C/O Yoohyun Park
Stringent restrictions on clubs and gathering spaces have changed student nightlife
Nights on the town replaced by Netflix parties, social gatherings constrained to a Zoom screen — those have been the realities of the university social scene for the last year. The spaces once meant for dancing and screaming at the top of your lungs just to find your voice gone the next day have disappeared over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hole left by where these social spaces once stood is felt not only by students, but also by business owners and the greater Hamilton community.
Restrictions and guidelines for nightclubs, music venues and entertainment establishments have been especially stringent over the course of the pandemic, largely due to concerns over the ability to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing. As a result, a number of local nightlife hotspots have had to creatively rethink the way they operate and do business within the Hamilton community.
“Nightclubs weren't even able to open up — we're lucky because we had seating and an in-house food menu. If you didn't have seats, you weren't able to open until July 2021, so we removed all our couches from the VIP area and moved bottle service onto the dance floor. It turned into a seated party,” said Dash Majithia, manager of Zen Lounge.
Brodie Schwendiman, owner and operator of The Casbah, a live music venue on King Street West, echoed similar sentiments in regards to the ways they’ve adapted their business to meet demands of ever-changing restrictions.
“From an operational standpoint, the main way we have changed how we interact with the community would be that we have a patio now . . . People know Casbah as a place to go to see music bands or listen to a DJ. Most people wouldn’t go to The Casbah for dinner so it required a lot of extra promotional energy,” explained Schwendiman.
Though the transformation of these spaces into mainly food establishments has allowed them to continue operating given the less stringent restrictions on restaurants, there’s been a disappearance of the floors once meant for dance, crowding and heat islands of energy.
The limited operations of these gathering spaces has negative ramifications on the student social scene and larger Hamilton nightlife.
“Why do people want to go to the nightclub? To talk to other people, to dance — all of the things that were not allowed. [At Zen Lounge] you had to sit in your group that you came with. There was a max of six or eight people per table. You weren't allowed to dance. You weren't allowed to walk around and mingle,” said Majithia.
There finally seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of McMaster students’ return to campus. However, having been away from campus for so long, there is now an entire generation of undergrads who have never had a ‘normal’ undergraduate social experience. And, those social experiences aren’t always easy to find — especially right now.
Schwendiman went on to describe that, even before the pandemic, there were difficulties for small music venues like his in reaching a student audience. Non-campus-affiliated groups had a more difficult time advertising events geared towards students in the areas around campus and the variable commute to off-campus venues added a barrier to access for many.
However, nightlife establishments have now almost completely lost their student client base. In a niche market where business owners often came to know their regular student visitors on a first-name basis, the undergrad and student crowds have been especially sparse as of late.
“I feel like we've lost touch with all these groups in the last few years because the people that were coming to us to do their parties and stuff moved on. The kids never came back,” said Majithia.
On the brink of a full return to campus for the Winter 2022 semester, students back in the Hamilton area can slowly find their way into the hustle and bustle of student life and with it, the nightlife of the surrounding areas.
“Finding the time is sometimes challenging, but what I would say to students is that I encourage them to carve out time to do their own research about Hamilton's cultural scene. Online, there's all kinds of places to learn about what's going on. Social media is such an important thing now, so it's very easy to access what's going on just by surfing around,” said Schwendiman.
Despite the difficulties posed by restrictions that nightlife establishments have dealt with in the face of the pandemic, business owners and the Hamilton community are excited to welcome students back to the area. Take a night off and see what it means to experience the vibrant social spheres of the Hamilton community.