This day two weeks ago, San Francisco was eerie. The sky was the sort of deep orange that mimicked artist renderings of potential Martian colonies. People reported feeling something like jet lag, even though it's been months since anyone has been on a plane.
The cause, we were told, was a series of fires up and down the West Coast. But the Bay Area had a peculiar quirk: prevailing winds from the west, bringing in cool marine air, trapped the smoke in the atmosphere and diffused the sun's light.
The queen from Alice in Wonderland, the one who could believe as many as six things before breakfast, comes to mind. Just how many freak weather phenomena am I supposed to take in while waiting for the kettle to boil?
Priors had to be updated. Advice on the importance of going for a distanced walk or a run, to shake off the cabin fever of shelter-in-place orders, had to be shelved. Windows previously opened were dutifully shut.
Of course, only those tech workers who have stayed in the Bay Area were around to see the sky.
Having put up with San Francisco's trade-offs for so long, Covid-19 seems to be the final straw. San Franciscans can tolerate, apparently, the gaping divide between high-tech workers and the most destitute of the Tenderloin homeless. We can tolerate the cost, the monoculture, the risks of dying due to various natural disasters. But when gyms, restaurants, and offices across the city started to close, that's when the exodus began.
Rents have taken a hit during the pandemic, but a 10pc to 20pc drop on $3,300 (€2,800) - an average one-bedroom - is still pricier than most of the rest of the country.
A friend of mine, who has a child of around five years of age, was paying upwards of $3,000 for a house in the southernmost tip of SF. It was the only place you could reasonably raise a child and still be within commuting distance of downtown. She was the first to leave, and ended up buying a house in the Midwest with five bedrooms and a pool. Her monthly mortgage payment, needless to say, is far less than what her San Francisco rent used to be.
For the first time since the Great Depression, a majority of young adults are living with their parents. Most people in tech can work anywhere with an internet connection. When bars and restaurants aren't open in San Francisco, the list of reasons to stay gets shorter.
At those bars, in the before times, my friends and I would contemplate those sorts of moves. There's a tech scene and great hiking to be had in Utah, but dating prospects for non-Mormons are unclear. Moving somewhere like New York was always an option, but being away from the office seemed risky. What if you missed out on the water-cooler talk? What if your boss promoted someone else, just because they were local and available?
Those sorts of considerations are a lot less relevant now, at least as long as offices are shut. The company I work for, Lambda School, has said that its offices will be closed at least through the end of the year. To the extent that we'll take our cues from the bigger tech companies, it might well be beyond that. This past July, Google announced that they wouldn't be back at their desks until Summer 2021 at the earliest.
Remote work, for its own part, is its own jarring experience. A co-worker of mine recently announced they'd be on parental leave through the end of the year; I didn't even know they were expecting.
Despite it all, Lambda School probably had an easier time transitioning to remote work than most. At Lambda, instructors train students in web development or data science, and career coaches help them get jobs. All of our classes, even before Covid-19, were online. Our teaching model, combining the accountability of live lectures with the flexibility of remote learning, seems unusually suited to a global pandemic.
Ultimately, San Francisco isn't going anywhere. It just remains to be seen what sort of city everyone comes back to, if they come back.
It wouldn't be the Bay Area unless we were caught up in the middle of a debate about it. Despite so many people leaving, there are those who still believe in San Francisco. They proclaim, rightly or wrongly, that those leaving are giving up too easily. The Bay Area always had drawbacks (we are annoyingly earthquake-prone), but it's that pioneering, domineering spirit that's so crucial. We're still close to stunning national parks, to whatever extent they survive the fires.
San Francisco won't change overnight. There will, presumably, be venture capital deals to be struck, startups to be founded, and farm-to-table restaurants to frequent. A lot of talent would have to leave for the Bay Area to lose a critical mass. That talent doesn't seem to be going anywhere specific, at least not in big numbers. I don't expect Silicon Slopes or Silicon Alley or Silicon Roundabout to usurp the throne any time soon.
But maybe the nexus will shift. We have, then, a natural experiment. When you can call, Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime the best engineers from anywhere in the world, do you need to be here?
We're about to find out.
Tommy Collison is a journalist and an Irish expatriot working at Lambda School