You could hear the music from the sidewalk, high-spirited renditions of “Ice Ice Baby” and “MMMBop.”
It was ’90s night at Rumi, a ballroom and event space in the Chelsea section of Manhattan in New York City, and millennials and Gen Zers lined up to get inside. They dressed the part in tracksuits, neon crop tops, denim overalls and scrunchies.
To enter, they had to pass two checkpoints. First, a bouncer verified IDs and took temperatures. Then, Joseph Ko, one of the ballroom’s owners, confirmed that each person had been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. The process took about five minutes.
The crowd seemed happy, eager even, to comply. Some flashed their paper vaccination cards, protected in a plastic case or folded into their wallets. “I carry it around with me everywhere,” said Tom Allen, 25, a lawyer in Chelsea, pulling the card out from his passport. He was with eight friends who had been texting days earlier to make sure everyone had the proper documentation.
Catherine Fiorentino, 35, a lawyer who lives in downtown Brooklyn, used an Excelsior Pass, a digital “vaccine passport” created by New York state. “This is the first time I’m going to an Excelsior Pass event. It’s so cool,” she said. “I’m not just excited to get to my first party post-COVID, but I’m excited to spend it with other people who are also vaccinated.”
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now advises that fully vaccinated people can gather indoors without masks (and stand closer than 6 feet apart), the ballroom took extra precaution, per state guidelines: Each group was assigned to a designated area marked off by white tape. But within each group, it felt like old times: Patrons were dancing, singing at the top of their lungs and smooching on the dance floor.
“I feel like I can drink without a mask on, dance without a mask on and be a little less cautious,” Fiorentino said.
Vaccinated-only parties have started to pop up across the country, especially in and around New York City, where anyone over 16 has been eligible for vaccination since April 6.
Bar and club owners in New York are not required to check for vaccine cards, but there are benefits to doing so. On May 3, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that places where proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test is required can operate at a greater capacity.
Some partygoers say they feel safer knowing that others are vaccinated. That was the case at the Bear Party, a sex-positive gathering for men held in a midtown Manhattan loft. To its long list of house rules (no shirts, no pants, no alcohol) comes a new one: Patrons must be fully vaccinated.
In addition to a CDC card or an Excelsior Pass, patrons can also show documentation proving they “were part of a vaccine trial, were unblinded and did indeed receive real vaccine,” according to the Bear Party website. “Foreign vaccine card equivalents, Green Passes, etc. will be accepted too.”
At 6 p.m. on a recent Friday, about a dozen guests in gym clothes and jeans arrived at a nondescript door at a building in the West 30s between a construction site and a South American restaurant. Like well-behaved schoolchildren, they had their vaccine cards out and ready to show before entering the building.
“I will have more fun knowing everybody inside is vaccinated,” said a 35-year-old man who declined to give his name. He kept his vaccine card in a Ziploc bag. “Especially with sex, it’s important that people feel as safe as possible.”
Some patrons likened the process at some venues to showing off their IDs on their 21st birthday. Time will tell whether vaccine cards become the new velvet rope, or whether the novelty will last.
While New York state is encouraging bars and clubs to ask for proof of vaccination, other states are handling the situation differently. California does not have its own vaccine passport, but it does allow indoor events that check for vaccinations (or negative COVID tests) to operate at greater capacity. In Florida, however, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation this week making it illegal for businesses, schools and government offices to require proof of vaccination, with fines of up to $5,000.
Legal experts say that absent such a law, public establishments are allowed to require proof of vaccination for entry. “If you are a bar or club you can legally discriminate on the basis of someone’s vaccination status, but the law requires you to give reasonable accommodation to those persons who have a medical disability or sincerely held religious beliefs,” said Lee Jacobs, a partner at Helbraun Levey, a law firm that represents restaurants, bars and hotels.
Private parties are different. “If you are a private citizen, you can mandate everyone is vaccinated,” Jacobs added.
John Seitz, 45, an anesthesiologist in Manhattan, was invited to such a party last month. A friend was moving out of his apartment and invited 70 people for a last hurrah. “He sent out a thing on Facebook that said you have to have a vaccine or a negative COVID test,” Seitz said.
At the party, he was greeted by a bouncer who asked for a vaccine card. He showed him a photo on his phone in lieu of the real thing. (“If you lose it you are screwed,” he said.) Guests gathered around a bar stocked with beer, wine and liquor. A DJ played house music until 3 a.m.
Some hosts have resorted to more elaborate procedures, and have hired medical professionals to verify the vaccination status of guests.
“These are elite parties thrown by companies or people with a lot of money,” said Dr. Asma Rashid, who runs a medical concierge service in the Hamptons that was hired to vet guests for 10 events last month. “They are birthday parties, weddings, conferences. They send out invitations and have people send a proof of vaccination to us.”
“If you want to be in the social circle and you want to party it up,” she added, “you need to be vaccinated.”