Home Arts & Life Popular Church Street club struggles to stay afloat during the pandemic

Popular Church Street club struggles to stay afloat during the pandemic

by Alexander Schummer

Crews and Tangos temporarily closed its doors in late-December; now its owner is hoping for a rebound

Caption: Daytime exterior shot of Crews and Tangos club. (Courtesy of Maverick Michael Ramawad)

As some nightclub owners have been forced to close their doors for good, Maverick Michael Ramawad, owner of Crews and Tangos, is fighting to make sure his business — a staple in the LGBTQ2S+ community — has a future. 

The club, which operates out of a colourful building on Church Street, has been shuttered for six weeks. But it’s scheduled to reopen Feb. 3 and Ramawad says he hopes that’s the beginning of better times.

“People reach out and message me, saying how much they miss Crews and Tangos,” says Ramawad. “They miss being with their friends, miss the bar, miss watching drag shows, and being themselves.”

On Dec 19, Crews and Tangos sent out a tweet announcing it would be temporarily closing its doors to help “flatten the curve.”  

Tweet from Crews and Tangos announcing its temporary closure (courtesy of Maverick Michael Ramawad)

Ramawad says that even before then, COVID restrictions were making it hard for businesses like his to thrive. Bars and restaurants were forced to close at 11 p.m.; patrons were prevented from dancing or leaving their tables. Those rules, combined with a 50 per cent capacity limit, seriously affected nightclubs like Crews and Tangos, where the primary focus is dancing and social interaction. For most of the pandemic, the club has only been able to host drag shows, eliminating two-thirds of its features. Then, forced closures of clubs meant even that income was lost.

“At best, I’ve only been allowed to operate the front portion, which basically means 80 to 100 people inside,” says Ramawad. “This is a major struggle, because when you look at the costs to put on a drag show, along with additional security to check people’s vaccinations and ensure they’re wearing their masks… the overhead is quite high.”

Even without the threat of COVID-19, nightclubs have always been an extremely difficult business. With high operating expenses and competition, it’s unsurprising many go under in their first year. Successful nightclubs require a large and steady clientele to keep their lights on, which is why lockdown restrictions have decimated the industry. With frequent shutdowns, reduced capacity, and strict rules about what kind of activities clubgoers can participate in, many establishments have experienced a sharp decline in revenue. This has made Crews and Tangos unprofitable, even with government subsidies, forcing Ramawad to dip into his own savings to keep the business afloat. 

“It was draining me to the point where I thought this would be the end, cause I was constantly going in and out,” explains Ramawad. “I was trying to figure out how I’d pay for my hydro bill, my insurance — all these costs, when I have no income coming into the bar.”

Fortunately, Ramawad says his landlord has been understanding. But even with that help, Crews and Tangos can only afford to bleed for so long.

Crews and Tangos is not the only club to be affected by lockdown restrictions. Sergio Senatore, a Toronto entrepreneur, business owner, and CEO of entertainment and hospitality company, CultTO, says he has witnessed the pandemic destroy countless nightclubs across Toronto. Sadly, he does not see any way for these businesses to survive, if the lockdowns continue.

Sergio Senatore posing for a candid shot at a Toronto bar. (Courtesy of Sergio Senatore)

“It’s been a battle,” says Senatore. “In the last two years, retail has been closed for 224 days, hair and nail salons have been closed for 311 days, gyms have been closed for 423 days… and indoor dining and nightlife has been closed for a total of 436 days. It’s had a massive impact.”

Senatore described countless businesses, across various industries, which had to close their doors because of lockdown restrictions. But it appears the pandemic has hit nightclubs hardest.

“What’s been impacted the most is larger clubs,” explains Senatore. “For one, they’re not able to have a big enough crowd. Two, people who are there have to sit down; they can’t dance. It’s really unfortunate.”

Despite the current situation being rather grim, Senatore says he does see hope in sight.

“I do believe there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel,” says Senatore. “The places that do survive, will be very successful when everything reopens. It’s going to be like the Roaring ‘20s. But it’s unfortunate there’s a lot of businesses that haven’t survived, (that) should have survived, and should be here with us.”

It’s not just business owners who are feeling the brunt of these restrictions. Some Crews and Tangos patrons say the club has been effectively stripped of what made it a fun and unique experience for queer people in Toronto. They say that by taking away the ability to socialize, individuals in an already isolated community are being prevented from meeting supportive people who share their interests. 

“A lot of people don’t have queer community around them, unless they go to the village, to places like Crews and Tangos,” says Ryerson student Jade Louisy. “People who already didn’t have a supportive community are finding it difficult to meet new people. Because the places we used to go specifically to find each other are no longer available to us.”

Louisy explained that, before the pandemic, Crews and Tangos was packed full of people, dancing to loud music. But after the restrictions came in, it became a completely different atmosphere. People had to stay at their tables, and it was a much smaller crowd. 

Another Ryerson student, Nick Altomare, says he is also saddened by the temporary closure of Crews and Tangos. He hopes the lockdown can end quickly, and Ontario will return to normal before more businesses are forced to shut down for good. 

“As a part of the community, I saw Crews as a ‘safe haven.’ It offered an environment of acceptance, comfortability, and unity,” says Altomare. “It was an environment that members of the community sadly do not always experience. I think many would be sad if Crews had to close down, as it’s seen as a rite of passage for LGBTQ+ individuals in the city.”

Despite the hardships, Ramawad still holds optimism for the future of Crews and Tangos. But with his lease coming up for renewal at month’s end, he wants to see if the government will remove lockdown restrictions as promised.

That echoes Senatore, who says the livelihood of many club owners will depend on how quickly Ontario can return to normal. 

“I’ve been able to keep it afloat, and we’ll see what happens on Jan. 31,” says Ramawad. “We’re scheduled to reopen Feb. 3. Hopefully by the summer, restrictions will clear up and I’ll be operating all five days. Then Crews and Tangos can survive.”

Journalist

I'm a fourth year journalism student at Ryerson University. Writing has always been my passion. From a young age, I became obsessed with mastering the written word, and looked to journalism as a way of transferring those skills into meaningful employment. My dream is to travel the world as a journalist, soaking up various cultures, which will hopefully aid in my long-term goal of becoming a novelist.

You may also like