German authorities agreed Thursday to reopen playgrounds, churches and cultural institutions such as museums and zoos that have been shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, but they postponed a decision on whether to relax the rules for restaurants, hotels and kindergartens.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said that while there would be regional differences because of Germany's federal structure, the overall goal remains ensuring the health system can cope with the country's outbreak.
“So far, we have managed to succeed in doing so,” Merkel told reporters after a meeting with the governors of Germany's 16 states. “We have all together achieved a lot in recent weeks.”
Germany, a country of 83 million people, recorded more than 162,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 6,563 deaths in all, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University. That is about a quarter the number of virus-related deaths reported in Britain and France, even though the three countries have similar numbers of confirmed cases.
Over the past week, Germany recorded between 1,000 and 1,500 new cases a day, down from 2,000 the previous week.
The country's success in flattening the curve of infections has sparked calls for its lockdown to end, particularly from businesses that have been forced to close because of social distancing measures.
Jobless figures released Thursday showed unemployment in Germany rose by 308,000 to over 2.6 million in the past month. The jobless rate in April stood at 5.8%, up from 5.1% in March.
Employers avoided the bigger layoffs seen in other countries by taking advantage of Germany’s short-work program, which allows companies in distress to receive state funds if they hold onto employees rather than letting them go.
Labor Minister Hubertus Heil said companies registered about 10.1 million employees for short work — more than a fifth of the country’s workforce. Restaurants, bars and hotels were particularly hard hit, with 93% of those employed in the sector now in short work, he said.
The governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, Armin Laschet, told public broadcaster ZDF that the economic downturn was “a very, very high price that we’ve talked about far too little in recent weeks.”
Merkel said the federal and state governments wouldn't make a decision on reopening hotels and restaurants at their next meeting on May 6, which will focus on further relaxing the rules for schools, childcare centers and sports facilities.
“Caution is required, as well as sticking to hygiene measures,” she said.
Federal and state authorities also agreed Thursday to extend a ban on large sports events, concerts and festivals until at least Aug. 31.
But Germany's hospitals will be allowed to resume routine operations that had been ordered put on hold last month, after data showed a sufficient reserve of intensive care unit beds.
Still, like elsewhere, medical personnel in the country are feeling the strain.
“The burden is certainly great as we have to deal with a highly infectious disease every day, and the treatment regime is not clearly defined,” said Dr. Daniel Heidenkummer, who oversees the treatment of COVID-19 patients at the InnKlinikum Altoetting, near Germany’s border with Austria.
The hospital has treated almost 600 patients with severe illness resulting from the coronavirus since early March.
Restrictions on visitors mean that staff members have to spend more time tending to the emotional welfare of patients, a burden that would normally be borne largely by friends and family, Heidenkummer said.
Merkel acknowledged the sacrifices made by many Germans because of the lockdown. But she defended the virologists and public health experts who have been providing seemingly contradictory advice to the government, noting that there is always an element of uncertainty to scientific research.
“That’s why science is so exciting, because you never do the same thing twice,” Merkel said, citing her own experience as a physicist before entering politics more than 30 years ago.
“We politicians are there to draw conclusions,” she said.