“The vibes were just on point” - a view from the front lines as England’s nightclubs reopen
Located in an ex-garage, bathed in the shadow of Strangeways, the White Hotel is a Salford nightclub that has a cult reputation. To mark the relaxation of Coronavirus restrictions across England, an occasion dubbed Freedom Day in the press, the venue hosted a mammoth, non-stop, reopening party which spanned two days and three nights.
“We’d never played the White Hotel before”, Charles Abbott tells me. “It was kind of a big thing. It was our first ‘do’ there. Everyone knows it is the place you want to play, isn’t it?”
Charles, Chabs to his mates, is a founding member of Strange Riddims. Known for their parties and eclectic DJ sets, the collective were founded in 2015 and have since become a staple of the Manchester nightlife scene. Chabs has been involved with Strange Riddims since the very beginning. A freelance writer, he provides copy for the collective, writing their social media posts (an ironic job for a man that does not own a smartphone), and posters. The 26-year-old also occasionally DJs under the alias Deja Reve.
As you would expect, Chabs was in amongst it when nightclubs reopened on Monday 19th July. From Monday to Wednesday, he worked the floor and bar at Salford venue Hidden. Then, on Friday 23rd July, Charles was at The White Hotel for its reopening, an event titled Studio 54 ½ HRS.
“We played from Friday midnight until Saturday 10am, and then I worked a bar shift from 10am till 8pm”, he tells me. An ensemble of Strange Riddims DJs jumped on the decks that night, including Misc Ridd, Hanz, and Rainy Miller, as the collective played The White Hotels smaller room.
Affectionately referred to as a “sweat box” by Charles (“I was like sweating out of my fingers and places I didn’t know it was possible.”), he believes the intimate nature of the room helped people slip quickly back into the clubbing mindset. “People came in from the main room with this sort of angst”, Chabs explains. “Then they would come into this sweat box and be like ‘alright yea, we’re back into it’.”
As we talk over a pint in the beer garden of the Quarter House pub, Manchester, one thing that becomes apparent from mine and Chabs’ conversation is how much that first weekend back meant for the nightlife community. “At first it didn’t register”, he explains. Then I was like ‘oh right I’m back, this is it’, and then slowly it started to sink in, seeing it get busier.”
But beyond the initial euphoria, as clubs across the country reopen and people enjoy their first nights out, tough questions remain about how venues are meant to operate safely and ethically in this Covid-19 landscape.
“I’ve had one member of staff here who has handed his notice in based on trepidations of the club scene reopening”, Melissa Bury tells me. “I completely understand if people want to because it is scary. I’ve stopped reading the news because it is scary. I know there is a silly high case rate.”
Mel, 27, was the assistant general manager at Deaf Institute when restrictions eased. A popular bar and nightclub, housed in a historic Grade II listed building, this venue was nearly an early victim of the pandemic. In July 2020, owners Mission Mars announced that Deaf Institute and sister venue Gorilla would be closing permanently.
What followed was a huge media coverage and campaign to save the venues, which resulted in them being bought by Tokyo industries, with heavy involvement from musician and Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess.
After hosting several socially distanced events, the nightclub properly returned on July 19th for a three-room event called Now Then.
Although now working elsewhere, Mel recounts her experiences of the reopening weekend. “The first club night back, oh my God, it was amazing”, she gushes. “I have never seen … the vibes were just on point. Everyone was friends with everyone, and I am not exaggerating that. There was no trouble all night.”
But despite Deaf Institutes successful return, there was concern and anxiety from Mel about safety and ensuring she has enough staff. “It has been a real challenge because, as a responsible employer and a responsible boss, I want to look after my staff and I want to make sure they are as safe as possible,” she explains. “On the other hand, I have got these events booked in and I need staff for them. The pingdemic, or whatever they are calling it, it doesn’t work for hospitality.”
Deaf Institute have taken steps to try and keep staff and customers safe, Mel tells me. There are hand sanitiser located around the venue, and the air conditioning is cranked all the way up to increase flow. But other measures, such as staff wearing masks, have proven impossible to implement.
“Logistically, it doesn’t work”, Mel explains. “You can’t respond to the customer because, if it’s really loud, you can’t see what I am saying. We’re doing everything we can in a club environment to keep people safe. But at the end of the day, it is a club environment.”
Another measure causing both a logistical and ethical headache for venues is customers providing a negative test or showing proof of their vaccine status before entry.
While some venues, including The White Hotel and Hidden, have been doing this, for Deaf Institute, Mel says it is unviable. “It’s the cost, I’m just looking at it and how slow the queue will be”, she explains. “When people are outside the venue queuing to get in, they are not buying drinks and ultimately that’s how we make out money.”
While not against necessarily against the concept (“it’s complicated, it is so complicated”), Mel does have questions for those venues who are checking. “How on earth are you managing that”, she would ask. “How much more is your security and staffing cost to manage that kind of thing.”
At the moment, it seems the decision as to whether attendees provide a negative test, or their vaccine status, will rest with venues. After announcing in July that vaccine passports would be required for anyone wishing to attend a nightclub or similar large event, the Government have since U-turned on the idea.
“It’s a really difficult topic. I have a lot of opinions on it, but I couldn’t say if I was for or against it”, Mel muses. “I like the idea of personal freedom and people being able to decide what to do with their bodies, I think that is very important. But there is also the idea of social responsibility and people coming together for the greater good.”
At the end of the day though, Mel doesn’t think it is people like her that should be making these decisions. “I feel like this stems from government leadership,” she says. “I’m not a vaccine expert, I run a nightclub. That’s my job. I’ve not done 20 years in the field of medicine and vaccines.”
So as the Freedom Day hangovers slowly subside, and the euphoria fades away, a lot of important questions remain for nightclubs. With Zero Covid strategy a thing of the past, it is clear the virus is here to stay. For an industry that operates out of dark sweaty rooms with no ventilation, finding a way to mitigate risk and operate in an ethical way is paramount.
But with those in government failing to lead, the nightlife community is increasingly being left to look out for, and to protect, themselves. “We’re all testing before we go. Everyone’s heart is in it. No one wants to shut down again”, Chabs articulates. “We’re doing everything we are doing, so I do not feel any guilt going in there and doing what young people should do.”