San Francisco Moves Forward with Outdoor Live Music, Entertainment in Shared Spaces

The Chapel piloted a socially distanced, outdoor concert in its parking lot on Aug. 15. A new program allows other San Francisco venues to throw similar events in the city’s permitted Shared Spaces. (BG)

San Francisco’s live music scene has technically been on pause since the start of shelter-in-place orders in March, but unofficial concerts and DJ sets have popped up all over the city in parks, beaches and street corners.

Over the past several weeks, musicians, theater artists and event presenters have asked local government to allow for socially distanced, outdoor performances, arguing that regulated shows would be safer than guerilla-style ones with no rules or guidelines. Not to mention it would provide an economic boost for an industry that’s completely ground to a halt during the pandemic, during which many artists and businesses haven’t qualified for government aid.

Today, Mayor London Breed’s office announced a new permit through the Entertainment Commission that aims to allow live, outdoor music and entertainment on a small scale. The JAM (Just Add Music) permit offers businesses a way to book DJs, live music (without singing or wind instruments), dance, theater, comedy or film screenings with amplified sound in the city’s existing Shared Spaces locations. Those include outdoor dining areas, farmers’ markets, outdoor fitness classes and drive-in theaters that operate in accordance to the city’s social distancing rules, mask mandate and other public health guidelines.

The new permit, whose application is now live, marks the first time San Francisco is formally incorporating live entertainment into the current phase of its reopening plan. With the free permit, restaurants can book DJs in their patios and parklets while avoiding the fees and lengthy, bureaucratic process they would have had to undertake to allow ongoing entertainment or one-time special events before COVID-19. And, perhaps more crucially, music venues and theaters whose income streams have halted now have a pathway to resuming live events.

For a music venue to participate, it can enroll in the city’s Shared Spaces program—which opens parklets, sidewalks, parking lots and city streets for socially distanced, outdoor dining—or have access to other authorized outdoor property, such as a patio or rooftop. (The venue must also have a kitchen or partnership with a neighboring restaurant.) Once those requirements are met, the venue can put on a ticketed event under two hours long, as long as food is served.

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“[The entertainment industry] is not just an afterthought. We can’t be. We have to be part of this right now,” says San Francisco Entertainment Commission Executive Director Maggie Weiland. The JAM permit arrives after the latest wave of reopenings in San Francisco, which allowed indoor hair salons, gyms, museums (with limited capacity) and drive-in movie screenings to begin operating last week.

“I think our small, outdoor performances that will be permitted through this program, and in accordance with health rules, are different from large, indoor performances,” says Weiland. “Until now, those venues have only been contemplated in phase four of the reopening plan.” (Phase four would signal the end of shelter-in-place orders, and require the availability of COVID-19 therapeutics or a vaccine.)

In August, Fred Barnes, co-founder of advocacy group the Independent Venue Alliance, piloted a socially distanced, outdoor concert in the parking lot of Mission district concert venue The Chapel, where he is the general manager. The ticketed show featured only instrumental music. Masked diners at distanced tables listened to a band as food was served. For Barnes and his industry peers, the event’s success is a hopeful sign that safe concerts are possible, and that other businesses can follow suit.

“I think one of the things that was really important about that show we did was that a lot of people remarked afterwards that it was the safest spot in the Mission in terms of the public health ordinances really being controlled by security, with temperature taking and all the things that need to be done,” he says.

Deanna Sison, owner of the bar Victory Hall and adjoining restaurant Little Skillet, says that the opportunity to offer entertainment will be a boon for businesses like hers. Her street, near Oracle Park, has seen a complete drop off in foot traffic since baseball games aren’t currently open to fans. Through the Shared Spaces program, she has an entire alleyway to seat customers, and she hopes live music can entice them.

“We used to host neighborhood block parties,” she says. “In the future, we’re trying to bring back a version of that and doing that as safely as we possibly can.”

North Beach bar Vesuvio, open since 1948, plans to partner with a neighboring restaurant to operate a Shared Space with live music in the historic Jack Kerouac Alley. Owner Janet Clyde says the JAM permit offers an easier way of doing things for her business, which doesn’t have an entertainment license and previously had to obtain special event permits anytime it wanted to book live music. “Since we’re in the COVID times and our capacity is limited, it’s going to help us be sustainable in some fashion,” she says.

Clyde says that though Vesuvio has remained closed for the past six months, she’s committed to paying musicians. So is Aaron Paul, co-owner of Russian Hill cocktail bar and cafe Macondray, who says that even though his revenue is only 30% of what it used to be, artist compensation is one place where he can’t cut costs. “That’s really important and something I’m proud to be able to do,” he says, emphasizing the importance of live music. “It’s a quality thing. People know when they’re listening to a Spotify playlist.”

In addition to aiding small businesses in their economic recovery, the Entertainment Commission’s Weiland hopes the JAM program will also offer San Francisco spiritual nourishment, especially after the last few turbulent weeks of wildfire-induced smoke amid the pandemic.

“Music is medicine. Art, culture and entertainment are healing,” Weiland says. “And I think our collective community needs this.”

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This story was updated to clarify that businesses with Shared Spaces permits or access to other types of authorized outdoor property qualify for the JAM program.