• Jim Kelly

How a mayor asks for help: San Francisco's gyms still closed

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

Back in March, Mayor London Breed ordered gyms closed for public health reasons. City Hall later published a timetable by which San Francisco could reopen, which put places like gyms last, maybe in August.

The gym has been my main source of exercise for 35 years. When COVID hit I was going to two different ones: Fitness SF, the largest chain in the city, as well as a small private gym for personal training. Although August seemed unimaginably distant at the time, it has now come and gone, and gyms remain shuttered.

Six months later...

My hopes of getting back to the iron crashed down yesterday with an email from Fitness SF announcing "outdoor fitness." Starting next week, we'll be able to do some sort of exercise--it's not clear what--in outdoor locations near their gyms. They'll resume monthly charges to members' credit cards in September, which have been suspended since March.

The email was a smack in the face. After six months of negotiating with gym owners, and after their originally forecast reopening date, City Hall's best offer is jumping jacks in the park. By the end of September, they allude to a "goal" of "solo use of gyms," as usual with no metrics or criteria. In classic Orwellian fashion, what the government is calling a "goal" is nothing of the kind. It's an edict, not an outcome. And a goal is something to which one strives; reopening the city seems to represent mostly political downside for politicians, who are delaying it as long as possible.

Actions speak louder than words. The goals City Hall claims the lockdown serves never make sense on their own, and they're subsequently discredited when the city goes back on the metrics it claimed it cared about or invents new reasons to push out its reopening. Remember when we were worried about hospitals being overwhelmed?

But obviously Mayor Breed is weighing something against San Franciscans getting back our lives. So far that something seems to be winning.

Making sense of City Hall's actions

I was rattled enough to write my first ever letter to my District 8 Supervisor, who ironically I know from the gym some years back. City Hall's actions are sending an increasingly clear message about what's really motivating the lockdown and what has to happen to end it.

Rafael, if you're still a Fitness SF member, you will have received the same email I did announcing the launch of "outdoor fitness."
In other words, gyms remain closed. Gyms, if you'll recall, are those cavernous buildings filled with dusty exercise equipment which used to keep many of us healthy.
Their closure in March made no sense at the time. The August reopening date London Breed gave us then was obviously just made up, never based on any public health criterion. I’ve stopped even listening to the platitudes she, [Public Health Director] Grant Colfax, and [SF Health Officer] Tomás Aragón offer up as “science.” I have a PhD, and they’re like an ice pick to the brain.
City Hall's actions, though, are sending an increasingly clear message: the real criterion is whatever the mayor reckons she can get away with. The lockdown will end when businesses and citizens start defying City Hall and daring her to send the police, and not a moment before. I don't see how that game of political chicken helps her--forget her 800,000 subjects--but hey, I'm not mayor.
Is there some other message you think we should take? What is it?
Fitness SF is understandably trying to resume charging us members monthly fees, despite remaining mostly closed. I'm going to decline, forward them this letter, and explain that at this point they're the problem. As a customer I need a better product from them, and apparently even the mayor needs them to take a firmer line to tip whatever political scales she lives in.
I will ask Fitness SF, and I'm asking you as D8 Supervisor, for an immediate and unconditional reopening of the city's gyms. No density restrictions. No appointment demands. No mask requirements--if in six months they haven't found HVAC filters that do at least as well, those are evidently just ceremonial.
"Public health" is a statistical fiction. My health is not the average of some other people's health, nor is it one-dimensional. I haven't come down with COVID, perhaps because I haven't seen another human in six months, but I was a lot healthier in March. This is not the tradeoff I want for myself. Enough is enough.

While gym owners are negotiating with, and being stonewalled by, city government, people have to get on with their lives. After six months I’ve had to invest a bundle in exercise equipment at home, so what they probably imagine is a half solution is now more like a quarter solution, and not worth paying for. Even in a major city, gyms are small businesses. Snuffing them out for six months is much the same as snuffing them out for good.

How mayors ask for help

When you're an elected official like a mayor, you don't have a boss with whom you can have a rational negotiation, you have a public for whom you're always performing. You dare not admit even very obvious limitations to your omnipotence, such as not being able to fix COVID.

Instead, you must be seen to be doing something, and about all you can really do is threaten to arrest people. So you issue fresh threats over gyms or masks, and then claim those are the best response to COVID.

The closest you can get to asking for help is to issue completely unworkable threats, and rely on political opposition or physics to push back on you.

Despite government’s saber rattling, individual citizens ultimately decide what to go along with and what to resist. Businesses closed because City Hall told them to. They obediently waited for permission to reopen, telling customers and themselves that they had no choice. Permission never came. Many failed, and many more will fail.

Who’s ultimately accountable? Not the mayor. Accountability means you suffer for a bad decision, and it's not like London Breed is being put out of business. News broke last week that SFPD and SF's criminal court operate their own gyms for employees, and those are open. Curious that these city departments ostensibly facing the least risk from COVID are also the most heavily armed.

Ultimately citizens need to draw firmer boundaries if we hope to maintain control over our lives. Businesses should have refused to close six months ago, and customers should have stood with them because we, and not City Hall, own our lives, our decisions, and our health.

The lesson of 2020 is that because of how their incentives are structured, politicians can’t push that responsibility on us. We need to stand up and take it. By continuing to dither and delay, Mayor London Breed keeps telling us, louder and louder, that even she needs us to define where the line is.

It’s late in the year. We’re six months sadder and six months fatter, but on the other hand we’re six months wiser. The next step is still the same: we citizens need to take back our lives and livelihoods.

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