Figuring Out L.A. Nightlife in the COVID-19 Era

On June 15, California reopened and Los Angeles bars and clubs were able to resume business without most of the pandemic-related restrictions that had forced so many to go dark for over a year. Two days later, I returned to The Lash, the venue downtown where I was a resident prior to COVID-19, for my fist gig there since March of 2020. There was no theme on this Thursday night; I played a little of everything, including a lot of songs that would have heated up the dance floor in 2020 – if dance floors were a thing that year. Dua Lipa, Cardi B, Jessie Ware, Roísín Murphy and three tracks from Kylie Minogue’s latest album, Disco, all made it into the set. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw people dance that hard. We were making up for lost time. 

Los Angeles was lit for those first few weeks after the city’s grand reopening. I went to Footsie’s for my friend Rose Know’s postpunk party, Death Disco. The bar was slammed and the patio was buzzing with people I hadn’t seen in months. We played catch-up, like it was the first day back at school after a summer break that lasted far too long. I snapped a selfie with Rose as she played Soft Cell, Marc Almond singing, “I collect, I reject, memorabilia” while I fussed with the angle of the phone. A week later, I stopped by The Lash for my friend Don French’s Sophie tribute night, the IRL version of a Twitch event they held when we were still stuck at home. The crowd launched into a dance floor sing-a-long before midnight. 

A few weeks later, on a phone call, Don recalled the elation inside the parties following the reopening. “I feel like I had never really experienced that prior to COVID, where everyone is genuinely happy to be in a space with music playing and you’re dancing,” they said. 

Of course, this would change quickly. That’s just how life in this city, maybe this country, seems to operate during the COVID-19 era. 

The Delta variant hit Los Angeles and new cases rose. L.A. decided to reinstate the indoor mask rules for everyone, vaccinated or not, about a month after the reopening. The rule went into effect right around the time I was mixing a 20-year-old Jamiroquai song into The Reflex Revision of Roísín Murphy’s jam, “Narcissus.” In the days that followed, many bars and clubs across the city independently announced that they were enacting a new policy: proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test were required for entry. 

You could say that these are nothing more than temporary nuisances  that will help us party safely and I agree with that. DJing while masked is uncomfortably hot, sweaty and annoying, yet I’ve done it. Plus, I don’t care if anyone wants to see proof of the two Moderna jabs I got specifically so that I could enter spaces filled with other humans without feeling an overwhelming sense of dread. At the same time, though, the constant influx of bad COVID-19 news on our timelines has been demoralizing in a city that, just a few months ago, seemed to be heading towards brighter days. 

At a Friday gig in late July, something about the vibe felt weird. Rose had a similar experience at her gig on the same night. “The people that do come feel a little hesitant to be there, but are still coming out,” she told me when we talked on the phone. “It’s just a strange contrast to how it felt, initially, when the bars had opened again.” At my gig, people seemed nervous, like we were all trying to have fun, while also waiting to see what new hell was in store for L.A.

After a year and a half of social distancing, we’re reintroducing ourselves to IRL society and that hasn’t been the easiest thing to do. Those who have started going out again are relearning social cues, figuring out the rules of etiquette for a world that’s not the same as it was in March of 2020. 

Back in June and early July, going out was cathartic. “People were coming out because they wanted to feel alive and feel connections with other human beings and warm bodies, be around other people,” Rose said on our phone call. “It’s so important, as a human race, to have that, and we were stripped of that for so long.” 

She adds that, maybe, this time apart has “stripped us of some of the humanity we need to move forward.” 

I was thinking about what Rose had said on our call while I was DJing on a Friday in early August. The crowd was light, but the people who were there seemed to really appreciate the night out. There were some great requests. People came up to me to say thanks for the music, something that’s been happening more often now than before the pandemic. Sometimes, I think that the weirdest thing about returning to the clubs is how nice people have been. After watching shitshows unfold daily on social media for far too long, I didn’t know what to expect. Generally speaking, though, I’ve seen friendly, albeit sometimes awkward, interactions. All that has reminded me of how important it is for us to be able to gather together in person, whether it’s because of music or some other shared interest, and how important it is that we still have spaces where we can do this.