Many Germans are growing impatient with the hesitant pace of efforts by the government to loosen the lockdown imposed to bring the number of coronavirus infections under control. But there’s little agreement on whether the measures are appropriate: Scientists fear they go too far and business leaders say they do little to change anything.
By Manfred Dworschak, Silke Fokken, Jan Friedmann, Florian Gathmann, Kristina Gnirke, Annette Großbongardt, Hubert Gude, Simon Hage, Christoph Hickmann, Armin Himmelrath, Valerie Höhne, Martin Knobbe, Armin Mahler, Cornelia Schmergal und Gerald Traufetter
German Chancellor Angela Merkel isn’t generally one to get overexcited, so when she does reach for hyperbole, it tends to reflect genuine elation. “We have achieved a high degree of unity in our approach, which is almost a miracle for a federal republic,” she said on Wednesday, after a videoconference with the governors of Germany’s 16 states. Bavarian Governor Markus Söder of the Christian Social Union (the sister party to Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union), Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher of the Social Democrats (SPD) and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, likewise of the SPD, were sitting next to her as she spoke, at a safe distance.
A miracle, indeed.
The governors spent around four hours speaking with the chancellor and key cabinet ministers about the path forward in the fight against the coronavirus. They managed to produce a declaration with concrete resolutions.
The strict social distancing measures will remain in place until May 3, though car dealerships, bicycle shops and bookstores can open, presuming certain regulations are observed. Shops with a floor space of up to 800 square meters (8,600 feet) are also allowed to reopen. Schoolchildren in grades approaching graduation or on the cusp of transferring to the next level of schooling will return to the classroom. Large events will remain prohibited until Aug. 31 and the wearing of masks in buses and stores is recommended, but not mandated.
The roadmap isn’t quite as strict as in France, where strict curfews were recently extended, but it also isn’t nearly as liberal as in Denmark, where even the daycare centers have reopened.
Although Germany’s states were able to reach an agreement, a number of questions remain unresolved. Where, for example, did the figure of 800 square meters come from? Why is there an exception for car dealerships and not, for example, for furniture stores? Why have bookstores been given priority over electronics stores? The decisions offer plenty of ammunition for lawsuits.
Even the much-praised unity looked more fragile the day after the agreement was reached. Many states plan to open their schools before May 4, while others want to include more exceptions when it comes to store openings. Some states envision opening up the zoos, while others do not. There isn’t likely to be much consistency.
The federal government will continue taking things slowly and treating the process as an experiment with unpredictable outcomes. Merkel says she plans to consult with the governors every two weeks to discuss how the measures are working.
She will be focusing her attentions on one development in particular: the reproduction number, which refers to the number of additional people a coronavirus patient infects. If it is below one, the virus can be controlled. If it rises above that number, then Germany’s health-care system could soon be overwhelmed. As Merkel explained, a rate of 1.1 would mean hospitals reach capacity in October, a rate of 1.2 would mean July and 1.3 would mean June. During the video conference, the Chancellery posted the chart on the screen, essentially as a warning to those insisting on greater freedoms. Merkel has never been one for taking risks.
Despite their efforts at convincing Germans of the benefits of caution, the four politicians on Wednesday were rather half-hearted in their appeals for solidarity. They failed to explain one fundamental thing to the country: that it will likely have to live with the virus for quite some time. Nobody can say when a vaccine might be available, though it certainly won’t come soon. A Harvard University study has forecast that we may have to live with social distancing measures, at least intermittently, until 2022.
There will be a return to normalcy, but it will be a different normalcy. Politicians have thus far been unable to find the words, ideas and scenarios to describe and shape this new normalcy. What, for example, will school lessons look like given the necessarily strict anti-infection measures? Above all else, where will the resources come from? For how long can the economy continue to endure limitations and what do long-lasting distancing measures mean for business? What can be done to support the parents of young children, now that they may be forced to juggle childcare with working from home for the next several months? Even if there is an emergency daycare program for the children of essential workers, what about those who don’t qualify?
