The pandemic is not stopping Dutch youth from partying, but there is more to it than just not caring about the pandemic. Our reporters Emma de Ruiter and Miriam Tepes-Handaric investigated how these parties during lockdown operate and why.
It’s February 21st, 2021. Around eight o’clock in the evening, 10 police vans enter the grounds of the famous Vondelpark in Amsterdam. Hundreds of people have gathered there, drinking, dancing, and having a good time. On February 24th, police had to act once again when visitors of the Vondelpark caused another escalation of thousands of people.
These gatherings at Vondelpark are just two examples of illegal partying that is happening amid the lockdown in the Netherlands, which has now been in place for about 4 months. Public gatherings are not allowed, and each household can only host a maximum of one guest per day. All non-necessity shops are still closed, and contact businesses such as hairdressers are just starting to reopen, under strict rules.
Even with these extensive measures in place, parties are able to operate fairly well during the pandemic. While some are shut down by police, even more go by unnoticed. So how do these parties operate, what network is active and why does it still happen so extensively?
From illegal raves to house parties: what’s the difference?
“I mean I thought it was crazy, and definitely fucked up, but I also really understand why people would need that kind of contact,” says Naomi Moonlion, a student who was present during the escalation at Vondelpark on February 24th.
What happened at Vondelpark is an example of a public gathering that escalated due to an increasing number of people who found out about it. These are the kinds of parties that mostly end up getting shut down by police, as they are easily able to escalate to having hundreds or even thousands of people.
“I think social media and the warm weather are ultimately what caused it to get so busy,” says Sanne Bruggeman, another student who was also present. Footage of the gathering managed to spread all over Twitter and Instagram, including live streams of the event.
With the strict, but also vague measures restricting their freedoms, people are now often looking for loopholes that are technically allowed under the current measures. Parks are open to the public, and thus anyone can attend if they want to. “People are making use of the freedom they still have to push the boundaries,” says Eli van Baar, another onlooker.
A common sentiment among those who were present at the Vondelpark party, was that these gatherings are often some of the only ways for people to let out some of their frustrations regarding the pandemic and increased uncertainty. Locatie12, a well known Instagram-account that organizes illegal raves shared footage of the event at Vondelpark on their Instagram-story, captioning it “Free the youth!”
Locatie12 is the main social media platform for those looking to attend illegal parties during lockdown. They have a following of almost 20,000 people, and their events usually attract several hundred people. Jakob Hartmann, who follows the account, explains how they operate:
While illegal raves and public gatherings operate largely through social media, there is a whole other world of parties that do not cross the public eye: house parties. These are the parties that are organized through word of mouth, among friends and housing groups, and are the hardest to get a grip on.
Through a survey conducted among students in The Hague and Groningen, over half of the respondents mentioned that they attend parties, and 90% know people who attend parties. These are smaller scale parties of around 15-20 people that happen pretty much weekly or more.
What is most striking about the party goers that we spoke to, is that whether they attend small house parties or illegal raves, it is almost always a way for them to stay sane in this pandemic. They don’t just party for the sake of it, and often just feel misunderstood by the world around them. “What I miss most is spontaneity, like being somewhere in a city and ending up somewhere else. That rarely happens now,” explains Naomi Moonlion.
For every party that’s shut down, several more get away
There are no police records of COVID-19 parties in the Netherlands. That is because they are registered as noise complaints or curfew violations. From other news stories, we saw that the police usually got to find them with a call from neighbours or by mere coincidence.
After calling the PR office, we are told they “are present in the online and offline world”. The Police PR informs us that another way through which they find out about parties is through the internet. When they receive a signal of a party about to happen, they contact the organizers and the party is shut down.
In this way, several locatie12 parties were able to be shut down successfully before they even happened. However, there are still many parties that locatie12 organizes that are able to go completely unnoticed by authorities, confirmed by Jakob Hartmann, who mentions that one of his friends had attended one of these events. So it seems that even with police keeping an eye on accounts like locatie12, illegal raves are still able to operate fairly easily.
We also collected data on parties that have been shut down by police since the lockdown was put in place, that can be seen on the map here. Through tweets by the police and local news stories, we were able to find 26 parties that were shut down over the last 4 months.
The parties that were shut down range from small house parties to larger gatherings of up to 100 people or more. Almost all the parties of large groups of people that were shut down, happened in public areas, like near highways, in abandoned buildings or parks. This shows the extent to which people are actually going to find alternative ways to party, that doesn’t just include house parties.
What happens inside the student houses from Groningen
“You’re gonna party so hard,” says the receptionist to Andrada Duta. She just moved to the Student Hotel in Groningen, after spending her first semester in Nido, a student housing complex that is now owned by the real estate company Xior. Nobody believes that she wants to respect the measures and that she would like her neighbours to do the same. After all, they share the same kitchen.
