BERLIN – Germany's federal government and state governors squared up Monday for a battle over plans to end pandemic-related restrictions despite fresh clusters of cases across the country.
The country has seen a steady decline in the overall number of COVID-19 cases thanks to measures imposed 10 weeks ago to limit personal contacts.
But as restrictions have slowly been lifted there have also been case spikes across Germany linked to slaughterhouses, restaurants, religious services, nursing homes and refugee shelters.
The country's current raft of coronavirus measures is due to expire on June 5. Over the weekend, the governor of the state of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, said he hopes to lift the blanket rules on social distancing on June 6 and replace them with more targeted measures.
Germany's 16 states are responsible for imposing and lifting restrictions and all currently have physical distancing requirements and an obligation to wear masks on public transit and shops. Thuringia’s new approach would raise pressure on other states to ease their rules further.
Government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters that Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to continue “bravely, and carefully” with easing restrictions, but pushed back against the idea that all measures will be lifted.
“We want to hold onto the fundamental rules for distancing, hygiene and contact restrictions,” he said, adding that Merkel favors “binding orders." Seibert cited recent outbreaks following a Baptist service in Frankfurt and at a restaurant in the country’s northwest as examples of what can happen if rules aren't followed.
Following Ramelow's announcement, the neighboring state of Saxony said Monday that it, too, is aiming for a “paradigm change” on pandemic rules from June 6 if infections remain low.
At the same time, the interior minister of Bavaria, the state that has seen the most coronavirus infections and borders Thuringia to the south, called Ramelow's plans “irresponsible.”
“We will certainly not stand by and watch Ramelow carelessly destroy great successes in the fight against the highly dangerous coronavirus,” Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann told the Funke media group.
Merkel is due to hold talks with governors Wednesday.
Federal and state officials agreed earlier this month that restrictions would be re-imposed if there are more than 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants in a city or county within a week.
As it stands, Germany's public health agency, the Robert Koch Institute, said Monday that several states reported no new cases overnight, and that the overall total grew by only 289. The seven-day reproduction factor, defined as the mean number of people infected by an infected person, remained under 1 at 0.93, indicating a contraction of new cases.
Health Minister Jens Spahn cautioned, however, against giving the impression that the pandemic is over.
Spahn told tabloid paper Bild that “on the one hand we are seeing whole regions where there are no new reported infections for days. And on the other hand local and regional outbreaks in which the virus is spreading quickly again and immediate intervention is required.”
As the pandemic ebbs, officials across Europe are on the lookout for any spike in the number of infections that could indicate a second wave.
There have been several clusters of COVID-19 among slaughterhouse workers in Germany in recent weeks, prompting a government pledge to crack down on conditions in the industry.
Many workers in German abattoirs are migrants from Eastern Europe employed by subcontractors. They often live in shared housing and are transported to and from the slaughterhouses by shuttle bus, increasing the likelihood of infection.
On Monday, Dutch regional health authorities said tests showed 147 of 657 employees at a meat processing plant across the border in the Netherlands were positive for COVID-19.
They said 79 of those infected live in Germany, while 68 are residents of the Netherlands.
In other, non-connected outbreaks in Europe, a mine in the Czech Republic stopped work after tests of about 2,400 people revealed 212 with the coronavirus, mostly miners and their family members.
And across the continent in Portugal, health officials said tests of 346 people at the warehouse near Lisbon returned 121 positive cases.
Wary of a new resurgence of the coronavirus, authorities said they are carefully monitoring the outbreak at the warehouse, a national distribution center for supermarket goods.