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Healthcare

As California's Pandemic Restrictions Drop, Drag And Queer Safe Havens Are Returning

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many Californians are heading to restaurants and bars to celebrate the end of statewide pandemic restrictions. The state had some of the nation's most rigid health protocols and highest case loads. Now it's embracing brighter times. Lesley McClurg from member station KQED has the story of a neighborhood roaring back to life in San Francisco.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: At a park in the Castro district, groups of friends lounge and cuddle in bathing suits under palm trees. Carnel Freeman and Mathew McCoy envision a decadent evening ahead.

CARNEL FREEMAN: I definitely think that tonight, people will come out, and it's going to be a wild night.

MATHEW MCCOY: So I'm actually working at a bar tonight from 8 to 2, and we're expecting it to be pretty crazy - lines out the door. So I can't wait.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCLURG: It's not even noon, and bars nearby are blasting dance beats. A group of friends toast to San Francisco's high vaccine rates.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hanging out with...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm so happy.

MATHEW HENSEN: Everybody is so in a better mood.

MCCLURG: Mathew Hensen sips on a frozen margarita at a longtime favorite bar called Moby Dicks.

HENSEN: I am out in the Castro region looking to see all my friends who I haven't seen for so long - able to give them hugs without having to worry.

MCCLURG: It's the first time in more than a year that locals are revealing their full face. The contrast is dizzying. It wasn't long ago that the streets were empty and storefronts were boarded up. People darted to the other side of the street to maintain distance. Now people like Zoe Balmy are trepidatiously slipping down their mask.

ZOE BALMY: I still think I feel a little on edge, kind of insecure, unsettled, not quite sure if I'm doing the right thing.

MCCLURG: Others are ditching their mask with gusto. Claudio Santome is singing on a street corner.

CLAUDIO SANTOME: (Singing in non-English language).

MCCLURG: The opera song is about joy on a warm day. Performers of all types are excited to get back on stage. About a mile away from the park, TiTo Soto, a drag queen, puckers his lips as he applies gloss in his dressing room.

TITO SOTO: Let me add some highlighter, lashes.

MCCLURG: Soto is producing a drag show called Princess. The opening is in a few weeks.

SOTO: This is probably the most excited I have ever been about drag in my life.

MCCLURG: Performing live is thrilling after losing the stage for so long.

SOTO: It was extremely scary. I and a lot of other drag entertainers have, like, legit poured their whole lives into this art form.

MCCLURG: That all ended when shelter in place shuttered venues overnight, places that not only offered entertainment but also a safe haven for the queer community. Soto often wondered...

SOTO: Are clubs done? You know, are all of our clubs going to go?

MCCLURG: To scrape by during the pandemic, Soto and other drag queens performed online to timely songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING'S GONNA STOP US NOW")

STARSHIP: (Singing) Nothing's going to stop us now.

MCCLURG: The music videos helped pay the bills, but no amount of likes or shares can make up for a packed house. Soto says digital drag - lackluster.

SOTO: I feel like it's a little even insulting to the drag art form

MCCLURG: Drag lives on the stage.

SOTO: It's so important for us as performers to actually feel the warmth and feel the applause and feel people understanding and seeing us.

MCCLURG: Soon, Soto will be performing to hundreds of people squeezed into the Oasis club. His new show sold out in minutes online. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.