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Nightclubs around Europe are shut. But that doesn’t mean the continent’s party people are staying home.
As coronavirus lockdowns are eased, illegal raves are growing in popularity. Outdoor events for hundreds — in some cases, thousands — organized via social media and messaging apps, are in full swing every weekend, causing headaches for police forces and lawmakers, and stirring public debate and news media panic.
Tom Wingfield, a senior lecturer at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said in an email that there were no medical studies about the coronavirus and outdoor parties, but that a likely lack of social distancing posed risks for transmission. Throw in alcohol or drugs, and those risks could be exacerbated, he said.
Some countries have tried bringing nightclubs back. In Switzerland, most regions let venues reopen in June, provided they kept attendees’ contact details. (After many partygoers gave false information, I.D. checks became mandatory in some areas.) Clubs in Barcelona, Spain, reopened at the end of June, but shut again a few weeks later as the virus surged in the city.
In most countries, the idea of packed dance floors is too much to even consider right now. Many nightclub operators fear they will be the last businesses allowed to reopen.
Until then, thousands are partying in secret, despite the risk and the backlash. Last weekend, Times reporters attended three events, in Berlin, in London and near Paris. Here’s what we saw.
Berlin: ‘Partying is a huge part of the city’s identity’
It was midnight on Saturday, and a rave in a field on the northeastern outskirts of Berlin was just getting started. A D.J. in shorts stood near turntables connected to a generator, playing a warm blend of house music and techno. A tent selling beer had been set up nearby, and multicolored lights had been affixed to the trees.
The crowd of about 200 people was getting bigger by the minute. Despite the sign instructing partygoers to maintain a distance of at least 1.5 meters, about five feet, the dance area was packed, and nobody was wearing a mask.
With the pandemic-mandated closure of Berlin’s clubs stretching through the summer, illegal parties like this one have sprung up to fill the gap. Most are free to attend, and take place in isolated locations to escape police scrutiny; many are advertised via Telegram, an encrypted messaging app. To arrive at the party on Saturday, attendees had to follow a map sent on the app and walk 15 minutes through an empty industrial area from the nearest train stop.
Although the number of new coronavirus infections remains relatively low in Germany, they have begun to climb again in recent weeks, and parties such as this have become a point of contention in a broader debate about whether young people are threatening the country’s much-lauded success. The parties’ persistence has infuriated some public health officials and politicians, and complicated attempts by the leaders of the city’s club scene to push for officially sanctioned events.
Some partygoers on Saturday argued that raves were a much-needed way to blow off steam after a period of isolation, and pointed out that outdoor events posed less risk. Berlin’s coronavirus regulations allow for gatherings in parks of up to 1,000 people, but only if social-distancing measures are maintained and no alcohol is sold.
Standing between the beer tent and the packed dance area, Paul Evina-Ze, 32, an American caricaturist living in Berlin, said that “partying is a huge part of the city’s identity, and you can’t just expect people to wait two years.” He added that he was unconcerned about the virus. “I feel like if I were going to get it, it wouldn’t affect me.”
Evina-Ze’s girlfriend, Valta Klints, 25, said she believed the city should lead the way in allowing raves under controlled conditions. “Other people are looking to Berlin as an example,” she said.
A public backlash against ravers in the city began in May, when demonstrators gathered in boats on the city’s major canal in support of workers affected by club closures: The protest turned into a waterborne party of about 3,000 people, and drifted in front of a hospital where Covid-19 patients were being treated.
Another wave of criticism came in late July, after police broke up a rave with approximately 3,000 attendees in Hasenheide, a city park.
The cover of this week’s edition of Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, features a picture of the Hasenheide party, with the headline “Are we too reckless?” In an interview in the magazine, Karl Lauterbach, a federal lawmaker with the center-left Social Democratic Party, said that people who attend the raves and ignore distancing rules “must be penalized with fines in the hundreds of euros.”
