Europe’s Christmas markets warily open as COVID cases rise

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Some Christmas markets in Europe are opening warily amid rising coronavirus infections

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To taste a mug of mulled wine – a joyous rite of winter in pre-pandemic times – masked customers must walk through the one-way entrance of a fenced-off wine hut, stopping at a hand sanitizer station. Elsewhere, security officers check vaccination certificates before customers eat steamed sausages and kebabs.

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Others are not so lucky. Many famous holiday events have been canceled in Germany and Austria. Market closures take away money that tourists spend on restaurants, hotels and other businesses.

Jens Nour, who crafts intricate, illuminating Christmas-themed silhouettes that people can hang in the windows, said his hope was simply that the Frankfurt market “keeps as open as possible.”

While Christmas accounts for 40% of annual revenue for many retailers and restaurants, “with me, it’s 100%,” Knaur said. “If I can be open for three weeks, I can make it year-round.”

Since the abrupt closure of other Christmas markets in Germany’s Bavaria region, Purveer has been on edge, including Nuremberg, one of the largest and best-known markets. Shocked protesters in Dresden had to pack their bags when authorities in the East Saxony region suddenly imposed new restrictions amid rising infections. Austria’s markets closed as a 10-day lockdown began on Monday, with many stall owners hoping they could reopen if it is not extended.

Markets usually attract elbow-to-elbow crowds of jewelery and food vendors queuing, foot traffic that translates into revenue for nearby hotels and restaurants. This year, Frankfurt’s market was much less crowded, with stalls spread over a large area.

Heiner Roi, who runs a mulled wine hut the size of a wine barrel, said he was assuming he would see half his business in 2019. A shutdown would cause “extreme financial loss – it could be completely ruined because we haven’t generated any income in two years, and at some point, the financial reserves are used up.”

But if people have a little discipline and follow health measures, “I think we will manage it,” he said.

Next door, guests at Bettina Roi are greeted with a sign asking them to show their vaccination certificates at its stand serving Swiss racquets, a popular melted cheese dish.

Market is “a good concept because we need space, room to keep some distance from each other.” “Unlike a brick-and-mortar restaurant, they have their own building and their walls, but we can adjust ourselves to the circumstances.”

The extended Roi family is a fifth-generation exhibitor business that also operates a merry-go-round on Frankfurt’s central Römerberg Square, where the market opens on Mondays.

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

The latest spike in COVID-19 cases has unsettled Europe’s economic recovery prospects, with some economists lowering their expectations for growth in the final months of the year.

Holger Schmeeding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London, has cut his forecast for the last three months of the year in 19 countries that use the euro from 0.7% to 0.5%. But he said the wave of infections is having little impact on the broader economy as vaccinations have reduced serious diseases and many companies have learned to adjust.

It’s cold comfort for Germany’s DEHOGA Restaurant and Hotel Association, which warned of a “cancellation hailstorm” and said members were reporting every other Christmas party or other special event was being called off.

Other European countries where the pandemic hasn’t hit as hard are returning to the old fashioned way. The traditional Christmas market in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, in the heart of the Spanish capital, is expected to open on Friday in the size it was before the pandemic.

It will have 104 stalls of birth figures, decorations and traditional sweets in a country where 89% of people aged 12 or above have been fully vaccinated. Last year, it halved the number of stalls and limited the number of people allowed in the square. The organizers said that masks and social distancing would be mandatory.

In Hungary’s capital Budapest, Christmas markets have been closed and visitors must show proof of vaccination to enter.

György Negi, a maker and seller of hand-made glazed crockery, said the restrictions initially sparked concerns from fewer shoppers. But so far business has been good.

“I don’t think the fence is bad,” he said. “In the beginning, we were scared of it, really scared, but I think it’s okay. … I don’t think it will do any harm.”

The market opening reflects a broad spectrum of loosening 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 other weeks since the pandemic began.

A representative for the Advent Basilica Christmas market said many of its measures go beyond government requirements, including that all vendors wear masks and those selling food and drink are vaccinated.

B Lakatos, a seller of scented soaps and oils at the Budapest market, said sales have been a little weaker than before the pandemic, adding that “I didn’t expect so many foreign visitors to be banned.”

“I think things are not that bad so far,” she said this week. “The weekend started off particularly strong.”

In Vienna, markets were packed last weekend as people demanded some Christmas cheer before Austria’s lockdown. Traders say last year’s shutdown and new restrictions have had disastrous consequences.

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

For the ski resort and picturesque town of Hallstatt, in Austria’s Salzkammergut region, the tourism industry hopes the national lockdown won’t be extended beyond December 13 and could recover some much-needed revenue.

Last winter’s extended lockdown alone cost the tourism board 1 million euros ($1.12 million) in overnight tourist tax fees during that period – not to mention the huge financial losses incurred by hotels, restaurants and ski resorts.

“Overall, I think if things reopen before Christmas, we can save the winter season,” said Christian Schirlbauer, tourism chief for the Dachstein-Salzkammergut region. “But it will depend on whether the case numbers come down or not.”


Emily Schultheis reported from Vienna and Justin Spike from Budapest, Hungary. Aritz Parra contributed to this Madrid report.


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