File photo: Spain and parts of Italy have reintroduced an outdoor mask mandate. Picture: Reuters
File photo: Spain and parts of Italy have reintroduced an outdoor mask mandate. Picture: Reuters

Europe faces its second Covid Christmas with lockdowns, cancellations and rising cases

By The Washington Post Time of article published Dec 25, 2021

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By Perry Stein, Rick Noack

AMSTERDAM - The medieval castle outside Amsterdam had planned a cheeky holiday celebration, marking the end of a terrible year with "the worst tour you've ever had" and encouraging people to realise there's "stuff we can laugh about together."

But with the Netherlands in a national lockdown once more, organisers at Muiderslot Castle didn't find much to laugh about this week. They had to refund tickets, give away a dozen Christmas trees and melt a skating rink they don't expect anyone to use any time soon.

"This castle has seen pandemics before," said Annemarie den Dekker, director of programming at the castle. "But my first reaction was disbelief because we were all expecting a Christmas this year."

The mood in much of Europe reflects hopes briefly glimpsed - and then dashed. As in the United States, new cases of the omicron variant are quickly overtaking previously dominant delta variant.

But many European governments have gone further than the United States in reimposing curfews, closures and travel restrictions. Ireland is shutting pubs at 8 p.m. Spain and parts of Italy have reintroduced an outdoor mask mandate. In Austria, people without proof of vaccination or Covid-19 recovery can leave home only for essential reasons.

Europeans are being urged - in some places required - to keep holiday gatherings small.

There is some relief that early evidence out of Britain and South Africa suggests omicron doesn't make as many people as seriously sick as delta. But based on how fast it has been spreading, health officials are still warning about overwhelmed hospitals and a breakdown of public services.

Britain's National Health Service reported Thursday that staff absences due to Covid were up 50% over the previous week. Transport for London announced it was closing a tube line until the end of the year due to lack of drivers. And the education secretary is calling for former teachers to return to classrooms, in anticipation of omicron-related staff shortages in January.

The United Kingdom and other European nations that just a few months ago were celebrating their world-leading status in coronavirus vaccinations are now scrambling to get boosters to as many people as they can.

Covid health passes - documenting vaccination, recovery or a recent negative test - have become routine in much of Europe and helped boost vaccination rates. Some countries are now tightening the rules: adding a booster requirement, dropping testing as an alternative. Announcing Wednesday that the French government intends to add more restrictions for people who are unvaccinated, Prime Minister Jean Castex lamented that hospital intensive care units "are filled for the most part with unvaccinated people."

France has seen a problem with fake vaccination cards, too. Carole Ichai, a senior official at a hospital in Nice in southern France, said about 30% of patients in her hospital's intensive care unit last week had counterfeit vaccination certificates.

"Honestly, I didn't expect that we would [still] be in this situation," she said, adding that the constant scramble to respond to spikes in case numbers has become "very destructive for our spirits."

The Netherlands has the most all-encompassing restrictions at this point, with all but essential shops shut until at least Jan. 14. The sense that the worst of the pandemic is back may be most acute here.

"I can now hear the whole of the Netherlands sighing," Prime Minister Mark Rutte said when announcing the lockdown. "Another Christmas that is completely different from what we would like."

But he emphasized the move was necessary to avoid "an unmanageable situation in hospitals."

In Amsterdam, the canal boats are docked. Dam square is empty. Stores that were counting on strong Christmas sales are instead sending products back to their wholesalers, knowing they stand no chance of selling them now.

"We didn't expect this lockdown," said Oscar Karstens, manager of Catwalk Junkie, a women's clothing store that relies on foot traffic.

Some tourists, stuck with nonrefundable tickets, arrived in the city anyway this week, but were disappointed they could no longer go to museums, restaurants or the famed Christmas markets.

"It sounded like a good idea to stop in the Netherlands and Europe before Christmas," said Julz Shevko, 35, who months ago planned a layover in Amsterdam to see the Christmas markets on her way home to Ukraine from a vacation in South America. "It's so bizarre."

The restrictions across Europe have ruined yet another much-needed tourism season, said French travel agency operator Marie Vendroux-Deppe, who works with US travellers. Most of her clients cancelled their trips in the past few days, and now she doesn't expect a return to normal until 2023.

"Every three or four months, I finally feel confident again," Vendroux-Deppe said. "But then new bad news arrives and destroys everything."

The posh Pulitzer Amsterdam hotel had planned to mark the holidays with parties in its courtyard. It commissioned a Danish fashion designer to decorate a 30-foot Christmas tree. Now, though, the courtyard is closed and guests can't get near the Christmas tree and its pink oversized bows. The hotel set up tables in guests' rooms so they can do room service instead.

There will be no midnight masses in the Netherlands. Dutch bishops said they worried about crowds and ventilation and the impact of having "multiple celebrations in one evening."

In neighbouring Britain, by contrast, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, encouraged people to go to Christmas Mass. "The worship of God is a necessity," Welby said, adding that "Anglican churches tend to be large, cold, and drafty; they're not great places for spreading infections." He also said getting vaccines and boosters should be considered a moral obligation.

Britain has been more tentative than many other European nations about reimposing coronavirus restrictions. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government was watching the data "hour by hour" but didn't want to issue new guidance before Christmas. That has set up something of a real-world experiment, with people watching how omicron behaves in light-touch Britain versus lockdown Netherlands.

Nearing the anniversary of its full break with the European Union, Britain now finds itself subject to an array of travel restrictions on the continent.

Malcolm Sullivan had already packed his bags, ready to travel from Berlin to visit family in England, when Germany announced a 14-day quarantine for people entering from the United Kingdom. Sullivan cancelled his trip, with his partner and 3-year-old. The two-day quarantine on the British side was one thing. But he figured it would be too difficult to quarantine for two weeks with a toddler on their return.

"That was pretty much the most depressing thing I've done this year," he said.

This frustrating Christmas makes it hard to know how to plan anything in the coming months, said Anna-Marie Venderburg. The Dutch 79-year-old had tickets to see the opera, La Traviata, over Christmas weekend in Amsterdam, but that got cancelled. She's still hopeful her ski trip to Austria in late-January will go on. She keeps calling the resort, but they are also not sure what the new year will hold.

"They are very nervous too, it's just not possible to know," Venderburg said. "It's a big disaster."

Noack reported from Paris. The Washington Post's William Noah Glucroft in Berlin and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

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