SF Venue Owners, Musicians Ask City to Allow Outdoor Performances

The Chapel on Valencia Street, a former mortuary turned music venue photographed on March 15, 2020, offered a parting note to the community. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Despite chalk circles drawn in the grass for social distancing, San Francisco’s Dolores Park is regularly packed with people, many of them without masks. Same with Golden Gate Park, Valencia Street and Ocean Beach.

With unpermitted gatherings happening in the city pretty much every weekend with nice weather, venue owners, musicians and other performing artists are becoming frustrated that their shows will be unable to resume—in an official capacity, anyway—until San Francisco reaches phase four of its reopening plan. It’s currently in phase two.

Several entertainment industry stakeholders have approached the San Francisco Entertainment Commission to argue that the city needs to create clear guidelines for outdoor music and performing arts events. Unpermitted gatherings are happening already anyway, they say, so why not allow artists and venues to make money from them legally, especially at a time when artists are out of work and many venues are at the brink of permanent closure?

“We’re the people who know better than anyone how to regulate an audience,” said Fred Barnes, general manager of The Chapel, at the Aug. 18 San Francisco Entertainment Commission meeting. Barnes co-founded the Independent Venue Alliance, which represents nearly 30 San Francisco music venues of all sizes, to collectively fundraise and lobby city government during the pandemic shutdown. “We have hundreds of people who work for us who we’d like to give some employment to, some artists we’d like to give employment to ... and more than anything else, create an environment that would be safer than what is currently happening.”

“I have witnessed individual artists staging outdoor public performances despite the lack of a permitting procedure to allow them to do so (and have heard of many others). I know artists will continue to do this for the innumerable social, health, spiritual/imaginal and economic benefits they manifest,” wrote choreographer Keith Hennessy in a letter to the Entertainment Commission. He urged the city government to take a harm-reduction approach, arguing that small, outdoor performances shouldn’t be treated the same way as arena concerts with thousands of attendees at places like the Chase Center. “These are not irresponsible super-spreader events, they are carefully planned activities that follow solid public health protocols.”

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Proponents of outdoor performances argue that, much like it has expanded outdoor dining through its Shared Spaces program, the city should allow creative uses of its streets, parks and other public spaces for socially distanced music events. Barnes recently threw a private concert in The Chapel’s parking lot as a fundraiser for the Independent Venue Alliance. “One things that was noticeable about that event was that, of that whole closed-down area of Valencia that was going on that weekend, the event that we had was by far the place where [people followed] the social distancing rules,” he said.

Ticket sales from outdoor shows could be a lifeline for San Francisco music venues, many of which were already operating on razor-thin profit margins prior to the pandemic. Since the Bay Area began sheltering in place in March, some of them have sold merchandise or takeout food and drinks, but these attempts haven’t generated enough income to cover mounting costs of rent, mortgage, property taxes, garbage and electricity bills or insurance.

Barnes says that 30–50% of the venues in the Independent Venue Alliance could go out of business by early next year. And the National Independent Venue Association, which includes over 100 concert halls from Northern California, estimates that 90% of its participating venues will close permanently by this fall without government aid. (Congress went on recess before voting on the Save Our Stages Act, which would offer grants to independent venues.)

At the Entertainment Commission meeting, musician Arya Zarrinkelk said that San Francisco should pilot a model for outdoor events while the weather still allows. “The rainy season is coming in November,” he said. “If we do not prototype public events before the rainy season, artists will be forced to wait until spring 2021. That is unacceptable.” By that time, many venues could close permanently without an income stream or government aid.

The prospect of venues folding could have a chain reaction on San Francisco’s economy, Barnes also said. In pre-pandemic times, venues attracted hundreds of people to eat, drink and shop in neighborhoods before parties and concerts. Without them, neighborhoods could be devastated after shelter in place is lifted.

At the meeting, the members of the Entertainment Commission were sympathetic to these arguments, and said that they would bring these concerns to city and state public health officials, who have the authority to make the ultimate call. (KQED has reached out to the San Francisco Department of Public Health for comment.)

“I think I can speak for most of us, all of us on this commission, that we really understand the value of music when it comes to culture and community,” said commissioner Cyn Wang, “and we want to be your advocate.”