First German state ends coronavirus social distancing requirements

The east German state of Thuringia will be the first in Germany to scrap social distancing requirements put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

First German state ends coronavirus social distancing requirements
Outdoor diners in Apolda, Thuringia on May 15th. Photo: DPA

A new order was approved by the state cabinet Tuesday and is set to go into effect on Saturday, June 13th.

It will then no longer be a requirement that only two households, or a maximum of 10 people, can meet – and instead will be a recommendation.

Germany's federal and 16 state governments had originally agreed to extend the contact restrictions until June 29th, yet several states have already relaxed the rules. 

READ ALSO: Why it's still not possible to hug all your friends and family in Germany

Face masks will remain mandatory in shops and on public transportation. However, the new rule will allow even more facilities to reopen. 

They will include indoor swimming and leisure pools, as well as spas, saunas and cinemas, as long as their infection control plans are first approved by the state government.

Village festivals and funfairs will be permitted again in individual cases. However, the new regulation states that festivals “particularly suitable to promote the spread of the pandemic” will not be approved.

Brothels, disco and swingers clubs will remain closed. State-supported theatres and orchestras are not to resume their performances until after August 31st, when the German-wide ban on large events is slated to end. 

Thuringia state premier Bodo Ramelow (of Die Linke/The Left) had already spoken out in favour of a new strategy at the end of May, according to which there should no longer be any coronavirus restrictions, but rather local rules to be decided on by municipalities. 

Ramelow’s proposal faced criticism from those who feared the sudden relaxation could lead to an uptick in case numbers.

Yet it was also met with approval, with some arguing that the state has shown very few new cases and voluntary measures could keep the virus from spreading.

In the last seven days, Thuringia has reported 72 coronavirus cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, and has reported 3,100 overall.

READ ALSO: First German state set to end coronavirus restrictions in early June

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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