“This is the first coffee I’ve had in a month,” said Birgitte Dabiri as she basked in the spring sunshine. It was a takeaway coffee in a cardboard cup, and she had to drink it standing alone in the middle of a pedestrian zone, but the pensioner was determined to enjoy every sip.
“We hope the government’s got it right lifting the lockdown, but nobody knows with this virus, do they?” she added. “I just hope things can quickly get back to normal.”
When Austria became one of the first European countries to reopen shops last week, people were nervous and most stayed away. But there has been no such reticence in Germany, although the country’s retailers association reported people were not shopping in large numbers.
In R+R Galerie, an independent picture frame shop just off Kurfurstendamm, Berlin’s answer to London’s Oxford Street, Jacek Rutarowski was just happy to be back at work.
“We’re not afraid. We’re careful but we’re not afraid,” he said. “We want to work and earn a living for our families. I don’t know if the government got the lockdown right. They did what they thought was right at the time, and things are OK. But look at Sweden: things are OK there too.”
Germany did not impose a total lockdown. People have been free to leave their homes for fresh air and exercise. But the reopening of the shops brought Berlin back to life.
Chancellor Angela Merkel called on people to “remain disciplined”, warning that the pandemic was far from over. On a glorious spring day, however, many were openly ignoring a ban on gatherings of more than two people. Only shops of up to 800 square metres were permitted to reopen, but larger stores circumvented the limit by sealing areas off and sending staff to fetch products for customers from other parts of the stores.
Karstadt department store taped off two separate sections of its sales floor, running them as individual shops with their own entrances, though one impatient shopper simply stepped over the tape between them.
Larger furniture outlets, such as 11 Ikea stores, were also allowed to open in the western state of North Rhine Westphalia.
Face masks will be compulsory from next week; an elderly couple wearing homemade masks waited hand in hand outside a T-Mobile store, but few others were wearing them.
But there were signs of discipline too. There are strict limits on how many are allowed inside stores at a time, and even at smaller shops people queued patiently.
“If you ask me, the reason Germany’s done well so far in keeping infections down is that German people love order. We call it ordnung,” said Holger Schwarz, the owner of Viniculture, a wine merchant.
The off-licence retailer was able to offer a partial service during lockdown but customers had to wait outside and staff brought their purchases to the door.
“It reminded me of communist times in East Germany. People queued and did as they were told. German people are happy when you tell them what to do,” Schwarz said.
The business received financial help from the government – part of a €750 billion ($1.2 trillion) rescue package designed to avoid recession -but Schwarz said he would have struggled to continue paying staff for more than another month.
“I’m an optimist,” he said. “You face many crises in life, but you get through them. This is a crisis… but we’ll get through.”
But the HDE (the German retail association) said the mood among shoppers remained very subdued due to concerns about jobs and finances. “Consumers are in a crisis mode, consumer sentiment is in the doldrums,” a spokesman said.
Germany’s confirmed coronavirus cases increased to 150,648 on Thursday. The death toll stood at 5315.
The country’s lockdown took effect on March 17. The government says social distancing rules will remain in force until at least May 3 and aims to start re-opening schools the following day.
Sweden, which has opted against state-mandated lockdowns in favour of encouraging people to act responsibly and keep their distance, had 16,004 cases in total and 1937 deaths by Thursday.
The Telegraph, London; Reuters