It was New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles, and even as bodies were piling up in COVID-19-ravaged morgues, some Angelenos were eager to party. A little before 10 p.m., a throng of decked-out revelers began to congregate downtown on 8th and South Los Angeles streets. Earlier that day, despite state and county Safer-at-Home orders that prohibit gatherings among people from different households, a group called LeDiskoNights had sent out a mass text that revealed the approximate address of the furtive event and laid out a few ground rules. Partygoers were instructed to approach a man sitting in a parked white car outside the party’s address and relay a “password” phrase: “Do you know where the Post Office is?” In turn, he’d quietly direct them where to park, and how to get inside. But the discretion was short-lived.
By midnight, packs of people were lined up in the street outside the secret venue, waiting for the doorman to wave them in. Inside, a couple hundred attendees, most of them unmasked, danced to rap and loudly cheered the arrival of 2021. They weren’t the only ones, of course. Miles away in the San Fernando Valley, a rowdy gang of TikTok influencers hosted upward of 600 people at a house party in Encino, where mask-free partiers smooshed shoulder to shoulder to count down to midnight. In Van Nuys, 50 revelers gathered at a ball-drop party hosted by the clothing line StockedUp, where young, maskless partiers danced and screamed over the music in anticipation of the new year. “Happy New Years. We fucking made it,” L.A.-based rapper Lil’ Death Star, who reportedly attended the Van Nuys party, said in a video posted to Instagram. “A lot of n—as didn’t make it to 2021. We did!”
Even before the pandemic shut down the region’s bars and clubs, L.A.’s Warehouse District was a haven for secretive nightclubs. As COVID casualties have spiked, surpassing 100 a day in Los Angeles County, underground clubs have continued to operate and thrive with little law enforcement intervention. Some promoters openly brag about their police connections and even hire off-duty cops to work security. On any given night, multiple parties are quietly talking place across the city at makeshift nightclubs and strip clubs with names like ClubRockstarParadise, the Doll’s House, and Kobe’s House that charge patrons up to $100 a person to get in. Their entrances are hidden behind a network of alleyways leading to fenced-in parking lots to shelter them from prying eyes. The parties usually pop up in tiny spaces with few bathrooms—ideal environments for the virus to spread. Inside, the air is thick with fog from smoke machines and “social distancing” is a meaningless concept—people exchange blunts, share drinks, and snort bumps of cocaine off of each other’s keys. Attendees presumably know about the virus, how it spreads, and the restrictions it’s bred, and are either skeptical or just don’t care.
“There’s a lot of [COVID-19] numbers that are just, like, fake numbers,” one partygoer says. “Everybody really needs to just relax and spread more love.”
For a while this fall, as the Southern California’s COVID-19 stats began to spiral out of control, it seemed law enforcement was going to get serious about enforcing the ban on gatherings, at least in extreme cases. In early December, shortly after California Governor Gavin Newsom issued the new, limited, safer-at-home order, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced that his agency would begin targeting so-called “superspreader” events. But L.A.’s downtown club scene kept going—and no one seemed to be in a rush to stop it. Despite a curfew requiring all nonessential employees to stay in their homes between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., nightlife influencers have skirted the guidance. Esports YouTuber FaZe Banks threw a rave under the Hollywood sign with DJ Itay Galo just a few days after the lockdown was announced. Although the production companies affiliated with the shoot claimed to have secured permits, FilmLA tells Los Angeles that they have no record of any shoots allowed there. On a Saturday in mid-November, hundreds of revelers pushed their way into a tiny back room in downtown Los Angeles for another LeDiskoNights party. Undulating bodies moved in time to the late Chicago rapper King Von’s “Crazy Story,” a tale of someone risking their life for momentary pleasure. The irony was almost poetic. Among the guests that night was Bobby Brown Jr., who turned up dead in his apartment a few days later. His cause of death is still under investigation, according to the coroner’s office.
L.A.-based rapper BigKlit, an artist on Sony Music’s imprint Records, performed that evening, and some of the city’s hottest young rappers turned out for the occasion. On the mic in the DJ booth, as the likes of DJ Hu Dat and Axel Escalante looked on, BigKlit launched into a speech that seemed to address the deadly elephant in the room: “There’s one purpose to life, bruh. There’s only one fucking purpose to life. And that’s to have fun, bitch!…Fuck your make believe enemies, bitch!” she screamed, “There’s only one fucking enemy here, and that’s the motherfucking government!”
