EXPLAINED: What you need to know about Germany’s new local coronavirus lockdowns

Authorities in western Germany have ordered two districts into lockdown – the first time since easing restrictions. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about Germany's new local coronavirus lockdowns
Teams made up of German army workers and aid organizations are visiting and testing people in quarantine in the Gütersloh district. Photo: DPA

What's happening?

The district of Gütersloh in north-east of North Rhine-Westphalia, next to the city of Bielefeld, is being put on lockdown after a coronavirus outbreak at a meat plant in the area.

Around 360,000 people who live in the district are affected by the shutdown.

Later on Tuesday June 23rd, it emerged that neighbouring district Warendorf, which has around 280,000 people, will also be put on lockdown.

“In order to protect the population, we are now launching a further safety and security package to effectively combat the spread of the virus,” North Rhine-Westphalia health minister Karl-Josef Laumann said.

How will the lockdown work?

Much like the rules that came into force across German states at the height of the epidemic in March, the lockdown will force the closure of many businesses and facilities.

It means concert halls, museums, bars and cinemas will be closed. Gyms, swimming pools and wellness facilities will also have to shut their doors.

As The Local reported last week, Gütersloh district had already decided to close all schools and daycare centers (Kitas) in a bid to try and slow the spread of Covid-19 in the area.

Restaurants can remain open, but with special rules. Contact restrictions will also be in place in a bid to limit contact between people. In March Germany imposed restrictions on public life and banned public gatherings of more than two people (not from the same household) to try and stall the spread.

The measures in Gütersloh will be in place until at least June 30th.

State premier Armin Laschet, who is one of the hopefuls in the running to take over as Chancellor of Germany when Angela Merkel steps down, called the move a “preventative measure”.

Critics have said, however, that action should have been taken earlier.

READ ALSO: Germany orders first local lockdown after new coronavirus outbreak

A closed playpark in the district. Photo: DPA

It is the first such move since Germany began lifting its lockdown restrictions in April and May.

The country has been praised for its response to the crisis, but there are fears that the number of infections are rising again. However, experts say that localised outbreaks are to be expected and hope to avoid larger lockdowns, instead focusing on improving regional situations.

Gütersloh residents were understanding about the new lockdown, reported AFP.  “I had actually expected this much earlier,” said Ullrich Wegner.

Brigitte Jäger agreed: “It is probably a little too late, otherwise it would not have spread so much.”

The latest flareup prompted authorities in the German island of Usedom to turn away a couple from Gütersloh who had come to spend their holiday there.

Bavaria also announced Tuesday that its hotels will not be taking bookings from anyone from Gütersloh or other high-risk areas.

What is the cause of the outbreak?

It's down to large numbers of people contracting coronavirus at the Rheda-Wiedenbrück meat plant run by Germany's leading meat processing firm Tönnies.

Laschet said it was the largest single outbreak of infections in North Rhine-Westphalia and Germany so far.

READ ALSO: Germany battles to control outbreak at meat plant

Of 6,140 Tönnies employees tested, 1,553 are confirmed to have been infected with coronavirus. The meat plant closed last Wednesday for at least two weeks.

Many of the workers at the processing plant come from eastern Europe and have short-term contracts. There are concerns that people are living and working in cramped conditions which can fuel the spread of the virus.

On top of that, around 7,000 workers are under strict quarantine orders and unable to leave their homes.

Authorities have put up fencing around residential buildings where workers live and are distributing food.

Virologists, contact tracing teams and the German army (Bundeswehr) have all been drafted in to help contain the outbreak.

Extra police officers are being called in to make sure people stay in self-isolation. There will also be additional support for those affected, said Laschet.

A Red Cross worker hands over food to a quarantined resident in Verl, NRW, after the outbreak at a meat processing plant. Photo: DPA

Authorities had hoped that the quarantine measures would stop the spread of coronavirus throughout the district and beyond.

However, they've found that 24 people in the Gütersloh district not connected to the meat factory have contracted the virus. By introducing the lockdown, the aim is to stop the further spread of Covid-19.

Further widespread testing in the area will continue, especially in old people's homes. In addition, everyone in the district is allowed to voluntarily undergo testing free of charge if they want to, said Laschet. If the numbers “remain low”, the lockdown will be lifted, but it could be extended after June 30th if problems continue.

What's the overall situation in Germany?

Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), said on Tuesday that the country was at risk of a second wave of infections but said he was optimistic they could prevent it.

Currently the reproduction rate – the R number which indicates how many people one infected person can pass the virus to – in Germany is estimated at 2.76.

Authorities want to keep under 1. However, they say localised outbreaks push the numbers up.

Overall the RKI reported 190,350 confirmed coronavirus infections since the pandemic began (as of June 22nd – the latest figures available), an increase of about 530 from the day before.

At the peak of the pandemic Germany was recording more than 6,000 new cases a day. Around 8,800 people have died in Germany.

Does anything need to change?

Germany has vowed to crack down on working and accommodation conditions at meat processing plants.

A draft law agreed last month by the government will force slaughterhouses to quit the practise of hiring eastern Europeans on short term contracts and will impose heavy fines on companies that fail to comply.

Trade unions say that eastern Europeans are the victims of appalling living conditions at the mass accommodation provided for them by sub-contractors hired by the meat packing industry.

Furthermore they lament a practise of meat companies contracting out work to subcontractors so that they cannot be held liable when abuses are exposed.

READ ALSO: Germany to reform meat industry after corona outbreak exposes abuses



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Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”