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Deep Dive

China Nightlife Takes Its First Steps Toward A Comeback

Using temperature scans, urgings of “contactless” interactions and lessons learned from the SARS and MERS outbreaks, some smaller clubs have reopened on the mainland

HONG KONG — Clubbers who showed up at the Arkham nightclub in mid-March found more than a driving techno beat and DJs spinning in protective masks. Outside the 500-capacity club in Shanghai they were met with an extra-long entrance line, as doormen tested each person with a temperature gun, registered their IDs and phone numbers, and scanned QR codes on their phones to get the requisite “green” that meant they were free of COVID-19.

After being shut down for over two months while China wrestled with what was then the world’s worst outbreak of the coronavirus, Arkham reopened on March 13. But it was hardly business as usual. Promoters set out 3-foot-by-3-foot squares on the venue floor on which each clubgoer was encouraged —though not required — to stand for “contactless” interactions. While the night’s theme, “1 x 1 Fun Square Bounce” — essentially a reference to dancing in place — was mostly tongue-in-cheek, it was clear that, for the foreseeable future, nightclubbing would be a much different experience than it had been in the past — a necessity as the country takes its first steps toward allowing public gatherings without triggering a second wave of infections.

So far, only a smattering of China’s bars and nightclubs have resumed operation on the mainland, where the outbreak started in January after originating in the city of Wuhan. The country’s major nightclubs, with capacities of up to 3,000 people, expect to reopen sometime in April but continue to stay shuttered for a variety of reasons, including access to the top-flight internationally recognized DJs who drive customer traffic. Many of those artists are staying put due to coronavirus outbreaks in their home countries.

The smaller clubs that have reopened are implementing strict government health guidelines meant to prevent the virus outbreak cycle from recurring. Efforts to restart entertainment venues have been stop-and-start thus far. After reopening some 500 cinemas in mainland China, the China Film Administration sent a note to exhibitors on March 27 urging them to close again, reportedly because of a locally transmitted case of the coronavirus in neighboring Zhejiang province.

In another sign of how precarious the situation is, Hong Kong’s local government announced March 27 its toughest social-distancing measures yet, after a record 65 new infections — mostly from residents returning from overseas — pushed the city’s total of confirmed cases to more than 518. Officials ordered all cinemas, gyms, game centers, saunas and party rooms to shut down and limited gatherings to four people. Then on April 1, Hong Kong added nightclubs, karaoke lounges and mahjong parlors to the list when the city confirmed another 51 COVID-19 patients, 17 of them with no recent travel history, bringing the total to 765 cases.

China Relying On QR Color-Code System

Club owners and promoters on China’s mainland — eager to make up for lost income — are determined to avoid such setbacks. “The government already approved our application to reopen, and we’re following the protocols to make sure it’s safe,” says Louis Dong Zhao, the founder of Orangutan Club, a 500-capacity venue in Chengdu that features hip-hop, reggaetón and Afro beats.

On reopening night at Arkham, security denied entrance to one American man, despite being a friend of Arkham’s creative and music director, Esa Mai, because he didn’t have the mobile account needed to access the required QR code. “It’s kind of sad, but the rule is the rule,” Mai tells Billboard. “There’s no exception for entrance without the green QR code.”

With new coronavirus cases officially slowed to a trickle, China has deployed a novel technology to track new potential outbreaks: a color-coding system that indicates a person’s health status.

The app-enabled coronavirus-tracking system, which launched in over 100 cities in February through the mobile-payment platform Alipay, assigns users one of three colored “stamps” — green, yellow and red — that are readable as a QR code on users’ smartphones. (The app is free.) The green code shows that a user is not under quarantine for testing positive for COVID-19 and can move freely around the city. Those with yellow and red codes would need to either self-quarantine or undergo supervised quarantines — and they won’t be allowed into nightclubs.

The system determines residents’ status based on factors like travel history, ties to potential carriers of the virus and the duration of time they have spent in a virus-stricken area. It has been criticized for inaccurately rating some users and for privacy breaches. Nevertheless, promoters at clubs like Arkham say they will rely on the system for now to keep the DJ booth thumping.

“I know our customers need to [line up for] a longer time to check their health status,” says Mai. “But I do hope that they can understand this is our responsibility to protect our customers, DJs and staff [from the] threat of a second wave of infection.”

In Asia, sensitivity toward health and safety guidelines runs high when it comes to potential global pandemics, and for good reason. The outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in the early 2000s and the H1N1 virus (swine flu) in 2009 put Asia on high alert for a virus like COVID-19. And the spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2015 marked yet another teaching moment for the region’s live-music sector, particularly in South Korea.

A’Shower-Style Disinfecting Spray System’

In June 2015, the decision by K-pop boy band TVXQ! to hold two shows in Seoul for 24,000 fans of the group, a month after the first confirmed MERS patient, was initially criticized because the shows took place during the outbreak. But the safety measures put into play then were so well received that they would return in 2020.

For the two shows in 2015, organizers moved all TVXQ! merchandise sales online to avoid lines and waived fees for canceling tickets due to concerns about the outbreak, and the entire concert hall was sanitized daily. Upon entrance, all attendees were required to be sprayed with a disinfectant — TVXQ!’s Korean label, SM Entertainment, promised it was “harmless to humans” — and to walk past a thermal-imaging camera that detected concertgoers who might have fevers. Local reports cited five times the amount of usual medical staff on hand.

“It wasn’t as frightening as COVID-19, but we did make it our first and only priority to keep everyone safe,” says a close staff member of TVXQ! who worked at the 2015 concerts and asked not to be named. “We had medical staff onsite to make sure if anyone felt sick they could get immediate help. All surfaces and spaces were thoroughly sanitized.”

In January and early February, when some K-pop acts, including girl group Apink and singer-producer Bumzu, pushed on with local concerts even as COVID-19 began spreading in South Korea, venues once again installed thermal scanners to check temperatures, required audience members to wear masks and wash their hands, and encouraged the use of hand sanitizer. Korean label Woollim Entertainment cited the safety practices developed in 2015 by TVXQ! as its model for a three-day concert run in early February for Kim Sung Kyu, the lead vocalist of boy band INFINITE who had embarked on a solo tour.

South Korea, which has largely contained the outbreak to under 10,000 confirmed cases, continues to prioritize health and safety measures in the entertainment world. In January, audience members were asked to wear masks and use hand sanitizer before entering the first floor of Seoul’s CJ E&M Center, where episodes of M Countdown, a K-pop chart show, are recorded. That lasted until early February, when production companies began recording K-pop TV shows without audiences.

Press conferences for TV dramas in South Korea are now streamed online to prevent any virus spread. That practice started at the beginning of February, when the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 was 11.

In the film world, during the H1N1 virus outbreak in 2009, the Busan International Film Festival installed a walk-through, shower-style disinfecting spray system for every audience member entering the festival’s large venues.

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, nightclubbers aren’t relying entirely on the venues to minimize the risk of infection. Arkham’s Mai recalls witnessing a bit of self-policing among the clubbers. “On the dance floor I saw a group of expats dancing with masks on all night,” she says. “And they kept reminding others to put their masks on, especially when someone tried to join them for a dance.”

Additional reporting by Jeff Benjamin and Nemo Kim.