And when will residents of Germany once again be able to exercise their constitutional rights, like going to church or attending a demonstration?
Such questions were discussed in the Wednesday videoconference. And despite Merkel’s warm words, participants weren’t always in complete agreement. Indeed, there were moments of intense disagreement.
North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Armin Laschet, one of the candidates to take over the leadership of the Christian Democrats (CDU), has for weeks been calling for the debate about reopening Germany to be held in public and not behind closed doors. The Wednesday meeting was thus vital for his political future: If the steps toward loosening the lockdown measures didn’t go far enough, it could leave the impression that hardliners, like Marcus Söder, had got the better of him. Given that the next chair of the CDU is likely to end up replacing Merkel as chancellor, these intra-political questions must always be considered when looking at the course being charted by Germany’s leaders.
Split Over Churches
Laschet clashed with other meeting participants primarily on the issue of religion. A Catholic by confession, Laschet joined Thuringia Governor Bodo Ramelow, a member of the far-left Left Party, in arguing that religious services should be permitted as long as certain measures were observed.
Others noted that it is primarily the elderly – those who are most at risk in the coronavirus epidemic – who attend church services and that the kind of singing that takes place during church services increases the risk of transmission via exhaled particles. Laschet quickly found himself on the defensive.
The decisive argument was delivered by, of all people, Söder – who, as head of the CSU, is perfectly placed to either boost Laschet’s Chancellery aspirations or torpedo them. A Protestant himself, he is nonetheless head of a largely Catholic state. He pointed out that even the pope celebrated Easter mass completely on his own. Why should Germany do any different?
Laschet and Söder have found themselves squaring off several times in recent weeks. The Bavarian governor has generally been pushing for stricter measures, with Laschet usually insisting greater attention be paid to those measures’ economic and social toll. On Wednesday, though, Laschet found himself in conflict with Economics Minister Peter Altmaier, also a member of the CDU.
Caution Wins Out
Their disagreement centered on which stores could be allowed to open. In the morning, an agreement had been reached that shops up to a size of 800 square meters could be opened as soon as possible. Merkel would have preferred limiting the size to 400 square meters, but Finance Minister Scholz, the senior SPD member in Merkel’s coalition government and thus her vice chancellor, wanted to allow shopping malls to open. The 800 square-meter rule was something of a compromise.
According to meeting participants, several governors were critical of the rule. They claim Altmaier said that even though he had voted in favor of the rule in the preceding cabinet meeting, he was no longer so sure. He floated the idea of only opening shops on May 15. Participants say that this is when Laschet lost it. By then, he said, many of the stores they were talking about wouldn’t be around anymore. Laschet said he expected that the economics minister would be more sensitive to such concerns.
Others sided with Laschet when he defended the 800-square-meter solution, with even Söder joining in: “Armin and I may not have agreed on much in the last several days, but we need a compromise on this point,” he said. Merkel took the floor, but Laschet continued to make his disagreement clear with angry gesturing, leading Merkel to comment: “Armin, we can all see how upset you are. Peter supports the compromise.” Ultimately, they all agreed on the resolution made by the cabinet.
They did not, however, go along with Laschet’s desire to extend the exception to furniture stores. There is no need to do so, said Baden-Württemberg Governor Winfried Kretschmann, a member of the Green Party. “Everyone has a chair. Nobody is sitting on the floor,” he said. Laschet, however, did manage to push through the exception, if only for his state, the next day.
Proposals from other state governors to reopen playgrounds, for instance, did not get majority support from the governors. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Governor Manuela Schwesig, of the SPD, suggested restaurants be allowed to open up their outdoor tables given the nice spring weather, but Söder, in particular, was against it. Nevertheless, Schwesig said that the compromise reached was broadly acceptable, adding that the most important aspect for her – perhaps informed by the fact that she, as a cancer patient, is a member of a high-risk group – was the recommendation that masks be worn. “It’s not something we in Germany are used to,” she said, “but we have to do it. It is a simple means to protect ourselves.”
