The lights are out in Germany's infamous party and red-light district
Hamburg's Reeperbahn - The legendary Herbertstrasse in Hamburg's red-light district on the Reeperbahn in St. Pauli - once bright and busling, now empty and dark. - Christian Charisius/dpa
Hamburg's Reeperbahn - The legendary Herbertstrasse in Hamburg's red-light district on the Reeperbahn in St. Pauli - once bright and busling, now empty and dark. - Christian Charisius/dpa

The bar owners of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district have had enough. “That’s an employment ban for us,” Odin says. His bar, the 99 Cent Bar, has been shut down for months because of the pandemic, just like any other place on Hans Albers Square, at the heart of the city's infamous party and red-light hub.

“And we still have to pay rent and other expenses,” Oli of Albers Eck says. Micky, the hostess at Nachtschicht St. Pauli (Night shift St. Pauli) puts into words what everyone is thinking: “We have been left alone.”

On March 15, 2020, just two weeks after Hamburg reported its first coronavirus case, the senate of the northern city state decided that bars, nightclubs, pubs and brothels had to close.

Germany’s first lockdown.

"Police officers came into our joint and told us that we had to close by midnight," Oli remembers.

This situation was unprecedented. The famous Elbschlosskeller, a pub usually open 24 hours, had to buy a lock to be able to follow the order.

Silence suddenly descended on the party district located in the St. Pauli neighbourhood. “Of course nightlife is rather difficult in a pandemic,” district manager Julia Staron says. “That’s why most of the businesses of St. Pauli are among those that were closed first and will probably reopen last.”

After more than a year of closures, things aren't looking any better for the many night owls of Germany's biggest port city.

In late March, authorities agreed to put in place a night-time curfew between 9 pm and 5 am, with residents being threatened with fines for leaving their houses for certain reasons.

But the clubs are running out of breath now that they have been closed for over a year, according to Clubkombinat, an association that represents about 110 music venues, about 50 event organisers and half a dozen festivals that usually take place in Hamburg.

Board member Kai Schulz finds that many owners are increasingly struggling. “The cultural authority supports our nightclubs during this difficult time but they can’t save everything – a year of mandatory closure forces people, who have been working in this system for years, to look for jobs elsewhere,” the owner of the club Hebebuehne says.

“It will probably take some time until we are back were we were before the shutdown,” Schulz explains.

However, it would be worth it, he adds. “Clubs are culture – they are part of the city’s identity and are a key part of our cultural life and especially the nightlife of Hamburg and this district.”

District mayor Falko Drossmann is certain: the pubs and clubs in the heart of St. Pauli will come back to life again at some point, although maybe run by different owners.

“The neighbourhood is so special, because it offers different niches, from porno cinemas and prostitution to small bars and fancy nightclubs. This is what makes St. Pauli," he says.

However, the lights in Germany’s most famous red-light-district are probably the last to be switched back on. “It’s difficult for the women,” restaurant owner Andy from Sexy Aufstand Reeperbahn says, who represents the sex workers working on the infamous Herbertstreet.

“I’m afraid that many had to start working illegally now,” he adds.

After the sex workers had put up a hygiene concept, they were allowed to receive customers again in September, but two months later Germany entered its second lockdown, which is still in place.

The DJs Raven and Mac Chaotix haven’t been able to work for a year. However, lifting restrictions isn't the right way to go, they believe. “They should rather implement a strict lockdown for four weeks, so we’re finally through with it,” Raven says.

District manager Sharon believes the pandemic will continue to dictate the life in the infamous hub for several months to come. “We probably shouldn’t expect real nightlife before 2022 again. That’s the reality.”

The number of bankruptcies due to the crisis was also impossible to estimate at this point. “The real challenges will come once the pandemic is over. Then we will see how things go on and who can get back up on their feet,” she warns.

“But knowing St. Pauli’s entrepreneurs, they will find ways.”