Mark Robertson estimated his businesses will lose $250,000 this month. Robertson co-owns three gay bars in Chicago—The SoFo Tap and Meeting House Tavern in Andersonville and Jackhammer in Rogers Park—and all were forced to close after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered bars and restaurants to shut down amid the nationwide outbreak of COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus. Pritzker also halted public gatherings of 50 people or more.
Even though the bars will be closed until March 30 at the earliest, Robertson said the issue is that their “fixed costs don’t go away.” He and partner Mike Sullivan still have to take care of rent, insurance, and utility bills, in addition to the liquor they had already purchased. However, they no longer have the revenue to pay for them.
If the businesses aren’t reopened within two months, Robertson added that they are “probably looking at $350,000” in potential losses.
“The business won’t have enough money to pay this, so we are contributing the money ourselves,” he told The Daily Beast. “We’re either borrowing the money from our banks or we’re taking money from our own accounts. We have made the personal decision that protecting our team is more important than our personal assets, and so we have pledged our personal assets to support them.”
Gay bars and venues across the U.S. are facing the same situation as spaces close their doors to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, which has caused around 8,000 deaths worldwide. The effects could potentially devastate these businesses and their employees, potentially threatening the future of queer nightlife.
The Winter Party of our discontent
After several attendees of last week’s Winter Party Festival, a gay circuit party in Miami Beach, tested positive for coronavirus—as NBC News reported—nearly all upcoming circuit events have been postponed.
Those independently confirmed by The Daily Beast include H20 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; The Black Party in New York City; Cherry D.C. in the District of Columbia; and The White Party in Palm Springs, Calif., all of which had been scheduled over the next six weeks.
Some events have been tentatively rescheduled for the fall, while others have yet to announce a new date. Paul Nicholls, who organizes the GPS party at the Globe Theatre in Los Angeles, said the delays could be extremely costly for the team of individuals who put these events together — which includes everyone from party promoters to bouncers and bartenders.
“Every time one of these big parties gets canceled, there’s definitely $100,000 being lost between multiple parties,” he told The Daily Beast.
Nicholls said those hits will be felt across the nightlife scene, affecting everything from dance parties and drag shows to boozy Sunday brunches. In addition to hosting GPS, he works as the director of promotion at the bar and restaurant Rocco’s in West Hollywood, which he estimates will bleed over $200,000 in the next four weeks. On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order closing down bars and mandating that restaurants switch to take-out and delivery only.
“It’s devastating,” Nicholls said. “Most of us are not salaried employees. The whole structure of our business is independent contractors and independent deals, and our entire income flow just literally got shut down.”
One of the reasons that so many queer spaces have closed up shop in such a short amount of time is the likelihood that coronavirus, which is passed through person-to-person contact, will be rapidly spread in the close quarters of a nightclub or circuit party.
For the uninitiated, circuit parties—which grew out of the disco era of the 1970s—are gay culture’s answer to raves, attracting thousands of attendees to listen to pulse-pounding music and dance the night away.
Although these events are synonymous with sex, as well as the use of party drugs like GHB and ketamine, they often serve as charity fundraisers for LGBTQ nonprofits. In fact, the Winter Party was held as a benefit for the National LGBTQ Task Force.
Transmission is simply too difficult to prevent, even with an abundance of caution. The National LGBTQ Task Force clarified in a statement that the event followed “all official guidance available at the time.”
“The health and safety of anyone who participates in any Task Force event is of great importance to us,” said National Executive Director Rea Carey, noting that organizers distributed 10,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to the thousands of guests who attended. They also distributed information about hygiene precautions to prevent coronavirus transmission.
But those measures simply weren’t enough. A Winter Party attendee told the LGBTQ newspaper Washington Blade that at least 10 friends who attended the event are now exhibiting “flu-like symptoms,” many of whom are now self-quarantining.
“I’ve chatted with acquaintances who in most cases say that they have many sick friends within their groups as well,” said the source, who was quoted anonymously.
Ty Sunderland, a DJ and event producer in New York City, realized early on in the crisis that queer spaces were going to have to take drastic measures to ensure their events weren’t Petri dishes for coronavirus. Sunderland was at a Sunday Funday gathering and saw friends casually kissing each other on the cheek, the same way they do at nightclubs and parties. He thought to himself, “Oh my God, this is a recipe for disaster.”
“That in itself is a quick way to spread a virus,” Sunderland told The Daily Beast, adding that the sardine-like capacity of queer events likewise poses a public health issue. “New Yorkers love to feel like they’re in a very packed space. If it’s not packed to the brim and a line down the block, they don’t want to be there.”
The drag show must go on
Queer organizers are getting creative to prevent what happened at the Winter Party from happening elsewhere, while also ensuring their shows can go on.
SloMo, a queer dance party held on the third Thursday of every month at Chicago’s The Whistler, is experimenting with a digital version of the event, which is intended to center queer, trans, and nonbinary people. It will include dance lessons by local mixed media artist Darling Sheer and a set from resident DJs Audio Jack and Viti Grrl.
