Downtown San Francisco Empty As Office Workers Move Out

The city's downtown is struggling to bounce back after the pandemic.
Desks at an empty office in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. About 21% of San Francisco areas office workers had returned as of Sept. 22, according to Kastle Systemsa figure that is little changed since the summer and the lowest among 10 U.S. metro areas. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As droves of office workers leave San Francisco, the city’s downtown is struggling to bounce back from the pandemic’s toll on its formerly bustling atmosphere.

Local news reports describe walking through San Francisco’s Financial District and South of Market neighborhood as like visiting a “ghost town.”

The South of Market neighborhood is home to the headquarters of a slew of prominent tech companies including Uber, Dropbox, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Yelp, and Salesforce.

As much as 90% of the city’s workforce is now working from home, ABC7 News reported. Before the pandemic, San Francisco had the highest building occupancy rate in the U.S., but most of its skyscrapers have now emptied out, the outlet reported.

About 27% of office space in San Francisco is now available, according to a report by CBRE, a commercial real estate firm, compared to 19% of available office space in Manhattan. Meanwhile, San Francisco apartment rents, while starting to rise again, dropped more steeply than anywhere else in the country over the pandemic, while the cost of living remains high at 44% more than New York City, The Economist reported.

Several tech giants have announced they are moving their headquarters out of California permanently, fleeing the high taxes, expensive real estate, and stringent government regulation of Silicon Valley.

On Thursday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that the electric car company will move its headquarters out of Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area to Austin, Texas.

Oracle and Hewlett Packard have also said they are ditching the San Francisco area and re-establishing their headquarters in Texas.

Several CEOs have moved their personal residences to Austin as well, including Musk himself, Splunk CEO Douglas Merritt, and Dropbox CEO Drew Houston.

As workers, especially tech workers, migrate out of San Francisco, the city’s downtown restaurants and other vendors are left wondering whether business will ever go back to normal.

“COVID has been the hardest one. You know, we went through the dotcom [crash], we went through the crash of Lehman Brothers, but they never shut us down for so long,” Pino Spinoso of Cafe Tiramisu, an Italian restaurant in the Financial District, told Here/Say. “And the people kind of lost the trust of the people next to them. You know, we’ve never had that before.”

Meanwhile, bars and restaurants are still subject indefinitely to an indoor mask mandate in San Francisco. While the city’s current mask mandate will be lifted for other businesses like gyms, churches, and offices, on October 15, the order does not apply to bars and restaurants.

Despite what the changes downtown might appear to suggest, San Francisco did not suffer a virus death toll at the level of hard-hit cities like New York and in fact had the lowest COVID-19 death rate of any major U.S. city.

“San Francisco’s response to COVID-19 has been hailed as a national model,” Mayor London Breed boasted in January during her State of the City address.

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