Soaring coronavirus rates in Germany are threatening plans for a rollout of the country’s famous Christmas markets, due to open in about a week’s time.
There had been considerable fanfare over municipalities’ plans to stage the markets this year after they were called off a year ago.
Hopes that the vaccine campaign – which started in Germany on 27 December last year – would have enabled markets to go ahead have been thwarted by a low uptake rate – only about 67% of Germans are fully vaccinated – and the spread of the more infectious Delta variant.
On Wednesday, Germany registered a record number of cases for a third day in a row, with just under 40,000 new infections, predicted to reach 100,000 in the next 10 days, while 236 deaths were registered, and hospital authorities warned intensive care units were in danger of reaching capacity before Christmas.
Berlin’s Charité hospital announced it was cancelling all non-urgent operations in order to free up beds for a growing number of Covid-19 patients.
With tens of thousands of Germans expected to travel at Christmas time, the fear is that case numbers will increase further over the holiday period.
Politicians have been under mounting pressure to announce the pandemic is nearing an end after an optimistic few months over the summer and autumn. The reopening of the markets is part of that narrative, even as data shows the health emergency is far from over.
Tighter controls had been announced to allow Christmas markets to go ahead, with organisers expected to monitor visitors’ entry in some cases by putting fencing around venues, and with many markets due to insist on vaccine certificates or proof of recovery from coronavirus.
Market stalls are to be erected with more distance between them, and the numbers allowed in are to be restricted. Organisers and health authorities have issued appeals for visitors to use common sense, keep their distance from other market-goers and to wear masks.
But now authorities from Bavaria in the south to Saxony and Thuringia in the east have begun announcing the cancellation of many scheduled markets, saying a rising infection rate means it would be irresponsible for them to go ahead.
Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace market was cancelled after its operator said enforcing mask-wearing, as well as an alcohol ban in place owing to its location in a public park under the German capital’s infection protection law, made the event impossible to hold.
The market’s Tommy Erbe told German media: “Once again, politics has failed to create clear and real conditions for organisers in time.”
Nuremberg, one of the country’s most popular markets, is due to go ahead but its opening ceremony will only take place online. Other cities such as Dortmund have cancelled their Christmas lights ceremonies, arguing that health and safety regulations had made events too costly to hold.
Holger Zastrow, the head of the Augustustmarkt in Dresden, due to open on 24 November, said he remained optimistic it would go ahead. “At 500 metres long, our market has the longest promenade of any in Germany, and we will open,” he told German media. “Everything is so spread out that it is not necessary to carry out controls, whether of tests or vaccine passports.”
Germany’s Weihnachtsmärkte do not only contribute to the seasonal spirit – offering families and parties of office workers up and down the country the chance to get into the festive mood with everything from Glühwein and roast chestnuts to a range of arts and crafts and fairground amusements – they are also huge business. Typically they attract more than 150 million visitors a year, including many tourists from abroad, and generate about €3bn (£2.6bn) in revenue annually. They normally open from mid- to late November until just before Christmas.
The virologist Christian Drosten, a leading German voice throughout the pandemic, warned in his regular podcast on coronavirus on Tuesday, in an episode titled SOS – Iceberg Ahead, that Germany faced an escalation that would be hard to control and lead to tens of thousands of additional deaths if authorities did not reintroduce tighter measures, including contact restrictions.
“We need to be able to control infection activity again, and testing is not an adequate way of doing that. The tests are viewed as an emergency brake, to break the wave, but there is no way they will do that.”
Previous waves, Drosten said, had shown that the only way to lower the incidence rate was a change in the behaviour of the entire population. “When people change their behaviour and take the threat more seriously, that has an effect,” he said. “We are in an emergency situation.” He said the most effective way of ending the pandemic was for the entire population to have received three vaccination shots, though he admitted it was an unrealistic prospect.
There has been much focus in Germany in recent days on neighbouring Denmark, which had announced its pandemic was over last month but which has reintroduced restrictions this week over a rise in cases, and on Austria, which has managed to considerably boost the number of people willing to receive a vaccine by introducing strict so-called 2G rules, meaning that only those who are vaccinated or recovered can take part in many activities such as visiting cinemas or hairdressers. Germany is also debating a mandatory vaccine for people working in certain fields such as care homes and hospitals.