Where’s the party? Campaigns plan for a socially distanced election night

This Tuesday will be an election night like no other.

This Tuesday will be an election night like no other.

And it comes after a year like no other, dominated by a pandemic, economic meltdown, historic police brutality protests, and record-smashing destructive wildfires that clogged the Bay Area’s air with toxins and turned the sky orange. Not to mention a historically divisive presidential election.

If there is any night when people would normally be eager to gather and let loose, whether to laugh or cry, it’s this Tuesday. But of course, the pandemic still looms.

So what will campaign or watch parties look like when coronavirus transmission is still occurring?

San Francisco health officials say they should look like most of our social interactions this year — sparse and cautious.

“The general election is a very exciting night for the entire country and customarily many residents watch the election unfold socially,” public health officials said in an email. “However, San Francisco must continue to fight COVID-19 by following the health order that prohibits gathering with more than 25 people from three different households (inside or outside), multiple outdoor gatherings at the same space at the same time, and socializing indoors with anyone who doesn’t live with you.”

An informal gathering in the Castro posted on Facebook months ago shifted the event location to “YOUR HOME.” Instead of flocking to the neighborhood, the page recommends activities like tuning into news channels and to react to results with a shout from the window, or from the door with a mask on.

Manny’s, which holds several civic events at its Mission District restaurant, is hosting a ticketed outdoor dinner that doesn’t allow household mixing, while a handful of bars like Oasis are advertising election night watch events.

For campaigns that adjusted to obstacle after obstacle in order to reach voters this year, ending it with an online event is dismaying, but many said it was for the best. District 1 supervisorial candidates Marjan Philhour and Connie Chan both decided against in-person events and hope to stream their virtual events at some point in the night.

“That’s not what we’re used to,” Chan said. “On election night, there’s an element of excitement and nervousness that is also a bonding moment, especially for a campaign team where you work hard with your team and with your supporters. It’s definitely a bonding moment that’s better in person.”

Philhour agreed that the lack of human interaction is tough but thinks of her mother-in-law, who is immunocompromised and lives with her family.

”It definitely is a strange election night where you’re not all gathered around a laptop and kind of figuring stuff out,” Philhour agreed. “We worked so hard all these months, I would love to be able to celebrate in person. It’s disappointing but we’ve got to put safety first.”

District 5 candidate and former Supervisor Vallie Brown will be holding a virtual event for supporters, closed to the public, but delivering thank-you gifts on Election Day, according to campaign manager Catie Arbona. State Sen. Scott Wiener will also hold a Zoom with his re-election campaign and volunteers that will be closed to the broader public, according to campaign manager Jack Persons.

Some campaigns have decided to celebrate in person but will cap crowds and institute precautions. A handful of limited capacity events are planned, but to discourage unexpectedly large gatherings, the Examiner will not disclose exact locations.

Jackie Fielder, a local organizer running to unseat Wiener, is hosting one at an outdoor food truck venue that will have people wait in line if it reaches capacity. The democratic socialist and first-time candidate relied heavily on volunteers to phonebank and deliver literature, as well as mostly small-dollar donations spread across several supporters.

“I imagine people will self-select out of that just to reduce the risk,” Fielder said of her election night plans. “But it’s especially important for our grassroots movement that we have a place to be together, and hopefully we’ll have a virtual element as well to link arms for whatever comes next.”

Myrna Melgar, a District 7 candidate and former planning commissioner, will also hold a masked, socially-distanced, in-person event at a bar in the district with an outdoor courtyard with televisions that holds 30 people.

“If there’s more than that, we’ll just ask them to stay outside. People aren’t always there at the same time,” Melgar said. “Most of the campaign has been on Zoom, which is bizarre. It allows you to pass more time in a day and by the time 11 rolls around, I’m exhausted even though I haven’t moved off the freaking chair.”

Supervisor Ahsha Safai will be holding a gathering at a bar in District 11, as will his opponent, former Supervisor John Avalos, at a different location. Avalos said his campaign isn’t issuing invites outside staff and core supporters, and has hired security to manage the capacity, which has room to spill over into a nearby parking lot.

While candidates will be following their own races closely, most eyes will be on the presidential race — and with good reason.

“I don’t know if anyone knows what it’s going to be like,” Arbona said. “All of our points of reference are just completely useless.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden is ahead in national polls, but the potential for change is overshadowed by serious threats. There are voter suppression tactics in place and fears of right-wing militias intimidating voters, turnout and mailed ballots complicated by the pandemic, and the potential for results to be settled by a conservative Supreme Court with three Trump-appointed justices.

“I’m concerned about District 11 but I’m really concerned about the country and how we’re able to get through this,” Avalos said. “The appointment of [new Supreme Court Justice] Amy Coney Barrett was like a sock in the gut. If the election is disputed, there’s going to be a lot of work to defend it. Everything’s at stake.”


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