Germany’s Reopening Offers Hope for a Semblance of Normal Life
BERLIN — Germany was a leader in the West in taking on the coronavirus pandemic, and then a leader in the calibrated restarting of public life. On Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel had a hopeful message for the nation: The experiment was working.
The infection numbers, Ms. Merkel announced, were not just stable but lower than those reported two weeks ago. “We have reached the goal of slowing the spread of the virus, of protecting our health care system from being overwhelmed,” the chancellor said at a news conference.
Germany, she said, was now in a position to reopen most aspects of its economy and society. “We can afford a little audacity,” Ms. Merkel said.
It was good news not only for Germany, but countries eager for a sign that life can continue with the virus. Coming on a day when the European Union announced that the economies sharing the euro would face a deep recession this year, it also raised hopes that success in Germany might help blunt the downturn.
But it was also a stark reminder of the differences in other Western countries.
In the United States, some states have tried restarting but faced chaos and disputes with Washington, while cases and deaths are still rising.
Germany shut down early and has been systematically testing its way back to some semblance of normality. That is not to say that life with the virus will look anything like before.
Face masks, already mandatory in shops and public transport across Germany, are fast becoming the new normal, seen everywhere from street protests to shop-window mannequins.
Socializing, even at restaurants and bars now allowed to reopen, will be limited to two households, six feet apart.
But with those limitations in place, Ms. Merkel on Wednesday restored many freedoms shelved for the best part of two months.
All shops will be allowed to reopen. Restaurants and hotels can resume in time for two long holiday weekends at the end of May.
All school children will see a classroom again before the summer holidays. Day care centers will start taking children next week, focusing on families most in need. Residents in nursing and care homes can receive visits from one person.
And crucially in this nation of soccer fans: The Bundesliga, Germany’s professional league, will play again — albeit in empty stadiums.
Ms. Merkel struck a characteristically sober tone on Wednesday, warning that the freedoms could be quickly squandered by irresponsible behavior.
“We can say today that the first phase of the pandemic is behind us,” the chancellor said. “But we have to be aware that we are still in the beginning of the pandemic and that we will have to deal with this virus for a long time.”
Details of how and when to lift individual restrictions on everything from cinemas and tattoo parlors to brothels is now up to the governors of Germany’s 16 states.
Whether the chancellor can maintain the political climate of unity that did much to underpin the trust citizens have in the government’s handling of the pandemic remains uncertain.
“The whole federal republic,” Ms. Merkel stressed on Wednesday, after meeting with state governors over video conference, “is built on trust.”
There were some signs this week that the unity was fraying, with several governors rushing to stake out measures particularly important to their regions before that meeting.
The coastal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, heavily dependent on tourism and with one of the lowest infection levels, announced Tuesday that restaurants would be allowed to open from Wednesday, followed by hotels on May 25.
Bavaria, with a higher case density, said on Tuesday that beer gardens and restaurants with terraces would resume by May 18 but hotels would remain closed until month’s end.
Days earlier, the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt formally increased the number of people from different households allowed to gather in public from two to five.
Some welcomed the return of a more vibrant political debate, arguing that not just the economy but democracy, too, needed reviving after fundamental freedoms had been curtailed. As the crisis mode morphed into longer-term pandemic management, a one-size-fits all response was no longer suitable.
Ms. Merkel acknowledged that different regions in Germany had varying infection levels and should tailor their responses.
But she also announced an “emergency mechanism” that requires any region where new daily infections exceed 50 per 100,000 inhabitants for seven days to reinstate restrictions until that number falls below 50 for seven days.
“If locally something happens, we won’t wait until it has spread through the whole republic but we act locally,” she said.
Germany conducts about 142,000 coronavirus tests a day, and has begun several random antibody tests nationwide. New daily infections have been steadily falling, dropping below 1,000 last week for the first time in more than six weeks.
Pending the introduction of a Europe-wide tracing app, a project troubled by delays and disagreements, hundreds of newly trained health officers are working the phones to trace and inform anyone who may have come into contact with a newly infected person in order to halt the chain of infection.
The reproduction factor, a variable that measures how many people are infected by each new case, has hovered around 0.7, meaning that three newly infected people infect fewer than two.
Ms. Merkel — whose video explanation two weeks ago of why this variable was crucial in monitoring the pandemic went viral — has long said that a value below 1 meant the health care system can cope.
Four in five of Germany’s 164,807 known cases of infection have recovered and less than 7,000 people have died, a far lower death toll than in many neighbors, according to the country’s version of the Centers for Disease Control, the Robert Koch Institute.
“Together we have won a great success,” Lothar Wieler, the institute’s president, said this week. “If we defend it well, then the numbers will stay low.”
“Keeping your distance is certainly the new everyday reality,” he added.
Germans have grown accustomed to keeping six feet apart in public. As the country opens up, strict social distancing rules will remain in force.
Schools are scrambling to halve class sizes, stagger the start and end of classes, and enforce rigorous hygiene rules. Many shops have put disinfectant at the door, plexiglass at the cashier and floor markings to control customer queues.
One area with no reopening in sight for now is large public event space. Concerts, spectator sporting events and festivals are banned until at least Aug. 31.
Even Germany risks a second wave of infections, experts warn. The virus has a two-week incubation period and can be transmitted by asymptomatic people, making monitoring difficult.
“When you loosen measures, the problem is that you only see the effect in two weeks,” said Thomas Hotz, a mathematician who has been modeling the reproduction number of the virus. “And when you do it too quickly then you could see the virus reproducing too quickly.”
“Our advantage in Germany is that we managed to depress our infection numbers so much that we have a lot of spare capacity in hospitals,” he continued.
Unlike the United States, he said, “We can afford to experiment.”