The Berlin police have stepped up their presence in parks, and in a radio interview with the public broadcaster RBB, a spokesman for the force said that officers would now intervene earlier, when parties were first forming. But, he added, “the police cannot replace people’s common sense.” (Berlin’s police department did not reply to an email seeking comment for this article.)
Leading figures in the club scene and some politicians are calling for a more proactive approach. The Club Commission, a trade body, has called on district authorities to make public spaces available to party organizers under conditions that ensure hygiene measures are maintained.
Lutz Leichsenring, the commission’s spokesman, said by phone that the Hasenheide party had “stigmatized the club scene,” but that the persistence of the raves had also made it clear to politicians that using police to shut them down wasn’t going to solve the problem.
Uta Reichardt, 34, said at the party on Saturday that she supported the Club Commission’s approach, adding that she had been disappointed when an outdoor rave she attended two weeks earlier had been shut down by the police. Reichardt, an academic at the University of Iceland who was visiting Berlin, said that allowing the events would be “a sign to a certain generation of people between 20 and 40 that their culture is valued.”
“At the moment,” she said, as she moved toward the dancing crowd, “I feel like tolerance is needed from all sides.”
Near Paris: ‘I don’t give a damn’
In normal times, the forested shore of the Étang de la Haute Maison, a pond about 12 miles east of Paris, is a coveted spot for fishermen on the lookout for carp or pike.
But on Saturday night, a different crowd gathered in the woods by the water: around 400 young people, moving to techno music that boomed from loudspeakers as spotlights swept a dance floor.
The popularity of “free parties,” as the illegal events are known here, has been surging in recent months. “It’s true, since the end of the lockdown, we’ve seen many more people attending the free parties,” said Julien Faùx, 26, a regular attendee of the events since before the pandemic. He was dancing behind the D.J. on Saturday night, as a skull-and-crossbones flag, hung between two trees, flapped above his head.
The event, called The Piracy, had all the trappings of a legal party: A dedicated Facebook page advertised a lineup of D.J.s, and tickets were sold online.
The difference was that the location was only released by email less than an hour before The Piracy began. It came with a warning to approach the site quietly and not to tell anyone else where it was.
“It’s all about the smooth conduct of the party,” the email said. It added that partygoers should bring masks and respect social-distancing measures.
That turned out to be wishful thinking.
“People need that freedom to party,” said Sarah Stalter, 21, a college student from Switzerland, in France on vacation. Surrounding her were hundreds of unmasked people, some crammed onto the dance floor in a forest clearing while others sat to the side in groups, passing around bottles of alcohol and joints.
“I don’t give a damn,” Stalter said, as she wiggled to the sound of heavy techno beats. “Of course this virus scares me, but I’ve got to enjoy my twenties.”
Faùx, a firefighter who was involved in France’s pandemic response, said he had witnessed firsthand the coronavirus’s devastating effects, and that people “may be taking the risk of infection far too lightly.”
But, he added, “The desire to party is stronger than the disease.”
The proliferation of illegal parties poses a challenge for the local authorities, which have wavered between strict repression and turning a blind eye.
“The police just let it go until they change their mind,” said Antoine Calvino, the co-founder of SOCLE, a union of French rave organizers. “It’s completely random, and we’d like not to be in this gray area anymore.”
Police recently launched a crackdown in the Bois de Vincennes, Paris’s largest public park, where every weekend partygoers with flashlights could be seen wandering the dirt paths on the lookout for raves in the woods.
The organizers of The Piracy had their sound system confiscated by the police at a previous party, according to an announcement they posted on Facebook in July. In an email exchange, a spokesman for the local police in the city of Champs-sur-Marne, where Saturday’s party took place, said the force had not been notified of the event, and therefore hadn’t intervened.
“The police have other things to do than chasing young people listening to music in the open air in the woods,” said Frédéric Hocquard, a Paris deputy mayor responsible for tourism and night life.
But Hocquard added that given the course the pandemic was taking — a slow resurgence in France has seen an average of about 1,300 cases per day since the beginning of August — it was likely to be months before nightclubs could reopen, meaning that open-air parties were the only option.
