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Portland’s Nightlife Returns, Even While Caution Reigns

The world’s hottest drug will always be other people.

Portland nightlife is back and it’s growing. But not without complications.

“There’s some recovery starting,” Marcus Hibdon, a spokesman for Travel Portland, tells WW. “It’s a slow, gradual return.”

Business travel isn’t back yet, but a stroll down inner Burnside or a scoot through downtown reveals steamy windows of rooms packed with revelers—masked and unmasked—chattering, laughing, dancing.

Admission to these rooms often requires papers, tests, masks and caution. Compared to the holidays of 2020, almost anything looks good. Little more than a year ago, the state went into a mandatory freeze, putting many restaurants and bars back in hibernation. Music and performance venues were out of the question.

Related: Why Are There So Many Canceled Concerts in Portland?

As the holiday season arrives once more, Multnomah County continues to report low COVID-19 rates, even in the face of an expected post-Thanksgiving spike.

Emboldened, Portlanders are returning to nightlife and finding curious, inconsistent conditions.

We spent the past few weeks shopping, dancing and watching drag. What we found were clubgoers in downtown Portland partying like there’s no pandemic and medical technicians posted in front of the city’s top music venues, in FEMA-type tents, wearing biohazard gear to administer rapid COVID antibody tests.

Related: Portland’s Oldest Strip Mary’s Club Is Open at Its New Location

Even with many nights of pre-winter Portland rain, crowds stood stoically outside so they could press together inside—hesitantly, like the palms of bashful lovers at a dance. But once indoors, muscle memory engaged. We saw a spectrum of social intoxication—because the world’s hottest drug will always be other people.

The Rapid Test

Aladdin Theater and Mississippi Studios

9 pm Tuesday, Nov. 30

Crowd: 3

While going out can have its small discomforts—weather, social anxiety, pinchy shoes—concertgoers can now add the occasional nasal swab to that list. Should you need to show proof of vaccination but forget your vaccine card, a number of downtown venues have partnered with Curative—a testing startup that launched Portland sites in August—to offer rapid COVID antibody tests.

The tests are free even without insurance and available at multiple locations near venues like the Aladdin and the Old Church. Testing is even available on nights without scheduled shows. In front of the Aladdin on an off night, testing technicians were killing time on their phones.

Outside the doors of a Dolphin Midwives show on North Mississippi Avenue, a bouncer checked ID and vaccination status, then directed a few visitors without cards to a nearby testing station set up under a streetside pop-up tent.

Dressed from head to toe in Outbreak-style biohazard gear, one technician dutifully swabbed a young man’s nose with a giant Q-tip.

“Fifteen. Fourteen. Thirteen…,” he counted down while the testee’s eyes swelled and tears rolled down his cheeks. Undeterred, the tech continued to swirl the swab before placing it in a test kit that resembled a lollipop wrapper. Looking at his laptop, he motioned, “You can just wait there.” In 15 minutes, a pastel green box reading “negative” popped up on the young man’s phone. The night was just beginning.

Hello, Party People

Tube

11:45 pm Tuesday, Dec. 7

Crowd size: 50

In some places, it’s like the pandemic never happened. The nightclub Tube packed the dance floor for a weekly Tuesday DJ night: Tubesday with DJ Phnm. The foggy, quiet, evening lent Old Town-Chinatown’s streets a film noir feeling as Tube’s neon sign pierced the gray and grim.

Drink-pouring bartenders were masked, but the clientele, shouting orders over the music with pre-pandemic abandon, was not.

“The ‘if you’re drinking’ thing makes people think they can take off their mask as soon as they order,” Tube owner Eric Bowler later told WW. “They’re drinking and thus they don’t need a mask anymore.”

Bowler says he’s been lobbying the state, city and county for “some sort of vaccine mandate to dine and drink indoors.” Leaving it to individual businesses to enforce is incredibly difficult. Tube hasn’t been asking for vaccination cards because Bowler thinks the mandate needs to be universal or all that will happen is a lot of grief for his staff.

On Tube’s chic, streetside porch, heated with outdoor propane space heaters, a French au pair smoked with her friends and threw side-eye at the men dancing inside the club, precisely because she didn’t think they were vaccinated. Her Portland contract was soon coming to an end, and she was excited to try out other cities and other club scenes.

“The women, they get their shot, but the boys don’t get the shot,” she said with derision, then laughed. “So I think I go with the women.”

Social Distance Santa

Portland Night Market

4:30 pm Friday, Dec. 3

Crowd: 300

Some returning crowds are still sold on distance. At Portland Night Market, an artisan bazaar that happens four times a year, a Santa sitting in the back of an evergreen-laden pickup truck gestured for a woman to sit next to him. She wanted a photo with him.

“You can sit there,” he said, pointing at the truck’s bumper. “Or you can sit next to me, if you’re brave.”

The market’s distancing efforts moved Santa to a loading dock, where he worked the outdoor crowds. Once boasting over 175 vendors, the Night Market intentionally kept visitors to under 100 this season to limit crowding, which at times caused the entry line to snake around the block.

Meditations on the Mask

The Old Church

7:30 pm Tuesday, Dec. 7

Crowd: 150

It isn’t just the young coming back into the community and crowds. At the Moth StorySlam: Wisdom, at the Old Church downtown, the audience leaned 50-plus. The venue, with its creeky pews and soft carpeting, is no longer an actual church but still carries a solemnity that keeps every mask firmly on the wearer’s face.

The draw was a national open mic performance night where storytellers competed before a panel of judges. The particular theme drew plenty of older souls ready to share their life’s wisdom.

One such woman, who went by Cookie, led the packed, masked hall in a guided meditation. “Plant your feet on the ground,” she said, and the church echoed with dull thuds. “Take a deep breath.” There was an audible inhale, some sucking in their masks.

Watchful Eye

Bossanova Ballroom

10 pm Friday, Dec. 10

Crowd: 250

One of the most heartening things you’ll see in a crowd right now is a community reconnecting. At Boyerism—a burlesque show that also includes circus-style performances and aerial arts—the feeling of community is immediate. Though the audience was masked, they hugged and mingled.

This was the second Boyerism show since March 2020—the first was in October. Organizers actually canceled a planned August event because Boyerism’s founder Isaiah Esquire and co-producer Johnny Nuriel thought rising Delta variant numbers looked too risky.

“It just didn’t feel right,” Nuriel said, talking to WW while Esquire, his husband, performed onstage. “We monitor the numbers really closely, and if we feel like it’ll endanger the community, we’re ready to shut it down.” Nuriel said. “We don’t want to be part of the problem.”