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Northern German States Agree to Reopen Brothels, Despite COVID-19 Uptick

Brothel workers protest against the lockdown of their business due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in front of the federal state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia in Dusseldorf, Germany, Aug. 27, 2020.

Several states in northern Germany are set to lift or ease pandemic restrictions on prostitution, with North Rhine-Westphalia now allowing sex workers to resume their business. The decision comes in the wake of several court cases filed by sex workers, who argued the restrictions unfairly discriminated against them.

The sex workers contrasted the ban on their activities with the lifting weeks ago on gyms and physical fitness studios. The Higher Administrative Court of North Rhine-Westphalia agreed with the argument, ruling it was not clear the risk of infection was much higher during sexual acts between a couple than at private gatherings of up to 150 people.

It overturned the ban on prostitution with the ruling taking effect Tuesday in North Rhine-Westphalia, which banned sex work five months ago.

Several courts have followed suit and three other jurisdictions, including the city states of Hamburg and Bremen, will allow brothels to resume business September 15. Hamburg is home to one of the World’s most famous red-light areas, the Reeperbahn.

Sex workers will be required to observe strict rules, including meeting clients only by appointment and maintaining contact lists for public health authorities to be able identify chains of infection.

Hamburg city's social affairs minister, Melanie Leonhard, told broadcasting channel Deutsche Welle that the lifting of restrictions was being coordinated among various city and regional governments, and that only one-to-one encounters would be allowed. “Prostitution events and prostitution in vehicles” will still be banned, she said.

Germany has been seeing an uptick in coronavirus infections with nearly 1,500 confirmed cases being reported Tuesday. Around 252,298 people in Germany have been infected since the start of the pandemic, according to the Robert Koch Institute for disease control. Just over 9,000 have died in connection with the virus.

Sex workers have been lobbying state governments in Germany for months to lift bans. Last week, one of Europe's biggest brothels, Pascha in Cologne, filed for bankruptcy after it had exhausted financial reserves and could no longer pay for its 10-story building or 60 full-time staffers.

The managing director, Armin Lobscheid, criticized authorities, saying, “We were put off for a further two weeks every 14 days. We can't plan like that. We might have been able to avert bankruptcy with the help of the banks, if we had been promised that things could start again at the beginning of next year,” he told local reporters.

Sex workers say that brothel closures have been forcing prostitution underground, placing them at greater risk of abuse and exploitation and increasing the chances of infection chains escaping detection. “The longer the crisis lasts, the more sex workers work illegally. The ban on occupations must be lifted and sex work must be equated with other body-related services,” Susi, a spokeswoman for the German sex workers trade union BesD, said in a statement in last month.

The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), a network representing 103 organizations led by or working with sex workers in 32 countries in Europe and Central Asia, says the coronavirus pandemic has been highlighting the lack of social protections for sex workers.

It said in a statement: “Sex workers of all genders have been amongst the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe and Central Asia. Lockdowns, self-isolation and travel restrictions have put us out of work, pressing some onto the streets and into destitution, where the risks are heightened by the pandemic. As sex work is criminalized to varying degrees in all countries of the region, most of us have been unable to access the safeguards provided for many other workers, such as sick pay and social benefits.”

In some European countries sex workers have been defying bans or ignoring general pandemic restrictions. In interviews with local media they say they have no option because they are destitute. Brothel workers in Spain and Italy, many of them migrants and often with ambiguous legal status, say in some cases owners have been throwing them out on the street.

Evelyn Rochel, a 35-year-old Colombian sex worker and well-known activist, told the French news agency that the crisis has exposed a “shocking” paradox. Brothel owners have been “legally furloughing waitresses, the cleaners and everyone else with a contract, but throw the prostitutes onto the street—those who can't get help because they're not recognized as employees,” she said.

She added: “Those who can get work online are doing it on the sly,” seeing clients in homes. Italian and Spanish police have reported the opening of clandestine brothels, and groups combating human trafficking in Europe have noted a big jump in video sex and chat rooms.

In Britain, the economic impact of the pandemic risks luring more students into sex work, according to Save The Student, a financial news site for students. In its annual money survey published Wednesday it found that the number of students turning to sex work or considering doing so has risen.

The percentage of those considering sex work has nearly doubled compared to 2019, with around 10 percent surveyed saying they would consider sex work to overcome a cash crisis. Seven percent of those surveyed said they had actually turned to sex or adult video work since the pandemic struck.