TAMPA, Fla. (CN) — A drive down one of Tampa’s main thoroughfares on a recent night, past MacDill Airforce Base and Raymond James Stadium, reveals the empty parking lots and darkened neon lights of the city’s most iconic strip clubs.
A month ago, those parking lots would be packed and the neon signs lit and proudly proclaiming “NUDE.” But then came the executive order by Governor Ron DeSantis requiring all bars and clubs closed for 30 days.
“In 25 years, we’ve only closed two days, and that was for hurricanes,” said Don Kleinhans, owner of 2001 Odyssey, a popular strip club known for its spaceship-shaped VIP room. “Locking the doors was pretty tough. I had a tear in my eye.”
The coronavirus pandemic has decimated small businesses across the United States and particularly in tourism-dependent Florida. And perhaps no other industry has been harder hit by social-distancing guidelines than the one that relies on lap dances.
“We’re hearing gloom and doom and trepidation,” said Angelina Spencer, executive director of the Association of Club Executives, a trade association for adult nightclubs. “And it’s not just coming from owners and managers, it’s coming from DJs and dancers as well.”
Spencer said adult nightclubs make up a multibillion-dollar industry employing hundreds of thousands of dancers alone.
“That doesn’t even begin to count the security, the cooks, because a lot of these places have kitchens, the waitstaff, the servers, the bartenders, all the distributors, the restroom attendants, the valet people,” she said. “When you are not in this industry, you don’t think past the stripper.”
Nick Callega has worked as a DJ in bikini bars around the Tampa Bay area for the last seven years. Like many of his co-workers, Callega’s bills – rent, car payments, child support – are piling up.
“All I have is this pack of cigarettes,” Callega, 43, said. “I have no money saved.”
“I’m also taking care of my dad,” he added. “His SSI money only goes so far.”
Callega filed for unemployment, but like 850,000 other jobless Floridians, he’s faced trouble with the state’s antiquated website.
“I could not get on that site for three weeks,” he said.
And he has yet to see any money. On Thursday, the governor confirmed only 4% of Floridians who applied for unemployment benefits during the Covid-19 outbreak have been paid.
Strip clubs have also not seen any benefits from state or federal government stimulus packages. Unlike nearly every other small business affected by the pandemic, adult entertainment establishments appear to be ineligible.
The application for the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the CARES Act passed by Congress, contains a provision disqualifying businesses that present “live performances of a prurient sexual nature.”
Florida disaster relief bridge loan applications contain similar language.
“We went to the website and we were shocked,” said Kleinhans of 2001 Odyssey. “It just really seemed that when the tables were turned, we were left in the cold.”
A spokeswoman for the Small Business Administration said it was unclear on a local level whether the rule will change.
A strip club in Michigan already filed a federal lawsuit over not being able to get coronavirus relief funds and more litigation is coming.
“I’m actually in the process of preparing a complaint right now,” said Luke Lirot, a constitutional law attorney based in Clearwater, Florida.
The Clinton administration inserted the “prurient” provision while revising Small Business Administration rules and regulations in the mid-1990s. But Lirot, who represents several adult nightclubs in the area, argues the disaster relief package does not differentiate between types of businesses and the SBA is unfairly applying the antiquated rule.
“They’ve been assigned a completely different responsibility now,” Lirot said of the SBA. “They are there to deliver disaster relief. It has nothing to do with their prior mission statement.”
The attorney added, “To try and reject my clients for rules that existed before the pandemic is completely unconstitutional.”
Joe Redner, owner of Tampa’s Mons Venus strip club and self-proclaimed inventor of the lap dance, said he applied for aid anyway.
“They don’t define indecent, so how the hell do you know what they mean?” he said. “So I just answered them on the [application] that we don’t put on indecent shows.”
Redner is confident his strip club can weather the pandemic, but he worries about workers across the state.
“People are suffering, they don’t have a job and the government has done everything they can to deny people unemployment assistance,” he says. “It’s bad for the whole country. It’s not just me.”
As the pandemic rages on, adult nightclubs are finding creative ways to deal with closures that could last into May or longer.
Spencer, head of the trade association ACE, said many strip club owners have been distributing care packages to their furloughed employees.
Callega, the DJ, spends weekdays helping to remodel his former employer’s nightclub.
“I’m doing it to keep the days full,” he said. “They buy me lunch.”
He’s hoping to use the down time to create other income streams.
“I had some ideas in the pot, like doing a podcast or doing some YouTube videos,” Callega said.
At 2001 Odyssey, Kleinhaus found a way to keep some of his staff employed. The strip club started a membership structure allowing patrons to log into the club’s website and watch their favorite dancers tease them via livestream.
And yes, you can still tip.
“When I heard about this, I was ecstatic,” said Amy, who has danced at 2001 Odyssey for 10 years. “A chance to make a little money goes a long way.”
The site also lets visitors comment in a chat room or “make it rain.”
The club has instituted social distancing – only a manager, DJ and a half dozen girls are on the premises at one time. It’s a far cry from the 60 dancers on any given Friday night, but for those few dancers continuing their trade, the small amount of work is appreciated by them and former patrons.
“I’ll see screen names and be like, ‘Oh it’s Jim!’ I gave you a dance a couple months ago!” Amy said.
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