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COVID-19

VIDEO: How the German city of Tübingen is betting on Covid-19 tests to reopen public life

Germany may be battling a third wave of the pandemic but life feels almost normal in the city of Tübingen, where anyone with a negative Covid test can enjoy a day of shopping, culture or outdoor dining.

VIDEO: How the German city of Tübingen is betting on Covid-19 tests to reopen public life
Friends enjoy the good weather at an open beer garden in Tübingen on March 28th. Photo: DPA

As debate rages nationwide about whether tougher measures are needed to slow surging infections, the historic university city near Stuttgart has chosen a different tack by offering free coronavirus testing centres that hand out “day passes” to those whose results come back negative.

The passes then allow access to what is currently one of Germany’s most vibrant city centres.

“Customers’ eyes light up when they come in, it’s finally a bit of normality again,” said Sandra Pauli, who was allowed to reopen her home decor shop some two weeks ago. “Everyone is very happy.”

CLICK ON THE VIDEO TO WATCH:

READ ALSO: Is Germany heading for a tougher Covid lockdown?

The usual rules on mask wearing and physical distancing still apply, said Pauli, who believes the rapid testing scheme “is the only way to live with the coronavirus” while keeping high street stores afloat and welcoming people back into theatres and museums.

The rest of Germany is closely watching the Tübingen model, and a string of cities and towns are planning similar experiments.

Not without controversy

The central city of Weimar has already opened shops and museums to those carrying a negative test.

The small state of Saarland is going even further and wants to end its shutdown on April 6th, using a combination of rapid antigen tests and hygiene precautions to open up cinemas, gyms and outdoor restaurants.

But the trend is not without controversy at a time when scientists are warning that new, more contagious virus variants could see Germany’s caseload explode in the coming weeks.

Among the loudest critics is Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in a rare live television interview on Sunday urged regional leaders to stick to agreed Covid curbs.

“I don’t know that testing and shopping is the right response to what is happening right now,” the veteran leader said, noting that even in Tùbingen the rate of infection was climbing despite the thousands of tests.

READ ALSO: Why one German town is lifting its lockdown despite third coronavirus wave

Merkel and the premiers of Germany’s 16 federal states agreed in early March to pull the “emergency brake” and impose renewed restrictions if a region hit more than 100 new infections per 100,000 people over a seven-day period – as in currently the case across most of the country.

But many regional leaders have proved reluctant to revert to harsher shutdowns.

A woman getting a rapid test in Tübingen in March. Photo DPA

Limits on tourists

Outside Tübingen’s picturesque city hall, on a square lined by colourful half-timbered buildings, people have been queuing since the early morning to have their nostrils swabbed at one of several testing sites in the city.

Almost 50,000 tests have been carried out over a two-week period, according to doctor Lisa Federle, one of the driving forces behind the project, which is being monitored by the University of Tuebingen.

“We have enough tests,” said Federle, adding that “we have to do something because people no longer accept” the restrictions.
“I think it’s significantly safer to meet outside after you’ve been tested, than meeting people in your home,” she told AFP.

Tübingen mayor Boris Palmer, of the left-leaning Green party, said the project had given hope to business owners who were feeling increasingly desperate.

Although the district’s incidence rate has climbed from 41 on March 15th to 98 on Monday, he said the increase “was not any faster than elsewhere in the country”.

But the city of 90,000 residents risks becoming a victim of its own success, with the intense media attention drawing in a flurry of daytrippers from across Germany.

READ ALSO: One year on: The charts and maps that explain the state of the pandemic in Germany

The influx has prompted local authorities to limit the number of tourists allowed to benefit from the day-pass scheme.

Rene, 36, and his girlfriend drove 100 kilometres (60 miles) to celebrate his birthday in Tübingen.

“We’re going for a nice meal now,” he said. “We just wanted to do something special.”

The scheme is set to run until April 18th, and Federle thinks it’s already a success.

“People can see that we’re not just closing down, that we’re also trying to find another way.”

By Yann Schreiber

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COVID-19

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.

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