German Chancellor Merkel warned that while the coronavirus' "first phase is over…we still have a long fight ahead of us." Social distancing measures remain in place until June 5, but parts of the economy will reopen.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her much-anticipated press conference on Wednesday by thanking the country for observing social distancing rules to help drastically slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
"We have achieved the goal of slowing the spread of the virus…because our citizens have behaved responsibly and saved the lives of others."
Merkel welcomed the news that across Germany, hospitals were never overwhelmed, that the virus reproduction rate was now steady at less than one, and that daily new infections were under 1,000 cases. She said these factors made a loosening of lockdown restrictions possible.
However, she warned that "the very first phase of the pandemic is over, but we are still at the overall beginning of the pandemic, and we still have a long fight against the virus ahead of us."
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She also cautioned that should infection rates spread to more than 50 acute cases per 100,000 people in a given area, new lockdowns would be put in place.
While more sectors of the economy will be allowed to reopen, they will only be allowed to do so if hygiene and social distancing rules are enforced — this will continue until at least June 5.
The relaxed regulations include:
Thilo Brodtmann, executive director of the VDMA Association of Mechanical Engineering, which represents over 3000 German companies, told DW that he hoped Merkel's signaled an initial step back toward normality.
"We are of course happy that there is a gradual opening and we think that this is an important signal on this road to a kind of normality," Brodtmann said. "We all know that until a vaccine or something like that is available, the new normal situation and normal life will be one with a virus, but without increasing infections."
Brodtmann said it was important for young people that educational institutions reopen, but also for working parents.
Power handed down to individual state governments
The reopening of cinemas, theaters, restaurants, as well as day care centers and kindergartens remains unclear. The chancellor said that each state was reviewing rules for restarting these parts of the economy.
So far, only Bavaria has announced plans to reopen restaurants, under strict conditions, on May 18. The southwestern state is also the first to determine when hotels may welcome guests again, which will be on May 30. Some states have also announced their plans to reopen museums, zoos, and botanical gardens.
Following Merkel's announcement, much of the responsibility for determining the next stages of the lockdown will be handed down to the individual federal states rather than united under a strict national strategy.
The chancellor seemed confident that Germany’s 16 federal states were in good hands from this point onwards, saying that the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country’s disease control organization, was working closely with each state government.
Criticism over perceived special treatment
There have been complaints by some in the public and on social media that certain sectors, such as the Bundesliga and religious groups, are getting special treatment in being able to restart operations faster than, for example, universities and kindergartens, as parents continue to struggle with balancing childcare and working from home.
Karl Lauterbach, a member of Merkel’s junior coalition partners the Social Democrats (SPD), wrote on Twitter that the government was allowing a level of "recklessness in football" that was still prohibited in other sectors of the economy.
There has also been widespread anecdotal evidence that in re-opened shops and hair salons, customers and staff are not properly adhering to the mandatory wearing of face masks and maintaining a distance of 1.5 meters. Indeed, since many of the rules first came into place in March, there has been widespread criticism that it is nearly impossible to strictly and uniformly enforce them.
Chancellor Merkel, however, struck a more positive tone about her faith in Germany to stick to the rules, saying "our republic is built on trust…and if we don’t have trust, we might as well call it quits."