“My ‘new normal’ now includes spending several hours trying to find highly coveted items of toilet paper and poultry.”
Matthew Low, SFPUC Senior Finance Business Analyst, never used to think shopping for essential items would require so much time and effort. He used to make quick trips to Costco, Target, and Whole Foods to grab groceries and household items, and then call it a day. Nowadays, he shared it is almost like a treasure hunt finding items that used to be plentiful.
“I was initially shocked with the long grocery lines, the face coverings, and ‘evil eye’ looks I received when approaching people,” he shared. Low is Asian American and noted that he has taken notice of the increasing looks toward him.
For Low, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested him mentally and physically since the shelter-in-place order went into effect mid-March. Low lives alone and has not been able to visit friends and family. The abruptness of physically distancing himself has brought out a sense of loneliness. He has used apps such as Facetime, House Party, Zoom, and other social media platforms to connect with friends and family. “But the hardest part is that I can’t hug them, make fun of what they were wearing, or pick up on their non-verbal cues,” he said.
Low wanted to be involved with the City’s emergency response to the pandemic as he was not in the high risk group. “Since I am not living with anyone and am not responsible for taking care of someone else, I felt an obligation to play a role in helping to stop the spread of the virus,” he said.
Low has been supporting San Francisco’s COVID-19 response by serving as a disaster service worker (DSW) at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the SFPUC’s Department Operations Center (DOC). He was able to leverage his education, experience, and skills to support the Finance and Admin section at the SFPUC DOC and the Feeding Unit at the EOC.
“My role in the Feeding Unit exposed me to the San Francisco community, which I was not fully aware of prior to COVID-19,” he shared. “I worked directly with City leaders to plan and execute strategy and initiatives to carry out our Unit’s objectives.”
Low shared that this experience bolstered his appreciation for the work of professionals in the human services space. While serving in the Feeding Unit at the EOC, he did not realize how much planning and collaboration was involved to ensure that food was procured, prepared, and distributed to those in need. “I definitely will see food banks and community-based organizations differently going forward,” he said.
Low noted that his role supporting the SFPUC’s DOC hit closer to home because the efforts directly impact the people he personally knows and works with everyday. Low had the opportunity to work with the SFPUC’s information and technology department to understand the challenges of implementing remote capability for various roles and teams across the agency. Prior to the City’s stay-at-home order, Low already had the ability to work remotely.
“I was not aware of the back-end complexities that involve policy decisions, IT infrastructure and personnel to make things happen,” he said. “Working with ITS on quickly ramping up remote access for a large number of employees in a short amount of time was eye-opening.”
In reflecting on his experiences at the City’s EOC and the SFPUC’s DOC and trying to maintain his mental and physical health, several things come to mind.
Low encouraged his fellow colleagues to consider raising their hand as a DSW to support the City’s response to COVID-19. For him, it was fulling to work with colleagues across the SFPUC, but also throughout the City and County of San Francisco. “It’s not everyday that you are in an emergency situation and have the opportunity to directly impact the people of San Francisco in a positive way,” he shared. “Something as basic as providing food, shelter, and safety are some of the key ways we can help the community, and those are the things we take for granted in ‘normal’ times.”
Low said it was important for him go with the flow and adapt to changing environments. “Serving at both the DOC and EOC, information and decisions changed every day or every hour,” he said. “Keeping an open mind and doing what was needed, even if it is outside your normal job responsibilities, served me well in this experience.”
Empathizing and listening to how other people are struggling, and what they were going through brought things into prospective for Low. “Support others. I realized that helping others also helped me,” he shared. “It also helped me cope, knowing that we shared a lot of the same experiences and feelings.”
Prior to the shelter-in-place order, Low was regularly going to the gym to exercise. Since then, he has found hiking and biking trails and borrowed dumbbells to exercise at home, although he misses having all the equipment needed for a good workout in a central location. “Take care of yourself. Spend some time to recharge,” Low said. “I go out for a walk, call up a family member, or simply stand outside my patio to break up the day. It’s good for me mentally and emotionally.”
Low reflected on a recent experience on BART before the stay-at-home order went into effect. BART trains were increasingly getting more empty each day. One day, he saw that most window seats were taken. He saw one empty window seat that had an individual sitting on the aisle seat next to it. Low asked the individual if he could take the window seat and then sat down. Moments later, the individual moved to a different seat in a different section of the train. “At that moment, I felt attacked, very confused, mad, and was filled with different emotions,” he said.
“I quickly remembered that everyone has their own perspective of the growing situation and are dealing with the situation differently. A lot of anti-Asian sentiment was happening and seeing how Chinatown was directly being impacted saddened me,” Low shared. Fast forward from that incident, Low is reminded through his experiences at the EOC and DOC that the virus can impact anyone regardless of race and age and especially if they are not following social distancing guidelines. “I try to treat everyone to same with respect for them as individuals and for their safety. As a disaster service worker, I’m here to serve and to help stop the spread of virus, to rise up, and to help our community return to the new normal – whatever that is.”