Rationale and Reasons for Reopening the Performing Arts in San Francisco
History and Legacy
The term “conservative” is rarely used in correlation with the Bay Area. However, the cautious approach taken by the region in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has been a vital factor in the success of its response—transforming this uncommon moniker into a relevant description.
This degree of understanding is the result of tragic and hard-won experience. In a similar fashion to Hong King and Taiwan, who were able to utilize their familiarity in dealing with previous outbreaks of the SARS and MERS viruses to inform their proactive responses, so the Bay Area was able to draw on its own traumatic history of the AIDS epidemic to inform its management of the current public health crisis.
We owe our insights to the memory of a generation of young people who died from AIDS and its many complications and the men and women that cared and campaigned for them. To some degree it is these care-givers and activists who went on to lay the contemporary foundations for public health policy in the region, and it is their legacy that informs our position today.
The arts and entertainment community suffered disproportionately from HIV. We were perhaps the epicenter of the epicenter, and it is that sense of homage to our own history and people that we bring to figuring out how we can address the reopening of our industry.
Priorities and Commitment
While setting out guidelines for the establishing of parameters for outdoor public performances, the City’s primary commitment must be to ensure that artists, workers, business partners, and audience members feel safe at all times while attending or participating in public events.
The re-opening of the performing arts industry will draw on the traditional parallels between art and health. It is a task that requires aligning San Francisco’s risk-averse healthcare know-how with the altruistic nature of artists. Performing artists genuinely feel that, through what they can communicate in their work, they have a significant role to play in our communities’ healing process. The significant economic impact attached to the gathering of people for cultural performance should also not be dismissed. This factor is undeniably important in helping to rebuild San Francisco’s economy. But at the same time, it is also important to acknowledge artists’ ability to embrace other human qualities, which might be intangible, but are equally valuable and distinguish them from other types of commerce.
The Problems We Face
For those that would argue (correctly if one reviews the law) that art is already protected under the First Amendment, then it is important to look at how the government is treating art during the current pandemic. It is a protected right that was necessarily suspended (along with several others), but that is now being held hostage to wealthier, better organized political and economic interests and excluded for reasons that have nothing to do with health and safety.
In the Bay Area most of us willingly shut down at the outbreak of the pandemic and supported the government to take a lead on its most fundamental responsibility – the protection, health and safety of the population of which it was elected to represent. But as society has started to navigate the difficult task of reopening safely, it is becoming increasingly apparent that other, less salubrious but equally common, features of government are being used to subvert its most sacrosanct responsibility.
The problem we are facing at present is that, following the temporary hiatus caused by the initial impact of the corona-virus, industries with more financial muscle and political clout are starting to control the reopening and recovery agenda. By comparison, First Amendment protected activities that include the unlikely bedfellows of religion and theatre have not been afforded any such priority. The church was able to get to the table via the U.S. Department of Justice, but the performing arts community remains shut out.
Further, the problem is that the loser here is not just the artist, it is the First Amendment – the right to the freedom of speech and assembly. What the Festival developed with our program on October 24 – 25, and what it is continuing to do with the Current Proposal to San Francisco’s municipal government, is a safe way to begin to reopen our industry in a manner that is consistent with the health and safety protections of the broader society. We can reopen our industry in a way that is safer than many other activities Americans might be engaging in (including going to restaurants and church) as they try to re-emerge from sheltering in place.
However, because we lack the requisite political juice, we are at the back of the queue. When in reality, the ideas and creativity the arts have to offer can help guide the broader society forward; if its leaders will allow us the space to demonstrate how we propose to do it. But before discussing our plans in more detail, we should step back and look at the broader landscape.
We have to confront one very hard fact. The corona-virus is not going away. The primary culprit for this is the Federal government, ineptly misled by President Donald Trump (until January 20, 2021). California Governor Gavin Newsom, for all his grandstanding and platitudes, is also partially liable by (for example) allowing infected prison inmates from southern California be moved to San Quentin, and not ordering the dispersal of crowds in places like Huntington Beach and Orange County when large groups insisted on engaging in blatantly unsafe activity.
Our Health Department (and those of the other counties of the Bay Area) made the right call and locked us down. They deserve credit and our immense thanks for that. But for better or worse, we are part of the United States of America. We cannot keep the disease out if the rest of the country is infected.