He added that Paris’s City Council, in collaboration with SOCLE, was working on a legal framework for the events and a charter to ensure better health conditions.
“It’s not just a summer thing,” Hocquard said. “A shift is taking place.”
London: ‘PLEASE DO NOT SHARE’
Just after midnight last Friday, two young men stood on a street in the Tottenham district, surrounded by brick warehouses, looking lost.
“Are you going to the rave?” one man with a posh accent asked a passer-by. He couldn’t work out where it was, he added: The map he’d been sent via WhatsApp was confusing.
The details of the party they were looking for had been sent to a group on the messaging app a few hours before: To join, you had to submit a social media account, so organizers could check you out. Advance tickets were sold via PayPal.
Messages in the WhatsApp group included appeals for discretion. “We are protecting our community,” read one. “Don’t share our infos to anyone,” it added.
“It’s like a military operation,” one of the plummy-voiced men said, after finally deciphering the map. “If people put half as much effort into solving coronavirus, we’d all be out of it by now.”
Soon, after walking through an underpass, the thud-thud-thud of a kick drum came into earshot and the two men walked up a path toward the sound. After a quick bag search by security guards, they moved into a woodland clearing, where about 300 people were dancing to house music, the trees around them illuminated by green and purple lights.
The news outlet The Guardian has declared that Britain is now in the midst of a “shocking return of rave.” About 30 years ago, young people here created a moral panic when they began holding parties in secret locations, fueled by ecstasy and acid house, a new type of dance music at the time.
Today, the moral panic is less about drugs and more about the coronavirus, with fears that illegal parties could promote a second wave. In June, 6,000 people attended a party near Manchester, in northern England, where a woman was raped and several people were stabbed. Parties have been taking place around Britain every weekend since, with fewer reports of violence. But criticism from newspapers and politicians has been harsh.
Some party organizers have tried to respond to public concern: “Covid-19 measure been taken,” said a message in the WhatsApp group about Friday’s event. “A station at the entry will be at your disposition with facial mask and hydro alcoholic gel,” it added. These were not in evidence on arrival, and only a dozen or so attendees wore masks. For most, the coronavirus seemed far from their minds.
Dancers were packed tightly in front of a D.J. In the middle of the improvised dance floor, a tall man stood with his eyes closed, moving his arms like a bird’s wings, transported by the music. People chatted to each other for a moment, then hugged, instant friends. Occasionally a balloon drifted above the dance floor, filled with nitrous oxide, the party’s drug of choice.
One attendee, a 25-year-old architect who asked not to be named in case he was thrown out of the WhatsApp group, said he’d been going to illegal raves for a couple of years. “Last year, it was smaller,” he said. “Everybody just wants to get out now, I suppose.”
Pubs and restaurants in Britain had reopened, he added, but no one in authority was thinking about dance-music culture. He would have thought twice about going to an indoor or boat party, he said, but outdoor ones seemed fine.
As the night went on, more people arrived, even a man on crutches. Someone climbed a tree at one point, and the music stopped while a security guard ordered him down. That was the closest the event came to an incident until, around 4 a.m., three police officers turned up, shining flashlights across the crowd.
They left as quickly as they arrived, but their presence was enough to send some home.
About 20 minutes later, the police returned — 20 officers this time — and stood in the path to the clearing. One officer said they’d agreed with the D.J. that he could keep playing until 4:30 a.m.
They wouldn’t make any arrests unless the D.J. refused to stop, the officer added. (The London police did not answer emailed queries about the event and their strategy for dealing with illegal parties.)
The sun was rising when the clock struck 4:30, and the music did indeed stop, before restarting for a final tune, an encore of sorts. Then everyone quickly dispersed.
The next evening, the party’s organizers sent a new map to the WhatsApp group, with details of another party that night, and a plea: “PLEASE DO NOT SHARE.”
Alex Marshall reported from London, Thomas Rogers from Berlin and Constant Méheut from Champs-sur-Marne, France.
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