COVID: Testing times for Germany′s retail sector | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 15.04.2021
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COVID: Testing times for Germany's retail sector

In many German cities, shops have been allowed to reopen their doors. But it is mandatory for shoppers to provide a negative coronavirus test result before their shopping outing can even begin — and that's a problem.

Entrance of clothes shop, small table with test kits at the entrance

Many retailers offer test kits at the entrance

A busy shopping precinct in the German capital Berlin. Consumers are trying to get their weekend grocery shopping done in a supermarket. And, of course, in COVID-19 times everybody here is obliged to wear an FFP2 protective mask.

Across the street, a small line of people is waiting in front of a huge furniture store. Three security personnel are checking to make sure that potential customers can prove that they have a fresh negative result from an officially recognized COVID test center. If that is the case, then the would-be shoppers are led over to a line of tables where they fill out forms verifying their status and registering them to actually join the other customers inside.

Entrance of a shop in Berlin Wilmersdorf with sign requesting test

Many shops require customers to provide documentation of a recent COVID test

But customers are regularly turned away because they have not been tested. Which is frustrating for everybody involved. "It's absolutely crazy," complains one woman, "that I have to be tested here, while on the other side of the road, where those people are pushing to get into that supermarket, they don't." A security guard just shrugs his shoulders. I didn't make the rules, he seems to be saying. And he points to a large sign that has directions showing how to get to the next testing center. There is, though, a big problem: it's located several kilometers away.

Criticism from Angela Merkel

The idea of a negative test result effectively serving as an entry ticket to shops and retail businesses like hairdressers and other service providers has been widely practiced in Berlin in recent weeks. It was introduced in the city after the number of new coronavirus infections counted exceeded the critical 100 per 100,00 rate in a seven-day period. In fact, as a result of the new spike in numbers, Berlin should have reversed all easing of rules and regulations introduced since March 8. That was the official line agreed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and the powerful heads of Germany's sixteen federal states.

The chancellor responded with palpable exasperation. In a TV interview, she said: "I don't know whether 'test and shop' — as they are now apparently calling it in Berlin — is the right solution."

Regional diversity

That did not stop other states from also adopting the test-and-shop model. Which has led to all sorts of absurd situations. In the city of Aachen, near Germany's border with the Netherlands, people can go to their local hairdresser without first being tested. Sixty-five kilometers (40 miles) to the east, in Cologne, a negative test result is compulsory. However, it can be the result of a so-called self-test, carried out directly on the premises and supervised by the hairdresser. Another 30 kilometers further south and people in the former capital Bonn need to get a certified negative result from an official test center.

People standing in line outside Berlin Wilmersdorf COVID testing center

People have to queue for a lengthy wait outside testing centers, even if they have booked an appointment

Scramble to call off appointments

It is not only in the hairdressing business but also among retailers of all kinds that new regulations are leading to painful slumps in turnover. Hjalmar Stemmann, president of the Hamburg Chamber of Crafts and Guilds, says: "People are bombarding our telephone hotline. Among them, countless hairdressers reporting on large numbers of customers dumping out of appointments at the last moment — all because of the test regulations!"

"It would be better if they simply closed down the salons and sent us off to do short-term work elsewhere," adds one angry Berlin hairdresser. Her business, she reports, is in a big shopping precinct in the central district of Charlottenburg. Next door, there's a store specializing in home furnishings — porcelain, gift items, and so on. But it's totally empty.

"Most of our customers are people simply passing by and coming in spontaneously," says one saleswoman: "The test rules just don't work for us."

Businesses that can only open their doors to customers who have tested negative have seen a dramatic drop in sales — 62% less than in pre-COVID times, says the retailers' association HDE in a recent survey.

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Waiting to be tested

So, why is the test model not working? And what makes it so difficult to set up rapid COVID tests that can deliver a result within 15 minutes? After all, in principle, everybody in Germany has the right to at least one test per week — free of charge. And the city-state of Berlin has indeed managed to establish a large network of some 300 test centers, at some of which an appointment is not even required.

But problems remain. Especially because there are certain times that are particularly convenient and therefore regularly booked out. One example is Saturday morning, which leaves weekend shoppers with the whole day at their disposal.

Bigger business: bigger solutions

A number of larger chain stores have responded by providing on-location test facilities. One large DIY chain, for example, re-dedicated some of its car parking areas, turning them into test centers. Which is popular among people who are looking for a quick cost-free solution.

Retailers whose businesses lie further away from high-density areas, and where local government agencies are unlikely to set up test centers, have been working hard to come up with their own solutions. One Berlin furniture giant has set up its own test centers at two of its stores. Trained medical staff carry out the procedure. However, a price of €20 per test is not exactly cheap. In return, however, they do get a voucher to help cover the costs of their shopping.

It is not a solution that is likely to be adopted by smaller businesses, many of whom have already given up — and locked up. In one shopping center in Berlin's Charlottenburg district, that appears to be the grim fate of every second business.

This article was translated from German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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