Nonetheless, people will be celebrating – and fears of ill-advised parties to replace the festival are mounting.
Clear blue skies and sunshine, the perfect Oktoberfest weather, is forecast for this Saturday, the festival’s normal opening date.
At 12pm sharp on September 19th, Munich mayor Dieter Reiter of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) would have been dressed in Lederhosen and tapping the first beer barrel with two strikes of a hammer, opening the world’s largest public festival.
But at the Theresienwiese – the official ground of Munich’s Oktoberfest – testing tents have replaced beer tents. Where normally a million litres of beer would be flowing, people are being tested for Covid-19.
Munich may even introduce an alcohol ban on September 19th to prevent private ‘substitute parties’ which could come with high risks of spreading the virus.
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It was a historic decision to cancel Oktoberfest for the first time in 70 years. But the pandemic raised too many risks.
“An autumn without Oktoberfest – there is simply something missing,” Mayor Reiter said. On Saturday, he would have handed state premier Markus Söder of the centre-right CSU, the first mug of beer.
Instead, however, the two of them went announced their decision in April to cancel Oktoberfest. “It hurts us,” said Söder at the time. Reiter spoke of a sad day and an emotionally challenging moment.
Reiter (left) and Söder (right) enjoy a beer at 2019's Oktoberfest. Photo: DPA
So what are the alternatives this year?
Nevertheless, Saturday in Munich will still see many shout out “O’zapft is!” (Bavarian dialect for ‘Es ist angezapft’, meaning ‘it has been tapped’, with the opening of the first barrel of beer signalling the beginning of the festival).
“WirtshausWiesn” (‘pub Oktoberfest’) is the name for the alternative to the cancelled festival, where over 50 pub owners hope to create an Oktoberfest atmosphere until October 4th. “For us, Oktoberfest is neither a place nor an event.
“Oktoberfest is a deep sense of life which is anchored within us,” said Gregor Lemke, a spokesman for several of the city’s inns and pubs.
Many former officials will also show their support. Former Mayor of Bavaria Christian Ude (SPD), will tap the barrel in the Bahnhofsviertel in Frankfurt, and former economic advisor and former organiser of the Oktoberfest Josef Schmind will tap the barrel in Augustiner am Platzl, a popular Munich pub.
Oktoberfest beer has been flowing for weeks – mostly at home. The breweries have still produced many millions of litres of beer despite the cancellation, with some sales even higher than usual. An Oktoberfest beer mug is also on offer.
Carousels have also been popping up in various places in the last few weeks. A ferris wheel at Königsplatz offers a view of the city from above, while a 90-metre-high flying swing ride circles above the Olympic park.
There are shooting galleries, stands selling traditional Bavarian dress known as ‘Tracht’, candyfloss and gingerbread hearts. “Sommer in der Stadt” (Summer in the City) is the name of the alternative programme.
A typical swing ride at the Oktoberfest. Photo: DPA
For entertainers, pub owners and stallholders, this brings at least some merit. Hotels, restaurants, taxi drivers and retailers are also missing out on revenue. According to the city, the 2019 Oktoberfest had an estimated economic value of €1.23 billion – normally, six million guests from all over the world come to the Wiesn.
Doctors warn against alternatives
Packed rides, overcrowded tents – the festival would have become a major centre of infection. The so-called “Wiesn flu”, typical of the time of year, was already rife.
But doctors are also wary of the Oktoberfest alternatives and private parties. If hygiene rules are adhered to, the risk can be assessed, said Bernd Zwißler from the anesthesiology department of the University of Munich clinic.
The optimum way to avoid the transmission of the virus is simply not to meet. However, to ban events like this entirely would be neither socially acceptable nor proportionate.
In view of the increasing numbers of infections, authorities believes in a “Wiesn light”.
“This year we will all have to make sacrifices and not lose sight of the bigger picture, namely controlling the pandemic,” said Clemns Wendtner, the chief physician at the clinic for infectious diseases in Munich’s Schwabing clinic.
The next ‘proper Oktoberfest’ is sure to come when we no longer have the virus on our tail, hopefully next year.”
What will happen at Theresienwiese, the official grounds of the festival, on Saturday, is still up in the air. Only a few stalls will be set up on the land, which with its dry tufts of grass and gravel, is currently more of a wasteland than a meadow. No rides were put in place.
Climate protection activists want to demonstrate there as an alternative to the Oktoberfest, but at the same time, a ban on entering the Theresienwiese is under discussion in addition to the possibility of an alcohol ban. It is feared that Oktoberfest fans could celebrate a “wild Wiesn” – with a high risk of infection.
“If anyone is looking to experience some Oktoberfest atmosphere, there are still many good opportunities”, said district administration officer Thomas Böhle, referring to various offerings such as the ‘WirtshausWiesn’ and ‘Summer in the City’.
“There are surely better things to do than standing on barren, empty land and drinking beer that you’ve had to bring with you from home.”
Translation by Stephanie Nourse.