Amid Rising Coronavirus Cases, Palm Springs Unites

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 7, 2020

EDGE spoke with LGBTQ bar owners, nightlife entrepreneurs and elected officials who are determined to weather a storm that doesn't appear to be passing any time soon. Our in-depth feature profiled case studies from across the country. Here's a look at how Palm Springs is uniting to to stay healthy and keep its small businesses afloat.

Palm Springs has long been an LGBTQ respite, discovered by stars of Hollywood's Golden Age as an escape from bright lights and paparazzi. Known for sunshine nearly all year long and boasting an array of historically significant mid-century modern architecture, the city retains a small-town feel with style. But Palm Springs' demographic includes 40 percent of its population over the age of 60, resulting in a stay-at-home order before official word came from the state.

"The Riverside County health director called us a hot spot after the initial surge," says Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors. "But we have the benefit of being a small town. People reached out to one another and shopped for their neighbors. The LGBTQ community makes up 40 percent of the population. We've learned to create our families. It's the result of being so integrated, and that spirit pervades the entire community."

Like much of the country, access to testing and how the county tallies figures have affected reporting. Still, as of July 3, Riverside County reported 19,450 cases since the pandemic began — the second-highest number of cases and deaths statewide after Los Angeles. The safety of its residents converging with the economic reality of small businesses has been a heavy burden on a city that relies on tourism. Kors says that the city has taken a $30 million hit in lost revenue — 25 percent of its entire fiscal budget — from mid-March through June. He projects a $50 million loss for the coming 2020-21 fiscal year.

Leaders from The Arenas District quickly mobilized to brainstorm alternative strategies, while Kors liaisoned with tourist organizations and LGBTQ-owned hotels and other merchants.

Working with Governor Gavin Newsome and the state's Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control, Palm Springs modified alcohol consumption rules to allow for outdoor drinking in adjacent areas such as parking lots and closed streets, though masks are required while not at your table. Visit Gay Palm Springs keeps an up-to-date list of what visitors can expect.

Infrastructure has also become a critical focus area. "We want to ensure that processes are in place for small businesses to get hand sanitizer, gloves, masks — whatever supplies they need," says Kors. "It's hard for small businesses, but a lot easier for big companies tied to international brands, government entities and tourism offices."

A collaborative effort between the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce and The Hilton Palm Springs now enables small business owners and nonprofits to place weekly supply orders.

"It will be a dimmer switch as things start to reopen," says Kors. "So far, we've had an incredible response. People want to protect each other."

Still, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley have become synonyms with large-scale music festivals like Coachella and Stagecoach, as well as LGBTQ events such as The White Party Palm Springs, The Dinah and Greater Palm Springs Pride. Kors considers these "main economic drivers" for the city.

The Power of the Party

"We called them fly-ins," says White Party founder and event producer extraordinaire Jeffrey Sanker of the early years in Palm Springs. In its heyday (before social media and the Internet), word-of-mouth and a dedicated customer base helped catapult Sanker's Coachella Valley weekender into legend status.

At its peak, White Party Palm Springs booked upwards of 9,000 hotel rooms. Sanker says the city estimated more than $1 million in tax revenue per weekend from hotel rooms alone but that the three decades of parties also helped elevate the region's real estate market. As his clientele matured, so did their spending power, with many long-time attendees buying second homes or eventually moving to the desert oasis.

White Party Palm Springs, initially slated for April, has been rescheduled for October 30 through November 2, 2020, but what that event looks like will heavily depend on California's multi-phase reopening, which could conceivably roll back as the rollercoaster number of COVID-19 cases continues. Coachella and Stagecoach, previously scheduled for October, have been canceled.

"Our customer's health is our first priority," says Sanker, keenly aware of what transpired after this year's Winter Party in Miami Beach. The event, held March 4 through 10 and produced by the National LGBT Task Force, resulted in the deaths of several attendees due to COVID-19.

"I want to move forward being positive that we're having the event," says Sanker. "It might be smaller but at least have something. By the time Halloween rolls around, it will have been months, and people want to get out, but we need to be socially responsible." Thinking creatively, Sanker is considering a masked ball. "Let's be creative; we're gay. We can take what we have to do and make some fun out of it."

Sanker produced White Party Live, quickly gathering DJs and talent for a live Facebook stream to raise funds for DJs as well as charitable donations for UNICEF. To date, the stream has been viewed nearly 30,000 times. The social media channel continues to release content.

The Dinah also hopes to hold on to the legacy of large-scale, female-focused gathers. Founded by Mariah Hanson in 1991 as The Dinah Shore Weekend under the Club Skirts Marquis, The Dinah has rescheduled its 2020 line-up to September 16-19, 2020.

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.