Partying until they drop: Crowds flock to raves despite Covid-19 risk

Rave culture: the party in Tottenham Marshes, in north London. Photograph: Alex Marshall
Across the continent, people are flocking to events organized on social media and messaging apps, despite the health risks and a public backlash

Nightclubs around Europe are shut. But that doesn’t mean partygoers are staying at home. As coronavirus lockdowns are eased, illegal raves are growing in popularity. Outdoor events for hundreds, or in some cases thousands, organised via social-media and messaging apps, are in full swing every weekend, causing headaches for police forces and stirring public debate and news-media panic.

There are no medical studies of coronavirus and outdoor parties, but a likely lack of social distancing poses risks for transmission. Throw in alcohol or drugs and those risks could be exacerbated, says Tom Wingfield of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

In most countries the idea of packed dance floors is too much to even consider right now. Until then, thousands are partying in secret, despite the risk and the backlash

Some countries have tried bringing nightclubs back. In Switzerland, most regions let venues reopen in June, so long as they kept attendees’ contact details. (After many partygoers gave false information, ID checks became mandatory in some areas.) Clubs in Barcelona, in Spain, reopened at the end of June but shut again a few weeks later as the virus surged in the city.

In most countries the idea of packed dance floors is too much to even consider right now. Many nightclub owners fear they will be the last businesses allowed to reopen.

Until then, thousands are partying in secret, despite the risk and the backlash. Our reporters have been to three Friday- and Saturday-night events, in Berlin, in London and near Paris. Here’s what we saw.

Berlin: ‘Partying is a huge part of the city’s identity’

It is midnight on Saturday, and a rave in a field on the northeastern outskirts of Berlin is just getting started. A DJ in shorts stands near turntables connected to a generator, playing a warm blend of house music and techno. A tent selling beer has been set up nearby, and multicoloured lights have been fixed to trees.

The crowd of about 200 is getting bigger by the minute. Despite a sign instructing partygoers to maintain a distance of at least 1.5 meters, the dance area is packed, and nobody is wearing a mask.

With the pandemic-mandated closure of Berlin’s clubs stretching through the summer, illegal parties like this one have sprung up to fill the gap. Most are free to attend, and take place in isolated locations to escape police scrutiny; many are advertised via Telegram, an encrypted messaging app. To arrive at this party, attendees have had to follow a map sent on the app and walk 15 minutes through an empty industrial area from the nearest train stop.

Rave culture: the party on the outskirts of Berlin was organised via the messaging app Telegram. Photograph: Gordon Welters/New York Times
Rave culture: the party on the outskirts of Berlin was organised via the messaging app Telegram. Photograph: Gordon Welters/New York Times

Although the number of new coronavirus infections remains relatively low in Germany, it has begun to climb in recent weeks, and parties like this have become a point of contention in a broader debate about whether young people are threatening the country’s much-lauded success. The parties’ persistence has infuriated some public-health officials and politicians, and complicated attempts by the leaders of the city’s club scene to push for officially sanctioned events.

Some of tonight’s partygoers argue that raves are a much-needed way to blow off steam after a period of isolation, and point out that outdoor events pose less risk. Berlin’s coronavirus regulations allow for gatherings in parks of up to 1,000 people, but only if social-distancing measures are maintained and no alcohol is sold.

Partying is a huge part of the city’s identity, and you can’t just expect people to wait two years. I feel like if I were going to get Covid-19, it wouldn’t affect me

Standing between the beer tent and the packed dance area, Paul Evina-Ze, a 32-year-old American caricaturist living in Berlin, says, “Partying is a huge part of the city’s identity, and you can’t just expect people to wait two years.” He adds that he is not concerned about the virus. “I feel like if I were going to get it, it wouldn’t affect me.”

Evina-Ze’s girlfriend, Valta Klints, who is 25, says the city should lead the way in allowing raves under controlled conditions. “Other people are looking to Berlin as an example,” she says.

