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German leader declares "first phase" coronavirus victory and eases lockdown

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Volkswagen reopens headquarters in Germany 01:52

Berlin — Chancellor Angela Merkel says she's satisfied with the results of Germany's efforts to battle the coronavirus so far. "The very first phase of the pandemic is behind us," she said after a weekly conference call with state premiers on Wednesday.

Merkel said the goal of phase one, to "flatten the curve," had been achieved because citizens "lived their lives responsibly in times of the virus and accepted restrictions."

The declining COVID-19 infection rate in Germany suggests the gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions, which began two weeks ago and has ramped-up since, has not unleashed a significant new wave of disease.

"The virus is still in Germany"

In the meeting with the leaders of Germany's 16 states, Merkel and her federal partners agreed on further relaxations. But despite the declining infection rates across those regions, Germany's federal health agency, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) is wary about giving the impression of an "all clear."

"Of course the epidemic is not over. The virus is still in Germany," RKI Vice President Lars Schaade said Thursday. But he said it was time to move forward, continuing to aggressively detect new cases and control any virus clusters while slowly returning to normal life.

Virus Outbreak Germany Reopening Beer Gardens
Restaurant guests relax in the sun after the reopening of beer gardens in Weimar, central Germany, May 7, 2020. Jens Meyer/AP

The easing of restrictions always carries "a certain risk" and must be implemented cautiously, he said, but the data showed it was scientifically "legitimate" to continue doing so — and he accepted that it was also necessary for German society.

The RKI has warned that continuing observance of good hygiene and social distancing practices are vital to preventing a new surge in infections.

Easing the rules

The federal and state governments agreed to extend restrictions on close personal contact until June 5, so no big groups and no meeting with multiple people from different households at least until then. But, relatives from two different households are now allowed to meet.

All shops in Germany are now permitted by the federal government to reopen, but state administrations can still decide to keep them shut if they wish. All retail businesses must still take measures to ensure distancing and enhanced hygiene.  

Extensive restrictions on visits to clinics, nursing homes and facilities for the disabled are being relaxed nationwide. "The people there have a right to have us think of them," Merkel said. 

Virus Outbreak Germany
Nursing home residents, nurses and children let balloons fly during a service of the protestant church under the theme 'Glimmer of hope' in front of the nursing center Schanzehof in Tiefenort, central Germany, May 7, 2020. Jens Meyer/AP

The national government is also permitting all restaurants, bars and cafes to reopen from mid-May, including for dine-in service, provided they implement social distancing and hygiene measures. Again, state governments will have the final say, but many are eager to see these businesses reopen.

The Bundesliga, Germany's national professional soccer association, will be allowed to resume training in mid-May. Before they restart, team members must all be quarantined, but it may be for less than two weeks.

Recreational sports training outdoors will be allowed again, provided hygiene rules are observed. For example, participants must remain about 5 feet apart, and no physical contact is allowed. Additional hygiene and disinfection measures must be implemented, especially when sports equipment is shared. 

Leaving it to the states

Going forward, the federal government will largely leave the responsibility for further easing to the states, but it's imposing an upper limit on new infections: Any state that reports an increase in infections over a certain threshold will see harsher restrictions re-imposed by the federal authorities. 

State governments will decide how schools and daycare facilities can resume normal operation.

"We in Bavaria, for example, are introducing compulsory masks at school," said the state's Minister President Markus Söder. That rule doesn't apply in classrooms, but outside on school grounds.

The motto now is: "If something happens then we impose restrictions, but do not paralyze the entire country from the Baltic Sea to the Bavarian Alps," Minister President of North-Rhine Westphalia state Armin Laschet, who is also deputy chairman of Merkel's Christian Democrats party, said Thursday.

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