In continued efforts to mitigate the current monkeypox outbreak, some bar owners and managers of local LGBTQ+ bars have been disseminating information to help inform patrons and staff, including info on how the virus spreads, how to identify symptoms and how to get vaccinated.
The latest data from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health show that there are 327 reported cases of monkeypox in Philly. Between July 31st and August 21st, weekly reported cases have begun to fall. The data also indicate that 4,569 doses of vaccine have been administered to people in Philadelphia. As of August 22nd, the local Health Department confirmed that it would receive 3,305 vials of the JYNNEOS vaccine from the CDC, in addition to 720 vials the department received the previous week.
Jason Evans, community relations manager for the Tavern Group, which includes Tavern on Camac, U BAR and Otto’s, got the ball rolling in early August. To help answer community questions about monkeypox, he teamed up with staffers from Philadelphia FIGHT to organize a town hall event.
“There was no information, but we noticed there was a trend,” Evans said. “My thing was, this looks very familiar to me. Let’s not do this again, let’s get a little bit more vocal about it.”
Evans initially got the word out about the town hall by hanging up posters in U BAR, Tavern, and Knock. He also shared information about monkeypox on a Tavern Group social media page he created for employees at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. He, like other Philly bar owners and managers, likened the importance of dispersing accurate monkeypox messaging to doing the same around HIV messaging.
“The bars are a meeting place,” Evans said. “People are social there, but people still go to the bars to hook up. That culture has not changed. The original guidance for monkeypox was very similar to HIV and AIDS, which was to abstain [from sex]. That didn’t work so well. People still view being told to abstain as, ‘you’re trying to restrict our sexual freedom.’”
Evans pointed out that some people are not able to abstain from sex, such as those who do survival sex work and people who are in difficult relationships. “The guidance from the CDC wasn’t really thoughtful of all the considerations involved.”
The town hall was led by Evans, Cameron McConkey, director of LGBTQ health initiatives at Philadelphia FIGHT, and Janet Hines, physician and infectious disease specialist who works with patients living with HIV at FIGHT’s Jonathan Lax Treatment Center. Evans relayed community questions, and McConkey and Hines provided background info and answers about the virus.
“Our goal was to get accurate information out to the community and answer as many questions as possible,” Evans said.
Through the town hall, the facilitators conveyed information about monkeypox transmission, prevention measures, symptom progression and more. They cleared up some misconceptions, including that the virus is not necessarily a sexually transmitted infection but spreads through skin to skin contact that typically happens in the context of sex; that individuals are at the highest risk of contracting monkeypox via direct exposure to an infectious rash, scabs or bodily fluids, and sexual or intimate contact; that kissing, cuddling and dancing in a crowded indoor space with people who are scantily dressed is the next highest risk category; and that it’s unlikely to get monkeypox from using a public toilet seat. A question about mitigating risk for survival sex workers also came up in the FIGHT town hall.
“There may or may not be the opportunity to bring a discussion of monkeypox to that setting,” Hines said in the town hall. “If it is something that someone feels they can engage in, the idea of [asking], ‘do you have lesions? Is it okay if I say something if I see something,’ that’s not going to be realistic for most cases. If there’s a way to be more protected, to keep more clothing on, to keep less of the body exposed, that would be one approach. I think I would probably learn a lot from talking to the folks I take care of about what their thoughts would be.”
When it comes to entertainers and drag performers who may exchange brief, casual skin to skin contact with bar patrons, “I can’t tell you that you’re not going to get it,” Hines said. “But I can tell you that we’re not seeing entertainers get it, we’re not seeing people get it predominantly on the hands.”
In addition to Tavern Group, Evans helped other local LGBTQ bars share information about monkeypox, including Stir Lounge.
“[Jason] did give us some posters and I actually have to get some more because people have been taking them,” said Stacey Vey, co-owner of Stir. “In the beginning he was taking the lead in terms of information and vaccines, so that’s been great.”
As another precaution, Vey put some of the bar’s dancers on temporary hiatus. She acknowledged that between Covid and monkeypox, it has been tricky for her to navigate safety while keeping Stir open to the public. Sharing information in the midst of public health crises is key, she said.
“I think just like HIV, we have to be safe with our culture, with our people,” Vey said. “I think it’s important that as a community we share information that can potentially save lives and help people unite. We do see a lot of people and we can share information just by passing out a beer and talking.”
Ken Lowe Jr., owner of the bar Level Up, has also been passing along monkeypox information to his staff when he receives it from Philly’s Health Department.
“We did use one of the flyers we had where it’s a QR code where they can scan and get up-to-date information from the City’s website,” Lowe said. “We have that on our screens and it should be on our menus now too.”
Additionally, Lowe and the Level Up management team stocked up on hand sanitizer, had two more sanitizer dispensers installed at the bar, and are giving their staff the option of wearing gloves during their shifts. Though staffers currently have the option of wearing a mask, a mask requirement for staff could be in Level Up’s future too, Lowe said, if case counts dictate.
Lowe has also been monitoring bar capacity, “but we have to be careful because we’re still technically recovering from the pandemic capacity limits,” he said. “People kind of didn’t take Covid seriously and it ran rampant. So to reduce the risk of us going into another lockdown or having to be overly precautious again, it’s important to get information out to people so we know what’s going on. It would be nice if the City would produce more information and make it public.”