Berlin: Pragmatic solidarity to face COVID-19

Doris Knoblauch

Senior Fellow and Coordinator of Urban & Spatial Governance, Ecologic Institute

The measures imposed by Berlin to contain the coronavirus pandemic are characterised by a pragmatic approach that poses less constraints on personal freedom than the measures adopted in other cities and countries.And yet it seems to be working. Support for small local businesses, solidarity and medical preparedness are at the heart of this approach.

To understand Berlin’s response to the current health crisis it is important to keep in mind that Berlin is one of Germany’s three “city-states” (Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg), which are both federal states (Bundesländer) and municipalities. This special status, which comes with certain lawmaking powers, has given the city considerable autonomy in its management of the emergency situation. It is also important to note that Berlin was impacted later and less severely by the pandemic than cities in the south and west of Germany. While the first COVID-19 cases in Germany were reported at the end of January, Berlin only reported its first case on March 1st.

Unlike other global cities that depend on big industry or a powerful financial sector, Berlin is a city of small and medium-sized businesses

The central legal political instrument that Berlin’s senate (the government of the federal state) adopted in its management of the health emergency is the Ordinance on Measures Necessary to Stem the Spread of the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) in Berlin. At the core of these laws are comprehensive contact restrictions, including the prohibition of all public and private assemblies, meetings and events, rather than a total lockdown or curfew. From March 23rd, people were required to remain in their homes or usual place of residence and were allowed to leave only under certain circumstances. Compared with other European countries where stricter lockdowns have been imposed, these circumstances included not only work, basic necessities and medical needs, but also walks and exercise. While the majority of Berliners responded well to the restrictions, a minority continued to meet in parks or privately. As a result, fines were introduced in the April amendment to the SARS-CoV-2 Ordinance, so that the physical distancing rules could be better enforced. Since the recent easing of restrictions, some have observed “Covid fatigue” (Die Zeit, 2020) in the city, with streets and parks filling up and many people no longer following the physical distancing rules.

A city of small and medium-sized businesses

Like other cities and countries, Berlin first ordered all “non-essential” places where people meet to close or restrict their activities. While cafes and restaurants could still sell meals for take away or delivery, pubs and bars had to close; hotels and other types of accommodation were no longer to allow tourists to stay; cultural institutions such as museums, exhibitions, cinemas and theatres were shut; most retail stores, with the exception of those selling essential products, also had to shut (interestingly, bicycle and book stores are considered “essential” in Berlin). Those essential stores that have remained open to the public, have had to introduce restrictions to prevent viral transfer, the main requirement being that of assuring at least 1.5 metres distance between customers, as well as managing access and avoiding queues. Since mid-May, restaurants and cafés have also been allowed to open if they ensure physical distancing between guests.

However, although these measures have been more relaxed than in many other cities, they hit the core of Berlin’s economy: small shops and enterprises, the service and creative industries, the independent art scene and tourism. Unlike other global cities that depend on big industry or a powerful financial sector, Berlin is a city of small and medium-sized businesses. As a result, the impact of COVID-19 on Berlin has been worse than that of the 2008 financial crisis.

A survey by Berlin’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (IHK Berlin, 2020) shows that only 5% of the city’s companies have so far come through the crisis unscathed, 48% have had to close down their operations completely or in large part, and 23% still fear going bankrupt. Taking a closer look at smaller shops, retailers and the hospitality sector (which includes the cafés, bars and restaurants so important to and typical of Berlin), as well as B2C and B2B services companies, the fear of bankruptcy is around 50% in the hotel and restaurant sector, around 20% in B2C services companies and around 15% in B2B services companies. Turnover forecasts are also worrying. A good 42% of companies fear losing more than half of their turnover this year. In the hospitality sector, 67% fear this, while in the B2C services sector the figure is 46% and in the B2B sector almost 37%. This situation is directly reflected in personnel planning, with 42% of businesses preparing to downsize, particularly in the hospitality sector, where 76% of businesses have had to reduce personnel.

