German health experts give green light to end of masks, but only outside

In recent days, several experts have come out in favour of dispensing with masks in the open air - but most say it is still too early to remove them indoors.

German health experts give green light to end of masks, but only outside
A sign in Emden, Lower Saxony, reminds walkers to wear masks. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

As scorching temperatures hit Germany this week, and people head out to parks and beer gardens, the verdict from the experts is clear: with infection rates falling, there should be no issue with dispensing with mask-wearing in open spaces. 

In an interview with the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland, Gernot Marx, the President of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Intensive Care Emergency Medicine (DIVI), said that people should be allowed to enjoy a little bit more normality when socialising outdoors this summer.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister suggests gradual end to compulsory face masks

“Generally speaking, there’s no reason not to,” he said. “We spend a lot of time outdoors in summer, and the infection rates continue to fall. And the most important thing: more and more people have had either one or two vaccine shots.”

While no environment can be classed as zero-risk, highly ventilated or outdoor areas are generally seen as safer because the aerosol particles that can transmit the Covid-19 virus are more widely dispersed in the air. 

“Outside, where you can have a lot of distance between many people over a large area and the aerosols don’t collect in a single space, you can definitely take off the mask and regain a bit of normality,” added Marx. 

Virologist Melanie Brinkmann, who has advised the government throughout the Covid-19 crisis, and Peter Walger, an expert in infectious diseases, also agreed with Marx’s assessment.

“Since the spread of pathogens via aerosols is barely an issue outdoors, we could dispense with masks outside,” Brinkmann told the Braunschweiger Zeitung.

However, Marx believes people should still consider wearing masks in outdoor situations where they may be in closer contact with others, such as at bus stops or in queues. 

Too soon to remove masks indoors

While virologists and other health experts are happy to see masks done away with outdoors, many believe it is far too soon to get rid of them in indoor areas, where the chance of transmission is significantly higher.

“When we’re at a point where we’ve got a 70 percent vaccination rate and the incidence remains at a low level, then we can start having that discussion,” said Marx.

As of Tuesday, 26.8 percent of the German population had been fully vaccinated, while around 48 percent had had at least one dose of vaccine. While the vaccination drive has been picking up pace in recent months, the country is unlikely to reach the 70 percent mark for a number of months. 

READ ALSO: Major milestone: more than 40 million Germans vaccinated against Covid

In some states, as infection rates drop below a critical point, schools are now allowed to remove the the obligation to wear masks.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, the requirement to wear masks indoors in schools was dropped after the seven-day incidence per 100,000 residents dropped below 35. 

“It’s a bit too early,” said Brinkmann, adding that many pupils and teachers aren’t yet vaccinated and that rapid tests aren’t entirely reliable. “The summer holidays are coming soon – couldn’t we have waited another few weeks?” 

Despite the warnings from the experts, some politicians – particularly from the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) – continue to call for the mask-wearing requirement to be lifted both outdoors and indoors.

Defending the mask rules on Twitter, Social Democratic Party (SDP) politician and health expert Karl Lauterbach said it was still far too early to dispense with indoor masks.

“A complete waiver of the mask requirement shortly before the vaccination of millions is only one thing: fighting an election campaign with the health of the citizens,” he wrote.

“Of course, the mask requirement can be lifted almost everywhere outside. There is no super spreading outside. But unfortunately inside [it has to stay].”

Over the weekend, Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) called for states to reassess whether their mask-wearing rules were still proportionate to the risk of infection, particularly outdoors.

In some states, residents must still wear masks on busy squares, shopping streets, and playgrounds.

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Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

German health ministers say that tougher Covid restrictions should come back into force if a serious wave emerges in autumn.

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Following a video meeting on Monday, the health ministers of Germany’s 16 states said tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

“The corona pandemic is not over yet – we must not be deceived by the current declining incidences,” said Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister Petra Grimm-Benne, of the Social Democrats, who currently chairs the Conference of Health Ministers (GMK).

According to the GMK, new virus variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter. Over the weekend, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also warned that the more dangerous Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the corona pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Grimm-Benne said.

Preparations should also include an amendment of the Infection Protection Act, ministers urged. They want to see the states given powers to react to the infection situation in autumn and winter. They called on the government to initiate the legislative process in a timely manner, and get the states actively involved.

The current Infection Protection Act expires on September 23rd this year. Germany has loosened much of its Covid restrictions in the last months, however, face masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as on planes. 

READ ALSO: Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

The health ministers said that from autumn onwards, it should be possible for states to make masks compulsory indoors if the regional infection situation calls for it. Previously, wearing a Covid mask was obligatory in Germany when shopping and in restaurants and bars when not sitting at a table. 

Furthermore, the so-called 3G rule for accessing some venues and facilities – where people have to present proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test – should be implemented again if needed, as well as other infection protection rules, the ministers said. 

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek, of the CSU, welcomed the ministers’ unanimous call for a revision of the Infection Protection Act. “The states must be able to take all necessary infection protection measures quickly, effectively, and with legal certainty,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) warned that no one should “lull themselves into a false sense of security”.

“We must now prepare for the colder season and use the time to be able to answer important questions about the immunity of the population or the mechanisms of infection chains,” he said.

On Tuesday, Germany reported 86,253 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 215 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence stood at 437.6 infections per 100,000 people. However, experts believe there could be twice as many infections because lots of cases go unreported. 

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now