EXPLAINED: Do you have to wear a face mask in Germany?

On Wednesday, Germany officially recommended that residents wear masks in public transport and in shops. What exactly qualifies as a mask, and how are they helpful?

EXPLAINED: Do you have to wear a face mask in Germany?
A weekly market in Halle which has made face masks mandatory, on Tuesday, April 14th. Photo: DPA

“It is recommended that masks be used in public transport and while shopping,” Merkel told journalists after talks with regional leaders from Germany's 16 states.

READ ALSO: Germany recommends face masks in shops and public transport

Following the Chancellor’s announcement, the city of Hanau in Hesse stated that wearing a mask in such public places would be an obligation, and published official guidelines on how to make one from scratch

“We have extended the urgent recommendation of the federal and state government to behave responsibly and considerately in public with a mouth and nose protector,” started mayor Claus Kaminsky on Thursday.  

“Starting on Monday in Hanau, everyone who enters a shop must wear such a [store bought or handmade] mask,” he said. 

Jena became the first city in Germany to make masks mandatory on March 30th. Several large markets in Germany already require that visitors don one of the face and nose coverings.

Yet for the majority of Germany, there remains no requirement to wear a mask in public.

Their effectiveness has been debated, and several German experts and health institutes are now in agreement that a basic mask – if put on and worn properly – can reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. 

To contain the coronavirus, visitors to Dresden's largest weekly market were only allowed to enter the area with a face mask. Photo: DPA

Aiding other measures

According to experts, wearing a mask compliments other measures already in place in the Bundesrepublik to slow the spread of the coronavirus, be it thorough hand washing for 20 seconds or maintaining a distance of 1.5 metres from other people. 

Using the face covering could also have a so-called signal effect to ensure that people actually stay further apart from each other in public, said Bernd Salzberger, an infectious disease specialist at the University Hospital in Regensburg.

If someone wears a mask – even a handmade one – it reduces the risk of infection for others because the material in front of the mouth and nose catches a certain amount of droplets when people speak, sneeze or cough, said Salzberger. 

This chart from the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices lays out the effectiveness of different types of masks. Graph prepared for The Local by Statista.

However, simple masks do not protect the wearer themselves from becoming infected from the coronavirus, said Salzberg. 

The way the mask is worn is also important, he stressed. The fabric must cover the mouth and nose.

When putting on and taking off the mask, care must be taken not to touch the face, nor the part of the mask which touches the face.

Hand-made masks made out of fabric should be washed at 60 degree temperatures, he said. They should be able to be tied and taken off behind the head.

The website Maske auf (Masks on) was recently set up to provide people in Germany with information about how to make or buy a mask.

Everyone from pharmacy to workers to celebrities have taken to social media with the hashtag #Maskeauf to promote their usage – and often their own colourful designs. 

According to recommendations by the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, the fabric used for masks should be woven as tightly as possible. 

Germany’s Science Academy Leopoldina has also spoken out in favour of using handmade masks, scarves and clothes in public as a stopgap measure not only in public transport and stores, but also in educational institutions. .

In short supply

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) officially recommends wearing a mask to stop others from being infected. Yet it also points out that medical respiratory masks should be reserved for staff in medical and nursing facilities.

The lack of personal protective equipment and especially masks is still one of the most urgent problems in many clinics around the country.

Germany’s Minister of Economics Peter Altmaier (CDU), recently stated that there is a demand for several billion masks in Germany, ranging from simple everyday masks to special masks for medical personnel. 

According to the Federal Ministry of Health, around 77 million protective masks have been procured via the Germany government in the past three weeks and distributed to outpatient doctors, hospitals and nursing homes, among others.

Responding to the supply shortage, Bavarian state premier Markus Söder has pushed for companies in his southern state to ramp up production domestically.

Medical personnel who deal directly with suspected cases and corona patients are not sufficiently protected by simple masks. Experts recommend masks with protection levels FFP-2 or FFP-3 .

READ ALSO: 'Highly likely' that Bavaria will enforce face masks, says Bavarian state premier

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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.