‘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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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.