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Baltimore’s strip clubs reopen as COVID pandemic perils lurk

A pair of white patent leather stiletto boots catch the glow of a spotlight as the woman inside them gyrates on a stage. She flips her bleached blonde hair back flirtatiously, the beat of Loud Luxury’s “Body” thumping overhead.

“All up in your B-O-D-Y,” the song muses as the dancer points her posterior at a patron. His face wrapped with a mask, he uncrosses his arms and slides several dollar bills in her direction.

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On this night, that’s as close as the pair will come to being “all up” on each other. Across the room, distanced chairs in small pods dot a space that not so long ago held as many as 400. At the door, temperatures are taken. A contact sheet tracks the phone numbers of attendees — in case the worst should befall them.

Still, the mood is jovial. On this day, a battle has been won. Baltimore’s strip clubs were allowed to open Friday for the first time in nearly three months. The city’s red light district shone red again.

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The scene was set in motion by a lawsuit filed one week earlier by attorneys for The Penthouse Club. Baltimore’s strip clubs, like countless other city establishments, were shuttered in December by newly inaugurated Mayor Brandon Scott in an effort to quell a concerning spike in coronavirus cases.

Weeks passed, and eventually the number of new cases began to fall. Many restrictions, including an outright ban on indoor and outdoor dining, were relaxed. However, strip clubs saw no relief. Instead, a January city order explicitly ordered them to remain closed.

In its lawsuit, The Penthouse Club made a First Amendment argument. By singling them out from other indoor recreation, the mayor was a violating their right to free speech, the club’s attorneys argued. By Wednesday, Baltimore officials relented. All city strip clubs, not just The Penthouse Club, could reopen as of 3 p.m. Friday.

That evening, Attorney Andrew Saller celebrated alongside his client, club owner Andrew Alley.

“I want to support all my friends in their endeavors,” Saller said, as a dancer wearing only a bejeweled mask performed a split atop a pole behind him. “And I definitely want to support the First Amendment.”

The club has a written safety plan prepared by a consulting firm, Alley said. Plexiglass barriers were installed across cashier counters. A “deep disinfectant sanitization” was performed. The report notes the building’s HVAC system is “exceptional,” having been designed to circulate air when smoking was still permitted inside.

Dancers do indeed perform at a distance from patrons. When the women stand against the two-story metal pole on the main stage, a tape measure might stretch the recommended six feet to the faces of the patrons below.

Still, it’s also easy to see where it could go wrong. Between dances, performers mingle with the guests. Hands land on shoulders and waists. Maskless drinkers at tables lean close to dancers to be heard over the pulsating music. The repartee is part of the job — a job that is inherently intimate.

“I hope it’s safe enough. I hope we’re all protected,” said one man who declined to give his name, saying his wife believed he was at Costco. Moments earlier, he had pulled a dancer close, puckered his maskless lips and planted them on her forehead.

“I hope we’re doing the right things,” he added.

The performers adhered more carefully to the mask policy. Those interviewed said they were thankful to be back at work, and keenly aware that the club could close again if they’re caught not adhering to city policy.

“I think the mayor was singling us out,” said Maryanne Boritz, a 20-year-old dancer whose delicate nose ring peeked from behind her sequined mask. Boritz said she’s been to the city’s bars since they reopened, and people can frequently be seen standing shoulder to shoulder.

“At least we’re on a stage,” she said.

Scott has pledged to hold the clubs accountable. He issued a stern warning during a news conference earlier Friday that all guidelines from the city, state and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be enforced upon the clubs.

Alley was ready. Throughout the evening, he stood near the door expecting the city’s task force to breach it any minute. The unit, which includes city health officials, has already visited the club three times during the pandemic, he noted.

Saller interrupted: “Liberty always has opponents.”

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