EXPLAINED: What prompted Merkel to make a sudden U-turn on Easter shutdown in Germany?

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement to the press on Wednesday that she was cancelling the Easter shutdown resolved some questions, but left others wide open. Here's what we know, and what we still don’t.

EXPLAINED: What prompted Merkel to make a sudden U-turn on Easter shutdown in Germany?
A church in Bamberg, Bavaria. dpa | Nicolas Armer

Speaking just after midday Merkel made a dramatic announcement. She called the decision to go into Germany’s toughest lockdown yet, by closing down the economy over the five days of Easter, “a mistake.”

It was made with the best of intentions but was not implementable in the short time available, she said.

READ ALSO: Merkel admits Easter coronavirus shutdown plan her ‘mistake alone’

Why did she perform this U-turn?

The decision to turn Maundy Thursday and Easter Saturday into one-off “days of rest” had caused huge amounts of confusion. The term Merkel used, Ruhetag (day of rest), does not have a clear legal definition. 

Employers were left scratching their heads over whether Merkel meant that the two days were to become one-off public holidays. That would have had important implications. Businesses would have had to pay workers to stay at home.

But to enforce this, the German states would have first had to create new laws anchoring these two days as public holidays.

There was also concern over how supplies chains could be altered at such short notice.

Given the very limited time to make these arrangements, Merkel decided that the plan was a mistake and dropped the label Ruhetag.

That means people will be expected to work on Thursday and Saturday as normal. Shops will also be able to stay open on those two days.

What about church services?

There was also considerable anger on Tuesday over the decision to discourage church attendance on the most important weekend in the Christian calendar.

“It has amazed me that parties with the C (for Christian) in their name, of all things, are suggesting that churches refrain from holding services, even more so at Easter,” Interior Minister Seehofer told Bild newspaper.

Merkel did not specifically address church services in her press conference on Wednesday.

But the government also seems to be stepping back from its insistence on moving church services online.

Merkel’s deputy spokesperson Ulrike Demmer assured worshippers on Wednesday afternoon that the government was “looking for solutions” and was already in discussions with representatives of the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Church leaders had said that they wanted to have worshippers inside churches on Easter Sunday.

The state of Saxony has already made clear that it will not stand in the way of churches that want to hold church services with worshipers in attendance.

Contact restrictions

The government published an update on its website on Wednesday afternoon stating that “as before, private meetings are only possible during this time [Easter] with a maximum of 5 people from two households, plus children up to 14 years of age.”

At first glance this doesn’t change anything. At the same time there is no longer a reference to a “ban on gathering” in public spaces. This rule already created some confusion, as it was vague about what exactly constitutes a gathering.

On Monday, Merkel said that over the five days of Easter people should stay at home.

As Merkel made no specific mention of small gatherings on Wednesday, it remains unclear whether the government wants people to be able to sit outside. This is likely to be specified in the coming days when each individual state lays out its own plans.

Bavarian leader Markus Söder said on Wednesday that the U-turn “only means one things in Bavaria: Thursday and Saturday are no longer days of rest.”

READ MORE: Merkel admits Easter coronavirus shutdown plan her ‘mistake alone’

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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.