On the dance floor, Tori Lucifora roared her approval. The 24-year-old DJ moved to Los Angeles from Boston last September and has turned up at all the most raucous downtown parties ever since. She says she wears personal protective equipment while in public spaces, but ventures barefaced to parties without any worries. “I feel like people are just kind of like getting scared of it and that’s causing shit to happen,” she says. “I’ve just been trying to just live my life like I always do, and it’s been good for me . . . I don’t think I’m being selfish because I’m not really doing anything crazy.”
Lucifora, who is white, sees herself as left-leaning and an ally of the Black Lives Matter movement; her social media accounts feature photos of her participating in the protests that spread across the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But despite COVID’s proven and disproportionate impact on communities of color, she insinuates that the pandemic is a hoax. “There’s also a lot of numbers that are just, like, fake numbers,” Lucifora says. “Everybody really needs to just relax and spread more love, and stop spreading so much negativity. Because that’s what’s going to cause the world to end—the people. It’s not going to be, like, some natural disaster.”
LeDiskoNights, the promoter behind the New Year’s Eve party downtown, is managed by Keith Wilson, a longtime scenemaker who reportedly works with a quartet of popular nightlife fixtures to create a “cool” environment inside the party. One of them, John Dal Santo, used to host the traveling BDSM-themed party Soft Leather, which was one of the city’s most popular underground events until several event attendees accused Dal Santo of sexual impropriety. Dal Santo responded by suing his accusers for defamation, but Soft Leather soon lost its luster. So when Wilson began putting together his weekly pandemic party last summer, he turned to Dal Santo and the Soft Leather crew for their prized guest list with hundreds of phone numbers and email addresses. Wilson has told colleagues he is not working with Dal Santo.
Renee Worley, a content creator and downtown fixture, was active in the city’s underground nightlife scene up until the emergence of COVID last Spring. She’d once hosted Soft Leather, but publicly ended her association with Dal Santo when the allegations against him first surfaced. In March, she took to social media and made a public pledge to obey health guidelines and stay home until the COVID-19 pandemic subsided. She says she’s been shocked by the reluctance of her peers in the nightlife scene to take proper precautions against the pandemic, and she singles out promoters for special opprobrium. A few months ago she started posting videos on her Instagram page documenting popular users who’ve continued to deny the severity of the coronavirus. Her posts have made her a target of coronavirus skeptics and earned the ire of some promoters, some of whom have harassed her with threatening phone calls at her home. But she’s continued to post anyway. “I think publicly shaming people is the only thing that’s going to work at this point,” she says. But like other nightlife veterans, she thinks the law enforcement response has been surprisingly lax.
When it comes to dealing with clubland’s COVID scofflaws, Los Angeles Police Department public information officer Drake Madison insists the agency has been “following the guidelines issued by the Mayor’s office.” He says that in “rare instances when we contact someone not following the guidelines, officers will speak with those individuals and educate them.” Drake said that under “extreme circumstances where voluntary compliance can’t be obtained,” a “request for complaint” will be completed and forwarded to the city attorney’s office for filing, the first step toward shuttering an underground club or prosecuting attendees.
Still, until recently, only one major nightlife player had suffered any real legal consequences for violating local restrictions. L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer filed a civil lawsuit in mid-December against the owners and operators of L.A. Party Society, an underground nightclub in DTLA’s Fashion District. Real estate investor David Taban, who controls a pair of LLCs listed as the property’s owners, is also currently being prosecuted in two separate criminal cases for running illegal cannabis dispensaries. The LAPD claimed it had documented several incidents of violence at L.A. Party Society, including extortion, robbery, assault, and multiple shootouts. In one incident, a bouncer, patron, and nightclub owner and operator Yves Oscar were all shot. But parties were allowed to continue at the location for months while police investigated—and none of its patrons were cited for disobeying health orders. The city attorney’s office says it is currently pursuing cases against dozens of businesses for violating the health protocol, but no individuals for gathering or failing to wear a mask.
That changed on New Year’s Eve when the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Superspreader Task Force reported that it broke up five parties from Malibu to Pomona and arrested and cited upward of 100 people. Still, the department has been unable or unwilling to stop the events before they start. In early December, after sheriff’s deputies shut down a “massive underground party” in Palmdale, Sheriff Alex Villanueva praised the action as timely, but the Los Angeles Times later reported that the department knew about the event in advance and allowed it to proceed anyway. The New Years Eve raids may be a sign that law enforcement is getting serious about the nightlife scene’s COVID violators. But 11 months into the pandemic, with the region’s ICU capacity hovering at 0 percent, patrons and promoters still aren’t getting the message.
At the moment, tickets for parties in January and beyond are continuing to be listed on Eventbrite and posted on Instagram. Lucifora, at least, says that she’ll be partying on. “This has been a really big year of growth for me, “ she says. “So I’m thankful for it.”