On May 19, Jason Romas stood behind the bar at Rockbar — the LGBTQ bar he co-owns in New York City’s West Village neighborhood — and cried, he said.

It was the day that New York state adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for fully vaccinated people, which allowed New Yorkers fully vaccinated against the coronavirus to abandon other restrictions — including wearing masks — as long as they were not in close contact with unvaccinated people.

Romas and his co-owners had responded to the news by instituting a vaccination requirement for customers, which they announced on social media, so that they would no longer have to uphold any other pandemic-era precautions, such as indoor masking or having a limited capacity. Hours before they opened that night, Romas “cried real tears, because I was like … ‘We survived, and we’re going to be back to the way it should be,’ ” said Romas, who identifies as LGBTQ.

Rockbar was one of at least eight LGBTQ bars in New York City that were demanding patrons show proof of vaccination for entry, the New York Post reported at the time. Those bars proved to be ahead of the curve: On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced that New Yorkers would be required to show proof of vaccination for most indoor activities by next month, making it the first big city in the country to institute such a mandate. About 66 percent of adults in New York City are fully vaccinated, according to official data.

As the delta variant surges, a wave of LGBTQ bars across the country have been similarly prescient in their policies, requiring proof of vaccination for entry before or just after their cities implemented mask mandates and other precautions to curb the spread of the virus. LGBTQ people characterize the bars’ vaccine precautions as part of a legacy of activism to protect the health of LGBTQ people, adding that the requirements are also indicative of the important roles LGBTQ bars play as safe spaces within the communities they serve.

The inside of Rockbar. (Jason Romas)
The inside of Rockbar. (Jason Romas)

“I think a lot of these pushes build off a historical context for many oppressed groups where the need to advance the health of your group is really advocated for and controlled by that group,” said Randolph Hubach, an associate professor of public health at Purdue University who has studied health disparities within LGBTQ populations and who identifies as a gay man. “If we think about a lot of these health concerns within the [LGBTQ] community, it’s been the community that’s brought them forward.”

In May, a gay bar in Seattle, CC Attle’s, was at the forefront of requiring proof of vaccination for entry — a move that has been followed by at least 60 other Seattle bars and restaurants, after at least a dozen local bars temporarily shut down following employees’ infections with covid-19, the Seattle Times reported last week. In July, at least six D.C. gay bars announced on social media that they would require proof of vaccination for entry soon after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) issued an order requiring masks to be worn inside all businesses, the Washington Blade reported.

In California, a slate of LGBTQ bars in San Francisco and Fresno recently instituted proof-of-vaccination requirements as cases rose and local officials encouraged vaccination and recommended indoor masking, according to the Bay Area Reporter and the Fresno Bee. And at least two LGBTQ bars in Kansas City, Mo., implemented vaccine requirements this week, just before the city resumed its mask mandate, according to the Kansas City Star.

According to Hubach, those bars follow in the footsteps of gay bars providing customers with access to HIV screenings — such as one in Pasadena, Calif., that is offering HIV tests along with covid vaccinations, according to the Pasadena Star-News — and lesbian bars sharing information with patrons about the importance of cervical cancer screening, which used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States before decreasing in both cases and fatality rates over the past 40 years, according to the CDC.

“There’s a long legacy of engaging these safe spaces for individuals in order to disseminate that [information], and I think that really speaks to the resilience of our community, taking what resources we have and knowing where our community gathers and leveraging those,” Hubach said.

Research shows that LGBTQ people — particularly LGBTQ people of color — experience vaccine hesitancy that is due in part to mistrust of the medical system and stigma around vaccination, according to a study published in the journal Vaccines earlier this year. LGBTQ people are also more likely to have underlying conditions associated with severe covid outcomes, including asthma and heart disease, according to a February CDC report. And research by the Williams Institute, a research center at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law focusing on sexual orientation and gender identity in the law and public policy, shows that LGBTQ people of color have a higher likelihood of contracting covid compared with non-LGBTQ White people.

But some patrons are wary of businesses being so involved. Javiera Cordero, a queer trans Puerto Rican woman, thinks businesses are taking on a responsibility that she sees falling under the purview of government: “I don’t think it is incumbent upon a business to educate people about the lethality of a well-known and well-documented virus,” said Cordero, 33, who works as a producer in the game industry. “I think ultimately the responsibility of education should fall on the state and local government to enforce restrictions like this.”

Cordero just recently moved to New York from Seattle, she said. After a friend of hers died of covid-19, she has restricted going out to bars to “maybe once a week at the very most,” she said, because of the threat the virus poses.

She’s looking forward to when New York City implements its vaccine mandate for most indoor activities next month, when she might start allowing herself one additional night out per week, she said.

“I think it’s the responsible thing to do, and it’s incumbent upon us as a society to protect the most vulnerable of us,” she said of the forthcoming New York City policy. “For people in America, [the most vulnerable] means especially queer people of color — we’re the most disadvantaged. … Whenever an establishment is saying, ‘we want proof you’re vaccinated,’ the owner is telling me … that they’re not only invested in my safety, but [in that of] people who are like me.”

For TJ Bruce, the owner of five gay bars that require proof of vaccination for entry — Splash in Fresno and San Jose; and Badlands, Depot and Sidetrax in Sacramento — the legacy of gay bars plays an important role in their responses to the pandemic. “By default, I think gay bars tend to be very community-oriented,” said Bruce, 57, who identifies as a gay man. “For gay people, their bars are like their family. I think the community as a whole is a lot more connected than they would be at other bars.”

Bruce has used his bars’ close-knit ties with the community to encourage patrons to get vaccinated after some of his staffers wound up contracting the virus, he said. Staffers stand at the doors to share information about the vaccine requirement and where prospective patrons who aren’t yet vaccinated can get the jab, according to Bruce. For customers who “aren’t tech-savvy,” Bruce added, employees show them how to find their digital vaccine record through the California state system.

The majority of customers are happy to show their proof of vaccination, Bruce said. But sales are still down overall, given that his bars were closed for 14 months during the pandemic.

The new policy means “we’ll definitely lose a little bit of business in the short term,” he said, adding that “we’re doing what we’re doing because that’s the right thing to do for our small community.”

“The writing is on the wall: If you do nothing, more will get sick,” Bruce said.

To Hubach, these kinds of initiatives and attempts to connect with community members — including those who haven’t yet been vaccinated — are crucial, he said, adding that drag queens and other performers at LGBTQ bars could also be powerful messengers about the importance of getting vaccinated, and that public health agency representatives could be on hand to share information and answer customers’ questions.

“I think there is an imperative need to think about the health of the community and decide what kind of proactive measures one could take,” Hubach said.

It’s LGBTQ bars in rural and conservative communities — which are often “non-affirming environments” for LGBTQ people, Hubach said — that could make a particular impact, given both the high rates of vaccine hesitancy in those communities and the important roles that LGBTQ bars play in those contexts for LGBTQ people, Hubach’s research shows.

“For many individuals, this is an opportunity to be within an affirming environment and also an environment trying to protect your health as well,” Hubach said of bars in those contexts that promote measures to mitigate the spread of the virus.

For Romas, the owner of Rockbar in New York, the city’s vaccination mandate for indoor activities can’t come soon enough.

While there were “a lot of scary moments that we were turning, like, 20 people away a day who weren’t vaccinated” during the past few months, he said, the amount of older Rockbar customers who have thanked him for making the bar a safer space for them to congregate has made the slight loss of business worth it.

As Romas put it: “If I could set up a table outside where people could get the vaccines, I would.”

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