Berlin Clubs Return With a Vengeance

BERLIN — The beats were pumping inside Salon zur wilden Renate long after the sun had risen. Hundreds of euphoric, maskless revelers crammed onto the dance floor, the only social distancing created in temporary pockets by the rhythmic moving of the crowd.

After 18 months on ice, Berlin’s famously hedonistic club reopened last weekend for the first time since the pandemic began.

It’s not how the city initially planned to do it. Earlier this summer, the Berlin government funded a study to test whether high-accuracy P.C.R. tests could keep clubgoers safe. The study enrolled about 2,000 people, who were let loose in six clubs over the course of one weekend.

But before the results were officially released, a local court ruled in favor of a discothèque that had sued over the city’s ban on indoor dancing, all but forcing the Berlin Senate to allow clubs to reopen. Those who are fully vaccinated or who have proof of recovering from the coronavirus within the last six months can get in. Testing is not required for entry.

Scientists have warned that packed clubs, crowded with sweating dancers shouting above the music for hours on end, are ideal environments for the coronavirus to spread. Some of Berlin’s first documented outbreaks in 2020 were traced back to a couple of clubs in the city.

But, at least for now, the party has officially resumed.

Pivot to Parties

The rules around the reopening of Europe’s clubs vary and continue to change.

Italy and France have allowed clubs to reopen to the vaccinated. Britain will require vaccinations for club patrons by the end of this month.

In the Netherlands, clubs were briefly allowed to open in June before a spike in cases across the country — including about 1,000 cases linked to a dance music event — led to them being shut once more. (They’re closed until Nov. 1, but there is another review of the restrictions later in September.) Clubs were similarly opened, then shut, in parts of Spain.

This past weekend in Berlin, lines outside a number of the clubs stretched down the block and around street corners. The wait to reach the bouncer at the door sometimes lasted hours.

“It’s like waiting in line to ride a roller coaster,” said Joe Friedrich, freshly 21 years old, who’d traveled from outside Hamburg to celebrate his birthday, as he waited with friends in line outside of Salon zur wilden Renate early Saturday morning.

Outside KitKatClub, a fetish and dance venue, a well-placed doner kebab stall about midway through the line did a brisk business selling drinks to people decked out in leather, latex and mesh.

“It’s almost surreal. I feel like a teenager again, the first time you’re going out, you don’t know what to expect! Are the people going to be nice? Do I have the right outfit on?” said Sanne vand’t Walderveen, 40, who came from Amsterdam with her boyfriend. “It’s been on hold for a year and a half so we’re so ready to party our socks off!”

At the end of each line, of course, were the discerning bouncers, notoriously finicky and selective at Berlin’s more sought-after spots. Even after braving the wait, many people (including, repeatedly, this reporter) found themselves dismissed with a “sorry,” a “not tonight” or a simple, silent shake of the head.

Many other clubs in Berlin — including the iconic Berghain, located in a defunct East German power station — remain closed for now. Some had started renovation projects and are still mid-construction, making an abrupt opening difficult. Others couldn’t line up D.J.s or staff at the last minute.

There’s also concern in the club scene over just how long this party may last. Cases are ticking back up in Berlin as the Delta variant spreads in Germany, leading many to believe that authorities could again bring the music to screeching halt. That would leave club owners further in debt after expensive efforts to restart.

Over the last year, the clubs attempted to reinvent themselves, turning closed dance floors into galleries and exhibition spaces. Institutions with outdoor spaces reopened as beer gardens or held relatively restrained outdoor parties — often, with masks, distancing rules and, frequently, assigned seats or spaces — at various times during the pandemic.

A number of clubs also transformed themselves into Covid-19 testing centers, employing former bartenders and bouncers to handle nose swabs.

But the long-term survival of Berlin’s club scene, which exploded toward international prominence in the wild, freewheeling 1990s amid the freedom, chaos and upheaval following the fall of the Berlin Wall, is important for the city.

Even though many of Berlin’s clubs are relatively low-margin businesses, the sector drew some three million tourists to the city in 2018, pumping 1.5 billion euros ($1.8 billion) into the economy, according to Berlin’s Club Commission, a trade group that represents the industry.

And whether out of growing respect for their economic might or club culture’s place in the city’s identity, the once-underground scene has become a growing presence in local politics. Berghain won official legal recognition as a cultural site in 2016, the same status enjoyed by museums, operas and other institutions, which brings with it tax breaks and the potential easing of noise and zoning restrictions. In May, after a lengthy lobbying campaign, Berlin’s lawmakers voted to extend the designation to most of the rest of the city’s clubs.

Substantial financial support from the German government has kept clubs afloat through the pandemic (although many operators have grumbled over disparities in the subsidies). Loyal fans also kicked in donations, with some popular night spots like Watergate collecting more than 100,000 euros. Many clubs also took out loans.

A Potential Fall-Back Plan

In early August, six Berlin clubs embarked on a government-funded pilot project to see if quick-turnaround P.C.R. tests could filter out infectious clubgoers and provide a safe avenue to reopen. Doctors from Charité, Berlin’s famed research and teaching hospital, agreed to analyze the results.

Two thousand club denizens bought tickets and rushed out to get swabbed in the hours before hitting the dance floor.

An initial round of tests caught seven infections, sending those would-be ravers into isolation instead of into the clubs. The rest were permitted to party at the agreed-upon locations for two nights straight, and were instructed to show up five days later for follow-up testing.

This was no peer-reviewed study nor was it a scientifically designed clinical trial, but the results were more encouraging than most would have hoped: Not a single new infection was discovered among the roughly 75 percent who came back to be swabbed again.

Berlin’s local government had gladly supplied the roughly 40,000 euros to cover the costs of all the P.C.R. tests for this experiment, said Klaus Lederer, a politician with the left-wing Die Linke party and Berlin’s current state minister for culture, because “club culture is a part of Berlin culture.”

Speaking with reporters crammed into a doorway outside the Metropol nightclub to shelter from a downpour on the pilot project’s first night, Mr. Lederer also noted that keeping shuttered clubs afloat was costing taxpayers a hefty sum.

Dr. Frank Heppner, a professor and researcher at Charité who was with Mr. Lederer, said that P.C.R. tests were necessary for the study because rapid antigen tests are “leaky and not ideal.”

“You have to use the best, most sensitive tool to filter out potential positives,” he said.

The pilot project mirrored other recent experiments in Germany, including testing protocols at Berlin classical concert venues this past spring and an electronic music festival outside the city over the summer.

“We know after a very long period of time of lockdown that we have severe collateral effects on the society that you have to also bring in. You cannot just focus on the virus and the direct consequences,” Dr. Heppner said. “The indirect consequences on a social, on a psychological and an economic level are also things you have to weigh.”

For the time being, the club study has been swept aside by the club reopenings. But Lutz Leichsenring, the spokesman for the Club Commission, said the P.C.R. testing strategy remains a potential option in place of new shutdowns or tighter restrictions if infections spike this fall. Berlin’s clubs had lined up lab partners, in August, to offer club special 15 euro P.C.R. tests — a substantial sum in a city where door fees rarely top 20 euros, but with results guaranteed within four hours.

Another lockdown would be a “worst-case scenario that would kill a lot of jobs,” Mr. Leichsenring said. But the study of quick-turnaround P.C.R. tests could lead to alternatives “so we can at least make sure that people who go to clubs are safe,” he said.

Alex Marshall contributed reporting.

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