When bars, clubs and entertainment areas were forced to turn their lights off due to the pandemic, New Yorkers realized it would be a while until they were able to hear the sound of DJ-sets and be in crowded spaces alongside strangers again.
The pandemic caused major damage to the nightlife industry, shuttering many beloved bars and clubs. The city’s new Office of Nightlife recently released an inaugural report on what the industry could look like as it recovers.
Created in 2017 by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Office of Nightlife was established to support the nighttime economy, culture and quality of life. Ariel Palitz was appointed as the first senior executive director of the office in 2018.
City & State spoke with Palitz about the impact of the pandemic on the city’s nightlife, the role of the office along with its importance to the industry and what the future of nightlife looks like. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The office of nightlife is fairly new, can you tell me more about the purpose it serves the city?
The office is just about three and a half years old. It's the first of its kind in the city. And it was really created to provide a dedicated, nonenforcement liaison between the city and the nightlife community and industry, which it has historically not had. Historically, the industry has only really had an enforcement interface with the city. And so this was an opportunity to be able to really find a way to support the industry, find out the systemic needs and concerns that it had and to really start to see this industry as an asset that could be supported and elevated.
And because the office was so new, when the news of the pandemic broke out and started coming to the city, how did the office take action?
I often like to say that I was really grateful that this office was created before the pandemic, so we had relationships not only with the industry but also with the different city agencies established.
So when the pandemic hit, we really went into survival mode. Our first instinct was to reach out to the industry to get a sense of really what was going on with them. We did a survey within the first week, where over 12,000 businesses and workers participated to tell us that they lost almost up to 97% of their income overnight. So it was really a question of, how can we grab hold of the hand of this industry and make sure that we can help to stabilize it as best as we could? The first thing we had to do was assess it and get the information that was coming from a federal and state and city level and communicate that to the industry to tell them what was going on. It was really one of the first industries to have to shut down.
Looking back through all the organizing efforts into helping the industry, how has the city nightlife changed from the beginning of the pandemic to now?
There's still a workforce shortage that has hit the hospitality industry especially hard, spending is low. Tourism hasn't come back. The more important thing is, we know that we are on the road to recovery, we are headed in the right direction. And so in the meantime, the Office of Nightlife has taken the opportunity to establish new programs to help support them along the way. The drastic loss of wages really amplified what was already a stressful business to work in before the pandemic. So we partnered with the Mayor's Office of Community Mental Health and a nonprofit organization called Backline to create Elevate, which provides free weekly collective trauma online support groups for the nightlife and hospitality community. Dealing with the overdose fentanyl crisis, we've also been working with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to make sure that businesses know about Narcan training and the Department of Health’s new fentanyl test strip campaign. We've also done other outreach under the Elevate initiative with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. And helping people in the industry not only recognize depression, and anxiety and suicidal tendencies in themselves but in their coworkers and in patrons as well and how to be better bystanders through this. We created a program called MEND NYC at the beginning of the pandemic. Which helps neighbors and venues communicate regarding the quality of life issues. Since most of nightlife and sociability went outside, there was a lot of need to re-acclimate to louder streets and louder venues. This program helps venues and their neighbors to have direct communication and compromise, to help them to coexist, during the pandemic and after.
Historically, nightlife along with its activities has often been viewed as a nuisance and liability. What efforts has the office made to reframe these old perceptions?
Having a nonenforcement office like this, we’re able to work with the other city enforcement agencies to do mediation and outreach. For example, through this pandemic, if there are businesses that are not in compliance, City Hall now reaches out to us and then we reach out to the venues to say, “Hey, you're not in compliance, is there anything we can do to help support you?” to get into compliance before enforcement and summonses are issued.
How has managing vaccination proof been for bartenders and hosts? Have there been any concerns?
There is an extra burden and responsibility because they are in a sense on the front lines and the gatekeepers. But what we're seeing is now that the mandate is happening there’s extremely high compliance. We haven't had issues where the industry is resisting or doesn't understand. They get it. We all understand our need in our part to move forward and get out of this. Hospitality in nightlife venues is used to checking IDs at the door.
When bars and clubs opened up, what place did you go to first?
I think the question is where haven’t I been? I’m still on a roll. I'm in this position because I love the nightlife. I love being around people. I love the beauty of hospitality and service, and good music and dancing, and the diversity of experience that New York has. It's always my happy place. It's always where I'm going to want to go and support. We all should be doing that as safely as we can. It’s good for our hearts. It's good for the economy and it's good for the overall recovery of the city.