LATEST: Germany enters month-long partial lockdown

Germany on Monday began a four-week intensive shutdown in a bid to slow down the spread of coronavirus.

LATEST: Germany enters month-long partial lockdown
A restaurant in Cologne with stacked chairs as the shutdown began on Monday. Photo: DPA

On Monday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control reported a drop in the number of cases, with just over 12,000 new infections within a day. However, the figure is often lower on Mondays as not all health authorities report their cases at weekends.

On Saturday, Germany recorded a record number of new infections, with more than 19,000 cases within 24 hours.

In an interview with public broadcaster ZDF on Sunday, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the country was facing the “situation of the century” and said a”national effort in November” is needed.

Spahn urged people to follow the new restrictions. He also said further tough measures may be needed after the shutdown.

“Nobody can rule out the possibility that it will not happen again sometime in the future,” the Christian Democrat (CDU) politician said.

Last week after the government and state leaders agreed on the tough new restrictions, Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of a difficult winter ahead with “four long, hard months”.

READ ALSO: How many people can I meet during Germany's shutdown?

What are the rules?

The shutdown is not as strict as the one that took place in spring.

Nationwide, hospitality, cultural and leisure facilities are largely prohibited from opening their doors from November 2nd to November 30th.

Stricter rules also apply to personal meetings, although Germans are not confined to their homes. Only two households are allowed to meet in public (with a max of 10 people at the meeting)  – in some states (including Bavaria) this rule applies explicitly to meetings in your own home.

“Groups of people celebrating in public places, in apartments as well as private areas are unacceptable in view of the serious situation in our country,” said the resolution agreed between Merkel and state leaders.

Unlike in spring, daycare centres (Kitas), schools and shops will generally remain open this time.

Restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs have to close, but they are allowed to sell food and drinks to take away.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are the rules of Germany's November shutdown?

Cinemas, theatres, operasm museums, fitness studios, swimming pools, saunas and many other facilities are also now also subject to compulsory closure.

In general, people should refrain from travelling and avoid any trips that are not absolutely necessary.

Germany's 16 states are implementing the restrictions by decree, so there may be some slight regional differences.

It came as hospitals in Germany said they were expecting a new record number of intensive care patients, highlighting the pressure on the health care system.

State and federal leaders will meet again in around 10 days to assess if the new measures need to be tightened further still or whether they may be eased in December.

What's the reaction?

There are major concerns in the hospitality, events and culture industries which are being hit hardest in the crisis.

A government package of up to €10 billion is intended to help businesses and the self-employed who are now unable to make a living in November. Nevertheless, lawyers say there will be legal action lodged against the government by businesses.

READ ALSO: Around Europe: The relentless resurgence of coronavirus causes unease and despair

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder defended the stricter measures.

“The alternative would be to let it run its course,” the Christian Social Union (CSU) leader said on Sunday on broadcaster ARD.

But that would mean an enormous increase in infections and a build-up of patients in hospitals, leading ultimately to higher death rates, he said.

“There is no other concept in the whole world other than reducing contacts in order to react to corona,” said Söder. “If there was a better, lighter one, we would apply it immediately.” He added that the current partial lockdown is not as tough as in spring and compared to other European countries, such as France.

Merkel's chief of staff Helge Braun said he did not think the rules would be relaxed any time soon.

“I do not think it likely that we will be able to relax measures in a fortnight' time,” the CDU politician said on ARD. But he was hopeful that the restrictions would work.

 “I firmly believe that the measures we have now decided on will really put a significant brake on the infection rate.”

The ongoing tightening of virus rules and restrictions has sparked anger in people weary of confinement and the painful economic costs.

That frustration has led to protests in many parts of the world, including in Germany.

Merkel last week warned that propaganda and conspiracy theories undermine the fight against the pandemic.

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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