Maija Ellis, a Toronto stripper, says the strip club closures are discriminatory. Photos submitted and Colin Perkel/the Canadian Press
Stacy had only been back to work at a Toronto-area strip club for a few days in August when she contracted COVID-19.
Stacy, 27, whose real name and workplace are not being used due to concerns over her employment, told VICE News she’s almost certain she got the virus from work, because patrons were “demanding all kinds of contact from me.”
“They’re willing to break all the rules and wanting to take their masks down and wanting me to take my mask down and asking for a closer and closer touch,” she said. “It did just feel like a lot considering we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic and I had to still ask people not to put their mouths on me and lick me.”
Stacy said her club put in a number of measures to mitigate transmission of the virus, such as requiring everyone to wear masks inside, but those rules weren’t always enforced.
She said she was repeatedly pressured by customers to take off her mask during private dances, where she makes most of her money, and that dances were not physically distanced.
While Stacy qualifies for CERB, the federal government’s relief program for unemployed Canadians, and lives with a partner with whom she splits rent, she said the same doesn’t apply to all strippers.
Ontario has ordered all strip clubs to close, after a patron and employee of Toronto’s Brass Rail tested positive and an outbreak at the nearby Club Paradise, where six workers and one customer were diagnosed with the virus. The city found the Brass Rail was not following physical distancing guidelines and that most patrons left fake names or numbers for contact tracing.
Reactions from within the industry have been mixed, though in general, those who spoke to VICE News said strip clubs are being singled out, while nightclubs, bars, and restaurants have remained free of sweeping bans and casinos have been allowed to re-open. Dancers, club owners, and sex worker advocates were also critical of comments made in the media by Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory, which they described as stigmatizing.
When the Brass Rail incident happened, Ford said “I feel sorry for people when they go to their house and tell them that they were at the Brass Rail.”
Tory told CP24, “It’s ironic that small theatres that can’t open for performances yet these places are open for what they offer – and I’m not making a judgment on that I am just commenting on the nonsensical nature of that.” He also questioned, “why do these places have to be open?”
In an email statement, Anna Miller, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-term Care, said “outbreaks in strip clubs have posed challenges as contact tracing logs are often incomplete.”
Lawvin Hadisi, a spokesperson for Tory, said the mayor was “not passing judgement or in any way stigmatizing people.”
Hadisi said Tory’s concern was also related to contract tracing and “the amount of time that public health officials were tied up trying to track down hundreds of people, the vast majority who have provided false contact information.”
In Stacy’s view, as COVID-19 cases in Ontario surge, other nightlife venues should be subject to the same bans as strip clubs. Despite wanting to get back to work, she said her experience has made her worried about re-exposing herself and her family and partner to the virus.
“This is discrimination,” Ellis, 28, said of the closures.
For the most part, she said management and customers have been compliant of the new rules, which have included physically distanced private dances, frequent cleaning, indoor masks, and temperature checks and symptom reporting at the door.
Ellis said she also qualified for CERB but due to the nature of sex work, including cash payments and being self-employed, not all of her colleagues will be able to take advantage of the government relief program, which is soon transitioning to the Employment Insurance program.
“It pushed a lot of women to be working in areas that maybe they wouldn’t have been doing before… cause they took the livelihoods literally out of our pockets,” she said.
Ellis described Tory’s comments as hurtful.
“It’s really not nice to feel the person that is supposed to be supporting all of the citizens of the city and helping us get through this really trying time is marginalizing us,” she said. “Why not have a place open that’s safe and clean for us to go?”
She thinks strip clubs should remain open unless they commit violations, the same approach that’s being used with bars and restaurants right now.
As for contact tracing, she said one solution would be to have patrons register online, the same way one would making a reservation for a restaurant.
Sam Cohen, owner of Guelph, Ontario strip club the Manor, said he’s spent $20,000 renovating his club to ensure physical distancing is taking place, putting up new stages that are six feet away from patrons.
“We just had an inspection last week and everything was fine and then all of a sudden they shut us down,” Cohen said, noting that Guelph hasn’t had the types of spikes in COVID-19 cases seen in the Toronto area. Yesterday, the city reported no new cases.
He said one way to ensure accurate contract tracing would be using IDs to cross-reference the names people are putting down, or even asking them to call a phone as a means of getting their number.
Over the weekend, Toronto shut down three restaurants on the notorious King West strip for various COVID-19-related violations, including serving buffet-style food and pressuring staff to work while ill. The businesses will be allowed to re-open once they are compliant.
“Why are we different than any other kind of bar or nightclub?” Cohen asked. “We’re an easy target.”
Ellie Ade Kur, a board member at sex worker advocacy group Maggie’s Toronto, said it’s “insulting” that the city licenses strip clubs but the mayor is making remarks “wouldn’t be acceptable in any other industry.”
“The city is making money off of these spaces and yet the mayor is publicly making remarks… characterizing them in ways that are riddled with stigma.”
She said the province and municipalities should be consulting with strippers on how best to keep their workplaces clean and safe.
“A lot of them could have poked so many holes into this plan, including the fact that if you leave a binder out for people to write their names and email addresses, you’re not going to get valid contact information.”
Ade Kur said one of the challenges facing strippers is they are considered independent contractors and not employees, and therefore aren’t given the same benefits as employees. She said efforts to unionize are often met with dancers being blacklisted or fired.
Maggie’s raised $130,000 earlier in the pandemic to assist sex workers who were homeless, paid in cash, or otherwise unable to access relief funds. She advised dancers who are currently facing hard times to get in touch with Maggie’s for support.
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Via Vice News