Kristen Kaza, who has been organizing SloMo since 2011, said it was important to give the long-running event’s fans “something to look forward to” at a time when many of them are self-quarantining or engaging in social distancing at home.
“We didn't want to just say, ‘OK, we're canceling this. Sorry, we love you. TBD on what we do in the future,’” Kaza told The Daily Beast. “To me, this is not a cancellation. Instead we're adapting and just making it more accessible for people. People are spending so much time online and on their phones right now, and I'm really hoping that this is something that can help them feel connected.”
These stopgaps also serve as critical revenue streams for those who are among the most economically impacted by the shutdown of queer spaces: go-go dancers and drag queens, many of whom are freelance employees who earn a living gig to gig.
Baby Tea, a monthly drag brunch organized by Charlene Incarnate and Tyler Ashley, went digital for a “Work From Home” livestream broadcast from a Brooklyn rooftop this weekend, and Dragula winner Bitcqh Pudding is hosting an online drag show on March 20.
Meanwhile, attendees of the SloMo digital dance party are asked to buy tickets on a sliding scale, and the proceeds will be put toward paying a stipend to performers and organizers, as well as staff at The Whistler whose business has been closed. They will also be accepting donations on Venmo.
“This is not the first time that LGBTQ people have had to face a crisis,” Kaza said. “We naturally organize and take care of each other, and it didn't even feel like an option to me. I feel that it's important as someone who has been involved in the LGBTQ community and nightlife for a long time that when people are feeling a sense of hopelessness or panic, that we have reminders of how resilient and resourceful we can be when we come together.”
Fortunately, many members of the nightlife community are doing whatever it takes to advocate for workers who find themselves struggling with the industry at a standstill. The Brooklyn queer sex party Inferno recently asked its 8,000-person mailing list for a one-time donation to photographers and performers who will be short work with the event on hiatus. Thus far, over $1,000 has been raised.
Nicholls plans to personally continue supporting the organizers behind GPS on an as-need basis, and Robertson is continuing to pay employees of Jackhammer, Meeting House Tavern, and SoFo Tap for the next month. According to Robertson, the plan is to compensate workers at a rate of $15 an hour, based on how many hours they typically logged per week. If an individual worked an average of 30 hours, that’s an extra $900 each paycheck.
“We’ve seen people who work at other bars who filled out unemployment looking at $99 a week as their benefit,” he said. “That’s not something that’s going to sustain you. That’s not going to pay your rent, pay your electric bill, or put food on the table, let alone even get you to the doctor if you do get sick.”
‘The very ugly true colors’
As queer spaces work together to stop coronavirus and support vulnerable parts of the community, not everyone has been so proactive.
For instance, tickets are still available for purchase to The Purple Party, which is set to take place from May 7 to 11 in Dallas. The Purple Foundation, which organizes the annual event, declined repeated requests for comment for this story.
Sources close to the event believe organizers are likely to postpone, especially after the massive fallout from the Winter Party. “No one wants to look like they aren’t taking this seriously,” said an individual who spoke under condition of anonymity. (Editor’s note: on March 25, the organizers of The Purple Party postponed the event, rescheduling it to September 3-7.)
The myriad cancellations are also being met with some pushback from members of the community less than pleased about having all their favorite parties shut down.
On Tuesday, Twitter user Sam Stryker shared a now-viral post from an outraged Winter Party attendee who griped that he has “zero regrets” and said he “won’t allow anyone to make [him] feel bad” for going to the event, even in the face of escalating warnings from public health authorities to maintain six feet of distance from other people.
“Please also understand that I’ve seen the very ugly true colors many of you have displayed in this time of crisis, and know exactly who the fuck I’ll be coughing on should I become symptomatic of coronavirus,” the guest wrote in a Facebook post.
While the concern from health officials may, to some, just feel like public shaming of those who just want to have a good time, the LGBTQ community has a reason to be cautious about coronavirus.
A March 12 letter signed by over 100 advocacy groups noted that this population is “particularly vulnerable” to contracting the virus, with “higher rates of HIV and cancer” among queer and trans people.
“LGBTQ people smoke at rates 50 percent higher than the general population, which could be detrimental if a respiratory illness like COVID-19 is contracted,” noted organizations like Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Campaign.
But the worst effects of the coronavirus outbreak are likely yet to come, with President Donald Trump claiming that the U.S. could be dealing with the impact of coronavirus through the summer. As the federal government finalizes a $1.2 trillion stimulus package for Americans, greater assistance, resources, and support is needed to ensure the industry and its workers are able to survive.
“The vast majority of bars don’t operate with margins to be able to sustain themselves for two weeks, four weeks, or eight weeks without cash flow,” Robertson said. “In the queer space, they’re already struggling. I think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg of what this crisis is going to look like.”