Things might be getting back to normal at Yellowknife’s only adult entertainment bar.
On Wednesday, Scott Yuill, owner of Harley’s Hard Rock Saloon, announced that exotic dancers could be returning to work in the next couple of weeks, just don’t expect them to be stripping off their masks.
Also, customers would be barred from touching performers, so patrons looking for a personal dance will be out of luck for now, he said.
“I already have one girl approved to come in and isolate for two weeks,” he said. “But it’s a slow, tedious process.”
As Yuill tries to jump-start a business hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic, one of the biggest obstacles lies in the travel restrictions enacted by the GNWT to limit the spread of Covid-19, he said.
“We’re trying to do everything by the book but at the same time, how much more can a person take of this?” he asked. “We are suffering. We are hard up. We need to have the girls back.”
Since reopening in July, he’s been working with the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer (OCPHO) to get dancers back into the territory.
Yuill expressed frustration with the governmental process, saying he’s “sent enough paperwork to kill a forest of trees,” but Mike Westwick, spokesperson for the OCPHO, has confirmed that a self-isolation plan to let one exotic dancer into the North has been authorized.
“The dancers would be considered non-resident workers and would be subject to the same self-isolation requirements as any other worker – including 14 days of isolation,” stated Westwick in an email. “We know one such plan has been submitted and approved.”
“We are very pleased to be working with Mr. Yuill on getting dancers back at Harley’s,” he continued. “We have been in touch with Harley’s to discuss the plan. They have submitted their plan, which we’re still having a bit of a back-and-forth on to alter how some of the activities are done to mitigate some of the risks inherent in the industry.”
Westwick acknowledged this process “does require some upfront work,” but it’s part of the government’s strategy to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“Stability is the best thing for business as we move forward because wherever there is community spread and outbreaks that are tough to handle, there are big challenges for business,” he wrote.
“We understand the sacrifices have been tough for everyone – businesses included. This is always on our minds when we work on our public health measures. We will always approach it with the principle of minimum restriction for necessary protective measures to reduce the risk of outbreaks, and limit their size should they occur.”
For Yuill, a number of details need to be worked out. For one, he’s still looking for housing for his dancers to self-isolate.
“I have a staff house but if I’m going to rotate girls out, I’ll need another place for them to stay for two weeks so they can move in and start work. Then (I’d) bring another two girls up to go into isolation,” he said.
For the dancers, this might not appear to be worth the time and effort, as they won’t be getting paid during self-isolation, but in the wake of the Covid-19 health crisis, Yuill said the country’s sex industry has been radically transformed and strippers are facing new hurdles to their health and income.
“These girls are starving for work because a lot of the places they normally work are shut down due to the pandemic,” he said. “They have no work in B.C., they have no work in Alberta, and some girls don’t want to go to those places where Covid is still going.”
Without the return of exotic dancers, the prognosis for Canada’s northernmost strip club appears to be grim, he said.
Lately, groups of people have been coming into Harley’s, “on their second round,” ask when the show’s about to start and then quickly leave when they learn there are no dancers, “So, I see money leave my bar.
“I mean you take the Raven; everybody goes to the Raven for dancing, you go to the Range; they’ve got a live band, you come here to us; we have the strippers. This is what makes our operation what it is,” he said.
For their part, dancers enjoy working at Harley’s, said Yuill, as they enjoy the friendly, welcoming atmosphere that they might not find in a big-city strip club.
When the pandemic hit, he laid off four bar workers and began operating Harley’s with help from his fiancé.
Despite limiting the bar’s opening hours to reduce costs, he said it’s been a daunting schedule.
To keep Harley’s afloat during these difficult times, he’s been receiving funds from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and business picks up when there’s a sports event, he said.
The saloon is also making steady income from T-shirt sales and its resident tattoo artist is booked solid – a second tattoo artist, who would normally do a rotational shift, has not been working due to the territory’s travel restrictions.
This has helped “but anything we make doesn’t cover what we’re losing from the bar,” he said.
A former employee, Yuill has had an emotional connection to Harley’s since moving to Yellowknife about 10 years ago. He even met his fiancé there “ironically, one night.”
“It’s a friendly place,” he said. “I’ve always noticed the bond between the customers. It’s hard to explain but trust me, if you could hear some of the conversation that’s coming out of my regulars, you wouldn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or shake your head.”
He purchased Harley’s from ex-owner Sara Murphy last year. The business had a substantial debt load but things were turning around.
Then they we were shut down by the pandemic.
“It hits pretty hard,” he said. “If we get shut down again, I don’t know if we’ll be able to survive, and it’s sad to say that.”
In hopeful anticipation of the return of exotic dancers, he’s changed the bar’s seating layout to account for social distancing rules.
He’s also encouraged that Health Canada’s recent approval of the ID NOW rapid Covid-19 testing device could help reduce self-isolation times for his dancers.
But the future is uncertain.
“I just hope we get back to normal soon,” he said.
“Because every single one of us in this business world in Yellowknife are suffering.”