German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced plans Wednesday to slowly ease social-distancing rules put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Changes will begin on Monday.
Merkel’s announcement comes nearly four weeks after Germany instituted some of the world’s strictest restrictions, banning gatherings of more than two people, limiting restaurants to delivery and takeout, and closing many in-person shops. Crucially in a country that, like the U.S., has a strong federal system, Merkel worked closely with the governors of Germany’s 16 states to implement these restrictions.
And they seem to be working. Despite having the third-most cases in Europe, Germany has seen relatively few COVID-19 deaths. The 3,867 confirmed deaths are well behind those in Spain, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom, despite Germany’s larger population. Some of that success has been attributed to citizens’ dutifully following social-distancing rules along with a robust testing program and a public health-care system that was up to the challenge of a global pandemic.
On Wednesday, Merkel said Germany has achieved a “fragile interim success.” She added: “We have achieved something, something that by no means was a given at the start — namely that our doctors and carers, all those in the medical field, in the hospitals, were not overwhelmed.”
And so she said the country will begin lifting restrictions on movement next week, while cautioning that the virus is not going away anytime soon. Among the announcements Merkel made were that:
- On April 20, shops of up to 8,600 square feet can reopen if they have “plans to maintain hygiene,” Merkel said.
- Bookstores, bike shops, and car dealers, no matter their size, will also be allowed to open.
- Schools will remain closed until May 4, at which point they may reopen for students in their last year of primary or secondary school.
- Hair salons can also open on May 4.
- Bans on large public events, including soccer matches, will remain in place until August 31.
- Bars, restaurants, theaters, and religious services will remain indefinitely closed.
- Germans are now encouraged, but not required, to wear masks in public.
- Bans on public gatherings of more than two people will remain in place.
Leaders will convene on April 30 to lay out the path forward from May 4.
German officials are hoping to use a handful of approaches to keep the virus at bay as restrictions loosen. The country is already testing 100,000 people a day for the virus and carrying out an antibody-testing effort. Soon, the government will introduce a contact-tracing app to help identify people who’ve come in contact with someone who has COVID-19.
Still, Merkel warned Wednesday, Germans should not expect a quick resolution. “We need to understand that we need to live with this virus as long as there is no vaccine and no treatment,” she said.