Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY
May 17, 2020·6 min read
CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Cleo counts out crumpled dollars, straightening the bills as she stacks them neatly on her bare leg.
“Twenty-two dollars,” the 23-year-old exclaims. “Not too bad!”
All around her, more than a dozen nearly naked women are dancing on the stage and swinging from a brass pole as music thumps and customers shower the dancers with money. It’s like any other night at this rural strip club on the Colorado-Wyoming border, with one notable exception: While the dancers are all wearing barely-there outfits, every one of them is wearing a mask.
Some are bandannas. Some are surgical masks. One looks as if it was swiped from a construction site. They’re a seemingly odd accessory for women wearing a mix of g-strings, bikinis and lingerie.
But this is the time of coronavirus, and following state rules, the women are wearing them as they feel out their first night back in business. For Cleo, that $22 is the first income she has earned in weeks. And she’s ready to make more, even if it brings her far closer to customers than the state’s 6-foot-social distancing guidelines.
“I feel like my makeup is sweating off under this thing,” she adds from behind her bandanna, then looks up as the music changes. “Oh, that’s my song. Gotta go.”
Cleo, who didn’t want her legal name used because of potential harassment, clambers up onto the stage and begins spinning around the pole, her 5-inch-high shoes banging together as she bends backward to rest both her feet and head on the floor to a scattering of cheers and whoops.
Welcome to The Den, one of the first strip clubs in the country to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic. To celebrate its grand reopening, the club threw a “masks on, clothes off” party Friday night.
Because Wyoming has had so few coronavirus cases, state health officials on Friday allowed most businesses to reopen, including sit-down restaurants and bars, which is how The Den is licensed. Likely due to its large size and small population, Wyoming has had few coronavirus cases. Officials say they’ve confirmed just 541 cases, with another 175 listed as probable, and only seven deaths.
“I’m super-excited. I’m a little nervous because the virus is still out there, but I’m glad to be able to go to work, because a lot of people can’t yet,” says dancer Doris Craig, 20, between performances. “The stimulus money was nice, but that’s going to run out, and I don’t like to feel like I’m dependent on the government.”
While other bars and restaurants across the country are slowly reopening with strict distancing and safety protocols, establishments across Wyoming are taking a looser approach based largely on the widespread sentiment here that the coronavirus is mostly an urban illness affecting elderly people in nursing homes. At The Den, hand sanitizer is everywhere, but dancers are also touching patrons and exchanging cash, which can carry the virus.
The Den owner Kim Chavez says she doesn’t feel completely secure in reopening, but she felt she had no choice but to open alongside other bars in Cheyenne, some of which started serving at 9 a.m. The Den shut down just after Easter, and performers, who are all legally considered independent contractors, went without pay until they began working again Friday night. Several said they applied for unemployment, but most said they scraped by on savings and the generosity of friends and family. Federal stimulus programs, including the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, specifically bar adult-oriented businesses and performers from applying for help.
“We knew that once our doors closed, we were screwed until we could reopen,” Chavez said. “If I’d gotten the PPP I might not have opened today. This is a risk we’re taking.”
As the crowd builds, Chavez walks the club’s rooms, restocking hand sanitizer and greeting longtime customers. She and her husband, a former police officer, have owned the club for 15 years, and they say they’ve worked hard to create a welcoming environment for dancers and patrons alike.
For their part, the dancers said they missed the money – they can earn more than $1,000 on a good night – but also the sense of camaraderie they share. The Den has about 25 dancers on rotation.
After running a thick stack of bills through a counting machine, Chavez squirts sanitizer onto her hands and looks over the crowd.
“That was the hardest part about being shut: worrying about the girls,” Chavez said. “It was heartbreaking because you know every girl’s story.”
It’s a pattern repeated for thousands of performers across the country, said Elizabeth Thomas, president of the International Entertainment Adult Union. Thomas said stripping or dancing is a fallback way for many women to pay the bills when other jobs are scarce, so they were hit harder when those jobs vanished.
More than 36.5 million Americans have applied for unemployment since the pandemic began and businesses across the country closed and laid off workers. The federal government doesn’t specifically track the number of people working in the adult entertainment industry.
In addition to the loss of income, Thomas said, many dancers she has talked to have desperately missed the attention they get when working. They are, after all, performers.
“It’s been very, very difficult. Most of us don’t have anything else to fall back on,” Thomas said. “You wonder why the food banks are so busy? There’s no way for these girls to pay their rent.”
Several of The Den’s dancers said they tried to earn money performing online, but that’s a surprisingly hard niche to break into, Thomas said, because there’s already so much free content, and because online performers who’ve spent years building their followings garner most of the views.
“You’re competing with millions of other girls,” she said. “And it’s harder to do – you have to talk, text and be a pretzel.”
As The Den’s parking lot fills with pickups and SUVs, the mostly male crowd inside grows. Chavez says the crowd is a mix of regulars and unfamiliar faces. Oil and gas companies have large operations in the area, and many of the men look as if they’ve come in from the oilfields for the night.
None of them are wearing masks, and they’re clearly looking for a much smaller social distance than Americans have become accustomed to as dancers wrap their legs around them from the stage. Thomas, the union president, said she’s worried that customers won’t feel safe returning to clubs, although The Den was about as busy as usual for a Friday night, Chavez says.
Munching on a slice of freshly delivered Domino’s pepperoni pizza, with her white bandanna temporarily hanging around her neck, dancer Breauna Grover says during a break that she’s not worried about getting sick. At 24 years old, the self-described conspiracy theorist says she believes the virus poses little danger. Besides, she says, she missed the customers and dancers to whom she has became close over the past two years.
“That’s why it’s so great: People have to pay attention to you because you’re naked,” she says with a laugh.