Sin City New York nightlife never stopped. It just moved underground.
It’s 2 a.m., or, per the guy sitting next to me, “the hour where nothing is awkward,” on a Friday night less than two weeks before the presidential election and three weeks before COVID-19 positivity rates would creep back toward 3 percent in New York, prompting a series of new lockdown measures — a night and moment that, in retrospect, would be the twilight of New York’s pandemic reprieve. On the teeny back patio of a vacant industrial warehouse on the border of Bushwick and Williamsburg, at a covert party named, fittingly, “Dirty Dark Underground,” I can find only one person out of a couple dozen revelers who appears to even own a mask, though his is currently dangling under his chin. If you happened to wander into this party, lured from the street by the muffled sound of electronic dance music bumping off the walls of the 2,000-square-foot space, you might have thought it was 2019 again, when the bottom halves of our faces were left unadorned by swaths of fabric and sharing something you smoke, something you drink, or someone you sleep with didn’t put your life in danger.
“What are you smoking? Want to switch?” says a woman in leopard-print tights, grabbing my cigarette and offering her e-something in return, which I politely decline. “What is this?” she asks incredulously, though it’s just a Marlboro. A few puffs later, she offers it back to me. “Oh no! Please! Do keep it,” I tell her, and she seems to take it as a sign of generosity, rather than a desire to avoid exchanging saliva with a complete stranger in the middle of a global pandemic.
Partying in New York never really stopped. Even in April, as the virus swept through the city at a ferocious pace, stories circulated about secret events organized through Instagram DMs and held in private lofts, shuttered clubs, and emptied warehouses. On April 20, the NYPD busted a party of 38 people celebrating the holiday with a smoke at 4:20 p.m. on West 23rd Street. By that time, the virus was infecting 3,000 city residents a day, and the death toll had exceeded 10,000. Through executive order, Governor Cuomo had shut down all nonessential businesses and gatherings regardless of size.
By late July, when positivity rates lingered around 1.5 percent and the orders were eased to allow gatherings of up to 50 people, the underground party scene was as rich and varied as the aboveground one used to be. There were boat parties, pool parties, karaoke parties, sex parties, silent-disco parties, park parties, house parties, warehouse parties, and roof parties. There were Meatpacking table-service affairs that required shelling out a few grand for a couple of seats and hotel parties in Long Island City that mandated a dubious COVID test for entry.
The urge to party isn’t class-specific. For every good bottle of Champagne consumed on a Manhattan rooftop, there was a handle of Taaka vodka being passed around a circle somewhere. This illicit summer saw a Bushwick brownstone that threw enough parties to be declared the “Illmore,” along with crowded outdoor park events that took place in the light of day. In their most flagrant pandemic-defying jubilance, party organizers have staged warehouse ragers, spreading the word via Instagram about indoor and outdoor all-night events with rotating DJs and unlicensed bars. In July and August, a small park under the Kosciuszko Bridge became infamous for its giant parties, one of which was billed as a Black Lives Matter fund-raiser, according to Gothamist.
One weekend in October, I found myself at a different warehouse in Bushwick, near a gay bar that allowed indoor dancing if you didn’t leave after last call. In a crowded backyard, people danced as the organizers sold pre-rolled joints (“No one licked it. It’s corona. We get it, we get it”), hosted a twerking contest, and raffled off edibles. An Afroed emcee declared to the crowd, “I just want to remind everyone this is a 420 space,” and, soon after, “We all exist on a spectrum.”
Those who chose to flout the restrictions replaced the official guidelines with their own, based on some mixture of fear, selfishness, proclivity for danger, and digestion of scientific fact. Some adhered to frequent testing regimens or kept their partying outdoors; others relied on gut instinct to determine what was safe. And still others had strict boundaries, only to abandon them as the night wore on.
Not every COVID party skirted the rules: There have been plenty of perfectly legal places to spend your weekends (much to the rage of public-school parents whose children were just forced to go fully remote), like the gay bar, the straight bar, and the Latin restaurant I recently passed in the span of two blocks whose unmasked guests were spilling onto the sidewalk. According to a Washington Post analysis, the reopening of bars, on average, leads to a doubling of COVID cases in three weeks. Like the outdoor park hangs, bars aren’t perceived as real parties, even when they too involve unmasked dancing and boozed-up bodies crowded together. The pandemic party’s definition has been flexible, depending on your own personal COVID boundaries and how judgmental (or jealous) you are of those who flout the rules.
In October, 28 people faced charges after two warehouses were shut down for hosting costumed Halloween raves, one with 400 people in Brooklyn and the other with 550 in the Bronx. After that weekend, the New York Times wrote, “It was not clear if organizers failed to understand or simply ignored the dangers of large indoor gatherings.” But by “Joechella,” when New Yorkers dropped their chaste Saturday plans to celebrate the election results, few in the city could say they hadn’t at least dabbled in some risky socializing.(THE CUT)