To protect the city’s unique economic fabric, Berlin’s senate has created an emergency fund of more than €1 billion to support small businesses and sole proprietors. Measures include tax deferrals, financial support for short-time work (Kurzarbeit) – a programme to subsidise employees’ salaries while their working hours are cut due to reduced activity – and special conditions for loans. These measures have been launched in addition to the financial support programmes of the federal government (e.g. tax relief and emergency funds for businesses, freelancers, self-employed people, musicians, artists, etc.).

The city is also collaborating with a civil society initiative called “Rette Deinen Lieblingsort” (save your favourite place), which supports small local businesses struggling with liquidity. This online initiative sells vouchers for products and services offered by Berlin-based businesses (e.g. shops, bars, cafes, restaurants, etc.) that can be redeemed after the lockdown. Since mid-May, almost €1.5 million worth of vouchers have been sold by over 2,600 businesses. Initiatives like these are particularly relevant for the social activity consumption that contribute to a large part of Berlin’s culture and entertainment-centred economy. Unlike spending on items such as clothes or electronic devices, people will not make up spending to cultural or culinary venues once the crisis is over.

A focus on medical care and preparedness

Compared to other OECD countries, hospital capacities in Germany are high, with 8.00 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants (in the US the number is 2.77, in Spain 2.97, in Italy 3.18, and in Japan 13.05). Berlin lies somewhat below this average with 6.00 beds per 1,000 inhabitants. Since Germany was not the first European country to be hit by the pandemic, hospitals had more time to prepare and learn from the experience of hospitals in, for example, Lombardy. Further, to free up personnel and other capacities for the treatment of COVID-19 patients, German hospitals cancelled all scheduled admissions, operations and medical procedures (as far as medically justifiable). Clinics and hospitals in Berlin have collaborated on an emergency plan that details which patients will be brought where, why and how. For instance, some hospitals will specialise in COVID-19 patients while others will attend other emergency patients.

Coming close to the record-speed hospital construction in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Berlin built a new Corona Emergency Hospital in just four weeks

Coming close to the record-speed hospital construction in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Berlin built a new Corona Emergency Hospital in just four weeks. This was certainly not an easy task, considering that in Berlin up to 37 authorities have a say in new construction projects (ranging from authorities responsible for forest law and nature conservation through to monument protection). Such processes usually take several years and even longer if something goes wrong (Berlin’s “new” airport has been under construction for 14 years). Construction law is amongst the most complicated in Germany and hospitals are among the most challenging construction projects due to very high regulatory standards. However, a paragraph in the Berlin building regulations, which states that installations for non-armed civil defence do not have to go through a proper approval or licensing procedure, provided a loophole that made the rapid planning and building of the new hospital possible. Experts believe that this may be the first time the paragraph has been applied to such a case. The meaning of “danger”’ and “civil protection” has thus been redefined by the pandemic (Hommerich, 2020).

Time will tell …

The measures outlined above seem to be working for Berlin. On the one hand, the city has reacted very pragmatically. The local healthcare sector in particular has excelled in pragmatism, as constructing a completely new emergency hospital in only four weeks shows. On the other hand, solidarity with and among Berlin’s citizens – who aren't Germany’s wealthiest – remains overwhelming. Berliners have adapted and a wave of support and good will can be felt in the city. The notion of “pragmatic solidarity” may seem like a contradiction in terms. However, it is precisely what characterises Berlin's approach to the pandemic. Time will tell whether the measures put in place will still be effective when the pressures on the city’s health and public services increase during a potential second wave of infections.


Die Zeit. "Bei vielen Menschen hat eine Covid-Müdigkeit eingesetzt". Interview with Viola Priesemann by Florian Schumann, 15 May 2020 (online). [Accessed on 15.05.2020].

Hommerich, Luisa. “Kann Berlin Wuhan?”, 1 April 2020 (online). [Accessed on 15.05.2020].

IHK Berlin. “Dritte IHK-Umfrage zu den Auswirkungen der Corona-Krise”, 13 May 2020 (online). [Accessed on 18.05.2020].