Germany hands responsibility for easing virus restrictions to states

Germany’s 16 federal states will assume responsibility for easing coronavirus restrictions, as long as they swiftly respond to new rises in infections, sources tell dpa, after a conference call between regional leaders and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

This essentially spells an end to Merkel’s efforts to coordinate a nationwide response to the pandemic, after several states inched out of lockdown without her blessing to varying degrees in recent weeks.

The regional variations are made possible by Germany’s federal division of powers, which has become the source of much debate during the current crisis.

Under the agreement made during Wednesday’s phone call, regional leaders haven’t quite been given free reign.

Sources said state governments have agreed to limit their actions based on new infections, meaning that if a district or city records more than 50 new cases per 100,000 residents during a seven-day period, the region must reintroduce tougher measures.

Other government guidelines discussed on Wednesday pave the way for a reopening of vasts parts of public life in Germany, two and a half weeks after the first round of easing.

Merkel and the premiers discussed efforts to bring all German school pupils back to class by the start of the summer holidays. Meanwhile, the government has given the go-ahead for all retailers to reopen and outdoor sports club to get back up and running.

It will be up to states to implement the changes, and some of them have already taken such steps, for example regarding schools.

On Tuesday, the country’s top disease official noted that the number of new cases reported daily across the nation now falls within a spectrum of between 700 and 1,600.

“This is very good news,” said Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute.

More than 164,800 cases of infection have been recorded in Germany so far, including more than 6,900 deaths, according to a dpa tally.

In the talks with Merkel, the cities of Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen – each with their own regional governments – had opposed the limit on new infections dictating the easing of restrictions.

Critics had argued that local authorities might test less out of fear that rising numbers would spell another lockdown.

Germany began lifting its anti-coronavirus measures from April 20 with the reopening of some shops, after sweeping restrictions were first introduced in mid-March. Hairdressers, museums, churches and zoos have followed.

Ahead of Wednesday’s phone conference, Bavaria in the south, and the coastal states of Lower Saxony and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the north, further ramped up the pressure by moving to relaunch domestic tourism.

The government’s position paper, seen by dpa ahead of the discussions, said that social-distancing measures in place across Germany requiring people to keep a distance of 1.5 metres in public should stay in place “for a long time.”

The current guidance is that a maximum of two people can meet outside at such a distance, excluding groups who live together.

However, that also appears to be shifting, with people allowed to meet in groups of up to five in the central state of Saxony-Anhalt, and visits to close family members now permitted in Bavaria.

All 16 states have adopted legislation making mouth-and-nose coverings mandatory in shops and on public transport.

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