Germany extends lockdown but paves way to relax more rules

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a news conference with Bavarian state governor Markus Soeder and the Mayor of Berlin Michael Mueller after a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, March 3, 2021. German Chancellor Angela Merkel conferred with the governors of the country's 16 states to discuss how to move forward with coronavirus restrictions (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, Pool)

BERLIN – Germany is extending its coronavirus shutdown by three weeks until March 28, but easing some restrictions to allow nonessential stores and other businesses to reopen in areas with relatively low infection rates.

After about nine hours of talks, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governors of the country’s 16 states agreed Wednesday to measures aimed at balancing concern over the impact of more contagious coronavirus variants with a growing clamor for a return to a more normal life.

The first moves have already been made: many elementary students returned to school last week. And on Monday, hairdressers opened after a 2 1/2-month break. Current lockdown rules were set to run through Sunday.

On Wednesday, Merkel and the state governors -- who in highly decentralized Germany have the power to impose and lift restrictions -- set out a phased plan that allows for a gradual, if limited, relaxation of restrictions.

“These should be steps toward opening but at the same time steps that do not set us back,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin. “There are a great many examples in Europe of a dramatic third wave."

She pledged that “spring 2021 will be different from spring a year ago.”

Regions where infection rates are relatively low, though not as low as previously envisioned, will be able to open nonessential stores, museums and other facilities on a limited basis.

Most stores have been closed nationwide since Dec. 16. Restaurants, bars, sports and leisure facilities have been closed since Nov. 2 and hotels are allowed only to accommodate business travelers.