Down on Fisherman’s Wharf, the Sea Lions Bark at Empty Piers

Editor’s Note: Covid-19 has fundamentally changed how we live and work — in ways big and small. “Redefining Normal” captures how that transformation is playing out across North America, from its metropolises to its rural hamlets and all the towns in between.

Fisherman’s Wharf is the first place many tourists go when they visit San Francisco. The northern waterfront is home to arcades, souvenir stores and seafood restaurants offering Dungeness crab. It’s a reminder of the old San Francisco, one that was here long before Big Tech.

Built from the rubble of the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Wharf is now facing a different sort of rebuild after Covid-19 economically flattened it. The latest challenge to its recovery: San Francisco authorities on Tuesday said they would delay the reopening of indoor dining for fear it would fuel renewed spread of the virus.  

A city-wide lockdown on March 17 turned Fisherman’s Wharf into a ghost town. Boarded up, boats docked, visitors gone. The sea lions of Pier 39 continued to yelp at all hours but it was only two weeks ago that their human audience returned, with a limited reopening allowed. (For your sea lion fix, try the live webcam.)

 

The damage has rippled far beyond the boarded up businesses. Look toward Alcatraz island and tucked behind neat boardwalks and fish shacks are 100 boats ranging from 26 to 60 feet. San Francisco’s commercial fishing fleet has been a fixture on the Wharf since the Gold Rush era.

Fishing was labeled an essential business from the start of the lockdown, which arrived in the middle of the industry’s most lucrative salmon and crab seasons. But that didn’t help much when most of the restaurants went dark.

“The price of crab dropped almost 70% overnight,” said Sarah Bates, a board member on the local fishing association. “The buyers were telling us, ‘Don’t even bring me the crab, leave it in the ocean.’”

As distributors shifted more business to markets, delis and grocers, orders gradually began to recover. Online sales for home delivery helped, too, said Bates, a 15-year veteran of commercial fishing in the area who captains her own boat.

Just as things were looking up, disaster struck again. On May 23, an early-morning warehouse fire destroyed 8,000 crab, shrimp, and black cod traps. “Everything we use to catch fish and maintain boats,” Bates said. “If it wasn’t on the boat, it was in the shed.”

The City of San Francisco and its Port Authority are working on grants and loans to help the fleet get back to sea. But after some green shoots emerged, virus cases began accelerating and San Francisco officials pushed back the next phase of reopening — no indoor dining or outdoor bars starting July 13, as planned.

Of the Wharf’s more than 366 consumer-facing businesses, 204 have been allowed to open with restrictions, according to the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District. Critically, though, hotels are still closed and not due to reopen until August. 

More than 18 million people visited Fisherman’s Wharf last year, with as many as 100,000 a day in peak months, according to the community district. The Wharf’s outsized dependency on tourism threatens to leave it behind other San Francisco neighborhoods. With travel down more than 80% from a year ago, nobody expects a bumper summer. But even if throngs arrived, where would they stay? 

A better solution to the current phased strategy would be fully reopening neighborhood by neighborhood, said Randall Scott, the district’s executive director.

For now, business people like Scott are putting a lot of hope in local residents rediscovering the iconic landmark. If you live near the pier, you can still hear the sea lions when you open your windows. 

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