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Pandemic threatens future of gay bars and clubs

With gay bars and clubs in Australia and elsewhere closed for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some venues have already been forced to shut down permanently, and others are struggling to avoid the same fate.

Gay clubs have long been part of the vibrant culture of many cities, offering a place for LGBTIQ people to meet peers and socialise in a safe place.

Now, industry figures show that the loss of income to pay bills and wages during the pandemic has left the future of gay nightlife in jeopardy, Huffington Post has reported.

In Australia, government initiatives such as JobKeeper and rent freezes are helping businesses keep the lights on, but venues in other countries are facing worse threats to their futures.

Pubs in most parts of Australia have recently been allowed to open at limited capacity to serve meals – but not bars or nightclubs – and similar gradual re-opening of venues is expected in other countries.

Club owners say the loss of their venues would hurt the community by removing spaces that allow freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination.

“Gay meeting places such as bars and clubs have always been an integral part of the community and will continue to be in the future,” said Chris White, manager of Brisbane’s iconic Sportsman Hotel.

White said the shutdown has been particularly hard on the independent, family-owned business.

“Business was slow leading up to the shutdown as patrons were understandably worried about being in public spaces,” White told Pink Advocate.

“Unfortunately, we had to stand down around half of our workforce initially, with another quarter qualifying for the JobKeeper allowance.”

Famous New York gay bar Therapy two months ago closed after 17 years and let all its employees go, possibly never to reopen.

Owner Tom Johnson said that operating at limited capacity would be unviable.

“You just never imagine that your world would just be turned upside down, seemingly overnight,” Johnson said.

“Trying to run at 50%, you’re never going to make the kind of money you need to make electric, rent, and payroll.”

Clubs in Europe are likely to be allowed to reopen at limited capacity, with Spain planning to permit them to operate at one-third capacity from the end of June.

Joaquin Pena, owner of Madrid gay bar Marta Carino, said that all of the city’s LGBTIQ event promoters thought it would be impossible.

“We can afford to reopen with 50% of our full capacity, although only a few of us can,” said Pena.

“But with a third, we’ll die.”

White said that the Sportsman in Brisbane has been “supported wonderfully by the community” since re-opening at limited capacity for meals, and is booked out most nights.

However, he noted that operating under the current rules would not be financially possible without the JobKeeper allowance.

The hotel plans to continue a staged re-opening in line with government rules, but packed dance parties are off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

“It will be true that there will be a lot of changes when bars re-open, and we may have to accept a new normal in regards to capacity and hygiene,” said White.

“That being said, we are committed to having a safe space for all people in our rainbow community to come and enjoy themselves.

“Keeping this business financially viable is not only important to us as business owners, but fulfilling our responsibilities to the gay community in Brisbane.”

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