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Arts Festival Organizers Sue San Francisco to Allow Spring Outdoor Event

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- A judge declined to dismiss a lawsuit this week filed by the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF) against the city of San Francisco. SFIAF wanted to hold a performing arts event in May and the performers said they should be allowed to work outdoors with safety guidelines in place. The non-profit organization and the performers believe they are protected by the First Amendment.

"The arts has a First Amendment right -- should be afforded parity with other First Amendment rights -- so freedom of religious worship and freedom to protest, the right to protest," said SFIAF executive director Andrew Wood.

Wood said the city of San Francisco has refused to work with his organization, refusing to let them know if the festival will be allowed to take place in May.

"They have allowed lots of other types of businesses to reopen," Wood said. "They have guidelines for nearly every other type of business but they won't even talk to us about guidelines."

The non-profit sued the city back in October and was allowed to hold an outdoor festival then at Fort Mason. They're using the same lawsuit to pressure the city again so they can plan ahead for the spring event since it takes months to organize and plan for this type of festival.

Singer-songwriter Nkechi Neuberg is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. She hoped this lawsuit would open the door for other performing arts events in the Bay Area.

Neuberg said that, aside from the financial hit of being unable to perform, the lack of work has taken an emotional and mental toll on her.

Pianist Sumi Lee would like to perform if the spring festival is allowed. She said many performing artists have struggled financially in the past 10 months and some have moved out of the area due to the high cost of living.

"I just want the city to be fair to the performing artists," Lee said.

Lee said that, like other essential workers, artists can also safely do their work. Lee has been dipping into her savings and has even sold some of her musical instruments to pay her bills. Right now, she relies on teaching music lessons over Zoom to make a living but she said there isn't a lot of work in teaching either since most kids are fed up with online learning.

"We want to live, we want to survive, we want to be in this city. This city is now only for techie people," Lee said.

Professor Joe Tuman taught law at San Francisco State University. He said it might be hard for the non-profit to compare itself to a church.

"I think it's silly for the city to allow this to drag on as long as it has. They should be consistent in their policy and you don't need to look at the law for that. They should just look at the facts and, on the facts, you should treat the people in the arts community the same way you're treating the people at the church," Tuman said.

John Coté is the communications director for the city attorney's office. He issued a statement in response to SFIAF's demand to hold the festival in May:

"We are all on the virus' timetable. No one can guarantee what the virus will be doing in May so it would be the height of irresponsibility to make any guarantees now on what type of festival would be safe at that point. New variants of the coronavirus, including at least two spreading in California, are adding to the unpredictability of the pandemic. This group wants a guarantee now to hold a major gathering. We're not in a position to do that. Back in October, this group was required to make substantial changes to their proposal and agree to major public safety measures to protect public health. We just don't know at this point what the health landscape is going to look like in May."

A judge plans to meet with both sides in the next two weeks. The judge indicated he wanted both sides to resolve the situation quickly and not escalate it further.


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