Christmas markets in Europe open with caution as coronavirus cases rise
Frankfurt, Germany (AFP) – A holiday tree rises above the main square in this central German city, chestnuts and prawns are roasted, and children climb aboard this whirlpool as they did before the pandemic. But the surge in coronavirus infections has left a feeling of malaise hanging over the Christmas market in Frankfurt.
To sample a glass of mulled wine – a fun winter ritual in pre-pandemic times – masked customers must pass through a one-way entrance to a gated wine shack, and stop at a hand sanitizer station. Elsewhere, security officers check certificates of vaccination before letting customers head to steaming sausages and kebabs.
Despite pandemic harassment, stall owners selling trinkets, roasted chestnuts and other holiday-themed items in Frankfurt and other European cities are relieved to ever open their doors for the first Christmas market in two years, especially with new restrictions in place In Germany, Austria and other countries where COVID-19 infections are at record levels. Merchants who have opened hope to get at least a small portion of pre-pandemic holiday sales that could make or break their business.
Others are not so lucky. Several popular holiday events in Germany and Austria have been cancelled. With the market closed, the money that tourists spend in restaurants, hotels and other businesses goes to them.
Jens Knauer, who makes intricate, illuminated Christmas-themed silhouettes that people can hang in windows, said his hope was simply that Frankfurt’s market would remain “open for as long as possible”.
While Christmas accounts for 40% of annual revenue for many retailers and restaurants, “I’m 100% with me,” Knauer said. “If I can stay open for three weeks, I can keep going all year.”
Suppliers are on alert after other Christmas markets suddenly closed in Germany’s Bavaria region, which include Nuremberg, home to one of the largest and most famous. Stunned models in Dresden were forced to pack up their goods when authorities in East Saxony suddenly imposed new restrictions amid an outbreak of infections. Austria’s markets closed on Monday as the 10-day closure began, and many stall owners hope they can reopen if it is not extended.
Markets usually draw elbow-to-elbow crowds to paddle a row of groomsmen and food vendors, and the foot traffic that generates revenue from surrounding hotels and restaurants. This year, crowds at the Frankfurt market have been considerably thinner, with stalls spread out over a larger area.
Heiner Roie, who runs a wine keg-shaped cottage, said he assumed he’d see half the business he owned in 2019. The shutdown would cause “enormous financial damage – potentially total ruin because we haven’t made any income within two years, and in At some point, the financial reserves are used up.”
But if people have a little discipline and follow the health measures, “I think we’ll manage,” he said.
Nearby, Bettina Roy’s guests are greeted with a sign asking them to show their vaccination certificates in her suite serving Swiss raclette, a popular dish of melted cheese.
The market, she said, “has a good concept because what we need is a space, a room, to keep our distance from each other.” “Unlike a brick restaurant, they have their own building and walls, but we can adapt to the conditions.”
The extended Roie family is a fifth-generation modeling company that also runs the Merry go-round in central Frankfurt’s Roemerberg square, where the market opened on Monday.
Roy said it’s important to reopen “so that we can bring a little joy to people even during the pandemic — that’s what we’re doing, and we’re bringing joy back.”
The recent surge in COVID-19 cases has unsettled the prospects for economic recovery in Europe, prompting some economists to hedge their growth forecasts in the final months of the year.
Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London, lowered his forecast for the last three months of the year for the 19 countries that use the euro from 0.7% to 0.5%. But he noted that the contagion wave has less impact across the broader economy because vaccinations have reduced serious illnesses and many companies have learned to adapt.
That’s a cold relief for German restaurant and hotel association DEHOGA, which has warned of a “barrage of cancellations” and said members were reporting every second birthday party or other special event that was canceled.
Other European countries where the epidemic is not spreading with such intensity are reverting to the old ways. The traditional Christmas market in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, in the heart of the Spanish capital, is set to open on Friday in the size it was before the outbreak.
It will house 104 stalls of traditional nativity motifs, decorations and sweets in a country where 89% of those aged 12 or over are fully vaccinated. Last year, it had half the number of booths and restricted the number of people allowed into the square. Organizers said masks and social distancing will remain mandatory.
In the Hungarian capital Budapest, Christmas markets are fenced off and visitors must show proof of vaccination to enter.
Giorgi Nagy, a producer and seller of handmade crockery, said the restrictions initially raised fears of a lack of shoppers. But business has been good so far.
“I don’t think the fence is bad,” he said. “At first, we were scared, really scared, but I think it’s good. … I don’t think it would be a flaw.”
The opening of markets reflects a broader spectrum of looser restrictions in Hungary, even as new COVID-19 cases surpass the peaks seen during the devastating boom last spring. More infections were confirmed last week than in another week since the pandemic began.
A representative of the Advent Bazilika Christmas market said a number of its measures go beyond government requirements, including that all vendors wear masks and that those selling food and drinks are vaccinated.
Pia Lakatos, a seller of soaps and essential oils at a Budapest market, said that while sales were a little weaker than they were before the pandemic, “I wasn’t expecting many foreign visitors due to the restrictions.”
“I think things aren’t that bad just yet,” she said this week. “The weekend started especially strong.”
In Vienna, markets were crowded this past weekend as people sought some Christmas cheer before Austria shut down. Traders say last year’s closures and new restrictions have had dire consequences.
“The main sales for the whole year are taking place in the Christmas markets – this pause is a huge financial loss,” said Laura Brechmann, who sold the luminaries at Spittelberg Market before the shutdown began. “Hopefully things will reopen, but I personally don’t really expect that.”
In Austria’s Salzkammergut region, home to ski resorts and the picturesque town of Hallstatt, the tourism industry is hoping the national lockdown will not be extended beyond December 13 and can recover some much-needed revenue.
Extended shutdowns last winter cost the tourism board alone 1 million euros ($1.12 million) in overnight tourism tax fees during that time — not to mention the massive financial losses incurred by hotels, restaurants and ski resorts.
“Overall, I think if things open up again before Christmas we can save the winter season,” said Christian Scherlbauer, head of tourism for the Dachstein-Salzkammergut region. “But it will depend on whether the case numbers go down or not.”
Emily Schulthes reported from Vienna, and Justin Spike from Budapest, Hungary. Aritz Parra contributed to this report from Madrid.
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