Will Germany continue to reopen public life amid rising Covid-19 numbers?

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s 16 state premieres are set to meet on Monday March 22nd to discuss whether to further reduce lockdown restrictions. Yet a spike in cases is causing doubt on whether more re-openings will go as planned.

Will Germany continue to reopen public life amid rising Covid-19 numbers?
Tables at a closed restaurant in the centre of Munich on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

According to a report by Business Insider, the federal government and states are considering suspending a planned next step for reopening public life – which was set to go into effect on March 22nd.

According to the agreed-upon plan, restaurants could open for outdoor dining, and there could also be re-openings of opera houses, concert halls and cinemas with a 7-day incidence of up to 50 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents.

Non-contact sports – which were not clearly defined in the plan – indoors and outdoors could also be possible again. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: This is Germany’s five-step plan to head out of lockdown

With an incidence rate between 50 and 100, these relaxations would also be allowed if customers or guests present a negative rapid Covid-19 test or make an appointment beforehand.

However, the worsening infection situation and the uncertainty surrounding the AstraZeneca vaccine has caused the Chancellery and state representatives to rethink the move.

Instead, the lockdown, which has so far been extended until March 28th, is likely to be extended again, possibly for another four weeks, reported Business Insider.

The number of new coronavirus cases in Germany have been slowly but noticeably rising over the past month. The average 7-day incidence per 100,000 inhabitants rose last month from 60.1 (on February 18th) to 85.6 as of Wednesday. 

There are also fears over virus variants. According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the significantly more contagious viral mutation “B.1.1.7 represents the most frequent SARS-CoV-2 variant detected in Germany”.

What steps have already been taken?

At the last federal-state meeting on March 3rd, Merkel and state leaders decided on a five-step plan to begin reopening public life. 

The first steps have already been implemented, from the opening of hair salons at the beginning of March, to opening flower and home appliance stores with strict distancing measures, and even retail in some states through an appointment system.

Berlin on Wednesday became the first German state to say it would pause opening public life in light of rising numbers in the capital and fears over virus variants.

READ ALSO: Berlin becomes first German state to pause lockdown relaxation

Will all states keep to the emergency brake agreed with Merkel?

Merkel and the state leaders also agreed on a step-by-step lifting of restrictions at the March 3rd meeting. But built into this process was a so-called Notbremse – an emergency brake which local and regional governments could pull if the 7-day incidence were to rise above 100.

According to the Notbremse, if there is an incidence of more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents for more than three days, the previous opening measures will be withdrawn. Currently, 124 districts around the country are already exceeding the 100 incidence mark.

However, it is uncertain whether all states will adhere to the Notbremse. Berlin’s neighbouring state of Brandenburg, for example, doubled its incidence value to 200 only a few days after the March 3rd summit. 

Yet government spokesman Stefan Seibert remained firm that the federal-state decision must be implemented, “not only in its pleasant passages, but also in its difficult ones”, he said in Berlin on Monday.

“Rising incidences, rising case numbers, especially in the younger population, no more decline in the occupancy of intensive care beds – these are unpleasant developments to which we must all react together.”

What will be the other deciding factors in extending lockdown?

The states and federal governments are also likely to base their decisions on next opening steps on the availability of vaccines, and how comprehensively they can be rolled out. 

The vaccination summit of the federal government and the states, which was initially planned for Wednesday, has been cancelled and may be held on Thursday or Friday, as soon as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) gives its opinion regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine

Until now, the EMA had said that 30 cases of brain thrombosis in five million vaccinated people across Europe corresponded to the proportion of the total European population – meaning that there was no above-average risk. 

However, several European countries – including Germany on Monday – suspended the use of the inoculation until further findings emerge. Now the Bundesrepublik will decide whether to continue using the vaccine or whether to work out a contingency plan, including for those who have already received their first jab. 

It’s also up in the air if school and Kita openings will continue as planned for March. Different states are working on different approaches, including averting closures through regular testing, regardless of the infection situation.

READ ALSO: Are all German schools really going to open again before Easter?

Member comments

  1. This 3rd wave is NOT caused by people going into shops etc. That is when people DO behave. It is the going to other people’s houses, meeting in Parks, having parties that is the problem. And nothing but a full lockdown has any chance to stop that. Someone really needs to explain this to the Politicians & Scientists, all living in their own world.

    1. Indeed. With now the enforcement of medical-grade masks, and limiting number of people in shops to prevent over-crowding, it is unfair to continue to “punish” businesses.

      In comparison to other Asian countries who are performing way better, contact tracing in Germany is still decades behind. Scanning barcodes upon entry should be the new normal through apps like the Corona-Warn-App.

  2. An extremely slow vaccination program, Tens of thousand unused vaccine shots in fridges, and now an over reaction to some side effect cases. How about getting your shit together the German health system and actually start saving thousands of lives with an effective vaccination program.

  3. Oh yes lets track people every time they go out. The man responsible for the invention of PCR tests said in an interview that they were not suitable at all for Covid testing. What a pity he isn’t still alive to repeat his statement. Funny how every time things start to ease along comes the 24/7 fearmongering. Of course we dont hear the dissenting voices of the many medical experts who are speaking out because what they are saying doesn’t fit the narrative does it.

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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