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Berlin's restaurants and bars have been closed for two weeks now, as Germany's "lockdown light" reaches its half-term mark. But despite promises of financial assistance, the outlook is grim.
"Three goose specials, one vegetarian meal," Vincenzo Berenyi calls out as he fastens a note with the order and the customer's name to an empty delivery box. Berenyi is the owner of the Kurpfalz-Weinstuben restaurant in Berlin's Charlottenburg district. Today he is preparing 130 orders to be picked up later in the day.
These are orders for a three-course seasonal meal, which customers would normally be served in the restaurant, elaborately decorated. This year it all comes wrapped in plastic containers.
The Weinstuben prides itself on its cozy atmosphere — but all coziness has evaporated since the beginning of November. The heavy wooden tables have been pushed to one side, chairs standing upon them. They have made way for dozens of delivery crates. "In the springtime we already had to close for two months. That's when we first started to offer take-out meals," Berenyi recalls.
After about an hour everything has been packaged. Each box contains precise descriptions for reheating the food. "Read carefully!" says a note in red print. Berenyi wants to make sure that the meal tastes just as delicious at home as it does in the restaurant — he hopes his customers will have fond memories of his establishment. "There are 8,000 restaurants and bars in Berlin. It's very easy to be forgotten quickly," Berenyi explains.
He charges €29.90 ($35) for the goose special. "That's a fair price," he says; you have to take the preparation time into account. "Now is not the time to make a lot of money," he says. "Our main objective is to stay afloat, be able to pay all our staff, so they can survive too."
The staff in the Kurpfalz Weinstuben is happy to be able to work and have an income throughout the pandemic
Berenyi has six permanent employees and six helpers who are paid by the hour. He has registered all his employees for Germany's "Kurzarbeit" scheme — a government support program dating back to the early 20th century that allows companies facing economic distress to reduce employees' working hours instead of firing them. The government then pays 60 percent of the workers' salaries, to partly make up for the reduced wages.
The take-out scheme doesn't yield much, but Berenyi says it provides welcome additional income on top of the government subsidies. The finance and economics ministries have earmarked €10 billion to help ailing businesses. Small enterprises are to receive 75% of what they made in November 2019; larger companies 70%. Other subsidies, like the payments to workers under the short-term scheme, are deducted. The money is intended to cover ongoing expenses such as rent or utilities.
While the money has been promised, it has not been possible to submit applications yet — applicants need to wait until the end of November and file them via their tax consultant. Many potential recipients criticize this procedure as complicated and cumbersome. And Berenyi, too, is pessimistic: "I wonder whether I will ever see the money at all," he says. "Sometimes I think the politicians who come up with these plans for crisis management really don't know what they are talking about." The politicians in turn are responding to the dissatisfaction with promises to speed up the payments and start the payouts no later than the end of November.
Most businesses need help urgently. Nine months after the pandemic began they have used up all their savings and have no means to survive another few months without income. The German Hotel and Restaurant Association (DEHOGA) conducted a survey and found that over 70% of businesses in the hospitality industry doubt their ability to survive — and one in six is already at the brink of insolvency.
Restaurant owners in Berlin were quick to suspect that the lockdown would continue well beyond November
While bars and restaurants are struggling, Berlin's DEHOGA chairman Thomas Lengfelder is even more worried about Berlin's hotels: Over 90% of their rooms are currently empty. They also have to do without the income they usually make by hosting weddings and other large-scale celebrations. The German capital's hotel sector has registered a drop in revenue by 75% since the first round of anti-pandemic measures were implemented nine months ago.
This development has an impact on other small businesses, from taxi drivers to laundries that wash sheets, towels, and tablecloths for the big hotels. City centers are all but deserted, leading to knock-on effects for a variety of retailers suffering from a lack of foot traffic.
In Berenyi's restaurant, the business had already taken a blow before the current "lockdown light." In October we didn't even manage to generate 40% of the business we had a year ago," says Berenyi. "The tourists are missing." He has also noticed how customers are hesitant about sitting indoors, in closed spaces. That does not bode well for the cold winter months, he fears.
The Christmas season is usually very busy, with all tables booked out almost every night. This year will be different, says Berenyi. Even if it is possible to reopen in December "if we have guests sitting only at four tables or so, we'll find ourselves wondering how to pay our bills."
Hotellery representative Thomas Lengfelder opposes any plans to extend the lockdown into 2021. "We want to work," he says.
Berenyi, however, disagrees and calls on politicians to "leave the restaurants closed throughout December! The customers will stay away anyway!"
This article was translated from German.