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ANGELA MERKEL

Germany set to reopen all shops and schools in May

Germany will take new steps towards normalisation in May, including reopening shops and schools after weeks of shutdown imposed to control the spread of the coronavirus, according to a draft agreement.

Germany set to reopen all shops and schools in May
A teacher holds a 'welcome back' sign at a school in Schleswig-Holstein on May 6th. Photo: DPA

“Even after initial steps to open up were introduced from April 20th, the number of new infections remained low,” the document read, with “no new wave of infection” so far detected – justifying the series of bolder reopening steps.

So far, only certain children like those soon facing exams had been allowed to return to class.

But now kindergartens and primary schools will also reopen from next week.

“Step-by-step, schools should make possible education of all pupils while implementing appropriate hygiene measures and upholding distancing rules,” the document read.

Meanwhile, the government plans to allow Germany's Bundesliga to restart in May, and will set an exact date at a teleconference on Wednesday, May 6th.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and premiers from Germany's 16 federal states are expected to sign off on the text later Wednesday.

There have been a total of around 167,000 coronavirus infections in Germany so far, with around 6,990 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University figures. A total of 135,200 people are reported to have recovered from Covid-19.

States will make own decisions

According to the draft document, it will be up to the individual regions to decide how to proceed with reopening universities.

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Regarding shops, the politicians said all could reopen but requirements “for hygiene, managing entry and avoiding queues forming” would be imposed.

So far only shops up to a floor space of 800 square metres (8,600 square feet) had been authorised to resume sales.

States will also have a free hand over whether to reopen restaurants beginning on May 9th, as well as on decisions affecting theatres, concert halls, nightclubs and gyms.

Meanwhile the one major coronavirus restriction set to remain in place – likely for several months – is a ban on large gatherings like sports matches, cultural events or festivals.

Such events will remain forbidden until “at least August 31st”, according to the text.

What's more, lockdown measures will be reimposed if the number of coronavirus infections begins to mount again.

If more than 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants are detected within seven days, the affected city or district must impose “a corresponding  lockdown plan”.

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In case of a “localised and clearly containable infection pattern” – such as in a single institution like an old people's home — the measures could be limited only to the specific place affected, rather than a whole region.

The government also includes a general call for Germans to continue to maintain a safe distance from one another and wear masks in shops and on public transport.

More infections expected in future

Experts have warned there could be further waves of infection.

On Tuesday May 5th, Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute for disease control said he assumed “there will be a second and third wave of infection”.

Wieler said the development of infections in Germany gave hope but the number of deaths was “still high”.

He said Germany was further increasing testing capacities.

 So far, 2.4 million lab tests have been carried out in Germany. Of these, 7.2 percent have been positive. “142,000 tests in 132 laboratories are possible per day,” Wieler said.

Wieler said he did not foresee any problems with patients being able to access intensive care in Germany if needed.

“With the current dynamics, it must be clearly stated: no shortages are predicted,” he said.

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COVID-19 RULES

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has announced plans for a "prompt" end to mandatory masks on buses and trains.

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

If infection levels and hospitalisations remain low, the end of the mask-wearing rule could come as soon as December or January.

“We are convinced that the mask requirement in public transport could also be phased out either in mid-December or early next year, if the numbers remain reasonably stable and there are no new mutations,” Söder explained on Monday, following a meeting with the CSU executive committee. 

A decision on when to end the measure would be made “promptly”, he added.

The CSU politician had said last week that the sinking infection rates meant that compulsory masks were no longer appropriate and that the mandate could be changed to a recommendation. 

No set date for change

The latest version of Bavaria’s Infection Protection Act – which lays out an obligation to wear masks on public transport as one of the few remaining Covid rules – is currently due to expire on December 9th.

State ministers could decide whether to let obligatory masks on buses and trains lapse on this date as early as next week, or they could decide to initially extend the legislation and set an alternative date for ending the rule.

Regardless of their decision, FFP2 masks will continue to be mandatory on long-distance public transport until at least April next year, when the nationwide Infection Protection Act is due to expire.

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

Speaking to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, Florian Herrmann (CSU), head of the State Chancellery, confirmed that Covid-19 had been discussed in passing.

However, no decisions or discussions were made on how to proceed after the expiry of the regulation, he said.

According to Herrmann, the fact that Covid was no longer the “dominant topic” in the cabinet under “enormous tension” shows “that we are returning to normality” in a gradual transition from pandemic to endemic. 

As of Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 108 in Bavaria, down from 111 the previous day. However, experts have cast doubt on how meaningful the incidence is in light of the fact that fewer people are taking tests.

Nevertheless, the 133 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the Free State falls well below the 600 threshold for a ‘red alert’. With Omicron causing less severe courses of illness than previous variants, politicians have increasingly focussed on hospitalisation statistics to gauge the severity of the situation.

‘A risk-benefit trade-off’

Bavaria is the second federal state to announce plans to relax its mask-wearing rules in recent weeks.

On November 14th, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein announced that it would be ending obligatory FFP2 masks on public transport and urged other states to do the same. From January 2023, masks on public transport will only be recommended rather than mandated for passengers on local buses and trains. 

However, the Federal Ministry of Health has urged states not to loosen their rules too quickly.

Given that infection rates are likely to spike again in winter, “there’s no basis for loosening restrictions”, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD).

Physicians are also split on whether an end to masks on public transport is appropriate.

READ ALSO: Will Germany get rid of masks on public transport?

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at the German Hospital Day in Düsseldorf on November 14th. Lauterbach is against the lifting of the mask-wearing rule. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Christoph Spinner, a virologist at the University Hospital in Munich, told Süddeutsche Zeitung he believed it was time to put the decision on mask-wearing back into the hands of individuals.

“Why not? The incidences are low, the danger of Covid-19 has dropped significantly and mortality has also decreased,” he said. 

But the Bavarian General Practitioners’ Association spoke out against the move, arguing that – unlike a trip to a restaurant or cinema – people often have no choice but to travel on public transport.

“If the obligation to wear a mask in public transport is maintained, this will help to protect against a Covid infection on the way to work by bus or train – especially in view of the discontinuation of the obligation to isolate in the event of a Covid infection,” they explained.

Bavaria is one of four states to have recently ended mandatory isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein both scrapped their isolation mandate last week, while Hesse removed its obligation on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

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