The Nightlife Rescue Plan That Could Save Your City’s Scene

In March, just days before the city locked down, three young people in Berlin began experiencing symptoms and tested positive for Covid-19. All three had been partying at the nightclub Kater Blau. Could they, doctors wondered, have infected other people during the same evening?

The answer was a resounding yes. One clubber, called Sina by the newspaper Welt Am Sonntag that investigated the outbreak, estimated that she had hugged and kissed at least 50 people during her visit to the club. She had talked very loudly, in very close quarters, to many others, trying to be heard over the booming sound system. Within just a few days, the three clubbers diagnosed with Covid-19 had been in close contact with over 1,000 people, likely making them unwitting super-spreaders. It’s unknown how many of those clubgoers ended up contracting the disease, but the potential toll is high indeed. A single person infected with coronavirus who visited Berlin’s Trompete nightclub earlier in March ended up infecting17 others in a single evening.

Since then, it’s become clear that such outbreaks were no outliers. In Japanese karaoke haunts, Zurich nightclubs and Florida beach bars, the indoor places where people gather to drink, dance and listen to music have emerged as major super-spreader risks. South Korean public health officials traced more than 100 cases to a single infected Seoul pubcrawler who hit five nightspots over two days. In communities that appeared to be successfully controlling the spread of the virus, reopened nightspots appear to be fueling fresh outbreaks.

So should all bars and clubs simply close until we have a vaccine or cure? A blanket ban on all nightlife activities would be economically devastating, impossible to police and socially harmful, says anew report from the nightlife consultancy VibeLab. Co-created with an international panel of night mayors, academics and music promoters, the report recommends that urban nightlife must very carefully move outdoors, and lays out a set of principles for doing that. The advice reflects what’s been learned over a period in which food and drink service in cities around the globe has set up shop outside, often claiming street and sidewalk space from other uses — an ad-hoc solution that hasn’t always succeeded. 

The VibeLab report is just the first installment of the group’s overarching Global Nighttime Recovery Plan, due in September. Future installments will focus on a host of pandemic-fueled problems, including finding financial supports for workers and owners of venues that can’t reopen and what the future of dance and live music clubs might look like. Its goal is not just to save a threatened part of cities’ cultural and economic life, but to make some longer-term improvements in relations between nightlife businesses and citizens, and how public spaces are managed and monitored. It would be wrong, the report suggests, to see the pandemic as a unique and unprecedented emergency: The night economy faced a grave threat even before the coronavirus arrived. 

A Decade on the Edge 

In many cities, the nightlife sector has long been operating under difficult circumstances. Over the past decade, rising rents and changing urban demographics have forced nightclubs and bars to close, pressured by protests from affluent new residents in the ex-industrial areas where many are located and unsympathetic official attitudes that perceive any nocturnal activity primarily as a nuisance. That resistance has helped spread the night mayor concept — in which nightlife advocates for specific cities act as intermediaries between authorities and businesses to help shape policy. In places like Amsterdam (a leader in developing the role), London and New York, night mayors have helped to improve communication and provide some solutions aimed at making nightclubs better community members.

The pandemic has just intensified this plight, but it has also made cities more aware of both the economic and social contributions of their bar and club scenes. Berlin’s nightlife tourists, for example, earned the city €1.5 billion in 2018. With this sector of the economy currently all but shut down, even conservative media voices fret about the future. “The night-time economy was the consumer society at its most extravagant and seductive, but also at its most vulnerable, and now it’s gone,” wrote Nick Cohen of the U.K.’s right-leaning Spectator. In a May column, he prescribed an uncharacteristically progressive-sounding set of urban reforms aimed at rescuing London’s scene, including establishing car-free districts to allow clubs to set up outdoors: “If you want to save the businesses, you have to ban the cars and free the space.” 

The Old Ways on Hold

One thing is clear: Without a vaccine, indoor nightclubs cannot safely return to anything like the conditions they operated under before the pandemic. With limited ventilation, packed crowds, and de rigueur shouting, bars and clubs might represent the best aerosol-dispensing environment an airborne virus could hope to encounter. 

There have been some tentative attempts to make these conditions safer. Clubs that have reopened with social distancing usually report somewhat dismal results; one experiment in Germany, ultimately blocked by local authorities, wanted to stage a distance-free party for attendees who had passed a specially arranged coronavirus test that morning. Many in the industry feel that trying to fully reopen before the virus is contained simply isn’t viable — and could do more harm than good.

Berlin’s Club Commission, possibly the world’s most influential city nightlife advocacy group, is in fact advocating for clubs to stay closed. “We just can’t create totally safe conditions without diluting the meaning and value of what the city’s night scene actually offers,” says Lutz Leichsenring, a spokesperson for the commission and VibeLab co-founder. This attitude isn’t just purism: As Leichsenring notes, if nightclubs reopen without being able to offer an experience clubbers genuinely enjoy, they are likely to go out of business fast.

Taking It All Outside

The problem is that urban nightlife — no matter how risky — isn’t something that just allows itself to be canceled. The need to socialize, relax, mingle, hear music and dance is a powerful force, especially among young people in cities. If regulated venues are shuttered, unregulated ones take their place. “In cities where there are no legal alternatives,” the VibeLab report concludes, “dangerous illegal alternatives are found.”

