June may be Pride month, but this one hasn’t felt like any Pride month before it. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been no parades this year here in New Orleans, and many people in the LGBTQ+ community have turned to digital platforms to celebrate at home. It's usually a time for LGBTQ+ people to come together and celebrate their culture, and missing out has been hard enough, but the community is also missing out on going to queer bars, dating, and more.
Nick Morrow, communications manager at the Human Rights Campaign, tells Inverse it’s been a rough Pride month compared to years past, since people haven’t been able to celebrate together. He says many of the LGBTQ+ bars that have been forced to close might not ever open again.
“We have seen around the country that LGBTQ-owned bars and bars serving LGBTQ people are just getting fewer and fewer,” Morrow says. “Places are closing up, and many bar owners have said over the past decade or so, that Grindr and online dating, and these ways people are meeting each other, has contributed to that. A lot of these LGBTQ bars were already on razor-thin margins.”
I live here in New Orleans, so you could say I know something about parades and bars. I’m bisexual, and it’s been sad not being able to celebrate Pride in a city that does it so well. I worry about the bars I used to frequent and how they could safely reopen. I know many of my queer friends in the city are getting back on to Grindr and starting to meet up, even though that’s not safe during a pandemic, and I decided it’s important that we start looking at how LGBTQ+ culture can survive during this pandemic in the safest way possible. What are the ways we can safely congregate again? Is there a safe way to have sex during Covid? I asked the experts.
Parades — According to the experts I spoke with, parades should be able to be held again during next year’s Pride, regardless of if we have a vaccine or working treatments. These parades won’t look like the ones we’re used to, but there are relatively safe ways parades could be held.
William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, tells Inverse he wouldn’t recommend a place that is seeing a spike in Covid cases holding a parade.
“Stuff outdoors will always be safer when it comes to limiting transmission,” Hanage says. “I’d hope there can be some parades with distancing but would depend on local conditions. If there’s serious community transmission building then there’s gonna be a population risk for any gathering.”
Andrew Noymer, associate professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine, tells Inverse that he could see parades happening if organizers take the right steps to ensure everyone’s safety. Not holding one, of course, would be safer, but there are ways to make them pretty safe.
“I think parades can happen safely in times of Covid but not without some precautions,” Noymer says. “What I’d like to see if parades are going to happen is that they would be in the daytime, because ultraviolet light helps, as does people masking and social-distancing.”
As Noymer mentioned, ultraviolet light helps prevent Covid from being spread on surfaces and generally makes it less likely you’ll be exposed to infectious droplets. Noymer says people participating in the parade and people in the crowd should be masked and keep their distance, and it might even be good to temperature-check people participating in the parade. He says anyone who is experiencing any Covid symptoms should not attend.
Bars — Queer bars are important places where the LGBTQ+ community can come together in a safe and accepting environment. If these bars are going to safely reopen, we need to know how they can best do that.
It seems that there are only certain scenarios where bars can be considered safe. Hanage says he doesn’t think crowded bars will be safe any time soon. Noymer says there are certain setups a bar could put together that would be pretty safe.
“Under certain circumstances, bars can be safe,” Noymer says. “Those would be bars with patio areas that have groups separated.” He recommends that a patio bar be kept at 50 percent capacity at most.
If a bar doesn’t have a patio area, the safest bet would be putting chairs and tables on the street if the city will allow it. The city of Cincinnati, for example, closed streets so restaurants that didn’t have outdoor seating could set up outdoor seating on the street outside their business. Noymer says he doesn’t think it would be safe to have people inside of a bar unless the capacity was kept very low and people were spread out, but even then, it’d be better to have them outside. He says a bar shouldn’t go above 25 percent capacity indoors.
Sex — It’s no secret that hookup culture is a big part of queer culture. Sex during times of Covid is, as you might expect, not easy to do safely. Sure, it’d be great if people wore masks when they went to hook up with someone, but that seems unlikely. And as the CDC notes, all close contact can spread Covid-19.
Having sex with strangers is inherently unsafe during a pandemic, but since we know some people are going to seek out sexual encounters, we might as well tell them how they can do it in the safest way possible. It’s not a simple thing to figure out, but there are ways to reduce the harm that could be done.
Noymer says you definitely don’t want to have sex with someone who’s experiencing Covid symptoms or who might be pre-symptomatic, as those are the people who will likely infect you with Covid. Research has found asymptomatic people may infect others less, but it’s still unclear.
The first step of practicing safer sex during Covid, if someone is going to have sex with someone they’ve only recently met, would be to wait to engage in any close, physical contact with that person for some period of time, at least a few days, to make sure they’re not symptomatic or pre-symptomatic. It’d also be good to keep your distance during that time and ideally try to wear a mask around them.
Steven Goodreau, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington who researches infectious diseases and sex, tells Inverse that you should also consider if this potential partner feels like a safe choice.
“If you have the opportunities to pick a partner who's been doing a good amount of social distancing and/or mask-wearing, then that may be a good strategy,” Goodreau says. “Of course, from their point of view, it would help if you've been doing the same.”
Goodreau says people should also limit the number of partners they’re hooking up with during all of this. Ideally, you’d stick with one, but just try to keep the number low if sticking with one doesn’t work out. Goodreau says people should also avoid kissing, even if that seems odd, as it is “among the easiest ways to transmit Covid-19.”
Because outdoor transmission of Covid is less frequent than indoor transmission of it, Goodreau says you could even consider having sex outside if that’s an option. Obviously, you’ll have to consider if you can really pull that off without breaking any laws. He says you could even try to work mask-wearing into some kind of role-playing scenario, such as pretending you’re a doctor and a patient to turn the masks “from an annoyance into fetishwear.” Goodreau says it’s also smart to shower — separately — before and after having sex to reduce the chance of someone getting Covid.
“Challenging circumstances can lead to the greatest creativity, and creative sex is some of the hottest sex,” Goodreau says.
Being around strangers is obviously less safe than only being around the people in your household during a pandemic, but since we know humans are social creatures who need to feel the presence of others at times, learning how you can engage in harm reduction if you’re going to be social is important.
We should all try to keep our social interactions outside our households to an absolute minimum, but hopefully, people who are going to be social on occasion can learn to do it without taking unnecessary risks.
New Orleans is certainly missing its frequent parades, and some of the many bars we typically frequent here have reopened cautiously — but their owners worry they may soon have to close again. We’ll have to get creative and find ways to fulfill our most basic human needs while doing everything we can to prevent the virus from spreading. It’s a resilient city that has survived many natural disasters, and it’ll survive this pandemic.