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How two famous cities flattened the coronavirus curve

Two months in San Francisco and Sydney show how early, decisive actions helped contain COVID-19 outbreaks threatening to overrun the cities.

The best of times feels like a distant memory.

The sister cities of Sydney and San Francisco have a lot in common. Both have world-famous bridges, extreme rental prices and vibrant LGBTQI communities. They also share similar coronavirus trajectories. Case numbers began slowly rising in early March, before beginning a rapid ascent. In the two months since, the harbor side cities have responded in a similar fashion, instating sweeping lockdowns, shuttering all but essential stores and preventing public gatherings.

Doctors and health officials have lauded the cities for flattening their curves, and their success reiterates a valuable lesson in slowing the spread of coronavirus: Act quickly and decisively.

In the state of New South Wales, where Sydney is situated, 7.6 million citizens lurched from one catastrophe to the next during the first four months of 2020. On New Year’s Day, unprecedented bushfires tore through regional communities. Then, just as the last flames were snuffed, another crisis began: New South Wales became the center of Australia’s COVID-19 outbreak.

Across an ocean, 7,500 miles away, it was a cheerier time for San Francisco. The Bay Area, similar in population size to New South Wales but with a much higher density, was celebrating another Super Bowl appearance for the 49ers. But by March it was reeling from a defeat in Super Bowl LIV and the first COVID-19 cases had appeared. Sports became a distant memory.

By mid-March, everything had changed. The Bay Area announced a strict shelter-in-place order, one of the first areas in the US to do so. New South Wales residents were asked to adhere to a suite of increasingly complex social distancing measures. As the crisis unfolded on opposite sides of the world, confusion reigned.

The curve down under

The Australian government, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, formed a national cabinet so leaders from each state could coordinate their response. Every other day the prime minister, flanked by Brendan Murphy, the nation’s chief medical officer, fronted the nation for a televised COVID-19 update. As the coronavirus case numbers rose, restrictions on movement became more comprehensive.

Cut confusion

Australia’s regulations saw hair salons and barbers lumped in with the same essential services as supermarkets, medical centers and pharmacies. “How is a barbershop essential?”

The initial confusion and fear caught residents offside, but after an abrupt peak in case numbers through March, slowly the curve flattened. Even if barbers were open, most people remained home. The restrictions had worked.

Ahead of the curve

San Francisco’s lockdown measures came earlier and were, initially, more restrictive than those in Sydney. At the beginning of May, its case numbers trailed well behind those of its sister city. That prevented hospitals from being overrun and earned San Francisco praise as “the city that flattened the curve.”

Count on testing

Both cities are close to entering the next phase of their pandemic response: rebooting and returning to normalcy. Doing so will require enhanced testing — and it’s here the sister cities have differed most clearly.



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