BERLIN — Some raced to pick up toilet paper. Others hurried to grab Yuletide gifts and sip a last warm mulled wine at Germany‘s famed Christmas markets — those that were still open. Some simply tried to get haircuts before service businesses were forced to close — again.
“I didn’t make it in time,” said Katrine, 51, in Berlin, who wanted a color and trim. “[My hairdresser] was slammed. I guess I’ll just have to go into the new year gray.”
Across Germany last week, streets went quiet and nonessential stores and schools closed their doors as part of a hard lockdown in the face of a raging national health emergency. Nonessential travel and shopping, and standing around outdoor tables with friends, sipping the traditional mulled wine known as gluehwein, joined eat-in dining, working out and seeing a movie as activities on the government’s verboten list.
The Hofbrau Berlin, the city’s biggest restaurant, started serving as a homeless center after its dining operations were shuttered.
The crackdown mandated by the government of longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel was needed because the “lockdown lite” that went into effect in early November, when all stores and schools were allowed to remain open, didn’t work. In a country that just months ago won global praise for its initial success in combating COVID-19, transmission rates have risen to some of the highest in the world. Germany now ranks in the top 20 of total infections worldwide.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Germany spiked from 21 in November to 179 per 100,000 people last week, according to the Robert Koch Institute, the country’s national agency for disease control. That is more than three times the number — 50 — that the agency considers acceptable.
Meanwhile, the daily infection rate hit 30,000 last week — up from the high of 7,000 this spring. Daily virus-related fatalities hit a record 952 on Wednesday in the country of 83 million.
Newspaper headlines talk of a grim winter ahead. Bild, the country’s bestselling newspaper, wrote recently, “The bitter truth is that Germany has to close not solely because of corona but also because of the political handling of corona.”
President Trump, whose administration’s virus response was compared unfavorably with Germany‘s in the spring and summer could not resist a little schadenfreude on Twitter.
Germany “has consistently been used by my obnoxious critics as the country that we should follow on the way to handle the China Virus,” Mr. Trump tweeted Dec. 9. “So much for that argument.”
Ms. Merkel, who has faced persistent populist opposition to the hard lockdown by some of the country’s 16 states, begged German lawmakers to support the restrictions. She acknowledged that November’s lighter measures didn’t work. Close to tears in a Dec. 9 address to parliament, she pleaded with Germans to be more careful.
“As hard as it is — and I know how much love has gone into setting up these mulled wine stands — this is not the same as agreeing only to do takeout,” she said. “I am really sorry, from the bottom of my heart … but the price of 590 deaths a day is not acceptable.”
Germany, along with Asian countries such as South Korea, New Zealand and Taiwan, was once held up as a model of how countries should deal with the rapidly spreading coronavirus. In the spring, as the U.S. endured a first deadly surge of COVID-19, Germany‘s death rate was among the lowest in the world.
Unlike some European peers, German hospitals never reached close to capacity in treating patient loads, and the country’s testing and contact tracing systems were touted as some of the best in the world.
“A lot of people saw the low death rates and became too complacent,” said Stefan, 53, who works in corporate sales in Frankfurt and raced to see his mother in Bavaria last weekend because they wouldn’t be able to spend Christmas together. “People got too casual, and now we have to pay for it.
“And I know many people planning to defy this lockdown,” he said.
Many Germans interviewed noted how casual people became about masks and distancing after the spring’s tough measure were eased. In Berlin this fall, outdoor cafe tables were often full, rarely spaced 6 feet apart and, unlike in France, hardly anyone donned a mask while walking in the streets. Inside restaurants, bars and homes, people ate, drank and socialized together as usual.
Germany‘s federal system, and the premium it places on building a careful consensus between the government in Berlin and the states, is also coming under criticism. Many say it is hampering efforts to move more quickly and decisively.
Many officials now say urgent measures are needed to keep Germany from falling behind its neighbors.
“We need to be careful that Germany doesn’t become the problem child of Europe,” said Markus Soeder, governor of the state of Bavaria.
That means Christmas will be a sad affair. The government has placed a ban on singing in churches even as religious services are allowed — with masks and distancing. Gathering with family or friends is restricted to five people, except for children and on Christmas.
And New Year’s Eve? That crazy free-for-all in Berlin and other cities when fireworks are set off in all directions to turn streets into giant party zones? Nein — not this year. There is a ban on public outdoor gatherings and the sale of fireworks. Some states have imposed curfews.
Although most Germans accept the restrictions, businesses fret that the damage could be lasting.
The commercial restrictions and sales bans imposed this month “will hit the industry hard. The entire industry is now threatened with insolvency,” Thomas Schreiber, chairman of the board of the Association of the Pyrotechnic Industry, told German daily Die Zeit.
The German Retail Association is predicting a wave of bankruptcies and warning that governmental aid to businesses hasn’t been enough, especially when stores are forced to shut down during their busiest season.
The situation is dire for restaurants and bars, which have been limited to offering takeout for about half the year. Some are getting creative with deliveries and crowdfunding campaigns to survive. Most are just hoping to hang on until next summer, when the vaccinations are well underway and the rates of infection are down.
“After the first lockdown, we managed to come back to our ‘before-corona income,’ but with the arrival of autumn and the shorter and cooler days, the business dropped to less than 50% because we had to reduce the amount of people we could serve inside,” said Anastasia Schoeck-Bochenski who owns a bar in Berlin. “We definitely cannot talk about any profit here. We can only minimize the losses.”
Support and protests
The lockdown is supposed to last until Jan. 10, but it will be extended if the caseload remains high.
Most Germans support the restrictions. A YouGov poll released last week found that 73%, including more than half of supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, favor the tougher lockdown measures. The party has been vocal against restrictions.
Many of the 20% who oppose harsher measures have been on the streets for months demonstrating against masks and other measures. During protests in Frankfurt and other cities this weekend, business owners said the unrest was hurting holiday sales further because people stayed away from city centers.
“I’ve spent pretty much every weekend since April at a demonstration,” Malin S. said in a post on Twitter. “I never wear a mask, ever. I hug my friends like I always have. And I’ve never had the virus. How do supporters of the measures explain this phenomenon?”
Some bright spots have emerged in the gloom. Locals point with pride to the work of BioNTech, a once-obscure German research firm that partnered with American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer on one of the first coronavirus vaccines to hit the market.
Adding to the frustration, though, is the use of the vaccine in the U.K. and U.S. while Germany awaits approval from European Union regulators.
In the eastern state of Saxony, which has become a hot bed of protests, the rates of infection are higher than anywhere else in the country. Hospital officials are begging people to be careful because they are running out of capacity to treat patients.
Ms. Schoeck-Bochenski, meanwhile, said those who are protesting or failing to be careful are just making it worse for everyone else.
“To be honest, for me the ‘lockdown lite’ felt like an unfair and incomplete solution — especially considering how people have been behaving in their daily lives and also those awful demonstrations,” she said.
“Germany decided too late on this total lockdown. We could have had a Christmas with fewer victims and fatalities,” she said. “Now we are trying to [fix] what we didn’t in October and November.”