'Stage zero': North Rhine-Westphalia to scrap all contact restrictions on Friday
Clubs, sporting events and festivals will be permitted sooner than planned in North Rhine-Westphalia, thanks to many regions of the populous state seeing consistently low Covid infection rates.
From Friday, July 9th, people in most regions of North Rhine-Westphalia will no longer face any contact restrictions and can enjoy major events like street festivals and sports tournaments with up to 25,000 attendees, state health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) confirmed on Wednesday.
In addition, keeping the recommended 1.5m distance from one another when meeting friends in open-air spaces will become "a recommendation" rather than an obligation.
At big private events, masks and social distancing are now no longer required, but "recommended" - though attendees will have to show a negative test or proof of vaccination/recovery.
However, masks will still have to be worn on public transport and in shops, taxis, schools and doctors' surgeries, Laumann said.
People who work in close contact with customers, such as hairdressers or waiters, will also have to continue to wear a mask, or present a negative test ahead of their shift.
In addition, festivals - including town and village fests, as well as traditional shooting festivals, will be permitted if both the national incidence and incidence in the municipality remains below 10.
'A return to normality'
The measures are being implemented as the final phase in a four-step plan for the re-opening public life.
As infection rates fell below 100 - the threshold for the 'emergency break' - the state has been counting down from three to zero as it relaxes its rules.
Now, the last phase is coming into force sooner than expected in light of the low Covid-19 infection rates in several parts of the state.
This phase - termed 'Opening Stage Zero' - will automatically apply to all regions of the state that have had a 7-day incidence of less than 10 new infections per 100,000 people.
The means that cities like Duisburg, Essen, Bonn, Paderborn, Münster, Dortmund and Bielefeld will all have their restrictions relaxed from Friday.
However, Cologne and Dusseldorf - where the 7-day incidence remains above 10 but below 35 - will remain in 'Opening Stage 1', where tighter restrictions are required.
“The new Corona Protection Ordinance takes into account the sustained positive developments in all relevant pandemic figures in recent weeks. For many areas of life, it means the return to normality," said Laumann.
"However, we open with a sense of proportion and have set up a safety net to which we will fall back on in the event of an increasing incidence. In this way we can react quickly to another increase in the number of infections."
Lauterbach: 'The timing surprised me'
Not everyone was pleased to hear about the eased restrictions, however.
Shortly after the liberalised rules were announced, Social Democratic Party politician and high profile health expert Karl Lauterbach voiced criticisms of the new freedoms, saying he believed re-opening public life at this stage was premature.
"We are in a phase in which the number of cases is rising again and vaccination progress is slowing," he told regional radio station WRD 2. "The timing of the easing surprised me, I would have found a later point in time."
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On the national level, the 7-day incidence has crept up slightly over two days, rising from 4.9 on Tuesday to 5.2 on Thursday.
Experts are concerned this could be signs of a stagnating or upward trend.