Risque business: Strip club owner struggles amid pandemic, lack of virus-relief funds

Coronavirus

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Sitting on the outskirts of El Paso, a longtime El Paso gentleman’s club sits dimly lit adjacent to Interstate 10, inviting anyone in who’s looking for a party.

But in an industry where getting paid relies on getting close, local strip club Red Parrot fights to stay afloat in a now contactless world.

Darius Belcher, general manager of Red Parrot, told KTSM 9 News how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his business.

“I want to keep my club open — it’s been in my family 25 years and it means a lot to us,” Belcher said.

The club has been around for more than two decades, he said, adding that never before has he faced a bigger financial challenge than the pandemic.

“The COVID factor has really changed our business 100 percent, from top to bottom,” Belcher said.

A once-booming business went dark when the first confirmed virus cases were reported in El Paso, putting a pause on businesses like his and others city-wide.

“We were shut down for 73 days — 73 days no income, no work for my employees, no work for the entertainers, as well,” Belcher said. “Once we opened up, after that we were forced to shut down for another 70 days.”

Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars to shut their doors in June after businesses were given the green light to re-open after weeks of shuttering. To get around this legally, bars were allowed to apply for a food and beverage license with TABC to function as a restaurant.

This means bars and nightclubs needed to serve food in order to open and keep the majority of sales coming from food, rather than alcohol. Bars could add a kitchen or simply add a food truck to stay within TABC guidelines.

The Red Parrot applied for the license and added a food truck to the establishment.

However, Belcher said the business took such a major financial hit from its time staying closed that he’s still trying to make up for it.

Unlike other shuttered businesses, the Red Parrot — an adult-oriented business — is barred from receiving coronavirus relief funds under the Small Business Administration, as it presents live performances of a “prurient sexual nature.”

“The SBA — we got denied. The PPP — we got denied. Local funds — we got denied. Personal banks,” Belcher said.

Other businesses across the country in the same boat filed lawsuits, fighting to receive assistance. In some places, like Michigan, judges sided with the strip clubs.

According to NBC News, U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman sided with plaintiffs, led by the DV Diamond Club in Flint, Michigan, and said the Small Business Administration — in doling out funds from the Paycheck Protection Program — cannot exclude legal businesses deemed to be of a “prurient sexual nature.”

Back in El Paso, Red Parrot management says its unfair their business won’t receive any financial assistance, especially when they were ordered to close for so long.

“Now me, I don’t understand that. I pay a beverage tax, mixed beverage tax, federal tax, state tax and we lost about, in essence, $200,000 to $300,000 worth of revenue,” Belcher said.

Covering up to stay open

Belcher said he’s made many changes to how his strip club operates in order to meet COVID-19 guidelines.

The dancers make sure to cover up with face masks, along with patrons and employees at Red Parrot.

“You can’t just come and walk into the Red Parrot now — you have to buy food. Once you buy food, you have to walk in the door with your food because we’re operating like a restaurant,” Belcher said.

He said tables are also spaced six feet apart, no more than two chairs to a table and hand sanitizing stations are provided.

And what used to demand all eyes on center stage now takes a step back to virus precautions: dancing.

“It’s not so much jumping up and down anymore. We do have a girl every once in a while, she might walk around on the stage, but we don’t have the total full contact we used to have, unfortunately,” Belcher said.

Belcher said they discourage the dancers from being onstage, but if they decide to, they use tin buckets at the ends of the stage for patrons to tip, contact-free.

He said instead of dancing and the traditional entertainment at a strip club, dancers sit with patrons and converse.

“If you look around you’ll see all our tables are social distancing, when the girls are on stage we aren’t doing any dancing, everybody is just sitting down having a conversation,” Belcher said.

To open or close

Changes or not, the topic of strip clubs operating during a pandemic sparked a controversial debate between El Paso city leaders, landing on an El Paso City Council agenda.

During the City Council meeting, District 2 Rep. Alexsandra Anello brought up concerns over businesses like Red Parrot and if they were doing enough to protect the community from spreading COVID-19.

“I think this is a conversation we need to have because I don’t see the necessity of these businesses right now,” Anello said.

“How does one socially distance at a strip club?” District 3 Rep. Cassandra Hernandez questioned.

Meanwhile other Council members disagreed.

“These strip clubs, I’m sure there’s mothers there too that need to feed their families,” District 6 Rep. Claudia Lizette Rodriguez said.

As KTSM reported, the vote to shut down strip bars ultimately failed. City Reps. Sam Morgan, Isabel Salcido, Claudia Rodriguez and Cissy Lizarraga voted against the item. Mayor Dee Margo broke the tie vote.

“People can’t see at the end of the day, it’s still a business. We still pay taxes, we still employ people,” Belcher said.

Belcher said he’s actually in agreement with closing down if it’s needed for the safety and good of the public, but he adds, again, that he would require assistance to do it without going under.

“I have no problem with it. The problem is when you tell me to close down and I have no income coming in and you expect me to pay all my bills,” Belcher said.

On Oct. 29, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego ordered a shutdown of non-essential businesses for at least two weeks. Met with pushback from business owners, Margo and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the 34th District Court held a hearing on the shutdown. District Judge William Moody ruled on Friday that the order stands.

This means Red Parrot shut its doors once again. The order is set to expire Wednesday at 11:59 p.m., but it can be extended.

Until then, Belcher said without assistance, he’ll continue to stay positive and continue following guidelines to be ready to open soon.

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