Those who wanted to open the country even further ended up on the losing side on Wednesday. Caution won out, with politicians largely following the advice of scientists, aside from some risky exceptions. Experts have recently been calling for even greater precautions and warned against reversing the gains that have been made by prematurely loosening the lockdown measures.
Still, the virus is halfway under control for the time being. Recent numbers have indicated that infections have been largely stable of late. There are still around 3,000 new infections per day, but a similar number of people are recovering each day as well. A working group at the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers, however, has argued that Germany should now take advantage of that situation and push for complete victory. In a statement, the researchers calculated how the epidemic could be conquered in just a few weeks. Assuming that strict social distancing rules stay in force.
“From a purely epidemiological perspective, we should be tightening the measures rather than reducing them,” says Michael Meyer-Hermann of the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Braunschweig. He argued that it is easier to stick to the current regime for at least another few weeks to continue reducing the number of infections.
If just a few people are getting sick – say, perhaps, around 100 per day – then each individual infection could be monitored and tracked, according to the concept. The patients would be isolated and those they had contact with could be tested. The spread could thus be stopped and the rules for the rest of society could be significantly loosened.
But if the rules are loosened too early, in this view, the best outcome is that the current situation remains constant. There would be thousands of new infections each day and the fight would potentially continue for years – as would the significant limitations on social life.
No Agreement on Best Way Forward
But even among scientists, there is no clear agreement on the best way forward. Meyer-Hermann’s colleague, the epidemiologist Gérard Krause, for example, is more optimistic. He believes that it will be possible to achieve lower infection numbers even with the less strict regulations that have now been agreed to. “But we have to keep a close eye on the effect they are having,” he says. “It is also important that we massively strengthen other areas of the fight.”
Krause’s point of view is reflected in the agreement reached on Wednesday, in which federal and state governments agree to increase funding for health authorities. “Significant investments are necessary, both in terms of staffing and technology,” he says. “The health agencies are the key to a successful strategy against the virus. They must be able to immediately track down new infections and to assiduously implement the at-home quarantining of contact persons.”
On the one side, the scientists are issuing warnings; on the other, businesspeople are pushing forward. The politicians are trapped between these two extremes as they consider the steps needed to lead the country out of the crisis.
According to the Munich-based ifo Institute for Economic Research, each further week of the shutdown will cost 42 billion euros. How many billions less will it be after the announced measures for loosening the lockdown have been implemented? “What happens now won’t change much,” says Clemens Fuest, the head of ifo. “People shouldn’t have any illusions about that.”
Before the videoconference with the governors, Peter Altmaier, especially, was facing pressure from business associations, particularly that of German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) and its president, Hildegard Müller. She had once again made it clear that the government absolutely needs to allow car dealerships to reopen. The high-end German manufacturers largely build their cars to order. She argued that if nobody can buy them, there’s no point in opening the factories either. Müller spent years previously as a staffer at the Chancellery who worked very closely with Merkel.
Economists are also putting pressure on Altmaier to loosen the shutdown. “If the economy doesn’t start up again by early May, then there won’t be a quick recovery,” says Michael Hüther, the director of the German Economic Institute in Cologne, which has close ties to industry. In a position statement, the Cologne-based economist vividly described how the collapse in demand, broken supply chains and lack of working employees are paralyzing industry and trade.
Will Demand Still Be There?
The car industry plays a key role, not only because 800,000 jobs directly depend on it, but also because the lack of demand is preventing many suppliers from reactivating their manufacturing processes. Now, the German government has given in to the pressure and allowed car dealerships to reopen.
