How anti-coronavirus measures in Germany are stumbling in courts

A Berlin court on Friday overturned an order for restaurants and bars to close early, the latest in a slew of legal rulings upending measures taken by Germany's national and local governments to fight coronavirus transmission.

How anti-coronavirus measures in Germany are stumbling in courts
Signs for hotels in the Hanover region. The accommodation ban was also struck down in the state of Lower Saxony. Photo: DPA

The latest judicial setback for authorities in the German capital came on the heels of other court challenges over another controversial measure banning hotel and holiday home stays for domestic travellers from regions with high infection rates.

The legal tangle added another layer to confusion over rules agreed between states and Chancellor Angela Merkel's federal government but which are in reality left up to regional authorities of Germany's 16 states to implement.

On Friday, Berlin authorities' order for restaurant and bars to close from 11pm to 6am became the latest to fail before the court, a ruling that could have a huge impact on a sector severely hit by the pandemic.

READ ALSO: Court overturns order to shut Berlin bars and restaurants from 11pm

The German capital's administrative court noted that new infections in Germany currently mostly stem from private gatherings of family and friends, at community facilities, meat-processing plants, religious gatherings or in connection with travel.

“It was not apparent” that closing food and drink establishments early would help fight contagion, the court found in the case brought by 11 restaurant and bar owners.

The measure, which came in force on October 10th, was therefore a “disproportionate encroachment on the freedom” of the industry, the court said.

Health Minister Jens Spahn said he was “very disappointed” at the ruling, saying the logic behind the measure was right because “there is no doubt that in big cities… especially in the late hours, what is happening in private and public places is a driver of current infections”.

The capital, known for its vibrant nightlife, had imposed the curb as new daily infections in Germany soared past 7,000 — a record since the pandemic started.

Under rules agreed by premiers of Germany's 16 states and Merkel, local authorities are required to impose early closing hours for restaurants or bars once new infection numbers climb above the threshold of 35 per 100,000 people in seven days.

More drastic restrictions are imposed when the daily caseload climbs to 50 per 100,000 people.

Economic capital Frankfurt as well as western city Cologne have also put in place early closure hours for restaurants and bars.

Berlin currently has a rate of 73.9 new cases per 100,000 people.

People walk past a bar closed early in Berlin-Friedrichshain on Wednesday evening. Photo: DPA

'Rebel who saved autumn holidays'

At Merkel's latest talks with state premiers on Wednesday, a slew of other curbs were agreed for so-called corona hotspots, including caps on the number of people gathering indoors and a ban on late-night alcohol sales.

But Germany's federal system means that states have the freedom to implement what they wish.

With the new round of restrictions meeting with greater resistance than in March and April when whole industries were ordered shut to fight transmission, some states where infection rates are comparatively low have simply chosen to ignore measures agreed with Merkel's government.

Elsewhere, measures that are being imposed are being challenged in court.

A restriction that has particularly angered holidaymakers and guesthouse owners is a ban on hotel or holiday home stays on domestic travellers from zones where infection levels are high.

Up and down the country, individuals have taken legal action against the measure.

An administrative court in Baden-Württemberg on Thursday overturned the ban in the state, in a case brought by a family from North Rhine-Westphalia who had made a vacation booking in the southwestern German state.

Finding that it was a violation of the freedom of movement, the court said Baden-Württemberg authorities failed to provide proof that hotels were fuelling contagion.

READ ALSO: Saxony and Baden-Württemberg overturn internal risk zone accommodation ban

The ruling was swiftly followed by a similar one in Lower Saxony, where guesthouse manager Jens Lutz brought a case against the ban imposed by the state.

The Bild daily labelled him the “rebel” who “saved autumn holidays”.

Several states including Bavaria and Hesse have since said they would cancel the ban.

Only the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein has so far managed to score a win in court, with the judge ruling that the ban on holiday stays by travellers from risk zones was necessary to bring contagion under control.

The tangle of rules has left Germans perplexed.

A survey by ARD broadcaster found that two in three Germans want common rules across the country rather than the patchwork of regulations decided by states.

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.