San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors remain resolute on their efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) pandemic citywide, but are at odds on how to best protect the homeless population as infections rise. 

During Wednesday’s news conference from the Emergency Operations Center at Moscone Center, Department of Public Health Director Grant Colfax confirmed a new case of COVID-19 out of MSC-South, San Francisco’s largest homeless shelter located in District 6. “We actually have four cases now of people who have been diagnosed in a shelter or navigation center,” Colfax said. Today, a total of 70 cases were announced at MSC-South. 

Also in Wednesday’s news conference, Director of Human Services Agency (HSA) Trent Rhorer confirmed the Breed administration’s latest plan to leverage 7,000 hotel rooms at a cost of $105M for a three-month activation period. The costs include staffing, cleaning, and human services. Currently only 1,977 hotel rooms are under or near contract, with a nominal occupancy of about 150 people. According to Rhorer, priority access to the 7,000 rooms will be given to three segments of the homeless population: COVID-19 positive, those with underlying medical conditions, and those 60 years old and over. It’s not clear why so few people have been relocated to a hotel room thus far.

The gap between the administration’s hotel room target and the number of people the supervisors want to relocate is almost four-fold. There are approximately 8,000 homeless people in San Francisco, with nearly 3,000 of them staying in congregate shelters and 5,000 living in the streets. Additionally, there are 19,000 people living in single room occupancy facilities where multiple tenants share a kitchen, toilets or bathrooms, according to a joint statement released by five members of the Board of Supervisors last week. 

Rhorer also said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse 70 to 75 percent of the costs. “This is an extremely fluid situation,” he said when describing the city’s care and shelter approach, “and we’re responding seemingly daily or often more than once daily to differing guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or the State Department of Health as well as the Department of Public Health.” 

When asked what she would do if the emergency legislation proposed by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is approved, which would require the city to house homeless people of all ages and current conditions in private hotel rooms, Breed said, “from the very beginning we’ve really focused on moving forward plans that are realistic, that allow us to use data, that are sustainable.” 

“We’ve had to basically make magic happen over the past month,” Breed said referring to the actions the city has taken to manage the public health crisis, “staffing up our hospitals, making sure our nurses, doctors, and city workers have protective equipment, thinning out our shelter systems.”

“We want to make sure that we’re not only providing places to be during this crisis but we’re providing protection for those we’re expecting to put their lives on the line,” Breed said. “I’ll really basically continue to do just that.”

To date, there are 724 confirmed cases and 10 deaths due to COVID-19 in San Francisco.

On Tuesday, Supervisors Hillary Ronen (District 9), Matt Haney (District 6), Dean Preston (District 5), Shamann Walton (District 10), and Aaron Peskin (District 3) introduced emergency legislation as disagreements escalated with the mayor over her plans for housing the homeless population in their districts. 

“The official line coming out of HSA and the Mayor’s office for why they’re falling to act proactively when it deals with vulnerable populations like those that experiencing homelessness has been shifting,” Ronen said during her introductory remarks. “We’ve heard from Trent Rhorer, the director of the HSA, that it wouldn’t be fiscally prudent to put people into hotel rooms where they could self-isolate.” 

The proposed emergency ordinance is currently set for a vote before the full Board of Supervisors on April 14, and requires a two-thirds majority to pass.

Coronavirus is spread by coughs and sneezes according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Most infected people have mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and other respiratory problems that can be fatal.

The homeless population is particularly at risk of COVID-19 infection. Many transients already have health problems such as heart disease or diabetes, and live in conditions that do not permit frequent hand washing and social distancing.