BERLIN – German officials agreed Wednesday to reopen schools and hairdressers in the coming weeks, while extending much of the country’s coronavirus lockdown until March 7 amid concern that new virus variants could reverse the decline in confirmed cases.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and the country’s 16 governors decided to leave in place many facets of the current lockdown that were due to expire on Sunday, and set a new target of 35 weekly cases per 100,000 inhabitants before letting small stores, museums and other businesses reopen.
The government’s previous goal had been to push the number of new cases per 100,000 inhabitants each week below 50, to enable reliable contact-tracing. It peaked at nearly 200 just before Christmas but is now down to 68 nationwide, a trend Merkel credited to people respecting the existing measures.
“We have this great uncertainty with the mutation,” Merkel said, explaining the new benchmark. "It will gain the upper hand. The old virus will disappear. We will live with the new virus and we can’t yet judge this new virus and its behavior.”
“If we can't achieve better tracing then it can quickly happen again there we'll get exponential growth,” she told reporters. "That's why we have to be so careful.”
Still, officials agreed that states will be able to reopen schools and kindergartens sooner, with some, such as Berlin, announcing that they will gradually resume classes in elementary schools from Feb. 22. Several governors had argued the measure was necessary to relieve parents of the burden of home schooling and make sure that underprivileged children don’t fall too far behind.
The country’s strained medical personnel had cautioned against such a move.
Ahead of the meeting, the head of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, or DIVI, warned that the reopening of schools and kindergartens would lead to virus infections re-emerging.