On a recent Saturday night, Goldie, an exotic dancer at a club in west Houston, searched a showroom for lonely men with cash to burn.
Like many veteran dancers, experience has made the charming 25-year-old a keen observer of human behavior, someone who notices everything from customers’ clothes, facial hair, and mannerisms to how much they tip the bartender, who they came with, and how drunk they are.
But on this night, as she peered through the flicker of brightly colored strobe lights, Goldie was not just looking for big spenders—she was looking for big spenders with high-functioning respiratory systems.
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“If I see you coughing or sneezing or it looks like you have respiratory problems, there’s no way I’m coming over to you,” she said. “Some of the dancers might play it off and pretend they’re not worried about coronavirus, but everyone is worried.”
“As a dancer, you’re putting your body at risk to make money,” she added, “and a lot of the girls have kids at home.”
There are good reasons for women like Goldie—who can spend hours each day closely talking to and being touched by strangers—to be on edge now, according to experts.
This weekend, major cities across the country began to shut down nightlife, forcing business owners to shutter restaurants, bars, and clubs entirely or restrict their hours of operation. The sweeping changes arrived as the White House began urging the public to suspend gatherings of more than ten people for the next fifteen days, a last ditch effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 using a drastic and largely unprecedented policy: “social distancing.”
By essentially blacklisting any activity that requires human-to-human contact, social distancing policies are already affecting small businesses and harming service workers—waiters, yogis, hairdressers—who often rely on tips to earn a living. But in Houston—where most businesses remain open and strip club parking lots were full of cars this weekend—you wouldn’t necessarily know it.
The greater Houston area already has twenty-five confirmed cases of COVID-19 and, last week, mayor Sylvester Turner placed the city under an emergency health declaration. Schools are closing, major events are being shut down, and local health officials are warning the public to avoid crowds and maintain safe distance from strangers. But, among service industry workers, there is perhaps no still sanctioned activity more fraught with risk than stripping, which involves close physical contact with dozens of different people a night.
Clubs in other major cities, like New York and Las Vegas, are beginning to publicize their precautions. But in the Houston area, health officials have downplayed the notion that adult clubs present a public hazard during a pandemic.
Reached by email last week, Scott Packard, a spokesman for the Houston Health Department, said he couldn’t say “for certain” that the agency’s guidance had “trickled down to adult entertainment establishments.” But, he added, “there is no reason to believe the risk of COVID-19 transmission is high at any Houston businesses.”
A sprawling, industrial metropolis Houston, by some counts, is home to more strip clubs than anywhere in the nation, a feature of the city’s nightlife that lures tourists from across the globe. But anyone who’s visited Houston’s strip clubs knows they’re not ordinary businesses—they’re destinations. Many clubs are office-building-size complexes that employ hundreds of dancers. With the second largest petrochemical complex in the world and a port with the largest amount of foreign waterborne tonnage in the United States, the city is home to a massive foreign and domestic workforce that provides adult nightclubs with an endless stream of customers.
Fort Bend County and Harris County health officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The international pull is just one reason that dancers say they know they’re at risk. It’s not uncommon, they say, for a single woman to perform dozens of dances each night, coming into close physical contact with each customer they encounter. The same women will often handle hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in cash at a time when some governments are burning banknotes to stop the spread of the coronavirus and Harris County toll roads have stopped accepting cash.
The virus may enter the body through the mouth and nose, experts say, but another vehicle of transmission is typically the hands, which are rarely idle when dancers and customers interact. People in confined gatherings indoors are especially at risk, according to Dr. Shelley Payne, a professor of molecular biosciences and the interim director of UT–Austin’s LaMontagne Center for Infectious Disease.
“The closer the contact the higher the risk,” explained Payne. “Very close contact, or even close breathing, presents a risk because this is a respiratory pathogen. When people talk, small droplets containing the virus are emitted into the environment. If you’re in very close physical contact you’re going to breathe them in or get those particles on your hands and spread them to your face.”
“In that kind of environment,” Payne added, referring to clubs with lots of physical interaction, “it’s going to be very difficult to prevent transmission if the virus is present.”
At five different clubs across Houston, dancers—many of whom said they were closely following news reports—said their managers had offered little guidance and taken almost no preventive measures. At each club, dancers like Goldie said they’d begun carrying Lysol and keychain-size vials of hand sanitizer in their purses, which they’d begun to apply multiple times each night. Fully aware that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, most dancers said they felt helpless to avoid it.
“I just gave that guy over there a dance and he told me he just came here from Turkey,” Ariel, a 23-year-old dancer at Treasures, said, pointing to a tall, middle-aged man at the bar. “A lot of the guys come here from abroad. I’ve been following the news and I’m really nervous.”
The man at the bar didn’t look ill, but that doesn’t reveal much, according to Payne.
“The concern is you have people coming in from international areas where the virus is more prevalent than it currently is in Texas,” she said. “The difficult part is that they may be in the stage where they’re not yet showing symptoms, but already producing the virus and spreading it without knowing.”
At the same club, a bathroom attendant who introduced himself as “Larry” said that for the past week he’d noticed clubgoers washing their hands with much more regularity.
“Guys normally run in and run out, but now they’re taking their time,” he said. “That’s how you know this is some serious stuff because that’s never happened before.”
Reached by phone, a club manager who was asked about dancers’ health and safety declined to comment.
Washing hands is a great start, but it doesn’t mean dancers should let their guard down, according to Melissa Sontag Broudo, the codirector of the SOAR Institute, an organization that advocates for the safety and rights of sex workers. Broudo said she wasn’t surprised that dancers were taking precautions to avoid COVID-19, nor was she surprised that clubs weren’t providing dancers with guidance.
Historically, Broudo said, sex workers have taken health and safety into their own hands. Clubs are frequently unclean and dancers are typically upcharged for anything they use in the establishment, including soap. Dancers who speak up or demand healthier working conditions can often expect to be fired.
“For these types of clubs, it’s not health and safety or workers that are put first—it’s profit,” she said. “This is a high turnover business and dancers are not normally employees. Of course there are exceptions, but managers and club promoters and folks in the industry see dancers as relatively disposable.”
“If the women feel unsafe because of a viral infection,” she added, “it’s likely they’re also too afraid to say something to management.”
Goldie—who holds three jobs and wants to go to law school—counts herself among those dancers who know their working conditions are unsafe with the coronavirus spreading, but remain too scared to talk to their manager. She needs the money to pay off hefty student loans. But if she could quit tomorrow, she said, her tired eyes brightening, bringing a swift end to the misogynistic comments and crude propositions whispered in her ear during each shift, she wouldn’t hesitate.
Goldie said she’s learned to manage the emotional toll of stripping—it’s the physical one she’s concerned about now.
In recent weeks, she said, late-night hours and demanding dances that she compared to a “full body workout” have harmed her sleep schedule and weakened her immune system.
She’s begun drinking Emergen-C packets and trying to eat more fruit between shifts, but she knows that even a perfect immune system is no match for a club full of the virus.
“They need to do a deep clean, like at a restaurant, every week, even if they have to take a whole day off,” she said, referring to her club’s management. “Those chairs and that stage is filthy!”
“But at the end of the day I’m at the mercy of the club owner,” she added, with a sigh. “They know I need the money.”