A public backlash against ravers in the city began in May, when demonstrators gathered in boats on the city’s major canal in support of workers affected by club closures. The protest turned into a flotilla of about 3,000 people and drifted in front of a hospital where Covid-19 patients were being treated.

Another wave of criticism came in late July, after police broke up a rave with about 3,000 attendees in Hasenheide, a city park.

The cover of a recent edition of Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, featured a picture of the Hasenheide party, with the headline “Are we too reckless?” In an interview in the magazine, Karl Lauterbach, a member of the federal parliament with the centre-left Social Democratic Party, said people who attend the raves and ignore distancing rules “must be penalized with fines in the hundreds of euros”.

Near Paris: ‘I don’t give a damn’

In normal times the forested shore of the Étang de la Haute Maison, a pond about 20km east of Paris, is a coveted spot for fishermen on the lookout for carp or pike.

But tonight a different crowd gathers in the woods by the water: about 400 young people, moving to techno music that booms from loudspeakers as spotlights sweep a dance floor.

The popularity of “free parties”, as the illegal events are known here, has been surging in recent months. “It’s true, since the end of the lockdown, we’ve seen many more people attending the free parties,” says Julien Faùx, a 26-year-old who has been regularly attending the events since before the pandemic. He is dancing behind the DJ as a skull-and-crossbones flag, hung between two trees, flaps above his head.

The event, called the Piracy, has all the trappings of a legal party: its Facebook page advertised a lineup of DJs, and tickets were sold online.

The difference is that the location was released only by email less than an hour before the Piracy began. It came with a warning to approach the site quietly and not to tell anyone else where it is.

“It’s all about the smooth conduct of the party,” the email said. It added that partygoers should bring masks and respect social-distancing measures.

That turned out to be wishful thinking.

Rave culture: an open-air party in Saint-Denis, north of Paris. Photograph: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP via Getty
Rave culture: an open-air party in Saint-Denis, north of Paris. Photograph: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP via Getty

“People need that freedom to party,” says Sarah Stalter, a 21-year-old college student from Switzerland, in France on vacation. Surrounding her are hundreds of unmasked people, some crammed on to the dance floor in a forest clearing while others sit to the side in groups, passing around bottles of alcohol and joints.

“I don’t give a damn,” Stalter says. “Of course this virus scares me, but I’ve got to enjoy my 20s.”

Faùx, a firefighter who has been involved in France’s pandemic response, says that he has witnessed firsthand the virus’s devastating effects, and that people “may be taking the risk of infection far too lightly”. But, he adds, “The desire to party is stronger than the disease.”

The proliferation of illegal parties poses a challenge for local authorities, which have wavered between strict repression and turning a blind eye.

“The police just let it go until they change their mind,” says Antoine Calvino, a founder of Socle, a union of French rave organisers. “It’s completely random, and we’d like not to be in this grey area any more.”

Police recently launched a crackdown in the Bois de Vincennes, Paris’s largest public park, where every weekend partygoers with flashlights can be seen wandering the dirt paths on the lookout for raves in the woods.

The police have other things to do than chasing young people listening to music in the open air in the woods

The organisers of the Piracy had their sound system confiscated by the police at a previous party, according to an announcement they posted on Facebook in July. In an email exchange, a spokesman for police in the city of Champs-sur-Marne, where Saturday’s party is taking place, says the force had not been notified of the event and therefore hasn’t intervened.

“The police have other things to do than chasing young people listening to music in the open air in the woods,” says Frédéric Hocquard, a Paris deputy mayor responsible for tourism and nightlife.

But Hocquard adds that, given the course the pandemic was taking – a slow resurgence in France has seen an average of 1,300 cases a day since the beginning of August – it is likely to be months before nightclubs can reopen, meaning open-air parties are the only option.

He adds that Paris’s city council, in collaboration with Socle, is working on a legal framework for the events and a charter to ensure better health conditions.

