The NFL Draft is set to bring thousands of people downtown from April 29-May 1, drawing crowds despite the rainy, cold spring weather. Yet at the same time, right now it’s impossible to organize a simple block party in the city of Cleveland.
That will soon change, as the city announced Thursday, April 29th that it will begin permitting large outdoor events. According to a news release, the City of Cleveland will now begin processing permit requests that have already been submitted and will begin processing new requests on Monday, May 10. Applicants must adhere to recommendations for mitigating the spread of Covid-19 during large gatherings and events, including social distancing, wearing masks, and temperature and health checks (see full guidelines here).
In March, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson extended his proclamation of civil emergency for the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis through April 30. The proclamation carries orders meant to aid public health, including health orders such as mask mandates, prohibitions such as those for street parties and large gatherings, and limits on patrons at entertainment and sporting venues.
Yet as more and more people have become vaccinated and other government entities like the Cleveland Metroparks began permitting outdoor events, event organizers and Cleveland council members grew frustrated with the city’s inaction. Event organizer Shannon Okey, who convenes the Cleveland Bazaar every first and third Saturday of the summer at Market Square Park in Ohio City, recently organized a change.org petition calling for permitting safe, socially-distanced events in Cleveland this summer.
“I’ve got dozens of businesses that rely on these events for income,” Okey said. “Everyone keeps saying, ‘Move it out to Lakewood.’ That’s not the point. The point is to bring traffic down to the West Side Market and the businesses there. I didn’t want to ditch the city. The Draft’s here, what, how many days? The rest of us live here year-round, yet we can’t get an answer from our government.”
When contacted Thursday evening that Cleveland had begun accepting permit applications, Okey texted back ecstatically, “HALLELUJAH!”
Ward 17 city council member Charles Slife recently wrote a letter to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson warning that, “The current messaging to residents is that Cleveland can host a nationally televised event designed to draw crowds, but that a movie night in a park poses too steep a health risk.”
He argued that the city’s inaction on permitting summer events was leaving hundreds of block parties, fairs, parades and other events in limbo, jeopardizing Clevelanders’ first chance for summer fun since the pandemic. “As communities across Northeast Ohio are moving to hold events in parks, as movie theaters reopen and as bars extend hours, as vaccination rates increase and hospitalizations decrease, are we to believe that science is different in Cleveland?” Slife wrote in the letter, which was recently republished in Scene. “That it is fundamentally impossible to accept and process paperwork?”
Contacted Thursday evening, Slife did not hold back regarding his displeasure with the city’s lack of communication. “The mayor’s office has announced the resumption of special event permitting while holding fast to its communications policy of ignoring council members and answering their questions indirectly via end-of day media releases,” he said.
Although the city has lifted its ban on large events, it was already too late for some. Recently, the Hermes Cleveland 10-Miler moved from Edgewater Park to Rocky River Metroparks because event organizers couldn’t get a permit in Cleveland. “We moved [the 10-Miler] to the Metroparks because we can get a permit there,” said Neil Neroni of Hermes Sports and Events. “The Metroparks has clear guidelines around spacing people out, etc. It would have been nice if we could have run it in the city, but we had to move it.”
Neroni said he has three more events planned in Cleveland in June, and he’s holding out hope that he can get permits in time. Slife is concerned now that even though the city is now issuing permits, other events in his ward, including the annual 4th of July parade, the Hooley, block parties, and outdoor movie nights, may not have enough time to get them.
The mayor has not responded to Slife’s letter and the city did not acquiesce to an interview request. However, Slife shared an email exchange with the city’s chief of communications, government and international affairs, Valarie McCall, who responded to Slife’s concerns on April 23, “I appreciate your sharing your frustrations, but the fact remains that we have asked the state for clarifications as I mentioned yesterday.”
She also stated, “The NFL Draft was an event approved prior to the pandemic and is operating within all of the current allowed restrictions. We hope to have direction regarding other special events once announced by the State.”
Slife noted that the state of Ohio issued newly simplified pandemic restrictions in early April allowing large outdoor events. In an email to Slife, Ohio Department of Health spokesperson Lisa Griffin said, “There is no prohibition of parades from the state level. The most recent Order everyone needs to review for these types of questions is the April 9th order on requirements for groups of 10 or less when congregating, keeping those groups 6 feet apart, masking, etc.”
In his letter, Slife also criticized the mayor’s office for introducing legislation to create a new Division of Special Events, Filming and Tourism housed under the Department of Public Works. Jackson said in an interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that the division would allow the city to be “more efficient and competitive” and that “Cleveland has the potential for growth with special events and major events.” He also said the city sought to create a one-stop-shop for events of all kinds throughout the city.
“This division would duplicate the work of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission and Destination Cleveland,” Slife wrote. “Those organizations exist specifically to attract filmmakers and tourists, are professionally run, and are already supported by taxpayers. What added value would a new municipal functionary bring to their line of work?”
Lee Chilcote is a freelance writer and editor of The Land.
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