Coronavirus second wave: What we can expect in Germany this autumn and winter
As more districts in Germany are declared coronavirus hotspots, we look at how authorities are aiming to get the situation under control, and what we can expect in the coming months.
Are we in a second wave?
Germany is certainly seeing a large increase in the number of infections, with upwards of 4,000 daily cases since last week, which suggests that we are entering a second wave.
"Currently, an accelerated increase of transmissions in the population in Germany can be observed," said the Robert Koch Institute for disease control in its latest situation report. "Therefore, the entire population is strongly encouraged to commit itself to infection prevention and control," they added.
This graph by the RKI shows how confirmed cases are rising again after dipping in the summer, although they are not at the levels we saw in April and March. At the peak, more than 6,000 daily cases were reported.
It's not unexpected: experts said that in the colder weather, when people tend to move indoors, the health crisis would ramp up again.
At the moment, there is not a strain on hospital beds in Germany – according to the RKI more than 9,300 – around 30 percent – of intensive care beds are free.
However, as more older people contract the virus, more pressure piles on the system.
There are also concerns about keeping up with contact tracing. Staff in Berlin have said they are struggling to do this as infection numbers in the capital rise, and are around two days behind schedule.
Another factor that might be contributing to the rise in cases is pandemic fatigue: people are feeling stressed, bored and lonely. This is when people tend to not stick to the rules as much as they did at the start of the pandemic.
Hygiene, distance, masks... and fresh air – is the mantra for coronavirus defence in autumn enough?
The AHA rule (which stands for Abstand halten, Hygiene und Alltagsmaske – keeping distance, hand hygiene, and wearing masks everyday) has become second nature to most people in Germany. Nowadays the vast majority wouldn't dream of leaving their home without a face mask, for example.
And many have also now embraced the extended version of the mantra: "L" for Lüften or ventilation was added recently after stagnant air indoors was recognised as a risk factor for infections. Businesses keep windows wide open whenever possible, and teachers air out the classroom regularly. In fact the term "aerosols" is probably familiar to all school children nowadays.
Source: German Government
But the good behaviour of the majority is not enough. Cities are increasingly becoming hotspots. Every day, another major city breaks the dreaded threshold of 50 new infections per 100,000 residents in seven days.
Now alarm bells are ringing.
Restrictions on social gatherings and plea to partygoers
The German government and 16 federal states are turning to stricter measures to control the spread of coronavirus but want to avoid a lockdown like the one that happened in March and April.
They say that the main driver of the second wave is social gatherings. When people come together, particularly when alcohol is involved, the distance rules go out the window and this fuels the spread.
That means extra measures in autumn and winter will likely affect the leisure sector, from bars and restaurants to clubs. They could also affect private gatherings.
Health Minister Jens Spahn recently urged people to consider whether celebrating in a group or travelling was "absolutely necessary". He also slammed the "ignorant handling of the pandemic" by young carefree partygoers.
On Friday Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed directly to younger people, urging them to have patience and think of the health of elderly relatives plus their own job and education prospects.
"Think about what is most important to you," she said. "Isn't it the health of your family, your grandparents? Isn't it, also in the next few years, to have good training and work opportunities?," the Chancellor asked the young population.
"It will all come back: partying, having fun," she said. "But what matters now is something else."
From Berghain to KitKat Club and the many bars in between, Berlin is proud of its vibrant nightlife. But for the first time since 1949, a curfew came into force on Friday October 10th and lasts until the end of the month. Now at 11pm everyone is encouraged to head home. Alcohol is no longer allowed to be sold until 6am, not even at the petrol station.
Unbelievably for Berlin, its famous late-night shops, known as Spätis, have to close.
Frankfurt has also introduced a curfew and a ban on alcohol, and other regions could follow suit. These measures will likely stay in place as long as the infections continue to rise.
EXPLAINED: What you need to know about Berlin's new coronavirus restrictions
Along with curfews, there are also various limits on the numbers allowed at public and private celebrations, internal travel restrictions in the form of bans on accommodation and stricter mask rules.
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday. Photo: DPA
Politicians have not ruled out even tougher restrictions but they don't want to introduce them too early. That's because residents have to accept and trust that the measures are not disproportionate.
Health Minister Spahn said: "The pandemic is a test of character for our society. This can only be done together."
A similar statement came from Merkel on Friday: "We have proven that we can stick together against all this. And we must continue to do so."
But at the meeting with the mayors of big cities Merkel also made it clear: "We are at a point where we have to set priorities. The focus must be on not having to shutdown economic and public life again. Schools must also remain open."
Top German virologist Christian Drosten said he couldn't predict if more measures were coming. "It's impossible to say; we’ll have to wait and see," Drosten said in an interview with Zeit Online.
"It certainly makes sense to limit the size of groups in closed, indoor spaces because that reduces the probability of super-spreading events, in which one individual infects many others."
Appeals for people to take personal responsibility
Merkel and Spahn have both appealed to citizens to take personal responsibility. They want people in Germany to understand that personal restrictions and precautions must be maintained and perhaps even extended.
Merkel emphasised, for example, that she was aware of how strict rules on family celebrations were and how they interfered with private life and freedom.
Politicians don't want people to head to busy house parties after the curfews in some cities. They want them to take responsibility and go home.
Drosten made a similar statement to Zeit.
"It’s important that we all work together and understand that it’s up to us," he said. "If we do, we'll act wisely, even when no one is looking. It comes down to many small, everyday decisions. For example, when you go out to eat and the question comes up as to whether or not you should move inside even though it is quite crowded. Do you go in or do you say: 'Yeah, it's cold, but let's sit outside for another 15 minutes and then go home.'
"Or the question of whether you really have to throw that party you had planned this winter, whether you can perhaps find an airy, extra large room for it or postpone it until next year.
"None of these things are forbidden and nobody can or wants to regulate them. We have to all take the situation seriously even as we are trying to have a normal everyday life. We all have to develop the appropriate situational awareness."
Stricter penalties for risky behaviour
Then there is the question about whether authorities should come down harder on those who flout restrictions. Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder said over the weekend there should be tougher penalties for violations of rules.
He called for a nationwide fine of €250 for people who refuse to wear marks, as is already in force in his state. Söder also raised the prospect of a second lockdown for the first time. "It's very close," he said. "We must stop beating about the bush."
Lockdowns, compulsory masks in all public areas and stricter rules for restaurants would affect most people in Germany.
Will people in Germany be able to celebrate a social Christmas?
Whether big Christmas markets can really take place this festive season is still up in the air, while some have already been cancelled.
Businesses are trying to adapt. Munich has promised stall operators an extension of the market until January 10th, but also reserves the right to cancel at short notice. There are also discussions about whether Christmas markets should close earlier in the evening.
This year it's probably safe to say there will be no big public New Year's Eve parties. But what will happen when it comes to the German love of getting together with friends and family, and setting off fireworks on NYE?
It's a date that puts enormous strain on emergency services across the country – nothing anyone would want to see in a health crisis.
When it comes to Christmas Day, it won't be the same this year with the shadow of a global pandemic over us. But a ban on family reunions, contact or travel would be very difficult for people to deal with.
Virologist Drosten suggested that one way of dealing with this issue would be for people to "pre-quarantine" before Christmas visits.
"I think the idea of a pre-quarantine is a good idea," he told Zeit. "That means people would avoid social contacts to the degree possible for a few days, or ideally a week, ahead of the family visit with grandma and grandpa.
"Then you can go to your relatives with the thought in the back of your mind that, with fewer contacts, you probably didn’t get infected this week."