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By Enrique Anarte
BERLIN, Aug 13 (Openly) - Some 80 people dance to techno music throbbing out of a professional sound system decorated with neon lights in a glade in Berlin's Grunewald forest. No face masks are in sight, and revellers keep as much or as little distance as they like.
This is what an illegal rave looks like after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the German capital's iconic club scene in March, leaving many to look elsewhere for their party fix.
"We're keeping a safe distance and bringing our garbage back with us. No one lives around here," said 36-year-old Anna, who would only gave her first name to protect her identity.
"It would be hard to say that we are disturbing someone," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at Grunewald, holding a baby in her arms.
A few hours later, after sunset, the police peacefully broke up the rave and asked the attendees to go home.
Social distancing rules to contain the pandemic have crippled Berlin's exuberant nightlife, a big draw for tourists - pitting those wanting to enjoy outdoor raves against others who see public parks as a space for quieter recreation.
Visitors to Berlin's clubs spent an average of 200 euros ($237) per day in 2018, totalling €1.48 billion, according to a study commissioned by the Clubcommission, a network of local clubs.
Since restrictions started to be eased in May, illegal outdoor raves have been increasing - in inner-city parks and forests, along lakes on the outskirts of Berlin and in abandoned places, including a World War Two bunker.
Media reported up to 3,000 people attended an unauthorised rave on July 25 in the Hasenheide park, in hipster hotspot Neukolln, where such events have been happening since March.
RAVES ACROSS EUROPE
Berlin is not alone in having to find a way to deal with illegal raves and parties as, from inner-city London to the beaches of Portugal, thousands of young people try to escape the solitude of lockdown.
Such mass gatherings have added to fears a second deadly wave of infections could sweep across Europe.
Germany is already contending with a second wave of the coronavirus and risks squandering its early success by flouting social distancing rules, the head of the German doctors' union said last week.
Nonetheless, Berlin police spokeswoman Valeska Jakubowski said the police's strategy to handle illegal raves is "first to look for a conversation and then intervene against offenders".
In order to avoid trouble, many partygoers are looking for green areas in distant districts as far from residential areas as possible.
"The last thing we want is to disturb the neighbours because then it is easier to get in trouble with the police," said Alvaro, the organiser of an illegal rave, who asked not to be named in full.
He set up a day-long open-air party in a park and asked those attending to help with cleaning, either that same evening or the day after.
"The coronavirus situation exacerbates the need for something like this, even though I personally have always thought that it should be possible as long as you act responsibly," he said.
On July 25, Strandbad Grunau, a privately owned beach on a lake in southeastern Berlin hosted an officially authorised LGBT+ Pride party attended by 1,000 people who had been asked to adhere to social distancing rules.
Police interrupted the event several times to ask people to obey social distancing rules.
RETHINKING PUBLIC SPACE
Hans, a member of another rave group, said it avoids city centre parks "because during this pandemic you want to be in a place where nobody is walking by, where no one is hearing you, so that there are fewer chances of people complaining."
"It's about having fun and playing loud music that we like," said Hans, who only gave his first name. In a situation like this, "the city should ask itself why there are so few places where you can organize a party legally."
City officials and planners are indeed rethinking how public space might be used.
Berlin's minister in charge of economic affairs, Ramona Pop, has called on district mayors to find parks, streets, squares and sports halls suitable for holding outdoor parties.
So far, the city has thrown an emergency lifeline of 81,000 euros ($95,000) on average to 38 clubs, Senate spokesman Daniel Bartsch said in emailed comments.
"Clubs and club culture are a firm pillar of Berlin's cultural landscape," said Bartsch.
Concerns over the demise of Berlin's club scene have grown in the past decade after a number of venues had to shut or move due to rising rents, real estate investment or complaints by neighbours.
Lutz Leichsenring, spokesman for the Clubcommission, said Berlin's clubbing culture was now "deeply endangered" because of COVID-19 and will only survive because of donations.
A crowdfunding campaign to support the club industry has raised more than 465,000 euros ($548,000).
"We do not have a long summer and public outdoor events are controllable with the current infection rates," Leichsenring said.
He called for urban green spaces to be made more easily available for legal raves in light of the pandemic.
Not everyone is convinced though that parks are ideal for hosting such events.
Zahida Ibrahim, playing with her three kids the morning after a rave in the Hasenheide park, is torn after seeing the piles of garbage left behind.
"They should be able to have fun, we all need to have fun these days," she said.
"The only thing I ask them, and the authorities, is to leave everything clean. Our parks and forests are also a beautiful part of Berlin, it is fair that we all get to enjoy them."
($1 = 0.8493 euros) (Reporting by Enrique Anarte, Editing by Astrid Zweynert and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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