COVID: Germany's bars and restaurants in despair
Berlin, Jan 22: In Germany, it is generally only people who have been fully vaccinated (three shots) who are allowed to step inside a restaurant or cafe without first taking a COVID-19 test.
In early January, Tim Mälzer, a restaurateur and celebrity TV chef, announced in an Instagram video that he was shutting down his restaurant in Hamburg because of the likelihood that Germany would be tightening COVID rules for restaurants, bars and cafes. In other words, the catering sector would have to introduce 2G+ rules across the country.
2G means "vaccinated" or "recovered" (Ger: "Geimpft" or "Genesen"). Make it 2G+ and a negative coronavirus test is also required. The only exception is for people who have triple vaccination. Tim Mälzer says he expects to reopen his restaurant in February: "In accordance, of course, with all official and enforceable 2G+ rules."
"Enforceable" 2G+ rules? Other restaurateurs, meanwhile, are not beating about the bush. They talk of "a stab in the back," a "catastrophe for businesses." Some said they would rather face another lockdown than implement 2G+ rules outlined in an agreement reached by Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the leaders of Germany's federal states in response to rising infection rates across the country.
Lonely days behind the bar
The best way to find out what kind of impact 2G+ is having on the catering sector is to visit places where the new rules already came into force at the end of last year. That is the case with the northern state of Lower Saxony.
Initially, even people who had been triple vaccinated were required to undergo testing before entering a restaurant there. The result, says Robert Vogel, who runs Cafe Esprit in the university town of Göttingen, was "that simply nobody turned up. Nobody!"
Vogel spent two days on his own in the cafe, sending members of staff home. "Then, 48 hours later, authorities made a sudden turnabout, and people who were fully vaccinated didn't after all have to be tested as well," he says.
But, he says, that hardly made a difference, either. "Fact is, the politicians don't have any idea at all about the realities of the catering industry. The bottom line is: People just aren't going to get tested just to have a cup of coffee," he says.
Following massive protests, the state government in Lower Saxony backpedaled. Since mid-December, owners of cafes and restaurants could choose between 2G+ with testing for everybody or 2G if seating capacity was reduced to 70% of previous levels. "It was total chaos," remembers Robert Vogel: "The phone was ringing off the hook. Guests wanted to know what was what." Vogel opted for 2G.
Cafe Esprit is open 364 days a year, from nine in the morning to two o'clock the next morning. "We do the best breakfast in Göttingen," boasts Vogel, while two waitresses carry trays laden with fresh rolls, fruit, cheese and scrambled eggs across the cafe. In the background, an espresso machine is hissing happily. About half the tables in the cafe are occupied.
"Business is not bad right now. But it's not likely to stay this way all day," says Vogel with a frown. Things begin to slow down after lunchtime, and in the evening most restaurants in town are pretty empty, he says. "The catering trade is disappearing from people's minds," he says with regret. "People are living tense lives. And they've got used to staying home and eating at home."
Olaf Feuerstein blames it on "the sheer quantity of regulations, changes, amendments." Feuerstein, who is head of Göttingen's Hotel and Restaurant Association, says it's impossible to keep up with the constant changes. His association represents 140 businesses. But a third of them have already given up the fight and closed their doors.
In a bid to survive, nearly all of the remaining businesses opted for 2G and against compulsory testing: "In the best-case scenario, it's a zero-sum game, while the alternative is to turn a loss," Feuerstein says.
Grants and subsidies recalled
Robert Vogel can only agree with that assessment. He describes his current situation as an "economic disaster."
"In December 2019, we sold gift vouchers for the cafe worth around €6,000 ($6,800). In December 2021, it was just €128," he says. For months now, he has been living from his savings and says his pension fund has now been used up.
Anybody who can prove a loss in turnover of more than 30% is entitled to financial support from the state. In the lockdown in November 2020 and May 2021, a lot of people in the catering trade took advantage of these subsidies. The first payments were, says Vogel, a "real bonanza."
In the meantime, though, auditors have been taking a closer look at what payments were made and on what basis. For some, that's led to bad news. "I know people who have had to pay back everything," Vogel says.
The state of Lower Saxony has joined ranks with Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt, and, for the time being at least, they are not applying the agreement on 2G+ in the catering business. The idea is to avoid doing anything that will put even more jobs and businesses at risk. And the eastern state of Thüringia says it will enforce tougher measures only in infection hotspots.
In other states, however, 2G+ is in force, although there are important distinctions. Berlin restaurateur Vincenzo Berenyi says he had to do a lot of research to find out whether individuals who have been vaccinated twice and then recovered from a COVID infection are in the same category as people who have had three jabs — which is standard practice in North-Rhine Westphalia. But, he was firmly told, that is not the case in Berlin.
The new coronavirus variant omicron has already spread so rapidly in Berlin that the seven-day incidence rate for new infections per 100,000 residents is over 1,000. Against this alarming backdrop, Berenyi now concedes that 2G+ might be "irritating, but it's also necessary … something we're going to have to get used to."
He is determined that his restaurant will survive the pandemic. For January, he has applied for financial assistance from three state funds, including a grant of €3,000 to meet additional costs arising from the 2G+ checks. To cut back expenditure, he has stopped taking on any new staff if people leave. "Our dishwasher handed in his notice. But I'll take care of that myself now," he says.
Will things get back to normal? And when? It's simply not possible to tell, says Berenyi. But there's one thing he is sure about: "The 2G+ rules are certainly going to remain in place until mid-May."
This article was originally written in German.
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