The week of March 1, when SF and California began lifting mask requirements, I wound up re-watching the HIV/AIDS drama And the Band Played On. I knew re-watching the 1993 film—based on the exhaustively-researched book by the late Chronicle writer Randy Shilts—would make me emotional, being an SF 1980s kid.
What I didn’t expect were triggering parallels: a new virus appearing during a Republican presidency that shifts the blame of said virus to a marginalized group, while both that group and the general public die in staggering numbers; politicians and corporate interests push a false narrative of “normal.”
As we hit the two-year anniversary of SF’s first COVID lockdowns, I think of how future generations will look at this time in history. I can tell you they will not look kind on London Breed. In war terms: she had the chance to be a decorated general, but chose to collaborate with the enemy.
Breed had the single easiest job in the world. After failing upwards into mayoral seat left vacant by her late mentor Ed Lee, she followed his example of cozying up to big business as countless SF natives were displaced by rising prices. She did all of this coasting off the city’s reputation as welcoming and eclectic, but everyone saw through her façade. When she ran in the proper election in 2018, the Lucy Parsons Project (a collective of Black queer activists in the Castro) highlighted her gentrifying policies and chummy relationship with SFPD. They pushed back against her campaign with a simple, but effective slogan: “London Breed doesn’t care about Black People.”
Yet, the rise of COVID could have been a game-changer for her. Before the whole world knew the terms “social distancing” and “N95 masks,” early-2020 already saw a rise of anti-Asian bias, and misinformation placed the blame on the Chinese. To Breed’s credit, she frequently appeared in Chinatown to show support.
Then came March 2020. She didn’t wait for Gavin Newsom, she didn’t wait for Trump, she didn’t wait to see what other big cities were doing—she went ahead and shut down San Francisco (schools, nightlife, churches, everything) to stop the spread of the coronavirus. She had homeless people given housing in empty hotels. If at no other time in her career, this was the moment that London Breed did the right thing. It was so right that every other city in the world looked at us with envy.
That was then.
In March 2022, we have a London Breed who, on March 9, announced that the city would be lifting indoor vaccine requirements for bars, gyms, and restaurants. She did so boasting that the city had a vaccination rate of 83 percent, which, in case you hadn’t noticed, is not 100 percent. Nor does the announcement specify any way to get vaccines to the remaining members of the public who, as the Chronicle reports, actually want mask and vax mandates in place.
Yet, that’s not the part that pisses me off the most. No, what really gets me is that in addition to her usual “Let’s get back to normal” spiel, she’s spends damn near each and every public speaking event saying that it’s time to “live with COVID.” Not curing it, not negating it, but living with it, like a slacker roommate.
Look up each and every statement Breed has made about COVID in the last, oh, six months or so, but replace “COVID” with “HIV” or “AIDS” and replace “masks” with “condoms.” How does that sound to you?
Imagine the mayor of any city holding a press conference and declaring that no one needs to wear condoms ever again. Imagine that same mayor being seen publicly shirking the very anti-AIDS protocols they themselves put into effect and calling their critics “fun police.”
Imagine that same mayor originally touting an anti-HIV vaccine—one made in record time with astounding efficacy—only to suddenly reverse course and say that everyone, infected or not, should just learn to “live with HIV/AIDS”.
I know, I know: That’s an absurd metaphor. After all, HIV isn’t airborne.
Oh, and that part about a super-fast HIV vaccine? Yeah, that’s actually happening. After successfully creating COVID vaccines in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, scientists went ahead and thought, “Hey, maybe we could do the same for HIV?” Think of the millions of lives they could have saved if they’d had that incentive 30-plus years ago?
If you’ve lived in San Francisco, then you probably know someone living with HIV/AIDS. The point isn’t that medications and treatments have advanced so far that those living with it can live well; the point is that NO ONE should have to live with HIV/AIDS at all. A “silent killer” is still a killer, whether they’re producing the sarcoma lesions from AIDS or wiping out your senses of taste and smell with COVID.
It’s absurd to consider COVID over when death numbers continue to rise and we’re still trying to figure out long COVID, which does affect kids – the same kids being sent back into crowded classrooms.
SF has been at the center of HIV/AIDS action since the beginning, so that should have been the blueprint for how beat the coronavirus into submission.
As a journalist and arts critic, I’ve spent the last two years writing almost exclusively about COVID’s impact on SF art and nightlife since the ACT closed Toni Stone after I saw it opening night. I still review live shows, but I’ll admit that I stand out more now. Not just having one of the few Black faces, but also because I’m double-masked behind a clear face shield. No seriously, here I am at the SF Ballet earlier this month.
I’m also the guy who wrote about how much damn fun one still has even when masked. Am I tired of doing so? Yes. But guess what? The pandemic isn’t over yet! It won’t just go away simply because we’re all exhausted.
Professor Andrew Pollard, head of the UK’s Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, recently said, “We can’t vaccinate the planet every four to six months. It’s not sustainable or affordable.” I’m vaxxed and boosted (all Moderna), but I’m already counting the days before I’ll probably have to get another boost because Breed decided that standing side-by-side with corporations was more important than public health and safety.
That’s her place in history.