Germany takes tentative steps back to normality as lockdown eases

As shops across parts of Germany took their first tentative steps back to normality since lockdown rules were introduced a month ago, Andreas Trost took stock at the window of a haberdashery in the Potsdam district of Babelsberg, west of Berlin.

“Not exactly life as we’ve known it,” he said, reading the sign in the window which said that customers would only be allowed to enter in controlled numbers “as long as you don’t partake in small talk”, that browsing was not allowed – and please wash your hands before entering.

Whilst Trost said he was looking forward to “something of the eerie mood in the empty streets” disappearing, he said he also had some trepidation about the move, which will see small shops of up to 800 sq m reopen.

“I’m quite nervous about the relaxation of the rules in that I’m concerned that people will no longer take the illness seriously, and we could soon end up with another lockdown,” the customer service adviser for Berlin Water Works said.

“The sense of solidarity which was obvious at the beginning is starting to disintegrate. And as long as I can’t hug my friends, I won’t feel that life is anything like normal.”

Simon, one of 10,000 secondary school students in the state of Brandenburg due to take their exams on Monday, under strict hygiene and physical distancing rules, said he was glad that he was being allowed to sit exams at all after some authorities discussed rewarding exam certificates based on average marks instead.

“I didn’t fancy being labelled my whole life as being one of those forced to get the ‘emergency Abitur’,” he said, ahead of a geography exam and sipping on a latte bought from a cafe selling drinks from behind a perspex window in its doorway.

“Even though it’s been an uncertain few weeks, which might affect my performance, I’m glad to have the proper chance to show what I can do. Though the situation is far from normal,” he added.

Kerstin Seefeldt was stacking the shelves of her Babelsberg bookshop, Script, eagerly preparing for a reopening on Wednesday. “I’m really looking forward to seeing my customers properly again,” she said. “I’m organising the shop so that the tables of books are like a labyrinth and customers can avoid coming into contact with each other.” Only two customers will be allowed at a time in the 30 sq m space, she said.

Seefeldt ran a thrice-daily bicycle delivery service for customers during the shutdown. “It has been an intense and rewarding time of mutual solidarity. But I know that the situation is far from normal, and so I will now keep up the delivery service for people considered to be in a risk category because I’m aware that things cannot go back to normal for a long time yet, even if the shop is able to open,” she said. She added she was relieved to have been helped through a financially difficult period by a government investment grant of €9000, news of which had reached her that morning.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, urged Germans on Monday to remain “disciplined and watchful”, and warned that if attitudes towards the pandemic relaxed too quickly, another tougher lockdown may follow. “We must not lose track of the fact that we continue to be at the start of this pandemic and are far from out of the woods,” she said.

Thanking Germans for – by and large – sticking to the rules of staying at home and keeping physical distance, Merkel said a lot had so far been achieved. “The infection is under control to the extent that it is not climbing exponentially any more,” she said. But a “rash easing” of the restrictions was in danger of unleashing the “unknown”, she warned.

Acknowledging the plight of many people, including artists, single parents and restaurant managers,Merkel said Germans should not be “lulled into a false sense of security”. If the infection rate began to rise – which would first be visible in the statistics in two weeks’ time – “a new shutdown would be unavoidable” and that had to be prevented for the sake of the economy, she said.

But there are signs that social tensions are rising in parts of the country, and the sense that this is a critical moment in tackling the virus is keenly felt. At the weekend, police struggled with several hundred protesters campaigning on Berlin’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz against what they saw as constraints placed on their basic rights due to the so-called Corona Verordnungen, or regulations. Amongst the protesters were anti-vaxxers, well-known conspiracy theorists, and rightwing extremists, some of whom accused the government of using the coronavirus crisis to create a dictatorship. Other similar demonstrations have taken place elsewhere across Germany.

By Monday afternoon German health authorities had reported a total of 146,000 confirmed infections and 4735 deaths. The reproduction rate was slightly higher than on Friday, at 0.8, but anything under one is being considered a success by decision-makers.



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