Strip clubs are starting to re-open, but workers see more woes ahead as distancing rules put private dances off-limits
By Brittany Hosea-Small
SAN FRANCISCO, May 18 (Reuters) - When California stripper Brittney, 26, walked into San Francisco's reopened Gold Club stripping venue again in April after a year, she was confronted with masked-up dancers and just a clutch of patrons.
"My heart just sank. This is just so, so sad," said Brittney, who asked that her last name not be disclosed to protect her 6-year-old son. An hour of that four-hour shift was spent just waiting for customers and she earned $150, less than a third of what she would have made pre-pandemic.
"A lot of times you'll see a lot of girls just sitting around," said Brittney, who started stripping around two years ago to supplement income from two other jobs. "It's just not fun anymore."
As some of the United States' estimated 3,821 strip clubs start to open up again, women who work as strippers are confronting a transformed industry. Revenue in the industry is estimated to have decreased 17.4% in 2020 and is forecast to fall another 1.5% this year, according to research by IBISWorld.
Under guidelines in San Francisco, for instance, strip clubs such as Gold Club that offer food are able to reopen, but strippers and patrons must keep their masks on. Performances are limited to stage dances, with no physical contact with customers. Lap dances and private "VIP" rooms, the source of the majority of a stripper's income, are still prohibited.
During the pandemic, strippers in states with stronger anti-coronavirus measures migrated to ones with laxer ones, such as Texas and Florida, according to dancers and club owners. Bob Tapella, the co-owner and manager of Cheetahs Gentleman's Club in Sunnyvale, California, estimated nearly 60% of his dancers left the state to find work elsewhere.
"I think we're going to have to start all over from fresh," said Tapella, whose club was closed for a year and survived partly thanks to a pandemic relief loan. "We had a special place. It's going to be a lot of years before we get back to that."
Strippers who have stayed put cannot fully make it work yet.
Brittney, who drives to San Francisco to work from her home in Sacramento, some two hours away, is not sure it even makes financial sense for her to strip in California anymore. She is considering occasionally traveling to Las Vegas, where she hopes she can earn more.
Some strippers, including Sunnyvale, California-based April Haze, turned to online work when clubs closed. She made $400 in her first month on the content-sharing site OnlyFans, far less than the over $700 she would make per night stripping at Cheetahs in Sunnyvale.
"At the club, people realize that I'm working, whereas with OnlyFans, a lot of people think, ‘Oh, it's just a side hustle' or ‘I'm doing her a favor by subscribing,'" said Haze, 25, who asked to be identified by her stage name.
Savannah Rain, a 23-year-old stripper, went on paid dates with "sugar daddy" clients and stripped online through Only Fans over the past year, but still ended up draining her savings. The reopening of clubs means she can cover rent again. And returning to live stripping also allowed her to reconnect with part of herself, Rain said.
"I feel like the most whole version of myself when I'm in the club," said Rain, whose stage name is Sage. "It's a safe space for me to express my femininity and my sexuality."
(Reporting by Brittany Hosea-Small in San Francisco. Writing by Alexandra Ulmer. Editing by Donna Bryson and Lisa Shumaker)
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