SF Clubs and Bars Welcome Mayor's Relief Effort, Yet 'Too Little Too Late'

A busy night at The Great Northern in San Francisco.  (Courtesy of The Great Northern)

San Francisco Mayor London Breed's announcement of $2.5 million in aid to the city's beleaguered entertainment and nightlife industry is receiving a mixed response from local bars and clubs.

According to a statement from the mayor's office on Monday, the city will waive clubs' and bars' regulatory license and business registration fees for two years, as well as these businesses' payroll expense taxes for 2020. Businesses will not be required to pay back these fees at a later date, but will still have to file tax returns.

The statement says the city will provide financial relief for approximately 300 permitted entertainment venues which meet the criteria of gross receipts amounting to less than $20 million.

“Our entertainment venues are a large part of the reason people flock to San Francisco and rave about our culture,” said San Francisco Entertainment Commission president, Ben Bleiman. “They are also particularly vulnerable during these times due to their business models. We must do all we can to support these businesses, so that we have places to be able to come together once we’re able to come together again.”

Clubs and bars have now been shuttered for most of the year. The city's nightlife scene has suffered more than many other major local industries since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And hopes for a partial easing of restrictions currently scheduled for mid-November are tentative, to say the least.

Struggling business owners are glad to finally be getting help from the city, but remain doubtful this relief will be enough to see them through.

"I’m excited to see the city doing something, because so far they have done zero to help venues like ourselves," says Dan Strachota, managing partner and talent buyer at the Rickshaw Stop in Hayes Valley. "But I’m uncertain how much this is going to help. Even if they waive all of our fees, there’s still so much money that has to be paid."

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"It’s welcome," says Tadd Cortell, managing partner for the SOMA nightclub Monarch and The Great Northern, a music bar in the Inner Mission. "Any help targeted towards the nightlife industry is particularly helpful at this point. Being able to waive taxes and fees especially over the next two years will make a difference."

But Cortell also says the city's move is "too little too late."

The nimble thinking required of venues in order to survive has resulted in sales of surplus off-sale liquor and online archival livestreams. So any help from the city is "awesome," says San Francisco drag queen Heklina. “Small entertainment venues and bars have been hardest hit because they are seen as the most expendable, and they’re not as politically expedient to support as restaurants, or mom-and-pop stores. And the ones that have been allowed to open have had to jump through crazy hurdles like selling hot food,” Heklina says.

San Francisco venues already had to pay their full fees this year, and Cortell wishes the city would have stepped forward with the fee breaks when the pandemic first started. And he doubts whether the $2.5 million in relief will help tide local venues over until they can reopen properly and find their financial footing again.

The Great Northern and Monarch have remained closed since mid-February and mid-March, respectively. He says the clubs collectively pay $44,000 in annual taxes and fees to the City of San Francisco, which includes payroll taxes and permits for running a place of assembly.

Cortell describes the city's approach to stemming the spread of the coronavirus pandemic as "disciplined, but very restrictive."

"We don’t want to be the cause of increasing a viral spike, but we also need to survive as businesses," Cortell says.

Cortell's businesses have relied on federal aid packages and rent relief from landlords in order to stay afloat over these past few months. He says things may improve in the second or third quarter of next year — if local and federal bodies are willing to step up.

"Whatever the city can do to help our industry, together with federal help, is the only way we can keep going into next year," Cortell says. "Right now, all we can do is focus on getting to next week."