SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF) filed a lawsuit against the City of San Francisco and the State of California on Monday, Oct. 19, maintaining that they should be allowed to continue with their plans of holding an outdoors festival on Oct. 24 through Oct. 25. Festival officials argue that the First Amendment — which guarantees freedom of speech— protects performing arts as well. 

The purpose of SFIAF, according to its director Andrew Wood, is to experiment safety protocols for outdoor events of that type while presenting what the artists have prepared. In the lawsuit, Wood declared that on June 9, the festival received a notification from the San Francisco Arts Commission about a $20,000 grant that they were given to cover some of the costs of the previously scheduled May 2021 Festival. They had the idea to host a “prototype” festival first in order to prepare for possible larger gatherings in the future, which is when they proposed the October event. In the declaration of the lawsuit, Wood said this change was approved on August 24.

The festival applied for a permit on June 16 to secure a venue at Fort Mason with the National Park Service, and they started reaching out to artists who would be interested in performing. According to Wood’s declaration, the park asked them to submit evidence of live performances being allowed in San Francisco, a health and safety plan for the festival, as well as a capacity variance for a Shared Spaces event. 

He said SFIAF applied for a Shared Spaces permit with a variance of 49 people to hold an event adjacent to Fort Mason and received approval for this on September 16. After submitting what the Park Service had asked them, Wood said that on September 18 their festival at Fort Mason was approved. The director released an email in which a Park Service official stated they would be issuing the permit for SFIAF.

Wood then explained that on Oct. 9, the Park Service said that the Mayor’s Office had told them that a permit was not enough to hold the festival. Park officials started outlining more criteria for SFIAF to meet, and Wood said that when they started coming up with solutions to follow the additional guidelines, they received no substantive response. He told the San Francisco News that when this started happening, they decided to sue the City to get the Mayor’s attention and talk about how other outdoor activities, such as religious gatherings and protests, have been allowed to resume.

The director is referring to the guidance for outdoor gatherings that the City has released, which states that at large gatherings for religious services or political protests there should be no more than 200 people. The guidance also prevents people from shouting, chanting or singing at these events, and says that only one person should speak at a time.

SFIAF’s planned safety measures include selling tickets only for individual events, holding shows that last less than one hour, having one toilet for every 12 guests, sanitizing spaces frequently, having hand sanitizer available and not allowing foods or drinks. The common measures of physical distancing and face coverings would also be followed in the festival. In the declaration Wood said that contact tracing would be part of the health procedures, and said that this was not a hard task for them as the box office is fundamental for performing arts.

The box office is one of the most basic yet fundamental operations that we either succeed or die by,” Wood said in the declaration. “What is pertinent to this statement is that it means we can contact trace nearly every attendee at our events as a matter of standard practice. With a little extra thought and application we can contact trace EVERY attendee at our events.”

The director also told The San Francisco News that the reason they want to do SFIAF in October is because they want to beat the rainy season in San Francisco.

“What we are proposing is a very safe event, and we wanted to do a small event before it starts raining,” Wood said. “We know in the spring there will be lots of outdoor art events and we wanted to make sure that we had a good example to tell everybody how to do this safely.”

During the interview, he also said that if the judge rules in their favor, they will continue with the festival as planned. However, if the ruling is not in their favor, the director said they were planning to do seven or eight protests, which the city allows.

“So either we will have our event as we plan to have, or we will have our events as a protest, which is allowed by the city with current law. So we have sent all of our applications for both types —for the events and the protest — to a park service. And we expect them to be able to process the applications, so that whatever the judge says, we can legally and safely go ahead with our events.”

Regarding the tickets that have already been purchased, if the ruling is not in their favor, SFIAF will return the money to those who want it. They will also invite attendees to join the protest. 

The artists that are set to participate at SFIAF are upset. Wood said they don’t understand why San Francisco allows restaurants to open, but not performing arts events. He said artists were expecting to be paid this weekend. 

“They are angry because the city allows restaurants to open and have performing arts happen as part of a restaurant without any audience limits, but the arts cannot function by themselves,” the director told the San Francisco News. “Restaurants are not an essential service. Restaurants are not protected by the First Amendment and art is protected by the First Amendment. So it should be able to take place under its own auspices, and not just as part of a dining experience.”

During the interview, Wood added that after filing the lawsuit, the only response they had gotten was an email saying that the City would not issue a permit for their event due to health reasons. He claimed that the Mayor’s Office has not responded to them in 10 days. 

The City Attorney’s Office commented on the lawsuit, saying that they know gatherings of people from different households are a main source of virus spread. John Coté, communications director for the attorney’s office, said that the City has made progress by approaching public health cautiously.

“On October 9, state health officials released binding guidance limiting the size of private gatherings such as this to no more than three households. This event clearly did not qualify,” said Coté. “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. The last thing San Francisco needs is a super-spreader event. We’ll review this lawsuit and address it in court, but the fact remains that this event is not allowed under state rules.”

Artist Nkechi Emeruwa-Neuberg, who is scheduled to perform her solo theatre work at SFIAF, said in a statement to the court, “I am very sad to have to write this letter. I do not understand why the City is placing itself in opposition to this program. Of all the fights to pick, this seems to be the absolutely worst and ill-judged for the least definable reason. The insult is hurtful and the timing unconscionable. As artists we invest time, thought and energy in our practice. To be disregarded in this turbulent and difficult time is tantamount to censorship of the arts and telling us that our voices do not matter. It is a gross disservice to the First Amendment and the values we hold dear as the descendants of slaves, defenders of emancipation and citizens of the United States of America.”