Level Up in the summer of 2021

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Rubber gloves for staff. Signs at the door. Instagram posts with extra info.

Philly’s nightlife industry is trying to be responsible about the recent monkeypox outbreak. But the problem is… they don’t exactly know how.

Fresh from handling COVID shutdowns, the nightlife scene is potentially at risk once again. Monkeypox spreads primarily through skin-to-skin contact, which means places where people are rubbing up against each other are potential danger zones. Bar owners and staff say the main difference from COVID is it’s less clear what their actual risk is — and what they should do about it.

“At least with COVID, there were guidelines,” said Ken Lowe Jr., the owner of the LGBTQ+ Gayborhood bar Level Up. “With monkeypox, it seems like there’s not. They don’t even really know how it’s transmitted at this point, so we’re trying to figure out a way to keep staff safe.”

So far, Philly has recorded 257 monkeypox cases and vaccinated more than 4,000 people against the virus. If you’re at a party or a nightclub where there’s minimal clothing and skin-to-skin contact, CDC guidelines say you have “some risk” of contracting monkeypox. Venues where attendees are fully clothed are safer.

South Jersey resident Andre Waters knows firsthand nightclub transmission is possible. He caught monkeypox while partying this summer.

“People are giving out this false pretense that you had to have sex to get monkeypox,” Waters told Billy Penn earlier this month. “But it’s been a couple months, so that’s false. I went to a club, and a couple days later I ended up getting sick.”

Cities and towns across North America are integrating the nightlife industry into their monkeypox responses. In Toronto, health officials have named specific venues where monkeypox outbreaks originated so fellow club-goers would know to get tested. In New York, city officials have visited bars to spread the word about monkeypox resources and queer bars have taken it upon themselves to distribute info to their patrons.

Meanwhile, smaller cities like Norfolk, Virginia and Evansville, Illinois have hosted pop-up vaccine clinics at bars.

Health Department spokesperson Matthew Rankin said the city isn’t willing to release patient information, which includes potential bars or clubs where cases were contracted. But he said the department has canvassed businesses to hand out monkeypox fact sheets.

Right now it doesn’t appear that many Philly bars or nightclubs are putting out specific rules to combat monkeypox. But some are trying to take small, seemingly logical precautions.

Business has been steady at Lowe’s bar throughout Philly’s monkeypox outbreak. He decided to offer his security team hand sanitizer and rubber gloves since they sometimes need to pat down customers. As soon as he did that, Lowe said, his bartenders requested protective gear, too.

“The bartenders asked about it, and I said, ‘We have two cases of gloves. If you want to wear them, I’m not stopping you,’” Lowe said.

Lowe figures he can benefit the partying crowd by providing credible info on the virus. In Level Up’s Instagram bio, the top link connects to the CDC’s monkeypox page.

Music venue Warehouse on Watts is trying a similar approach. General manager Meg Bassett said they put a sign outside their Yorktown club that lists monkeypox symptoms and the best way to avoid catching it: limiting touching as much as possible.

“People can take stock of their bodies before entering and while at the venue,” Bassett said. “I just don’t think we know what to do yet until stuff develops, so [we’re doing] signage and information.”

If you’re thinking about partying safely, Health Department spokesperson Rankin recommends wearing full clothes, avoiding skin-to-skin contact and washing your hands often.

But not everyone in Philly’s nightlife scene has adopted monkeypox protocols. Dave Kiss books entertainment at often tightly packed venues, like Kung Fu Necktie and Silk City in Fishtown. He said he hasn’t made any new rules yet; he’s still more concerned about the spread of COVID.

He’s also worried monkeypox might deal a similar blow to the industry.

“Monkeypox is absolutely a concern and definitely adds another layer of stress and confusion to a high-paced environment. The nightlife scene in Philadelphia was beaten up badly during COVID,” Kiss said. “A handful of venues and clubs didn’t make it to the other side. Another wave of an infectious virus is the last thing the entertainment [and] live music scene needs.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...