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For SF businesses, relaxed masking rules fuel both relief and anxiety

With the easing of mask mandates in San Francisco, some local merchants are celebrating a cautious return to normalcy after 20 months of restrictions. Still others are perplexed—even disillusioned—by what they see as inconsistencies in the city’s evolving regulations. 

The relaxed guidelines, which took effect Oct. 15, apply to controlled environments that can verify vaccination status: offices, gyms, and other settings where vaccinated people gather regularly in a ventilated setting. For venues included in the updated regulation, the change is bringing in more business and happier customers. 

“I think a lot of people just didn’t come back because of the masks,” said Erin Gilmore, a yoga instructor at Yoga Flow in Pacific Heights. “These last few classes have been the first ones that are even close to pre-pandemic times—which is so fun.” 

Erin Gilmore, Yoga Instructor at Yoga Flow in the Marina District, winds down after a steamy class session on October 20, 2021.

In conjunction with other Bay Area counties, San Francisco announced two weeks ago that it will lift indoor mask mandates when case rates fall into a “moderate” range, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as between 15 and 50 new cases per 100,000 residents over the course of a week, and a positivity rate of 5% to 8%. San Francisco currently sits in the “substantial” risk category, with around 56 cases per week per 100,000 residents. In the interim, however, public health officials opted to ease mask restrictions in controlled environments.  

The perspiry smiles of over 40 yogis filled the waiting room after Gilmore’s class, causing the fire alarm to go off from the extra body heat. 

“It was just so hot, so steamy, and so humid…This was the first class we had where we packed it out to 40 people, so this was the first time I heard that,” said Cori Stephanie, the district manager for Yoga Flow.

Sean Keighran, a participant in the class, echoed the excitement and said that working out at home can’t compare to a live yoga class. 

“Having more people builds a synergy and builds a great energy,” Keighran said. “Everything is relative in life. So relative to doing yoga at home, it was better to be in here with the mask. But the best thing is still being here without the mask.” 

Cori Stephanie, district manager at Yoga Flow in the Marina District, discusses the change of energy in the studio since the mask mandate was lifted.

Likewise, some office-based professionals who have been largely working from home since March 2020 said that the new guidelines have spurred more confidence in a return to the office⁠—and a renewed appreciation for person-to-person contact. 

“There’s a lot to be gained from in-person development, and from our perspective it was something we wanted to get back to,” said Michael Yelverton, head of west coast operations at Tiedemann Advisors, a financial services firm. 

Yelverton said that the firm plans to call workers back to its San Francisco office starting in November, having pushed that date back three times due to the Delta variant and ensuing changes in health guidance. The firm also acknowledged that for many of its employees⁠—particularly those with families⁠—it didn’t make sense to require in-person work before certain milestones like the reopening of schools. 

“People have been hearing lately, especially in San Francisco: It’s been good to get the band back together.” Yelverton added. 

Outside the relative security of an office⁠—or the tranquility of a yoga studio⁠—other businesses fear punishment for not complying with the continually changing health codes: Last week, for example, the Department of Public Health closed the In-N-Out at Fisherman’s Wharf for not checking vaccine cards. 

Some restaurant workers expressed confusion about why the loosened mask mandates don’t include them, despite an earlier mandate by the city that bars and restaurants verify that customers are vaccinated prior to entry.  

“When we hired staff to check vaccines at the door, it was so we could get rid of the masks. We thought it would be a give and take,” said Milo Salehi, lead bartender at The Beehive in the Mission. 

Milo Salehi, lead bartender at The Beehive, poses in the establishment on Valencia Street in the Mission District on October 20, 2021.

Salehi said that The Beehive is willingly compliant and was checking for vaccines before the city required it, but pointed to recent actions by Mayor London Breed as an example of misalignment in mask requirements. In September, a viral video of Breed dancing maskless in a bar against her health guidance sparked a furor, along with a measure of skepticism around the logic of mask mandates. Breed defended her actions, calling the masking rules for bar patrons not “realistic” and telling residents to “do [their best]” with the mandates.  

“We can recognize when some rules are just for optics,” Salehi said. “Although the rule is that you’re supposed to wear a mask if you’re not actively eating or drinking, we all know, including mayor London Breed, that’s not really how it goes in a bar environment…It’s a game we’re all playing.” 

Milo Salehi, the lead bartender at The Beehive, poses outside the establishment on Valencia Street in the Mission District on October 20, 2021.

Lingering in the background are ongoing anxieties around the virus, even among those who stand to benefit from relaxed guidelines for businesses. Wednesday’s 40-person class at Yoga Flow marked one of Gilmore’s first sessions back from maternity leave. Despite excitement about sharing her practice with more people, she expressed hesitation about whether it’s the right thing to do. 

“The last thing I want to do is bring COVID home to my baby,” Gilmore said. “Hopefully, we’re making the right choice because you don’t know, right? We’ve tried so many different things.” 

David Sjostedt can be reached at

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