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Merkel cautiously optimistic, announces lockdown rollback

May 6, 2020

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.

People in Dortmund, under lockdown
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Thissen

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."

What's the reproduction number R?

Read more: Coronavirus in Germany: 100 days later

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:

  • All shops may reopen as long as the rules about wearing protective masks and keeping customers at a 1.5-meter distance from one another is maintained.
  • Germany's soccer league, the Bundesliga, will be allowed to resume games in the second half of May, as long as games are played behind closed doors. The decision now passes to the German Football League (DFL) as to when to restart play.
  • Schools will reopen in phases, though most universities will continue with distance learning.
  • In most states, religious services will resume.
  • Outdoor protests may resume, though in most states only if social distancing is observed and only if the number of participants is fewer than 50.
  • Seniors in care homes in some states will be allowed to receive visitors provided there is no active COVID-19 case in the facility, and in some cases, only if the visitors are older than 16.
  • People may meet with members of one other household in public, but only if they keep a 1.5-meter distance from one another.
  • Outdoor sports for children and non-professional leagues would also be allowed to take place.

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.

Read more: Merkel warns against rushing to loosen coronavirus restrictions

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."

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Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.