UPDATE: Bavaria and Saarland become first German states to impose lockdowns
Two German states instituted a lockdown on Friday to prevent coronavirus infections, the most extreme measure in the country so far, as the government prepares to discuss nationwide measures.
"From midnight tonight for a provisional period of two weeks, there will be
fundamental restrictions on going out," Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder said, while Tobias Hans of tiny Saarland on the French border said he would follow suit.
"We are not locking Bavarians in but we are winding down public life almost completely," Söder said at a press conference, adding that restaurants in the region of 13 million people would be closed and citizens would no longer be allowed to meet in groups outside.
Bavaria, Germany's largest state, had over 3,000 confirmed cases as of Friday evening, while Saarland along the French border counted over 250.
In Bavaria the only exceptions are to the curfew will be going to work, necessary shopping, visits to doctors and pharmacies, assisting others, visits from partners - and also exercise outside, but only alone or with other household members.
Visits to hospitals are also now forbidden in most circumstances and Söder urged employers to allow people to work from home.
"The police will monitor and check all of this...anyone who breaks the rules can expect huge fines."
Germany has introduced sweeping measures to restrict public life in the face of the coronavirus pandemic but has so far stopped short of imposing a full-scale lockdown such as the ones in France, Italy and Spain.
Söder said Bavarians would not need a permit to leave their homes, as they do in France, and claimed that other German states were now planning "the same or similar measures"."
Under the Infection Control Act, fines of up to €25,000 are possible," Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann also said after the announcement.
The new rules will apply initially for two weeks. "We're shutting down public life almost completely," Söder said.
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He justified the step due to a massive increase in the number of coronavirus cases in Bavaria - from Thursday to Friday alone the number of infections rose 35 percent, and the number of deaths grew from 10 to 15.
Söder also said that the government appeals over the past few days for people to avoid social contact outside of their homes had not been effective enough.
He said that despite the measures already imposed nationwide, there were several group outings.
"We can no longer accept this," the CSU leader said.
He added that it was not the intention of the state government, however, to shut everything down and cause "cabin fever".
"Fresh air is good for us," said Söder.
Aside from Bavaria and Saarland, city-state Hamburg, central Hesse state and western Rhineland-Palatinate banned gatherings larger than five or six people, while in southwestern Baden-Württemberg the limit was set as low as three.
A country-wide curfew?
The curfew comes as Germany debates whether to enforce a country-wide curfew.
According to Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff Helge Braun, the behaviour of residents across Germany over the coming weekend will be closely watched – and will play a decisive role in determining whether strict curfews are needed in the coronavirus fight.
"We will look at the behaviour of the population this weekend," Braun told Spiegel, adding that "Saturday is a decisive day".
Earlier this week two small cities in Bavaria with a large number of cases also imposed curfews.
All bars, clubs, leisure centres and non-essential shops have already been
shut across the country.
Many states have banned large gatherings and Merkel and other leaders have called on the public to stay at home.
"We can only slow down this epidemic if everyone plays by the rules," urged an exasperated Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for public health, on Friday.
The latest figures show that there are over 19,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany, a rise of over 3,000 since the previous day, and Wieler warned that the "curve will continue to rise".
Yet many people are continuing to meet in parks and on the streets, with some even organising so-called corona parties, prompting state premiers to warn that lockdown would be the next logical step.
"If people don't do it themselves, then we could make such decisions," said Armin Laschet, leader of Germany's most populous state North-Rhine Westphalia, which has been worst hit by the virus so far.
Germany's federal system means that the decision to go into lockdown has so far been taken at the state or even the local level.