Daimler and Volkswagen have announced that they will slowly restart work in some plants starting next week. Ford and BMW plan to do the same in May. But the automobile industry remains far from what could be described as normal times. As long as school operations remain limited and daycare centers are still closed, car factory workers with children will have to stay home, meaning plants won’t be fully staffed. The car companies are also dependent on partner firms in countries like Italy, and nobody knows at this point when they will be able to deliver their goods again.
Together with the federal government, car companies now want to try to coordinate the industrial sector’s ramping-up process across Germany and internationally – while ensuring that deliveries don’t get stuck at Europe’s national borders.
But the biggest problem for the car companies is that nobody knows if they will still be able to sell their cars after the restrictions are loosened. The carmakers are calling for a state program to be implemented to spur demand – as fast as possible.
Other business sectors would be happy to be able just to sell their products and services at all. The tourism, hotel and restaurant industries remain completely paralyzed and have been left hoping that the chancellor and governors decide to ease the restrictions on them during their next videoconference on April 30. The German Hotel and Restaurant Association (DEHOGA) is pushing for a rescue package to be implemented that would enable businesses to survive that long.
Small retailers, however, can hope to reopen their stores under strict rules soon. But how many customers will actually show up if the restaurants and cafes around them remain closed, and the big retailers and department stores aren’t open?
That’s apparently exactly what the government was considering when it controversially decided to allow stores under 800 square meters (8,600 square feet) to reopen. This measure aims to prevent masses of consumers from streaming into German city centers and congregating in pedestrian zones. One alternate proposal was considered during the meeting between Merkel and the governors: to open all stores and limit the number of customers to one per 20 square meters. It was ultimately rejected because the lines in front of the doors would be too long.
Many retailers view this regulation with incomprehension. Marcus Diekmann, the director of Rose Bikes, a bicycle retailer, sees the decision as “pure marketing for the federal government.” Diekmann is also on the advisory board for a baby-products company called Babyone, whose stores need to be large enough to accommodate displays of children’s beds and baby carriages and are now unable to open their doors. “Now you are allowed to sell flowers, but not the products needed by expecting parents. That is pure arbitrariness and absolutely incomprehensible,” says Diekmann.
On a fundamental level, Fuest, the economist, understands the government’s cautious approach. He says that Germany needs to meet certain conditions that it hasn’t yet met before it can further loosen the rules. It needs sufficient masks and protective equipment, for example, but also enough tests to determine how many people have been infected, how many are immune and how many have actually died from COVID-19. According to Fuest, as long as this data is unavailable, re-opening the economy is akin to flying blind. But he also believes is it essential that the “tentative changes continue and further measures follow.”
The authorities will need to come up with smart approaches for the resuscitation of individual sectors despite the ongoing dangers of contagion. This includes the education system, where classes will start up again in the coming weeks. As participants in the videoconference said on Wednesday, the authorities in charge of the education system still need more time, even though the schools have been closed for weeks and they have had time to prepare. Now the fact that the education system has been under-financed and is in need of reform is coming back to haunt it.
In the recommendations it issued last week, Germany’s Leopoldina academy of science, made it clear what schools now need to do for teaching in the classroom to resume: staggered school hours, a focus on core subjects, lessons with a maximum of 15 pupils. Students and teachers will also need to social distance from one another, wear facial coverings and comply with hygiene regulations, like regularly washing their hands.
But if a primary school usually has three fourth-grade classes with 25 students each, how many classrooms will it need if no more than eight or nine children are allowed to sit in a room at a time? It sounds like a math lesson, but Martina Reiske, the director of the Sudbrack primary school in the western German city of Bielefeld, has had to make these calculations. They might soon become a reality.
The answer? Nine classrooms. “When I take into account that I need two additional rooms for children in emergency child care because their parents are key workers, I arrive at 11,” Reiske explains by phone. The school has 15 classrooms in total, including a music room and a playroom. The director says that the numbers would work if only one grade of students is being taught, but the school has three additional grades.
