European Christmas markets open with caution as COVID cases rise

The holiday tree dominates the main square of this city in central Germany, chestnuts and sugared almonds are roasted and children climb aboard the merry-go-round as they did before the pandemic. But an increase in coronavirus infections has left a feeling of unease looming over the Frankfurt Christmas market.

To savor a cup of mulled wine – a simple winter rite in pre-pandemic times – masked patrons must go through a one-way entrance to a fenced-in wine hut, stopping at the sanitizer station for hands. Elsewhere, security guards check vaccination certificates before letting patrons head for the steaming sausages and kebabs.

Despite the downsides of the pandemic, owners of stalls selling ornaments, roasted chestnuts and other holiday-themed items in Frankfurt and other European cities are relieved to be open for their first Christmas market in two years, especially with the entry into force of new restrictions in Germany, Austria and other countries as COVID-19 infections reach record levels. Traders who have opened are hoping for at least a fraction of the pre-pandemic holiday sales that can make or break their business.

Others are not so lucky. Many famous holiday events have been canceled in Germany and Austria. With the closure of markets, the money tourists would spend in restaurants, hotels and other businesses disappears.

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Jens Knauer, who makes intricate, bright Christmas-themed silhouettes that people can hang on windows, said he just hopes the Frankfurt market “stays open as long as possible.”

While Christmas accounts for 40% of the annual turnover of many retailers and restaurateurs, “with me it’s 100%,” Knauer said. “If I can stay open for three weeks, I can spend the whole year.”

Vendors are on the alert following the abrupt closure of other Christmas markets in the German region of Bavaria, which includes Nuremberg, home to one of the largest and most well-known markets. Stunned exhibitors in Dresden had to pack their wares when authorities in the East Saxony region suddenly imposed new restrictions amid the spike in infections. Austrian markets closed as a 10-day lockdown began on Monday, with many stall owners hoping they can reopen if not extended.

The markets usually draw crowds neck and neck to row rows of ornamental and food vendors, with foot traffic spilling over to the income of surrounding hotels and restaurants. This year, the crowds at the Frankfurt market have shrunk considerably as the stalls are spread over a larger area.

Heiner Roie, who runs a wine barrel-shaped mulled wine shack, said he assumed he would see half of the business he had in 2019. A shutdown would cause “immense financial damage – it could lead to complete ruin since we have ‘I have made no income in two years, and at some point the financial reserves are depleted.

But if people have a little discipline and observe the sanitary measures, “I think we’re going to get there,” he said.

Beside, Bettina Roie’s guests are greeted with a sign asking them to show their vaccination certificates at her stand serving Swiss raclette, a popular processed cheese dish.

The market “has a good concept because what we need is space, space, to keep a certain distance from each other,” she said. “Unlike a brick and mortar restaurant, they have their building and their walls, but we can adapt to the circumstances.”

The extended Roie family is a fifth-generation exhibitor company that also operates the merry-go-round in Frankfurt’s central Roemerberg square, where the market opened on Monday.

Roie said it was important to reopen “so that we can bring some joy to people even during the pandemic – that’s what we do, we bring back joy”.

The latest spike in COVID-19 cases has uncertain prospects for Europe’s economic recovery, leading some economists to cover their growth expectations 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 in the 19 countries that use the euro from 0.7% to 0.5%. But he noted that the wave of infections is having less of an impact on the economy as a whole as vaccinations have reduced serious illness and many companies have learned to adapt.

This is cold comfort to the German Restaurant and Hotel Association DEHOGA, which warned of a “shower of cancellations” and said members were reporting every other Christmas party or other event special was canceled.

Other European countries where the pandemic does not strike as hard are reverting to their old ways. The traditional Christmas market in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, in the heart of the Spanish capital, is set to open on Friday at the size it was before the pandemic.

It will have 104 stalls of crib figurines, decorations and traditional treats in a country where 89% of those aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated. Last year it had half the number of stalls and restricted the number of people allowed in the square. Masks and social distancing will remain mandatory, organizers said.

In the Hungarian capital of Budapest, Christmas markets have been closed and visitors must show proof of vaccination to enter.

Gyorgy Nagy, a producer and seller of handmade enameled tableware, said the restrictions initially raised concerns among fewer buyers. 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 okay. … I don’t think it will be a disadvantage.

The opening of markets reflects a wider range of flexible restrictions in Hungary, even as new cases of COVID-19 have exceeded peaks seen in a devastating wave last spring. More infections were confirmed last week than the other week since the start of the pandemic.

A representative from the Advent Bazilika Christmas Market said a number of its measures go beyond government requirements, including that all vendors wear masks and those who sell food and drink be vaccinated.

Bea Lakatos, a seller of soaps and scented oils in the Budapest market, said that although sales were a bit lower than before the pandemic, “I did not expect so many foreign visitors to account. given the restrictions “.

“I think things haven’t gone so bad so far,” she said this week. “The weekend started off particularly strong.

In Vienna, markets were packed last weekend as people looked to celebrate Christmas ahead of Austria’s lockdown. Traders say the closures last year and the new restrictions had dire consequences.

“The main sales for the whole year are in the Christmas markets – this break is a huge financial loss,” said Laura Brechmann, who sold illuminated stars at the Spittelberg market before the lockdown began. “We hope things will reopen, but personally, I don’t really expect that.”

In Austria’s Salzkammergut, home to ski resorts and the picturesque town of Hallstatt, the tourism industry is hoping the nationwide lockdown will not be extended beyond December 13 and can recover some much-needed income.

The extended shutdowns last winter cost the tourist office alone 1 million euros ($ 1.12 million) in night-time resort tax fees alone during that time – not to mention huge financial losses suffered by hotels, restaurants and ski resorts.

“Overall, I think that if things open up again before Christmas, we can save the winter season,” said Christian Schirlbauer, responsible for tourism for the Dachstein-Salzkammergut region. “But that will depend on whether the number of cases drops or not.”

Contribution: Aritz Parra, Associated Press

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