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‘I’m afraid of ending up on the street’: American owner of Berlin bar fears for future after corona eviction

Nicknamed the “Cheers of techno”, the cocktail bar John Muir is a beloved starting-point for a night out in Berlin. Now the coronavirus - and an aggressive landlord - have pushed it into bankruptcy.

'I'm afraid of ending up on the street': American owner of Berlin bar fears for future after corona eviction
Kate Coffee in front of the John Muir bar. Photo: Jörg Luyken

Sitting puffy-eyed and pale in the courtyard of the building where her apartment and bar are located, Kate Coffee apologises. She has been crying for most of the morning.

Earlier in the day her lawyer informed her that her hope of holding onto her business premises was over. Her landlord had cancelled her contract due to unpaid rent and there was nothing she could do about it.

The business that she’d built up into one of the best known night spots in Berlin's vibrant Kreuzberg district had gone up in smoke.

“Nine years of work just taken away. All the money and time, all the memories are gone,” she weeps.

Since September 2nd she has been waiting for an eviction order. The landlord has already cut off the water to the bar and tried to change the key.

Hammered by the closure of bars during the spring and early summer, she fell back on rental payments. The government aid package for small businesses proved hopelessly insufficient.

“The landlord received every cent of that money,” she says. “Once I’d paid the rent I was left with nothing. I was literally eating every other day.”

READ ALSO: Is Germany doing enough to ensure small businesses survive the coronavirus crisis?

Bleak outlook for bars

The John Muir is far from alone. A recent survey by the DEHOGA, the national association of restaurants and pubs, showed that two thirds of businesses in the sector nationwide fear bankruptcy.

With pandemic restrictions still in place in many cities, 90 percent of employees in the sector remain on Kurzarbeit.

“Our businesses were the first to suffer from the consequences of the coronavirus and will be the last to be allowed to fully reopen,” said DEHOGA head Guido Zöllick earlier this week. 

“In view of the devastating effects, the current state aid is not sufficient,” he warned.

Zöllick called on the government to provide more grants to help bars through the autumns, and suggested imposing rent reductions on landlords.

For John Muir, any such help would come to late. Coffee has already had to file for bankruptcy.

But for the sake of other businesses, Coffee says that she wishes they would prolong the rental protections. “This crisis is not over. It’s going to continue and I know I am not the only one.”

‘Techno ban’

Starting nine years ago, Coffee built up the John Muir into one of the best known cocktail bars in Kreuzberg. 

When she moved into the premises, the place was “a dump,” she remembers. “There was literally mud instead of a floor.”

Kate Coffee in the John Muir bar. Photo: Jörg Luyken

With the help of friends, she built in the toilets, stripped back the walls to the red brick, and put in a proper floor.

Soon the bar had become a favoured hangout in the techno scene. Famous DJs would drop by to perform unofficial sets. 

“Actually, I hate the name Cheers of techno,” she admits. “Techno is banned here. When these people come in for a Japanese whiskey the last thing they want to hear here is more electronic beats.”

'I feel like I was tricked'

Although the lockdown ended for many sectors of the economy in May, for pubs the rules were stricter. It was only at the beginning of June that they could open in Berlin.

Foreseeing the possibility that unscrupulous landlords could use the opportunity to cancel older rental contracts, the government imposed a moratorium on evictions during the three months of April to June.

But Coffee says that her landlord ignored the law.

“I was hesitant to put all the money into rent and I tried to speak with my landlord. But they threatened to kick me out if I didn't pay,” she recounts. “I paid in full and that’s my fault. But I feel like I was tricked.”

She applied for the maximum coronavirus grant for a business of her size – €9,000 – but this only covered her rent for two months.

READ ALSO: 'We thought we'd be closed for a month': How Berlin bars are surviving the coronavirus crisis

When Berlin did allow bars to open back up in the summer, Coffee was reluctant to do so.

“I wasn’t in a rush to reopen because I care about the health of my staff, my own safety and my guests. I thought it was really irresponsible to reopen so soon,” she says.

And with reduced numbers of customers, everything that she made at the bar went into rent and salaries – but it still wasn’t enough to cover all the payments.

On August 18th an eviction notice arrived in the mail, ordering her to leave the premises by September 2nd.

She approached the tenants' association, who asked the landlord to allow a “healing payment” that would satisfy both sides. Four days later the landlord sent workers around to cut off the water and change her locks.

On legal advice, she is staying in the apartment behind a locked door. But eventually the police will come around and remove her.

“I’m afraid of being deported, losing my visa, ending up on the street, she says. “It's really scary,” 

Coffee has started a Go fund Me page in the hope of raising enough money to secure her flat, even if she has given up on rescuing her business.

