Snubbing Merkel pleas, German states ease coronavirus curbs further

Germany is accelerating its return to normality following strict restrictions, with regional leaders pushing back against Chancellor Angela Merkel's pleas for prudence in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

Snubbing Merkel pleas, German states ease coronavirus curbs further
A sign stating that rooms are available stands outside of a hotel in Binz, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in April. Photo: DPA

On the eve of a key meeting between Merkel and premiers of Germany's 16 states to debate a new round of easing of stay-at-home measures, the country's biggest state pre-empted talks by saying it would reopen its restaurants and hotels this month.

Under the plan to progressively restart the gastronomy and hospitality sectors, Bavaria said restaurants would first be allowed to offer outdoor dining from May 18th, before extending the opening to indoor dining a week later.

READ ALSO: Bavaria to reopen restaurants on May 18th as coronavirus cases drop

Hotels would also be allowed to welcome guests again from May 30th, in time for the Pentecost holiday long weekend.

“The time has come for a cautious reopening,” said Bavarian state premier Markus Söder, pointing to the “success” in containing the spread of the virus.

Pressure has been growing on Merkel to ease curbs on public life that have sunk the economy into a deep recession.

While shops have reopened over the last weeks, critics have complained that the pace of easing was too slow with many sectors still held back.

As regions increasingly take action going beyond those agreed in previous talks between the federal government and state leaders, Merkel had furiously complained that some were “too aggressively” pushing ahead.

Customers walk along one of Frankfurt's main shopping streets after stores reopened on April 20th. Photo: DPA

Economic casualties

But industries have warned that the economic toll of the lockdown was already devastatingly high with a recession to reach 6.3 percent for the full year.

As infection numbers fall, Merkel's critics argue that it was time to move faster to ward off further economic casualties.

Eastern states in particular, where contagion rates were far below those in the west, have picked up the pace in exiting the shutdown.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania will allow restaurants to reopen from Saturday and hotels to follow from May 18th.

The state on the Baltic Sea coast is anxious to welcome guests again, particularly as the summer nears — an economic lifeline for the region's hospitality sector.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about travelling in Germany this summer

Another eastern state, Saxony-Anhalt, has meanwhile eased restrictions on keeping gatherings in public to two people unless they are from the same household.

On Saturday, the regional government decided to allow up to five people to gather outside.

The central state of Lower Saxony was the country's first to announce a plan for returning to normal life, including opening restaurants again on Monday.

READ ALSO: 'We have to think in phases': Is this how Germany can return to life with coronavirus?

Germany has been hailed for its success so far in preventing its health services from being overwhelmed.

Germany has a total of around 167,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and more than 135,000 reported recoveries, according to data from Johns Hopkins University on Tuesday at 2 pm. There have been a total of 6,993 deaths from the virus.

Authorities began relaxing restrictions after the infection rate fell under 1.0 — meaning each person is infecting less than one other — as opposed to each infecting up to five or six people in March.

Despite the early success, the Robert Koch Institute has repeatedly warned of possible second or even third waves of the virus hitting the country.

With resistance growing against keeping the population at home, Merkel is expected to call on regional leaders to agree on a threshold which would trigger a new lockdown if necessary, according to Bild daily.

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Bavaria pushes for stricter Covid regulations in autumn

Health ministers across Germany's 16 states are debating the government's new Covid plan - and politicians in Bavaria say they want more clarity.

Bavaria pushes for stricter Covid regulations in autumn

On Tuesday, federal and state health ministers planned to discuss the Covid protection proposals for autumn and winter presented last week by Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP).

However, some states and politicians are not satisfied with the plans. 

Under the proposals, masks will remain mandatory in air and long-distance transport, as well as clinics, nationwide. But federal states will be able to choose themselves whether to introduce further measures like mandatory masks on public and regional transport.

States will also have the power to take tougher Covid measures if the situation calls for it, such as mandatory masks indoors, but lockdowns and school closures have been ruled out. 

READ ALSO Masks and no lockdowns: Germany’s new Covid plan from autumn to Easter

The draft law states that there can be exceptions from wearing masks in indoor spaces, such as restaurants, for recently Covid-vaccinated or recovered people. 

But Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek (CSU) told DPA that these planned exemptions were not justified because vaccinated and recovered people can still transmit infections. “There are clear gaps in the current draft law,” said the CSU politician.

Dominik Spitzer, health policy spokesman for the FDP parliamentary group in the Bavarian state parliament, also questioned this exception, saying the rules “simply made no sense”.

“With the current virus variant, that would be impossible to convey, since even vaccinated people can continue to carry the virus,” the FDP politician told Bavarian broadcaster BR24. 

The coalition government’s graduated plan under the new Infection Protection Act, is set to be in force from October 1st until April 7th next year. 

The powers for the states are a first step, “but they do not go far enough for us”, Holetschek added, while calling for some points to be tightened up. “We need strong guidelines for autumn and winter.”

Holetschek said the government needed to tighten up the criteria with which states can adopt and enforce more effective measures to protect against the spread of Covid-19.

READ ALSO: Could Germany see a ‘patchwork’ of Covid rules?

Meanwhile, CDU health politician Erwin Rüddel said Germany was on the “wrong track” and the country should find “a completely different approach” to Covid policy than it has so far.

He accused the coalition government of being in “panic mode” and said he doubted the Bundestag would pass the proposals.

“I believe, there will be significant changes (to the draft)”, he said.

But the chairperson of the doctors’ association Marburger Bund, Susanne Johna, backed the plans.

“The proposal for the new Infection Protection Act gives the states sufficient possibilities to react adequately to the infection situation,” Johna told the Rheinische Post on Tuesday.

“The states can take regionally adapted measures to protect people if the need arises. I can’t understand why this concept is being called into question right away.”