It’s universally accepted that Miami is known on the world stage for its white sandy beaches, year-round tropical temperatures, and opulent nightlife scene, amplified by its massive nightclubs, all-night parties, high-profile performers, and glamorous clientele. It’s an industry that has remained strong for decades, regardless of the state of the world economy, and is a major draw for both locals and tourists. But it’s been more than six months since the music abruptly stopped for Miami’s famous nightlife scene. An industry that put Miami — for better or worse — on the map came to a sudden halt as the novel coronavirus swept the country and put South Florida, and most of the world, into a lockdown in mid-March.
“In Miami, in particular, the nightlife really pushes so much of the restaurants, the hotels, the vibe, the energy of the city,” says David Grutman, the founder of Groot Hospitality Group, which owns and operates two of the city’s most popular nightclubs: LIV and Story Miami. But his beloved nightclubs, like all others in the city, were closed down completely until late September.
There’s no hiding the fact that COVID-19-related shutdowns have wreaked havoc on the hospitality industry this year, with restaurants closing at rapid pace and leaving thousands unemployed. However, as positive cases started to drop in late May, restaurants in South Florida were able to slowly reopen their doors to customers — albeit with stringent regulations in place like capacity limits, distanced tables, and a slew of other rules — and began the long road of financial recovery that is in front of them, but clubs remained closed.
“We have no lobbyists, we have nobody really fighting for our segment,” says Grutman, who estimates his company alone employs more than 1,000 people in Miami, from bartenders to waiters to dancers, who need financial relief after being unemployed most of the year.
Miami’s nightclubs were left out of the reopening plans as the months rolled by — until very recently. In late September, Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis suddenly announced that no business could be banned from being open to the public, including nightclubs, lounges, and bars, which weren’t allowed to reopen in Miami-Dade County until that point.
Now clubs are allowed to reopen, but they look a lot different — masks must be worn on the dance floor and eating and drinking can only be done at the tables. Plus, the nightly curfew of midnight remains in effect, which is a big hindrance to Miami’s famously late-night scene, where clubs usually don’t get filled until the wee hours of the morning and the party goes all night long.
And while Florida isn’t seeing more than 15,000 positive cases a day, like it did during its peak in June and July, it’s still averaging close to 3,000 cases a day — more than many nations see daily. With no vaccine available yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the highest-risk situation one could expose themselves to is “large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area,” making nightclub owners highly aware of the risk their venues could pose to the public health.
“We just don’t want to be the first to open up the doors and into a mess,” says David Sinopoli, co-owner of mega-club Space Miami. “We want to make sure that it is really safe for people to go out before we put our brand on the line by opening up.”
But is socially distanced nightlife even a viable option for an industry that’s built on its wall-to-wall crowds and after-midnight parties, and that’s dependent financially on its high-volume drink sales? That’s what Miami club operators are trying to figure out.
Grutman acknowledges he and his team have been analyzing how to open up safely “every way possible,” by exploring the possibility of using more outdoor venues.
“People feel safer being outside just mentally right now,” Grutman adds. “And people really don’t love being indoors. They are just nervous. So we’re just going back to the drawing board to include more spaces that are outdoors.”
He is closely monitoring industry trends in places like Europe and Asia, which have reopened, and in some cases, reclosed, their nightlife venues in recent months. Just last week, Brussels shut down all its clubs and bars for a month, following Paris’s lead: That city shut down all its bars and cafes for two weeks on October 6. Even Iceland, which came close to eliminating COVID-19 entirely earlier this year from its country, ordered its bars to close earlier this month after seeing a surge in cases. South Korea shut down all its nightclubs during the holiday season in late September to tamp down the uptick in COVID-19 cases, while Sri Lanka closed all of its nightclubs and bars on October 9 due to an outbreak.
This summer, a group of nightlife veterans released a guide for the industry to come back safely called A Light in The Night. Recommendations include staggered entry, signed liability disclaimers for guests, designated dancing areas spaced six feet apart, mask usage while standing, plexiglass-partitioned bars, sanitization stations, cashless payments, reworking of VIP areas, and more. All of these recommendations would be expensive to implement, and would thoroughly change the nightclub experience.
But even a slew of newly implemented regulations don’t seem to deter nightlife lovers from returning to their old stomping grounds after more than half a year away.
“To be honest, I have already gone out to social party locations like Palace,” says Miami local and nightlife regular Kristine Ramirez. “I didn’t feel unsafe or like I was magically going to catch COVID by being there.”
Another alternative is for clubs to pivot temporarily to lounges with table service, with customers sitting and socializing in small groups in reserved designated zones, something Space Miami started offering for the first time since the shutdown on October 10, allowing just 300 guests at a time instead of its normal 1,000-plus crowds pre-pandemic.
“It’s in the best interest of people’s safety and health, but if it doesn’t feel right, we’re not going to continue it,” says Sinopoli on Space’s new format.
But Grutman views shifting to a lounge differently, “LIV is an experiential place. You’re going there to meet people,” he says. Adding the regulations that only allow for eating and drinking at a socially distant table turns the clubs into ”basically a restaurant,” and is not something he wants to pursue, especially with the curfew still in effect.
While the future may be uncertain for all facets of the industry, the pros remain positive that Miami’s nightlife will return to its once-celebrated former state, and have taken this moment to remind themselves why they got into the industry in the first place.
“When you’re not making money and your back is against the wall, and you have to fight for the passion to be able to program music in front of thousands of people, it is something that is it becomes almost an addiction,” says Sinopoli.