Last week, the city dispatched test and trace teams to respond to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Sunset Park following more than 200 positive cases were reported in the Brooklyn neighborhood. Mayor Bill de Blasio called it a "warning light," but that did not deter party promoters from holding two raves in the area on Saturday night. Both illegal raves, which included hundreds of people gathered to dance and drink inside nearby warehouses, were broken up by the Sheriff's Office early Sunday morning, with multiple people arrested and charged.
"You'd think it would be the last place that anyone would choose to do an illegal gathering that would put other people's lives in danger, but unfortunately that's just what some people did," de Blasio told reporters on Monday. "The sheriff's office stepped in quickly, broke up these raves, they're holding accountable those who organized them. it's just unacceptable. I want to be abundantly clear: you cannot organize a large gathering that's going to put people's lives in danger or you will suffer the consequences."
According to the Sheriff's Office, there were about 200 people inside the warehouse at 266 47th Street when they busted it around 12:30 a.m. Sunday. They say the warehouse was an indoor stage/studio, did not have a liquor license, and had a standing bar with an alcoholic beverage stock—enough alcohol that it filled half an evidence vehicle. They added, "these events were unlawful before the pandemic, and COVID-19 just compounds the offenses."
The second event took place at a warehouse a few blocks away at 214 51st Street. It was busted around 2 a.m. with over 100 people inside. That location also had a standing bar and alcoholic beverage stock, but no liquor license, officials said.
Sources tell Gothamist that the two parties were separate events, but organizers were coordinating their operating times with each other. The alleged promoters of both events have now been arrested and charged: for the 47th Street rave, Mitchell Ulitsky, a.k.a. Mitchell Frederick, Jason Simms, a.k.a. Jason Grim, and Genry Milskiy were all charged with warehousing without a permit, operating an unlicensed bottle club and bar, and criminal possession of a controlled substance.
For the 51st Street event, George Buchukturi was arrested and hit with the same charges.
The 47th Street rave was thrown by the group Nocturnal Radio Live, who previously threw a similar indoor rave over the July 4th weekend. Many DJs at the time complained that those events were being organized by promoters and venues who were capitalizing off a pent-up demand for revelry.
The group, which is led by Ulitsky and Simms, did not exactly keep their events a secret: they both promoted multiple events on the official Nocturnal Radio website, and their individual Instagram accounts. Nocturnal Radio also posted videos from inside the rave on Instagram as well.
After the initial outcry over their July 4th party, they deleted those videos, but you can see one below.
View this post on Instagram
#Repost @nocturnalradiolive with @get_repost ・・・ The golden boys @sebjarajuancep killing it this past weekend at the @nocturnalradiolive launch party! What an amazing vibe all night long! Thank you again for all the support everyone! #nocturnalradio #afties #sebjarajuancep #vibes #techhouse #deeptech
Reached by phone before Saturday night's party, Ulitsky and Simms admitted that the July 4th weekend rave was "reckless" and that they had "jumped the gun" on hosting it. But they argued that they had learned from their mistakes and this weekend's event was going to be different, and would include several safety features including taking temperatures at the door, as well as extra security inside to monitor and encourage people to wear masks.
They acknowledged the reality that enforcing masks and social distancing at a nightclub is easier said than done—they were aware that many people coming to their event likely wouldn't distance or keep their masks on all night. But they also noted that there were additional upsides to the event, including that they were trying to work with local artists to create installations at the warehouse, and were planning to donate some of the proceeds to charity.
"Our general stance is, there's a lot of negative energy in NYC right now, between the protests and COVID fears and stuff like that," said Simms. "The reality is that the stuff we’re doing is necessary. People are hurting, and things like this really uplift what goes on in the community."
Ulitsky portrayed Nocturnal Radio as the "underdogs of the industry," and with the pandemic shutting down much larger venues, he said this was a chance to cultivate a smaller, tight-knit nightlife community. "I started this little group of people, and we were always underdogs getting paid less and working more .Not being recognized for our full potential," Ulitsky said. "This is the perfect time for us to group together and say 'F U' to people who weren’t giving us what we deserve."
Both men have been working in the nightlife industry for decades, and pointed to that as one of the reasons why it's better to have people like them throwing these events than others: "We do have experience in this field," said Simms. "Whether we are the ones throwing it or someone else is throwing it, it's going to happen regardless. Even with the NYPD and Mayor's Office and so forth trying to add regulations, if I were in position of authority, I'd feel more comfortable having experienced people throwing these events."
"The fact of the matter is, you can attend one of these events that are absolutely reckless—the same night we’re holding our event there are several others who are not taking the same precautions as we are—or you can attend ours," he added.
This argument—that the socializing is going to happen one way or the other, so why not make it as safe as possible—was the same reasoning given by the organizers behind the rave under the Kosciuszko Bridge a few weeks ago. The big difference is that while both events featured hundreds of people crowded together, the Koscuiszko Bridge event was still outside, while the Nocturnal Radio rave was held in an enclosed space where experts say the risk of coronavirus transmission is greater. And while the organizers said they were limiting the amount of people in the warehouse, they still said they were allowing up to 300 people in, breaking the limit on 50 person gatherings in the state under any circumstances.
Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance representing restaurants, bars and nightlife establishments, is sympathetic to the perspective that people are keen to socialize despite the ongoing pandemic, but noted there's a huge amount of discrepancy in how they go about it. "If we see a spike in infections due to these illicit parties, those hosts are effectively punishing all the bar and nightlife owners who are so desperately waiting to open up legally, because it's going to be further delayed," he told Gothamist.
"It's even tougher for nightlife when we're gonna reopen than for restaurants," he said. "Most people aren't interested in socially distant dancing. There's not much socially distant nightlife that is intriguing to people. As we've seen, a handful of bad actors have influenced increased enforcement and inspections of small businesses trying to do the right thing. People need to not only think about themselves, but also what their actions mean for the greater nightlife community."
Among those in the nightlife community who are still abiding by the safety guidelines and frustrated at people breaking them is Kristina Alaniesse. She has been active in calling out venues and promoters on her Instagram account, and was contacted by Nocturnal Radio in recent weeks. "One of the promoters started calling me a lot, inviting me to dinner and asking to collaborate," she told Gothamist. "On Saturday night, they sent me several invites to the event. I asked them to stop contacting me. I don't know what their goal was, but they got busted and arrested now."
She posted the video below, showing another party taking place on Friday at that same warehouse on 47th Street in Brooklyn.
"I understand that humans are social animals and those people live for the party, but during a pandemic it's not okay to do that," she added. "All I know is that the hospitals in NYC already brought those trucks to stock the dead bodies, and I don't want them having to come back again."
This was a point which de Blasio reiterated in his remarks on the busts today as well: "I'll say to everyone: we all understand that people are feeling cooped up and looking for things to do, but whatever you are looking to do, you have to do it the safe way, you cannot take the chance of endangering other people's lives."
But for Ulitsky and Simms, the risk of someone getting sick because of their events outweighed the good they felt it was doing for people. "Human beings are social creatures. All [officials are] doing is taking that element away from the people, and we’re trying to add back to that," said Simms. "Everything we’ve done and plan to do in the future is out of unity, not about separation and depression. Our last party [on July 4th], the one you wrote about, we had a number of guests who thanked us for doing it because they had been sitting home depressed for months. I got emails from people saying thank you."
"As far as people attending, we’re getting a lot of positive feedback," added Ulitsky. "As long as that's happening, we don’t feel like we’re doing anything wrong."