When California fully reopened on June 15th, nightlife hotspots in Los Angeles bustled with cheerful customers eager to dress up, drink, and dance again. Some patrons eagerly announced recent vaccinations and were only too happy to show proof.
But once the more transmissible Delta variant triggered a surge in COVID-19 cases, new worries emerged about how to keep businesses open while ensuring the safety of staff and customers. On July 17 and 22, Los Angeles County revised its public health guidance, again requiring the wearing of face masks in all indoor public settings.
In their initial response to the Delta surge, some prominent nightlife hubs like The Abbey, Akbar, Bar Sinister, Formosa Café, and Los Globos opted to verify vaccination at the velvet rope, only allowing in customers who could show their proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test result. Some businesses relied on an honor system when admitting customers, or opted to stick to a lower capacity limit.
Other venues have tried to offer party-goers an additional layer of security. GPS, the popular LGBTQIA+ party held at the downtown Globe Theatre, promotes its events with the promise of a ventilation system that incorporates “advanced bipolar ionization,” capable of “removing 98.3% of all airborne contaminants every 60 minutes.”
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Ross O’Carroll, the owner of The Lash in Downtown L.A., installed higher grade air-conditioning filters and implemented more cleaning measures at his nightclub. Two days after the June 15 statewide reopening, his venue was packed with revelers. Disco and house music played in one room, while hip-hop kept the crowd bouncing in another room. In the lounge outside, friends who hadn’t seen each other in months eagerly embraced and posed for photos in front of the venue’s black-and-white striped façade. Liz Ohanesian, a veteran Lash DJ, was overjoyed about the return to her booth. “It was definitely good to be back,” she said.
After that initial burst back into midnight gatherings, uncertainty has been the name of the game. As Delta concerns spread, Ohanesian could sense some apprehension at a party she DJed in mid-July. “People seemed a little more tense from what I noticed, from catching the vibes on the dance floor.” O’Carroll noted a 30-40% drop in attendance and added, “It’s pretty trying. We have to play mask police again.”
Although she began wearing her mask while DJing following the renewed County mandate, Ohanesian is careful not to seem excessively concerned. “I try not be overly squeamish too, just because I don’t want to freak anybody else out.”
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On L.A.’s posh Westside, party promoter Zane Fields and his hospitality services company pack nights at chic hotspots like Hyde, Doheny Room, and Nightingale. After the June reopening, his customers were happy to enjoy bottle service at these high-end hubs for celebrities and influencers. “I sold the most in the first couple of weeks that the clubs had reopened than I have since,” Fields said. “Everyone was really excited to go out.”
Like Ohanesian, Fields noticed that the enthusiasm dimmed. “The new Delta variant is sketching a lot of people out.” Although fully vaccinated, Fields had COVID in July, suggesting a breakthrough case of the virus. The new context for his business is precarious: “Less people willing to come out, less people really want to spend that much money with the potential of getting sick.”
In an effort to ensure that the June reopening was safe and permanent, some nightlife promoters decided to wait until early July to start working again, only to be walloped by Delta variant concerns. Marc Jordan, co-producer of the Little Miss Nasty rock and roll burlesque show, pushed his late June shows ahead by a few weeks. The show runs at Harvelle’s, the oldest live music venue on L.A.’s Westside, just a short walk from the Santa Monica beach and its world-famous pier. Also running in San Francisco and Las Vegas, Jordan’s routinely sold-out immersive show features original choreography by dancers who have performed with Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Usher, and Drake.
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The show, in which dancers would swing off bars attached to the ceiling and interact heavily with audience members, finally returned to Harvelle’s on July 8. They re-tooled it to fit nightlife’s new reality by eliminating some of the more tactile and interactive aspects. Jordan’s co-producer, Gina Katon, also remembers the excitement of the first show. “When we were up on stage looking out, it was just jam-packed with big smiles: everyone living their life, screaming for us.”
The Delta variant’s impact on their ticket revenue has been mixed. “On a business level, we’ve probably refunded 20 tickets to our upcoming shows,” Jordan said. “But we’ve resold those tickets to other people within hours or days.” Still, a recent San Francisco show had to be canceled because one of the dancers was not fully vaccinated and tested positive for COVID. Now, all dancers must be fully vaccinated.
Despite the new worries, nightlife venues are persevering as best they can. Preparing for another weekend of Westside parties, Fields noted, “They’re trying the best they can to still book clients and make money even though everyone’s a little bit skeptical because of the virus.”
There is also some hope for a stronger August, typically a heavy tourist month, and the big Labor Day weekend that caps off the summer season. On August 5, L.A. County’s Public Health Director, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, suggested that the Delta surge may at least be “leveling off.”
Having tasted freedom and festivities after the worst of the pandemic quarantine, no one is anxious to return to a time of shuttered venues. Some patrons have even expressed gratitude for the chance to be out and about again. Looking ahead to her next night in the DJ booth at The Lash, Ohanesian said, “I’ve had probably more people come up to the booth and say, ‘Thank you,’ than before the pandemic. I think people really do want to get back out and dance.”