Queer Nightlife Will Find a Way Through COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has all but ended the gay club scene for now. But with society reopening, clubs are figuring out a 'new normal.'
June 9, 2020, 7:52pm
queer bar, PumpJack, nightlife
The Covid-19 ready PumpJack nightclub. Photo courtesy of Byron Cooke

Enjoying the gay scene right now means getting drunk in your living room alone, watching a live stream from a local DJ, while chatting with friends on Zoom. Anyone getting together with people in real life without physical distancing, are doing so discreetly for fear of being shamed, or worse, fined. Hook-ups are still happening but not many people are admitting to doing it. It’s a “new normal” for the gay scene that feels more like the end of days, as more days go by.

The good news is lockdown restrictions are loosening up significantly in places like British Columbia and Alberta and some gay spots are opening again. A big part of the LGBTQ nightlife, though, is flirting, cruising, and socializing with strangers. Obviously that won’t be happening for a long time now, so what will the new “new normal” mean for gay nightlife, post lockdown?

B.C., which is in its second phase of its reopening, can give us a glimpse. According to the protocols by WorkSafeBC, a bar or pub in the province that serves food beyond snacks or appetizers can open now, under strict new conditions.

PumpJack Pub, a gay pub in Vancouver’s Davie Village re-opened late last month. They put their safety plan online, and posted it throughout the venue. Their staff is provided with personal protective equipment, so guests may be served by someone in a mask or face shield. There’s Plexiglas around the bar, along the windows in the front, and in front of some booths. They’ll also have plastic barriers around each table, that accommodates groups of six, and barriers dividing them from some booths. People have to stick to the group they arrived with; there’s no wandering around and socializing. Also, they’ve been asked to record the name of one person from each group, which will be held for up to 30 days for contact tracing, if need be.

“It’s going to be a new experience,” Byron Cooke, the general manager of the pub, said.

The guidelines for nightclubs in B.C. are yet to be released. Even without specifics from the government, though, one club is imagining what the future holds.

Todd Hoye is the owner of 1181 Lounge, a queer club/lounge also in Davie Village. Hoye figures that they’ll be allowed to re-open as part of phase three or four, but is using the guidelines for restaurants and pubs in phase two to help plan for it.

How it might work? Before someone enters the club, there will be a door person asking guests COVID related questions about their health, contact with others, and out-of-province travel. They’ll also let them know about their social distancing policies.

The dance floor might not be a dance floor. They’ll likely operate more like a lounge with five tables of six people at any one time. That’s 30 guests max instead of their regular 60, which will have its obvious challenges.

They may have an extra person cleaning the place, and on security too, in order to enforce social distancing. There will only be table service to prevent customer interaction.

On one hand, there’s something sombre in imaging this sort of downsized experience, especially when you compare it to how things were like before. At the same time, it sure beats Zoom cocktail hour. Plus, if we don’t support LGBTQ spaces during the pandemic then they may not be here when this mess is over.

The provinces that were hit hardest from COVID-19 are further behind B.C. Ontario, for example, is in stage one; some regions will be entering stage two this Friday, which only allows outdoor dining at restaurants and bars, but that excludes Toronto, anyway. Still, the Black Eagle in Toronto, a leather cruising bar in the gay village is feeling optimistic.


The bar at PumpJack. Photo courtesy of Byron Cooke.

Michael Barry, the bar’s promotions manager, says that they plan to “follow the rules in as sexy a fashion as possible.” This is a good thing since physical distancing was the opposite of what you’d experience on their dance floor on a Saturday night, pre-pandemic, or in the backroom upstairs.

Barry anticipates that the backroom will probably be shut for their re-opening, and can envision people having to wear masks. He thinks there will be a limited capacity too—maybe 50 people instead of the usual 378.

Despite these things, he hopes that social distancing won’t be necessary so long as they keep it to the limited capacity.

“To be perfectly honest, we are still not sure how we could possibly re-open with everyone having to stay six feet apart,” Barry saidsays. “That doesn’t mean we’re not open to trying to figure that out. But you have to get closer than six feet to a bartender in order to order and be served a drink in a loud club. So we expect that when we’re told we can re-open, this specific rule would necessarily have to have been relaxed. But we have no idea!”

That might be possible, but looking at the rules for clubs reopening around the world, this might be wishful thinking. It seems like as long as there isn’t a vaccine, social distancing is here to stay, but who knows.

All the while, LGBTQ scenes are collapsing in different cities with bar after bar shutting their doors. In Toronto alone, the dance club, Club 120, has closed already.

Still, Dean Odorico, the general manager of the iconic gay bar Woody’s in Toronto is feeling hopeful.

“The gay community has already lived through a health crisis with AIDS and it brought the community together and it made it a lot stronger,” Odorico said. “And it’s a force to be reckoned with politically, in many ways. So there’s something awful that happened there and then something good that came with it. A lot of people at that time thought it was the end of days and it definitely wasn’t.”

Hoye brings up another point. What many LGBTQ bars and nightclubs have going for them is that they have a loyal community behind them, supporting each other. That’s something that a lot of straight venues don’t have.

“The gay community is so resilient and we do adapt to bad times. We have some brilliant minds in our community,” Odorico said. “For bars and nightclubs as a whole, those people are trendsetters and they’ve always worked on low margins and hard costs and they can make magic I think. They’ll always find a way to make that magic.”