Nightclubs during coronavirus are going to be really, really, weird

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Kerry Maisey is feeling the same mix of excitement and dread she felt the day she opened her nightclub nine years ago. Ridley Road Market Bar, a small venue in Hackney, London is reopening this weekend after a three-month hiatus. But the venue will look very different from its usual setup of a heaving dance floor presided over by DJs. Instead, visitors will sit at tables on the dance floor, listening to a music playlist and ordering drinks from an app. “The atmosphere is undoubtedly going to be very different,” Maisey says. “Music is a really big part of that. It’s always the thing to be able to socialise in a venue and move around from table to table. When we reopen, you’ll be socialising with the group you came in with.”
With an indoor capacity of 50 instead of 130, the challenge will be to make enough money on weekends in order to cover fixed costs like rent and subsidise the film screenings, lectures and niche music events that Ridley Road Market Bar runs during the week. “We’re opening up to see how we’ll go,” says Maisey. “In all honesty, it’ll be more risky than just staying closed because the moment we open we’re actually covering staff wages that are no longer covered by the furlough [scheme].”


The Hackney venue is not the only one experimenting with a new concept of social dis-dancing. With so many nightlife venues struggling to survive, they are desperate to welcome people back on their dance floors. But the combination of close contact, age, alcohol and confined space make nightclubs the perfect breeding ground for coronavirus.
Nightclubs are often housed in dark, packed indoor spaces with no windows, poor ventilation and little room to squeeze by another person. Revellers will linger at the bar and dance floor and mingle with each other. That’s what they are there for after all. But the pounding music forces people to move closer and shout at each other to have intimate conversations – a characteristic clubs share with going to a bar, which Texan doctors have listed as the highest-risk activity for contracting the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
Long conversations in close contact are believed to play a key role in the transmission of coronavirus. Talking loudly, laughing and singing can release up to ten times more particles than a single cough. With people dancing and breathing quickly, it is also possible they inhale more of the virus-laden droplets that persist in the stuffy air of a club.
Although the reason remains unknown, a small fraction of individuals are so-called “speech super-emitters” that emit large volumes of particles, even during normal speech. They could potentially be releasing thousands of particles over the course of a night and expose people around them to coronavirus. Besides this, alcohol reduces people’s inhibitions and, therefore, the likelihood of observing social distancing rules such as wearing a mask or keeping one metre apart. “It’s not for lack of intent. We know behavioural intention is one thing, but when your judgement is impaired, how your perception of risk influences your behaviour changes,” says Tolullah Oni, a public health physician and urban epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge, and a member of the Independent Sage group of scientists that publishes advice about the coronavirus crisis.


Night owls also differ in the way they interact with others. Some will stick with their group of friends while others like to mingle with new people. As an infected individual moves around the dance floor and visits several nightclubs in a night – likely using public transport or taxis – an increasingly large number of people may become exposed to the virus. In May, an outbreak emerged in South Korea after a 29-year-old man went to five nightclubs and bars in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in Seoul. Despite showing no symptoms of disease at the time, he later tested positive for coronavirus and is believed to be one of the individuals behind more than 246 infections.
Such rapid and large outbreaks caused by one or a few infected individuals are what scientists call super-spreading events. Preliminary research suggests 80 per cent of new infections are caused by only 20 per cent of super-spreaders. Another example of such an event occurred in Michigan in the US, where 170 confirmed infections could be traced back to two people that had visited a bar, which reopened on June 12 with a packed line of people waiting to get in.
The clusters emerging from nightclubs and bars also confirm what scientists already know: people can unwittingly spread the virus before showing symptoms of disease, some may never even develop any. Recent studies from Spain and Italy suggest between 20 to 40 per cent of coronavirus cases are asymptomatic. The UK’s Office for National Statistics says 67 per cent of individuals who tested positive for Covid-19 didn’t report any symptoms, though the sample size of its study was very small at 115.
People who visit several clubs and bars in a night make contact-tracing even more of a logistical nightmare, with venue owners often assuming responsibility for calling up people that may have come in contact with an infected individual. “[People] won’t know who they have had contact with and most nightclubs won’t know who has attended them. This makes contact tracing virtually impossible,” says Andrew Lee, a GP and reader in global public health at the University of Sheffield.


