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Downtown Reopens, But SF Office Workers Aren't Rushing Back

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

  • Non-essential offices in San Francisco were permitted to open at 25% capacity on Oct. 27, provided that health guidelines are observed

  • Citing ongoing health concerns, major San Francisco employers such as Salesforce, PG&E are in no hurry to bring employees back in person. Some say that remote work will be a permanent fixture at their companies

  • City officials cite remote work as a major budget risk, with business taxes expected to drop 12% in fiscal 2020-2021 according to a new estimate by the SF Controller

Starting on Oct. 27, nonessential offices in San Francisco were allowed to reopen at 25% capacity. Mayor London Breed made the announcement after SF was assigned to the state’s Yellow tier, California’s lowest COVID-19 case rate tier. But so far, downtown office workers don’t seem to be in any rush to return.

According to the Mayor’s directive, offices with fewer than 20 employees are allowed even greater flexibility to reopen, so long as ventilation, employee health check, and social distancing guidelines are met. If case rates of the novel coronavirus remain stable for 30 days after the Oct. 27 reopening, SF officials may consider expanding reopening capacity.

But it is difficult to judge whether allowing workplaces to reopen will have much immediate impact. Just because they can doesn’t mean employees are returning to the area after months of working remotely, nor does it mean that companies are prepared to bring employees back.

Salesforce, which has around 9,400 Bay Area-based employees and occupies several buildings in SoMa, doesn’t yet have an in-person reopening timeline and will be making reopening decisions “on a city-by-city basis,” according to a spokesperson.

“This is on top of daily cases declining and health system capacity,” he said. All Salesforce employees have the option of working remotely through July 2021.

That echoes the approach of many downtown employers, both large and small. PG&E, for example, plans to bring employees back to its downtown headquarters in March 2021 at earliest, with exceptions for limited essential staff. A number of tech firms, including Google and Facebook, have extended their work-from-home options through summer of next year; many, at least anecdotally, say that some degree of remote work will be permanent.

“We have not opened up our Bay Area offices to employees in any capacity and do not have an estimated return date,” said Laura Robblee, chief human resources officer at Zuora, which has two offices in the Bay Area. “Local regulations may permit a return to the office, but our employees’ health and well-being continues to be a priority for us now, and in the future.”

San Francisco officials have expressed ongoing concern about the recovery of downtown. In a report released this week, the SF Controller's Office estimated that business tax revenues will drop 12% in fiscal 2020-2021, with remote work as a major contributing factor. Meanwhile, FiDi businesses had the highest closure rates of any SF neighborhood, according to recent data.

Foot traffic downtown did not appear to pick up in the two weeks since the reopening was allowed. Most cafés along Kearny Street north of Market remain open at lunchtime but with few if any lines. The pedestrian scramble at Montgomery and Bush Streets, normally filled with hundreds of people crossing in all directions during rush hours, has maybe a dozen individuals passing through at a time most mornings and afternoons. One local merchant in a shop just south of Market Street noted that the entire area felt even more deserted than ever, calling the last week of October “dead—as bad as April.”

Some of the sluggishness to return may be related to unease over the potential for civil unrest, with businesses along the Market, Montgomery, and Geary Street corridors boarded in advance of election day. While plenty of restaurants and retailers remained open, areas around Union Square and throughout the Financial District appeared as shuttered as they did back in March, when the city first shut down due to the pandemic. In the last week of October, crews spent much the week installing plywood on windows of everything from major financial institutions to Starbucks and Subway locations. Even with the Nov. 3 election in the rearview mirror, many businesses downtown remain boarded up.

BART ridership data further indicates that so far, workers with jobs in SoMa and FiDi are not rushing back to their offices -- or at least if they are, they’re not using public transit.

Daily BART ridership totals did not meaningfully increase any weekday since the week of Oct. 27, and were hovering around 52,000 daily riders, 87% below totals from the same time last year.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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