As I write this, I’m sitting on the balcony watching something that would have been unthinkable a month ago, and still remains forbidden in many cities.
It’s the sight of several hundred people gathered in sunny communion, splayed across the meadows with their ubiquitous beers, clustered by the pond, pushing strollers and conversing on benches, gathering in wide circles around their prancing dogs, playing soothing techno on a boombox in a cloud of smoke, most of them instinctively staying a few metres apart.
Our apartment backs onto one of this city’s smaller parks, and virtually all of Berlin has used the warmer weather and the flattening of the infection curve to rush to its green spaces – a sudden, collective realization, among government officials and their citizens, that fighting the pandemic doesn’t have to mean locking yourself in a box, but simply keeping a sensible distance and washing your hands, as long as you trust your neighbours to do the same.
Trust between governments and the governed is at the centre of this pandemic response. What takes place in parks – which, in too many cities, have been shut down by excessively cautious or fearful authorities – tells you a lot about the state of that trust, and how it’s changed.
A cellphone video went viral here this week, in which someone had filmed a Berlin police officer standing in a crowded park and yelling through a megaphone. He was thanking the crowd for keeping a sensible distance, and encouraging them to stay. It marked a change: A month ago, he would have been ordering them to leave.
The effort to control the spread of this pandemic is not a fixed set of preordained procedures, but rather a constant, experimental push-pull between social norms and legal restrictions, trust and compulsion, freedom and constraint. The point of articulation, the place where these tensions reach an awkward synthesis, is often in the public park.
Virtually every other group activity is necessarily banned: Family gatherings, dates, parties, sports events, playgrounds, schools and day cares, concerts, the customary long-weekend trip to the family’s place in the country or any other personal or business trip out of town. Cinemas and most shops are shuttered. Bars are empty (though most are doing a brisk takeout business). During this holy week for Christians and Jews, neither Seders nor Easter family dinners are permitted. There are no in-person religious services, in any faith or denomination.
In a city like this, where virtually everyone lives in an apartment, the parks are all that’s left. For many, they’re the safer place: A poorly ventilated apartment building is, medical experts say, more infectious than being outside. If your partner or your parents are abusive, or you’re teetering on the edge of a mental-health crisis, then the best thing for you might be to get out and feel the sky.
Not all is harmonious in the park. There are bands of happy teenagers, and the occasional cluster of disbelieving boomers, who get much too close, and the guys selling not-yet-legal weed have never had much sense of personal space. When the police break up too-close gatherings, I often see them singling out the darker-skinned kids for rough attention. The pandemic has not delivered an outbreak of justice.
But as the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci observes, these things are going to happen anyway, and better to have them in the open air: Shooing 10 kids from a park cluster could lead to 25 or 100 gathering in granny’s parking garage. Closing access to a park might “improve the optics” in an act of “pandemic theatre,” but the reality is that an open park serves as “harm reduction” because it prevents more infectious gatherings.
Some countries and states made the decision to shut everything down. In Italy, Spain, Austria and Bavaria, people are banned from leaving the house without proof of a good reason, and police enforce this aggressively. This may have been necessary for a while, given the scope of the outbreaks there.
It has been easier in Germany – there has been aggressive contract tracing and testing since early February, and there was no sudden border closure leading to an uncontrolled rush of infected people, so authorities know where most infections are located, and thus can feel assured that social distancing is working. In the scariest days of mid-March, lingering in parks was briefly banned, and police were there to move people along.
But now we’ve negotiated a balancing point between freedom and safety, and I’m watching that point, a grassy one, fill with careful, relieved people.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
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