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Germany Sees Generational Conflict Over Pandemic As Virus Spreads

People wearing face masks walk past an outdoor restaurant Wednesday in Frankfurt, Germany. To slow the spread of the coronavirus, restaurants will be closed from next Monday.
People wearing face masks walk past an outdoor restaurant Wednesday in Frankfurt, Germany. To slow the spread of the coronavirus, restaurants will be closed from next Monday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced a limited lockdown in a bid to stop the exponential growth in coronavirus cases, currently doubling every seven days.

Following long negotiations with Germany's 16 state governors, Merkel, who's been urging the public to dial down socializing for weeks, persuaded the governors that closing bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms, swimming pools, theaters, cinemas and concert venues is their best option.

"We only need infection numbers to double another four times and the health system is finished," she warned Wednesday.

The lockdown will come into effect on Monday and is set to last until the end of November. Merkel is adamant that schools and day care facilities should remain open as long as possible, a clear signal that education comes before entertainment. She also announced that businesses forced to close will receive subsidies from the government that will partially cover their losses.

Despite the offer of financial aid, the lockdown will hit the economy hard. Germany's restaurant industry protested earlier restrictions that were put in place in October. Yet with the infection rate particularly high among 20- to 40-year-olds, epidemiologists are worried about the infection spreading to Germany's sizable elderly population.

That's why politicians have been telling partygoers to stay home and to avoid bars, clubs and restaurants.

This has not gone down well in Berlin, where nightlife has long been synonymous with hedonism and liberty – from the coke-fueled cabarets of the 1920s to the massive techno parties in abandoned buildings of the early '90s. Bars and clubs are open round the clock, and "nights out" can easily last 48 hours.

But with Berlin an official coronavirus hot spot, its mayor says that "now is not the time to party" and introduced closing hours last month for the first time in more than 70 years. Now, with less than a week before bars will be forced to shut down completely, drinkers are making the most of the freedom this city usually provides.

One of them is Nora Graf, who sits with a friend outside a well-known establishment in the Kreuzberg area, nursing a whiskey to keep warm in the cool, evening air. She says she doesn't feel it's safe to sit inside. "You only have to look around this neighborhood to see that a lot of bar-hoppers don't seem to have noticed that the virus is back with a vengeance," Graf says. "They should be adapting their behavior."

Graf, a 38-year-old architect, says she's not looking forward to the lockdown but says restricting bars' opening hours makes sense. For her, it doesn't make much of a difference; late nights are a distant memory. "Night life only until 11 p.m. I'd say that's pretty family-friendly!" she says.

But it's not business-friendly. Roberto Manteuffel, a barkeeper and founder of Berlin's bar lobby, says, "Our business hours are the nighttime, as bar owners. This is a nightmare for all of us."

Manteuffel says being forced to close will damage the city's tax base, but it won't do anything to stem infections because revelers will simply take their parties back home. He says bar owners can at least keep a record of who's present, making contact tracing easier than at private parties.

"Politicians can't say: Young people stop being young!" Manteuffel argues. "Of course, we all need to live with the virus, but at the same time we can't stop being humans, whatever age we are."

For Merkel, being human is precisely what this is all about. She's repeatedly appealed to partygoers to think of others. Just last month, Merkel said, "Take a minute to think about what's most important. Isn't it the health of your family, your grandparents?"

In an attempt to close the generational divide, Merkel added that "going out and partying will still be there post-corona. Right now, it's being considerate and showing solidarity that counts."

Merkel's tone was polite compared with a recent poster campaign here that featured a mask-wearing grandma giving the middle finger to rule-breakers and partygoers. The posters were removed following complaints.

But both messages echo the German saying – " Ich werde nicht alt" – which, in a partygoing context, means "I can't stay out late." Literally, though, it means "I won't grow old" – and that'sthe scenario Merkel and Germany's state governors are trying to prevent.

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