Fall has arrived in Germany, and colorful autumn leaves swirl over Berlin's Kurfürstendamm boulevard, where high-end stores line either side of the historic street: clothing, perfume, gifts. Ku'damm, as Berliners call it, thrives on people seduced by the luxury products displayed in shop windows.
Right now, the coronavirus pandemic seems a distant memory. Social distancing is a thing of the past, and only a handful of customers wear face masks in shops. Signs asking people to wear them have also disappeared.
But that could all change soon. Hospitals are sounding the alarm, with more and more doctors and health care workers pushing for a speedy reintroduction of mandatory mask-wearing indoors.
As the number of coronavirus infections increases, so does the pressure on hospitals. In many clinics, normal operations are no longer possible.
Germany's public health institute, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), says there are already as many coronavirus patients in hospitals as there were during this year's peak. And the numbers are going up.
Masks — bad for business?
Now, Berlin and Brandenburg are the first of Germany's 16 federal states considering a reintroduction of mandatory masks for indoor public spaces, at least in retail.
"The prospects aren't good," says Ginia Tarique, who stands behind the counter of a Ku'damm clothing store.
"We have a lot of visitors from abroad, and they don't like the masks," she says, folding a dark-blue sweater. "Then we'd definitely have far fewer customers again."
It would also be more expensive, says Tarique. "We'd need someone at the door again, to check that people are wearing masks when they come in."
But, she says, they have no influence over what happens in the changing rooms: "Nobody can really control that."
German hospitals filling up
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, a Social Democrat (SPD) lawmaker, says Germany is well-prepared for fall and winter thanks to adapted vaccines and medicines. Despite that, he warns of what might lie ahead.
"The direction we're headed is not a good one," he recently said, referring to the situation in Germany's hospitals. Deaths are also increasing despite the current omicron variant causing less severe cases.
At the moment, Germany's intensive care units are mostly occupied by elderly patients and others whose health risks remain high even with the milder omicron variant.
According to the Association of German Hospitals (DKG), most COVID-19 patients are being treated in normal wards. They are often admitted with a coronavirus infection, not severe COVID-19 symptoms. Still, infected patients have to be isolated, which requires more space, and more personnel.
And that's where the problem lies. Hospitals have long struggled to find enough skilled workers, with most wards chronically understaffed. Now they are struggling even more as the number of infected hospital workers rises.
As a result, beds have to remain empty; in some cases, entire wards have to be shut down. Scheduled treatment and operations are being postponed, and emergency room patients suffering heart attacks or other life-threatening illnesses cannot be admitted. The energy crisis and the associated financial worries are also adding to the health sector's woes.
Under Germany's Protection Against Infection Act (IfSG), it is no longer the federal government that is responsible for implementing mask regulations, but the states.
That means Health Minister Lauterbach, who fervently supports a renewed indoor mask mandate, can implore state leaders to act but not compel them. It is better to work with minor restrictions now than having to react with very drastic measures later, he argues.
Opinions differ dramatically on mask mandates
"I would understand a new mask requirement," says Berlin saleswoman Jeannet Seidel, "but we really don't want it." Seidel works in a small boutique on a Kurfürstendamm side street.
"It's exhausting to wear a mask at work all day," she says. "There's also an air purifier running in the shop. But if it has to happen again, then so be it."
Fortunately, says Seidel, customers have been very understanding in the past when it came to protective measures.
But that's not the case everywhere. Opinions on mask-wearing in Germany have long been divided.
And where masks are still compulsory, in trains or on local public transport for instance, there's often trouble, especially when staff attempt to enforce the rule.
At a Berlin doctor's office, an employee says she constantly encounters problems with patients who come in without a mask, despite a notice on the front door.
"They often become really aggressive and claim they have an allergy to the mask or just say they won't accept having to wear one," she says.
Debate is also growing on social media. Under the hashtags #maskmandatenow and #masksarenomildmeasure, users insult each other and double down on their respective stances.
Opinion also differs among senior politicians. Bavarian State Premier Markus Söder said he's "currently reluctant" to reinstate a mask mandate in indoor public spaces. "Everyone can protect themselves by voluntarily putting on a mask and being vaccinated," he recently told the weekly paper Bild am Sonntag.
Making the best of a bad situation
Back on Berlin's Kurfürstendamm, the mood is much more relaxed. Are masks bad for business? No, that's never been the case, says the deputy manager of a perfume shop who asked to remain anonymous.
"We're standing in such a cloud of perfume in here that customers have to go outside with test strips to smell anything anyway. Out there they can take off their masks."
"We have to deal with the pandemic and its consequences," she says, wearing an FFP2 mask by choice. Hers is purple — to coordinate with her outfit.
"We're a small shop and there can be eight or 10 customers in the room within 15 minutes," she says.
She prefers to protect herself in light of rising infection numbers. "Several friends of mine were on vacation and they all have COVID now," she says.
She also says she's not surprised: "Unlike on the train, you no longer have to wear a mask on planes. To be honest, I don't understand the difference."
This article was originally written in German