The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nearly two years into the pandemic, the crowds are (almost) back to partying like it’s 2019

Groups gather at El Techo in the Shaw neighborhood in the early morning hours on Sunday in D.C. (Amanda Voisard/Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)
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Just weeks away from Pandemic Year Three, the scene on Saturday along D.C.’s U Street NW — that premier corridor for lines, liquor, and late-night traffic — may as well have been captured in 2019.

The crowds had showed up to eat fried chicken and sip on cocktails. To dance to ABBA, aptly outfitted in bell bottoms and flower-print T shirts, or jump around to punk music. They lined up outside the new gay bar, just a few weeks old, and the late-night stalwart pizzeria, nary a face mask in sight.

“It’s like, ‘This is it.’ It’s over. There’s no going back anymore,” said Guillermo Roa, the general manager at El Techo, a rooftop cocktail bar in the Shaw neighborhood.

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Inside the establishment, techno beats bumping under pink and red lights, 32-year-old Justin Pope was nursing an IPA and Old Fashioned at the bar as he chatted with his younger brother, back to their bimonthly routine of sibling nights out.

“It’s a big tidal wave about to wash ashore,” Pope said. “Everybody’s been tired. Everybody’s been waiting. Our freedom is coming back.”

With coronavirus case counts in and around Washington high but trending down — and government officials changing guidance and easing requirements — many here said that life, or at least nightlife, has maybe, finally, possibly gotten “back to normal,” even if that normal turns out to be another fleeting phase in the pandemic.

At DC9’s “Dark & Stormy” night, a monthly celebration of all things goth, 37-year-old Stephanie Stryker looked out at the dance floor, a half-empty room of black and purple outfits and few face masks.

“I would say it’s probably been at about 75 percent the last couple times,” she said, referring to attendance, but “we’re pretty much back to where we were at.”

Her bandmate, a 59-year-old nonprofit employee who offered up only his stage name, “MJ Phoenix,” said he had been vaccinated and boosted but still got sick. And so he was here — ready to dance, ready to drink, ready to play shows again with his band.

“You can feel that sigh of relief coming,” Phoenix said. “We need to emerge. People are starting to hide from each other.”

A changing pandemic calculus

Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, calls this the “personal responsibility” phase of the pandemic.

After nearly two years in which elected and health officials called the shots — what was open and when, who needed to get vaccinated, where people should wear a mask — the biggest choices in liberal, highly vaccinated cities such as D.C. now fall into the hands of individuals or households.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) earlier this month said she would drop the city’s requirement that people wear masks in many indoor public spaces. Proof of vaccination will no longer be required before entering many businesses in the city, although many bars and restaurants have indicated they will continue to enforce their own rules for customers and staff.

“We’ve made decisions that deprioritize the vulnerable for the sake of the majority, and that doesn’t sit well with me,” said Sehgal, who lives near the U Street corridor. “But now that those decisions have been made … the challenge now is for the average District dweller to appropriately estimate their level of risk.”

Such was the calculus made on Saturday night by Sarah Bal, 37, and her friends Vanessa Shkuda and Katie Mercier, both 36, as they opted for a table by the window at Service Bar, a laid-back cocktail bar with a view of the growing lines on U Street.

They had decided to grab drinks — the first indoor dining experience in months for Mercier — after catching a screening of “Death on the Nile” a few blocks away.

Bal said she, like her friends, had been closely following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and city officials. But with mandates now being lifted, “people are going to go places they feel comfortable,” she said. And for her, that was the bar around the corner from her apartment.

Mercier, who had recently returned from several weeks with her parents in Vermont, said she would be getting tested after her night out. Audience members at the movie had been taking their masks off to eat and drink, and the bar — which follows a strict capacity limit — nonetheless had every table full.

The group maintained that the pandemic was not going anywhere: “We’re not post-covid, we’re still in covid,” they said almost in unison.

But they could get back to doing some of the things they loved: Seeing shows at the Kennedy Center. Wearing bright red lipstick that didn’t smudge all over a face mask. And, yes, maybe a drink indoors.

‘I don’t see myself as a risk’

If there is a higher risk tolerance all around — both for spaces that are all the more crowded, and from people who had otherwise spent the past two years in a shrunken social universe — others have simply kept up what they had been doing out of public view.

Michelle Theodory, 23, who on Saturday sipped on margaritas with three friends, said she had changed little about her behavior since some bars and restaurants opened back up again in summer 2020 — even through the changing waves and variants, and through her self-described “sad-girl vaxx summer” after a breakup last year.

“I’m not worried for my own health,” she said. “I’m with friends, I’m young, I’m vaccinated, I don’t see myself as a risk to other people.”

Theodory, a data analyst who works in public health, said she had been following case counts and hospitalizations. As of this week, she said, those figures had dropped down to numbers similar to those recorded in November. She had gone drinking and clubbing in Athens and had not gotten sick, so she figured she could do the same in D.C., too, where vaccination rates were much higher.

“People are starting to realize it’s very hard to cut out social lives entirely,” she said.

A few blocks up at DC9, as the clock neared 1:30 a.m., partygoers trickled out in pairs, leaving an empty black dance floor that glistened with occasional light from disco balls from above.

But in a stage tucked into the corner of the room, Stryker and Phoenix were still at it, moving their bodies around the platform as a remix of the Cure’s “The Walk” came over the speakers.

They twirled. They spun their hips. They sighed with relief.