‘We thought we’d be closed for a month’: How Berlin bars are surviving the coronavirus shutdown

Bars in Berlin – and many elsewhere in Germany – have been closed since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. We spoke to those working there to find out what they think the future holds.

On a sunny Friday evening in Berlin’s Neukölln district, a large queue of people are waiting for pizza on the first day restaurants opened up again in the capital. 

But across the road inside Zum böhmischen Dorf (also known as the Dorf), chairs are stacked, lights are off and there’s only a faint smell of beer.

“You just think a bar will consistently have customers,” says Gemma, who works at the bar.

“People will always come for a drink. And then this is the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to anyone, globally. And you can’t even go to your bar for a drink. That is insane.”

The Dorf is just one of the capital’s bars and pubs that have been closed since mid-March in a bid to slow down the spread of coronavirus. 

But unlike restaurants and cafes, which were allowed to open from Friday May 15th with special conditions such as 1.5 metre distance between tables, there is no sign yet of an opening date for this part of Berlin nightlife.

READ ALSO: What are the new rules for eating out in Germany?

Police came and closed the Dorf down on Saturday March 14th. The Berlin Senate had originally said bars would have to close on Tuesday of the following week, but moved it forward as the scale of the crisis hit home.

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“It was a confusing time,” says Gemma. “Everyone thought it (the closures) would maybe be for a month. Then I think everyone realised how serious it was. Germany’s not been hit so hard. But it’s just a waiting game.”

Nightlife with social distancing?

The Dorf is one of four bars run by the same management in Berlin. All staff are on Kurzarbeit, a government-support scheme that means workers receive 60 percent of their pay. Management have also received help from the Berlin Senate which has been providing small businesses (as well as the self-employed and freelancers) with coronavirus aid grants to cover operating costs.

But there are still worries that bars might not make it through the crisis. 

In nearby Das Gift, owner Rachel Burns is selling off beer and other drinks that will go out of date in the near future. With no reopening in sight, Burns decided to arrange pick ups for customers to get rid of the drinks – and raise a bit more money.

“I’m really worried about it,” she says. “It is touch and go I think.”

Rachel Burns at Das Gift. Photo: Rachel Loxton

Burns also received money from the Berlin state government but she says rent is eating the cash up quickly and she’s not sure what will happen in future.

To add to this, bars are also thinking about how they will operate with restrictions. How can you ensure distance in places known for being packed with people? And if there are caps on the number of customers allowed, can a venue survive when it’s only allowed to be half full?

“I’m realising there’s going to be a lot of restrictions in place,” she says. “It’s so important in a bar to be able to create atmosphere. 

“You go to a bar to meet people, meet a boyfriend or girlfriend or something – how you going to do that? People will have to send over a drink, like Mad Men.

“We’ll just have to see how people respond to it when we open again.”

READ ALSO: A taste of normality as first restaurants reopen in Germany

Drinks to go

Bars are turning to creative ways to get customers back in their fold without allowing guests inside. Das Gift offered takeaway drinks on May 22nd, while the Dorf also opened for takeaway drinks recently, and is planning more days. 

“It was such a lovely response, loads of regulars, and people were saying: 'We want to make sure you guys are okay'”, says Gemma. “We actually wanted to make sure our regulars were okay. It was really heartwarming.”

Morgan Smyth is owner of Bad Fish which has two venues in Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain. Both bars were closed by police on March 14th just before St Patrick’s Day, one of the venue's biggest nights of the year. 

“It was so abrupt,” says Smyth. “While we were having a meeting on Saturday night the police came in and shut us down.

“In hindsight we didn’t realise how severe the pandemic was going to be. I think people were trying to stay open longer. I think it was better to shut us down early so we could restart sooner.”

Smyth says staff are also being supported by the Kurzarbeit scheme and they have received financial aid from the Berlin government, but it’s still difficult.

“We have two venues with two different rents but we get the same amount of relief as another small bar,” he says. “For mid-level businesses there doesn’t seem to be a lot of support.”

Smyth says bar management knew they’d have to “hustle” and have been doing drinks to go. Despite a good reception from punters, they’ve come up against some disgruntled neighbours who’ve called the police. 

“We’ve had the police come and check on us after people have phoned them,” he says. “The police have been really helpful saying what we're doing is legal and it’s fine. But some were asking us if it's legal because they weren't sure.”

Parking spaces could turn into terraces

The different rules between local districts is causing businesses a headache. 

In Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, for example, there are plans to close off parking spaces and even entire streets to allow for more space for restaurants and cafes. And that could also work for bars. 

“The pavement (sidewalk) areas will be very much restricted, we see massive problems there,” Felix Weisbrich, head of the Road and Green Space Office Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg told Berliner Morgenpost. “That's why we are offering restaurant owners the use of parking spaces and roads.” 

The district's plans call for parking spaces in front of bars and restaurants to be closed to cars from 11am to 10pm every Friday to Sunday.

That would certainly provide some help to places without large outdoor space to ensure social distancing. 

Smyth says he just wants to know what will be allowed so staff can plan. 

Morgan Smyth at Bad Fish. Photo courtesy of Morgan Smyth

“We’d just love to have some clear guidelines and open communication with the police and bar owners about what’s going on, what the plan is,” says Smyth.

“Even clear rules; some places and bars have tables outside. We’ve been told we can’t have that. We don’t know where we stand. There’s a lot of focus on getting restaurants open but for bars, it doesn’t make sense to open if we can’t have space.”

'I get why we're not priority'

Those working in the city’s nightlife scene, whether it’s bars, clubs, cinemas or restaurants are all wondering what life will look like in corona times.

In some parts of Germany, bars and other venues are slowly starting to reopen with strict rules.

When the the Dorf opened to serve takeaway drinks, staff wore masks and there was disinfectant for customers. But they are ready for a challenge. 

“Bars encourage close proximity, encourage breaking rules,” says Gemma. “I totally get why we’re not on the priority list but it would be great if they let us reopen and slapped the restrictions list on us.

“We’re just going to need to get super duper creative and that’s what we're good at as a team. We have a strong group of regulars. That makes me happy. We’d make it work.”

Burns at Das Gift is worried about summer since the bar generally does better in the cooler months thanks to its cosy vibe. 

But she says bars are “a social space and people need social spaces”.

READ ALSO: 'United we stream': How Berlin's clubs are coming together to survive the corona crisis

Burns does however hope there can be more local or federal government support, perhaps in the form of reducing rents while business is not as usual. 

“We’re bearing the brunt of it and we’re not getting any additional help,” she says. “Bars and restaurants are notoriously the toughest kind of businesses at the best of times – it’s hard work, it’s graft, always something going wrong – there’s constantly money needed to invest in spaces like this.”

The Local contacted the Berlin Senate to ask if there's an opening date for bars or plans for more support, but we haven't received a reply yet.

Smyth says he doesn’t see things returning anywhere near to how they were by the end of summer, but he hopes there can be some kind of normality come winter. 

“Our hope is sometime in June we’ll be able to have some kind of terrace,” he says. “We could use more of the sidewalk.”

At the Dorf, customers notice Gemma inside and knock on the window to see if the bar is open again. Unfortunately she has to shake her head.

Overall she’s hopeful for the future. 

“It’s going to be baby steps but I’m hoping there’s not long left now for people to try and get back to business as usual.”


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