From Dresden to Nuremberg, Germany’s historic Christmas markets have survived wars and plagues – but mixed pandemic messaging and political U-turns have sparked fear and fury among traders.
Record levels of fourth-wave infections and the first national cases of the Omicron variant meant the first Sunday of Advent in many German towns and cities had neither the usual bustle nor smells of gingerbread and mulled wine.
Unlike neighbouring Austria, however, where all markets have been cancelled as the country begins week two of a three-week lockdown, Germany has no common policy. While Berlin and some other cities have allowed some markets with reduced capacity (in some cases excluding unvaccinated people), the states of Bavaria, Saxony and Thuringia, all Covid-19 hotpots, first said their markets could proceed – before closing them all.
News they would have to close, in some cases just days after opening, came as a bombshell to many traders who had organised stock and staff on the understanding that stringent rules would allow trading after last year’s total lockdown.
After opening, then closing again, Dresden’s Striezelmarkt, normally a hive of activity, was a ghost town of shuttered sausage and candyfloss stands on the first weekend of Advent.
“The politicians screwed us over,” said Christa Neubauer, at her wooden decorations stand, to MDR television. “They should have allowed us open for recovered and vaccinated people.”
Local man Stefan Hesse agreed: “It’s insane what they’ve done: let them set up everything like this, then cancel it overnight.”
A recent overhaul of Germany’s pandemic laws has tightened restrictions for unvaccinated people and given greater powers to the 16 federal capitals to impose local lockdowns.
Breitscheid Square Christmas market in Berlin: After marking 100,000 Covid-19 deaths on Friday, Germany registered its first cases of the Omicron variant on Saturday. Photograph: Filip Singer
Dresden and elsewhere in Saxony are now registering Covid-19 infection rates about three times the national average. In one rural region, one in 50 locals has tested positive in recent days, making a regional lockdown there more likely in the coming days. For days now, Saxony’s minister president, Michael Kretschmer, has demanded an emergency meeting of state and federal leaders.
“Hesitation will be punished,” he said, with an eye on the spread of a new virus mutation. “Current measures are not enough, we have an urgent need to act.”
Echoing his Saxon colleague, Bavarian premier Markus Söder on Sunday demanded “consequential contact limits for unvaccinated people and lockdowns in hotspot regions . . . to wind down the country even further”.
“Every day of waiting and hesitation is a lost day,” he said.
After marking 100,000 Covid-19 deaths on Friday, Germany registered its first cases of the Omicron variant on Saturday. Germany’s leading Leopoldina national science academy has urged a new vaccination push, and urged politicians to begin legal preparation for a vaccine mandate.
As well as masks for all in schools “without exception”, the scientists urged a “clear reduction in contacts” in all indoor areas – in particular bars, clubs and events. So far, though, the mixed messaging on Christmas markets continues. Three cities in the eastern state of Thuringia are even challenging a state order forcing them to close their markets last Wednesday, a day after opening.
“On the cathedral square, people could have drunk mulled wine with strict controls,” said Andreas Bausewein, mayor of Erfurt. “Now they’ll do it elsewhere where the risk of infection is much higher.”
On Sunday, 62 per cent of Swiss voters rejected a proposal to abolish the country’s Covid certificate pass, introduced in September, which restricts entry to bars, restaurants and other indoor spaces to those who are fully vaccinated, recovered from the virus or who have a negative test.