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Empty Event Rally to have 480 empty seats to represent live event workers without jobs because of coronavirus

The Aug 5. Empty Event Rally in Washington, D.C., above, is followed by a similar event today at San Diego's Waterfront Park.
The Aug 5. Empty Event Rally in Washington, D.C., shown above, will be followed by a similar event this afternoon at San Diego’s Waterfront Park.
(Photo courtesy Live Events Coalition)

San Diego’s Empty Event Rally, inspired by COVID-19, will have empty chairs and tables, by design

Expect a standing-room-only audience at Thursday’s 2 p.m. San Diego Empty Event Rally, where all 480 chairs — 10 each at 48 tables — will, by design, be unoccupied. The empty chairs and tables will signify live-event workers in San Diego and across the nation whose jobs have been at a six-month standstill because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Each of the tables at Waterfront Park, in front of downtown’s San Diego County Administration Building, will represent 250,000 of the 12 million event workers — including organizers, stagehands, audio engineers, caterers, security guards and more — whose livelihoods have been drained and are seeking local, state and federal support.

The empty tables will be set up in front of a stage that, symbolically, will be all but empty itself. Taped to the back of each chair will be signs with such messages as “1 of 12 Million Unemployed Event Workers” and “We Miss Making Memories With You! Help Make Sure We Are Around To Make More Of Them In The Future.”

The free, socially distanced event, at which masks will be required, is being presented by the new San Diego Events Coalition. Its nearly two dozen members help stage such annual events here as San Diego Pride, Chula Vista HarborFest, Gator by the Bay and ArtWalk San Diego.

The local coalition is part of the recently formed national Live Events Coalition, which has held similar Empty Event rallies in New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington, D.C.

While public gatherings of any size are currently prohibited in San Diego, today’s event is being billed as a free-speech rally, and its organizers said they have obtained permission to hold the event.

“We don’t have a strong national lobby like airlines and hotels. We just run events. And we want to have an open dialogue with city and county leaders so that when events do return, we’ll have a road map and be ready to go,” said Laurel McFarlane, the founder of McFarlane Promotions, Inc.

Her 23-year-old company puts on more than 35 annual events across San Diego County. They include La Mesa Oktoberfest, Taste of Gaslamp and the La Jolla Art & Wine Festival. McFarlane, a mother of four, had six employees at the start of the year.

“Now, I’m down to two employees,” she said. “And, to be honest, I’m barely holding on.”

As a result of the pandemic, fellow San Diego Event Coalition member Kevin Hellman has had to cancel five of the annual events he produces. They include the North Park Festival of Beer and the 32-year-old LSU Alumni of San Diego Crawfish Boil, which last year drew more than 5,000 people to Mission Valley.

“We know it will take time for larger gatherings, outside of people’s households, to be able to come together,” said Hellman, the founder of the 29-year-old San Diego Music Awards, which this year had to be moved online for the first time.

“When we are able to do our events again, we want them to be safe and have everybody feel comfortable so they will want to come out and attend.”

Reached for comment Wednesday, County of San Diego Health & Human Services Agency Communications Officer Craig Sturak said: “With respect to the event industry, similar to other industries and business sectors, county staff provide guidance and input whenever possible to educate and inform industry groups about how to plan for reopening when state and local orders change and when it has been determined to be safe to do so.”

Last week, McFarlane and Hellman said, they and the other coalition members submitted a 24-page proposal to County Health officials. Their proposal seeks to explore the specific health protocols that will need to be in place when live events can be resumed.

In the meantime, the coalition is also pursuing a six-point plan to provide support for idled San Diego event workers.

The plan includes:

• An updated and improved Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) allowing for second-round forgivable funding, designed with special consideration for the events industry and industry workers.

• The ability for event businesses to reapply for additional Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) funding, based on need.

• Additional aid on the federal level, targeted to support the events industry.

• An extension of additional unemployment benefits.

• Having 20 percent of San Diego County grant funds set aside for the events industry, allocating funds based on the industries most severely impacted.

• Having a priority made to define a road map to safely reopening events in collaboration with industry leaders.

Scheduled speakers at Thursday’s Empty Event Rally include McFarlane, Hellman, San Diego Pride treasurer Martha Henderson and Best Coast Beer Fest producer Amy Ulkutekin, who is the owner of La Jolla-based First Comes Love Weddings & Events.

“We’ve also invited several local politicians to join us on Thursday,” Hellman said Wednesday afternoon. “And they have indicated they would like to be there and lend support, time permitting. We’re dong our best to make everyone’s schedules work.”


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