Everybody in Germany has to wear a nose and mouth mask when they enter a store. The question is: how much longer? Shopkeepers say we cannot go on like this. Germany is a divided country and feelings are running high.
A cool T-shirt? Some trendy sandals? People in need of summer fashion tend to look in the large-scale shopping precincts downtown.
These days the window displays are plastered with just one word against a red background: SALE!
This is not unusual for July, the season of the summer sales: A price war is part of an attempt to clear their shelves and make way for fall fashions. But nothing is usual about 2020.
This year the shelves are still full. During the lockdown, stores were closed and shopping ground to a halt. Now they have opened their doors again, but people are staying away saying they do not feel comfortable in enclosed spaces: the risk of infection, they fear, is simply too high. Precautions such as masks and hand disinfection help to contain the virus — but, very few people feel genuinely comfortable in shops.
The pleasure has gone
Clothes shopping downtown is all about chance purchases, about discovering something new, about the buzz. A trip for pleasure. Shopping as seduction.
Read more: Communication in the era of face masks
But for most people the corona pandemic means that for now, at least the traditional shopping spree is a no-go, says the German Retail Federation (HDE).
While food retailers are doing good business and online shopping is booming, sales in the textile trade have plummeted in the last two months. As a result, one-third of all businesses in the sector say they are struggling to survive.
An HDE spokesman told DW that masks are, "a massive turn-off for shoppers."
There can certainly be no doubt that it is no fun at all to wear a mask in sultry summer temperatures. And many stores in Germany have no air conditioning. So, behind the mask, people quickly start sweating. So, they run outside and strip off the mask.
No surprise, therefore, that the HDE has welcomed proposals from some regional governments to drop mandatory masks for shoppers in federal states with low infection rates.
Such an easing has been called for by the economics ministers in the northern states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Lower-Saxony, who have the backing of the business-friendly opposition party, the Free Democrats (FDP).
The central government in Berlin, "ought to sit down with the retail trade and come up with shared criteria for a plan that would allow individual regions to scrap mandatory masks," says FDP deputy parliamentary group leader Michael Theurer in Berlin. He concedes that changes can not be made overnight but believes that, "they cannot be imposed forever, without taking regional factors into account.”
For her part, Angela Merkel is sticking to her hard line. The chancellor is unbending in her rejection of any moves to break with compulsory masks. "Everywhere in public life that social distancing cannot be guaranteed, masks are important and indispensable," says government spokesman Steffen Seibert, who adds: "It is imperative if we are to keep infection rates down and protect both our fellow citizens and ourselves."
Seibert emphasizes that vigilance is all the more important during the summer season: "Regions that might currently have very low infection rates will be welcoming holidaymakers from around the country." And while that renewed mobility is very much to be welcomed, "it must go hand in hand with a willingness to obey the regulations that have in recent months served us so well in the battle against this pandemic: distancing, hygiene rules and where necessary compulsory masks."
The regions have the final say
According to Germany's Infection Protection Law, it is not the central government in Berlin, but the governments in individual federal states that have the final say. And so far they are sticking with mandatory masks. Bavaria's influential Premier Markus Söder of the conservative CSU party defends masks as, "one of the very few instruments that we have to protect ourselves from the coronavirus."
Leading social democrat Norbert Walter-Borjans says he agrees or that having to wear masks in shops might be something of "an imposition" but: "a tolerable imposition." And Health Minster Jens Spahn is calling on people to be sensible: "I understand the impatience and the yearning for things to get back to normal. But the virus is still out there."
The epidemiologists agree. From the start, they have warned that not just high-tech medical masks will reduce the risk of infection but also every day or community masks that help to prevent the spread of the virus when people cough, sneeze, or talk.
To shop or not to shop: that is the question
Nevertheless, the debate over masks or no masks for shoppers rumbles on. Where it leads will probably depend on the extent to which consumers get back to old shopping habits despite their masks. Bernd Althusmann – economics minister in Lower Saxony – has announced that his government will renew the situation after the summer break. Much the same is being mooted in the eastern state of Saxony. One thing is clear: the challenge will be to find a balance between people's health and the health of the economy.
And for that there is no easy solution.