Christmas aside, Germany prepares for a long, locked-down winter


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Like most European countries, Germany has spent November in COVID-19 lockdown, albeit a relatively mild version. And as in many of Germany’s neighbors, the lockdown will be eased over Christmas. But when will it actually end?

Only in the spring, a senior official in the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel predicted Thursday, indicating ongoing hardship for many businesses over the coming months.

According to Merkel herself, the coronavirus restrictions are likely to continue into January at least. “Given the high number of infections, we assume that the restrictions which are in place before Christmas will be continue to be valid until the start of January, certainly for most parts of Germany,” she told the Bundestag Thursday.

But Merkel’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, told RTL television that Germany’s restrictions will probably have to continue all the way into March, at which point spring will arrive and the government will—it hopes—be vaccinating large numbers of people.

“We have difficult winter months ahead of us,” Braun said. “This will continue until March.”

High plateau

Germany case numbers, which were rising exponentially in October as the pandemic’s second wave struck in earnest, have plateaued in recent days but are still regularly above 20,000 new infections per day. The COVID-19 death rate continues to rise sharply, with 416 deaths recorded on Wednesday.

Late Wednesday, Merkel and Germany’s 16 state leaders agreed to extend the current “lockdown lite,” which is disproportionately affecting the hospitality and leisure sectors, until at least December 20. That means bars and restaurants remain closed to sit-down patrons until then.

From the start of December, contact rules will be tightened, with only five adults from a maximum of two households being allowed to meet. Shops stay open, but will have to tighten their social-distancing measures; their customers will also have to wear masks while waiting outside and while in parking lots.

But from December 23 to January 1, larger gatherings of up to 10 people (not counting children under 14) will be allowed, with people being encouraged to self-isolate before and after they meet friends and family.

Unless the situation suddenly improves drastically, restaurants and bars will stay closed over the Christmas period, and hotels will still not be able to offer rooms to tourists.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, this is what the hospitality industry had been calling for.

The German Hotel and Restaurant Association (Dehoga) said ahead of the government meeting that a brief reopening of restaurants over the Christmas period would not be worthwhile for its members, who would have to clean, decorate, stock and staff their facilities for a window lasting less than a week.

Although retail shops have remained open during the lockdown, German GDP is expected to drop by a point this quarter, and consumer sentiment has also taken a hit from the closure of restaurants, bars, hotels, cinemas and theaters.

The market research firm GsK said Thursday that nearly half of the people it surveyed were either very concerned or somewhat concerned about the coronavirus’s economic impact on their own futures.

“How the infection rate develops in the coming weeks will play a decisive role in determining whether the consumer climate will be able to stabilize again,” said GfK consumer expert Rolf Bürkl in a statement. “Only a significant decrease in the number of infections and an easing of restrictions will restore a more optimistic outlook.”

Christmas plans

By signaling a continuation of restrictions well into the new year, Germany is playing it more cautiously than many other European countries. However, its Christmas plans are largely comparable with theirs.

In the U.K., the current lockdown will replaced by a tiered system of restrictions, based on infection rates in particular regions, next Wednesday. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this system would also stay in place until March.

This festive season, up to three British households will be able to gather in one “Christmas bubble” from December 23-27, and they will be able to travel freely in order to do so. However, people are being urged to increase their social distancing for two weeks afterwards, and the preceding three weeks will be characterized by stricter measures in many places.

France, which will ease its heavy lockdown on Saturday to allow things like the reopening of shops, plans to mostly lift lockdown on December 15, allowing people to travel to meet their friends and family for Christmas. However, a nighttime curfew will still apply, restaurants will have to remain shut until January 20, and there is as yet no planned reopening date for bars.

According to Spanish media reports, the government there intends to introduce a “rule of six” for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, allowing up to six people to gather. People would be advised to stick to their household, though, with work Christmas meals being steered outside. Travel between regions would again be advised against.

Italy’s leaders are still discussing what should be done about Christmas there; the country’s current partial lockdown will end on December 3.

More health care and Big Pharma coverage from Fortune:

  • Why it’s hard to process 250,000 COVID deaths
  • Your employees are not okay: How to handle mental health at work during a pandemic
  • You’re not crazy—you really hunger for social contact, scientists say
  • The Fortune/IBM Watson Health 50 Top Cardiovascular Hospitals
  • Lockdown, superspreader, unprecedented: 2020 has changed the English language, for good

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