As Angela Merkel enters her final year in office, the German chancellor faces one of her most difficult challenges amid the rise of coronavirus infections. Germany was rightfully praised for how it managed the pandemic early on, recording a steep drop in infections after the initial outbreak in March. However, for the past two months, infections have been increasing again — much to the concern of Merkel and political leaders across the country who were keen to ease restrictions on businesses and citizens.
During an internal party meeting on Monday, Merkel told fellow Christian Democrats that Germany could have 19,200 new coronavirus cases a day by Christmas if her government and the 16 state governments failed to address local outbreaks and called for more discipline among citizens. With coronavirus appearing to be initially under control, many Germans seemed less and less motivated to wear protective masks and follow hygiene recommendations. But Merkel’s message was clear: this needs to change.
Reintroducing restrictions after lifting most of them during the summer always seemed like a political nightmare for Germany’s state governments, but that is exactly what Merkel and the state leaders have decided to do. After the heads of the federal states met with Merkel on Tuesday, they announced several new restrictions, mostly concerning parties and other public events that have been identified as so-called ‘super spreaders’ of the virus.
Events in public buildings can no longer host more than 50 people if the Landkreis (regional administrative district) has recorded more than 35 new coronavirus infections per 100,000 residents within the previous seven days. The number drops down to 25 guests if the infection rate is above 50 cases per 100,000 residents. Private events will not be regulated, but the governments advise organizers to keep the number of guests below 25 when the infection rate is above 35 new cases per 100,000 residents and below 10 when the rate is above 50. Merkel initially suggested imposing concrete restrictions on private parties but two state governments strongly resisted her idea.
If Germans give false information in restaurants and bars where they are asked to leave their private contact details in case someone sitting nearby is tested positive in the aftermath, they will have to pay fines ranging from €50 up to €1,000 (from $59 up to $1,170) from now on. The first major of Hamburg, Peter Tschentscher, who, alongside Bavaria’s state premier Markus Söder, announced the results of Tuesday’s meeting to the public indicated that restaurant owners could also have to deal with stronger restrictions if they do not enforce physical distancing and do everything in their power to prevent guests from spreading the virus.
Will these measures be enough to bring Germany’s coronavirus outbreak under control? In the coming days and weeks, state governments will discuss further local restrictions, taking into consideration infection rates in their cities and rural areas. Since the meeting, the state of Berlin already announced that it would introduce an obligation to wear masks in office buildings that applies once a person leaves their desk. While the capital as a whole recorded below-average infection rates until recently, highly-populated areas such as the cultural hotspot Kreuzberg with hundreds of bars and restaurants have become risk zones in recent months. ‘The summer saw a lot of recklessness,’ Ramona Pop, Berlin’s senator for economic affairs, said on Tuesday. ‘But the numbers go up. The time of recklessness is over.’
Meanwhile, Merkel stuck to her typical moderate rhetoric. ‘We have learned a lot and came through the summer quite well,’ she said. While Germany’s chancellor is concerned about rising infection rates, she believes that a measured approach, meaning carefully targeted restrictions in the regions that are hit by the virus the hardest, could be more effective than a total shutdown. What Merkel wants to avoid at all costs is that she has to announce the closure of businesses and schools in her last year in office. While Germany has been praised for its coronavirus response, in many ways it now faces the same dilemmas as worse-performing countries.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.