The staffing situation is also critical. Reiske has 33 teaching staff at her school, including many in part-time positions, as well as a social-education worker and two social workers. But one teacher is pregnant, and two other members of the teaching staff have disabilities and can’t teach on-site at the school during the corona crisis. The same applies to three other staff members above the age of 60, who qualify as members of a risk group and should therefore not be exposed to any danger of infection. That makes 33 minus six.
That’s a lot compared to some other schools. According to the Education and Science Workers’ Union (GEW), approximately one-third of German teaching staff are considered members of a risk group, if only because of their age.
An Acute Staffing Shortage
Because the number of students in Germany has been sinking overall in recent decades, politicians in many German states have hired too few new teachers and invested little money in education. Politicians were hoping that low birthrates would result in a “demographic benefits.”
But then the birthrate unexpectedly went up again and more immigrants came to Germany, and there’s now an acute shortage of staff. Schools in some regions can’t even offer classes on a full range of subjects. That demand is growing as a result of the crisis, but you can’t just pull new teachers out of a magician’s hat.
As Sudbrack elementary director Reiske explains, all positions at her school in Bielefeld are currently occupied. She can split up the fourth grade among the remaining teachers and some educators, and have each of them be taught in shifts for four hours daily, between 8 a.m. and noon, and 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. And she says she could still provide emergency care, “but it won’t suffice for many more children than that.”
Reiske points out that teaching a class of 10 to 15 kids, as is now being called for, is “a dream” from a teaching perspective. The children’s family backgrounds are very varied, she points out. Some children, she says, are being well cared for while they are being home-schooled, but other parents struggle with their German and in some cases both parents have to work. “One mother only picked up the package of assignments, which we had assembled for everyone, for her child three weeks into the closure.”
But Reiske says there is an upside. “If things remain as well-cleaned as they have been during the corona crisis, that, at least, would be progress.” She argues that the cleaning staff has received more exacting instructions from the school authorities since the shutdown, and maybe also more money. The school is much cleaner than it has otherwise been, she says, though at the moment, there are only five kids in the building, instead of the normal 360.
Politicians now need to be thinking about the big picture in ways that can creatively and quickly solve problems like the ones encountered by the schools, improving people’s everyday lives despite the coronavirus. But the federal government is still in acute crisis mode.
“At the moment, we are not thinking any further ahead than the next month,” says one member of Merkel’s cabinet. They aim to find a solution with the churches that would allow religious services to resume again soon and to reopen some sports facilities, like ones for tennis or horseback riding, the minister said.
Key Factors in Decisions
But Health Minister Jens Spahn is currently being plagued by other questions, like the actual number of infections. Thus far, the actual number of COVID-19 cases has remained a question of guesswork. The Health Ministry estimates that only about 1.5 percent of the total population has been infected so far. That means the country is still at the very beginning of the epidemic.
For Spahn, therefore, there are two key factors that are crucial — the number of intensive care beds that are still available and the number of protective masks. On Wednesday morning, Spahn reported in Merkel’s special corona cabinet meeting that there were still around 10,000 free ventilation places and 10,000 additional intensive care beds available. In order to be able to determine the current number, he ordered the hospitals last week by decree to enter free capacities into an online register.
When it comes to the masks, Spahn has been able to score small victories: As of this weekend, his ministry has managed to obtain 80 million masks. They remain reserved for doctors and nursing staff – and won’t even be enough for that. Billions of masks would be required to provide supplies to the general population.
This has prevented German state governments from issuing orders for wearing masks in public spaces – they could only recommend it this week. Although a strict requirement is impossible to implement, they did recommend that anyone traveling by bus or train should, when in doubt, cover their mouth and nose with a self-sewn mask.
The chancellor herself even shared some caretaking tips for masks after the meeting. Before the cameras, she explained that masks need to “be washed regularly” or “ironed, or placed in the oven or microwave.”
If only there were such simple solutions for everything.