German Chancellor Angela Merkel said new measures would be introduced for cities with coronavirus caseloads defined by the government as high concentration.
For cities with more than 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over a seven-day period — a level already reached in Berlin, Frankfurt and several other cities — tighter restrictions should be implemented immediately. However, the plan left quite what measures should be taken open to interpretation, instead listing possibilities. These included stricter rules on wearing masks and social distancing, as well as potentially introducing curfews and restrictions on the sale of alcohol in the hospitality sector, if local authorities deem it wise. Tougher limits on public and private gatherings should also be considered, they agreed.
The deal struck between municipalities and the federal government warned that if local measures did not bring infection numbers within check within 10 days, "more targeted restrictive measures to further reduce public contact will be unavoidable." But again, it did not specify what those steps might be.
Merkel said that she was aware that renewed restrictions "will hurt," particularly for the struggling gastronomy sector. However, she warned that the caseload could accelerate further if authorities were no longer able to keep up with tracking chains of infection.
"As soon as this happens, the virus spreads in an uncontrolled way and uncontrollably," Merkel said at a Berlin press conference.
The chancellor pointed to the reintroduction of restrictions in some cities, including Berlin, and praised Munich for having already proved that outbreaks can be brought under control with mask rules and social distancing rules.
"The infection numbers might be rising, but we are anything but powerless," she said.
Merkel urges mayors to help tackle virus
Merkel's comments come after she met 11 mayors from Germany's major cities on Friday. They agreed local authorities would seek help from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases and the military if case numbers rise to 35 per 100,000 residents within a week.
Germany has been widely praised for its handling of the pandemic so far. The country has seen 9,589 COVID-19 deaths and 314,660 infections. The county's rate of 11.55 deaths per 100,000 people is considerably lower than the United States (64.74), Britain (64.08), and that of many EU nations.
But German officials warned more needed to be done to stave off the prospect of a second wave. The Robert Koch Institute said there had been 4,516 new cases of COVID-19 reported on Thursday. RKI scientists said several German cities had crept close to the critical warning level of 50 new infections per 100,000 residents. Berlin's figure is 51, while Cologne's number stands at 49.8.
Berlin's mayor says booze restrictions 'urgently needed'
Berlin has said that it will implement restrictions in the city. Starting Saturday, the German capital will force all bars and restaurants to close completely at 11 p.m. local time, and convenience stores to stop selling alcohol at that time as well. The stores can resume selling alcohol at 6 a.m..
Groups that meet outdoors at night will be limited to five people or two households. The measures are expected to stay in place through the end of the month.
In an interview with DW, Berlin mayor Michael Müller said the behavior of young people during the pandemic meant that new measures were "urgently needed."
Müller said, "I think we now have a rule that allows us to intervene very quickly, because we clearly say that from 11 p.m. on, these places must be closed."
Several Berlin restaurateurs have launched an injunction against the restrictions in a Berlin court, calling the measures disproportionate. An excerpt from the appeal said the restrictions would have an unintended effect of forcing young people to meet in other places where no hygiene concepts apply. Given that it was filed on a Friday afternoon, a decision is not likely until next week.
What price another lockdown?
Economic projections released by Germany's Finance Ministry last month indicated that there are no plans for a wide-ranging shutdown of the economy.
Business leaders have cautioned against such measures, suggesting it could spark a wave of bankruptcies and further hamper the country's growth prospects.
jf,kbd/msh (AP, dpa, Reuters)