Germany now exempts people who have received both of their COVID jabs and those who have recovered from the illness from some restrictions. Many Berliners have been enjoying the sun, but few know about the exemptions.
Martina Czwielung and her mother Renata Czwielung, 84, gathered in Berlin's Mauerpark with friends on Sunday for a picnic to celebrate a particularly sunny Mother's Day. Martina is quick to explain that their group of four is from two households and isn't violating COVID restrictions. But she needn't have worried: Under the new measures put in place across Germany on Sunday, Martina's mother, the only vaccinated person in the group, is no longer counted in restrictions limiting the size of gatherings.
She had her second COVID shot more than 14 days ago, which means she can go to the hairdresser without having to take a test first. "She hasn't been to the hairdresser in months. It is difficult for her to sign up for a test appointment online so I hope she will be able to go now," Martina said.
Martina Czwielung (left) and her mother Renata Czwielung (right) celebrating Mother’s Day in Berlin’s Mauerpark — Renata is fully vaccinated
The change in regulations was approved by the Bundesrat, the upper house of Germany's parliament, on Thursday and follows a national decline in the number of COVID cases over the past two weeks. Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn supported the move, declaring last week that the third wave of the pandemic had been broken in Germany.
The measures appear to show the way forward for Germany, which has previously struggled to control the spread of the virus and has been in various forms of lockdown since November. Though the vaccinated and recovered are not required to show a negative test and will be exempt from curfew restrictions, they still have to wear masks and socially distance when necessary.
"I think it is fair that people who are vaccinated should receive more privileges. I have an appointment to be vaccinated in June, so it also gives me some hope," said Francesca after coming out of a COVID testing center in Berlin's Friedrichshain neighborhood. But she did not feel that the loosening of restrictions went far enough. "Fundamentally I believe everyone should have the same access everywhere and people should be able to go anywhere."
In recent parliamentary debates, the opposition Free Democratic Party (FDP) also criticized the new measures for not going far enough ― restrictions on hotels, restaurants and gyms, for instance, are to stay in place. For several months now, gyms in Germany have been completely closed, hotels have been closed to tourists, while restaurants have only been able to offer take-out.
Relatively few Germans will be able to enjoy the new loosening of restrictions. Only 9.1% of Germany's population has been fully vaccinated as of Friday, with vaccination appointments still restricted and difficult for many to obtain. Germany has rapidly sped up the process of vaccination in recent months but for many it is still too slow. That has led citizens of countries where vaccines are more available to go home to get vaccinated.
"I can get the vaccine in the US now. In Germany I don't know. I don't know anyone who has gotten one in Germany," said Kevin Voellmer, 29, who was leaving on Sunday to go back to the United States to be vaccinated. "Here all I can do is wait, while in the US things seem to have returned to normal. You can go inside restaurants. Even once I am vaccinated, I might not be able to do that here."
Others are concerned that the new measures may be too lenient. "I think it is right that people who are vaccinated receive privileges, but I am not sure having recovered from COVID gives you the same immunity as a vaccine," said Shubham Mittal.
Mittal contracted COVID in November but says he has still not regained all of his strength and struggles with fatigue. He also avoids groups as a result of his experience. And, because his illness was over six months ago, he is not exempt from restrictions. He is still waiting to be vaccinated.
In Berlin, a state law allowed the vaccinated and recovered to be treated the same as those with a negative test a week before the federal law took effect. But the owners of many businesses and their employees said they were not aware of the change, and have not been notified by the government when new rules are supposed to be enacted. Many complain that they are left to inform themselves about the rules as best they can through the news.
"My team has to learn how to read German vaccination passports and all the other documents that show someone has recovered from the coronavirus. I have people from New Zealand and England who don't know German, and they have to be trained in what to look for," said Tim Kreutzfeldt, owner of the Ponyclub hair salon. "It took three weeks to teach clients and my staff what needed to be done during the second lockdown and I expect that it will take about the same amount of time now."
Many people have found it difficult to keep up to date on the new regulations. "The hardest part has been trying to figure out all of these things," said Daniel Mesonero. "My parents are coming to see their grandchild and we don't know where we can go. An enclosed park doesn't require a test but the zoo does and I don't really see the difference."
The new rules also create challenges for the police, who are expected to enforce the existing rules but cannot easily tell who has been vaccinated or has recovered from COVID. Currently proving you are exempted from curfew requires you to carry your vaccine documents with you. "It will be damn well hard to check," Berlin Mayor Michael Müller told the Deutschlandfunk radio station on Friday. His solution: Quicker development of a digital European vaccination passport.