Over these past weeks of the global pandemic, Berliners have been living two different realities. Nothing illustrated that better than a sunset tour through the city on Saturday evening.
Unlike some neighbouring countries, the federal government cannot make unilateral decisions to, for example, close schools or shut down public transport. Only local authorities can.
What this has meant in reality is that the German “lockdown” to prevent the too-rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has proceeded in fits and starts.
Authorities in Berlin were previously behind the likes of Bavaria, Thuringia and Bremen. They only began making more controversial decisions to shut schools, cinemas and museums late last Friday.
But by Saturday afternoon, Berlin had decided that all bars and clubs should close immediately too.
At last count, a sixth of the over 260 Berliners with the virus had caught it while clubbing.
A number of venues had already announced they were closing for the foreseeable future and police visited a further 200 to enforce the new rules.
But on Saturday night, in my neighbourhood, that just made the bars that were still open, even more popular.
Nobody seemed to be taking COVID-19 particularly seriously. In several bustling establishments, cocktail and coffee drinkers sat almost on top of one another.
As the sun went down, chatty drinkers crowded into eateries in the trendy districts of Kreuzberg and Neukoelln. Playgrounds were still packed and pavements crowded. It looked for all the world, like any other Saturday evening in the city, in early spring.
“It’s not like people don’t know about it,” said a friend, who spent Saturday night in a bar she’d never been to before because her favourite was already closed.
“Every table I walked past, you could hear people talking about the virus. I did overhear people saying they were not scared, which I thought was weird.”
“We haven’t noticed a huge difference yet,” the owner of a small café, around the corner from my place, conceded. “We have had a lot more takeaways though.”
There are some signs that things are getting more serious.
Hand sanitiser has been sold out for around a fortnight already but this weekend, shoppers also completely stripped the local supermarket.
By 7pm Friday, the fruit and vegetable section was a wasteland of barren green trays. Three boxes of miniature tomatoes and two cucumbers were all that was left.
Down the road, another supermarket was trying to emulate the Italian model by only allowing a certain number of people inside at a time. Problem was, all the shoppers waiting outside huddled close together on the pavement, apparently oblivious to any danger.
The city’s extensive and efficient public transport system will keep running, adjusted for lower demand.
On your bike?
Several local bike shops have already reported unusually brisk business for this time of year. People want to avoid travelling on the subway and have decided to bike, even though it’s still a little cold for comfort.
One of the biggest disruptions to daily life will come into effect on Tuesday (17 March), when primary schools and kindergartens will close until mid-April. The decision was only made late Friday (13 March) and many local parents are still confused.
“I guess we’ll find out on Monday at school,” a frustrated neighbour, mother of two boys aged seven and 10, sighed. “We don’t really have enough information. We don’t know if we are supposed to be teaching them ourselves. I also need to find out how this affects my job,” she said. “It’s inconvenient and it’s not going to get any easier. But nobody is questioning it. We all understand this is serious.”
While much of the city seemed to be taking small, apparently hesitant steps toward social distancing over the weekend, there is one demographic who are already there.
My parents, in their late 70s, are among them. They live in a townhouse on the outskirts of Berlin and, along with many of their equally elderly neighbours, have decided not to leave home at all for at least a month, if they can help it.
Their strategy includes gardening, not seeing their children (because we live in the city and could become contagious), writing out their wills and getting groceries delivered – even though, as my mother says, the waiting times are far longer now.
“Usually it takes a day or two to arrange the delivery, now you have to wait a week,” she wrote in an e-mail. “And a lot of the products are sold out!”
My parents did have to keep one long-planned legal appointment in the city last week. “But we drove the car instead of taking the bus,” my father reassures me. “And we didn’t shake the lawyer’s hand.”