BERLIN — The club culture of Germany’s capital city is world-renowned. Pre-pandemic, one could spend literal days hopping between 24-hour dance floors.
But indoor dancing in Berlin has been banned since last March, and with the summer weather slipping away, club owners are looking for safe ways to re-open this winter.
One answer could lie in the results of a state-sponsored club crawl this week.
“Club culture is a part of the Berlin culture. And so we have to try to support it,” said Berlin Senator Klaus Lederer.
Lederer said the government is spending about 40,000 euros ($47,000) on a “Clubculture Reboot” pilot project.
Last Friday and Saturday, a lucky 2,000 participants were allowed to enter six Berlin clubs over two days, without masks or social distancing. The price of admission: a negative PCR test.
They will take a second PCR test later in the week to track whether any clusters — outbreaks of infections — developed among the club-goers.
“This is the only way to open safely in these pandemic times,” said Florian Kainzinger, founder of Think.Health, the company which managed testing for the project. “Indoors, no masks, no distancing. So, club nights in Berlin like they have been two years ago.”
Kainzinger, whose company specializes in testing and hygiene management for large events, said clubs are perhaps the most difficult businesses to reopen because “you cannot control the environment.” Club culture, he said, just “doesn’t work with distance and masks.”
To Anaïs Dukunze, a clubgoer from Berlin participating in the pilot, the tests are worth it and the right thing to do.
“I can take an extra hour or two to get tested and to make sure that the fun that I’m having is a safe fun,” she said. “So next week, next month, next year, I’m still having a good time.”
“There’s no point of just being here and partying for two weeks and then two weeks from now Delta, Lambda and all of [the COVID variants] have taken over the city,” Dukunze said.
If people follow the rules, the experiment should be a success, said Frank Heppner, a scientist at Berlin’s Charité Medical School who is working on the project.
But if it fails, he said, “it will be very difficult for the club scene to come back. I wouldn’t know of any alternative [model] right now, at least as long as we have the virus around.”
Berlin is paying clubs to stay in business
So why is the Berlin government footing the bill for this weekend of club-hopping?
“It also costs a lot of money to support closed clubs. So it’s better to support open clubs,” Senator Lederer said.
The city’s club industry—which normally employs more than 9,000 people and has a roughly 1.5 billion euro ($1.76 billion) annual economic impact—has been propped up over the last 18 months by government aid, said Lutz Leichsenring, spokesman for Clubcommission, the industry’s association.
None has closed during the pandemic, he said, thanks to that assistance.
During the pandemic the club industry has also experimented with various ways to keep itself in business, including going online and, with the permission of the government, outdoor dancing this summer. This has helped the businesses weather “one of the biggest crises we’ve had since World War II,” he said.
But the impending colder weather looms—hence the pilot project.
“This experiment is really about scenarios…to provide safer spaces indoors. And PCR testing is the gold standard for this,” Leichsenring said.
No matter what, “we will definitely learn” from the project, he said.
This fall Leichsenring hopes Berlin clubs will be able to open in some form, whether through a PCR-test model, or maybe a vaccination requirement. (This week the Clubcommission also helped organize a multi-day vaccine drive featuring music from a long lineup of DJs.)
Berlin’s clubs are much more than a place to dance
Clubs have more than just an economic value to Berlin, Leichsenring said. They’re culturally and socially significant too, as “an important safe space for a lot of communities.”
“Berlin clubs are important for many marginalized communities in Berlin, many queer communities,” said Jeff Mannes, who guides “Berlin’s History of Sex” tour. (He also participated in the pilot project—his first time inside a club since New Year’s 2020.)
“[Clubs] being closed now for a year and a half was devastating for many people,” he said.
And in their absence, he’s been worried about the mental health effects on these communities.
“The feeling that I’ve gotten is that it’s been very, very, very difficult for many people, because they were lacking all these spaces that were very important to them—to have an escape from a sometimes queer-phobic world, or a sometimes racist world or from a sexist world.”
Club culture broadly has infused itself with the identity of Berlin.
Without the clubs, Senator Lederer said, the city “has not been Berlin.”
“It’s a big part of Berlin that you have so many clubs, open to any type of person,” said Damien Schäfer, who also participated in the pilot. “You can express yourself. There’s no bad vibes.”
Anaïs Dukunze put it a different way: “The club culture is part of the local cultural institutions. So it’s almost at the same level as museums and expositions and art.”
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