National Post (Latest Edition)
Upper Canada finds the perfect COVID-19 scapegoat — nudie bars
Pandemic like Mardi Gras for the judgmental
Relative to their number, few if any businesses have come in for as much abuse since the post- lockdown reopening as our houses of burlesque — certainly here in Ontario. At least two Toronto nudie bars have been linked to outbreaks, and the general response has been in keeping with that of our ostensibly conservative mayor, John Tory: “You have to ask yourself the question, why do these places have to be open?”
People work in those places, but whatever. The province shut them down last week, just a few weeks after they were allowed to reopen with restrictions on capacity, spacing and entertainment — notably, no lap dancing allowed.
Of course, Upper Canadians have been demanding to know for the last six months why just about every business “has to be open”: liquor stores, bars and restaurants, casinos, golf courses, marinas, dog groomers, nail salons, milliners, military surplus dealers — basically anything other than supermarkets and gas stations (but only for cars, not boats).
Indeed, their indignance has extended to the availability of public outdoor spaces, from parks to beaches to boardwalks, where others have had the temerity to seek fresh air, exercise and company.
Toronto will always be the city that banned the Barenaked Ladies from performing on municipal property and threatened to arrest Madonna for lechery, and it will always be the city that redeployed giant concrete blocks from marijuana dispensaries (where the city used them to seal up entrances) to a lakefront parking lot, because too many people were using the surrounding parkland to enjoy spring sunshine. It will always be the city where Tory and several city councillors agreed that allowing people to enjoy a drink with friends in the park was a good idea, given the pandemic circumstances and the potential alternative — people enjoying a drink with friends indoors — but never got around to allowing it to happen, because no mere coronavirus can change this city’s fundamental nature.
It’s been like a six- month Mardi Gras for latent Presbyterians and the fiercely judgmental, with their living rooms and computer desks standing in for Bourbon Street. With the possible exception of Ottawa, no Canadian city has made such a farce of the notion that “we’re all in this together.” It’s bizarre that strip clubs stayed open as long as they did, really.
But among other industry advocates, Filmores, a venerable downtown Toronto establishment (whose “bad girls,” it advertises, make for a “good time”) is pushing back. “What do you call a strip club without lap dancing?” its historic marquee currently asks passersby. “A bar! Yet ordered closed???” Filmores has a point. Lap dancing, unthinkable in Upper Canada as recently as 1996, when Chief Justice Charles Dubin deemed it “incompatible with the recognition of the dignity and equality of each human being,” had been banned even after reopening. The Brass Rail Tavern, perhaps the city’s most famous house of ill fame, is alleged to have flouted many pandemic- era rules, but it’s not clear if the lap-dancing prohibition was one of them.
I have no, er, skin in the game. But Toronto’s chief public health officer Eileen de Villa has been quite clear throughout this nightmare about one thing: “Where you go in the city is less important than what you do when you are there,” as she put it at her Monday media briefing.
Indeed, Toronto’s admirably thorough data reporting shows just 20 per cent of cases in the city have been contracted through “community spread,” while 53 per cent have been traced to “close contact with a case” — which is generally to say within six feet, and for a significant period of time, such as within a household, or at a non- socially- distanced family gathering. Bylaw officers tend not to visit such events, because they don’t know they’re happening.
So you can close down strip clubs. We have. But as lawmakers throughout history have discovered, the highest- risk activities associated with strip clubs are notoriously difficult to prohibit, and in a pinch can occur in just about any environment you care to name. The sort of person who would go to a strip club during a pandemic, leave a false name and number in the contact- tracing log, see that anti- pandemic measures were not in place, stay anyway, and then perhaps avail himself of supplemental services, shall we say, may well be a greater risk to the general population with the peelers closed than with the peelers open.
Strip clubs can be regulated, inspected and shut down as necessary, just as restaurants and bars have been without closing down every restaurant and bar ( so far). At this point in the pandemic, with deaths and hospitalizations a fraction of what they were in the spring and Generation Z back at university, surely no one believes that if you close bars, people will stop drinking. Surely no one believes that if you close casinos, gamblers will buy Canada Savings Bonds instead. Surely no one believes that if you close strip clubs, men won’t want to see barenaked ladies.
The government can inspect and fine and order non- compliant businesses closed, and it should. But from here on out, it is up to individuals to keep this thing in check or not. They behave responsibly, regardless of where they are, or they don’t. Closing strip clubs is a win for Upper Canada on principle, but not necessarily for public health.