COVID-19: Merkel anxious as Germany begins opening up

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Some small shops in Germany reopened on Monday as the country took a cautious step toward returning to normal, though Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a stark warning against complacency in the face of the pandemic.

From florists to fashion stores, the majority of shops smaller than 800 square metres (8,600 square feet) were allowed to welcome customers again in much of Germany, in a first wave of scaling back lockdown measures introduced last month.

Merkel and regional state premiers announced the decision to reopen last week — but were careful to cast it as a cautious first step.

The government is facing increasing pressure to ease restrictions, especially from industries eager to get business back on track.

But Merkel said Monday she was “greatly concerned” the public could let its guard down too fast, speaking in a telephone conference with leaders from her centre-right CDU party.

She urged the public to maintain social distancing measures, such as keeping 1.5 metres (five feet) apart and avoiding gatherings of more than two people, voicing her “scepticism” and “huge concern” over the population’s discipline.

Germany has been largely spared the worst of the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated some of its European neighbours, with deaths well below hard-hit Italy, Spain and France.

It currently has 141,672 confirmed coronavirus cases and 4,404 deaths, among the lowest fatality rate in Europe due in part to widespread testing and intensive care capacity.

Widespread lockdown measures were rolled out last month in line with many of its neighbours, restricting non-essential outings and closing most shops except for supermarkets and pharmacies.

As its closely watched person-to-person infection rate fell below one last week — meaning each infected person was contaminating less than one person, down from five previously — Merkel and state leaders decided to ease the lockdown.

But each of Germany’s 16 states is taking action at a slightly different pace.

In eastern Saxony state, pupils taking final examinations began streaming back to classrooms, two weeks ahead of their peers in other states, where school gates will reopen only from May 4.

Masks have however been required on public transport and in shops in the eastern state.

In the Saxon city of Leipzig, people waiting to get on trams and buses had their faces covered.

Though not yet obligatory, the government “strongly advises” wearing a mask in public.

Bavaria on Monday said that it was joining Saxony in requiring face coverings.

Manuela Fischer, opening up her clothing store in Leipzig, said she was “incredibly happy” to be welcoming shoppers again.

In some states such as the capital Berlin, meanwhile, it would take a few more days before shops reopen.

Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn declared the virus “under control” last week after the infection rate stabilised.

Yet Merkel, who was herself quarantined for two weeks this month before testing negative for the virus, has warned that Germany’s success remains “fragile”.

Some of her conservative party colleagues echoed her caution.

“We will not be able to go back to our normal lives for a long time,” said Armin Laschet, the state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, the country’s most populous region.

In an interview with Der Spiegel weekly, Laschet warned that some coronavirus restrictions could last until 2021.

Cultural venues, bars, leisure centres and beauty salons will remain closed for the time being, and large-scale public events such as concerts and football matches have been banned until August 31.

The relaxations to existing shutdown have not been welcomed by everyone.

With larger shops unable to open, the German Trade Association warned Friday of a possible “distortion of competition”.

Yet Economy Minister Peter Altmaier defended the 800-square-metre limit, saying that “the belt can only be loosened bit by bit”.

Germany hopes to combine the lifting of restrictions with even more efficient tracing of the the COVID-19 outbreak and the rollout of protective gear.

The country of 82 million hopes to ramp up testing — it has already tested around two million people — and aims to produce around 50 million protective masks per week from August.

(AFP)

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