'Saturday is crucial day': Germany to decide if coronavirus lockdown needed
Germans may face a national lockdown to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus if they fail to obey instructions to stay indoors this weekend, officials said on Friday.
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".
As the number of coronavirus infections soar, Germany has introduced sweeping measures to restrict public life in the face of the coronavirus pandemic but has stopped short of imposing a full-scale lockdown such as the ones in France, Italy and Spain.
Merkel is expected to talk with regional state premiers to discuss a potential lockdown on Sunday, as concern grows that the public are not heeding government calls to stay home in the crisis.
The weekend is usually when many people have free time and arrange to meet each other.
"But unfortunately that's not possible outside of close family at the moment," said Braun.
"This (social contact) must be stopped now. If this doesn't happen, it is possible that additional, far-reaching measures will be decided upon in the federal states, although we actually want to avoid this.
"We therefore call on everyone to take to heart the measures decided so far and implement them. And that means, apart from close family, to avoid all social contact if possible."
Braun said the government believes that the population "understands the measures and is prepared to restrict their social life", adding that extreme action, like that taken in nearby countries, is an "enormous additional burden".
Neighbouring France introduced a 15-day lockdown, which is likely to be extended, on Tuesday. People are only allowed to venture out for essential reasons. Anyone who wants to leave their home must have official documentation stating their reason for being outside.
If anyone is caught outside without the form, police are allowed to impose fines.
Restrictions ramped up
In Germany alll bars, clubs, leisure centres and non-essential shops have already been shut.
Many states have banned large gatherings and Merkel and other leaders have called on the public to stay at home.
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.
"Unless everybody fundamentally changes their behaviour, then we won't be able to avoid harsher measures and sanctions," said Winfried Kretschmann, state premier of the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg.
"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.
A closed playpark in Leizpig. Photo: DPA
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, with many places already ramping up measures.
Leverkusen in North-Rhine Westphalia on Friday said it was banning meetings of two or more people outside with immediate effect, although families were excluded.
The small Bavarian town of Mitterteich became the first in Germany to go into total lockdown on Wednesday over the spiralling coronavirus outbreak, while another Bavarian town, Wunsiedel, has also imposed a curfew.
On Thursday, Freiburg in Baden-Württemberg became the first large German city to impose a curfew, permitting people to leave their homes only for essential tasks.
Other places, including Heidelberg, are introducing stricter measures. Heidelberg has issued a ban on entering public places from March 21st to April 3rd.
They say people should only leave their homes for urgent matters, like going to work, to the doctor or for shopping for food.
Bavarian premier Markus Söder, and other state leaders, have warned state-wide lockdowns are possible if people don't comply with the measures.
Yet the issue remains divisive, with Berlin mayor Michael Müller warning on Friday that lockdown was "not a panacea".
Saarland's state premier Tobias Hans, meanwhile, reiterated that this weekend would be "decisive" ahead of Sunday's talks, and called for a nationwide solution.
If people continued to ignore the current regulations "then we will need further-reaching measures nationwide," he told public broadcaster ARD.