The COVID-19 pandemic hit New York nightlife like an extinction-level meteor. In a flash, thousands of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs were zapped, taking with it, at least at first, the city’s appetite for indulgence. But by June, there were signs of renewed life: COVID-safe gatherings in parks and on rooftops, occasionally with PPE on hand. But subversion is in New York nightlife’s DNA, and pandemic partyers eventually found venues that, with enough alcohol or drugs or post-isolation dopamine in the brain, resembled a pre-pandemic wild night out. Private clubs, house parties, industrial raves. They danced, drank, and passed rolled-up $20 bills around the table.
“The underground aspect of it adds to the fun. It’s irresponsible, and humans get something out of doing irresponsible things,” said Jessica, a 31-year-old product manager who spent all night at an illicit indoor club in Bushwick in September. “Still, I felt guilty the entire time I was there.”
Jessica was not a COVID denier, and she knew she was putting herself and others at risk, she had her own justification for going out. As did revelers across the city every night since June. They had antibodies, the transmission rate was low, they had a post-party isolation plan, it was their 25th birthday, or they desperately needed a night of normalcy.
Somewhere in the mix of gratification and shame, partyers, like everyone in the pandemic, are looking for a silver lining. They’re finding nightlife’s rebirth to be a more considered version of the scene they’d left behind. Fewer rich people, more outdoor spaces, and a marked decrease in the number of people staring into their cell-phone screens.
“Funny thing is, when people get drunk at parties, a fight always breaks out,” Shaheed, a 19-year-old DJ in Queens said. “But, with the pandemic, there’s nothing like that. Every time you go out, you’re just glad to get out.”
Below, partyers on the scene they returned to, from masked outdoor raves that weren’t all that more dangerous than a protest to illicit indoor birthday parties.
A Birthday Party in a Downtown One-Bedroom
My friend wanted to have a party for her 25th birthday, and her options were incredibly limited, so I said she could do it at my apartment. I found it quite stressful because I wanted to do somewhere on the cusp between having enough people that it was an actual party and having it become a massive shitshow with hundreds of people. There were probably around 50 people there. We had security watching the numbers and taking temperatures at the door. They did end up turning people away — one person because their temperature was too high, but they came back ten minutes later and they were fine. There’s definitely more of a conversational, collaborative approach to nightlife now that people have more opportunities to speak and sit in one place. It feels less transactional. It’s partially a mentality thing. Normally, people would just want to go to a party and get messed up, go to a rave and not talk to anyone. Now people crave that human interaction.
A Rave Under the Kosciuszko Bridge
The path to get there was so futuristic. Imagine you’re coming down to this bridge that already has LED lighting, classic club lighting, and you get there and it’s pretty open and there’s all of this PPE stuff, a real sound system, and a DJ setup. There were 300 or 400 people after 1 a.m. It was a little bit of a protest after-party, the first party in this “police have abandoned New York” moment. The COVID numbers were just so far down at that point, and it was the first time I’d seen people acting sort of “post-COVID.” The scare of it had come and gone. People put masks on when they were talking to strangers, but around their close friends they’d take them off.
People were dressed up like aliens. It was a little bit of cosplay, a little bit of sex club, and just not a straight vibe. There were a lot of trans people. I ran into tons of people I knew, and people were going fucking nuts. As an older person, I felt like I was seeing into the future. It was like seeing how New York City had changed behind closed doors during the pandemic, and it did feel like things had actually changed. People were there to express themselves. It wasn’t like, “I’m going out to get laid.” It felt brand-new.
As it got more crowded, I got a little uncomfortable. It was so unnatural at that point to be around people — it was unnatural to even be having a good time. I think everyone felt guilty afterward. I wondered how much the fact that it was a rainbow party influenced the way people reacted to it. Because other parties happened that were similar but didn’t have the same finger-pointing afterward. I was wearing a mask the whole time and was very careful, but I got tested afterward just to be sure.
A Parking-Lot Party in Greenpoint
At first, we would have a lot of trouble trying to find the parties. Then I ended up making a TikTok where it was me and my friend skating around looking for a party, and we ran into one in this parking lot in Greenpoint. The TikTok kind of blew up, and the DJs at that party saw it and thought, Oh, these kids are kind of sick. They hit us up on Instagram and started giving us the addresses.
I come from a low-income neighborhood with immigrant parents. This scene introduced me to a whole bunch of other people: art kids, skater kids, rich kids. People who are nothing like us, but we’re at these parties dancing together.
I started going outside because of the whole George Floyd situation. I kind of got comfortable being in large crowds. I still try to keep my distance and still wear a mask. I’ve always been nervous about COVID because my parents don’t have health insurance. If they get COVID, it’s going to be a big problem. I was doing all of this behind my parents’ back. I would sneak out of the house or just come home late. I would have to make up excuses. But I get tested regularly and quarantine myself.