Living in Nido, she witnessed many parties taking place during business days and the exam session. She complained to the personnel, who eventually gave them a warning after numerous demands. “Their argument was that it’s my word against theirs,” says Andrada, trying to explain their apathy. “It felt like I wasn’t really heard,” she adds.
On the WhatsApp groups of student housings, many voices rise against the loud gatherings. Usually the criticism is against the noise, not the possibility of infection. “Nah, I don’t think COVID has anything to do with the fire alarm going off,” texts one of the complaining people we reach out to.
We found only one case in which the pandemic was used as an argument. Students are reluctant to publicly share their disapproval, which makes us uncertain if this is a case of a silent majority. But the belief that young people are not affected by the pandemic and that they can party is widespread.
The voices that stand against parties during business days can become the ones that join them during the weekend. “When I have a time slot open, I party with my friends because it is basically my only chance of seeing them,” says Joanna Helt, who studies International and European Law. For her, this is a way to cope with a demanding study program, and with moving to a foreign country.
From the people interviewed, nobody reported the party to the police. “Basically, after my complaint, people will turn their music down,” says Lexie Lei who lives in the Sugarhomes, a complex owned by Groningse Panden. Here, parties are frequent, and the people are usually the same, which makes Lexie say that this might limit the possibility of infection.
The police have been called several times to break the fun. The callers never go public and are not so popular among the other voices of the WhatsApp groups. But not all the complaints come from students. Some calls come from the nearby houses.
We sent mails to student housing companies such as Xior, SSH (Stichting Studenten Huisvestin) and the Village to find out more about how they have handled this problem. But we haven’t received any answers. We did manage to read some mails that were sent inside the SSH groups. From our findings, the SSH personnel is the only one that takes measures to discourage this behaviour, asking the students to contact the neighbourhood police.
A wider picture: alternative solutions and public debates
Not everybody sees loneliness as a valid excuse to party. Talking with David Kraandijk, chairman of the student association ESN (Erasmus Student Network), we found out that there are other ways to cope with loneliness, such as the buddy-to-buddy programme, meant for building connections between students, by pairing them up. This confirms the responses we’ve got from our survey: people engaged in student associations tend to consider parties unimportant during the pandemic.
There is also the question if the voices that rise against the corona measures should be published or not. This problem was highly debated last September, when Ukrant, the local student magazine, published the Why Fay does go to parties article. The magazine also published the reply of another student from the University of Groningen, Mathias Matzen. We asked him and the publishers if they changed their minds now, when the Netherlands is under lockdown.
“I certainly disagreed with Fay, but I still agree that we published that story,” says Rob Siebelink, the editor-in-chief of Ukrant. As a journalist, Rob considers his duty to openly discuss problems like this one. This is the first step towards solving it. “By being silent about it, you will not prevent anything,” Rob adds.
The voices of the party industry: talking with the Night Mayor of Groningen and the owner of the Paradigm Club
“When the government restricts young people from meeting each other in places where you can limit the spread of the virus, they will meet at home” says Merlijn Poolman, the night mayor of Groningen*. He also thinks that the government has not done enough to help the mental health of young people and refused to acknowledge that there can be social engagements done in a safe way.
Merlijn is currently trying to find solutions to make the city night life possible again. “It has an important cultural and societal value,” he says. The night mayor tells us how the city night provides a form of unity in society, because it brings together people who wouldn’t usually mingle with one another. It is also important to the economy.
“I really think the government does not care about this sector,” Merlijn says. Many people from the party industry have lost their jobs. That is why it so important to open the venues as soon as possible, before the start of the beer garden season, when everybody wants to spend some time outside,
“It’s hard to see that the parks are full,” says Paul Grimmius, owner of Paradigm, one of the leading clubs in Groningen. While people continue to party these days, the clubs remain closed and some have even gone bankrupt. He does not blame the students for taking these underground initiatives, but he thinks that the pandemic is a real danger and we should act accordingly.
We talk about his plans for the future, but he says that he cannot open Paradigm right away. Their business is to sell vibes, which they cannot do when there is no dance involved or other sort of close encounters. COVID testing plays an important role in how the future of his business will look. Paul wants to make sure that people will have fun in a safe way.
“There is a necessary need for culture and dancing, singing and enjoying,” says Paul, “this is also part of life”. For him, the best solution in this crisis would be to have a balance between safety and fun. Also, if parties become again part of the industry, it would be easier to check on the amount of alcohol and drugs used, so that the environment would be safer than it is now, in closed and unregulated spaces.
*Night Mayor: “The Night Mayor is the informal name for a city official charged with taking care of issues that arise in a city after dark.” (Political Dictionary)