SF shuts newsstand as a nonessential business. Peskin says all news is essential

For the past 25 years, Russian Hill residents have been picking up their Sunday Chronicle, New York Times or any of 1,500 other newspapers and magazines at Smoke Signals newsstand on Polk Street, but not today.

“I’ve been ordered to shut down by the police,” Smoke Signals owner Fadi Berbery said.

The shutdown notice was delivered personally — and from what we hear, somewhat apologetically — to Berbery by Northern District Police Capt. Joe Engler on Monday.

The closure has stirred up neighborhood residents, who consider the newsstand a vital information center, especially for seniors with limited internet skills and immigrants with limited language skills — Berbery also sells German, Russian, Italian, French, Arabic and Chinese publications.

Customers, like former KTVU General Manager Kevin O’Brien, who buys four papers a day at the shop, were stunned.

“COVID-19 is the story of the decade, and some county medical officer is prohibiting us old folks — the most susceptible to this monster death virus — from our primary source of information! Huh? What is this dude thinking?” O’Brien said.

“Down the street, the High Trails Cyclery bike shop is doing mind-boggling business with the lines down the street. Great thinking — let’s identify biking as essential and prohibit newspapers from those most vulnerable!” an outraged O’Brien said.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district includes the news shop, said its shutdown raised questions about how the city is implementing the shelter-in-place order, which has left some small businesses open and others barred from having customers in the store.

“In addition to my worries about the First Amendment question, I’m confused by the mixed messages that are coming out of City Hall when it comes to small businesses,” Peskin said.

Just down the street from Smoke Signals, the William Cross Wine Merchants store is open, with customers coming in and out freely. The shop and wine bar sell marquee cheeses, and because food is considered essential, it is open to customers.

“So now this wine shop three doors down from me can start selling newspapers, right?” Berbery said.

One issue is the question of what constitutes an essential business.

Under the shutdown rules that took effect on March 16, “newspapers, television, radio and other media services” are considered essential and allowed to stay open.

Smoke Signals considers itself a media service because it sells newspapers and news magazines. The city disagrees.

“It doesn’t cover retail stores,” said John Coté, spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office.

For Peskin, that doesn’t add up.

“So The Chronicle is allowed to report the news. The Chronicle is allowed to print the news and distribute the news, but this guy isn’t allowed to sell it? I don’t get it.” Peskin said.

The first sign of trouble came about two weeks into the shutdown, when three police officers showed up at Smoke Signals saying they had received a complaint about the store being open.

The sales clerk showed the police the health order, which included “media services” as an essential business.

The police issued a warning but didn’t close the shop.

A passerby looks through the window at Smoke Signals.

Soon Peskin’s office was getting email from upset customers. He made some calls and found out the complaint was about Smoke Signals selling cigars and cigarettes, as most newsstands do.

Berbery got rid of the smokes. He allowed at most three customers in the shop at a time, with masks. He also put hand sanitizer and a box of gloves near the door. Still jonesing for a smoke? Stroll seven blocks south to the California Tobacco Center at Polk and California — wide open Saturday afternoon.

All went well until May 4, when police returned, this time taking photos. On Monday, Capt. Engler, acting on orders from above, arrived with a citation for violating the health order.

Engler declined to comment for the story. The Police Department said the matter was reviewed by the city attorney, who informed officers that the county health officer had determined that newsstands are not an essential business.

Peskin disagrees.

“Newspapers are essential,” he said. “They are like food for the mind, and I hope our public health officials will reverse this wrongheaded decision.”

Berbery has hired a lawyer to appeal the citation. He has yet to decide whether he will try offering curbside service, which retailers may do starting Monday.

“It’s better than nothing,” Berbery said.

Mask litter: San Francisco has a new problem with its already dirty streets — people tossing their used masks and gloves onto the sidewalks.

“We don’t keep numbers, but cleanup crews are reporting masks and gloves showing up in all parts of the city,” Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said.

“Often we find masks and gloves near the curbsides, which tell us that people are taking them off when they get out of their cars and just tossing them on the ground,” she said. “They can’t even make it inside and toss them in a trash can.”

Unlike syringes, which city cleanup crews have long had to deal with, the masks and gloves don’t require special disposal equipment, but they do present a hazard.

“As a general rule, no one should be touching used masks on the ground,” Department of Public Health spokeswoman Veronica Vien said. “Masks are not recyclable and should be bagged and disposed of as regular garbage — it may carry viral material from the last wearer.”

They may not be everywhere, but San Francisco really doesn’t need any more trash — of any kind — on its streets.

“To be clear, we’re not seeing piles of them by any means,” Gordon said. “It’s just been noticeable.”

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Phil Matier appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Matier can be seen on the KGO-TV morning and evening news and can also be heard on KCBS radio Monday through Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 5:50 p.m. Got a tip? Call 415-777-8815, or email pmatier@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @philmatier

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