In February, when the UK was in the middle of a third lockdown and the vaccination roll-out was just beginning to ramp up, most of us probably thought all of this would be in the rear-view by now. Unfortunately, thanks to the Delta variant, that isn’t the case.
After over a year of lockdowns, the cultural fabric that so many of us stake our social lives and, crucially, mental wellbeing on is only just being stitched back together. But unlike pubs and restaurants, which have been able to intermittently reopen, clubs have been shuttered since March 2020.
That was, until so-called “freedom day” on the 19th of July.
Heaven, the decades-old LGBTQ+ superclub under Charing Cross station, counted down to midnight and dropped balloons like it was New Year’s Eve. Queer night Adonis hosted its first event at The Cause in over a year. Other venues across London, from XOYO to Fabric, hosted their own big reopening nights. Some, like Adonis, required proof of a negative lateral flow test or double vaccination status prior to entry.
“Staff asked that people wear masks when they could inside, but no one really was,” says Anna, who attended the Keep Hush reopening night at Werkhaus. The school teacher requested anonymity as she is worried about how speaking out will affect her job. “I took a lateral flow test before. I take them pretty regularly, anyway, as I’m used to doing them twice a week for work. I wasn’t anxious at all during the night, though, I was just happy to be back out.”
On July 27th, a week after freedom day, an organiser for Adonis posted to their public Facebook group with bad news: Despite the mitigating measures put in place, 28 clubbers had reported positive COVID tests after attending the night.
Gian Sanghera-Warren, 20, was one of them. Having had his first vaccine dose in June as soon as he could, he took a lateral flow test prior to attending, as required by both Adonis and its host venue.
“I’d been taking them every other day or say anyway, so this wasn’t an issue,” he says. “Honestly, when I booked Adonis, COVID rates weren’t as high – and it didn’t feel as urgent to check COVID policy or venue ventilation, something which I might consider now.”
It’s important to note that it’s difficult to know whether any of Adonis’s positive cases caught the virus there – there’s every chance transmission occurred after the event, or even prior to it, and went undetected by tests.
Adonis did not respond to a request for comment. An update on its Facebook group notes that August events will be moved to Cannon Factory, a “huge indoor/outdoor space”, before heading back to The Cause in September. Organisers explained: “This gives everyone the chance to get double vaccinated if they wish to do so.”
While the queer night is unique in publicly relaying its infection rates, clubbers across the London scene have disclosed Covid positive tests after attending other nights. As reported by the Mirror, 25-year-old TikTok user Jack Johnson, recorded a positive lateral flow test the day after “getting with seven guys” at Heaven’s reopening event. Anna has also tested positive since the event at Werkhaus.
A Werkhaus spokesperson told VICE that they “encourage their guests to take certain precautions, such as wearing a mask on entry and doing a lateral flow test 24 hours prior to entry”, but nothing is mandatory. “There’s the hope that people will understand the personal responsibility they have to look after themselves and others on the dancefloor,” they said, “which in turn is the responsibility you have to keep clubs open.” Heaven did not respond to requests for comment.
Dan Mailer, 26, also attended Heaven’s opening night. “Before I went out, I felt maybe a little anxious,” he says. “I knew it was pretty high risk but I took solace in knowing I was double jabbed, and once the night had begun, it didn’t really enter my brain at all. It just felt very normal.”
He recalls that safety measures were pretty stringent. While test results weren’t required on the door, “you needed to scan the QR code on the NHS COVID app, and they did check you were actually using it, rather than your camera.” He attended another event at Heaven later that week, and notes it seemed a little more lax. “On Friday, they didn’t ask,” he says. “Though I thought maybe they were slightly busier dealing with the earlier bomb hoax, which I found a scarier threat than COVID.”
According to Dr. Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, clubs, often with low roofs and poor ventilation, tend to be riskier venues than most pubs or bars. “When dancing there are higher social contact rates, particularly with strangers, compared to drinking pubs and eating in restaurants, where people tend to stay within their own groups,” she says.
So while it’s alarming to read reports of positive cases, it is, perhaps, unsurprising. “The very loud music in nightclubs means people are shouting just to be heard, too, which produces more virus aerosols than just talking.”
But some organisers and venues, like Adonis and The Cause, require lateral flow tests for entry. So how are COVID-positive punters still getting in? In June, the US Food and Drugs Administration published a damning report on the tests manufactured by Innova, questioning the tests’ accuracy, especially as it is most effective picking up when a person only has high levels of the virus. Innova supplies the bulk of the rapid tests used by the government’s mass-testing scheme, though the DHSC says that the rapid tests passed a rigorous assessment and that it continues to have confidence in them.
“They’re very useful because they’re rapid,” says Professor Iain Buchan, the executive dean of the Institute of Population Health at the University of Liverpool. “If you take a test as close to the time you go clubbing as possible, eight out of ten times you’re likely to pass on the virus, the test will pick that up.” A PCR test is more accurate – “it might pick it up nine out of ten times” – but you have to wait days, rather than minutes, to get a result.
So what can you do to make testing more effective? “You can increase the reliability of lateral flow testing by doing more,” Buchan says. “If you were to take one the day before, and one just before you got to the club, you will be much more certain that you’ll actually be negative.”
Ultimately, all social occasions right now are a balance of risk and reward. Although some venues might be riskier than others, it doesn’t mean that we should cut clubbing out. “The event sector has been hit very, very hard, and it’s important to people’s social development and mental well-being,” says Buchan. “And that’s an important part of public health: The World Health Organisation actually defines health as a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being.”
This feels especially pertinent for the likes of London’s queer community, Buchan notes, where clubs are a vital part of the social fabric. “It doesn’t come into a lot of the calculations and plans because it’s hard to measure,” he says, “but for those of us who recognise the importance of that togetherness and support, it’s something that should be on the table.”
It doesn’t help that clubs have been largely cut adrift by the government. “Government guidance for clubs has been pretty non-existent,” the Werkhaus spokesperson says, noting continuing confusion around vaccine passports. Venues, to their mind, have been given free rein to do whatever they want - but it’s difficult to know how to get things right without centralised guidance.
And while clubs might be risky in the current moment, well, almost everything is. “I don’t regret going at all,” says Sophie Deighan, 23, who tested positive after attending the World’s Collide afterparty at The Cause. “It was an incredible event, and such an amazing experience to be dancing with my friends and strangers again. I’ll be back once strong and negative, for sure.”
Dan regrets contracting the virus for his flatmates, who now have to self-isolate, but he isn’t worried about going back to Heaven. “The pandemic will be ongoing for the next few years. I’ll continue to go to clubs and events whilst it’s legal, rather than starve myself of the experience.”