San Francisco’s cable cars may not return until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine

San Francisco's iconic cable cars may not return until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, transportation officials are now saying.

"I miss it tremendously," says Val Lupiz, who has been a gripman for 20 years on the cable car lines. On Thursday he was disinfecting buses on a maintenance yard.

"It's the first job where I really enjoyed going to work; looked forward to going to work. It's a lot of fun. I can't wait to get back," said Lupiz.

San Francisco had to shut down the cable cars in March because in a pandemic they are just not where anyone should be. They are crowded, moving confined spaces.

"Cable cars are really the most unsafe for operators. They don't have a plexiglass barrier and they are in close contact with the public," said Erica Kato, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

It's not clear exactly when it will be safe to ride them again, likely not until a vaccine arrives.

"That is something that we assume. That there would need to be a vaccine. But we continue to read up on the virus and make sure we are fully informed before making any decisions," Kato said.

But until then, many feel much of San Francisco is gone.

"The cable cars are almost like the pulse of San Francisco. And the bells are almost like the music of San Francisco. And that is extremely important," said SF transportation historian Rick Laubscher.

The cable cars first appeared in 1873 as a way to replace horses from slipping and stumbling up and down Russian Hill.

The cable cars were off the streets for 18 months in the 1980s for a complete system overhaul.  

This time it could be just as long.

"I can't wait. As soon as it is safe and good to go, I will be back," said Lupiz.

The cable cars are being stored in the barn and the operators have been reassigned to buses mostly, until the day when a vaccine arrives.