On Friday, March 13, 2020, dancehall and jungle tracks swept through the hall of Today. Just by the sound of things, it could have been the start of almost any other weekend at the Ridgewood, Queens, establishment. But the 5,000 square foot club was largely empty.
A long bar running the length of the dining room was quiet and dark. On the dance floor, pillows, soft rugs and various plants were strewn. Some Today staffers huddled in pairs and attempted giddy conversation over the music. The others in the room sat in silence. Some lying on the ground. A man I didn’t recognize silently offered me an orange, which I accepted.
Hours earlier, the club had announced it would close for the foreseeable future as the first wave of COVID-19 cases were on the rise in New York. (At the time, less than 1,000 infections had been reported in the city.) The people there all seemed to process the surreality of the moment, total diversion slowly transpiring before them. Earlier that week, the club had finished putting the finishing touches on a new sound system that cost $130,000, an expense funded by a loan. The question bouncing around the room at the time seems naïve in retrospect: would the shutdown extend beyond a few weeks?
These days, co-owner Eamon Harkin was not optimistic. A former biochemical engineering student, Harkin had previously looked into the first publicly available COVID-19 data. That night, he pulled his business partner and co-owner Justin Carter aside and said, “We’re going to be in this for a year and a half.” (Disclosure: Harkin’s wife, Martina Navratil, is chief commercial officer of Pitchfork’s parent company, Condé Nast.)
Despite the uncertainty that hung in the air that evening, there was a clear glimpse of the future to come. On the other side of the room, opposite the DJ booth, a digital camera had been installed to broadcast live a series of sets that had been put together after the decision to close the club. A Today Patreon page soon went live, along with a Venmo fund, named @nowahelp, to be split among club staff, who had suddenly found themselves without a source of income. An Instagram post announcing the closure read, “It still does, but now more than ever, we can’t exist without you.”
By the end of that first weekend, the club’s Patreon had reached $5,000 in subscriptions from over 1,500 people. While encouraging, it was only a fraction of the cost of running the club. An impending decision to lay off the majority of staff was imminent. When I spoke with Carter at the start of the shutdown, it was clear he still made sense.
“I never really realized how much of a responsibility we have to all the people who work here, many of whom come from marginalized communities,” he told me. “How are they going to get there? It was a very heavy thing to manage.