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Leaders don't want Castro crowds for Pride

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Customers flocked to the Lookout bar and restaurant last weekend, which set up tables on the sidewalk on Noe and 16th streets. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Customers flocked to the Lookout bar and restaurant last weekend, which set up tables on the sidewalk on Noe and 16th streets. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

It was going to be one of the world's biggest parties — a half-century of Pride in the city that has become synonymous with LGBT freedom and liberation.

But as the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis — unprecedented in modern times — dawned on public officials, health experts, and event organizers, the chances of San Francisco's annual Pride celebration going on in a recognizable form went from slim to none.

The Market Street parade, announced with a marching band and a speech from Mayor London Breed at City Hall on February 18, was scrapped by mid-April for the first time in its history.

In its wake, virtual events and protest marches have been organized, but neither of these does much for the businesses for which this was going to be one of the highlights of the year — the bars, nightclubs, event spaces, restaurants, and adult boutiques that cater to the LGBT community.

Castro leaders are urging people to stay home this weekend.

In a joint statement June 24, the Castro Merchants and gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman urged people not to "come to the Castro looking for a party."

The statement begins by stating the obvious, that this weekend "should have been the biggest party this town has ever seen."

"Over the last several months, San Francisco and the Bay Area have done something amazing: unlike so many other parts of the country, we flattened the curve early, and in so doing we have saved many lives," the statement reads. "Our ability to move forward with further reopening depends on keeping that curve from spiking back up, and that means we must continue to comply with the public health orders that have kept us safe so far."

The statement adds that during the AIDS epidemic "the LGBTQ+ community in the Castro learned how to take the necessary precautions to keep each other safe and save lives" and "we need to do that again."

"We can't stop social distancing or wearing masks. We have to be smart, stay home if we can, and save lives. In short, Pride 2020 cannot be a party, at least not in the traditional sense. Not on the Embarcadero. Not at Civic Center. Not in the Castro. ... This Pride weekend, please do not come to the Castro looking for a party. If you do come to the Castro and see a crowd gathering, please go home."

Speaking with the Bay Area Reporter after the statement was issued, Mandelman delineated between gatherings to protest and gatherings to party. Indeed, a large gathering is expected to gather Sunday adjacent to Mission Dolores Park as part of the "Pride is a riot" march.

"The right to peacefully protest is protected by the First Amendment, and the protests in San Francisco and across the world against anti-Black violence in all its forms have been beautiful to behold — even if a bit worrying from a public health perspective," Mandelman stated. "There is a clear difference from both public health and common sense perspectives between marching for justice with masks on while trying to maintain social distance, on the one hand, and drinking and dancing in close proximity on the other. COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising again in San Francisco and people should not be putting their lives and the lives of others at risk unnecessarily."

Nightlife businesses fight for survival
Cecil Russell, a gay man who is the head of Cecil Russell Presents and Gloss magazine, had been planning on putting on large parties at event spaces this Pride weekend. Those parties, "Heat" and "We Party Pink Carnival," have been tentatively rescheduled for 2021.

Before in-person San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee events were canceled, Russell was one of a number of prominent LGBT nightlife and business leaders who issued an open letter to the SF Pride board asking that the public portions of Pride be postponed to October or November rather than canceled outright.

Russell said in a June 18 phone interview with the B.A.R. that the current effect of the closures on event spaces is deleterious.

"Nightlife is non-existent right now and to tell you the truth," Russell said. "I'm worried about the venues."

Russell said that he thinks that nightclubs accustomed to holding larger music and dance parties should be allowed to open outside so that they can survive, even if dancing won't be allowed.

Nightclubs are in the final stage of government reopening plans, and bars that usually have a dance floor are not allowed to utilize them for dancing.

"I'm hopeful the city allows them to move outdoors. They've done outdoor events for years," Russell said. "People can wear masks and have music, maybe not dancing, but a happy medium. As far as us promoters, none of us are making any money — but I hope the venues can survive as we go into the summer."

Subsequent to that interview, Breed's office announced June 22 that "outdoor bars" will be allowed to reopen Monday, June 29 — the day after the end of Pride weekend, but earlier than previously scheduled.

[Updated, 6/26/20: Citing an uptick in COVID cases, Breed said Friday that the city will "pause" its reopening of outdoor bars, salons, and museums that hade been set for June 29. At an afternoon news conference Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax, a gay man Breed hired for the post, said he did not know how long the pause would be.

"Our reopening process is guided by data and science," Breed stated June 26. "COVID-19 cases are rising throughout California and we're now seeing a rise in cases in San Francisco too. Our numbers are still low but they're rising rapidly. While I know this pause is disappointing to residents and businesses owners, we need to temporarily delay the reopenings that were scheduled for Monday."]

"Thanks to San Franciscans' efforts to follow health requirements, wear face coverings, and practice social distancing, our COVID-19 health indicators are in a good place and we can continue reopening our city," Breed said in a news release. "We know a lot of businesses and residents are struggling financially, and this next step will help get more San Franciscans back to work while still balancing safety. ... I know that San Francisco residents will continue to prioritize public health as we reopen so that we can keep our entire city healthy."

