TAMPA, Fla. – “I was just dancing and I leaned over, and suddenly I feel a lick,” Nikki said with a disgusted look on her face as she wiped her cheek with alcohol. Nikki is a stripper at the Penthouse Club in Tampa, Florida, and that September night the club was packed with fans celebrating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ victory against the Dallas Cowboys, despite the state being, at the time, in the middle of. its worst wave of COVID so far.
When Nikki worked, she always made sure to thoroughly clean the pole before performing and constantly sanitized her hands, but there was nothing she could do to prevent occasional unwanted contact from clients. Working in the service sector during a pandemic is scary enough, but intimacy, fake or otherwise, is a key part of strippers’ job.
“This is our 9-to-5,” Marley, another Penthouse stripper, told me. “It’s not that I necessarily feel safe or comfortable letting people be within range. This is how we make a living ”.
Tampa is famous for its strip clubs, with residents often fond of bragging about being the strip club capital of the world (however, the claim turned out to be false). Although all strip clubs and other non-essential establishments closed in March 2020 for a three-month closure, the strip club industry has since benefited from the state’s lax COVID rules. (In this piece, HuffPost used stage names to protect the privacy of strippers.)
In May 2021, the governor of Florida. Ron DeSantis (R) has issued an executive order that invalidates all existing local COVID restrictions. He even credited the lack of restrictions as a crucial part of the tourism industry’s recovery.
“While the other states were closed, VISIT FLORIDA invited travelers from all over the country to experience the magic and freedom of a Florida vacation,” the state tourism board boasted in October.
But that freedom may have come at a cost. In late October, Florida finally emerged from its deadliest wave of COVID to date, during which it recorded more infections, hospitalizations and deaths over the summer than at any time since the pandemic began. In August, it reached 25,000 median daily cases and 445 median daily deaths, giving the state the highest death rate in the country during the national peak determined by the delta variant. More than 50,000 people in Florida have died in total from the virus.
Despite these disturbing statistics, DeSantis issued an executive order in July banning the use of face masks in schools and threatened to fines cities and counties for imposing vaccine warrants. In a press conference in September, DeSantis said people’s decision to get vaccinated “has no impact on me or anyone else,” although the state’s inadequate vaccination rates, at 58.2%, combined with the contagious delta variant, have been accused of the deadly sway.
The famous Mons Venus strip club in Tampa.
Penthouse in Tampa on a busy night in September 2021.
As strip clubs in other states remained closed, strippers flocked to the Sunshine State to continue working.
“We had many entertainers who moved temporarily to Florida because that was the only place they could continue making money,” said Caroline Kirkendoll, president of Penthouse Global Licensing, which licenses the Penthouse brand to strip clubs in. Worldwide. “There was almost a surplus of employees.”
Penthouse dancer Johanna had flown in from New Orleans just a few days before I spoke to her. She was used to wearing masks in New Orleans and she said she was “a little weird not wearing masks” inside the club. “I have mine, but then I realized no one was wearing it,” she said.
Stephanie, another dancer, told me she didn’t wear masks because “I always felt like I was going to be judged for believing COVID was a real thing.”
“It looked like it was going to make me less money for wearing a mask,” he said.
As long as the vast majority of patrons and colleagues wore masks, strippers who might have preferred to wear them felt compelled to remain maskless.
Joe Redner, “Tampa’s Strip Club King” and the self-proclaimed “father of naked lap dancing,” founded Mons Venus, the city’s most iconic strip club, nearly 40 years ago. He felt like he had his hands tied as an entrepreneur. Unless the government itself imposes mask policies or vaccine mandates, he believes his patrons and dancers would flock to other strip clubs if he tried to make them mandatory. “It has to be a level playing field,” he said.
Now 80, Redner has fought city council attempts to regulate the strip club industry, took his own weed case to the Florida Supreme Court, and ran for mayor. But he told me there’s one thing he’s not proud of: not firing one of his workers for refusing to be vaccinated.
“I don’t feel safe in my club,” he told me. “I don’t understand why it doesn’t bother people here. Don’t they read the news? “
In the strip club industry, dancers are self-employed workers who work for tips. While Mons Venus dancers come and go as they please, some clubs, such as Penthouse, charge strippers a “house fee” to perform. Kirkendoll said Penthouse tried to incentivize dancers to get vaccinated by offering to waive house taxes for two weeks.
But most of the strippers I spoke to didn’t see the point of getting vaccinated. Some felt young and healthy and therefore did not need it.
“I don’t get the flu shot, so I won’t get the COVID vaccine,” said Luna, an attic stripper. “The moment I get sick, you suck me, I go to the gym.”
Others felt the vaccine was not proven safe enough. “Until it’s something we have solid evidence on, I won’t do it,” Penthouse dancer Marley said. “It’s not that I want to hurt anyone, but if someone feels at risk or has underlying problems, then you probably shouldn’t be here.”
Despite the lack of measures by the state and the generally free culture of the strip club industry, some strippers have stood out for insisting on protecting themselves as best they can. Monsters Venus Bella’s stripper is a cancer survivor. At the start of the pandemic, she wore not only a mask, but glasses as well. Now that she is vaccinated, she still wears a mask while she performs.
“Sometimes it feels awkward,” he said. “People laugh at me because I wear a mask, especially younger children who see things as a joke and say, ‘I’m not going to throw money on you because you have that mask.’” But with two small children at home and a 98-year-old grandmother to think about, she feels it is worth giving up a small pension: “Just for the money? Money can’t buy happiness. ”
Nyx, a stripper from Déjà Vu, another Tampa club, also dances with a mask and is fully vaccinated. She never takes off her mask, even when customers ask her. When she gets in her face, she tries to turn away. And when she takes them back to a private booth for a lap dance, she makes him sanitize her hands. “With anything, you have to weigh the risks and benefits,” she explained. “As far as my livelihood is concerned, this is crucial for me.”
When the pandemic hit, Bree took a full year off because she was too worried about making COVID work: “I ate all my savings right then.”
Nyx, who is wearing the mask while performing at Déjà Vu, says she is doing everything she can to protect herself while making a living by dancing.
Love, another Déjà Vu dancer, had stopped dancing and moved to work on webcam until she got vaccinated. She is now back on stage, opting for Déjà Vu because the large room seemed more ventilated than others. “She’s still scary,” she said. “I’m going to get the booster.”
Marcos Figueroa, general manager of Déjà Vu, said he is doing everything to keep the club safe for everyone. “We don’t want to get a bad rap, we already have one because of the business we do,” he said. The club even produced its own bottles of alcohol spray, called “Cooty Killer”. “We want to show that we are really trying to take care of everyone.”
Despite the risks posed by the pandemic, patrons seemed eager to return to the city’s strip clubs. Figueroa says the club is earning at least as much, if not more, than it did before the statewide closure that began in March 2020: “They have nowhere to go, they have no vices and they know we deliver quality show. . “
story editor: Erin And Evans Artistic and photographic director: Christy Havranek Artistic director: Isabella Carapella Sister Photo Editor: Damon Dahlen, Chris McGonigal Copy Editor: Jillian Capewell Audience Editor: Cambria Roth