STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We also have news today from Germany, where prostitution, we should mention, is legal. The pandemic has prompted lawmakers to ban sex work, though, to slow the spread of the coronavirus. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports that sex workers say the ban has put their lives at risk. And they're demanding to go back to work.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Here in the twisting alleys of the St. Pauli district in Hamburg is the Reeperbahn, Germany's busiest red-light district.
NATALIE: You can get whatever you want if you go on the right street.
SCHMITZ: Natalie, who only gives her first name to protect her identity, runs a brothel along what is nicknamed in German die sundigste Meile - the most sinful mile. But now, for the first time in two centuries, this mile is less sinful than ever thanks to the pandemic.
NATALIE: It's a ghost town. It's like a western movie.
SCHMITZ: Natalie rents her brothel from a landlord. And in turn, she rents out rooms to dozens of sex workers who charge their clients hourly rates. This economic chain, made up of half a million prostitutes and billions of dollars in revenue nationwide, was broken five months ago when authorities banned sex work to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).
SCHMITZ: Germany's sex workers responded this summer in protests like this one in Cologne demanding that the government let them go back to work. But authorities in Hamburg haven't budged.
MARTIN HELFRICH: If we only had one single case, it could potentially, during one day, reach more than 60 other people, who would then spread it themselves.
SCHMITZ: Martin Helfrich is spokesman for Hamburg's Ministry of Social and Health Issues, the agency in charge of regulating the city's sex work industry. He says the very nature of sex work is justification for a ban on it during a pandemic. He adds that contact tracing, something Germany's government has excelled at, is also made very difficult by the industry.
HELFRICH: Since documentation of guests of sex workers with the correct details might - I guess, owing to the circumstances - be expected to be flawed since, who wants to leave the correct contact details maybe of his house with his wife at a prostitute?
SCHMITZ: Hamburg is sending registered prostitutes welfare checks and has even rented out an entire hotel to house sex workers who have nowhere else to live during the pandemic. But it's also overseen strict enforcement of the ban, issuing fines of more than $6,000 to prostitutes caught working again. There are no fines for their clients. And that's left sex workers like Emily Adaire vulnerable. Adaire, who identifies as a transgender female, uses only her professional name for fear of revealing her work to her family or the police. She now makes a quarter of what she made before the ban. But she does it by breaking the law and meeting a handful of regular clients who she knows are not cops. One client, though, used the threat of a police fine to take advantage of her.
EMILY ADAIRE: And he demanded more stuff than usual for a quite low price. And I accepted. I was like, OK. I can do it. And then afterwards, he was not fully satisfied. And he demanded back one-third of the cash.
SCHMITZ: She says she didn't know what to do.
ADAIRE: And usually, I don't do that because I think, OK, I got naked for you. I had sex with you. And It doesn't meet your expectations. I'm sorry. But I can't do anything about it. And then I was like, OK, you can just call the police on me. And he was also a bit angry. And I was, like, a bit scared. And so I just walked home and cried a bit.
SCHMITZ: In the end, Adaire gave him a third of his money back. She reasoned it was better than a $6,000 fine. Alina Prophet, a Hamburg social worker who counsels sex workers, says the ban means the prostitutes here are just as vulnerable as their counterparts in much of the world where their work has always been illegal.
ALINA PROPHET: If they work now, they work in worse conditions because they can't do it officially. They can't call the police afterwards if something bad happens.
SCHMITZ: And that's why prominent figures in the sex work industry, like brothel owner Natalie, have come up with a hygiene plan they've shared with health authorities.
NATALIE: Yeah. It's very smart because it goes from, like, A to Z, from every step. Even the people who were concerned at first, they'll be like, oh, yeah. That makes sense.
SCHMITZ: She says nobody understands the importance of hygiene like sex workers. The city of Hamburg has hinted it'll lift the ban on sex work on September 1. But a recent spike in coronavirus cases in Germany may prevent that.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Hamburg.
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