Manny Alferez, a straight ally who is the managing partner at The Great Northern near Potrero Hill and at the Monarch nightclub at Sixth and Mission streets, told the B.A.R. by phone June 23 that it wouldn't be feasible for him to open either location as an outside bar, though food service will begin at Monarch when allowed in the cocktail lounge.

Alferez said that he'd been anticipating a large turnout for this year's Pride weekend after last year's Pink block party outside Great Northern drew a large crowd.

Alferez said that the survival of nightclubs is contingent on factors outside of the control of many owners and managers.

"It really depends on the landlords, and if they get a break from the state or a mortgage break," Alferez said. "The landlords need to pay their bills too. Obviously, business is not going to be the same. Our landlords want to work with us, but for those who haven't their bars have closed."

While Mandelman and Castro Merchants asked people not to come to the gayborhood, they also urged people to patronize Castro businesses in-person (and not through delivery apps), and that if they attend one of the protests scheduled for the weekend (one of which is scheduled to begin adjacent to Mission Dolores Park) that they "wear a mask and social distance by staying six feet apart from others."

Mandelman has told the B.A.R. over several occasions in the past month that considering the recent protest activity and the relaxation of physical distancing regulations, he expected to see crowds in the Castro neighborhood on Pride weekend.

"We have reached out to the city's Emergency Operations Center to encourage them to begin planning for how to ensure whatever events do happen around Pride can occur as safely as possible," Mandelman told the B.A.R. June 17. "The pandemic is still with us. Our numbers have been very good so far, and we have saved thousands of lives in San Francisco, but we want to keep it that way."

While other parts of California have allowed dine-in restaurants and bars to reopen, San Francisco has not and does not plan on doing so until mid-July and August, respectively.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, a petition asking Breed to let bars reopen in mid-July was signed by the mayor herself (though a representative made clear she would follow the guidance of public health officials). It has received over 8,000 signatures as of press time, and has a goal of 10,000 signatures.


Bartender Erick Lopez wiped down a table outside the Edge bar last weekend. Photo: Steven Underhill  

Some businesses reopen
Some Castro-area businesses are reopening within the regulatory framework allowed by the city. For example, Lookout at 16th and Market streets — which has been conducting outside table service and selling take-out food — announced that the outdoor seating and service will be open on Friday, June 26-Sunday, June 28 from noon to 10 p.m.

In the last weeks that outdoor dining has been available to restaurateurs, Lookout and Harvey's in the Castro have emerged as among the most popular with patrons.

Steve Porter, Harvey's general manager, told the B.A.R. June 23 that his restaurant is reducing service opportunities this weekend so as not to draw crowds looking to party in the Castro.

"We're planning minute-by-minute and we have contingency plans in place in the event that things get out of hand," Porter said. "Our main concern is everybody's safety."

Harvey's normally has seven outside tables but this weekend will have four, without table service. The restaurant will be open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
"We don't want Saturday and Sunday to get too chaotic," Porter said.

The Edge at 18th Street at Collingwood Street had a soft reopening last weekend, serving tacos from the El Capitan Taqueria across the street. However, a sign on the door of that bar June 22 stated that it will be closed temporarily because it is "making improvements with the new outdoor service model."

The Mix, down the street, also had a soft reopening last weekend, but was closed June 22-23. It has been selling drinks and food to-go Wednesdays-Sundays in the afternoon.

Maurice Darwish, owner of The Cove on Castro (between Market and 18th streets), said that his business has been helped by the start of outdoor dining. He currently has four tables on the sidewalk on Castro Street and hopes he can add more.

"It's helping because people who pass by and want to eat can do it now," Darwish said. "I was relying on take-out."

The Cove is open for business 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Another entrepreneur making the most of the situation is Michael "Tilly" Petri, who started a business selling face coverings below the Poesia Osteria Italiana restaurant on 18th Street. It is open Tuesdays-Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. Petri joined Porter in expecting a busy weekend.

"I started from home at the beginning of the pandemic in March, when we didn't have the [mask] recommendation yet," Petri said. "We moved from there. I knew I had to pay taxes on the money I was making so I got a business license and a permit and we hope to branch out to other accessories."

Gary Knight, who manages Phantom, Puff 'n Stuff, and Smoke Plus in the Castro, said that the Castro's economy is going to lag until tourists can return en masse to the neighborhood. Knight's businesses have had to pare down operations as a result of the pandemic.

"There may be a few people coming [to San Francisco this weekend] — staying with friends and barbequing and drinking," Knight said. "I'm sure we'll get a crowd, but it'll be quiet until we get tourism back.

"What can we do?" Knight added. "Unfortunately the Castro relies on tourists, bars and restaurants, but bars aren't allowed to open."

Lookout and The Mix, among other Castro bars, did not respond to B.A.R. requests for comment.

Updated, 6/26/20: This story has been updated about the pause in reopening some businesses in San Francisco.

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