Germany extends lockdown until March 28, clear reopening steps in meantime
After almost ten hours, a decision has been reached: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of the federal states have agreed to extend the coronavirus lockdown until March 28. But some restrictions are also being eased - more quickly than expected.
What was decided at the coronavirus summit on March 3?
It took a long time, but Angela Merkel and the heads of the federal states have at last agreed to a five-step opening strategy for Germany, with a built-in emergency brake if infections start to spiral out of control. Some new relaxations will come as early as next Monday.
Merkel began Wednesday's press conference by once again thanking the people of Germany for their fortitude and patience. She said that the country had demonstrated its strength in the fight against the second wave of COVID-19. While the measures that have been in place since mid-December have succeeded in bringing down infection numbers, Merkel said that the example of other European countries showed that it would not do to ease too many restrictions too soon.
As expected, the decision has been made to extend Germany's coronavirus lockdown for another three weeks. But, Merkel insisted that we now have two powerful weapons that we did not have last spring: vaccines and tests. She said these would be used to make the gradual steps out of restrictions possible. And after much to-ing and fro-ing, the federal and state governments finally have a plan for what these steps will be.
Here's an overview of what was agreed to:
Lockdown extended until March 28
The federal and state governments have agreed to extend current lockdown measures - with some exceptions - until March 28.
This means bars and restaurants will remain closed for the time being. Medical masks will remain compulsory in shops and on public transport, and employers must continue to allow their employees to work from home (until April 30), wherever possible. Nonessential trips should still be avoided.
Contact restrictions loosened slightly
However, one major exception is that contact restrictions are being relaxed slightly. Up until now, private get-togethers were only permitted with the members of one household and one other person from a different household.
From Monday, March 8, this will be changed so that up to five people from a maximum of two households will be allowed to meet. Children up to the age of 14 do not count towards the maximum number of people allowed. Couples are to be considered single households, even if they do not live together.
And in areas where the seven-day incidence rate (the number of new coronavirus infections per 100.000 inhabitants within seven days) is stable below 35, even more social contacts will be allowed. Up to three households (a maximum of 10 people) will be allowed to meet, again not including children.
However, households are urged to keep "the number of households with which such gatherings occur as constant and small as possible" or to have "all participants self-test prior to the gathering," the final agreement reads.
5-step opening strategy in a nutshell
After that, things get a bit complicated. Here's a graphic explaining the next opening steps (more detail below):
Step 2: Book stores, flower shops and garden centres can reopen from March 8
Following on from the reopening of hairdressers and schools, the next step is that book shops, flower shops and garden centres will be allowed to reopen their doors nationwide (they have already in some federal states).
Hygiene measures must be put in place, and there will be a maximum of one customer per ten square meters (for the first 800 square metres of sales area) and one additional customer for every additional 20 square metres of sales area.
Close contact services (such as beauty salons) and flight and driving schools will also be allowed to reopen, under the proviso that customers present a negative coronavirus test.
Step 3: Further reopenings if incidence rate falls below 100 (no earlier than March 8)
If the seven-day incidence rate falls below 100, further reopenings will also be possible. This is much higher than the figure of 35 which was put forward at the last coronavirus summit, meaning that the rules could be relaxed much sooner in some areas.
In regions where the incidence value is between 50 and 100, a kind of compromise has been agreed upon: shopping will be allowed by prearranged appointment (so-called “Click & Meet”), with one customer per 40 square metres of floor space, and museums, galleries, zoos and botanical gardens will able to open to customers who have booked in advance. Non-contact sports are also allowed outside, but only involving up to two people.
If the incidence falls below 50, the requirements (e.g. for pre-booked appointments) can be weakened or even dropped.
Step 4: Outdoor catering, theatres, concerts, opera houses (no earlier than March 22)
According to the decision, more opening steps will follow only if the seven-day incidence rate remains stable or continues to fall for a further 14 days. No earlier than March 22, the following areas would also be allowed to reopen:
- Outdoor catering
- Concert & Opera houses
- Non-contact sports (indoors); contact sports (outdoors)
Once again, a distinction is made between a seven-day incidence rate of below 50 and an incidence rate of below 100. If the rate is below 50, the reopenings of the above facilities can proceed relatively freely.
If the incidence is above 50 but below 100, however, extra precautions would be in place. For instance, it would only be possible to visit outdoor restaurants by booking a table in advance and, if necessary, providing proof of a negative coronavirus test. The same would apply for concerts or opera houses, theatres and cinemas.
Step 5: Outdoor events from April 5 at the earliest
A fifth opening step has also been set in stone; it will go into effect 14 days after the previous opening step, and no sooner than April 5). If the seven-day incidence rate has fallen below 50, the following would be allowed to reopen:
- Outdoor events with up to 50 participants
- Indoor contact sports
If the incidence rate is between 50 and 100, shops would be allowed to reopen with one customer per 10 - 20 square metres of floor space. Contact sports outdoors and non-contact sports indoors would also be allowed to take place without the need for testing.
As yet, no firm reopening steps have been decided upon for the reopening of indoor restaurant areas, culture facilities, events, travel and hotels. This will be discussed at the next coronavirus summit.
A so-called “emergency brake” will also be put into effect. This means that if the seven-day incidence in any area rises above 100 on three consecutive days, the tougher measures that are currently in place will come back into force (i.e. private get-togethers will only be possible with one's own household and one other person).
Rapid testing strategy
The ministers also want to expand the use of rapid testing and home testing. Specifically, the following will be offered from March 8:
- People without coronavirus symptoms: At least one free rapid test per week, administered by a test centre or regular doctor. The cost will be covered by the federal government.
- Schools and childcare centres: All pupils and staff should receive at least one free rapid test per week.
- Companies: Are recommended to offer one free test per week to employees who are required to be present. This will be discussed at greater length on Friday.
Measures will also be put in place to help speed up Germany's sluggish vaccination rollout. Firstly, the ministers have decided to lengthen the gap between first and second jabs (i.e. up to a maximum of 12 weeks), to give as many people as possible their first vaccination.
In a big turnaround, Germany will now also recommend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine on individuals aged 65 and over. Merkel justified this on the basis that more evidence about the vaccine's effectiveness on older patients was now available.
From the end of March or early April, GPs and regular family doctors should also be able to vaccinate, to give the whole vaccination system more flexibility.
Next coronavirus summit on March 22
The next coronavirus summit has been scheduled for March 22, when Angela Merkel and the federal states will meet once again to discuss progress and plan next steps.