The recent near-vertical growth of COVID cases in King County has scattered Seattle's nightlife, while the state has done practically nothing to advise on what to do this New Year's Eve. (The state health department had only one line on how to stay safe during NYE celebrations in today's news release: "People should consider avoiding large crowds, and anyone who tests positive should stay home.") So, musicians, promoters, drag and burlesque performers, bookers, and venues have had to become their own quasi-public health departments to determine what's safe and what's not. To mixed results.
Many nightlife workers rely on a packed house to get paid, which only increases the risk of COVID exposure. Because of the omicron strain's contagiousness and ability to cause breakthrough infections, some venues and artists have canceled or postponed New Year's Eve events on short notice. Others, faced with losing their primary source of income, have pushed forward. There's hope that vaccination checks, masks, and antibodies are enough to keep them relatively safe during these omicron times.
We spoke with several nightlife workers to get their perspectives on canceling New Year's Eve events. What emerged is a complex look into what it's like to work in nightlife during a rudderless end-of-year pandemic response.
We pruned these responses for space and clarity.
What led to you canceling or keeping your show? Was it performer or venue driven?
Cookie Couture (drag queen; MCing Pony's NYE, not canceled): For me, COVID is here to stay and all I can do is weigh the risks day by day and make appropriate decisions for me. Pony does vaxx checks and they ask folks to mask up inside (which I’ve heard is becoming more strict). I actually got it last week despite being vaccinated and rarely leaving the house, and haven’t left the house at all since then (I’m past my isolation period and just got a negative test back).
Skyler Locatelli (co-founder of Freakout Records; programmed Freakout NYE at The Crocodile, canceled): We made the tough call as the Promoter of the event to cancel, due to many factors, Covid/Omicron at the forefront though... The Crocodile was also on board with this decision so it was more mutual than one or the other's decision. What is really tough is this wasn't just a one or two band bill type of show and some of our performers would have still played. We had 9 bands, a DJ collective and a touring light show; all and all that's around 50 individuals/artists (many from out of state traveling in). Now none of these artists are getting paid and that makes us feel like shit.
Tomo Nakayama (musician; slated to play New Year's Day show at Tractor Tavern, canceled): We were holding out hope of making this show happen but after seeing a few of our family members and friends in our circles these past couple weeks test positive despite being vaccinated and boosted, it became clear that the most responsible thing to do is to postpone it to a later date. The snow was just kind of extra confirmation that we did the right thing.
Betty Wetter (drag queen): I have canceled Tush (Dec 30), The Tush Pageant (Jan 13), and am thinking we will not have Tush in January either. I have also stopped my weekly trivia night at Solo Bar. I am fortunate to be close with the venue owners and actually reached out to Jodi at Clockout to help me come to the final decision. We ultimately decided that patience and precaution were most important.
Wesley Fruge (co-founder and exec. dir. of Beauty Boiz; programmed Supernova's NYE party, not canceled): From the BeautyBoiz perspective, we really think about our local queer talent, many of whom rely on us and Supernova to sustain their monthly incomes. One of the reasons we partner so well with Supernova is we share a similar artist-first approach, prioritizing paying local, POC and queer talent.
To cancel one of the biggest nights of the year without government guidance to do so means these performers and DJs will not get paid and this creates ripple effects throughout the community. We are also in contact with all of the performers on their comfort level and giving people the night off who feel that is the best option for them. I think we need to rethink "gig labor" at the policy level, but that starts getting into health insurance, guaranteed income, and so many other issues it makes my head spin...
Cody Choi of SuperCoze (slated to play Timbre Room NYE's, canceled): The decision to postpone the show was decided between all three bands [SuperCoze, Lemon Boy, and Karinyo] because of concerns around people getting to the venue safely with the snow, as well as hearing about a lot of people who had gotten tested positive for Covid and felt like it would be better to play the show at a later time with everything combined. The venue was okay with us playing but didn’t mind rescheduling.
Skarlet Dior Black (drag queen): [I had two upcoming shows]: my Rawr: An Early 2000’s Emo show and January's Drag Does—which had a Glee theme. I canceled because I saw the uptick in cases and how many of my peers tested positive or chose to quarantine. Since I make money by splitting ticket sales, I didn’t want to put mine or my castmates' health at risk to not even break even in booking fees cause no one is there.
Bitch Hazel (drag queen): I should probably start off by saying that I have not actually taken any performance gigs since the start of October by my own volition... I think personally for me I felt a lot of grief during the pandemic times that still hasn’t fully been processed and trying to make events happen that are all about joy in some way shape or form (which to be fair, I as a performer don’t necessarily operate in joy all of the time). But I feel like as drag performers, part of our responsibility is to give joy to our audiences. I just haven’t been prepared to do that.
How are you feeling about the prospect of live performances two weeks from now? A month from now? Two months from now?
