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KitKatClub as a COVID-19 test centre 1
Courtesy KitKatClub

How Berlin’s infamous institution KitKatClub became a COVID-19 test centre

The city’s iconic sex club is stepping in where the state is failing, providing rapid testing for just €25

Five weeks into Germany’s ‘lockdown lite’ and – for the first time in ages – I’m in line for the club. It’s a Friday afternoon in early December when I join the queue, which stretches from the entrance of Berlin’s KitKatClub and around the corner towards a kebab stand by the Heinrich-Heine Strasse tube station. A bouncer eyes the guests, wrapped in scarves, downy coats, and winter gloves instead of the leather, lace, and leashes for which the sex club is best known. Behind him, medical specialists scurry through a makeshift clinic in robin’s-egg blue jumpsuits with COVID rapid antigen tests in hand. Overhead, a disco ball hangs above a wooden red sign with golden block lettering swinging idly in the wind: “LIFE IS A CIRCUS”. 

Throughout the pandemic, the line between private and public has been relitigated ad infinitum: decisions taken on an individual level have long since been reframed as public health hazards, and our private lives are now governed by a court of public scrutiny. Once a site of self-discovery and self-indulgence, Berlin has been defined by similar tensions between the communal good and personal choices, especially among young people.

Relaxed restrictions over the summer brought about legal loopholes for a city known for its parties. Many venues turned into beer gardens with live music, but with a strict ban on dancing or straying from prearranged seats. It was a brief reprise, and a badly needed one: the club scene here brings an estimated €1.5 billion in tourist revenue to the city every year, according to a report by the Berlin Clubcommission. Elsewhere, a network of illegal open-air raves found its footing over encrypted messaging services like Telegram, drawing condemnation from public officials; at the end of July, police dispersed some 3,000 revellers at a party in a city-centre park. But as temperatures drop and new nationwide infection rate records are continually set, the city’s nightlife stands still once again.

“(Our work) was always to have more tools to make nightlife spaces safer, because at the moment the only tools we have are masks and distancing and maybe ventilation” – Lutz Leichsenring, Clubcommission

 “(Our work) was always to have more tools to make nightlife spaces safer, because at the moment the only tools we have are masks and distancing and maybe ventilation,” says Lutz Leichsenring, executive board member and spokesperson for the Clubcommission, which promotes nightlife in the city. He explains that, for the time being, the federal government has provided economic means for clubs to keep the lights on throughout the pandemic – the German Kurzarbeit scheme offers furloughed staff members up to 80 per cent of their salaries, while additional provisions cover rent for venues and improvements for COVID safety measures for when raves reopen.

Select private spaces, like Berghain, were rewarded handsomely by the city: the institution received a quarter of a million euros to work with high-profile art collectors Christian and Karen Boros on an exhibition featuring the work of Berlin-based artists. For many, the show offered a first glimpse past the notorious bouncers and their discerning door policies; a space once heavily guarded became a public good to be consumed by visitors, rave regulars, and curious locals alike, with ticket sales feeding back to the bartenders and doormen who had been furloughed when the club closed. Elsewhere in the city, a velodrome and an ice rink are currently being fitted with the facilities necessary to become vaccination centres.

Other private spaces – especially within the nightlife scene – became battlegrounds, burdened with the blame for rising infection rates due to their younger clientele. “We must set priorities, namely keeping the economy running and keeping schools and nurseries open,” noted German chancellor Angela Merkel in a press conference on September 28, while Bavarian minister-president Markus Söder added that the country needed “more masks, less alcohol, and fewer parties”. Shortly thereafter, Markus Blume, the general secretary for Söder’s Christian Social Union of Bavaria party, suggested that “the inability of the Berlin Senate is becoming a risk for all of Germany”, adding that “irrationality is rampant there, especially among young people”.

Berlin’s first curfew in 70 years came into effect on October 10 in hopes that curbing alcohol sales would keep kids inside, but by October 28, Merkel admitted that the country’s once-robust contact tracing could only account for a quarter of the new infections. She announced a ‘lockdown lite’, which started on November 2 in a last-ditch attempt to save Christmas. There was a plea to the public to reduce contact between people to the bare minimum, with tighter restrictions on meetings both in public and in private; bars and restaurants were to offer only takeaway; fitness and leisure centres – as well as the culture industry from museums to cinemas – were ordered to cease operations entirely. 

To keep the economy afloat, retail outlets, workplaces, schools, and nurseries were allowed to continue. It was to here, at a style-less co-working space that I traipse to twice a week as required by my day job, that I could trace my first alert from the government’s Corona-Warn App identifying me as a person at high risk of extended exposure to COVID in early December. State-funded tests have been in short supply for weeks, so, like hundreds of others over the course of the day, I lined up outside of KitKatClub for the first batch of private antigen tests on December 4. 

Leichsenring tells me that the doctor behind the test centre was a regular guest at KitKatClub who has been trying to get involved since the early days of the pandemic; KitKatClub owner Kristin Krüger told The Guardian that she got the ball rolling after she developed symptoms herself and found it difficult to procure a test (KitKatClub did not respond to requests for comment at the time of writing). At less than €25, KitKat’s test is the cheapest in the city, with the slim profits paying the medical technicians, the KitKatClub bouncers managing the crowd, and the raw materials. The antigen tests themselves are provided in bulk by a medical supply company in Pappenheim, Germany; upon preregistration, a digitalisation agency in Hamburg sent me a QR code, which medical technicians linked to my COVID swab, and, 10 minutes after leaving the club’s courtyard, I received a text announcing my test results (negative).

“Testing is a very, very important part of making self-determined decisions,” Leichsenring says when I ask him why it matters that a sex club is home to Berlin’s most affordable COVID testing. He says that these private test sites might one day be funded by the government, and that the Clubcommission put out a call for medical specialists for trial testing sites at closed clubs in October, but the plans were dashed once the lockdown took effect, and it’s unclear if or when they might proceed. 

With Christmas approaching, it has become clear that the human cost of the pandemic’s second wave has become too high for restrictions to be relaxed. In a now-viral clip from December 9, Merkel appeared visibly urgent: “I really am sorry from the bottom of my heart, but if the price we pay is 590 deaths a day, then that is unacceptable in my view.” 

On December 16, the nationwide lockdown escalated, with additional restrictions on meetings both in public and in private, widespread closure of retail outlets, and a call for employers to allow their staff to work from home whenever possible. From the press conference stage, Merkel and Söder reminded the nation once again that the brief exemption on restrictions between December 24 and 26 will draw the line between individual choices and public consequences; they emphasised how the difference between what we can do and what we should do will determine the course of future restrictions. Public health still stands as contested ground, caught between the jurisdiction of the state and the individual – but, as many prepare to visit family members as planned regardless of the restrictions, perhaps initiatives like KitKatClub’s COVID testing site might mitigate the risk where state-funded resources run out.