In Switzerland, where people usually pay entry fees at the door, nightclubs and bars reopened on June 19 – a week before the country’s contact-tracing app launched – and asked guests to fill out a physical contact form. Four nightclubs have reported coronavirus outbreaks since, forcing more than 600 people to self-isolate and resulting in the reintroduction of lower capacity restrictions. Because many club-goers deliberately provided fake contact details in the forms, they are now facing stricter admission rules with ID and mobile number checks or need to purchase advance tickets with a QR-code.
Nightclub owners, like those of other businesses, find themselves in a difficult balancing act between keeping their venues alive and protecting the health of the public. As Amsterdam’s first night mayor, Mirik Milan acted as the go-between between the city’s nightclubs and government. Today, he runs the VibeLab agency together with Lutz Leichsenring, a spokesperson for the Clubcommission Berlin to help the industry back on its feet. “Everybody’s saying ‘We’re making 100 per cent of the decisions with 50 per cent of the information’ and when it comes to nightclubs and nighttime establishments, that’s really problematic,” says Milan. The duo is working with other night mayors, club owners, as well as urban researchers from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania on a recovery plan for the industry.
In an industry usually dictated by minimum age limits, nightclubs in the Netherlands are considering introducing an upper age limit of 35 and temperature checks at the door. But that wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem of having asymptomatic carriers dancing the night away. “Nightclubs are more likely to be frequented by young people, which we know is a population group who are more likely to be asymptomatic if they have Covid-19,” Lee says. Infrared cameras and “thermometer guns” that screen people for high body temperatures are not particularly effective either as they often fail to detect infection in those with mild or no symptoms.
Social dis-dancing is also easier said than done. It is difficult to keep one metre apart on the dance floor and, for many club owners, it makes no sense to open their doors at only a third of their capacity. Marcel Weber who runs SchwuZ in Berlin – Germany’s largest and oldest queer club – is worried about the future of the nightlife sector and the many different communities it serves. “There are less opportunities, especially for LGBTIQs, to meet other people now,” he says. “Consultation services are also still closed. So the question is where can people meet in real life [rather than] on the internet?”
In other parts of the world, nightclubs have been converting their dance floors into seating areas. In the Netherlands and Australia, for example, people are allowed to dance as long as they stay seated in their chairs or next to their tables. Vincent Yao, a 36-year-old IT consultant from Brisbane doesn’t mind this too much, mostly because he’s not too keen on dancing anyway. “Admittedly, last weekend was fun,” he says about the opening of Birdees, a Brisbane nightclub. “It’s really hard to control people, especially drunk ones, but through social engineering with table and chair arrangements, you can probably get people to clump together in their own groups instead of a free for all on the dance floor.” Savina Simatovic, a 25-year-old working in new home sales, also enjoyed her night out at Laruche club in Brisbane. “It’s still fun going out but very strict and not the same vibe if you want to mingle with guys or take shots at the bar,” she says.
The nightclub-to-bar conversion may keep some establishments afloat, but Berlin’s SchwuZ club has a capacity of 1,100 and needs a minimum of 600 paying guests to be profitable. Nevertheless, Weber and his team will give the bar concept a try from autumn in order to create a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community to meet and keep their staff on the payroll.
While nightclubs are finding creative ways to reopen safely with distanced seating, contact tracing, online ordering systems, and better ventilation and hygiene, it won’t be possible to remove all risk factors. It is unlikely we’ll see club managers walking around the venue telling people not to laugh or sing. “You don’t want your staff to be policing people that are speaking too loudly,” says Milan from VibeLab. “If we make nightlife clinical, we take away the essence.”
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