Puff-happy Berlin flouts smoking ban

Germany might have a reputation as an orderly and law-abiding place abroad, but as Naomi Kresge reports, bars in Berlin are openly flouting the country’s new smoking ban.

Puff-happy Berlin flouts smoking ban

Stephan Schlage decided to quit smoking cigarettes six weeks ago, shortly after a smoking ban went into effect to clear the air in bars and restaurants across much of Germany.

But a recent weekday evening in Berlin found him happily wreathed in smoke despite the new law, as friends and customers were still puffing away at his wife’s bar. And her establishment is only one of many across the city to flout the new rules. Though the ban went into effect at the start of January, it has done little to lift the haze in the German capital’s numerous bars and cafes.

City officials have announced they won’t enforce the law until July 1 and nicotine-friendly bars are taking advantage of the grace period by openly advertising their distinctly un-Teutonic brand of civil disobedience.

“Dear guests, in the Café BöseBubenBar you can keep on smoking and drinking and eating and meeting friends and being served after Jan. 1,” reads a sign posted prominently in the door of the bar of Schlage’s wife located in Berlin’s government quarter.

“I think it was just a clever political move,” he said. “The state acts like mommy and daddy at the same time and is always taking over something or other.”

Fourteen of Germany’s 16 federal states now ban smoking in restaurants and bars, according to DEHOGA, a national association of hotels and restaurants. Bans will take effect in July in the remaining two states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Thuringia.

But German antipathy toward the smoking ban extends beyond its frequently anti-authoritarian capital city.

Though most hotels and restaurants have had few problems following the new bans, it’s a different story in bars and pubs throughout the country, DEHOGA spokeswoman Stefanie Heckel said. A DEHOGA survey last year in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg found that 63 percent of small pubs and clubs reported an average 20-percent drop in business in the initial weeks of the smoking ban. Only three percent of pubs reported business had increased.

The new rules are especially hard on the country’s smallest taverns, the so-called corner pubs, or Eckkneipe in German, with only one room and no space for a separate smoking area. These are the places where regulars are used to lighting up as they please, Heckel said. Her organization is backing a bartender from the southern city of Tübingen in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ban.

A court in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in western Germany put the smoking ban there on temporary hold on Feb. 11, ruling that owner-operated one-room pubs do not have to follow the law until the constitutional lawsuit is decided.

But while bar owners throughout Germany protest the ban and await the outcome of legal wrangling, in Berlin the passive resistance – and passive smoking – will continue at least until July 1.

“It’s no secret in Berlin who isn’t following the law,” said Regina Kneiding, spokeswoman for the city’s office for Health, the Environment and Consumer Protection. Kneiding said officials even expected Berlin’s bars to defy the law at first.

“This is still something totally new, a complete shift for the entire field. It’s not a change that can be made overnight. It will only work if responsibility is shared by all,” she said. “We expect that once it’s in earnest, and once there are fines, the situation will change.”

Businesses caught breaking the smoking ban will be subject to a €1,000 penalty and individuals will be fined up to €100. Separate smoking rooms are allowed but must be in the rear of the establishment and smaller than the main room. Customers also cannot be made to walk through the smoking area on the way to the restroom.

Responsibility for enforcement will fall on the public order offices of Berlin’s 12 city districts. Both the senate office and individual districts are already collecting complaints – Kneiding said her office has compiled more than 55 complaints – and some have already given warnings to bars that aren’t following the law. BöseBuben – which means “Bad Boys” in German – was one of the bars to be notified of a complaint, and the owners plan to set up a smokers’ room once the six-month grace period is over.

Bartender Kristof Zdunek said he thinks people’s habits will change – Berliners have already mostly given up smoking on the city’s public transportation network – but he predicts it won’t be easy in a country where most people have associated smoking with socializing since their school days.

“Wherever things revolve around beer and coffee that’s where people want to smoke,” Zdunek said.

For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.