Europe’s famed Christmas markets warily open as COVID cases rise

FRANKFURT, Germany  — The holiday tree is towering over the main square in this central German city, the chestnuts and sugared almonds are roasted, and kids are clambering aboard the merry-go-round just like they did before the pandemic.

But a surge in coronavirus infections has left an uneasy feeling hanging over Frankfurt’s Christmas market.

To savor a mug of mulled wine — an uncomplicated rite of winter in pre-pandemic times — masked customers must pass through a one-way entrance to a fenced-off wine hut, stopping at the hand sanitizer station. Security officers verify vaccination certificates before allowing customers access to the steaming sausages, kebabs, and other delights.

Despite the inconveniences of pandemic influenza, stall owners selling ornaments and roasted chestnuts in Frankfurt and other European cities are happy to be open for their first Christmas market since two years. This is especially true considering new restrictions in Germany, Austria, and other countries where COVID-19 infections have reached record levels.

Merchants who have opened their shops hope to earn at least a fraction off the pre-pandemic holiday sales that could make or break them. Others aren’t so lucky. Many of the most famous holiday events were cancelled in Germany and Austria.

Jens Knauer, a maker of intricate, lighted silhouettes with Christmas themes that can be hung in windows, stated that his goal was to see the Frankfurt market. “stays open as long as possible.”

Christmas is 40% of the annual revenue for many retailers, restaurateurs, and others. “with me, it’s 100%,” Knauer said. “If I can stay open for three weeks, I can make it through the year.”

Purveyors are on edge after other Christmas markets were abruptly shut down in Germany’s Bavaria region, which includes Nuremberg, home of one of the biggest and best-known markets. After authorities in eastern Saxony imposed new restrictions due to rising infections, stunned exhibitors in Dresden had no choice but to pack up their goods.

Markets are known for attracting large numbers of people to hawk ornaments and food vendors, which can lead to increased foot traffic and more revenue for the surrounding restaurants and hotels. This year, the crowds at Frankfurt’s market were vastly thinned out, with the stalls spread out over a larger area.

Heiner Roie, who runs a mulled wine hut in the shape of a wine barrel, said he’s assuming he will see half the business he had in 2019. A shutdown could cause “immense financial damage — it could lead to complete ruin since we haven’t made any income in two years, and at some point, the financial reserves are used up.”

If people can exercise some discipline and follow the health precautions, it is possible to be healthy. “I think we’ll manage it,”He said.

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