Germany extends its coronavirus suspension by three weeks until March 28, but eases some restrictions to allow non-essential stores and other businesses to reopen in areas with relatively low infection rates.
After about nine hours of talks, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governors of the country’s 16 states on Wednesday agreed on measures aimed at balancing concerns about the effects of more contagious coronavirus variants with a growing clamor to return to a more normal life.
The first movements have already been made: many undergraduates returned to school last week. And on Monday, the hairdressers opened after a break of 2 months. The current rules for suspension were set for Sunday.
On Wednesday, Merkel and the governors – who in the highly decentralized Germany have the power to impose and lift restrictions – drew up a step-by-step plan that would allow further restrictions to be eased.
“These should be steps towards opening but at the same time steps that do not make us back,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin. “There are many examples in Europe of a dramatic third wave.”
She promised that “the spring of 2021 will be different from the spring of a year ago.”
Regions where the degree of infection is relatively low, but not as low as previously thought, will be able to open non-essential shops, museums and other facilities on a limited basis.
Most stores have been closed nationwide since 16 December. Restaurants, bars, sports and leisure facilities have been closed since 2 November and hotels are only allowed for business travelers.
When they last held a conference on February 10, Merkel and the governors set a goal of 35 new cases each week per 100,000 inhabitants before reopening small shops, museums and other businesses. The goal is to enable reliable contact tracking.
But reaching that goal soon seemed increasingly unrealistic as cases of the more contagious variant first discovered in the UK increased, with overall infections creeping slightly higher. The number of cases per week, which peaked at almost 200 per 100,000 inhabitants just before Christmas, has remained above 60 in recent days.
Wednesday’s decision opened up the possibility of resuming more companies in various stages over the 35 target, although they included an “emergency brake” mechanism that would see the restrictions now in place on the infection level exceed the weekly infection level exceeding 100 per 100,000 inhabitants three days in row.
On Wednesday, the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s national disease control center, said that an analysis of almost 25,000 samples showed that the British variant accounted for about 46% of cases last week – up from 22% two weeks earlier.
Germany has seen the number of deaths from COVID-19 and people in intensive care decreased in recent weeks.
But it has struggled to increase its vaccination drive, which has received widespread criticism for being too slow, even as the availability of vaccines improves. German lawmakers have lifted plans for high fines for people who skip the vaccine queue.
As of Tuesday, 5.3% of the population had received a first dose of vaccine and 2.7% had received two doses.
The Centers for Disease Control said on Wednesday that 9,019 new cases of coronavirus had been reported in the past 24 hours, reaching a total of 2.46 million. There were another 418 deaths in the nation of 83 million, which increased Germany’s death toll to 70,881.