For Nneka “DJ Nneka” Ndukwe, the air outside Club Onyx smelled like freedom. The 36-year-old has spent the past two years spinning at the Houston strip club, making close to $3,000 most weekends — but after Texas’ social-distancing restrictions went into effect on March 20, her night job dried up like the rest of the restaurant and nightlife industry.
So, at midnight on May 1, the first day of Governor Greg Abbott’s phased reopening plan, Ndukwe was lined up like everybody else, waiting to get inside. “You can’t live off of unemployment forever,” she says.
But Club Onyx wasn’t reopening as a strip club — it was opening as a restaurant that just so happened to include a little flesh on display. Strip clubs weren’t included in the state’s phase one, but restaurants were, so Onyx CEO Eric Langan was trying to fit a good time through a loophole.
Not everyone agreed on the move’s legitimacy. Fifteen minutes after Club Onyx’s midnight reopening, Houston Police Department and Fire Marshal sirens sounded, and officers descended on the 16-year-old establishment. Langan stood outside, arguing with HPD; because the club’s health permits categorize Onyx as a “full-service restaurant,” he maintained, he had every right to reopen.
The large sections that celebrities and NBA athletes turned into mini-parties with dozens of their friends and dancers? Gone. The streams of dollar bills sliding into thongs? Gone. The stages? Roped off with barricades three feet out.
Ultimately, at 1:55 a.m. — after more than 90 minutes of waiting — those waiting outside were allowed to enter the club. If Ndukwe had any doubt about Onyx’s prospects in a socially distancing era, they disappeared the moment she stepped inside the space. “Going to the strip club is sort of like a lifestyle,” she says. “The dancers were just like, ‘Lord, can they leave so we can turn the music back up?’”
The club had gotten its way, but its weekend was still in jeopardy. Later that Friday, just before Onyx’s 7 p.m. opening, Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, granted Onyx a temporary restraining order against the city of Houston, allowing Onyx to operate as a restaurant until a May 8 hearing. Ndukwe was back in a job.
Even with the temporary protection of a federal judge that first weekend — the club’s first in six weeks — Onyx’s employees walked a line between anxiety and rebelliousness. “We were leery about any undercover action, so everyone was really, really on their toes,” Ndukwe says. People waited outside, socially distanced, in a roped-off line; bouncers checked temperatures and asked about patrons’ history with Covid-19 symptoms. Everyone who came in was required to purchase a meal.
Inside, every Onyx employee wore masks, including the dancers. Every Onyx employee had their temperature checked and was instructed to wear surgical gloves and not to touch any of the patrons. Dancers could not dance on any of the tables, and each pole on stage was wiped and disinfected after each performer.
The large sections that celebrities and NBA athletes have turned into mini-parties with dozens of their friends and dancers? Gone. The streams of dollar bills sliding into thongs? Gone. (Mostly. “After they ate or while they were waiting for their food, they got some ones and showed the girls some love,” Ndukwe said.) The stages? Roped off with barricades three feet out from the stage. But it wasn’t just furniture. Very little inside Club Onyx resembled its normal self — down to the customers.
Houston is home to more than 904,000 African Americans — more than a quarter of Texas’ entire African American population, according to the Houston State of Health website. From Nneka’s vantage point on most Onyx nights, the club is a sea of Black joy, with beautiful Black women as the center of attention. That’s how it was on March 16, its last night open before Covid-19 came through. “[Club managers had] started talking about closing down,” Ndukwe remembers. “We all felt it in the air. That one night, I made $2,500. It was like God put me in this position to have a little money to hold onto.”
But after Governor Abbott’s reopening guidelines mandated restaurants operate at only 25% occupancy, Club Onyx was limited to 75 people inside at any one time — including staff. (Later, Langan told the Houston Chronicle that he had to turn away more than 300 patrons in order to maintain social distancing.) “It wasn’t just trap dudes coming in,” Ndukwe says. “It was damn near more White people than Black people. That right there showed people wanted to see this stuff open. They weren’t tripping off what they couldn’t do.”
Many of those people were at Club Onyx for the very first time. And while they weren’t regular patrons, they were thirsting for a return to normalcy, satiated by droplets of debauchery and appreciative of the good time. “It wasn’t a party — it was more like a fundraiser,” Ndukwe says.
“The customers couldn’t even come close to the stage, but people were still tipping and donating to the girls. I was amazed at how many people were still supportive despite all of the rules.”
Patrons weren’t required to wear masks, but Nneka remembered most patrons during the first weekend did. (Though most of the people who were wearing masks were Black people, as African Americans are disproportionately bearing the brunt of Covid-19 deaths in Houston.) But who did or didn’t wear masks was the last thing on anyone’s mind at the end of everyone’s first weekend working; the veteran DJ made just $700 that weekend and remembers each dancer making roughly $1,000 each night.
Still, it was Ndukwe’s first check since that $2,500 night in March. “I didn’t know if I was going to be DJ Nneka when the world opened back up,” she says. “I had to come to grips with myself and say, ‘Okay, Nneka, you may have to go work at McDonald’s to sustain your life.”
The reprieve turned out to be short-lived: At the May 8 hearing over the temporary restraining order that had allowed Onyx to remain open, a federal judge ordered that the club could remain open as a restaurant only if it doesn’t offer dancing — clothed or otherwise. For one weekend, though, Club Onyx was a dream: comforting in its familiarity, unforgiving in its transience, and aspirational in its promise for what we’ll find when we finally wake from this national coma.