Organizers of the San Francisco International Arts Festival had planned to use parts of Fort Mason including the Parade Ground, Eucalyptus Grove and Black Point Battery to host performances by about a dozen Bay Area arts groups. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Organizers of the San Francisco International Arts Festival had planned to use parts of Fort Mason including the Parade Ground, Eucalyptus Grove and Black Point Battery to host performances by about a dozen Bay Area arts groups. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Arts festival sues city over permit denial

Organizer says outdoor performances should be treated like demonstrations, religious gatherings

With plans for its annual performance program this weekend at Fort Mason on hold due to pandemic-era permitting issues and safety concerns, the San Francisco International Arts Festival filed a civil rights lawsuit Monday in federal court, maintaining that the outdoor show should go on.

The suit, filed against San Francisco and the state of California, asks the court to find that orders permitting gatherings for political protest or religious services outside should also apply to the arts.

“If those are allowed, arts performances also should be allowed. Orders that don’t allow that run afoul of First Amendment rights,” said Matt Kumin, an attorney for the festival, who filed the papers Monday in U.S. District Court.

At issue are permits for a music, theatrical and dance performance series – funded in part by the San Francisco Arts Commission — scheduled to take place Oct. 24-25 outdoors in Fort Mason’s upper meadow off Bay Street.

Andrew Wood, festival director, had been working for months with artists and the community to set up protocols to ensure that performers and audiences of up to 49 people could safely participate and attend.

He obtained a Shared Spaces permit from San Francisco to allow for the closure of an adjacent street, and had an email from the National Park Service, which operates Fort Mason, that initially appeared to give the festival the go-ahead.

Soon after, however, Wood said the park service told him the festival could not go on without signoff from San Francisco’s Department of Public Health.

Julian Espinoza, a spokesman for the National Park Service, confirmed that an application for a permit had been received but not approved.

“Our first priority is the safety of our staff and visitors,” Espinoza said in a statement. “We have consistently followed guidance from local public health authorities and are currently evaluating the event organizer’s proposal to ensure we are adhering to that guidance.”

“We want to be responsive to the public health concerns of our community, while allowing some level of recreational activities many parks have been known for during this difficult time,” Espinoza added.

Despite attempts to contact the department, as well as Mayor London Breed’s office, Wood said he never received information about the variance he sought from public health rules until Oct. 17, when permission was denied.

John Cote, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s office, said the state issued guidelines on Oct. 9 strictly limiting the size of gatherings.

“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. City officials told the festival organizers that in light of this requirement, public health officials cannot approve this event,” he said, adding, “We’ll review this lawsuit and address it in court, but the fact remains that this event is not allowed under state rules.”

In a press release, Wood said, “The festival fully expects to prevail in court. But in the event that the suit is unsuccessful, the program will continue as a series of First Amendment protests, that can be permitted by the National Park Service.”

Tickets are being sold in anticipation of winning the suit, Wood said. But there is a mechanism for ticket refunds online, which also covers patrons who don’t want to attend the festival, which will be live-streamed, if they’re feeling sick.

This story has been updated with comment from the National Park Service

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