The Pandemic Prompts Young People to Reclaim Public Spaces

As restrictions were lifted and temperatures rose, the last few weeks saw young Viennese increasingly flocking to the inner city in search of an outlet, but with clubs still shuttered and a mandatory closing time of 22:00 (since changed to midnight) for bars, many continued partying at impromptu after-hour gatherings in public spaces, defying curfew and social distancing regulations. With the Donaukanal, Maria-Theresien-Platz and Karlsplatz particularly popular, the latter saw things come to a head in the early hours of June 5, which saw officers in full riot gear swarm Resselpark to break up an illegal gathering, which resulted in numerous bottles being thrown, 60 people charged and 8 officers injured. On the following day, the police department temporarily restricted access to the park, warning that those who enter after 19:00 risk a fine of €1,000 or four weeks in prison.  

The police were widely criticized for their heavy-handed approach, facing allegations of escalating the situation through excessive force, including the use of pepper spray. The incident gave new urgency to the plight of young people in the pandemic age, with deputy mayor Christoph Wiederkehr convening a round table between city officials, youth organizations and the police department the following Tuesday to find peaceful resolutions for the future. “We have come to an agreement that in the future, there should be awareness teams in public spaces,” Wiederkehr announced afterward, outlining that there will be three teams consisting of four people making the rounds at popular spots from 19:00-4:00 to prevent escalation. Furthermore, the city will add additional offerings to their upcoming Kultursommer, including club events conceived alongside popular organizers. 

Wiederkehr also made a public plea for reopening nightclubs with appropriate safety measures in place. “Only that will satisfy the need for free space and mobility,” he added. Convinced that there is no other way to resolve the situation, he also appealed to the federal government to loosen the curfew. Wiederkehr’s pleas have since been answered: In light of positive developments in the fight against the pandemic, Chancellor Kurz and Health Minister Mückstein announced today that the curfew will fall entirely effective July 1, allowing clubs to reopen under current 3-G rules, alongside several other looser restrictions. 

The Kids Aren’t All Right

Club owners have stated that they are more than ready to take on the task, as many have already devised their own safety concepts necessary for reopening. “I believe that clubs are the solution for this problem. We check our visitors before they enter,” the chairman of the association of Austrian club owners, Stefan Ratzenberger pointed out.

The younger generation has been disproportionately affected by the restricted interactions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, as social life plays a bigger role and fulfils different functions than with among other age groups. Losing a year in this developmental stage is “a very distinct type of loss,” said psychologist Cornelia Ehmayer-Rosinak.

Many young people have expressed frustration in the last few months, citing that they felt their needs had been overlooked during the crisis. While least likely to have a serious infection, they nevertheless had to remain home to not endanger more vulnerable groups, and tend to be last in line for vaccination, ensuring that restrictions will affect them longer than others. 

Several recent studies have been published that show a deep sense of discontent and numerous psychological problems among adolescents. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), mental anguish has increased across the board since the pandemic began, but especially among the age group 18-30.  

According to Ehmayer-Rosinak, the younger generation has developed a new and distinct relationship with public spaces that will not change anytime soon. With the curfew being loosened and a possible reopening of nightlife on the horizon, the draw of public spaces may lose some of its allure, but their appeal is here to stay.