The Local approached the landlord, K2 Immobilien, for comment, but they did not respond.

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COVID-19 RULES

EXPLAINED: The Covid rules in place across German states

Many Covid restrictions have been dropped in Germany, but some rules remain in place. And as infections increase again, it's important to be aware of what you should do if you get Covid.

EXPLAINED: The Covid rules in place across German states

Germany has relaxed or changed many Covid restrictions in recent months. However, with Covid infections rocketing again, people are reminding themselves of what rules remain in place, and what they have to do if they get a positive test.

Here’s a quick roundup of what you should know. 

Face masks

Covid masks have to be worn when travelling on public transport, including planes departing to and from Germany. 

They also have to be worn in places where there are more vulnerable people, such as care homes, hospitals and doctor offices. 

Masks are not mandatory anymore in shops (including supermarkets) and restaurants, but individual businesses can enforce the rule so watch out for signs on the door. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules

FFP2 masks have become the standard in Germany, but in some cases other medical masks are sufficient.

There are no longer any entry rules to public venues such as the 3G or 2G rule, meaning that people had to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test. 

However, they could return in autumn if the infection protection laws are adapted, and if the Covid situation gets worse.

Mandatory isolation 

The rules on isolation differ from state to state, but there is one general requirement: those who test positive for Covid have to go into isolation at home and avoid all contact with people outside the household. The isolation period lasts at least five days or a maximum of 10 days.

If you get a positive result at home, you should go to a test centre and undergo a rapid antigen test. If it is positive, the quarantine obligation kicks in. If it is negative, you have to get a PCR test.

If you have Covid symptoms, you should contact your doctor, local health authorities or the non-emergency medical on-call service on 116 117. They can advise or whether you should get a PCR test. 

Across German states, the isolation period lasts 10 days, but – as we mentioned above – there are differences on how it can end earlier. 

In Berlin, for instance, it can be shortened from the fifth day with a negative test if you have been symptom free for 48 hours. If this isn’t the case, the isolation is extended until you have been symptom-free for 48 hours and tested negative. But you can leave without a negative test after 10 days. 

A positive Covid test.

A positive Covid test. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Anyone who tests positive for Covid using a rapid test at a testing centre can have a free PCR test to confirm whether they have Covid-19. If the PCR test is negative, there is no obligation to go into quarantine.

In Bavaria, the isolation period is five days after the first positive test. For isolation to end on day five you must be symptom free for at least 48 hours. Otherwise, isolation is extended for 48 hours at a time until the maximum of 10 days. 

A test-to-release is not needed to end the isolation, unless the person works in a medical setting. 

READ ALSO: Germany sets out new Covid isolation rules

After isolation, Bavaria recommends that you wear an FFP2 mask in public places indoors and reduce contact for an extra five days. 

The state of Hesse has a similar system to Bavaria where a test is not needed to end the isolation early (unless the person works in a medical setting).

In North Rhine-Westphalia and Hamburg, residents can end their Covid isolation on the fifth day if they get a negative test (carried out at a testing centre). Otherwise the isolation period continues until the 10th day, or until they get a negative test.

Close contacts of people infected with Covid (including household contacts) no longer have to quarantine in Germany, but they are advised to get tested regularly and monitor for symptoms, as well as reduce contacts for five days. 

As ever, check with your local authority for the detailed rules.

Travel

Germany recently provisionally dropped almost all of its Covid travel restrictions, making it much easier to enter the country. 

The changes mean that entry into Germany is now allowed for all travel purposes, including tourism. The move makes travel easier – and cheaper – for people coming from non-EU countries, particularly families who may have needed multiple Covid tests for children. 

People also no longer have to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test against Covid before coming to Germany – the so-called 3G rule. 

However, if a country is classed as a ‘virus variant’ region, tougher rules are brought in. 

It is likely that travel rules could be reinstated again after summer or if the Covid situation gets worse so keep an eye on any developments. 

READ ALSO: Germany drops Covid entry restrictions for non-EU travellers

Vaccine mandate

The mandate making Covid vaccinations compulsory for medical staff remains in place. A vaccine mandate that would have affected more of the population in Germany was rejected by the Bundestag in a vote in April

READ ALSO: Germany’s top court approves Covid vaccine mandate for health care workers

Workplaces

Masks are no longer mandatory in workplaces, unless it is in a setting where more risks groups are, such as hospitals or care homes. 

The government no longer requires people to work from home, but employers and employees can reach their own ‘home office’ arrangement.

Tests are also no longer mandatory, but workplaces can offer their employees regular tests. 

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