‘Taste of freedom’: German state begins reopening public life despite rising Covid cases

Beer lovers and fitness fanatics braved sleet and snow to return to restaurants and gyms Tuesday as the small German state of Saarland began a controversial easing of coronavirus restrictions.

'Taste of freedom': German state begins reopening public life despite rising Covid cases
People eating outside in Saarbrücken on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

In a move criticised by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the region on the French and Luxembourg frontiers became the first of Germany’s 16 states to loosen its partial lockdown, allowing those with an up-to-date negative test to return to day-to-day activities.

“It’s the first day we can taste freedom again,” 27-year-old Jonas told AFP, grinning from ear to ear as he sipped a beer on a restaurant terrace in the state capital Saarbruecken.

Even amid a snow shower, he and his friend Frank, 35, were determined to enjoy their newfound liberty.

“We were the first ones at the test centre this morning,” said Jonas.

As well as outdoor dining, concert halls, gyms and theatres have also reopened in Saarland, while gatherings of up to 10 people in public are now allowed.

The disputed move comes as Germany struggles with a third wave of the pandemic amid rising infection rates and a sluggish vaccination campaign.

In a recent interview, Merkel said it was “not the right time” for Saarland to ease measures, and even in Saarbrücken, some business owners remained sceptical.

People in a bar in Saarbrücken on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

Across the square from Jonas and Frank, a restaurant named “Die Kartoffel” (“The Potato”) is one of many where the terrace chairs remain stacked on top of each other.

“How can I tell if every customer has really had a recent test or not?” said owner Mirsad Purzic, who has decided not to reopen for sitting customers.

Most of the new freedoms depend on a negative test result from the previous 24 hours, as well as continued mask use and contact tracing.

Test centres are stepping up operations, while restrictions could be tightened again if infection rates rise.

Gym manager Aron Wilke admitted his fitness studio “Day Night Sports” may soon have to close its doors again as case numbers increase.

For the time being, he said, “people are just happy to be able to work out again”.

READ ALSO: Could a ‘bridge lockdown’ be the answer to Germany’s spiralling Covid cases?

Though it is still faring better than most other German regions, numbers have been rising in the small state, which borders the hard-hit French region of Moselle.

 ‘Milder measures’

Though it is still faring better than most other German regions, infection rates have been rising in Saarland, which borders the hard-hit French region of Moselle.

Yet despite widespread criticism, the regional government has defended its alternative model.

“We are aiming to fight the pandemic just as effectively with milder measures as we can with a full lockdown,” state premier Tobias Hans told Bild newspaper on Tuesday, saying the testing scheme would be decisive.

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

Yet the model is still in stark contrast with the rest of the country. Merkel and the 16 state leaders agreed last month to prolong existing measures deep into April, and could discuss further restrictions at their next round of talks next Monday.

Under Germany’s federal system, regional states have significant decision-making powers and can stray from the government line.

But most regions are currently looking to tighten rather than loosen their lockdowns.

In Berlin, new rules in force from Tuesday include further restrictions on private gatherings and an effective ban on home visits after 9pm.

However, the city has so far refused to stick to put on the ’emergency brake’ rule agreed by states and the government at the last meeting, which sees businesses close again when numbers go up.

Germany recorded almost 7,000 new infections nationwide and a seven-day incidence rate of 123 on Tuesday, though the Robert Koch Institute health agency warned the real number could be higher as not all local authorities reported figures over the four-day Easter weekend.

READ ALSO: What is Berlin’s new compulsory testing requirement for hairdressers and shops?

By Marie JULIEN with Kit HOLDEN in Berlin

Member comments

  1. Honestly, this approach is really callous. When cases are growing up, they are opening up everything in the pretext of freedom. Since the beginning of the Pandemic, Germany has been one of the few countries which never had a real lockdown, even if it was called as such. For all the different research ongoing about whether Lockdowns are effective at all in the first place, countries like China, Australia & Newzealand have very efficiently used the lockdown mechanism to curtail the virus completely. What Germany needs is really a hard lockdown combined with a significant increase in the daily vaccination rate. Merkel to me has been propagating this for long and the states have too often ignored the warning signs leading us to where we are today.

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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.