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What are Germany’s new Covid mask rules?

Germany is on the cusp of an overhaul of its mask-wearing rules, with several shops and businesses indicating that they're happy for customers to leave their masks at home. Here are the places you will - and won't - need to cover your mouth and nose in future.

Berlin bar Covid mask
A mask lies on a table in a bar in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

On April 2nd, the current set of Covid protection measures will expire, leaving only a handful of restrictions in place.

One of the major changes – along with the end of 2G and 3G rules – will be the end of mask-wearing rules in shops and other businesses. 

In future, there will be no general obligation to cover your nose and mouth when entering supermarkets and other shops – but it’s possible that some retailers may decide to put their own mask-wearing rules in place. 

This is, at least, what Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) is hoping for.

Having drafted the new version of the Infection Protection Act along with Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP), Lauterbach is now calling on retail chains to take matters into their own hands and ask customers to wear masks even after the legal basis for this has changed.

He’ll be disappointed to find out that several major German retailers have already declared that they have no intention of keeping masks in place from April 2nd.

The places where you’ll be able to shop “ohne Maske” include:

  • Shopping centres run by ECE, including Berlin’s Gesundbrunnen, Hamlin’s Stadtgalerie and the Olympia shopping centre in Munich
  • MediaMarkt and Saturn
  • Thalia
  • Deichmann
  • Ikea
  • C&A
  • Douglas
  • Ernsting’s family
  • Gerry Weber
  • Woolworth
  • Aldi 
  • Edeka (from April 4th)

READ ALSO: OPINION: The worst of both worlds – Germany’s coronavirus policy pleases no-one

What about other shops?

As mentioned, the law is changing to end the general obligation to wear masks in retail outlets. Nevertheless, one or two shop owners may decide they want to keep this in place to protect their staff. However, this group will probably be in the minority.

Another thing to consider is that the new law contains a clause allowing certain regions to define themselves as “Covid hotspots” and keep some rules like masks in shops in place for a bit longer. 

The definition of a hotspot is a bit woolly at present, but the Infection Protection Act says it should be a region where hospitals are under severe pressure. So far, Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania and Hamburg have signalled that they’ll take advantage of this clause. 

Where else can people go without a mask?

Almost everywhere. Primarily, the new regulation is aimed solely at vulnerable groups, so you’ll still be expected to wear your mask on a visit to the GP or hospital and in nursing and care homes. In many other public venues, mask-wearing rules will end. 

In practice, that means that leisure venues like gyms, cinemas and museums will no longer require customers to wear masks. It also means that people will no longer have to put on their masks when entering and leaving bars, cafes and restaurants – or when heading to the toilets in these venues. 

Kino International Mask wearing

A sign in Kino International, Berlin, tells customers to wear a nose-and-mouth covering. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

The general mask-wearing obligation will also be dropped in the workplace – though employers will be required to come up with their own concept for keeping their staff healthy, which could include masks in some instances. If that’s the case, they will be expected to supply their employees with the masks they need.

Parents and children may also be relieved to find out that the mask-wearing rule will be dropped in schools and nurseries. 

READ ALSO: How Germany is preparing to end ‘working from home’ rule

What about on public transport?

This is one major exception to the rules. According to the latest version of the Infection Protection Act, people will still be expected to cover their nose and mouth on local trains, buses and trams. 

There were early rumours that the government was considering changing the rules on long-distance transport, but it looks like that has now been overturned, meaning passengers on long-distance buses and trains will also need to wear a mask. The same will apply on flights. 

What type of mask is required?

States may decide to write their own rules on this, and FFP2 masks have become pretty standard in Germany in any case.

However, there’s nothing concrete in the Infection Protection Act, so people who want to be more environmentally friendly may be able to switch back to the reusable cloth masks once again. 

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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