Crowds throng to San Francisco as Fleet Week recaptures pre-pandemic spirit – San Francisco Chronicle

A pandemic-weary San Francisco again welcomed thousands upon thousands of visitors and residents alike to its waterfront as jam-packed Fleet Week festivities over the past few days — from the Mission District to the Marina to the skies above — revived a sense of normalcy.

“This is beautiful. It’s San Francisco,” Dawn Micheletti, holding her granddaughter Makayla Paul, 2, in her arms, said Sunday as they stood at Webster and Broadway watching the Blue Angels air show roar above the city. After growing up watching the military’s flying escapades — until the pandemic robbed the city of last year’s event — Micheletti, 62, was delighted to have her granddaughter experience her first.

“It shows that maybe COVID is finally going away,” Micheletti said.

Lewis Loeven, executive director of the San Francisco Fleet Week Association, which organizes the celebration, said he was pleasantly surprised that this year’s throngs appeared similar in size to pre-pandemic years, with tickets for premium viewing of the air show close to selling out each day.

“San Francisco really needed to have this kind of shot in the arm, if you will, from a morale perspective,” Loeven said Sunday of Fleet Week, which began Wednesday and wraps up with ship tours Monday.

Before the pandemic-driven suspension last year, Loeven said, Fleet Week would draw upward of 1 million people to stroll along the Marina and Embarcadero, watch the Blue Angels from the Marina Green, and tour Navy and Coast Guard ships in the bay. The wildly popular ship tours this year drew steady streams of visitors, he said, indicating numbers could match those of pre-pandemic years. By 10 a.m. Sunday, dozens of people were lined up at Pier 35 waiting to tour the missile destroyer Michael Monsoor.

Along with its feeling of normalcy, Fleet Week brought a less-welcomed Bay Area tradition: stacked-up traffic as people fought their way into the city and sat in stop-and-go frustration on city streets. Many circled East Bay BART lots looking for elusive parking spots.

Parking spots were all but impossible to find Sunday near the Marina Green Park and the Embarcadero, sending some people up city hills for some of the best views. Afternoon traffic heading into San Francisco on the Bay Bridge was bumper to bumper, mirroring Saturday’s snarls.

Muni buses, streetcars, ferries and water taxis were filled with people hoping to secure prime air-show vantage points. Foot traffic on Saturday was so dense on the Embarcadero and elsewhere that it temporarily disrupted some Muni lines and cable cars.

The crowds flocking to the city on the sunny weekend, in numbers not seen since before the pandemic, came not just for Fleet Week but also the Giants’ playoff run Saturday. The twin events brought some of the most visible evidence that the city is pushing toward the tail end of a pandemic that quieted its vibrant northeastern core.

Carolyn Moore and her family of four opted to cross the bay by ferry from Oakland to San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Her children, twins Sol and Wren, marveled at the crowd at Pier 39.

“It’s really exhilarating,” 16-year-old Wren said. “It’s very abnormal, too.”

Darryl Johnson, 60, and his wife and son also came by ferry, from Vallejo, to see the Blue Angels. “Ooh,” Johnson said when an aircraft spun acrobatically near the Golden Gate Bridge before descending to a low altitude.

“I might have a heart attack before I leave here,” he added.

He was happy his 9-year-old son could again enjoy the spectacle.

“We used to come all the time,” Johnson said, “but now that he’s older he can understand a lot more.”

Gene and Leland Finch watched the show from the shade near Pier 39 after enjoying clam chowder bread bowls by the bay — their most crowded outing since the start of the pandemic.

The couple, married for 60 years, had ridden BART in from Pleasanton. Gene said she “started feeling a little uneasy” about the crowd sizes once they boarded the Muni F-line bus shuttle that was packed to the brim with people riding to the show.

Still, after not traveling anywhere during the pandemic, Leland Finch, 80, felt something he hadn’t felt in almost two years: normalcy.

“I’ll tell you what I like the best,” he said. “Being able to see people enjoy themselves, because they haven’t had the opportunity. … It’s good to just see people smiling and laughing and joking and just having a good time. That means a lot to me.”

But, it being San Francisco, not everyone was on board with the air show.

Sasha Sanan, 35, walking his dog, stopped to look up at the planes. They’d been “annoying beyond belief” over his Pacific Heights neighborhood, especially as he works and takes conference calls at home, he said.“Why are we doing this and getting smoke in the bay when there’s fires everywhere?” he wondered. He’d rather see Fleet Week money go to important issues like the pandemic. In his view, it showed a U.S. military “stuck in 1960s and 1970s.”

Ricardo Cano and Jessica Flores are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: ricardo.cano@sfchronicle.com, jessica.flores@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ByRicardoCano, @jesssmflores

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