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Some bars are playing a major role in fighting monkeypox in the LGBTQ community

Eric Sosa and Michael Zuco, owners of the bar Good Judy in Brooklyn, New York.
Camille Peterson for NPR
Eric Sosa and Michael Zuco, owners of the bar Good Judy in Brooklyn, New York.

NEW YORK — When Eric Sosa and Michael Zuco, the owners of Brooklyn queer bars Good Judy and C'Mon Everybody, first heard about monkeypox, they had a familiar feeling.

"Here we go again," said Sosa.

They were frustrated to hear about another virus to deal with. But as people they knew and friends of friends got monkeypox, they realized their community was especially at risk.

"How do we help our community members?" Sosa asked.

Monkeypox is spreading primarily through close physical contact, mostly during sex. So far, the CDC says, the vast majority of cases in the United States are among gay and bisexual men.

Owners of queer bars, who serve this community, feel uniquely positioned to share information about the virus — without adding to rising stigma against LGBTQ people.

For Sosa and Zuco, the first step was sifting through social media to get accurate information about monkeypox. They also started going to town halls and posting what they learned on their bars' social media — vaccine updates and key city contacts to share concerns with — among memes, promos for drag shows, and drink specials.

Zuco said he was a little nervous at first about the bar doing so much public health messaging.

"Are people gonna just full stop, stop going out? Because they're worried about their health? But I think talking about it and providing information is a really great way to quell fear," Zuco said.

Sosa and Zuco wanted to get even more involved in fighting monkeypox. They asked if any of their social media followers had connections to the city's Department of Health (DOH). Eventually, someone from the DOH reached out about a pilot program.

The program sends health workers to community spaces, like bars, and schedules customers for otherwise hard-to-find vaccine appointments. C'Mon Everybody was the one location in Brooklyn chosen for the first round of the program.

"I'm actually also a registered nurse," Zuco said. "So for me it was really gratifying to see one of our bars being used in like a public health capacity."

Good Judy bartender Julian Diaz said his employer's proactive approach to monkeypox means he knew how to get a vaccine appointment and protect himself. He feels proud to work at a place taking action against monkeypox.

"I definitely feel like we've done really well. And played our part in the community," Diaz said.

Julian Diaz, a bartender at Good Judy in Brooklyn, New York.
/ Camille Petersen for NPR
Camille Peterson for NPR
Julian Diaz, a bartender at Good Judy in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In Chicago, bar owner Mark Liberson said he has been monitoring monkeypox so closely his employees also see him as a go-to resource on the virus.

"I'm inherently a Jewish mother. And so I will jump in, make calls, try to figure out how to get people scheduled in for appointments," he said.

Liberson worked with the city's health department to create posters and a video about monkeypox. The weekend of an LGBTQ festival, Market Days, he showed the video at one of his nightclubs, Hydrate.

He asked other bars to share the resources too. Liberson remembers how the AIDS crisis was handled and says he has a responsibility to protect his community.

"In our community, we have to recognize that there are people who don't care about us. There are people who actually are antagonistic toward us. It's really important that we are taking care of our own, just as we did back then," Liberson said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Liberson asked an auto shop near one of his bars to help him host a large-scale vaccination clinic. He said he hopes something like that — getting hundreds vaccinated at a single location every day — will be possible soon for monkeypox.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camille Petersen