Germans return to pools and beer gardens as some Covid curbs are lifted

Many Germans were able to visit a beer garden, dine outdoors or go swimming for the first time in months on Friday as parts of the country began easing Covid-19 curbs.

Germans return to pools and beer gardens as some Covid curbs are lifted
A swimmer in Berlin on early Friday morning. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Paul Zinken

Germany has been in some form of virus shutdown since November and tentative reopenings in March were quickly quashed by national “emergency brake” measures to stop a spiralling third wave of the virus.

But with case numbers falling and the country ramping up its vaccination effort, many cities and regions were lifting restrictions over the Pentecost holiday weekend.

Berliner Sonja Gellfart was already in the pool at 7:30 am.

“It’s the feeling of freedom because one can get in here,” she told AFP, as other swimmers splashed past.

Elsewhere in Berlin, beer gardens and restaurants were getting ready to welcome guests outdoors.

READ ALSO: The rules in Germany on outdoor dining as bars and restaurants reopen

The city had already on Wednesday reopened cinemas, theatres and opera houses, as well as giving the green light to cultural events with up to 250 participants.

“We still have the pandemic, with much higher incidence rates than when the pools were allowed to reopen a year ago,” Kleinsorg said.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed that it will be a great summer, also in terms of the weather.”

Elsewhere in Berlin, beer gardens and restaurants were getting ready to welcome guests outdoors.

The city had already on Wednesday allowed open-air cinemas to restart, as well as for theatres and opera houses to hold performances outdoors with up to 250 participants.

Customers must provide either a negative test or proof they have been fully vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19.

“I think customers will get used to it and get tested more often,” said Jan, a waiter at the Zazza cafe in central Berlin.

Armed with a negative test result on his phone, customer David Gasarabo was happy to take a seat on the terrace and enjoy “the atmosphere of normality after all those months of standing with a coffee in my hand”.

Relaxations are also planned from Friday in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, as well as other states including Thuringia, Saxony and the city of Hamburg.

Bavaria has already opened outdoor dining and beer gardens, and on Friday will open hotels and guest houses in areas with low incidence rates.

To use the facilities, customers must provide either a negative test or proof they have been fully vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19.

Health Minister Jens Spahn on Friday said Germany had broken the third wave of infections but urged the public to remain careful.

“The pandemic is not over yet. Let’s enjoy the holidays, but let’s remain cautious,” he said, advising people to meet outdoors where possible and get tested regularly.

“Infection figures down, vaccination figures up — if we can manage this combination in the next few weeks, we can look forward to a good summer,” he said.

Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) health agency on Friday recorded 8,769 new cases of Covid-19 in the past 24 hours and 226 deaths, with a national incidence rate of 67.3 new infections per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

READ ALSO: ‘We’re on the right track’: What’s the current Covid situation around Germany?

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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