Will Germany get rid of masks in public transport?

One German state has announced it will not continue the mask requirement on buses and trains beyond the end of the year. But will other Bundesländer follow suit?

Will Germany get rid of masks in public transport?
Passengers wearing FFP2 masks board a tram in the city centre in Brandenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Monika Skolimowska

On long-distance trains in Germany, there is a nationwide obligation to wear an FFP2 mask. But, under the Infection Protection Act, it’s up to the individual states to decide whether passengers on local transport must wear a mask.

Currently, all 16 states have some form of mandatory mask-wearing in place on public transport, but this could soon change.

Following the announcement that he will not extend the mask requirement on local transport next year, Schleswig-Holstein’s State Premier Daniel Günther (CDU) said on Friday that he hopes other states will do the same.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What will the Covid situation look like in Germany this winter?

Günther spoke of “steps towards normality” and justified the action by saying that the situation in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s most northern state, was under control. 

The health policy spokesman for the FDP parliamentary group, Andrew Ullmann, is also in favour of less stringent mask-wearing rules, and told Die Welt: “We advocate a mask recommendation instead of a mask requirement.”

However, the health policy spokesman for the Greens in the Bundestag, Janosch Dahmen, opposes the idea of relaxing the mask requirement in public transport, telling the same publication: “There are no new, medically evident reasons why we should now deviate from the previously legally provided segregation and isolation obligations or the mask obligation in mass transit.”

On Friday, the states of Schleswig-Holstein, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Hesse, announced that they would get rid of the mandatory isolation rules for people infected with Covid.

READ ALSO: Four German states poised to end mandatory Covid isolation

Lower Saxony’s Minister President Stephan Weil, is also opting for a cautious approach for the coming winter.

The SPD politician told Die Welt newspaper: “Even if we all wish otherwise, the pandemic is not over. This is proven not least by the relatively high death toll that we continue to record.”

He pointed out that, in the last couple of years during the pandemic, the colder months have been particularly difficult in terms of rising Covid infection numbers. “Against this background, we will remain cautious in Lower Saxony,” he said.

On Monday, the nationwide seven-day incidence – the average daily number of newly detected Covid-19 cases over a 7-day period – was 216.7. This is a decrease of more than 50 since the previous week when this stood at 269.2.

As of Monday, the states with the highest seven-day incidences are Bremen with 329.8, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania with 307.5 and Lower Saxony with 302.

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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