Social Partying Conquers Social Distancing

By Homayra Nabilah

The COVID-19 pandemic was a major breaking point in the preservation of New York City’s nightlife culture. As the government enforced closures of businesses involving large gatherings, the $35.1 billion industry experienced rapid decline, threatening most businesses with permanent closure (Chen, 2020). Yet, despite the surface-level shutdown brought by the pandemic, NYC nightlife never disappeared. People created their own rules of regulation, and the pandemic fatigue was the primary driving force of moving the nightlife culture underground, leading to the rise of illegal and risky dance parties. Given the large number of risky party attendance during the pandemic, this academic research seeks to understand the impact COVID-19 had not only on New York City nightlife, but also on people’s actions and outlook on having fun while on lockdown. The three principal issues covered in this paper about the pandemic’s impact on social partying are increased drug use, less safe sex practices, and increasing popularity of virtual parties. 

A common theme seen during all the different types of venues that arose due to the pandemic fatigue is drug usage. Since many wanted to “social distance” by avoiding skin contact, people resorted to drugs to both enjoy the party and also escape the reality created by the pandemic (Le, 2022). However, these illegal parties were so populated that the risks associated with drug use were undermined, and even disregarded in some cases, when compared to the fact that their actions of attending large gatherings broke the law and put them in face of the danger brought by the pandemic (Le, 2022). The most popular response to the pandemic shutdown was complete ignorance of reality and a shift to a “prohibition-style” nightlife (Colyar, 2020). Brock Colyar, who launched a journal series all about nightlife, provided a participant observation style primary source that captured the hidden, underground aspect of NYC nightlife organized almost entirely through social media and DMs, using drugs as incentive – cannabis, cocaine, and ketamine were the known club drugs found at almost every party. Colyar conducted interviews of people at the party and shared observations of the rules being broken during the height of the pandemic. Countless attendees displayed rage at their “constitutional” right to party being deprived by the government, and when asked about the pandemic’s life-threatening impact, the common response was to just rely on one’s gut instinct to keep themselves safe (Colyar, 2020). However, those same people quickly ditched any boundaries they may have initially gone into the party with and are quickly seen exchanging saliva with strangers either through kissing or sharing vape pens. In the case that police arrive, these venues have bars set up so that it can be easily taken down, and masks are quickly passed around to push the narrative of social distancing. 

In addition to illegal dance parties, the pandemic fatigue increased the willingness of people to attend sex venues, which transitioned to private sex clubs after closures of official establishments. A study conducted at sex venues during the early pandemic seeked to not only determine the correlation between covid 19 and willingness to attend sex venues, but to also understand why individuals chose to put themselves in positions that increased their chances of SARS-CoV-2 transmissions (Meuinier, 2021). Due to said venues consisting primarily of physical interactions, one can see the extra steps taken to regulate the spread of COVID-19 compared to other parties, but its effectiveness was to a certain extent. There were temperature checks at entrances, participants kept to smaller groups, people positive for COVID-19 antibodies were more likely to get in, and wearing masks were encouraged (Meuinier, 2021). However, there were still a large number of people who did not adhere to these guidelines, but of course, hard drugs such as cannabis and cocaine played a significant role in allowing these underground sex venues to last long-term. As the pandemic persisted, sexual desire increased, and with each consecutive attendance, people became comfortable with participating more frequently. 

On the other hand, for those who still wanted to be cautious and social distance despite missing the nightlife adventures, virtual raves and virtual happy hours experienced a surging popularity in the nightlife business due to COVID-19. Such venues allowed people, especially EDM partygoers, to experience live DJ parties that were broadcasted real-time across social media platforms (Palamar, 2021). Around 70% of participants that were surveyed reported that they began attending these rave hours ever since the pandemic began, and people surveyed further into the pandemic were more likely to use drugs during these rave hours, even those who did not normally take drugs during their everyday lives (Palamar, 2021). While attending virtual parties may seem the safest option in the face of the pandemic, the drug use during such events presented the most risk out of all types of venues because people were mostly left alone without any rescue plan should anything go wrong. 

It may be hard to understand why people felt comfortable to put themselves at risk during these large gatherings, for it cannot be pinned down to one reason. Coylar provides one plausible explanation: many of the younger participants “never forgot those early days of being told they were less at risk. Eight months in, their sense of invincibility has just grown stronger” (Colyar, 2020). Another explanation could simply be profit. None of these nightlife parties were organized nor attended by well-known, serious DJs and business owners because not only do they have a reputation and/or license to lose, they have a moral obligation to be responsible figures in the nightlife business. Thus, the opportunity arose to “lesser-known pandemic profiteers,” also referred to as newbies. It is also obviously true that the increase of pandemic fatigue over time was one of the leading roles that scarred the judgment of many. However, more factors need to be tested in order to determine why other measures could not have occurred to battle the fatigue, such as smaller, intimate parties among friends instead of large crowds of strangers. Having insight into mental health problems, familial situations, social connections, etc. may provide a deeper understanding behind the motivation of turning to underground nightlife businesses. 

Now the question arises on what policies should be placed to aid the industry in recovering and adapting to current times. A study conducted to determine which neighborhoods face the highest risk of permanent nightlife business closure revealed that “neighborhoods with  greater variety in venue-types are expected to be more resilient to permanent nightlife loss” (Chen, 2020). This makes sense, for greater variety allows catering to a wider audience of partygoers. Many reporters also argue that instead of banning nightlife, it would be more effective to actively regulate such spaces in order to control the spread of COVID-19 and preserve an industry that contributes financially to society. However, others disagree, claiming that regulation will have the opposite effect, and people will be more secretive and risky. This is because they will need to try harder to avoid crackdowns by police, especially due to the popular presence of drugs at such venues.