‘The situation is dramatic’: German restaurants still hungry for customers post-lockdown

Even as restaurants reopen around Germany, many are struggling to bring back customers, especially for indoor dining.

'The situation is dramatic': German restaurants still hungry for customers post-lockdown
A waitress at a restaurant in Dresden divided by plexiglass. Photo: DPA

There's no sign of the usual lunch crowd at Berlin's Zen Kitchen, with just a few scattered diners dotting its terrace despite the sunny weather.

Two months after Germany lifted its lockdowns, the small Asian restaurant, like so many others, is struggling to attract customers as coronavirus fears linger.

“We've only seen 20 to 30 percent of our clientele back since the reopening,” said Zen's owner Vu, whose eatery is located near Berlin's busy Unter den Linden avenue.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus: A taste of normality as restaurants reopen in Germany

Having weathered the pandemic better than many of its neighbours so far, Germany was among the first countries to reopen its economy and its progress is being closely watched across the continent.

Restaurants, bars and hotels have adapted to the new normal with face masks, physical distancing and by asking customers to share contact information so they can be alerted to any fresh outbreak.

But despite the efforts, Germany's hospitality sector has struggled to pick up speed, highlighting the difficulties facing Europe's top economy as it confronts the steepest recession since World War II.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, which has pledged over a trillion euros in stimulus spending to cushion the coronavirus blow, is hoping for an economic rebound in the second half of 2020.

“I'm certain that we can halt the downturn in our economy after the summer break and that the German economy will start to grow again by October at the latest,” Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told the Bild am Sonntag daily.

The unemployment level is expected to keep inching up “before slowly decreasing from November”, he added.

'Afraid to sit inside'

But for now the glass remains half full for many businesses.

“The situation is dramatic,” the German Hotel and Restaurant Association (DEHOGA) summarised, noting that restaurant owners expect June revenues on average to be 60 percent lower than last year.

“Sure, customers are coming back but very, very slowly,” said Sahin Ciftci, the owner of Zeus pizzeria in Berlin's trendy Friedrichshain district.

“People are still afraid to come and sit inside,” he sighed, surveying his empty dining room at midday.

The lack of punters combined with the extra expenses caused by the new hygiene regulations have left the sector fearing a record wave of bankruptcies.

“Without more state support, nearly 70,000 businesses will be on the brink of ruin,” according to DEHOGA.

Last month, Merkel's government launched a scheme to help hard-hit smaller companies like restaurants cover their fixed costs, offering up to 150,000 over a three-month period.

Berlin also hopes a six-month reduction in sales tax from July will encourage Germans to hit the high street and open their wallets again.

But DEHOGA president Guido Zoellick told AFP more targeted help was needed that is “available to all restaurants”.

'Corona cookies'

Some restaurateurs are banking on the return of foreign tourists to keep them afloat over the summer holidays.

Germany recently reopened its borders to most EU members as well as a slew of other countries, with more to follow depending on how the pandemic evolves.

Berlin's five-star Adlon hotel, a stone's throw from the iconic Brandenburg Gate, is already creaking back to life with guests thronging its lavish entrance hall.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus forces swanky 'paper napkin' makeover at swanky German hotel

“The recovery has started. It's slow but it's there,” said the hotel's director of sales and marketing Sebastian Riewe.

In Berlin's historic Nicholas quarter, where cobbled streets are normally packed with shoppers and sightseers, cafe owner Sylke Oehler remains upbeat.

“The tourists will come back soon for sure,” she told AFP sitting outside her health food cafe Zur Alten Zicke.

Until then, the forty-something entrepreneur is working hard to drum up local custom through advertising and by switching up the menu — even creating vegan, gluten-free “corona cookies”.

“I call it healthy comfort food,” she said. “It's won me some new customers.”

By Florian Cazeres

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.