September 20, 2020

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Snubbing Merkel pleas, German states further ease virus curbs

Germany is accelerating its return to normality from a crippling lockdown, with regional leaders pushing back against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pleas for prudence in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

On the eve of a key meeting between Merkel and premiers of Germany’s 16 states to debate a new round of easing of stay-at-home measures, the country’s biggest state pre-empted talks by saying it would reopen its restaurants and hotels this month.

Under the plan to progressively restart the gastronomy and hospitality sectors, Bavaria said restaurants would first be allowed to offer outdoor dining from May 18, before extending the opening to indoor dining a week later.

Hotels would also be allowed to welcome guests again from May 30, in time for the Pentecost holiday long weekend.

“The time has come for a cautious reopening,” said Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder, pointing to the “success” in containing the spread of the virus.

Pressure has been growing on Merkel to ease curbs on public life that have plunged the economy into a deep recession.

While shops have reopened over the last weeks, critics have complained that the pace of easing was too slow, with many sectors still held back.

As regions increasingly take action going beyond those agreed in previous talks between the federal government and state leaders, Merkel has furiously complained that some were pushing ahead “too aggressively”.

– Economic casualties –

But industries have warned that the economic toll of the lockdown was already devastatingly high with output expected to shrink by 6.3 percent for the full year.

As infection numbers fall, Merkel’s critics argue that it is time to move faster to ward off further economic casualties.

Eastern states in particular, where contagion rates have been far below those in the west, have picked up the pace in exiting the shutdown.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania will allow restaurants to reopen from Saturday and hotels to follow from May 18.

The state on the Baltic Sea coast is anxious to welcome guests again, particularly as summer nears — an economic lifeline for the region’s hospitality sector.

Another eastern state, Saxony-Anhalt, has meanwhile eased restrictions on restricting gatherings in public to two people unless they are from the same household.

On Saturday, the regional government decided to allow up to five people to gather outside.

Pushing further with its relaxation plan, the state announced Tuesday it will also allow vacation homes to reopen for guests from May 15, while restaurants can offer indoor dining again from May 22.

Germany, which has recorded 163,860 cases of confirmed infections, including 6,831 deaths, has been hailed for its success so far in preventing its health services from being overwhelmed.

Authorities began relaxing restrictions after the infection rate fell under 1.0 — meaning each person is infecting less than one other — as opposed to each infecting up to five or six people in March.

Despite the early success, the disease control agency Robert Koch Institute has repeatedly warned of possible second or even third waves of the virus hitting the country.

With resistance growing against keeping the population at home, Merkel is expected to call on regional leaders to agree on a threshold that would trigger a new lockdown if necessary, according to the Bild daily.

Berlin (AFP)