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Green light for Amsterdam's red light district after virus shutdown

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Amsterdam (AFP)

Amsterdam's famed red light district reopened on Wednesday after a long coronavirus shutdown, with sex workers and clients having to observe new rules to prevent infection.

The Netherlands ordered all brothels closed in mid-March and had originally planned to keep them shut until September, but recently brought the date forward as COVID-19 cases dropped.

"It feels very good" to be back at work, said Felicia Anna, a 34-year-old Romanian sex worker in the Amsterdam red light district and chairwoman of the Red Light United trade union.

"During the lockdown, a lot of sex workers ran into financial trouble so we're very happy that we can finally start our job again," she told AFP.

Anna said there were fears that there would be fewer clients, since many of them are tourists and the Netherlands still has a travel ban on many countries.

"But I did ask some of my colleagues and so far they said that the work is quite ok."

"I'm totally booked" for Wednesday, added Foxxy, a sex worker and activist at the Prostitution Information Center (PIC) in Amsterdam, using her professional pseudonym.

"I had a little party when I heard" the government's June 24 announcement that sex work could restart, added Foxxy, who rents a room in a brothel outside the red light district.

- 'No kissing' -

While less restrictive than other countries, the Netherlands' "intelligent lockdown" emptied the red neon-lit, street-front windows from which many of Amsterdam's prostitutes normally beckon customers.

Now they are reopening but, as with Dutch hairdressers and masseurs which have already been allowed to resume operations, sex workers are encouraged to verify that their clients do not have COVID-19 symptoms.

"Before I make an appointment, I have to check with the client if they're feeling ok and if they don't have any of the symptoms, or if any of their housemates has symptoms," Foxxy said.

Other measures include "disinfection and washing the hands, cleaning the sheets after every appointment. Those are the basic needs. But we don't need to wear any face masks during the playdates, thank God."

She added that "most of us will avoid face to face, so no kissing".

Felicia Anna said that "after the customer leaves the room, we're going to disinfect everything he might have touched, bed, sink, the toilet if he used the toilet, the doorknobs, everything."

But she said that sex workers were already well versed in hygiene, adding: "We already dealt with much bigger diseases than corona."

Dutch deputy prime minister Hugo de Jonge said on Wednesday that a "new phase in the approach to coronavirus begins" but urged people to remain vigilant.

- 'Ghost town' -

The Netherlands legalised prostitution in 2000 and sex workers have to register with the local chamber of commerce and pay income tax. Around 7,000 now work in Amsterdam, according to official figures.

But sex workers' lobby groups have repeatedly complained that many have not received benefits during the lockdown.

"I'm an independent contractor so I could get some governmental benefits but I know from a lot of other sectors girls who couldn't do that and they just had to" live on their savings, said Foxxy.

She added that the red light district would "certainly" be more affected because "a lot of sex workers" who often come from eastern Europe and South America returned to their home countries during the lockdown and are still not allowed to travel back to the Netherlands.

Meanwhile with COVID-19 changing the way that sex workers operate, there is also speculation that it could be the catalyst for changes to Amsterdam's red light district, long affected by concerns about sex tourism, drunkenness, and organised crime.

In February Amsterdam city authorities unveiled plans to move part of the red light area indoors to an "erotic" complex.

Dave Kroeke, a business owner who rents out "windows" to prostitutes, said the lockdown months had been "very strange" but that the red light district was starting to return to its old self.

"It was like a ghost town in here and now finally the neighbourhood starts living again a little bit and I hope it will come more and more," he said.

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