Based on that sober assessment, what do we know? Absent a vaccine (which is a whole other saga), we have to learn to live in a COVID-19 environment for at least the next year. Only privileged (and disproportionately white) people who are independently wealthy, or who can work from home and make enough money to order in all their food, can afford to completely isolate themselves for that much time.
The rest of us have to re-emerge with caution and do the best we can. Our livelihoods, economy and general societal well-being depend on it. The question is how to do it equitably—and to ensure that whatever we do (as much as possible) we are all in this together.
Unfortunately for the government and the various departments of public health, managing the absolutism of ignorance (in March, none of us knew what we were dealing with) is far more straightforward than navigating the political riptides of reopening. More fortunately for the general public, we now know the best things we can do to protect ourselves are pretty basic and within our own personal control: wear a face covering when in public; maintain a physical distance of six feet to people not from your own household or social bubble; whenever possible avoid going into enclosed spaces and conduct your affairs out-of-doors; stay at home and isolate yourself if you have a temperature and / or you are not feeling well. Following these directives while in public and sanitizing / washing hands frequently will reduce the risk of infection greatly.
The government’s role is to regulate for and support this. Provide adequate healthcare and financial support for people who are sick or at-risk; change the laws to allow more outdoor activity; if indoor venues are going to be permitted then keep capacity within a low fraction of the venue capacity and improve ventilation systems; if people are gathering in groups have organizers find out who each individual is for the purposes of contact tracing.
Will these steps save us all? No, some of us (predominantly the most vulnerable) will still fall victim to COVID-19. The vast majority will not. More importantly, from a societal and public health perspective, the infection rates will remain low enough not to overwhelm hospitals and they will have the capacity to care for those that are sick.
Back to the First Amendment
Which brings us back to the arts and the First Amendment. The arts are a First Amendment protected activity. The City of San Francisco suspended this component of the Constitution because of the pandemic. Now that we are reopening, these suspensions are no longer valid. City Hall has admitted as such by allowing outdoor religious gatherings of up to 200 people. In the eyes of the law, art is no different to religion. Both are equally protected under the First Amendment.
To underscore the danger of not taking back the Constitution and the First Amendment rights accorded to the arts, the National Park Service is on record as stating that they neither view the performing arts as protected, nor do they view protesting in support of arts as a First Amendment protected activity. Further, when under pressure from the Mayor's office, the Park Service also stated that the City of San Francisco was of the same opinion. In other words, it did not take long for the government to decide it could dispense with artists’ rights altogether. At the same time, the Park Service allowed church services for up to 200 people at a time to take place every week on adjacent land under its jurisdiction.
The event we had to sue to be able to stage in October, and what the City continues to bend over backwards to object to, was a small, safe prototype that successfully employed the priorities and practices referred to above. Our goal was to use the event to create a practical set of health and safety guidelines for our industry to move outdoors and stage our events in a safe and distanced environment for audiences, artists and other workers. We needed to do this before the rainy season (that is now upon us), because we did not want the Health Department to create guidelines during the winter months without being able to refer to a practical example of how this practice works.
The dangers of allowing them to do that will become manifest in the spring when many performing arts organizations will apply for permits to present outdoor arts activities. If the guidelines are not sound, the health of the population could be put unnecessarily at risk. We do not want our industry to be able to operate with the same lax and potentially dangerous health and safety standards as have been afforded to, for example, the restaurant industry.
The guidelines we are proposing are at least as cautious, if not safer than any other type of activity that has already been permitted. Further, they are not absolute. If there are better ways of implementing them, we are open to discussion and other ideas. As such, we urge the City of San Francisco to change its ill-considered decision to continue to deny our First Amendment protected rights for spurious reasons that it cannot defend in court.
We will continue to advocate for the reopening of the arts for all of the economic recovery and cultural / spiritual well-being reasons that other members of our industry are voicing. But equally, we will do it because First Amendment rights should not be relinquished lightly. And when we allow the government to suspend them, we need to reclaim those rights as soon as the imperative for implementing them has passed.
That time, in the manner we have undertaken and for the reasons we are suggesting, is clearly now. We will regret not standing up for these rights when they are arbitrarily cast aside on the whim of the government (which is what this current situation represents). We need to challenge them and we are setting a dangerous precedent if we do not do so. Lest we forget, as one 20th century American denizen of the arts (and frequent battler for the First Amendment) observed, “The meek shall inherit nothing.”
San Francisco International Arts Festival