On December 29, two major San Francisco venues with deep ties to the community, El Rio and F8, announced they were closing rather than hosting New Year’s weekend parties. They joined several other clubs like Oasis and The Chapel and many neighborhood bars (including much of the Castro) in foregoing the year’s biggest revenue-generating event, to protect their staff and patrons from the Omicron surge that had been gaining steam. That surge has now led to closures and reduced hours at businesses throughout the country (with an average of 1400+ COVID cases daily in SF).
The week before, it felt like Christmas in San Francisco was rapidly collapsing. Lauded arts orgs were pulling out of engagements due to staff infections and exposures. The run of “A Christmas Carol” at the Golden Gate Theatre was abruptly truncated. The Gay Men’s Chorus announced last minute that it would not hold its traditional “Home for the Holidays” concert at the Castro Theatre. Other holiday events and parties followed suit, cancelling or postponing—in some cases for the umpteenth time—performances scheduled to happen in January and even February. Some events managed to pivot to online, no small feat for independent venues like Counterpulse with limited budgets.
By the first of the year, the phrase “out of an abundance of caution” had become the new “Auld Lang Syne.”
These decisions were made by the venues and organizations themselves when little was known about how dangerous the variant would prove to be—and without, many say, any guidance from city agencies. “We were basically left to fend for ourselves and our audience,” one organizer who cancelled events told me. “There was no outreach whatsoever. We had to make the really hard decision to lose thousands of dollars to protect our people. Other places stayed open and made the money. Did we make the wrong decision? I don’t think so. But winter will be a struggle.”
Beyond the overarching moral question of whether venues that made the ethical decision to close should be financially punished for their choice, why wasn’t city policy better coordinated to guide the arts through this latest surge of COVID infections (aside from vaccination requirements held over from the last wave)? Why are venue owners and arts organizations left to make epidemiological decisions during a pandemic that should be best made by experts in, say, the San Francisco Department of Public Health?
When all venues were closed at the beginning of COVID, at least everyone was in the same boat, however rocky. A jumble of self-determined decisions has only led to more confusion—and may be rewarding bad actors who stay open no matter what.
So far, the Breed administration’s official stance regarding Omicron has essentially been: Deal with it. “Transit will be running, frontline workers will put in overtime to fill in for quarantined colleagues,” the mayor finally tweeted about the surge on Jan. 4. “We’re not shutting anything down, or closing businesses. This isn’t 2020.”
But for many arts organizations it does feel like 2020—the uncertainty, anxiety, and financial losses mounting all over again—only this time without the same information and we’re-all-in-this-together virtual summits offered at the beginning of the pandemic.
Some help might soon be on the way from various city and state agencies, however. The Office of Small Business’s San Francisco Music and Entertainment Venue Recovery Grant, which launch in March 2021, is currently taking applications to award another round of relief in coming months, which could total up to $500,000. A rent relief pilot program through the Office of Employment and Workforce Development—encompassing all small businesses and introduced last year by Supervisor Safai—could award up to $35,000 to businesses who incurred debt to commercial landlords over the pandemic, since the commercial eviction moratorium ended in September. According to sources in City Hall, another program is being developed that will support venues hosting live events in public spaces.
On the state side of things, the long-evolving California Venue Grant Program is finishing up its 2021 applications review: Recipient announcements are said to be imminent. And on Monday, Senator Scott Weiner’s office announced that his bill, SB 793, which aims to ease the liquor license process for entertainment venues and allow venues to sell liquor in open container zones, had passed the state senate with a bipartisan unanimous vote. And because budget season is just kicking off, there may be more on the way from both the city and the state.
As far as increasing communications with venues and organizations, Entertainment Commission Executive Director Maggie Weiland told me via email, “The Entertainment Commission will be doing outreach through our newsletter and social posts this week or early next week on the latest Health Order booster guidance for indoor mega events, effective Feb. 1st, and will continue to share further messaging about any Health Order updates as they become available.” She also emphasized the Commission’s continued work on JAM permits, which foster entertainment and amplified music in outdoor public spaces.
Overall, however, the city is still taking a long-term approach to COVID relief, rather than making an Omicron pivot to offer emergency spot grants or other direct resources that would sustain the arts ecosystem through this wave, and beyond. And while there seems to be some good news for venues, what about the actual arts organizations and promoters who fill them? Left to rely on a hectic patchwork of private grants and community goodwill, many feel the city could be more proactive to keep its vital scene afloat.
David Herrera of David Herrera Performance Company made the difficult decision, alongside his hosting venue Z Space, to delay his company’s dance performance, “Tip of My Tongue,” which was to take place throughout the beginning of January. This was the third postponement of the performance, whose costs have escalated by tens of thousands of dollars in the interim.
“To be frank, our budget has ballooned to unsustainable levels,” he told me. “We’ve been fortunate to get some private grants. But we’ve used up our COVID reserves just waiting to perform. Some of our dancers have been on board since 2019. Because we’ve postponed again, we now need to find a replacement dancer for the new date. It’s like starting from scratch. We have to keep paying the crew and company for more rehearsals, and for studio space to rehearse in all over again. All while monitoring exposures and trying to protect everyone from getting sick.
“At this point, we don’t just need a COVID relief grant,” he said. “We need a COVID ‘re-emergence’ grant, an extra push to make sure this production actually happens.”
Herrera believes the city could be doing more in terms of direct emergency grants and making information about resources easier to find. “If you look at previous pandemics there were multiple spikes. The variants weren’t unpredictable. I think people need to take a bigger look at how these waves really affect us in the arts. It’s not just a matter of a performance or two being postponed. If we as artists and workers don’t have money to survive here, it’s only going to add to the displacement and homelessness issues the city is facing. And that’s beyond the fact that most people visit San Francisco for its culture—which is us! Austerity won’t bring that back.”
Beyond that, Herrera says, the arts community itself could do more in this time of tumult. “I don’t see specific conversations about Omicron happening within the community, sharing information like we did when COVID first hit. Larger institutions could really help smaller ones by offering space and resources. So many rehearsal studios are sitting empty, yet are too expensive to rent for smaller companies like ours. Big organizations could offer residencies to artists who need it. We could really pool what we all have together.”
Wave after wave also brings an emotional cost, of course. “Some moments I’m pragmatic, some moments I’m really down,” Herrera said. “The dancers have worked so hard, the designers and crew have worked so hard. I am definitely accepting that this is a new normal, but the continued uncertainty about whether we’ll be around or not in the future is a huge weight.
“But you know, in the end we are still here because we love what we do and know that it’s important for the social fabric of San Francisco.”