A very strange Christmas in Europe

The Christmas market sprawled out across Römerberg square in Frankfurt, Germany, every December resembles a winter wonderland. Lights cover popup shops and Christmas trees as shoppers drink mulled wine and browse.

But this year, the square is mostly bare, without the shops, crowds, or lights. Frankfurt announced the markets, scheduled to run from Nov. 23 to Dec. 22, would not open. The scene is reflected across many other European countries as authorities scramble to avoid another wave of COVID-19 over the Christmas holiday.

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s national disease control agency, on Wednesday said the country recorded 590 deaths over 24 hours—its highest daily death count since the pandemic began. German officials extended a partial lockdown to Jan. 10. But they eased restrictions from Dec. 21 to Jan. 1 to allow private gatherings of up to 10 people from separate households. The southern German region of Bavaria, which has the country’s highest death toll, announced people could only leave their houses for essential reasons starting Wednesday until Jan. 5. A nighttime curfew would also apply in some hotspots. “The situation is unfortunately serious,” state Premier Markus Söder said Sunday. “We must do more, we must act.”

Other countries are rolling out their holiday plans. France adopted a similar approach to Germany and excluded Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve from a nationwide curfew that begins Tuesday. Switzerland allowed ski resorts to open as long as people wear masks and follow specific guidelines. Austria emerged from a second lockdown on Dec. 7 but closed Christmas markets and hotels until Jan. 7.

Italy took a harder tack. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte this month said Italians could only travel across regions for work or emergencies from Dec. 21 to Jan. 6. The country shut down ski resorts and required churches to reschedule midnight masses to honor the 10 p.m. curfew. More than 58,000 people have died of the virus in Italy, and the nation reported 993 deaths on Dec. 3—the highest since it was a global hotspot in March. “It’s clear this will be a Christmas that is different from the others but it will be no less authentic,” Conte said.

Across the United Kingdom, people from up to three households will be allowed to form Christmas bubbles for five days from Dec. 23 to Dec. 27. The restriction will allow people in each bubble to visit places of worship or outdoor public spaces. Individual countries inside the U.K., like Wales or Scotland, can impose tighter rules. Britain began administering BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine this week, but authorities urged people to obey safety requirements.

Spain has continued to record a decline in infections, but its contagion rate is still more than nine times higher than its goal of 25 infections per 100,000 people. The government instructed people not to travel out of their regions from Dec. 23 to Jan. 6. Authorities pushed back curfews to 1:30 a.m. on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and allowed gatherings of up to 10 people.

“We’re heading in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go to bring down contagion,” said Carolina Darias, Spain’s minister of territorial policy. “The goal isn’t just to celebrate this Christmas, but many more to come.”

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