Emily Carpenter/Thrillist
Entertainment

How Atlanta Strip Clubs Are Surviving in the Age of Social Distancing

The city’s iconic entertainment industry is surviving (for now) with masks, Plexiglass partitions, and more.

Jack Braglia was struggling to figure out how to make adjustments at his strip club. As the longtime vice president and general manager of The Cheetah, he watched other Atlanta businesses open up during the COVID-19 pandemic -- first it was barbershops, salons, and gyms, and then restaurants were allowed to reopen on April 24. But bars and nightclubs were ordered to stay closed until June 1. In the meantime, Braglia dined out a lot, to see how restaurants were handling it and figure out what safety precautions the Cheetah could take. 
 
“While we were closed, I started thinking about some of the guidelines for restaurants -- and that’s pretty much what I used,” says Braglia. “Strip clubs have always been the kind of thing that nobody wants to talk about. We get pushed to the side. We’re not a big topic of conversation. We’re here. We’re part of the city, the fabric of the city. But nobody wants to really discuss it.”
 
Not even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered exact guidelines for strip clubs. Though Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s orders included 39 state requirements for bars and 23 safety mandates for live performance venues, those requirements “have categorized businesses in ways that are not clear,” says Alan Begner, a First Amendment attorney that has represented about two-thirds of the Atlanta area’s strip clubs. “There’s a category for bars, but not nightclubs,” he says. “There’s a category for live performance venues that is unclear. And so it’s not completely clear who fits what definition.” 

So where, exactly, did that leave strip clubs, which have employed more people in Atlanta than Coca-Cola and the Braves combined?  According to a paper from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta’s adult industry brings in $240 million in annual sales has (a greater economic impact than all of its sports teams) and the city ranks fifth in the country for the highest number of strip clubs per 100,000 residents.

“What I do like about the adult club industry is that it tends to be an early adopter of advanced technology,” says Angelina Spencer, manager of the Washington DC-based trade group Association of Club Executives. “They’re not afraid. They know business will have to be done differently, and they want people to be safe. But they also know that they’re under more scrutiny. The joke in this industry is that we’re under more scrutiny than nuclear power.” 

It’s by that same logic that the Cheetah eventually took matters into its own hands. 

Brianna going through proper sanitation procedures before the club opens up. | Carmen Mandato/Thrillist

The Cheetah’s original Atlanta location opened in 1977 at Peachtree and 8th streets and moved a decade later to its current Midtown spot. The gentleman’s club has been a relic from the 1990s when traveling conventioneers, drawn to both full nudity and alcohol, were the telltale sign that the city’s strip scene was one to watch. (An adjacent garage houses limousines that pick up guests from downtown hotels.) The club’s in-house restaurant, Alluvia, opened in 2001.

“The only other times we’ve ever been shut down is if it snowed and people couldn’t get here,” says Kristy Boynton, front door hostess and day shift relief manager, who has worked on and off at the Cheetah since 1997. “But we have opened for ice storms because a lot of us live in the area. So if we can walk here, we will open for people who also live around here and would like to still come eat and have a good time.”

And while COVID-19 did shut down the club on March 12, that didn’t stop the demand. Early on in the pandemic, adult entertainment subscription site OnlyFans saw a 75 percent increase in signups. Perhaps the most infamous of Atlanta strip clubs, Magic City made headlines registering its own profile on “adult live video chat site” LSL, where tips for virtual “lap dances” or role play or chit-chat, even, could be paid through PayPal. 

Dressing room prep in Atlanta. | Carmen Mandato/Thrillist

But it’s hard to replicate the real thing. As a dancer in Clayton and Fulton counties, Brianna* has worked in Birmingham and Miami, but for her, there truly is no place like home. “All the stuff that you hear in songs is true, it’s really true,” she says. “Atlanta strip clubs are just different because, mind you, we get naked here -- completely naked. When you hear a rapper talking about, ‘I just went to so-and-so club and I spent this much,’ they are not lying. They are telling the truth.” 

