It was only last Saturday that hundreds of people gathered at the Neustadt Stud Farm for the annual stallion show. Riders, breeders and equestrians from across Germany assembled in the Graf von Lindenau Hall for the three-hour presentation, which was broadcast live around the world.
Four days later, public life in Neustadt an der Dosse, a town in the German state of Brandenburg located about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Berlin, has come to a complete standstill.
Around 3,800 people live in Neustadt, a population that rises to 7,800 if you include the surrounding municipalities. Currently, more than 2,200 of them are quarantined in their homes – voluntarily – after heeding an appeal from the district government. The three schools and two boarding schools in town have closed down, as have daycare centers, with all children urged to stay at home. The local bank has likewise shut its doors and municipality offices are closed. The local retirement home has stopped allowing visitors.
The measures mark a new level of precaution as Germany begins ramping up efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. In contrast to regions elsewhere, particularly in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, there has not yet been even a single confirmed case of COVID-19 here in Neustadt.
On Tuesday morning, Dieter Fuchs could be found sitting in his office at the Neustadt municipal headquarters. Despite being town administrator, Fuch really shouldn’t be here, since he, too, is under quarantine. But, the 64-year-old says, municipal headquarters are like a second home to him and there is quite a bit to do at the moment. So, he’s commuting back and forth from his home.
A “Notable Challenge”
Fuchs has been head of the Neustadt municipality for the last seven years, a tenure during which he has experienced a number of crises, including floods, bad storms and extended power outages. But, he says, he never thought he’d see a situation like the current one. A man not prone to hyperbole, Fuchs refers to the coronavirus as a “notable challenge.” The local media, for its part, has described it as a “state of emergency” and a “mass quarantine.”
It began on the day of the stallion show. Dieter Fuchs was having breakfast with his wife when an administration staff member called him on the phone. Just a few days earlier, the staff member reported, she had taken part in a meeting at the local Prinz von Homburg School, a gathering which had also been attended by a sports psychologist from Berlin – who, as it later turned out, came down with COVID-19.
Life in Neustadt revolves around horses. It is home to one of the largest stud farms in Europe and also hosts an institute for equine studies and an equestrian boarding school. The Prinz von Homburg School even offers equestrian classes, the only one in the country to do so, it claims. Indeed, those classes were the subject of the regularly held meeting, which on this occasion had been attended by 19 people, including teachers, stud farm employees and a member of the city administration.
When it became known that the Berlin sports psychologist had tested positive for the coronavirus, everyone at the meeting had to be tested immediately to ensure that they hadn’t been infected and perhaps even spread the virus further. That same day, Fuchs spoke with public health authorities – and it quickly became clear that the school had to be closed. It was Fuchs himself who elected to close down administrative headquarters to protect the population and get ahead of the virus.
Around 760 schoolchildren now have to remain home until March 17, as do their parents, siblings and grandparents along with teachers and other school employees. In total, Fuchs estimates that around 3,000 people are affected by the quarantine, though other local officials believe the number is closer to 2,200.
A Spontaneous Reaction
At the supermarket next to municipal headquarters, there are just a couple of vehicles in the parking lot, while inside, there are more employees wandering the aisles than shoppers. One cashier says that everyone did most of their shopping several days earlier, shortly after the quarantine was announced. Around lunchtime on that day, the store manager posted a note at the entrance asking all those affected by the quarantine to refrain from entering the supermarket. The note included a phone number that could be used to order groceries for delivery without extra charge – a spontaneous reaction to the unprecedented situation.
On the outskirts of Neustadt, Stephan von Schwander is standing on the second floor of an office building looking out over the factory yard. Von Schwander is the head of Hüffermann Transportation Systems, the leading manufacturer of specialized truck trailers in Germany. Normally, his company churns out 30 trailers per week and he has enough orders on the books to keep going until the middle of next year.
But nothing is normal at the moment. Von Schwander looks out at five trailers standing in the yard outside. They are destined for a customer in Italy, but because of the travel limitations that have been imposed, von Schwander has had to delay delivery. “It’s too great of a risk for us to have our driver end up under quarantine there,” he says.
Around 40 Hüffermann workers are currently quarantined in their homes in Neustadt – out of around 270 total employees. The sudden loss of 20 percent of his workforce, says von Schwander, will cost the company around 200,000 euros in turnover per week. That, though, he adds, is merely the economic view. “From a human perspective and as their co-worker, I can completely understand the substantial measures.” After all, he adds, it is important to ensure that public life doesn’t come to a complete halt.
That, though, seems to be precisely the case in some parts of Neustadt. The local hotel has been receiving a slew of cancellations and the hotel restaurant has closed down, with the chef under quarantine.
Just a few hundred meters away, Olaf Krause is standing behind the bar of his tavern looking out at the empty tables. Olaf’s Werkstatt is one of the very few pubs in town and can host up to 100 guests in the main room with a side room for watching football matches and even a small bowling alley. But on this Tuesday evening, Krause is considering shutting his doors at 7:30. A few people had come in during the day, he says, but once evening arrived, it emptied out completely.
Some guests, he says, had cancelled their bowling reservations for the week. “I understand. If you’re under quarantine, you can’t be going out,” says Krause. He adds that the situation hasn’t yet hit him too hard financially, adding that even under normal circumstances there are days during the week when the bar is largely empty. The weekend, though, will be more indicative, he says, adding that he is always busy then. Krause says he hopes that a bit of normalcy will return.