“It’s not just a summer thing,” Hocquard says. “A shift is taking place.”

London: ‘Shocking return of rave’

Just after midnight a few Fridays ago, two young men stand on a street in Tottenham, in north London, surrounded by brick warehouses, looking lost.

“Are you going to the rave?” one man with a posh accent asks a passer-by. He can’t work out where it is, he adds; the map he has been sent via WhatsApp is confusing.

The details of the party they are looking for had been sent to a group on the messaging app a few hours before: to join, you had to submit a social-media account so organisers could check you out. Advance tickets were sold via PayPal.

Messages in the WhatsApp group include appeals for discretion. “We are protecting our community,” reads one. “Don’t share our infos to anyone,” it adds.

“It’s like a military operation,” one of the plummy-voiced men says, after finally deciphering the map. “If people put half as much effort into solving coronavirus, we’d all be out of it by now.”

Rave culture: the party in Tottenham Marshes, in north London. Photograph: Alex Marshall
Rave culture: the party in Tottenham Marshes, in north London. Photograph: Alex Marshall

Soon, after walking through an underpass, the thud-thud-thud of a kick drum comes into earshot, and the two men walk up a path towards the sound. After a quick bag search by security guards they move into a woodland clearing, where about 300 people are dancing to house music, the trees around them illuminated by green and purple lights.

The Guardian newspaper has declared that Britain is in the midst of a “shocking return of rave”. About 30 years ago, young people here created a moral panic when they began holding parties in secret locations, fuelled by ecstasy and acid house dance music.

Today the moral panic is less about drugs and more about coronavirus, with fears that illegal parties could promote a second wave. In June, 6,000 people attended a party near Manchester, in northern England, where a woman was raped and several people were stabbed. Parties have been taking place around Britain every weekend since, with fewer reports of violence. But criticism from newspapers and politicians has been harsh.

Some party organisers have tried to respond to public concern. “Covid-19 measure been taken,” says a message in the WhatsApp group about Friday’s event. “A station at the entry will be at your disposition with facial mask and hydro alcoholic gel.” These are not in evidence on arrival, and only a dozen or so attendees are wearing masks. Coronavirus seems far from the minds of most.

Dancers are packed tightly in front of a DJ. In the middle of the improvised dance floor a tall man stands with his eyes closed, moving his arms like a bird’s wings, transported by the music. People chat to each other for a moment, then hug, instant friends. Occasionally a balloon drifts above the dance floor, filled with nitrous oxide, the party’s drug of choice.

One attendee, a 25-year-old architect who asks not to be named in case he is thrown out of the WhatsApp group, says he has been going to illegal raves for a couple of years. “Last year it was smaller,” he says. “Everybody just wants to get out now, I suppose.”

As the night goes on, more people arrive, even a man on crutches. Someone climbs a tree at one point, and the music stops while a security guard orders him down

Pubs and restaurants in Britain have reopened, he adds, but no one in authority is thinking about dance-music culture. He would have thought twice about going to an indoor or boat party, he says, but outdoor ones seem fine.

As the night goes on, more people arrive, even a man on crutches. Someone climbs a tree at one point, and the music stops while a security guard orders him down. That is the closest the event comes to an incident until, around 4am, three police officers turn up, shining torches across the crowd.

They leave as quickly as they arrived, but their presence is enough to send some people home.

About 20 minutes later the police return – 20 officers this time – and stand in the path to the clearing. One officer says they have agreed with the DJ that he can keep playing until 4.30am.

They won’t make any arrests unless the DJ ends up refusing to stop, the officer adds. (The London police do not answer emailed queries about the event and their strategy for dealing with illegal parties.)

The sun is rising when the clock strikes 4.30am, and the music does indeed stop, before restarting for a final tune, an encore of sorts. Then everyone quickly disperses.

The next evening the party’s organisers send a new map to the WhatsApp group, with details of another party that night, and a plea: “PLEASE DO NOT SHARE.” – New York Times