TAMPA, Fla. — “I was just dancing and I leaned over, and all of a sudden I feel a lick,” said Nikki with a disgusted look on her face as she wiped her butt cheek with alcohol. Nikki is a stripper at the Penthouse Club in Tampa, Florida, and that September night, the club was packed with football fans celebrating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ victory against the Dallas Cowboys, despite the state being, at the time, in the midst of its worst wave of COVID yet.
When Nikki worked, she always made sure to clean the pole carefully before performing and sanitized her hands constantly, but there was nothing she could do to prevent the occasional unwanted contact from clients. Working in the service industry during a pandemic is scary enough, but intimacy, feigned or not, is a key part of the job for strippers.
“This is our 9-to-5,” Marley, another stripper at Penthouse, told me. “It’s not that I necessarily feel safe or comfortable allowing people to be in range. This is how we make a living.”
Tampa is famous for its strip clubs, with residents often liking to brag that it’s the strip club capital of the world (however, the claim has been proven to be false). Though all strip clubs and other nonessential establishments closed in March 2020 for a three-month shutdown, the strip club industry has since benefited from the state’s lax COVID rules. (Throughout this piece, HuffPost used stage names to protect strippers’ privacy.)
In May 2021, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) issued an executive order invalidating all existing local COVID restrictions. He’s even credited the lack of restrictions as a crucial part of the recovery of the tourism industry.
“While other states were closed, VISIT FLORIDA invited travelers from all over the country to experience the magic and freedom of a Florida vacation,” boasted the state’s tourism body in October.
But that freedom may have come at a cost. In late October, Florida finally emerged from its deadliest wave of COVID so far, during which it logged more infections, hospitalizations and deaths over the summer than at any point since the pandemic began. In August, it reached 25,000 average daily cases and 445 average daily deaths, giving the state the country’s highest death rate during the nationwide spike driven by the delta variant. More than 50,000 people in Florida have died from the virus in total.
Despite these disturbing statistics, DeSantis issued an executive order in July banning mask mandates in schools and threatened to fine cities and counties for imposing vaccine mandates. In a press conference in September, DeSantis said people’s decision to get vaccinated “doesn’t impact me or anyone else,” though the state’s inadequate vaccination rates, at 58.2%, in conjunction with the contagious delta variant, have been blamed for the deadly surge.
The world-famous Mons Venus strip club in Tampa.
Penthouse in Tampa on a busy night in September 2021.
As other states’ strip clubs stayed shut, strippers flocked to the Sunshine State to be able to keep working.
“We had lots of entertainers move temporarily to Florida because that was the only place they could continue to make money,” said Caroline Kirkendoll, the president of Penthouse Global Licensing, which licenses the Penthouse brand to strip clubs around the world. “There was almost a surplus of employees.”
Penthouse dancer Johanna had flown in from New Orleans just a few days before I spoke to her. She was accustomed to wearing masks in New Orleans, and she said it was “a bit weird to not wear masks” inside the club. “I’ve got mine but then I realized no one was wearing it,” she said.
Stephanie, another dancer, told me she didn’t wear masks because “I always felt like I’d be judged for believing COVID was a real thing.”
“It felt like it would make me less money for wearing a mask,” she said.
As long as the vast majority of patrons and colleagues weren’t wearing masks, strippers who might have preferred to wear them felt pressured to go maskless.
Joe Redner, “Tampa’s Strip Club King” and the self-proclaimed “father of the nude lap dance,” founded Mons Venus, the city’s most iconic strip club, almost 40 years ago. He felt like his hands were tied as a business owner. Unless the government itself imposes mask policies or vaccine mandates, he believes that his clients and dancers would flock to other strip clubs if he tried to make either mandatory. “It needs to be a level playing field,” he said.
Now in his 80s, Redner has battled the city council’s attempts to regulate the strip club industry, taken his case on growing his own weed to the Florida Supreme Court and run for mayor. But he told me there’s one thing he’s not proud of: not firing any of his workers for refusing to get vaccinated.
“I don’t feel safe in my own club,” he told me. “I don’t understand why it doesn’t bother people here. Don’t they read the news?”
In the strip club industry, dancers are independent workers who work for tips. While Mons Venus’ dancers come and go as they please, some clubs, like Penthouse, charge strippers a “house fee” to be able to perform. Kirkendoll said Penthouse had tried to incentivize dancers to get vaccinated by offering to waive house fees for two weeks.
But most of the strippers I spoke to didn’t see the point in getting vaccinated. Some felt like they were young and healthy and therefore didn’t need it.
“I don’t get the flu shot so I won’t get the COVID shot,” said Luna, a Penthouse stripper. “The second I get sick, I juice, I go to the gym.”
Others felt like the vaccine wasn’t proven to be safe enough. “Until it’s something we have solid proof on, I’m not doing it,” said Penthouse dancer Marley. “It’s not that I want to harm anyone, but if anyone feels they’re at risk or have underlying issues, then you should probably not be here.”
Despite the state’s lack of measures and the strip club industry’s generally freewheeling culture, a few strippers stood out for insisting on protecting themselves the best they could. Mons Venus stripper Bella is a cancer survivor. At the beginning of the pandemic, she wore not only a mask but also goggles. Now that she’s vaccinated, she still wears a mask while performing.
“It sometimes feels awkward,” she said. “People laugh at me for wearing a mask, especially the younger kids who see things as a joke and say, ‘I’m not going to throw money at you because you have that mask on.’” But with two young children at home and a 98-year-old grandmother to think about, she feels it’s worth forgoing a little income: “Just for money? Money can’t buy happiness.”
Nyx, a stripper at Déjà Vu, another Tampa club, also dances with a mask on and is fully vaccinated. She never takes her mask off, even when patrons ask her to. When they get in her face, she tries to turn the other way. And when she takes them back to a private booth for a lap dance, she makes them sanitize their hands. “With anything, you have to weigh out the risks and benefits,” she explained. “As for my livelihood, this is crucial for me.”
When the pandemic hit, Bree took a whole year off as she was too worried about getting COVID to work: “I ate through all my savings at the time.”
Nyx, who keeps her mask on while performing at Déjà Vu, says she is doing everything she can to protect herself while she makes a living dancing.
Love, another dancer at Déjà Vu, had stopped dancing and moved to webcam work until she got vaccinated. She’s now returned to the stage, opting for Déjà Vu because the spacious venue seemed better ventilated than others. “It’s still scary,” she said. “I’m going to get the booster.”
Marcos Figueroa, the general manager at Déjà Vu, said he’s trying everything he can to keep the club safe for everyone. “We don’t want to get a bad rap, we already got one because of the business we’re in,” he said. The club has even made its own bottles of alcohol spray, called “Cooty Killer.” “We want to show that we are really trying to look out for everyone.”
Despite the risks posed by the pandemic, clients seemed eager to return to the city’s strip clubs. Figueroa says the club is making at least as much money, if not more, than it was prior the statewide shutdown that began in March 2020: “They have nowhere to go, they have no vices, and they know we provide a quality show.”
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