It’s 11pm on a Wednesday night in Kreuzberg, a normally bustling district in the German capital. But today, the usual packed bars and general late-night activity are nowhere to be seen.
A handful of party-goers hang around the strangely quiet streets as the shutters on bars and restaurants roll down, reluctant to head home early.
Some make a last-minute dash to a Späti (or late-night shop), hoping to buy a few drinks for the road. During normal times, their night would only just be beginning.
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Berlin, the city that never sleeps, has been sent to bed early for the first time since 1949. Its vibrant nightlife has been brought to an unprecedented standstill by a newly introduced curfew.
In a bid to slow down the spread of coronavirus, all bars, restaurants, discos and clubs must now remain closed between 11pm and 6am.
The curfew measures in Berlin will stay in place until at least October 31st, and businesses that fail to comply face a fine of up to €5,000.
Few industries have been harder hit by the coronavirus crisis in Germany than the gastronomy sector.
When the country went into lockdown in March, the sector’s total turnover collapsed by more than 44 percent compared to February.
Although revenue has been on the rise since hitting a low in April, many restaurateurs are concerned the combination of new restrictions and colder weather could spell danger for business.
A new set of challenges
The capital is not the only place to see such restrictions: various corona hotspots, including the cities of Frankfurt am Main, Cologne and Bremen, have also introduced a curfew in light of a worrying rise in cases.
Infections are on the up again across Germany, with over 60 areas (many of which are larger cities) now being classed as internal hotspots for the virus.
On Friday October 16th, cases shot up past the 7,000 mark for the first time since the start of the pandemic, with the number of people dying from the virus also starting to climb.
Increased restrictions have been introduced in ‘risk zones’ to slow the spread, but they are proving testing for local bar owners and restaurateurs.
Scenes of empty chairs at bars and restaurants are becoming more common across Germany. Photo: DPA
After months of enforced closures earlier in the year, many are now looking at a fresh wave of challenges as the colder months draw in.
Adapting to the circumstances
The Gorilla Bar in Munich only reopened last week, after 194 days of closed doors. But Ahmet Özkan, the bar’s owner, is feeling somewhat positive about the difficult months ahead.
“We are prepared for the challenges winter will bring. We’ve put together a couple of back up plans that we can put into motion if we need to.”
Despite this, he is aware that they may need to adapt their service once more as a second wave of cases take hold.
“The restrictions have definitely impacted the amount of people visiting us,” he admitted.
We’ve changed our prices and our menu so we can cover our costs whilst there are fewer guests,” he said, adding that they have ideas up their sleeve should things get worse.
When the bar was forced to close in March, they soon began to offer takeaway and delivery cocktails to their customers to keep afloat, a service the bar could offer again should the bar have to close again.
“If things stay as they are, then I’m pretty optimistic. If the restrictions change then we will have to see.”
It is testament to how quickly the situation is changing that his concerns have already been realised.
Since speaking to Özkan, Munich has crossed the boundary of 50 new infections per 100,000 residents for seven consecutive days, meaning that new measures (including a curfew) have come into force.
Struggle to survive
As well as the income lost due to the new curfew measures, many restaurants are also grappling with a dwindling customer base and shrinking capacity due to the colder weather.
Some have turned to outdoor heaters to ensure that their guests can still dine comfortably outside during the winter, but in certain states their use remains hindered by unclear rules or bans.
Outdoor heaters are banned in many parts of Germany due to environmental concerns. Photo: DPA
Emma Dutton, the owner of the Hirsch & Hase gastropub in Berlin, admits that things were easier in the summer.
“We have a terrace, which worked a lot in our favour because everyone was happy enough sitting outside.”
But as the winter weather draws in and their capacity becomes more limited, the new curfew is just another problem to add to the list.
“The curfew affects us on a Friday and Saturday night, because we would usually be open until 2 or 3 in the morning. The rest of the week we are only really open until 12 or 1 anyway.”
The need to maintain a stringent hygiene concept has also taken a toll on their staff.
“We’ve put curtains between the tables, retrained the staff on hygiene measures again, laminated the menus so they can get wiped and disinfected once an hour.”
“As we’re being quite strict here, the staff are basically having to do double the amount of work for less hours.”
Much like Özkan, Dutton also relied on money generated from takeaway services to survive during the first lockdown.
“That’s the only reason we survived the first time around,” she said, adding her concern that a second enforced closure may be harder to withstand financially.
Does a curfew work?
Earlier this week, the Berlin Senate announced plans to offer struggling bars and restaurants €3,000 to cover the costs lost by the curfew.
Beatrice Kramm, President of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, doubts that this will be enough.
“€3,000 euros is better than nothing, but it won’t help [businesses] to get through the winter,” she told broadcaster RBB on Tuesday.
“I don’t think the curfew is the best way to combat the virus”, she added. “People won’t stop partying. They’ll go to parks, or back to their apartments. And it’s a lot harder to keep that under control.”
The newly announced curfews in many major cities have been met with strong criticism, with some restaurant owners in Berlin even taking successful legal action against the measures.
On Friday, the Berlin Administrative Court announced that the 11 bars involved would be allowed to remain open past 11, ruling that the curfew is not effective in fighting the pandemic.
One step too far?
Dutton, like many working in the gastronomy sector, is unsure of what to make of the measure.
“People have gotten a bit lax following the restrictions,” she said. “I think it is a good thing in terms of getting rid of that side of things.
“But everyone gets kicked out at the same time, they’re not putting on any more trains at night. Everyone’s drinking quicker, getting drunk, leaving drunk and then piling onto the trains together – it seems a little bit counter productive.”
It remains to be seen whether curfew regulations across Germany will face legal challenges similar to those filed against the hotel ban for tourists coming from hotspots in various states.
Bavaria, Saxony, and Baden-Württemberg have all overturned the controversial accommodation ban against people coming from internal hotspots, deeming the measure to do more harm than good.
As infection rates rise and the fight to control the virus continues, many, including Dutton from the Hirsch & Hase gastropub, believe that compromise is the best way forward.
“It kind of seems like it would be a better idea if everything (closing times) was staggered. But only when people are taking the restrictions and the rules seriously,” said Dutton.