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Nightlife After Coronavirus: People's Livelihoods, Reopening And Public Health Concerns

nighttime economy manager
Caitie Switalski
Sarah Hannah-Spurlock, Fort Lauderdale Nighttime Economy Manager, stopped by the Himmarshee Entertainment District to observe at bars March 22, 2019.

South Florida's economy leans heavily on the hospitality industry: bars, restaurants, live music venues, clubs — all of the businesses that make up a nightlife scene. 


Of all the jobs lost in Florida during this pandemic, the leisure hospitality industry has lost the most this year, according to the June report from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. 

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As the pandemic continues to surge and threaten hospital capacity in Broward County, people working in nightlife are scared to go back to work, and scared not to go back.

Fort Lauderdale is one of the seven cities in the U.S. that has a nighttime economy manager, someone whose job is to make going out better by overseeing safety, community needs and business needs for all things after 5 o'clock and on the weekends. 

In Fort Lauderdale, that's Sarah Hannah-Spurlock. WLRN spoke with her about the hardships for the economy after dark that she's seeing venue owners and workers experience. 

Hannah-Spurlock says, it's been "heartbreaking" to try to help these businesses in Fort Lauderdale. However, federal help could soon be on the way, at least for live music venues. The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) is advocating for the Save Our Stages Act in Congress, which would provide six months of grant funding to keep venues afloat until they can reopen succesfully. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

WLRN: Knowing what we know now about how easily the coronavirus is spread, what's been happening behind the scenes with Fort Lauderdale's nighttime economy? What problems are people coming to you with?  


HANNAH-SPURLOCK: The quiet minority I'll call them, the folks that have not been able to open yet at all — I am not hearing as much from them as I had hoped. There's a lot of hopelessness, despair. And I have a feeling that a lot of them are just not going to make it.


So many people have lost their livelihoods. How do you, as the nighttime economy manager, balance those concerns and the needs of workers with the serious concern about a public health crisis? Because they seem at odds with each other.  


Oh, they're completely at odds.


No one seems to know how to strike that balance when 100 percent of your livelihood is dependent on a social, cultural aspect of our lives. There is no way to get around that.


The best I can advocate for is additional funding and financial assistance for these establishments and these venues until such time, we can get them to a place where they're able to open.   


Do workers feel safe?  


...That's a tough question. I think there's definitely concern. I mean, I'm concerned for them. When I go into a restaurant and I sit at the table and I'm allowed to take off my mask, putting them at risk. So, yeah, I think there's definitely a fear from the workers.  


Because of what we know now, that people should avoid big crowds, wear masks and practice social distancing and not spend a lot of time with people that they don't live with, what do you think the future of a safe nightlife can look like? 


I'm on some chat groups around the world, around the country. There's talk about on the dance floor, actually having the spots marked on where you stand when you dance. And that sounds ridiculous but, you know, how else are you going to do it?


I read an article in Time magazine about some sort of protective outfit that you put on when you enter the nightclub so that you're able to get close to other people to talk and have fun without the possibility of infecting each other. Honestly, we don't know how else it would happen if we don't do something crazy.


Otherwise, we've got a year, year and a half, however long it takes to get everybody vaccinated before we're able to enjoy a real nightlife again.  


Read More: Meet The Woman Managaing Fort Lauderdale's Economy After Dark


What about this false sense of security that we're definitely seeing? People are still going out and spending time together in ways that we know are likely to spread the virus.  


Yeah, I don't get it. Perhaps no one close to them has gotten sick.  


I know that it doesn't only apply to nightlife, but what is this city's responsibility in this? 


That has been what keeps me up at night. I am struggling to find ways to help these businesses succeed. And finding that balance is almost impossible.


At this point in the game, and I'd probably given you a different answer three weeks ago, but at this point in the game, we need to get the numbers down.


Because if we don't get the numbers down, we'll never be able to fully reopen. 


It's a logistical and an emotional issue. 


Oh, my God. It's heartbreaking every day because you want them to be able to survive, because that's what makes an urban city a destination is the cultural aspect, the creative aspect, the social aspect — and all of that happens at night.


I hope, at the very least, that this shows our community and this shows our state, and this shows our country just how important the hospitality and the nightlife industry is to the character of our communities.

Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.
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