On Thursday (March 12), the organizers of Los Angeles Pride announced what would have come as a shock just three weeks earlier: all of the planned celebrations around L.A. Pride’s 50th anniversary are postponed. But as anyone who’s been paying attention to the flood of event cancellations and postponements amid the global coronavirus pandemic knows, moves like this are beginning to feel common, if not inevitable.
Like Austin, TX officials putting the kibosh on SXSW (one of the first major events to get axed), L.A. Pride’s postponement was a result of government officials making a decision based on evidence from experts regarding the easily-transmittable, rapidly-spreading coronavirus. Through June 30, the City of West Hollywood has canceled all events of more than 100 people which require a city permit, sponsorship or co-sponsorship, effectively making the June 12-14 50th anniversary celebration a no-go.
“The first priority for everyone is the health and safety of the public, so we understand why the city is being cautious and thoughtful,” says Estevan Montemayor, board president of Christopher Street West, the nonprofit that has produced LA Pride since its 1970 debut. “I know there might be some disappointment that this virus is making organizations or nonprofits make tough decisions, but ultimately health and safety are the bigger priority.”
With the vast majority of U.S. Pride celebrations slated for the months of June and July, L.A. Pride’s postponement might be a bellwether. Currently, most American Pride parades and festivals — including New York City’s — are moving forward with what San Diego Pride has described as “informed and cautious optimism.” But a source close to a different U.S. city’s Pride fest believes it will be nearly impossible for their summer celebration to go ahead as planned.
To an extent, the writing is on the rainbow. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned gatherings of more than 500 people in the state indefinitely, which makes the future of NYC’s globally-renowned gathering uncertain. Its organizers, however, remain undaunted.
“New York City Pride is more than ever concerned with the safety and well-being of those who attend our events and programming,” says David Correa, interim executive director of NYC Pride. “We’re continuing to monitor the situation in New York as closely as possible and working with city agencies to stay abreast of what changes are happening. As of today, we are moving forward with our planning for June 2020 Pride.”
The same is true for San Francisco, another city renowned for its LGBTQ history. “At this time, Pride 50 will go on as scheduled on June 27-28, although we are beginning to look at options for what the celebration and parade might look like if the current period of social distancing continues for more than a few weeks,” says Peter Lawrence Kane, communications manager for San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade and Celebration.
But as with L.A. Pride, the decision ultimately lies with government officials — many of whom are uncomfortable greenlighting an event that could inadvertently exacerbate a public health emergency.
In Europe, where the coronavirus took hold earlier than in the U.S., the effects are already being felt, with Bucharest Pride becoming the first Pride rally to postpone and Trans Pride Scotland canceling outright. And hardly without reason: while any public gatherings may prove risky over the next few months, the LGBTQ community is particularly vulnerable. As GLMA: Health Professionals Advocating LGBTQ Equality points out, the LGBTQ community experiences higher rates of HIV and cancer, both of which weaken the immune system; additionally, the community’s increased rate of tobacco use means that COVID-19 — the coronavirus-caused disease that is particularly dangerous for those with respiratory issues — is statistically more troubling for those in the LGBTQ community.
“Prides are often large but always complex public events with many different elements, including parades and marches, stages, trading spaces, bars, conferences and film theaters, so dealing with COVID-19 in this space is going to be challenging,” admits Steve Taylor, board member of the European Pride Organisers Association, a Belgian nonprofit that facilitates networking and skill-sharing between European LGBTQ orgs. “Many Prides I’ve spoken to are concerned about how much time they have to prepare, or to make the difficult decision to postpone or cancel. Others are worried about the financial impact — remember that all over the world, most Prides will spend all that they raise this year and don’t have vast financial reserves.”
“We start planning for L.A. Pride literally the day after the previous Pride concluded,” echoes Montemayor. “Obviously there’s a fiscal impact [to postponement] but the first priority is the health and safety of the public.”
To that end, Taylor expects more European Prides to postpone or bow out in 2020. “I think it’s inevitable there will be more, especially towards the beginning of the Pride season in May. Some will postpone or cancel because governments ban mass gatherings, whilst others will take the decision because of the need to be a responsible event organizer and to reflect on feedback from the community.”
While the situation remains in flux, ways of mitigating the spread during gatherings are roughly the same, whether it’s a celebration of Nordic Pride or North Carolina Pride. Organizers from NYC to L.A. are coming up with plans to maximize cleanliness during celebrations, from wiping down surfaces, floats and microphones to offering an abundance of hand sanitizer to educating volunteers on what to do if attendees become ill.
“Our hope — and everyone’s hope — is that the coronavirus and cases identified begin to subside as these health guidelines are put in place. But we’re going to take our cues from the professionals and base decisions on the facts and the science to back those facts,” says Montemayor.
In the meantime, like numerous office workers around the country, many Pride organizers are working remotely.
“In keeping with the city’s directives and compassionate common sense, we canceled this week’s membership meeting and staff have the option to work remotely,” says Kane of SF Pride. “As of today, our offices and welcome centers are closed and will remain so until further notice,” says Correa of NYC Pride. “We’re looking at a mid-April date [to re-open].”
Organizers behind NYC Pride remain hopeful that the annual march will proceed as usual, and L.A. Pride’s Montemayor insists that 2020 will not pass without Los Angeles celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first march. “This year will be incredible — all this means is we’re moving the date out of an abundance of caution,” Montemayor says. “We’re gonna get it done. It’s not canceled, it’s postponed. It’s gonna happen this year, no doubt about it.”
“COVID-19 is a new challenge for every one of us, but we will step up and do our very best for our communities. That sense of resilience and determination is what I’ve heard from every Pride organizer I’ve spoken to about this,” says Taylor. “We’re activists, after all.”