- Restriction-free clubbing returns next week after 16 months, but with Covid-19 cases rising and government guidance purposefully loose, the situation is far from ideal.
Club owners and promoters across England are approaching next week's reopening with a mix of joy and trepidation.
On Monday, July 19th, restriction-free nightlife will return for the first time since March 2020. There will be no limits on capacity and no laws mandating mask wearing or social distancing. For many staff, artists and ravers, it'll be their first time back on the dance floor in 16 months.
"We're obviously buzzing to get an opportunity to get back to work again and do what we love," Damien Fell, director at Brighton club The Arch, told Resident Advisor. "It's not even about the money. It's about finding some purpose for ourselves, to be honest."
But with Covid-19 cases currently at their highest since mid-January, any sense of celebration is tempered by anxiety. Many in the industry feel that the situation isn't helped by the lack of clear direction and leadership from prime minister Boris Johnson. Earlier this week, the government said it "encourages" large clubs and festivals to use the NHS COVID Pass—a kind of vaccine passport—as a condition of entry. This isn't a legal requirement.
"[Monday's] announcement feels bittersweet," said Fell. "I feel that we've been chucked under the bus again. No clear direction. Doesn't matter which sort of approach we take, there's no winning. Do we off our own back insist that you have to have tests or a vaccine? Are we gonna do the government's dirty work for them?"
A poll published yesterday by the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) found that 82.7 percent of businesses in England won't enforce the NHS COVID Pass. Reasons cited include too short notice, cost of implementation and the unreliability of lateral flow testing.
Both Fell and James Haggart, who runs Bristol venue Lakota, would have preferred the government to provide one blanket rule for nightlife.
"100 percent," Haggart told RA. "Just tell us exactly what they want and we'll just do it. Like they have with everything else."
Instead, the government has shifted the onus of responsibility onto club owners and promoters. What happens when cases, not to mention hospitalisations and deaths, inevitably rise? Earlier this week, the Dutch government was forced to close clubs and festivals for another month after cases jumped by 500 percent in a single week.
England's current Covid-19 rate per 100,000 people (344.8) is more than 100 times higher than it was in the Netherlands when clubs reopened (3.2), though England has vaccinated a far higher percentage of the population. As of Friday, July 16th, 67.1 percent of people have received both doses compared to 42.9 percent in the Netherlands.
"My worry here is that [the government] intends to hide behind this 'guidance' when cases rise and they are forced to change tack, and blame it all on individual businesses and consumers for not taking the steps to stay safe," said NTIA CEO Michael Kill.
Fell shares this worry. "Subsequently, if we get closed and cases come back down, by public decree it'll be proven that it's our fault."
In the short term, there are other issues at play. The surge in cases in England has created a staffing shortage across nightlife, as people either contract Covid-19 or have to isolate. According to the Guardian, 1.6 million people were told to isolate last week, forcing pubs, bars and venues across the country to close due to a lack of staff.
There are shortages, too, in security personnel. Today, July 16th, industry bodies representing 10,000 hospitality and nightlife businesses in the UK signed a letter to Boris Johnson. The letter calls the shortage an "impending public health crisis."
Fell, Haggart and promoters across England have spent this week deciding how best to interpret the government's safety guidance. Some clubs and parties will require the NHS COVID Pass for entry, while others, like the government, will only encourage its use. How long this stays a choice remains to be seen.
"I fear chaos," Fell said. "But the way it's set up it won't be chaotic for too long, because we'll be forced to shut before we have an opportunity to fix it."
Credit: Dean Machala