San Francisco City Hall was more lively than it’s been in more than 20 months on Monday, with the return of government office workers to in-person work and a festive swearing-in of San Francisco’s new city attorney, David Chiu.
In the City Hall rotunda, a mostly masked crowd of politicos gathered to welcome Chiu—a longtime attorney and political fixture who most recently served in the state assembly—to the city’s top legal post. In a speech, Chiu drew parallels between his recent work in the state legislature, much of which focused on fighting evictions during the pandemic, and his priorities as city attorney.
Monday also marked the first day back in the office for thousands of city employees who may have at least partly worked from home since March 2020.
“Everyone is easing into it, but you can feel the energy in this room that people are excited to be back together with each other in person,” Joaquin Torres, San Francisco’s assessor-recorder, told Here/Say. “Every person who's coming back is going to be supporting our small businesses...so from an economic perspective, it's exciting.”
“I look forward...to thinking about how we can use the role of the law and take the opportunity to address the pressing problems of the day, whether it be housing and homelessness and suffering on our streets, whether it be the existential crisis of climate, or whether it be rooting out corruption and ensuring that we are holding City Hall to the highest ethical standards,” said Chiu.
Mayor Breed, along with other city officials, hopes that the government can set an example for private employers to begin encouraging in-person work again. San Francisco’s downtown has struggled to bounce back, with office buildings remaining largely empty as many employers extend remote work policies at least until next year.
“We want to be role models for the rest of the economy to come back as well,” added Kate Sofis, director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “You know, I took over the Office of Economic Development just six months ago. I'm meeting people that I only know of on Zoom or [Microsoft Teams] for the very first time, so it's incredibly grounding for me to have more of my folks around in person.”
While many frontline city workers were in the field during the pandemic, thousands of other employees across the city’s more than 50 agencies and departments have been allowed to telecommute. That allowance expired with the city’s Nov. 1 vaccination deadline, established as part of a sweeping health mandate for city staff.
Nearly 98% of San Francisco’s workforce of roughly 35,000 are fully vaccinated, Mayor London Breed said last week. The city reported about 900 applications, many last-minute, for vaccine exemptions, but most have been denied.
Masks are staying on at many city offices for now, according to the city’s Department of Human Resources, although individual departments may relax mask rules once they establish a “stable cohort” of vaccinated people.
Ahead of the Nov. 1 deadline, SFMTA, the Police Department, the Fire Department and Sheriff’s Department reported vaccine holdouts among their workforce, and some warned of a possible reshuffling of staff or even service reductions. It appears that some last-minute haggling with unvaccinated employees worked: SFMTA told Here/Say that 48 transit operators, or 3%, were out of compliance as of Monday. Another 62 operators are under review for reasonable accommodation requests.
The police department reported an uptick in vaccination rates two weeks ago and said it would report final vaccination numbers this week.
“We've been working since the pandemic; we're a law enforcement agency, a public safety agency. So we do have some [professional staff] that were out,” said Richard Jue, chief of staff at the Sheriff’s Department. “But now that they're returning, it's great because it helped to ease the pressure off of our other employees working here.”
Reporting contributed by Meaghan Mitchell and Christina Campodonico
Annie Gaus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org