Back in April, when her home club was closed, she returned to a job she had last Christmas at a Walmart warehouse, to supplement her income from her YouTube channel, Stripper Life of Bre. Her son, who turns 2 in October, “still needs diapers,” she said in a vlog. But she only lasted at that warehouse job for a month. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I still was blessed,” Brianna says. “But every time I was clocked in, I was like, ‘Dang, I can’t wait for the clubs to open back up. I’m at work, just listening to people’s conversations about how they can’t wait for two weeks’ pay to come in. I’m sitting there like, ‘If the club was open, I could have gone to work tonight and made that paycheck in one night.”

"I’m sitting there like, ‘If the club was open, I could have gone to work tonight and made that paycheck in one night.”

That same month, when the Small Business Administration launched its Paycheck Protection Program, the Cheetah applied. Three weeks passed before Braglia realized the club’s bank lost its application -- though, after that application was actually located, the SBA denied it just a few days later, as other strip clubs nationwide have experienced. 

“We were used to being discriminated against,” Braglia says, citing how other clubs even sued the SBA (though we should note that Magic City, Follies, and Goldrush Showbar all received PPP loans). By mid-May, as Governor Kemp continued to delay opening bars and nightclubs, Cheetah management got to work on reconfiguring the club’s layout. 

Plexiglass partitions that were added at the Cheetah. | Courtesy of The Cheetah

They added a Plexiglass partition at the hostess stand to separate Boynton as she greets guests. Inside, management removed bar seating around the Cheetah’s main stages (the club doesn’t feature pole dancing, but runways instead) and unbolted tables from the floor to space them apart. The tables were bolted down for tabletop dances, though again for safety’s sake, entertainers offer tableside dances instead. 

The Cheetah also spent $3,000, staff labor aside, on wooden partitions with Plexiglass windows to separate bar stools into 14 groups of two. Braglia originally wanted the partitions to be made entirely out of Plexiglass. “I just knew that I didn’t want to build solid walls because people would feel too closed in,” he says. However, due to a shortage for the foreseeable future, he had to negotiate with a supplier he typically uses for glass tabletops and dressing room mirrors. “I know we paid a lot more than we should have, but they were the only ones who had it.”

The Cheetah also spent $3,000, staff labor aside, on wooden partitions with Plexiglass windows to separate bar stools into 14 groups of two.

On June 8, the Cheetah reopened. “We had 50 people through the door in the first 45 minutes,” Boynton says. “There were people waiting outside. They were ready to get out, eat some food, see some beautiful women. I think they were just tired of being in the house.”

Brianna saw the same results — what she calls a “money wave.” One Friday and Saturday in July, she walked away with $1,680 and $1,188, respectively, bringing her weekly income before Sunday to nearly $5,000. 

A portrait of Brianna, wearing the same mask she dances in. | Carmen Mandato/Thrillist

Overall, business at the Cheetah is up 25 percent from this time last year. While it’s good news, Boynton says that controlling these crowds during and maintaining social distancing is a huge challenge. One Saturday day shift in mid-July, a full month after Governor Kemp allowed bars and nightclubs following safety guidelines to reopen, Boynton looked out from her post to see a line that ran up the entrance ramp and all the way outside. 

“We had a big party come in,” Boynton says. “There were no seats, plus the kitchen was backed up. So we had to get all those people out of here and clear the tables off before we could let anybody in. That was probably a 30-minute process -- and there were still people waiting.” 

The in-road fights between Governor Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over mask requirements have not helped, either. Begner says both leaders have required employees -- such as dancers -- to wear masks, though they’ve disagreed over whether clubs can enforce customers to do so. On August 15, Governor Kemp finally allowed local mask mandates, though on private properties, they can only be enforced with the owners’ consent. The Association of Club Executives also encourages dancers to do their hair and makeup at home, as they’ve seen clubs provide portable showers if they don’t already have their own to disinfect. 

Bri washes her hands constantly, especially after handling cash. | Carmen Mandato/Thrillist

At her home club, Brianna and the other dancers wear masks. “I can’t breathe in those things,” she says. “I be about to faint. But you have to have a mask on.” Designated staff members wipe down bars and other surfaces. Brianna sprays down the stage after every dance. She washes her hands constantly, especially after handling cash. And in general, she has been reporting to work at 10:30pm, avoiding day shifts altogether where customers tend to be chattier. “I don’t look for a customer that wants me to sit there and talk to him about his whole life,” she says. “I’m looking for the customers who came in there and already got their ones. They drink their drinks, come up to the pole with $500, and leave.” 

