LAKEVIEW — About 100 vaccinated people packed into the crowded dance floor of Scarlet Bar on Halsted Street Saturday to do what they’ve been waiting 15 months to do: dance with friends.
It was only the second weekend since Scarlet, 3320 N. Halsted St., started accepting customers — who must be vaccinated — and reopened its dance floor. For many people, it was their first time going clubbing in the 15 months since the coronavirus pandemic began.
People celebrated missed birthdays and danced to music like Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica” and Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia,” which were released when bars were closed or not allowed to permit dancing. And everybody had a smile — which could be seen because masks are no longer required indoors for vaccinated people.
“The energy has been amazing. It feels like Pride again,” said AJ Miranda, general manager of Scarlet, a smaller club along the Northalsted strip — formerly called Boystown — known for its dancing.
Scarlet, along with a few other Northalsted bars like Sidetrack and Hydrate, reopened its dance floor the weekend of May 21 after city officials announced fully vaccinated people are no longer required to wear masks in most settings.
This allowed for bars to return to their pre-pandemic operations as long as they checked patrons’ vaccination cards — or a photo of the cards — at the door while checking IDs.
Sidetrack eased into the changes by operating the next week with separate sections for vaccinated and unvaccinated patrons, said general manager Brad Balof. Hydrate completely reopened its dance floor by only allowing fully vaccinated people into the bar.
Miranda said Scarlet didn’t originally plan on reopening its dance floor yet, but the bar pivoted on May 21 after its customers were itching to get out of their seats and dance.
“People came out on Friday and they were ready,” Miranda said. “We tried to do sit-down service, but every five seconds we were arguing with people reminding them to be seated. It was worse than we ever experienced.”
Bar staff surveyed everyone inside Scarlet and found only two patrons weren’t fully vaccinated or didn’t have their cards. When those two customers left about 10 p.m., Scarlet’s dance floor reopened for the first time since March 2020.
“When I finally said we were able to dance, it was just insane,” Miranda said. “Everyone was ecstatic, including myself. The sales were crazy. People were just ready to go.”
Since then, Scarlet has brought back its weekly parties, like “Frat Night” and “No Skips,” where the bar plays a popular album without skipping any songs.
“Our first official ‘Frat Night’ was insane. We did a rewind and celebrated all the new music we didn’t get to dance to in 2020–2021, so it was all songs you loved listening to but couldn’t dance to yet,” Miranda said.
The bar’s first “No Skips” party, which centered on Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica,” was so popular the bar played two more Gaga albums after making it through the first one, Miranda said.
“We finished ‘Chromatica’ and people were still going crazy for Gaga,” Miranda said. “So then we did ‘Born This Way’ front to back and then everyone was screaming for ‘ARTPOP.’ It was great.”
Balof said the return to normalcy within Northalsted’s LGBTQ bars has felt “magical.”
“I cannot describe how extraordinary it feels,” Balof said, holding back tears. “It makes you realize how much we’ve had to get through just to get to this point.”
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the bar and restaurant industries with 15 months of closures, capacity limits and indoor dining bans, which have forced bars like Sidetrack and Scarlet to regularly pivot their operations.
At Sidetrack, that meant months of being closed before later reopening with a food license and pizzas so it could serve customers indoors; training its staff, who are used to bartending, how to be cocktail waiters and do table service; and tenting the bar’s front patio so it could continue outdoor service in the winter.
“The staff of Sidetrack has been amazing with how they’ve rolled with the punches through all of this and pivoted at the drop of a dime whenever regulations changed or updated,” Balof said. “I’m very proud of them.”
Miranda said dance floors reopening along Northalsted represent a turning point in the area’s recovery from the pandemic.
“It’s a sigh of relief but also a breath of fresh air,” Miranda said. “For us to be able to dance again signifies that we’ve pushed through and made it after working so hard to get to this point.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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