Tomo Nakayama: It's impossible to say how we're going to feel about shows in two weeks or two months, we're just going to have to take things day by day. It's just the reality of the music industry for the foreseeable future, I think. It may just be that live music is going to have to be limited to the warmer months...
Cookie Couture: I’m just taking it day by day and sharing with venues and promoters how I’m feeling about the ever-changing situation and communicating that last minute cancellations may happen. I think we are at a point now where everyone understands if a show gets cancelled or postponed last minute—you do what you gotta do! I also think it’s tricky, because no one wants to be the only event moving forward/person performing while everything else is getting cancelled out of caution.
Cody Choi: When it comes to the shows planned for the rest of the month, I definitely am starting to feel conflicted. I remember having to make these kinds of decisions at the beginning of the pandemic. I think that waiting out to see how things are in the next couple of weeks will be ok. I definitely think people need to be self quarantining if they have symptoms and everyone should be wearing their masks in general. I’m tired of people not wearing their masks at shows while we have to play and risk getting sick.
Betty Wetter: Personally, I am heartbroken after this emotional whiplash. The drag scene was really coming back in such a powerful way. I don't doubt that it will happen again. My hope is that we play it safe for a month and then get back out there, but my gut tells me that things are gonna be weird til spring.
Wesley Fruge: We will be welcoming vaccinated, masked New Year's Eve partiers to Supernova on Friday night. It won't be packed to the gills like we have done before, but it will 100% be a fabulous time. This community is taking care to test, quarantine when sick or exposed, and I know they will continue to do so (not to mention the many people who have already been sick with Omicron and are on the other side).
Skyler Locatelli: This is a great question and it's just hard to really know as we've been asking this to ourselves so many times since March 2020. However, I personally think we'll be back soon. By late January if not maybe sooner I would predict. This could be way off but it all depends on the artists, venues and people's health. Is the city going to launch new mandates? Is the CDC or the Feds going to share information that gives the general public confidence? We shall see, Freakout is about to announce a brand new 2-day event soon for this spring, so the last thing on my mind is thinking about pushing that out...
Skarlet Dior Black: I want this to be a quick blurb in our reopening process, and everything’s back to normal by January but being realistic, I'm not too sure. Capitalism rules all, so eventually we have to get these bills paid and get back out there, but it’s a terrifying thought. Being honest I think we’re gonna have to choose between our art and our health, and I can’t think of a suckier conundrum.
How best can people support performers and bands at the moment?
Skarlet Dior Black: The best way to support us is to hit our Venmos and cash apps, follow our socials, and wear a damn mask!
Tomo Nakayama: We're going to see more and more shows being planned at the last-minute because of these uncertain conditions, so the best thing folks can do to support (besides buying records and merch) would be to share links and help spread the word if you see a show you want to attend. If you can afford to hold on to tickets for now without getting a refund, I think that would help the venues out as well. They are really hurting right now. It just really sucks and we're all very, very tired.
Skyler Locatelli: Go to their websites and buy merch, download music on Bandcamp Friday, the first Friday of every month, coming up real soon in January! They waive fees and all money goes to the band. Or if artists have shows down the road announced, buy tickets. A lot of local bands consign their records at Sonic Boom, Easy Street etc., so buying from these stores is great too. Lastly, put on your favorite band's most played song on Spotify and leave it on repeat for a month or all year long...
Betty Wetter: Supporting drag performers right now is tough. You can send some Venmo love, but sometimes I feel like that generosity has been exhausted. What I really wanna say is that so many things will get better once people pull their heads out of their asses. No one is helping by thinking only of themselves, but they can't see that.
Bitch Hazel: If you see a show cancelled and you see that people are posting a way for you to compensate those performers that you really enjoy, and you have even a spare five dollars, if you can spare a small amount to performers, it adds up.
Beyond the financial thing, I think that there’s a lot of just community maintenance that we still need to do. And that includes being honest with yourself about your health when going out, you know? It might feel really nice to go to a show but, if you don’t feel good, stay in. Cuz, you don’t want to be the person who shuts down all the drag shows for the next two weeks. That’s no fun! That’s no fun for anybody. And help your friends to get to the testing site. Help your friends to get their booster.
Cody Choi: Things like masks, limited capacity and outdoor or aired out venues make me feel safer as an artist at events.
Cookie Couture: As you know there is no sick pay for us drag performers, I canceled all my gigs once I started feeling sick (4 shows) and the ones on the horizon are all in flux. Best thing folks can do to support is help boost our Venmo/Cash App, etc. I did all my holiday shopping expecting to have extra money due to drag gigs in December/January, but now I’m just super, super broke. Sad thing is it’s other performers who have been sending each other money to help, and we are all struggling. It’s like we are all surviving off the same $20 being Venmo’d back and forth across the drag scene.