BERLIN – Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to be “courageous and vigilant” Wednesday as the country emerges from its shutdown, calling on them to avoid a relapse into tougher restrictions even as officials set out plans to relax border controls.
Germany started loosening coronavirus restrictions on April 20, about a month after they were introduced. The easing has gathered pace in the past week, with the country's 16 state governments — which are responsible for imposing and loosening lockdowns — gradually opening restaurants, schools, gyms and other facilities. Social distancing rules remain in place.
Some German regions have been less patient than others, and Merkel has consistently advocated caution. On Wednesday, she said she sees “an obligation not to endanger what we have achieved.”
“It would be depressing if, because we want too much too quickly, we had to return to restrictions that we all want to leave behind,” Merkel said in a question-and-answer session in parliament. “So let us be courageous and vigilant — let us reopen public and economic life and always keep in sight the development of the pandemic."
Merkel fended off criticism of the coronavirus shutdown and its economic fallout from the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which asked her if she could rule out tax increases to cover its costs.
“As of today, no increases in levies or taxes are planned,” she said. Merkel also rejected left-wing calls for a wealth tax.
Germany, which has seen a larger number of infections but a lower death rate than many other countries, has seen a significant drop in new COVID-19 infections in recent weeks. It has tallied over 173,000 infections and 7,756 deaths.
Still, at least 260 workers at Westfleisch’s slaughterhouse in northwestern Germany have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days.
Earlier Wednesday, Merkel's government set out plans to loosen the border controls that Germany introduced in mid-March.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said checks on the border with Luxembourg will be dropped on Saturday. Germany also is prepared to end checks on the Danish border but Copenhagen is still consulting with other neighbors.
On Germany's borders with France, Switzerland and Austria, all border crossings will be opened, rather than selected ones at present, and authorities will switch to spot rather than systematic checks.
Seehofer said the aim is to restore free travel across Germany's borders on June 15, “but that assumes that we remain energetic in fighting infections.” He said checks could be stepped back up if infections increase in neighboring countries, particularly near the border.
Seehofer also recommended that state governments drop a requirement for people arriving from other countries in Europe to self-quarantine for 14 days — but said people arriving from other nations, such as the United States and Russia, should still have to do so.
That rule, introduced last month, applies to all people arriving in Germany except those who were on very short trips, commuting to their jobs, transporting goods or in some other essential functions. It already has been suspended in one state, Lower Saxony, by a regional court.