SF International Arts Festival Back On

Following a legal spat with the city, the small-scale, outdoor, socially-distanced festival will proceed with some modifications.

Everything was all set for a small scale, outdoor, socially distanced edition of the San Francisco International Arts Festival at Fort Mason this weekend. Performers, crew, funding, ticket sales, equipment, and permits were all lined up — all but one, that is, from the city’s Department of Public Health. 

By last weekend, it became clear that the green light from DPH was never going to come, despite permission and funding from other city departments. And so, the festival sued the city and the state. On Friday, less than 24 hours before the festival was scheduled to begin, the lawsuit was settled. The SFIAF will proceed as a performing arts festival, and not a First Amendment protest, as organizers threatened. However, as part of the settlement, some previously planned performances have been cancelled. 

The whole saga highlights the arbitrary nature of some of the city’s reopening decisions, according to Andrew Wood, executive director of SFIAF. “This is not a health situation anymore,” Wood says. “This is a bureaucratic situation.” 

A Permit Problem

SFIAF is an interdisciplinary festival, featuring music, dance, theater, and other performing arts from around the world. Many SFIAF artists from past festivals had never before performed in the U.S.

The festival planned for this weekend, which includes a theater performance called “Licensed to Drive While Black” by Nkechi Emeruwa-Neuberg, a musical performance by Mission Hot Club, and a dance performance by pateldanceworks, has more modest ambitions. “Before we do a large outdoor festival next year, which is what we’re gearing up to do, we thought, we want to be able to make sure we can do this safely on a small scale first,” Wood says. 

As for safety requirements, each outdoor performance will have no more than 49 spectators, all masked and distanced, and no more than 5 performers. All spectators will provide their contact information for contact tracing purposes, and performance venues will be cleaned between performances. “The whole exercise here was to make sure this is done safely, and will be replicable and distributed to our industry,” Wood says, “so that when you get a rush of applications for outdoor performances in the spring, they’re actually safe.”

The problem was — at least until the resolution of the settlement — city and state regulations limited outdoor performances to 12 spectators. And while the National Parks Service and Shared Spaces program signed off on SFIAF’s plans, the Department of Public Health remained mum in the weeks leading up the festival. Wood had expected to get a variance fairly easily: after all, outdoor worship and outdoor protest are allowed to proceed with up to 200 people. But as the performance date drew nearer, Wood says all he got was radio silence from DPH and the office of Mayor London Breed. 

By last week, Wood says the group had no choice but to contact the Mayor’s office through their lawyers. It became clear from those conversations that the event would not get permission from the city to proceed. This, despite the fact that city funds, from the San Francisco Arts Commission, had already been spent on the event.

City Attorney spokesperson John Coté said the festival was in violation of a state order limiting the size of private outdoor gatherings to no more than three households. “City officials told the festival organizers that in light of this requirement, public health officials cannot approve this event. Public health leaders have made clear that this is not the time to have a major gathering.”  

Performance or Protest?

This week, with their litigation pending, the organizers of SFIAF prepared to rebrand their festival as a First Amendment protest. Artists were prepared to tell ticket holders, “We’re really sorry, but technically our performance is canceled, so we have to offer you your money back,” Wood says. “But there’s going to be a protest, where we’re going to be doing exactly the same thing which you’re invited to at exactly the same time.”

Meanwhile, the city’s legal case gradually eroded. On Tuesday, the city announced a major new phase of reopening in the coming weeks, allowing non-essential offices to reopen, indoor dining to increase capacity, and outdoor worship and protest to include as many as 300 people. On Wednesday the state of California dropped out of the suit, issuing an order that allowed performances of up to 100 people in San Francisco, while still requiring final approval from the city. After two more days of litigation, the city and the festival reached an agreement allowing much of the festival to proceed as planned. 

The major concession won by the city is the addition of 20 minute intervals between performances. (Under the previous plans, performances at the same stage area were separated by one hour intervals for cleaning. The new rules added down time between performances at separate stages, to prevent crowds from entering and exiting the complex simultaneously.) As a result of this change, the festival had to drop seven acts. 

Another surprise result of the settlement is that singing and wind instruments will now be allowed by performers. SFIAF’s press release says that artists will now incorporate these elements into their performances.

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