On a rowdy night over the summer, Thom Sigsby danced around the Fable bar in Eagle Rock, ecstatic to see strangers swinging their hips at his karaoke night again.
“There was full-on conga line to Harry Belafonte’s ‘Jump in the Line.’ Every every single patron got in,” Sigsby said. “We had a two-hour wait to get in outside. It’s crazy that karaoke survived a year of lockdown and we’re now having our busiest nights ever.”
You are reading: Karaoke in the time of COVID
Sigsby runs Hi Ho Karaoke, a roving DJ and hosting outfit that brings one of SoCal’s cherished late-night pastimes to bars like Club Tee Gee, Ye Rustic Inn and Bigfoot Lounge. Sigsby cut his teeth at Sardo’s, the infamous “Porn Star Karaoke” bar in the San Fernando Valley.
During the worst of the pandemic, L.A.’s karaoke clubs were just as barren as its concert venues. Today, from the private-room clubs in Koreatown to the Valley and the beaches, Angelenos are back to belting “Shallow” after too many soju shots.
But as subvariants of Omicron circulate, new booster-shot doses lag well behind distribution goals and the prospect of a third year of winter surges looms, those raucous conga lines of singers may once again have reservations.
“If you’re going out to karaoke, you can’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll be in your corner with a double N95 and be OK,” Sigsby said. “The enthusiasm is there, but by nature, you’re still expelling your lungs.”
Omicron is still formidably infectious, even among the fully vaccinated and boosted, said Melanie D. Sabado-Liwag, a professor of public health at Cal State Los Angeles.
That probably means masks indoors — even while screaming Whitney Houston choruses — will be a good idea this winter.
“Even if you’re boosted, there’s still an increased likelihood that you could get infected,” Sabado-Liwag said. “But boosters help, masks help, airflow helps. There’s a layering effect people have to be mindful of if they’re going out.”
Cities and counties are unlikely to shut venues down again. So Sabado-Liwag suggests, in addition to masks and vaccines, being extra vigilant about testing after a long night on the mic.
“We’re not going to stop people from going out,” she said. “Masking is great, but it’s also about knowing what to do after. Test and take Paxlovid if you’re positive, so we can break the chain if you go out.”
At karaoke clubs across town, the sentiment around BA.5 is mixed. Some diehards are busting down the doors to get back onstage, while others are more wary to return.
“It took some people a long time to be comfortable,” said Matt Wise, the general manager of the West Hollywood club Formosa Cafe, which hosts regular karaoke nights. “But so far we’ve been steady.”
Fans mostly abided by rules around vaccines and masks, Wise said, and he hopes they’ll do it again if the county ever asks again.
“There was some protesting, but we got through it,” Wise said. “Most customers appreciated it.”
But Sun Kim, the manager of the private-room hotspot Rosen Karaoke in Koreatown, says the vibe is different from pre-pandemic, or even from last summer.
“Pre-COVID and after, it’s a huge difference,” he said. “There are fewer big groups or corporate events. Now people usually hang out with who they came with.
“We’re definitely impacted, but it’ll be OK,” he added. “We have private rooms. It’ll affect nightlife and restaurants more, the places where people mingle with strangers.”
Over a few weekend visits this summer and fall, the Koreatown heavy-hitters were unusually quiet. Soop Sok Karaoke was dark and locked up — it’s usually rollicking until 2 a.m. seven days a week. Palmtree was open, but inside, there was only a bored doorman silhouetted against neon-pink lighting.
Veterans of the scene admit that it’s taken work to get crowds back.
“We have so many diehard customers out there, people wanted a release,” said Steven Spear, who opened Boardwalk 11 in Palms in 2003. Spear is L.A. karaoke royalty: His 85-year-old father, Alan, has run Koreatown’s beloved Brass Monkey for three decades.
But he admits that post-Omicron, “crowds have been 60, 70% at most. It’s completely different now. People are just creatures of habit, and we’re all starting over.”
While Spear doesn’t relish a return to policing his venue — “There was lots of drama, so many people wanted to argue about masks or tell me why they weren’t getting vaccinated” — at this point, he’s just glad to still be standing.
“Maybe there will be more rules or fewer people allowed in, but I’m fine with it,” he said. “I’ll shut down completely if it’s what we need to do.”
In still-tense times for L.A., there’s little better release than tossing back shots and howling “Mr. Brightside,” even if you have to mask up yet again.
“Karaoke is meant to be safe place,” Wise said. “If people ever have to wear a mask again while they sing, it’s not end of world.”