Maskless and sweaty: Clubbing returns to Britain for a weekend

By Alex Marshall

Around 3,000 clubbers were rammed up against each other inside a Liverpool warehouse Friday night, waving their hands in the air to pounding techno music.

Some young women in bikini tops were dancing together, passing around half-full bottles of rosé, while next to them a middle-aged man was dancing so hard a huge sweat patch had formed across his back.

All of them were beaming — their smiles were clearly visible, since no one was wearing a face mask, let alone social distancing.

“This is the first dance,” Nick Evans, a 28-year-old legal adviser, shouted above the music. “And it could be the last dance, so I’m going to enjoy it,” he added before sashaying back into the crowd.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Britain last March, nightclubs have remained closed.

Whereas theaters and museums have been allowed to reopen (with caveats) when infection levels were low, the idea of people dancing up close to each other in a sweaty club has been seen as too much of a risk.

If you wanted to go dancing here, you had to go to illegal raves. (Last summer, thousands of people did just that, causing a headache for police and lawmakers in Britain.)

But that situation may soon change. In February, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that because of the country’s vaccine rollout, he hoped to remove all restrictions on social life in England on June 21. That would include allowing clubs to reopen, based on recent trials of events in Liverpool.

The Liverpool club night — a second event was held in the same venue Saturday — was the first of those trials, and an attempt to see how reopening might work in practice. Other trial events in the city have included a pop concert for 5,000 fans in a circus tent and a business conference.

Some academics had criticized the nights as “human guinea pig trials,” but Iain Buchan of the University of Liverpool, the scientist leading the trials, insisted COVID-19 rates in Britain were so low that the chances of an outbreak were slim.

There were 69 cases reported in Liverpool in the week running up to the event, according to official figures. “The risk of encountering someone positive in there might be 1 in 5,000,” Buchan said.

To get in, local clubbers had to take a lateral flow test for COVID-19 at one of four official testing centers in Liverpool, then upload the result to a website so it linked to their ticket. When they arrived at the warehouse, their results were checked, but once they passed security, the partyers were free to act as if the pandemic had never happened.

There were no requirements to wear a mask, socially distance or even use hand sanitizer.

“It feels like COVID never happened in here,” said Aidan Crisp, 20, a student, adding that it was especially strange — and a relief — not to be wearing a mask after a year of doing so.

“I did worry before coming as I’m a bit older,” said Adele Schofield, 50, a lawyer. “I was, like, ‘What if I get COVID? What if I get long COVID?’” But her desire to dance won out, she said. “Just walking in, I almost cried,” she added. “To see people dancing at the front, hands in the air, it was like being normal again,” she said.

Alice Mitchell, 20, said the only thing she had been surprised by was a ban on bringing in hand sanitizer. A security guard had made her throw a bottle away, she said, in case she had been trying to sneak in alcohol. “Other than that, I’m having an amazing time,” she said, adding she was sticking to the edge of the dance floor to keep as safe as possible.

“This is down and dirty public health research,” Buchan said at the event. When arranging the trial, his team had quickly decided there was little point asking people to wear masks or stay in bubbles.

The trial was more about working out what measures could be used to allow clubs to reopen. That included seeing if people were happy to be tested beforehand and link that with tickets, monitoring people’s movements inside and using sensors to check carbon dioxide levels and ventilation.

In March, Dutch researchers ran a similar trial involving 1,300 partygoers in the Netherlands. “They found the masks lasted five minutes,” Buchan said. “People just threw them off,” he added.

After doing a host of interviews, Buchan — wearing a suit and tie — walked into the club to see what was actually going on. “I feel incredibly old,” Buchan, 54, said, looking at the smiling dancers, “but I’m just really happy to see people enjoying themselves.”

If Britain’s clubs do reopen in June, they may be an anomaly in Western Europe. In Berlin, venues are expecting to operate outdoors this summer, and dancers are being asked to wear face masks, Lutz Leichsenring, a spokesman for the city’s Club Commission, said in a telephone interview.

On April 29, President Emmanuel Macron of France said he hoped to remove most restrictions in the country on June 30, but nightclubs would remain shut.

Many DJs said they wanted clubs to reopen soon as possible, and not just for the sake of their work. Clubbing wasn’t just about music, said Marea Stamper, a DJ better known as the Blessed Madonna, after performing a set at the Liverpool event. “We come to raves to dance, to drink, to fall in love, to meet our friends,” she said. Nightclubs create communities, she added, “and to have that cut off is dreadful.”

“It’s not just a party,” she added. “It’s never just a party.”

In Liverpool, that sense of community was evident at 7:30 p.m. when Yousef Zahar, a DJ and co-owner of Circus, the event’s organizer, took to the stage. For his first track, he put on an emotional house tune called “When We Were Free,” which he had made last year in the middle of Britain’s third lockdown.

It seemed an odd choice for an event celebrating clubbing’s return, but as it was finishing, he started to play a sample of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last,” King said, his voice booming around the warehouse.

Then, as green lights flashed over the crowd, Zahar dropped Ultra Naté’s “Free,” a ’90s dance hit. As soon as it reached its euphoric chorus — “You’re free, to do what you want to do” — confetti cannons went off, spraying paper all over the crowd, and the ravers began to sing along. For the rest of the night they were going to follow the song’s advice.

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