Stadium Club, one of the venues excluded from the Districts small business microgrant program.s small business microgrant program.
Stadium Club, one of the venues excluded from the Districts small business microgrant program.s small business microgrant program. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

You know what might brighten up home delivery for some people during this virus craziness? Strippers. A person wearing just enough to call it clothing, delivering food and drink to your door. Or perhaps a more buxom individual suggestively handing over your take-out with a side of eye candy, maybe some pasties along with your pastries. 

But it’s not to be. In a broad decision made to eliminate public gatherings, the District government in mid-March shut down all 36 nightclub businesses in the city, only a handful of which offer nude dancing. The mayor’s order means that, unlike all other food service businesses, the nightclubs can’t use their kitchens to sell food and drink in an attempt to stay afloat.

Nightclub business lobbyist Mark Lee tells City Paper that Shawn Townsend, director of the mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture, told him city officials do not want strippers delivering food in D.C. “Shawn called me two weeks ago and said, ‘We’re not going to do it,”  Lee says. Townsend cited news stories on the West Coast about scantily clad servers.

But Lee says his follow-up effort to at least allow nightclubs without nude performers to stay in business went nowhere. 

Bill Spieler is the managing partner for DC9, a thriving, no-nudes nightclub operating for 16 years on 9th Street NW. Spieler says he had to lay off four full-time employees and 16 part-timers in March and is still negotiating with his landlord over rent.

“I told the staff they should get their applications in for unemployment because there was going to be a flood of them,” Spieler says. (There were: more than 58,000 since March 13.) DC9 partner Amber Bursiksays DC9 has had dozens of bands cancel and is refunding thousands of dollars in ticket sales. The club says its food business is widely popular, but the kitchen remains closed. 

“I don’t understand why they just can’t rewrite” the regulation to bar nude businesses, Spieler says. “If they have a problem … just no adult establishment would be involved.” A nightclub survey by the District in February said on average each nightclub employs 39 people.

Nude-oriented nightclubs don’t just lose out on providing takeout or delivery food and drink. Those businesses aren’t even eligible to apply for the city’s micro-grants that other small businesses are getting to help tide them over. That has left a lot of nude dancers, nightclub owners, and wait staff without jobs or a chance to improvise. 

“We just want to be included with other legitimate businesses,” said Thom Naylor, who runs Archibald’s, the K Street NW strip club that’s been open for 51 years. “We employ 81 people … It’s extremely discriminatory.” 

On Georgia Avenue NW in Park View, nightclub owner Darrell Allen and his wife, Cyrene, were forced to close The House, their nude-dancing nightclub that Darrell’s mother opened in 1979. In 2015, former D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham famously sponsored male strippers at the club, including “Rock Hard Sunday” performances. 

Last month, Darrell and Cyrene went online to apply for the mayor’s $25 million in micro-grants that would help them pay their 40 employees. The computer rejected their application midway through the online form. They couldn’t get emergency funds and remain closed.

It turns out the District government bases its business and emergency grant programs on guidelines set up by the federal Small Business Administration, guidelines that specifically reject sex-oriented “prurient” businesses.

“This is a restriction that applies for our other grant programs like Great Streets as well,” said Sybongile Cook, director of business development under the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “When developing the Microgrant Program [for virus-related losses] it mirrored the SBA eligibility.”

According to the SBA restriction, a qualified applicant “does not present live performances of a prurient sexual nature or derive directly or indirectly more than de minimis gross revenue through the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature.”

John Falccichio, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s chief of staff, confirms the exclusion. “It is the long-standing policy of the District of Columbia that adult entertainment venues are not eligible for small business grant programs,” he says. He did not say why all nightclubs were included.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says the disparate treatment of nightclubs had not been highlighted as an issue, but is planning to investigate the issue more thoroughly. “I will look into this,” he tells City Paper.

The city’s few nude establishments have been a target for several decades. The  District long ago tightened restrictions on where nude dancing businesses can even be located, with the existing downtown strip clubs grandfathered in. Nightclubs that feature nude dancing must have an official nude entertainment “endorsement” added to their licenses. 

Angry owners of nightclubs with and without nude dancers say the District has no problem taking in millions of dollars in tax revenue, including hundreds of thousands of “prurient” dollars in sales, business, and other taxes from the nightclub industry’s seven or eight clubs feature nude dancing. 

Earlier this year, the District’s 70-page study of the overall nightlife industry—including bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and event spaces—said the industry is responsible for 65,000 jobs, contributes about $7 billion to the local economy, and pays $562 million in direct tax revenue.

“In a city that talks about equality all the time, the District is unequally treating nightclubs differently,” says Lee, the coordinator of the D.C. Nightlife Council, made up of a variety of entertainment businesses. “It’s something they could have fixed and refused to fix it. It’s outrageous.” The association laid off Lee during the virus crisis.

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