1.2 Physical distancing
Initially, social distancing was advised only for those who were isolating, either because they were cases, contacts of confirmed cases or had returned from a high-risk area but remained asymptomatic. On March 10, the government recommended cancellation of events and public gatherings with 1000 or more people. In the days following this initial recommendation, the federal states suspended all public gatherings and events with more than 1000 people.
There are no nation-wide regulations on physical distancing given the federal governance structure of the country. Each federal state takes own decision on restrictions, school closing etc. based on their pandemic preparedness plans (see section 5. Governance). However, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in Germany, the federal states largely agreed on similar measures to delay the spread of infection and the associated burden on the healthcare system. On March 13, most German federal states decided to close their schools, nurseries, universities and cultural institutions from 16 March until mid-April (dates differ slightly by federal state). As of March 16, the heads of all federal states and the chancellor decided that also bars, clubs, theatres, discotheques, pubs, operas, concert halls, public libraries, cinemas, leisure parks (indoor and outdoor), museums, trade fairs, exhibitions, zoos, special markets, amusement arcades, casinos, betting shops, prostitution businesses, brothels, sports in public and private sports facilities, swimming pools, gyms and playgrounds would be closed. Restaurants, cafeterias and hotels could remain open from 6 am to 6 pm. Supermarkets, chemist's shops, banks, pet shops, and all business that sell essential basic needs are allowed extended opening times including on Sundays, while non-essential shops are to be closed at all times.
On 17 March 2020 the government released more extensive recommendations for the public on physical distancing. People are advised to stay at home, to keep physical distance from others, to avoid use of public transport, public gatherings and shopping during peak hours; to work from home if possible and to avoid traveling within the country. The public was also advised to avoid close contact with individuals considered vulnerable (elderly people and those with chronic conditions).
On 20 March, Bavaria was the first state to declare a curfew, inspired by and identical to Austria. On Sunday (March 22), the chancellor agreed with all heads of federal states on more drastic restrictions on public and social life to be implemented nationwide. However, the restrictions are not as far reaching as the curfew agreed in Bavaria and movement restrictions agreed in Saxony where leaving the house will only be permitted in certain circumstances. Most federal states introduced the following measures:
• Public gatherings of more than two people will be banned. There will be exceptions for families and those living together.
• General contact with others should be reduced to a minimum.
• A 1.5-meter distance should be kept at all times when in public.
• Gastronomy businesses must close. Businesses offering food delivery and collection will be allowed to remain open.
• Service providers such as hairdressers, cosmetic, massage and tattoo studios where a 2-meter distance between people is not
possible must also close. Businesses and centers offering medical treatments may remain open.
• Police and other law enforcement agencies will enforce any infractions of the new rules — Merkel did not state what the punishment
would be for anyone not abiding by the new measures.
• Hygiene regulations must be implemented for staff in the workplace, or for visitors.
• Commuting to work, helping others and exercising alone outside will still be permissible, as long as the activities are carried out in abidance with the guidelines.
• The measures will remain in place, initially for the next two weeks.
Special regulations are defined for visitors of long-term care institutions and hospitals. In most federal states visitors to nursing homes and hospitals are not permitted except if they are for medical reason, in case of end-of-life care or parents of sick children (this holds in Bavaria, Brandenburg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Bremen, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Lower Saxony, Thuringia, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia). In all other federal states, there is a limitation on visitors to hospitals and nursing homes of maximum one visit per day for one hour.
On April 1, the social distancing restrictions were extended until April 19, through the end of the Easter holiday break. On April 2, many federal states have implemented catalogues of fines for those breaking the rules, and not keeping the advised 1.5-meter distance between people. For example, Berlin’s catalogue foresees a fine of EUR 25 to 500 if people form groups of more than two people and possibly resist the police's demands. Fines for companies that infringe the restrictions are considerably higher with up to EUR 10,000 euros for example for opening of shops. According to the catalogue of fines in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia gatherings in groups of more than two are fined EUR 200, and picnics and barbecues with EUR 250. Operating a bar, club or gym will be fined EUR 5.000.
On April 1, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) updated its position regarding people wearing protective face masks when people go out in public. The use of temporary masks in public spaces where the safety distance cannot be maintained (e.g. public transport, grocery stores or even at the workplace) also by people without coronavirus symptoms (that might however have an asymptomatic infection of COVID-19) could help to prevent the risk of transmission. Previously, the RKI recommended that only people with acute respiratory infections should wear protective face masks. At national level there is currently no obligation to wear masks. Only few communities (Jena and Landkreis Nordhausen Stadt) decided on March 31 to make wearing protective masks obligatory in public transport and shops.
