The year (or two) ahead for San Francisco nightlife venues is full of unknowns, not the least of which is when health officials will decide it's safe enough to enter "Phase 4" of the state's reopening timeline, which includes the reemergence of festivals, concerts, and nightclubs. On Monday, city officials and nightlife operators gathered for a virtual summit on Zoom to discuss what lies ahead, and while things remain grim, there was some cause for optimism about a reset for a city that was starting to feel a little to privileged and sanitized.
There were two panel discussions, one featuring a group of City Hall figures and Entertainment Commission Director Maggie Weiland, and another featuring a group of bar and venue owners. As 48 Hills reports, the first panel laid out some depressing timetables for Phase 4 and post-Phase 4, with SF Chief Economist Ted Egan suggesting that the fairs and festivals that define San Francisco weekends between spring and fall likely won't be able to return to normal capacity and operations until 2023. And SF nightlife may not return to a recognizable form until late in 2021 — i.e., after when a coronavirus vaccine is assumed to be widely available.
In the meantime, venues that want to survive are going to have to get very creative, and they're hoping the city will be flexible in its rules to allow them to do so.
"We are lucky here," said often outspoken spokesperson for the nightlife community Ben Bleiman, owner of the bars Tonic, Soda Popinski's, and Teeth and president of the Entertainment Commission. "We have leaders [who] care about nightlife."
Bleiman was joined on the second panel discussion, "The Future of Nightlife in the Covid-19 Era and Beyond," by Chase Center general manager Kim Stone, Bottom of the Hill owner Lynn Schwarz, and Eventbrite co-founder and CEO Julia Hartz.
As SFGate notes, Bleiman tried to strike a hopeful note about the possibility of continuing to loosen rules like the longstanding one about to-go cocktails, which the ABC lifted for restaurants selling food and could potentially repeat for bars without food.
"The ABC with a wave of a wand removed restrictions on us that we thought were set in stone forever, but the city didn’t burn down," Bleiman said. "We should be questioning the orthodoxy that we’ve lived with the last few years."
Schwarz is hoping the city will let her host concerts in McLaren Park while her indoor venue is closed, saying that for her, the business has always been about showcasing bands, not about selling booze. And she adds that she's hoping small venues like hers might get an exception to open in Phase 3, instead of Phase 4 — arguing that small venues ought to be grouped in with small bars, rather than grouped with large nightclubs and venues like the Chase Center.
Schwarz also delighted everyone with the observation that SF venues and their bouncers are "uniquely qualified to take care of customers and lay down the law" when it comes to social distancing rules and mask wearing. "We’re not going to have any trouble if someone comes up without a mask, with saying, get the fuck out of here or get a mask."
Ultimately, the decision to reopen bars and nightclubs is going to be made at the regional level, likely in unison between the same six Bay Area counties and the city of Berkeley whose health officers are now coordinating efforts during the current phase of reopening.
As 48 Hills notes, bar owners already feel like there is a pent-up demand for their drinks and social venues, but the process of allowing these businesses back open is going to be a messy one with a lot of pitfalls. Just last weekend, Marina denizens who gathered outside Howell's Bar got pandemic-shamed on social media, but scenes like that are likely to become more and more common as summer begins and warm weather returns.
And Bleiman tried to end things on a positive note saying that with all touring acts canceled for the foreseeable future, the reopening of venues and starting up outdoor shows could be a boon for small, local acts.
He says that he foresees bars and nightclubs being the economic drivers that help the city's commercial corridors recover, ultimately. And, per SFGate, he said, "I actually think we’re poised for a renaissance in the city. I think the city got away from what a lot of us loved about it in the last five or 10 years. It just became kind of sterile. The art and culture that we loved so much seemed to be disappearing."
Will we be able to get back to a version of Old San Francisco once the dust settles and people can leave their houses again? Will the city's ineffably weird and rebellious spirit reemerge from the ashes of a pandemic to make things whole again? We can only dream.
Photo via Great Northern