Club owners to maskless mayor: Are we the new fun police?

Black Cat affair highlights difficult recovery for nightlife industry

By Ben Schneider

Examiner staff writer

Over the weekend, footage of Mayor London Breed partying maskless at the Black Cat became the latest flashpoint in the COVID culture wars. Articles in local and national media implied that Breed, like Gov. Gavin Newsom with his November soirée at The French Laundry, violated her own indoor masking regulations when she got up and danced barefaced and smiling at the vaccinated-only Tenderloin jazz club.

Technically, city regulations require restaurant, bar and music venue patrons to remain masked except “while actively eating or drinking,” though nearly everyone watching Tony! Toni! Toné! perform at the Black Cat with Breed appeared to be unmasked.

As Breed sparred with journalists about the definition of “actively,” bar and venue operators watched warily from the sidelines. Some agree with Breed that the Black Cat affair is a distraction from the recovery of The City’s storied nightlife industry. Others feel that Breed inadvertently highlighted the predicament the industry’s been in since San Francisco reinstated indoor mask requirements on Aug. 20.

While it’s difficult to fault Breed for her excitement while watching one of her favorite groups perform — that’s what live music is all about, after all — some nightlife pros were put off by her response to the controversy, manufactured or not.

“It didn’t make me mad that she did that, in that she was just being a normal person,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir, a cocktail bar in the Mission. “But it made me glad that it was called out. It’s really hard to live under these rules, no matter who you are.”

Ehrmann adds that at Elixir, he and his bartenders have had trouble discerning what’s “absolutely required, and what’s not” when it comes to masking. “At the end of the day, it really comes down to everyone being as responsible as possible, and being as nice to each other as possible.”

Christopher White, owner of Rickshaw Stop, a music venue near Civic Center, also expressed empathy for Breed. “It’s not like I don’t get it, because it’s what I live every day. And it’s what all the venues and bars and everybody are all living every single day.”

What really irked White, though, was when Breed told Fox News, “We don’t need the fun police to come in and micromanage and tell us what we should or shouldn’t be doing.”

“The irony is that she has asked us to be the fun police, and we have answered the call,” White says, with emphasis, citing the extra time his bouncers take to explain the masking rules to patrons, and the pointed looks bartenders give to approaching chin-strappers. That kind of nannying is “so antithetical to everything that we do from a culture standpoint, but we have done it,” White says.

Christin Evans, owner of the Alembic on Haight Street, was also frustrated by Breed’s rhetoric. “I get that the mayor let her guard down with the delta numbers dropping, but I was disappointed in her response,” Evans wrote in a text. “We have to remind ourselves of those that haven’t been able to get vaccinated & look out for them,” including children and many homeless people.

Not all nightlife professionals were so put off, however. Ben Bleiman, owner of Teeth in the Mission and president of the Entertainment Commission, informally polled a group of bar owners about the incident and found them universally unfazed. “The whole thing is a manufactured controversy. I’m so over it and I can’t wait for it to go away,” Bleiman says, speaking personally, not for the commission.

Echoing Breed’s rhetoric, Bleiman sees this story as a distraction from the real issues facing the nightlife industry. “I think that what we should be talking about now is how do we save these businesses, not whether or not the mayor got up for a second when literally her childhood heroes were playing right in front of her.”

Financially speaking, August was the worst month for bars since The City reopened, due to anxiety around the delta variant. September has been much better, but it would still take “30 more months like this to get us back on our feet,” Bleiman says. “It’s kind of like that rain from this weekend.”

Meanwhile, the commercial eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of the month, and Bleiman knows of “a bunch of really angry landlords who want their money and they want it now.”

None of the nightlife professionals interviewed for this story thought San Franciscans would start flaunting mask mandates any more than they already have been because of the mayor’s actions. And they acknowledged that so far, whatever The City has been doing, it’s worked pretty well, with COVID cases declining about three-fold since the most recent peak at the beginning of August.

White thinks the incident could spark a productive dialogue about the current COVID regulations. “We could be applying a tad more common sense to this. And I think that the mayor basically did a fantastic job of illustrating the non-common sense portion of it all.”

bschneider@sfexaminer.com

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