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In ‘eerie’ Financial District, merchants see long recovery ahead

The pandemic may appear to be waning, but merchants in San Francisco’s downtown have a long road to recovery ahead. 

San Francisco’s downtown has been slower to bounce back than other U.S. cities, leaving the bars, restaurants and shops serving a commuter crowd in limbo—and often in debt—as they plan for an uncertain future. 

“This area, in my opinion, has been hit the hardest in San Francisco and there has been no kind of funding or help,” said Muna Azzghayer, who runs Oasis Grill, a Mediterranean eatery close to Embarcadero, and nearby Ziggy’s Burgers. “The city completely ignored this entire area.”

In interviews with Here/Say, downtown merchants described a staggering loss of revenue and foot traffic as tourists and office workers largely avoid the area. Some were mystified about why the city has seemingly done so little to shore up downtown, which hosts millions of visitors and generates an outsized portion of the city’s tax revenue in a typical year. 

Jackson Square's Old Ship Saloon is at 10% of pre-pandemic levels, according to manager Will Herrera. | Image by Mike Kuba

“COVID has been the hardest one. You know, we went through the dotcom [crash], we went through the crash of Lehman Brothers, but they never shut us down for so long,” said Pino Spinoso of Cafe Tiramisu, a restaurant serving Italian fare in the Financial District. “And the people kind of lost the trust of the people next to them. You know, we've never had that before.” 

Data from San Francisco’s tax office show that sales tax collections in Districts 3 and 6, which encompass the Financial District, Union Square and parts of SoMa, tumbled by nearly half in 2020—a far steeper drop than any other district. And with tourism still low, most conventions shuttered and offices largely empty, a comeback looks a ways off: Passengers at San Francisco International Airport were about 50% of pre-COVID levels in August, and office visits remain anemic at about 22% occupancy as of last week, according to Kastle Systems. 

It’s an “eerie” scenario for a bartender used to serving bustling happy hour crowds, said Will Herrera, who runs the Old Ship Saloon in Jackson Square.

“We just don't know what to expect from day to day,” said Herrera. “It just felt, and it still feels to this day, that we're being penalized on every single front. Because no matter what, whether we ask someone to show proof of vaccination or require a mask, we're subject to turning business away.”

Will Herrera, who manages the Old Ship Saloon, poses in the restaurant's dining room during lunch hour on Sept. 24, 2021. | Image by Mike Kuba

Downtown merchants have adjusted by dramatically reducing their operations, cutting hours, and scrambling to apply for government programs—all while keeping up with health orders and regulations that seem to shift every few weeks. 

Like many other fellow merchants, Herrera’s Old Ship Saloon relies primarily on the lawyers, brokers and other office workers that typically populate downtown. Now, Herrera finds himself at the mercy of management at those companies, who make decisions about when—or even if—to call workers back into those offices. 

In May, city officials announced a revitalization plan for downtown that combined increased safety patrols, beautification efforts at downtown BART stations, and regular arts programming in an effort to lure visitors and workers back to the area. 

Some merchants noted a small uptick in business over the summer. But any such recovery proved fleeting with the arrival of the Delta variant, which triggered a case surge and waylaid back-to-office plans at some employers.  

Several of San Francisco’s largest employers, including Salesforce, Airbnb and LinkedIn, have extended work-from-home allowances at least until next year and may even offer it as a permanent option. The city’s conservative health guidelines may also play a role in disincentivizing in-person work, with office workers currently required to wear a mask even if everyone present is fully vaccinated. (San Francisco is expected to revise its mask guidelines this week.)

Muna Azzghayer, co-owner of Oasis Grill and Ziggy's Burgers, says she's suffered from anxiety during the pandemic and worries about losing her businesses and home. | Image by Mike Kuba

“Maybe some law firms [are reopening] their offices, maybe smaller companies,” added Azzghayer, who said she’s serving about 20% of the customers she did prior to the pandemic. “Salesforce and Google and the bigger companies...I don't think they are coming back for a while.

Despite an uncertain prognosis, Azzghayer and others expressed hope for an eventual return of customers, a realignment of downtown, and a determination to keep the lights on. 

“I am devoted to surviving this,” said Herrera. “And it's not just my beautiful family and the patrons, but also my dishwasher and my busser and my devoted bar staff that are committed to making this happen.”

Video by Mike Kuba.