Are strip clubs allowed to open during the pandemic? Sort of, but not really

Pacer's Showgirls International in the Midway District on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020 in San Diego, CA.
Pacers Showgirls International in the Midway District.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

They can serve food, but employees cannot dance on stage or on customers’ laps


**The county health department delivered a cease-and-desist order on Wednesday, Oct. 14, after this story was published. Read the updated article here.**

Last weekend’s stabbing of Padres outfielder Tommy Pham outside a Midway District strip club has raised questions about whether the clubs are allowed to operate during the pandemic.

The answer, it turns out, is a little complicated.

From a regulatory standpoint, strip clubs can be considered three different types of businesses depending on how they operate. Clubs can be live entertainment venues, bars, and/or restaurants.

Under the current state and county health orders, restaurants are allowed to operate with some restrictions, but bars and live entertainment venues cannot.

That makes it difficult for the city to simply order all of them to shut down.

“There is no hard and fast rule that they have to be closed,” said San Diego Police Department Lt. Shawn Takeuchi.

So, if a strip club has a kitchen and a menu, they can stay open as a restaurant and serve $2 steak specials or all-you-can-eat wing deals on Sundays.

But strip clubs are not allowed to operate as bars or live entertainment venues.

That means no dancing on the stage, poles or on customers’ laps. It also means no drinking without eating.

“You can’t order alcohol unless you order food,” said county spokesman Michael Workman. “You can’t go to one of those clubs and sit outside and drink and watch entertainment. That opportunity should not be there. It if is, that is a violation.”

There are some gray areas.

For example, Lt. Takeuchi wasn’t sure if waitresses could be topless while serving customers food.

Since Pham’s stabbing, the San Diego Police Department and county health officials have turned their focus on Pacers Showgirls, the club where Pham was before being stabbed in the parking lot.

“We have been in communication with SDPD regarding operations at Pacers,” Workman said. “We will continue to work with them to determine possible next steps.”

The police department did not immediately respond to questions about what those “operations” entail.

Workman said that before Tuesday, the county had not received any referrals about strip clubs from the San Diego Police Department or any other the law enforcement agency.

Pacers did not respond to questions from The San Diego Union-Tribune. But online reviews suggest the club has been open illegally for months.

Those reviews show customers commenting on the club’s lap dances as recently as September.

“Best place to relax,” wrote Sydney H. “Love to read a good book here.”

Another review from July said, “The women there are beautiful. There are two poles for the women to dance on. These women have the best bodies!!”

Pacers’ social media accounts also show photos of women dancing on stage.

“We had a blast over the holiday weekend,” says one post showing a club full of people not wearing masks from September. “Thanks to everyone who stopped by for our indoor service and make sure to catch the show 7 days a week.”

Other posts from September broadcast that specific performers are “lighting up the stage tonight with us at Pacers,” and that the club is “allowing all of our beautiful #Pacerettes to join us with #NoStringsAttached. Come hang with us, have some fun and let your hair down for a night of celebration. See you all there!”

Other clubs in town opted to temporarily shut down because of the right restrictions. Deja Vu Showgirls, which has clubs all over the world, closed its California locations because of COVID-19.

Their out-of-state clubs have seen a pandemic-driven boost in sales.

“Our other clubs around the country that can open with little to no capacity limitations are doing great, many seeing record attendance,” said Ryan Carlson, director of operations for Deja Vu. “Social isolation has made the concept of a strip club even stronger in an era where people are, simply put, lonely.”

Pham sustained minor injuries and police officers are still searching for the suspect.

“I’d like to thank the incredible medical staff at UC San Diego Health for taking such great care of me last night,” Pham said in a statement released by the team. “I truly appreciate the hard work of the (San Diego Police Department) as well as they continue their search for the suspects. While it was a very traumatic and eye-opening experience for me, I’m on the road to recovery and I know I’ll be back to my offseason training routine in no time.”