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Coronavirus: How Europeans are preparing for Christmas and New Year


Rue Saint-Honore is decorated with illuminations for Christmas and New Year celebrations on November 22, 2020 in Paris

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image captionTravel restrictions will be lifted over Christmas in France

For months now, coronavirus restrictions have dictated where millions of Europeans can travel to and who they can see when they get there.

So with Christmas fast approaching, governments are having to make tough decisions on whether to ease restrictions in time for the holiday period.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s been announced so far.

Italy: No Christmas markets and a nationwide curfew

Italy is currently seeing the highest number of deaths since the end of March and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has told Italians to expect a “more sober Christmas, without Christmas Eve gatherings, hugs and kisses”.

Many Italian regions are under partial lockdown and travel between them is restricted. These measures will remain in place until 3 December, but reports suggest an emergency decree may see the rules relaxed after this date.

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The exact details of the decree are still being discussed by ministers. It is thought there will not be an official limit on social gatherings, but the government has recommended people “plan to be as few as possible”.

Churches are free to remain open, but a 22:00 nationwide curfew means the traditional midnight mass is unlikely to happen. The beloved Italian Christmas market, meanwhile, has already been banned.

“We think we need to introduce greater precautions to prevent a surge in infections,” Mr Conte said.

But it is not all bad news: Mr Conte has reassured children that

Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) will definitely be visiting as he is exempt from global travel restrictions. Phew.

Europe divided over lucrative ski resorts

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image captionSki resorts are bracing to lose revenue over the festive period

Many Europeans head to the ski slopes over Christmas, but the continent is divided over whether to keep the resorts open over the festive period.

Italian Prime Minister Conte has warned against these traditional breaks. “We cannot afford it,” he said. He has suggested co-ordinating with other European nations to keep the resorts closed until at least January.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also hoping to strike a Europe-wide deal to close the slopes. France is likely to support a deal, too, although the authorities there have struck a compromise. French winter resorts are free to open over Christmas – providing the ski lifts are closed.

These widespread closures mean popular resorts in the Alps and Dolomites will lose out on billions of euros in revenue. Tourism officials were quick to criticise the plan, with the president of one French tourism body asking: “So 400 people on a Paris metro won’t get infected, but four people on a ski lift will?”

A deal to close the resorts will also face stern opposition from Austria and Switzerland. Austrian tourism officials believe they can offer safe holidays once restrictions are eased there next month, while Swiss resorts have been told they are free to stay open with safety measures in place.

Some fear that – without consensus – holidaymakers will travel long distances to visit the open resorts. “If Italy decided to shut down all its ski lifts without any support from France, Austria and the other countries, then Italian tourists would risk going abroad and bringing the [virus] back home, Mr Conte told La7 television.

France: Travel restrictions lifted over Christmas

After weeks of national lockdown, President Emmanuel Macron has said restrictions will start being eased from 28 November. But the majority of lockdown measures will stay in place until just ahead of the festive break on 15 December.

Shops, theatres and cinemas will reopen in time for Christmas and people will be able to visit their families over the festive period. “We will be able to travel without authorisation, including between regions,” Mr Macron said in a TV address.

It is worth noting that France has been under a second national lockdown since late October. But on 15 December, this will be replaced by a nationwide curfew from 21:00 to 07:00. The curfew will not apply on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, however.

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image captionThe usual decorations have illuminated Paris and other cities despite the lockdown

Restaurants and schools will not reopen until at least 20 January, and this is dependent on daily cases dropping below 5,000. Bars, cafes and nightclubs are closed indefinitely.

Religious services will be free to take place from 28 November with a limit of 30 people.

The decision to keep France’s hugely popular ski resorts shut has come as a huge disappointment, with local mayors complaining of months of work wiped out. Mr Macron said they could reopen in January “under favourable conditions”.

Germany: A cap on social gatherings

Chancellor Merkel has said Germany’s “lockdown light” is likely to continue until January. Bars, restaurants and entertainment venues are closed but schools and shops are open. “Daily cases are still far too high, and our intensive care units are still very full,” she said.

