Shira Cola has chosen to use her real name, other names have been changed to protect dancers against workplace retaliation.
American strip clubs are reopening as states loosen restrictions enacted in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. While some clubs are adapting to our changing world with measures such as checking temperatures at the door and hanging plastic sheets between customers and dancers, others are operating as if COVID was just a bad dream. Facing both a loss of unemployment benefits (due to work being once again available) and a simultaneous uptick in the number of COVID cases, strippers are weighing the risk of the virus against increasing economic insecurity.
When the pandemic swept across the country and strip clubs shuttered, dancers were stranded without income. Some migrated to online sex work, while others waited it out, living off savings, a partner’s income, or mutual aid funds. Some dancers were also able to access government assistance. Under the CARES ACT, precariously employed people without W2’s technically qualify for the Pandemic Employment Assistance (PUA). As the weeks of lockdown blended together, some dancers were approved for the lifesaving 600 dollars a week, but others didn’t hear back from their state governments. When clubs reopened, those who received no aid were feeling intense economic pressure to head back to work. And, even for strippers who have been able to access unemployment and are receiving weekly benefits, the July 31st cut off day for PUA is looming, and many are making preparations.
Tia lives and works in Tampa, FL. She believes she already contracted COVID-19 (though was unable to get a test) back in March and had heard that it isn’t as bad the second time around, so she wasn’t worried about returning to the club in early June. She applied for PUA but didn’t hear back. The thirty-year-old wasn’t desperate for money, as she had savings and family support, but she was reeling from a breakup and eager to jump back into work.
She got her nails, hair, and eyelashes done and went back to work on Saturday, May 31st. At first, everything seemed copacetic. Sure, the customers weren’t wearing masks, but all the dancers were required to. A manager checked the temperatures of each patron coming into the building. Dancers weren’t allowed to sit with customers, and they could only offer private dances from a distance.
Even with these restrictions, Tia earned over 1000 dollars in one shift— customers were eager to spend money after being cooped up for so long. It was great to be back.
But after three days of work, the rules slackened.“It was business as usual by the following Friday, masks weren’t mandatory and only me and one other girl wore them. By Saturday none of us wore a mask. Then the next day I was coughing,” she said. She laid in bed for sixteen days racked with fever and chills, hacking, out of breath, and exhausted. A test confirmed she was positive for COVID-19. This time around was just as rough, if not worse.
Florida was one of the first states to reopen and is now experiencing a surge in cases, a situation Anthony Fauci said was “disturbing” in a hearing in front of the House in mid-June. Dr. Jill Roberts, an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida College of Public Health, told me in an email: “Using the guidelines released by several agencies, Florida failed to meet some of the metrics for reopening including a sustained drop in new cases over a two week period.” Even though COVID-19 rates exceeded the guidelines, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis allowed nightlife to return to normal in early June, claiming that wearing mask should be a personal choice, echoing the Trump administration’s view that shutting down the economy is an infringement on personal liberties and that the virus will simply fade away. The governor’s decision to reopen has implications for the rest of the country, as the virus doesn’t observe state lines. But, this decision weighs heaviest on local service industry workers.
Strippers are already in a vulnerable position. As the majority are misclassified as independent contractors, their safety isn’t protected by health departments. They also don’t have bargaining power in their work conditions: they have no say in whether customers should be required to wear masks or if clubs should even be open.
In West Palm Beach, FL, a club preemptively opened in mid-May and required that all staff return to work or they would be replaced. Masks were banned, and only two bottles of hand sanitizer were available in the packed club. Not surprisingly given the conditions, the situation quickly spiraled out of control. A few workers tested positive and the assistant manager died of COVID. After the news attracted the attention of the county commission (44 minutes into the video), the club shuttered. A dancer, Mia, worked a few shifts when it opened to help pay off some of her bills. She was furious and devastated about the blatant disregard for worker safety, but she also wasn’t surprised. “They have never cared about the safety of their dancers or employees,” she said.
The average age of those infected with the novel coronavirus had plummeted in the southern and midwestern states that have hurried to reopen their economies. As of June 26, FL’s median age of those infected dropped from 65 in March to 34- with cases surging among those between the ages of 25 and 34—according to Florida’s Department of Health. Tampa Mayor June Castor, chalked this up to young people going out and feeling invincible from the virus. What she overlooked, however, was that with nightlife returning to normal, many young service workers have had little choice but to break quarantine and go back to work, pouring drinks, serving food, and entertaining crowds of people to keep their jobs and pay their bills. Moreover, this all is exacerbated by the fact that Florida has been one of the slowest states in the nation to process unemployment claims.