Indeed, that’s what’s already happening. In the U.K, for example, the outdoor rave scene has already revived and proved impossible to police, with 4,000 people gathering for a rave outside Manchester in June. Illegal indoor events have also mushroomed, operating by social-media-driven word-of-mouth. On a less spectacular, more organic level, unfenced parks in London are filling on warm evenings into the early mornings with people hungry to socialize. The police may monitor these occasions, but clamping down on them hard risks becoming an oppressive game of whack-a-mole.

VibeLab’s report suggest that communication and preparation can allow organizers to stage outdoor events that both satisfy people’s need for contact and community and significantly reduce the infection risk. Even before the pandemic, Berlin had already gone some way towards this goal. In 2018, a study from the Club Commission isolated 65 potential sites for open-air events, so chosen because they were at least 1,000 square meters, were in non-residential areas close to public transit and removed from nature preserves, and possessed access to utilities and water supplies. Having found one or two spots in each of Berlin’s districts, the commission is now in discussions with each of the city’s boroughs to see how some of these sites might be earmarked as places where spontaneous events can take place with minimum risk and disruption.

To make sure such events run harmoniously, the commission has already been reaching out to organizers on the free nightlife scene, providing them with an organizer’s checklist for events and engaging with such issues as noise, which can now be monitored and kept within legal levels using a phone app. Three of the city’s borough mayors have already voiced an interest in staging outdoor music events. With a healthy mixture of engagement between authorities and the public, it’s possible that Berlin might be able to support a sustainable outdoor nightlife scene — and as it does so, develop a model for better communication between citizens and authorities that in the past have too often been at loggerheads.

New Ways of Policing the Night

When urban nightlife — in all its noisy, unruly glory — migrates out of the windowless buildings that once contained it, new problems emerge.

Noise issues are a particular challenge for the outdoor cafes and bars that swiftly emerged in cities worldwide. The report examines how Vilnius, Lithuania’s dramatic “pavement cafe liberalization” program, which transformed much of the old city into an 24-hour open-air dining and drinking venue, led to pushback from residents who quickly wearied of late-night disruption. The city responded by aggressively fining offending business owners — “causing another backlash from venue owners desperate to attract customers by arranging musical events outdoors.”  

Similar tensions have emerged in other cities. Scenes of heaving, poorly managed sidewalks in Hell’s Kitchen and the East Village led New York Governor Andrew Cuomo toclamp down on al fresco alcohol sales in New York City, while residents around popular Paris bar streetRue Jean-Pierre-Timbaud have gone as far as hiring a lawyer to push drinking spots to quiet down earlier. This can have consequences for more than just public harmony. Spain’s longstanding tradition of young people gathering todrink outdoors in streets and squares is being blamed by some for a portion of the cases creating a second wave in the country.

Who’s maintaining order in these unfenced, uncontrollable spaces? No one wants outdoor clubs to degenerate into antisocial noise orgies or super-spreader events. But the pandemic is also converging with a widespread reckoning over police violence and the role that law enforcement often plays in perpetuating racial inequality. The presence of police officers at public gatherings can escalate rather than diffuse tension. VibeLab’s report suggests that cities need ways of licensing and managing activity in public space that doesn’t require the heavy hand of the state security apparatus. “Due to the ban on big events and the closure of nightclubs, we are seeing young people disregarding rules related to Covid-19, organizing unlicensed events in public spaces,” Thierry Charlois, head of night policy at the city of Paris, said in the report. “So why not provide licenses for those events and implement the most effective protection possible?”

Several cities have already established alternative law enforcement — designed specifically to manage nightlife. In Amsterdam, city-approved Square Hosts patrol popular nightlife areas, offering advice and information, warning rule-breakers and generally easing tensions. Clearly identified by their jackets but without the aura of armed and uniformed police, these hosts do an effective job of maintaining order in Amsterdam’s lively nightlife districts while avoiding too heavy or threatening a presence — and can always get the police to assist if things go beyond what they can manage safely.

Paris’s alternative policing approach is far quirkier. There, an NGO called Pierrots de la Nuit dispatches street performers to roam various nightlife districts. These are, in a sense, Mime Cops: mute, sad-faced clowns who patrol the noisiest areas and gently encourage overly boisterous people to lower their volume, via silent pantomiming. By creating a soothing, engaging spectacle — backed up with leaflets and a spokesperson who explains the point of the performance once it’s done — the group serves as a very French way to keep rowdy Parisians in line. 

 

Would such an approach work in other cities? The samemimes-as-law-enforcers principle has been successfully deployed in Bogotá, Colombia, as a traffic-calming measure. The Paris program was originally inspired by a similar one in Barcelona, and last year thePierrots traveled to Turin to demonstrate the technique. So there’s clearly room for creative problem-solving in the quest to keep the night economy alive.

Cities will need that resourcefulness in the coming months, since the ever-shifting pandemic represents such a moving target. VibeLab contributors Michael Fichmann and Andreina Seijas admit in the report that upcoming chapters of the recovery plan will have to address different conditions.

“As the weather turns cold in the Northern Hemisphere, open-air options for commerce and socialising will ‘hibernate,’ and the luxury of space will diminish,” the report concludes. “Soon we will have to apply 24-hour thinking to exploit space more completely by making more use of the day. We will also have to continue financial support for many businesses and individuals that had a brief respite from hard times through use of open-air events.”

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