Germany relaxes lockdown for several public spaces

BERLIN (AP) — German authorities agreed on 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.

People in a shopping gallery wear face masks in Muenster, western Germany. PHOTO: AP

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 on 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 per cent, up from 5.1 per cent in March.

Employers avoided the bigger layoffs seen in other countries by taking advantage of Germany’s short-work programme, which allows companies in distress to receive state funds if they hold onto employees rather than letting them go.

Labour Minister Hubertus Heil said companies registered about 10.1 million employees for short work — more than a fifth of the country’s workforce.

Restaurants and hotels were particularly hard hit, with 93 per cent of those employed in the sector now in short work, he said. 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 centres and sports facilities. “Caution is required, as well as sticking to hygiene measures,” she said.

Federal and state authorities also agreed on Thursday to extend a ban on large sports events, concerts and festivals until at least August 31.