Lara is a stripper in Key West. The 40-year-old has been back on the day shift since the island reopened to tourists. Masks are required indoors across The Keys, but she’s still afraid of getting sick and would rather be tucked away at home. Like Tia, she applied for PUA and never heard back. She used her savings to pay her rent, car payment, and credit bills during quarantine, but her money ran out.
She has resigned herself to her situation, telling me, “This pandemic is like playing Russian Roulette: We’re gonna get it or we’re not gonna get it, and we’re gonna survive or die. Life goes on.”
Christina works in upstate New York and was approved for PUA in April. She went back to work when the club reopened, aware that her benefits are going to dry up in a month. Saddled with childcare duties and alone at home with two babies, it was a relief to be back on the stage and to interact with adults again. Unlike Florida, New York has much stricter requirements: customers’ temperatures and IDs are scanned and logged when they walk in the door (so an outbreak could be traced). Masks are required for both dancers and customers, no lap dances, no congregating near the bar or stage. Customers can walk up to the stage to tip, but dancers have to back away.
Accustomed to getting dollar bills tucked into her G-string and earning money from lap dances, her income took a nosedive. She was making 500-800 dollars on a weekend night before the pandemic but her first two shifts back she barely grazed $150. She counts on a higher wage so she can support her children and partner. If things don’t improve, she’s preparing to supplement her income with pulling extra shifts at Instacart during the day, but she’s hoping the state will loosen social distancing restrictions as cases are down in her rural town. If not, she hopes unemployment will be extended until January. She can’t support her family in a sterile peepshow.
Weighing the risk of safety with economic realities is something sex workers are familiar with. Stripping is a job that comes with a multitude of risks that, for many, are worth it because the job provides an opportunity to make more than minimum wage with fewer hours of work. Yet, strippers are now making a different set of cost-benefit calculations. According to a survey of 128 participants conducted by Survive the Club, an organization that offers support to sex workers, 62 percent of dancers didn’t feel the club was currently safe. And, the situation isn’t isolated to Florida.
A dancer in Indiana, Mara, told me that her club loosely enforced socially distancing. The management instituted a no-touching policy and hung a plastic sheet from the ceiling in the private rooms.
She could still sit with customers face-to face though, and many of her customers flouted the rules, blowing on her skin and propositioning her to take off her mask for tips. The customers she talked to claimed the virus was a hoax, an inconvenience, or something that only plagues the feeble. A 70-year-old man wore a metal from a virtual half-marathon he completed, as if to showcase his vitality and invincibility. The college student earned 165 dollars on a Saturday night and decided to not come back for the time being. She didn’t feel the risk was worth the money, especially since Indiana is witnessing a spike of cases in twenty-somethings.
While Christina felt safe from the virus in her well-protected club in New York, she did not feel protected economically. Stripping is a job that relies on touch and intimacy. Currently, stage shows don’t pay the bills and lap dances (which are high contact) are the primary way dancers make money.
I spoke with an activist and stripper in Seattle, Shira Cole, who suggested that clubs should restructure how dancers get paid until there is a vaccine; until dancers can lap dance safely they should get a base wage to supplement the loss of income. As contractors, most strippers are denied a wage, instead relying solely on tips and income earned from private dances.
In the throes of her sickness, Tia was finally approved for PUA, and the $1,200 stimulus check reached her mailbox—just in time, as Florida started rolling back the reopening process on June 26th, suspending on-site alcohol sales in bars. This order doesn’t shutter gentlemen’s clubs outright, but it will make it harder for dancers to earn a living, as alcohol strengthens the party atmosphere and keeps customers spending. Cities like Key West have decided to close down its clubs for the time being, while in other parts of Florida many remain open, leaving strippers without government support either stranded without an income or with no choice but to work in a pandemic.
Stripper groups – who understand that some dancers are going to need to earn a living despite the health risk – are offering advice on how to dance as safely as possible. Allie, a graduate student of epidemiology and public health at U.C. Berkeley and a stripper said in an Instagram Live with Survive The Club that masks should still be worn, but warned they aren’t the be-all and end-all. Vigorous hand washing and facing away from customers during lap dancing could also reduce the chances of infection. “Sex workers are prepared to protect ourselves from COVID,” Allie explained. “We already utilize skills like this, negotiating consent, physical safety, and health safety.”
Even with harm reduction techniques, strippers are facing an increased risk. As long as state governments ignore safety metrics, precautions are seen as a personal choice, strippers lack basic labor rights, and unemployment remains difficult to access, stripping will be as Lara said: a lethal game of chance.
UPDATE: Tia received a message from her manager terminating her contract with the club. She had worked there for 7 years without problems. She asked if it was because she got COVID and he never responded.
Reese Piper is a writer and stripper living in Brooklyn. She is currently living off unemployment and working on her memoir. Follow her @Reese__P.