On TikTok, people will be like, “You guys have no mask; you guys are spreading the virus.” I don’t really know what to tell them. I’m aware that what we are doing is pretty stupid because we’re putting mad people at risk. For some reason, we still kept doing it.
I’ve seen a lot of white kids who come to New York — not even from New York, they’re just here on some yuppie shit, the gentrifiers — they’re throwing parties and making videos of it and then all the comments are like, “Oh, this is why I want to move to New York! I want to live this lifestyle!” Then in my videos with a bunch of Black and brown kids, people are like, “Oh, you guys aren’t wearing masks! You guys have blood on your hands!” I feel like people are really biased about it. I’ve been to parties where it’s majority white people, and those seem like the parties that never get shut down.
Travis Kalanick’s Penthouse* in Soho
Cat Marnell, 38:
I’m sort of naturally a quarantine person; I am not a party animal. But sometimes, the night starts somewhere and you end up at some party. In September, I was just chilling on a rooftop with friends near a gallery somewhere, respecting the rules, when my friend asked if I wanted to go with her to this guy’s apartment. She wanted to go in the pool. So we go to that weird part of Soho down by Varick Street, to some super-fancy building, and go up to the penthouse. It was like something out of Billions. It was so big, with walls and walls of glass, and I think there really was a private pool. Because I guess it was the fucking former CEO of Uber’s apartment? Travis Kalanick? But it wasn’t even cool. They asked us to take our shoes off. It sounded like they were playing lounge music. Everyone was drinking red wine, “adulting.” There were tons of people there, and of course no one was wearing a mask. I walked over and sat on the couch and felt like they were all looking at me with such contempt. Then a pack of people came over and stood over me and were like, “She needs to go.” That’s when I started acting like I was in slow motion. It was just so ridiculous. I haven’t been kicked out of something like that in a way that I didn’t deserve since Lindsay Lohan had me thrown out of Le Baron because I gave the guy she was with a drag off my e-cigarette in 2012. Fuck them. Anyway, rich people are having maskless, indoor parties. I had some paint in my bag, so when we got downstairs, I went to the wall across from the building’s entrance and wrote, “CAT MARNELL BITCH FUCK U SNOBS.”
*A representative for Kalanick says he had lent his apartment to a friend and was unaware of the party.
A Downtown Speakeasy
A typical night out, I go out to eat and follow the guidelines, so the party size is maxed out at ten. After that, it’s word of mouth. People ask around, trying to find out what’s still open, wink, wink. You get an address or a ticket link. Then you go to the bar and there’s a room in the back that’s shielded. It really is like a speakeasy. Sometimes there’s even a password you get via text. It’s really nice inside, with leather booths, not some dingy dive bar. The lights are dim, and there’s loud music. The vibe is New York City lounge, operating late-night. A good number of people keep their masks on inside. I personally am not always one of those people. Sometimes you can forget that COVID is a thing at all at these parties. I’m not saying COVID is not a thing, but I’m sure the transmission rates in New York are not that high.
A Halloween Loft Party in Soho
On Halloween, I was at a party that was slowing down when my friend told me to come to another party in a small apartment in Soho. There were 50 people, maybe. I didn’t know anyone, but there was a DJ, and the people who were there hadn’t been partying during COVID. It was their first party in a long time, and it was a good, cute party. People were dancing. I don’t think it was against the guidelines.
After the party, six or seven people tested positive. It’s crazy to think the one thing that I attended that wasn’t against the guidelines ended up being the one that was the biggest spreader. I’m pretty sure most of the people in my bubble, people who were going out constantly, had it back in March.
An Influencer Party in the East Village
Dean Kissick, 37:
I somehow ended up at some party full of 20-somethings, models, and influencers. That was the biggest, busiest party. People weren’t freaking out over COVID, but they were worried that the police were going to shut it down. I went to a few parties in private residences in Manhattan. There was no talk of needing to be tested or needing to wear a mask. COVID wasn’t even mentioned, really. The sort of people who are out downtown after-hours are just not the sort of people who have that on their minds. I thought at the beginning of lockdown that people were never going to share keys of coke ever again, but that was not the case.
When I actually remember New York nightlife this year, it’s just hanging outdoors during the summer. Far less dangerous, but fun. You can really openly drink outside now in the middle of the street. I’m nostalgic for it already.
People became very promiscuous around July and August. People were horny. People would make out with their friends, or want to. It was almost less sexual. People just wanted to kiss and hold, a craving for contact.
*A version of this article appears in the November 23, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!