Restrictions have been tightened ahead of the festive period, with masks being introduced more widely in schools and travel strongly discouraged. Moreover, from 1 December, the limit on social gatherings will be reduced to two households and a maximum of five people.

There will, however, be a temporary relaxation of the rules over the Christmas period. Up to 10 people will be able to meet between 23 December and 1 January, although Mrs Merkel has urged Germans to think hard before meeting in groups of this size.

Children aged under 14 are not included in the limit.

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image captionMost major Christmas markets in Germany have been cancelled

Mrs Merkel also said that – beyond the social gathering cap – any further easing of restrictions before Christmas was unlikely because the number of cases remains “far too high”. She also said the so-called Christmas amnesty was dependant on cases falling.

Most major Christmas markets in Germany have already been cancelled, but some local ones are outlining plans to go ahead on a reduced scale.

As for New Year, fireworks displays have been cancelled while letting them off in the street is likely to be discouraged.

Spain: Terrace parties and limited gatherings

The Spanish government is planning a “different” festive period with a limit of six people allowed at parties, reports say.

It is set to recommend that social gatherings in the run-up to Christmas be held on restaurant terraces or other outdoor locations.

Spanish families also traditionally celebrate the Feast of the Three Kings with a parade on the evening on 5 January and the government will recommend that celebrations do not take place.

media captionHow close are we to Covid immunisation?

The plan also recommends ventilating indoor spaces and maintaining social distancing where necessary. But more broadly, Health Minister Salvador Illa has said “nothing is set in stone”.

“We need to find consensus about [Christmas restrictions]. When it’s decided we will announce the measures,” he said.

Catalonia’s government is hoping to allow gatherings of up to 10 people for Christmas. “We will make our own decisions,” a spokeswoman for the region said.

While in Madrid, officials are asking the government to approve a mass testing programme at pharmacies in the run-up to Christmas to allow people to meet safely over the festive period.

Austria: Mass testing planned nationwide

Austria is under a second national lockdown until 7 December, but there are hopes restrictions could then be eased in time for Christmas.

“The next two weeks are critical,” Health Minister Rudolf Anschober told Kronen Zeitung newspaper on 23 November. “Lockdown must not be extended.”

The government has ordered at least seven million antigen tests, and it is hoped a mass testing programme will provide Austrians with a route out of lockdown.

Hundreds of thousands of teachers and police officers will be tested first in early December, along with people in areas with high infection rates. Voluntary mass testing will then be rolled out nationwide in the week before Christmas.

“A few minutes for a test could prevent weeks of lockdown for the whole country,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.

But the Austrian leader stressed that the country’s Christmas measures would be guided by the data. “Whether there will be regulations for Christmas and New Year’s Eve… on how many people you can meet will depend heavily on the number of infections,” he said.

It is thought schools and non-essential shops will open first, once the lockdown ends on 7 December, but questions remain over whether gatherings will be capped. Mr Kurz has also insisted Austria will make its own decision on whether to reopen ski resorts. Tourism officials are pushing for the government to reopen the resorts in time for the festive period.

Russia: Older people told to self-isolate

In Russia, the main festive celebrations usually take place on New Year’s Eve with many people holding all-night parties.

But over the past two decades there has been an increase in celebrations of Christmas, which the country’s Orthodox Christian majority marks on 7 January.

Even so, restrictions are likely to dampen celebrations across the holiday period.

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image captionMoscow’s annual Christmas and New Year festival could reportedly be cancelled

In the capital, Moscow, officials announced new measures that will last until 15 January. These include early closing times for restaurants and cafes and a 25% capacity limit at cinemas and theatres. Residents over the age of 65 and those in high-risk groups must also self-isolate until this date.

The city’s month-long festive street festival is also likely to be cancelled, local media report.

Other regions have introduced similar restrictions of their own.

It comes after health officials warned that the situation remains unstable and the epidemic has not peaked yet nationwide. Virus cases have surged in recent weeks, and a record daily tally was recorded on 26 November.

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