“Hindsight these days is not years later; it’s weeks later,” the senator said. “So hindsight tells us London Breed was really smart. She did the right thing at the right time, even though it’s not what people wanted to hear.”
To some extent, the divergent paths taken by San Francisco and New York, two cities linked by a lack of affordable housing and yawning wealth gaps, mirror a broader divide between the nation’s East and West Coasts. Washington State, where a cluster of coronavirus cases at a nursing home made the state the early epicenter of the disease in America, has had more success than many other states containing the outbreak in the month since it first erupted there. The governors of Oregon and California have even loaned ventilators to New York and the national stockpile since their supplies haven’t been depleted.
Epidemiologists told me that San Francisco and other West Coast cities likely benefited from the Trump administration’s late-January restrictions on travel from China, while the president’s delay in banning flights from Europe, which he didn’t do until mid-March, hit New York hard. (New research backs this up, indicating that most of New York’s early cases came from Europe in mid-February, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.)
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“New York was like Italy, and San Francisco and Washington State are more like, not necessarily the South Koreans, but some of the Asian countries that have had slower growth rates,” Shahpar, a former leader of global rapid response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told me. “Really, it’s about early identification of a problem, saying, ‘We’re going to be more proactive than reactive.’”
It’s that difference in decision making—proactive versus reactive—that has separated leaders at all levels of government during this crisis. “This virus has been ahead of us from day one,” Cuomo lamented on Thursday, as he announced that, once again, New York had seen a daily record—799—in coronavirus deaths.
That may be true for Cuomo and de Blasio, who dragged their feet, not to mention Donald Trump. But it is not true for Breed.
Public-health officials in San Francisco began monitoring the coronavirus outbreak around the holidays in December, Mary Ellen Carroll, who runs the city’s Department of Emergency Management, told me. By late January, Breed had activated San Francisco’s emergency-operations center in preparation for an outbreak—the first such move in any major city in the country. The mayor has since relocated the command post to the Moscone Center, a sprawling complex where top city officials can work in-person while social distancing. Everyone, including Breed, wears a mask when they meet, Carroll said.
Breed told me that what got her attention early on was the ghastly photographs and footage coming out of Wuhan, China, showing the region’s hospitals overrun by coronavirus patients. “A picture’s worth a thousand words—seeing the images of what could potentially happen and then hearing your doctors tell you that we may not have the capacity to handle this situation,” the mayor said, recalling a briefing during which her advisers laid out the possibilities for a similar scenario in stark detail. “We have tons of hospitals in San Francisco. What do you mean we don’t have the capacity to handle an outbreak of this capacity?” Breed recalled thinking. “That’s when I was just like, Oh my goodness, this is serious. And we need to basically sound the alarm in a way that helps us to get ready.”