It was around 5 p.m. on March 13, the evening of a sold-out show at Bottom of the Hill on 17th Street, when Mayor London Breed ordered every bar and venue in The City to shut down.
Knuckle Puck, the band scheduled to play that night, was doing a sound check, while the owner of the venue, Lynn Schwarz, was on a hike.
Schwarz said that the night before had been the first time she noticed people weren’t showing up like they used to. Bands were canceling tours and she recalls feeling “odd” about the whole situation.
The show must go on though, she thought to herself as she fielded emails from customers reaching out to make sure that the venue was still open.
Schwarz started flipping burgers at Bottom of the Hill 24 years ago, working her way up to bartender, manager and eventually to part owner. It was a struggle to make the bar profitable again, and it wasn’t until last year that Schwarz felt she had a handle on running the business.
“It was really tough times, and continues to be even without the pandemic,” she said. “Just last year I’m like, I finally got this, I know how to put down great offers and I have all these agents that I’m friends with. I got it, I can finally sleep.”
“Fast forward three months, and I’m like, OK, I’m not meant to sleep well,” she said.
It’s been over five months since the initial shutdown, and independent music venues in The City are on the brink of disappearing, according to Ben Bleiman, a small business owner and president of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission.
“We are in red alert, freefall, absolute devastation and we need help now,” said Bleiman, who said he was speaking for himself and not the commission. “I’ve been pleading with The City to offer directives to our small independent venues, especially on how they can have a show in the park with circles on the ground.”
Bleiman and Schwarz agreed that The City should be looking for solutions similar to the Shared Spaces program, which would allow venues to block off streets or host social distance shows in the park.
“My whole life has been controlling situations when people are drinking,” Schwarz said. “I know I have a staff that is able to keep things safe and healthy and respectful…We’re all very well suited to this lifestyle of laying down the law.”
Bleiman said The City has been unresponsive so far to pleas for help, and he believes that officials aren’t being aggressive enough in their attempts to save these small businesses.
“They need to take risks, and they need to stop being cowards,” Bleiman said. “They’re only allowing streets to close if they have overwhelming consensus from super organized people, and they’re afraid that the neighbors are going to call in and complain, but we’re dying. Hospitality and entertainment are dying, so we don’t have time to make sure its a giant kumbaya.”
City officials said that they are unable to allow venues to move into the streets as long as San Francisco remains on the state watchlist.
“California counties on the state watchlist cannot allow certain operations and activities, and in some cases had to reverse reopening…Unfortunately, entertainment venues are not currently included in the list of businesses that are allowed to operate,” The City’s joint information center said in a statement. “We know that safely reopening San Francisco, with a healthy population and a renewed economy, is still possible as long as we all do our part.”
Bleiman said he and other bar owners across California are preparing a letter asking for help from officials at the state level.
“The ideal situation for businesses would be grant money, so they could safely hibernate for a few months until this thing is over,” Bleiman said. “Because even if they reopen most people don’t want to go…People are freaked out till there’s a vaccine.”
Even if the state took San Francisco off the watchlist and The City allowed bars and venues to participate in the Shared Spaces program, many venue owners said they would struggle to manage the economics of opening up at a limited capacity.
Small and out of the way venues such as Mr. Tipples, a jazz club in a windy alleyway just off Market Street, are also unable to accommodate customers in an outdoor setting.
“Our sidewalk is just a wind tunnel,” said Jay Bordeleau, owner of Mr. Tipples. “Nobody wants to be outside on a cold windy sidewalk next to what a jazz club was.”
Bordeleau said he considers himself one of the lucky ones. His landlord has been lenient with rent money, and Bordeleau received a Paycheck Protection Program loan that he hopes will give Mr. Tipples a fighting chance. However, he thinks that San Francisco, once a nurturing place for young artists, may lose an entire generation of talent.
“Looking at our venue, for example, we realize our place in the venue world is a small local place for pretty good players who are amateur, and local, and have a day job to shred their teeth and practice until something bigger comes,” he said. “You can’t headline SF Jazz without shredding your chops a lot somewhere else.”
Schwarz thinks that city officials will ultimately regret neglecting to support their bars and venues, and she hopes that donors from the private sector will contribute funds before it’s too late.
“If we don’t exist, you’re going to have a hard time convincing people this is a cool city,” Schwarz said. “Venues are the cool factor in any city, we not only contribute so much money financially to The City, we put it on the map or in the guidebooks, and we’re what Facebook and Twitter tells its prospective employees exists in The City.”
Schwarz said she is hoping that Bottom of the Hill can reopen by spring or summer of next year, but warned that they won’t survive that long without help.