Germany began tentatively lifting its lockdown two weeks ago, opening some shops and schools, after infection rates came down.
Merkel and the state leaders agreed last week to loosen the rules further, giving religious institutions, playgrounds, museums and zoos the green light to open.
But a national consensus on aligning measures to counter the virus — which was coupled with a sharp rise in Merkel's popularity — appears to have crumbled, as many states have struck out alone to further ease lockdown rules.
'Return to normality'
Germany is eyeing an almost complete return to normality in May, with plans to send all pupils back to school and to restart the top-flight football Bundesliga, according to a draft agreement seen by AFP Wednesday.
Only the cultural sector would have to wait, as large events are still cancelled until the end of August. Borders also remain closed.
But on the eve of her discussions with regional leaders, Germany's biggest state Bavaria preempted federal measures by announcing that its restaurants would open from May 18th and hotels and guest houses from May 30th.
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State premier Markus Söder said “the time has come for a cautious reopening”, pointing to the “success” in containing the spread of the virus.
Lower Saxony, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saarland and Saxony-Anhalt have also announced their own plans for everything from restaurants to care homes.
A sign at a restaurant in Cuxhaven, Lower Saxony, stating that a restaurant will open on May 27th. Photo: DPA
Merkel has repeatedly urged Germany's states to proceed with caution when it comes to easing lockdown measures, even as Europe's top economy flounders.
“It remains absolutely important that we stay disciplined,” she said after last week's relaxing of measures, adding that the effects of the new rules would be watched carefully.
The restrictions — but also greater testing capacities — have seen Germany keep its death rate far lower than that of its European neighbours.
Although Germany has recorded over 160,000 coronavirus cases, it has one of
the lowest mortality rates in the world — just over 6,800 people have died.
But although Merkel's conservative approach won her a rise in support in the early stages of the pandemic, the complaints have grown louder in recent
North Rhine-Westphalia state premier Armin Laschet, who has criticised Merkel's firmer stance on restrictions, told public broadcaster ARD in late April that the negative effects of lockdown must be “weighed up”.
He attacked what he said were the pessimistic predictions of some medical experts, pointing out that “40 percent of intensive care beds are empty” in his state.
Demonstrations against the lockdown were held in several German cities last weekend, and a new political movement calling itself Widerstand 2020 (Resistance 2020) claims on its website to have more than 100,000 members.
The far-right AfD, Germany's largest opposition party by number of MPs, has also attacked the lockdown measures.
But experts continue to call for restraint. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control has repeatedly warned of possible second or even third waves of the virus hitting the country.
At a briefing on Tuesday, RKI head Lothar Wieler urged vigilance.
“Social distancing is certainly the new normal and will help to ensure that the infection rate remains low,” he said.
“If we ease restrictions, this will of course increase the risk of new infections.”