But a huge part of the strip club experience, of course, is being in close proximity with dancers. It’s about not being able to take your eyes off the pure spectacle for a second. If dollar bills fluttering to the ground brush up against you, you feel all the more compelled to spend some money yourself. Wearing masks, washing your hands, and checking temperatures at the door are easy rules to enforce. But social distancing is much tougher, in part because there still hasn’t been a manual written for how to have a life in a pandemic. 

“You know to keep six feet from people, but at the end of the day, you’re at a strip club.”

“The clubs in Atlanta, I feel like they try to follow the rules because they want to stay open,” Brianna says. But she figures that’s likely impossible for those same clubs on Friday nights. “You know to keep six feet from people, but at the end of the day, you’re at a strip club. You can’t be six feet away from every single person. I try, because I have a son. Even though I want to make money, I care about going back home.” 

Meanwhile, as U.S. eviction bans expired in 29 states last month, Spencer says that strip clubs nationwide could be in danger, since their owners are most likely renting their buildings from landlords. “Just in the space of a few weeks, we’ve had suicides from people in our industry, whether they’re managers, DJs, or dancers,” she says. “It has to do with the attendant economic impacts. They’re not able to pay bills, they’re not able to make the rent in some cases. Where is the mortgage help?”

As strip clubs await those answers, Braglia reports customers lining up, but they aren’t booking VIP sections, a luxury mostly driven by out-of-town convention business. They are driving from nearby, eating dinner that’s local to them, with the added benefit of entertainment. But, yes, they are happy to spend whatever money they have.

“I see people that come in here that want to feel like things are ok, things are the way they used to be,” Braglia says. “To some extent, other than seeing everyone wearing masks, they can get that feeling in here.” 

How other Atlanta strip clubs are pivoting in the pandemic

Magic City
Downtown
After making waves early in the pandemic for pivoting to virtual performances, Magic City started promoting in-person VIP sections again on June 20. A month later, as reported by Los Angeles Times staff writer Jenny Jarvie, while a sign posted outside says that the club will enforce wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, the trail of stickers spaced six feet apart as a guideline will, in fact, eventually be obscured by the large crowds.  

The Clermont Lounge
Poncey-Highland
Despite early precautions, like turning its dance floor into a seating area to help maintain social distancing, a  staff member tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the Clermont Lounge to close July 7 for staff-wide testing. So upon reopening on July 22, the club’s Instagram has urged customers to wear masks “when ordering, getting table dances, or when just hanging (we know you can’t actively drink with a mask on).” The Clermont Lounge has since made that especially easy for patrons, by selling branded masks complete with a filter pocket. 

Tattletale
Morningside-Lenox Park
Like Pin Ups in Decatur (“Newly remodeled, sterilized continuously”), Tattletale has adopted a new slogan in hopes that’ll be enough to draw back customers. As of August, Tattletale’s answering machine greeting says, “Due to COVID-19, we have a limited capacity. For your safety, we are following all COVID-19 guidelines. Be safe, and come hang out with Atlanta’s hottest COVID-free dancers.”

Oasis Goodtime Emporium
Doraville
This Peachtree Industrial Boulevard landmark abides by best practices established by the Association of Club Executives, since Jill Chambers, creative director for feature shows (like burlesque and acrobatics), is also ACE’s Georgia branch executive director. Expect spaced out tables, free masks offered to customers and staff, and a Plexiglass barrier by the entrance, between customers entering Oasis and security checking IDs. “I think enhanced sanitization procedures and other public spaces are here to stay,” Chambers says.

Swinging Richards
Berkeley Park
This gay, all male strip club kicked off 2020 with Tiffany Haddish (a regular) and Billy Porter (a first-timer) regaling Good Morning America viewers with tales of their visit together. Unfortunately, Haddish’s “favorite place in Atlanta” has, at best, been operating under restricted hours “due to recent health concerns.” Notably, that means being closed on some Friday and Saturday nights, most recently July 31 and August 1.


*Her last name has been removed to protect her identity

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Christina Lee is a contributor for Thrillist.