Prohibition in the United States, a short-lived experiment that began 100 years ago, popularized the speakeasy: an illicit establishment designed to sell alcoholic beverages during the years they were legally banned.
Now, people are developing clandestine social clubs all over again — and even styling their parties after the era of speakeasies.
That’s true even in Los Angeles, where more than 14,000 positive coronavirus tests are being reported in a day, and where the public health risks of going to a party seem too obvious to let partygoers remain in denial.
For the record: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends celebrating at home, wearing a mask around others and definitely avoiding crowds.
Throughout the pandemic, well-attended parties have mostly been shut down across Los Angeles, which has led to a culture of secrecy on social media. At the same time, underground party hosts are choosing to appeal to the truth of human behavior. They know that they can capitalize on the innate desire to socialize; for all those who can’t imagine leaving their homes right now, there are others who are fully ready to celebrate the arrival of 2021 in the company of near strangers, as they would any other year.
These New Year’s Eve parties in Los Angeles include Spanky’s, which promises a laid-back affair at an “indoor/outdoor” venue downtown. The price of admission includes a “10 min Covid-19 antigen test,” according to the invite. (While testing may weed out some people with coronavirus, it isn’t a foolproof method. For one thing, rapid tests have a higher potential for false positives, according to the F.D.A.)
Chloe Chappe, 26 and a private chef in Los Angeles, has been getting Spanky’s emails since July and doesn’t know how she ended up on their mailing list. “I find it funny and frustrating that people are trying to justify partying right now,” she said. “Why are you trying to party when there’s such a severe level of infection rates?”
In many cases, revelry has been traded for discretion. People are “not posting things because they know how much backlash they’ll get,” Ms. Chappe said. “Being deprived of that kind of interaction for almost a year, I completely understand why people would want to finally celebrate this year being over, but we’re not at that point safety-wise, so there’s such a dissonance there.”
Cherrelle Moore, 28 and a freelance creative from New York celebrating New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles, has been visiting California for about a month. She said she has been to “four or five house parties, and one strip club” during that time. Ms. Moore plans to see people on the eve of 2021 — but to limit her night to a low-key house party.
“People think you going out is just being irresponsible, but it feels good and warm and good for your mental health too sometimes to be around people you love and even meet new people too — you just have to be responsible,” she said. She estimated she’d been tested more than 15 times — “almost every other week, especially because I was in big gatherings.”
Ms. Moore said she has never had coronavirus — “Thank God” — and that she believes “there’s a line of communication and trust” required to socialize safely during the pandemic. And while she does post about it on social media, she noticed that it seemed like “people were shading me” and her friends as well, so she started posting only to her private Instagram network of close friends instead.
“The reason why I even left New York was because I felt like I was about to go into a deep hole of depression again. I came out here for friends. I just didn’t feel like staying in New York for the new year to come,” Ms. Moore said. “We can agree to disagree, but life is so short. It may sound irresponsible, but I’m just going to live my life. I’ve been super cautious and responsible this whole time, so I’m going to try to turn up and manifest for 2021 and hopefully it’s way better than this year.”
She is not alone.
An iOS app called Vybe Together encouraged users to “Get your rebel on” and “Get your party on,” and was designed to organize and promote underground parties to its audience. It seemed particularly well designed to facilitate parties that would violate current restrictions.
After it received attention this week, its website went down and Apple pulled the app from its store on Tuesday. (Business Insider reported that TikTok also removed the company’s account.) “We kinda blew up over night,” said someone who answered Vybe Together’s phone. (The owners declined to speak further.)
The app had only a few thousand users, though there were thousands more waiting for their access to be approved.
Vybe Together updated its Instagram bio amid the trouble: “App Store took us down!!! We will be back!!! Follow to stay updated!!!” A minimal text post appeared on the account’s Instagram story: “blown out of proportion by the media. We DO NOT CONDONE LARGE GATHERINGS!!!”
Eventbrite, an event management and ticketing platform, has also been a popular option for people hosting parties. A recent “Maskerade” at a Los Angeles mansion ($80, open bar, round-trip party-bus ride) was advertised there. The invite, which drew ire on social media, has been removed from Eventbrite’s website.
Several other parties to be held at popular Los Angeles nightlife venues (such as Bootsy Bellows and Harriet’s Rooftop) were also listed on Eventbrite but are now marked as canceled. Blind Dragon, a venue listed as closed on OpenTable, promised a “premium open bar” beginning at 9 p.m. “Gatsby’s House NYE” in Huntington Beach had tickets starting at $99 and topping out at $3,795. An event at Skybar, on the roof of the Mondrian in West Hollywood, promised a special live D.J. performance.
“Our Community Guidelines have always prohibited events that promote or contain illegal behavior and our community plays an essential role in reporting any concerning event listings or content,” a spokesperson for Eventbrite said in a statement. The company investigates complaints and says it wants to foster digital gatherings during the pandemic.
“In the absence of our ability to bring people together for in-person experiences, we moved fast to help creators take their experiences online,” said Julia Hartz, a founder and the chief executive of Eventbrite.
Those who wish to party anyway will return to finding celebrations the retro way: through private Instagrams, DMs and invites with no downloadable details, just an address that’ll be texted out before midnight along with a request to wear a mask.
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles city attorney’s office filed a lawsuit against the manager of LA Party Society, a nightclub in Downtown’s Fashion District, and others associated with the venue for “holding crowded events amid a surging pandemic,” said Mike Feuer, the Los Angeles city attorney, in a virtual news conference.
As of now, the city’s revised “targeted safer at home order” is clear. It states that “all public and private gatherings and events with people from more than one household are not permitted except for outdoor faith-based services and outdoor political expression” — and that all “lounges and nightclubs” are to be closed.