(BERLIN) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of Germany’s 16 states have decided to allow some stores to open as early as next week even as social distancing guidelines remain in effect.
In an address Wednesday evening, Merkel announced that the current restrictions on social distancing will stay in place until May 4. Currently, large groups are forbidden and residents are required to maintain a distance of five feet from each other.
Starting on Monday, shops with a sales area up to 800 square meters are allowed to reopen if they comply with relevant hygiene and distancing standards. When it comes to face masks, the chancellor said her government “strongly recommends” wearing them while using public transportation or shopping for groceries.
“What we have achieved is an interim success,” Merkel said. “We don’t want to wrongly hurry ahead.”
Some schools will gradually reopen on May 4 with priority given to graduating classes. These, too, will also be subject to contact and hygiene regulations and classes will be limited to smaller sizes.
“We need to understand that we will need to live with the virus as long as there is no medication or vaccine,” she said.
Events that draw crowds will be strictly prohibited until Aug. 31 and will be subject to crowd-size restrictions.
Germany has been praised for its handling of the coronavirus and low number of infections. As of Wednesday, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute reported 132,000 confirmed infections since the outbreak.
Strategies to cope with the pandemic have varied greatly in Europe and Scandinavia.
Denmark, for example, has already let children go back to school. On Tuesday, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said the country could open “much faster” than expected as the rate of infections slowed. He added that “it should not go too fast because should there be a setback, it will not be too severe.”
In recent days, Hokkaido, Japan, has been cited as a cautionary tale — a worst-case scenario for what can happen when the economy is prioritized over the health of the population. The city lifted restrictions on March 19 but was forced to call a new state of emergency on Monday as the second wave of the contagion swept through the city and the number of people infected grew rapidly.
On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the imposed restrictions were necessary but came at an “enormous price.” The commission laid out a plan for coping with COVID-19 until a vaccine is found and said member states should take small, strictly controlled steps when rolling back lockdown measures.
Other European countries have also been gradually relaxing restrictions in the last days. On Monday, Austria opened some small businesses, including flower shops and DIY shops, citing a successful fight against the virus. Citizens are still told to wear face masks in public and maintain social distancing rules. As of Tuesday, Austria reported about 14,000 cases and 368 deaths.
Even hard-hit countries in Europe have begun to gradually relax measures. Spain, which has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases after the U.S., began allowing some non-essential workers to return to their jobs on Monday amidst a strict lockdown. Construction workers as well as those working at businesses which sell hygiene products and pet food, dry cleaners and hairdressers have been given the green light to go back to work. The move was met with criticism from political opponents who feel the government is putting economic interests above the health of its citizens.
In Italy, where 20,000 people have died from the virus, an easing of restrictions is already taking place in certain parts of the country. Some shops, including children’s clothing stores and bookshops, are allowed to cautiously open in certain regions as the Italian government has deemed them “essential goods.” Premiere Giuseppe Conte told the public last week, “We obviously don’t want to delude ourselves that everything will change.”
Italians have been on strict orders to stay at home and fines have been issued to those who disobey orders. On Easter Monday, a national holiday in Italy, 16,543 fines were given out, AFP reported. Yet some hard-hit regions, such as Lombardy, and its capital of Milan, are keeping shops closed a bit longer.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, extended his country’s lockdown until May 11.
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