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‘It’s warm and you can’t breathe well’: Germans don face masks to slow coronavirus spread

Germany has made wearing masks on public transport and in most shops mandatory, even offering them in vending machines, as the country became the latest to cover up in the fight against the coronavirus.

'It's warm and you can't breathe well': Germans don face masks to slow coronavirus spread
In Hamburg, cafe worker Luisa K wears a face mask. Photo: DPA

“It's warm, slippery, you can't breathe well, but if it's to avoid infection, I'm fine with it,” Emil, a commuter at a Berlin train station, said on Monday.

Starting this week, donning face masks in public is compulsory in all of Germany's 16 states but there are many regional differences.

The rules are most relaxed Berlin, where masks are required only on public transport and not in shops. There are no fines for not complying.

Bavaria on the other hand has threatened penalties of €150 for anyone  caught flouting the rules and shop owners who fail to make staff cover up can be fined €5,000.

READ ALSO: From schools to face masks: What's changing in Germany from Monday?

The World Health Organization initially said masks should only be worn by medical workers and carers but the little squares of fabric are now widely seen as key to gradually reopening societies as the world learns to live with  the pandemic.

With its new rules, Germany follows in the footsteps of a string of European countries where mask-wearing is now compulsory, including Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic.

A young man wearing a panda-style face mask in Berlin. Photo: DPA

At one Berlin regional train station, compliance was widespread on the first day with even small children donning colourful masks.

“I work in the health field and I think we should have had this in place much sooner in order to protect each other,” said Claudia, a passenger in her 50s who opted for a mask with a floral pattern.

Fellow commuter Andre, also in his 50s, was less enthusiastic.

“With the mask on, I can't eat on the train,” he said, pulling down his mask to talk to AFP. “I have to eat before or after. It's not very important, but personally it bothers me.”

Germans are free to choose which type of mask to wear, from disposable ones to self-made cloth versions, and many states have said they will also accept scarves and bandanas.

READ ALSO: Face masks in Germany: What are the requirements and fines in every state?

Berlin's Zoo station offered reusable masks for sale in a vending machine for anyone caught out at the last minute, charging €5.50 euros ($6) apiece.

In Frankfurt, the local transport company handed out 10,000 disposable masks to passengers on buses, trams, metros and trains.

A woman wearing a mask outside a chemist in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

Tiny Saarland state, along the border with France, has vowed to hand out five free masks to each of its one million residents.

Gradual relaxation

The mask-wearing comes as Germany slowly begins relaxing its lockdown.

Smaller shops, car dealerships and some schools have already been allowed to reopen and plans are being drawn up to ease other restrictions.

Although Germany has recorded over 155,000 coronavirus cases, it has one of  the lowest mortality rates in the world — just over 5,700 people have died.

A mask vending machine in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Keen not to undo the good work, Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly urged Germany's states to proceed with caution, even as the lockdown batters Europe's top economy.

READ ALSO: 'Orgies' and squabbling: Why Germany is not in control of the coronavirus pandemic as much as it appears

Merkel said she “strongly recommended” wearing masks in public, and Germans are eagerly waiting for their first glimpse of the veteran leader doing her usual weekly shop in a mask.

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COVID-19

Court turns down AfD-led challenge to Germany’s spending in pandemic

The German Constitutional Court rejected challenges Tuesday to Berlin's participation in the European Union's coronavirus recovery fund, but expressed some reservations about the massive package.

Court turns down AfD-led challenge to Germany's spending in pandemic

Germany last year ratified the €750-billion ($790-billion) fund, which offers loans and grants to EU countries hit hardest by the pandemic.

The court in Karlsruhe ruled on two challenges, one submitted by a former founder of the far-right AfD party, and the other by a businessman.

They argued the fund could ultimately lead to Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, having to take on the debts of other EU member states on a permanent basis.

But the Constitutional Court judges ruled the EU measure does not violate Germany’s Basic Law, which forbids the government from sharing other countries’ debts.

READ ALSO: Germany plans return to debt-limit rules in 2023

The judgement noted the government had stressed that the plan was “intended to be a one-time instrument in reaction to an unprecedented crisis”.

It also noted that the German parliament retains “sufficient influence in the decision-making process as to how the funds provided will be used”.

The judges, who ruled six to one against the challenges, did however express some reservations.

They questioned whether paying out such a large amount over the planned period – until 2026 – could really be considered “an exceptional measure” to fight the pandemic.

At least 37 percent of the funds are aimed at achieving climate targets, the judges said, noting it was hard to see a link between combating global warming and the pandemic.

READ ALSO: Germany to fast-track disputed €200 billion energy fund

They also warned against any permanent mechanism that could lead to EU members taking on joint liability over the long term.

Berenberg Bank economist Holger Schmieding said the ruling had “raised serious doubts whether the joint issuance to finance the fund is in line with” EU treaties.

“The German court — once again — emphasised German limits for EU fiscal integration,” he said.

The court had already thrown out a legal challenge, in April 2021, that had initially stopped Berlin from ratifying the financial package.

Along with French President Emmanuel Macron, then chancellor Angela Merkel sketched out the fund in 2020, which eventually was agreed by the EU’s 27 members in December.

The first funds were disbursed in summer 2021, with the most given to Italy and Spain, both hit hard by the pandemic.

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