," MORE! added. "Because of this list, they are finding housing not just in the Castro district; but throughout the entire city."

Calderon also suggested the Castro could benefit from more "social spaces without alcohol."

"I think being gay in San Francisco can include much more than three vodka sodas and sloppy tongue touching," Calderon said.

The Castro Country Club is located in the neighborhood and provides a sober space for people, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step meetings.

Calderon, who is Latino, also stated that the neighborhood needs more "BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] representation," a theme that comes up time and again in relation to the Castro specifically over the years. Sixty-eight percent of Castro residents are non-Hispanic whites, according to 2021 census estimates.

"By cementing a presence, there is a comfort and coziness afforded to the Castro that people from all walks of life deserve when they visit this space," Calderon said.

Bullish on Castro
Terrance Alan, a gay man who is president of the merchants group, was bullish on the neighborhood's future. Having recently turned Cafe Flore over to new restaurant proprietor Serhat Zorlu, Alan said a Castro renaissance is burgeoning.

"COVID impacted the Castro dramatically because it relies on tourism for much of its revenue and COVID stopped tourism dead in its tracks," Alan said. "This crippled businesses catering to the tourist crowd and even businesses that were hyper-local were impacted. That led to a string of closures."

However, citing developments at Flore, soon to be known as Fisch and Flore, inquiries into the shuttered Harvey's space at Castro and 18th streets, and "a tremendous amount of activity preparing for places to be reopened," he's hopeful this summer will bring more vitality to the queerville.

In just the past several days, a Salvadorian restaurant called Los Amigos opened in the former Castro Republic space (2295 Market Street), which had been shuttered for years.

Still, even the confident Alan had to qualify his remarks — things take time.

"We're in San Francisco," Alan said. "There's a lengthy approval process for opening a business."

Just as COVID was a global problem, dealing with social and economic change is too, Beswick said.

"Economic inequality is increasing more and more," Beswick said. "Until there's an economic shift ... we're chipping around the edges."

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