To prepare, she got her nails done (bright yellow acrylics), filled her shopping cart at American Eagle, bought ashy blond hair dye and scheduled her first haircut in over a year.
So when Norton showed up to her first date with a woman on June 3, she was about $350 poorer. But the nail parlor, clothing store and hair salon? They were a little bit richer.
Experts and friend groups alike are fawning over “Hot Vax Summer,” or what they expect to be a months-long party full of first dates, packed bars and other previously forbidden activities made possible by mass vaccination. That anticipation has driven up contraception sales, sent liquor sales through the roof and flushed salons with cash as people clamor to be “vaxxed and waxed.” The result is an economic engine for some of the businesses most damaged by the coronavirus pandemic, which, after a year of isolation, are now flourishing thanks to the pent-up desire to date and mingle.
National and local brands alike are preparing to monetize a podless and promiscuous summer. Anheuser-Busch, which produces Budweiser, announced that it will give away free alcohol if the United States reaches President Biden’s goal of partially vaccinating 70 percent of adults by July 4. The dating app Hinge, which tripled its revenue in 2020 and is expecting to double it in 2021, has added a feature for users to show their vaccination status. And clothing website Revolve launched a “Vaccine Ready” category on its website full of crop tops and dresses.
Washington’s small businesses are especially desperate for Hot Vax Summer to inspire spending after D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) cautious and drawn-out approach to reopening. Bowser, citing public health concerns, did not lift capacity limitations until May 21, more than two months after neighboring Maryland took more dramatic steps toward normalcy. The city fully reopened on Friday, and with it, allowed for a summer designed to make up for a year’s worth of lost time.
Stephanie Jacek, who owns a bra shop in Columbia Heights called Le Bustiere Boutique, saw her sales return to pre-pandemic levels for the first time in April. She hired back her first full-time employee since early 2020, filled a part-time position and is searching for one more part-timer to help her manage the sudden influx of customers.
“It’s like a rebirth in here,” Jacek said. “Everyone wants to get something so they can feel good and conquer the world again.”
Some customers have come to the boutique after they swapped sweatshirts for T-shirts and learned that pandemic weight gain meant they had outgrown their bras. Others, Jacek said, arrived looking for lacy or low-plunge items to make them feel good while meeting new people.
A teacher rushed into the shop during her lunch break to buy undergarments that matched her work outfit. And one woman, Jacek said, purchased a bra for a dress she wanted to wear for her first in-person date with someone she had been seeing for a year over Zoom.
The energy in the nation’s capital on a recent Saturday night can help explain why business is booming at Le Bustiere Boutique. On 14th Street, music blared from rooftops, strangers met in bathrooms, and masks were few and far between. In Navy Yard, there was an hours-long party underway at Mission bar. Maskless people downed shots and danced into the night.
“It reminds me of the World Series in D.C.,” said Fritz Brogan, a co-owner of Mission. “People are very happy, they’re yelling, they’re excited, their voice hurts, they want to make up for lost time.”
Brogan said there has been an “incredible amount of demand” for late-night festivities after Bowser lifted a year-long ban on dancing and live music. For every Saturday this month, his bar has about 12 planned parties on the books.
The same excitement that has lit up the dance floor at Mission is boosting other sectors of the economy. Over-the-counter brands of the “morning-after pill” are up by more than 34 percent compared with the same time last year, and sexual enhancement products are up by more than 65 percent, according to IRI, a market research firm. And IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, which tracks the alcoholic beverage market, is predicting that total alcohol sales volume in the United States will increase by 3.8 percent this year, driven in large part by “ready-to-drink products” like hard seltzers and premade cocktails.
Local businesses nationwide are embracing those eager to party. In Chicago, the founder of a cannabis company announced that “the Roaring Twenties is on.” In Minnesota, a brewery is hosting an event titled “A Hot Vax Summer” that pairs vaccination with speed dating.
And in D.C., Russwin Francisco, who owns an adult novelty shop called Bite the Fruit in Dupont Circle, said he is planning to stock up on “couple toys” in preparation for a steamy summer.
During the pandemic, his online store benefited from burgeoning interest in solo sex toys. He expects the end of the pandemic in D.C. to draw foot traffic back into his store and generate excitement for products meant for couples.
“It’s Hot Vax Summer, so we fully anticipate that people will begin to relax a little bit more, give themselves more permission to explore relationships or be more fluid in their committed relationships,” he said. “Maybe they’ll visit a sex shop or two and pick up some toys to spice up their bedroom life.”
Kate O’Connor, a matchmaker with It’s Just Lunch DC, is having her busiest year in her six years at the company. Her clientele, who typically pay thousands of dollars for coaching, have told her that spending a year alone made them even more eager to find a serious life partner. Her business is also benefiting from travel bans, which she said gave people who normally spend money on flights extra savings to invest in their personal lives.
After taking a significant pay cut last year, O’Connor said, she has had more financial relief now that “a lot of people are ready to move forward and go for the jugular with dating.”
Recovery fueled by a desire for intimacy, however, is as uneven as it is fruitful. While some people have more savings than ever and are ready to spend, 5.8 percent of the country’s population is still surviving off unemployment checks. And businesses in some areas are still battered by empty office spaces and a slow return of 9-to-5 workers.
According to data provided by D.C.’s Downtown Business Improvement District from Kastle Systems, which operates security at more than 290 office buildings in the District, about 19 percent of workers with their key cards have returned to their offices downtown. That is the highest percentage since April 2020 but staggeringly lower than the 98.1 percent of office workers using their key cards in February 2020.
“We see a lot of encouraging signs, we hear of people slightly accelerating their fall return plans to the summer, but it hasn’t really shown up in the data,” said Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development at D.C.’s Business Improvement District.
Business at Jadore Beauty Spa, located near the Farragut North Metro stop downtown, is still about 75 percent lower than it was pre-pandemic. As people flock to get facials and manicures closer to home, Tony Tran, who owns the spa, is still struggling to pay his bills and keep his employees on the payroll.
“There used to be tons of workers around my store,” he said. “Now? Oh my God, it’s nobody.”
But for Emily Norton, a summer of fun is well underway.
Before her first date, Norton snapped pictures of different outfits to see which one made her look casual but fun.
She went with brand-new black biker shorts, a black tank top and a blue-and-green flannel, adding an evil-eye necklace, a snake ring and thrifted earrings before meeting up with the mystery woman at a restaurant in Roanoke.
The two started with small talk, pandemic style. They chatted about missing prom, graduation and parties, and the difficulties of taking classes online.
There won’t be a second date, Norton said. But Hot Vax Summer? It’s only just begun.
Rachel Siegel contributed to this report.