A summary of the measures taken by the federal government until mid-April can be found in the document “Measures by the Federal Government to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and address its impacts”:
Gradual lift of lockdown measures: chronological order
On 15 April, the chancellor and the heads of Germany’s 16 states announced a plan to cautiously lift some of the lockdown measures. They agreed to extend coronavirus social distancing measures to at least 3 May, citing an early but fragile success in reducing stresses to the public health system. Merkel highlighted the need to continue to lower the reproduction rate (Rt), and that the government will be rolling out more precise testing and contact tracing strategies, as the virus was not evenly spreading throughout Germany. Physical distancing regulations, including a ban on gathering with more than one person outside of an individual's household, will remain in force until May 3.
The agreement achieved on April 15, allows car dealers, bicycle shops and bookstores to open as part of the first phase of easing restrictions from April 20. Meanwhile, shops up to 800 square meters will also be allowed to reopen. All shops are required to provide plans to maintain hygiene and strict conditions must be in place regarding access and queue control. (Shops considered essential, such as supermarkets, pharmacies and hardware stores, have stayed open throughout the lockdown. Customers have been allowed to enter only in restricted numbers and asked to stay away from one another.)
The agreement states further:
• Hairdressers will be allowed to open their doors from 4 May, provided they too comply with strict hygiene measures. Restaurants, cinemas, bars and theaters have been given no starting date to reopen.
• Starting 4 May, schools will gradually and slowly reopen. Students preparing to leave secondary school are set to return to school first, on May 4, along with those leaving primary school but only after appropriate preparations of hygiene standards. However, in Bavaria, schools will not reopen until May 11. Day care centers and kindergartens are to remain closed. However, "emergency care" services will be provided and extended to parents of small children who have to go to work and for single parents. By April 29, the Conference of Education Ministers is to present a concept for further steps on how teaching can be resumed under special hygiene and protective measures.
• Large events remain banned until 31 August at the earliest. Further, the government is keeping its suspension on religious services. The government and the Robert Koch Institute are strongly recommending, but not requiring, that masks be worn on public transport and in shops.
• Everybody in Germany is still requested not to undertake any private travel or visits.
However, the federal states are largely responsible for how they enact restrictions to curb the novel coronavirus. Hence, they the decision on what can open and when is up to them. As of April 17, the federal states started to announce how they would ease the restrictions.
On April 17, the federal state Saxony is the first German state to make wearing a face mask on public transport and in stores a requirement as of April 20. At the same time, the federal state lifts its lockdown measures which have been much stricter than in other federal states. From April 20, people can leave the house without specific reason. Social distancing measures remain in place. On April 20, the federal states of Bavaria and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania also announced to make wearing face masks a requirement in public transport. In the subsequent days, most federal states followed and announced similar rules and implemented regulations to wear (non-medical) face masks, mostly starting as of April 27 (partly earlier). This is applied to public transport and at retail in all states.
On April 30, the Chancellor and the heads of the 16 German states agreed that houses of worship, museums, gardens, zoos, playgrounds and monuments would be opened under certain conditions in the coming days for visitors after weeks of lockdown. The federal states have the final word on opening churches and other places of worship. The country's social distancing measures stay in place at least until May 10.
On May 1, the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt was the first state to announce to ease physical distancing measures. The state, which has registered relatively second few cases of coronavirus within Germany (behind Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania), is allowing people to meet up in groups of five as of May 4.
On May 6, the Chancellor announced lockdown rollback for the coming weeks. While contact restrictions were extended until 5 June, the federal government and the states agreed that members of two households (two families, two couples or the members of two shared flats) may meet again. However, a distance of 1.5 meters must be kept. Parts of the economy will reopen. In general, the federal states assume responsibility for further relaxation of restrictions. The decisions taken at federal level constitute a framework for federal states to determine the next stages of the lockdown. This allows a differentiated response to regional outbreaks and infection rates. The government also announced an ‘emergency break’: once infection rates spread to more than 50 acute cases per 100,000 people in a given area within seven days, new lockdowns would be put in place in the respective region (see also Section 1.4).
The relaxed regulations agreed on May 6 include:
• All stores are allowed to reopen, without square meter restrictions. Stores must ensure hygiene measures, access control and avoid queues.
• Mouth and nose protectors must be worn when shopping and on public transport. This regulation could be extended to other areas in the coming days.
• Employees with cold symptoms can have their doctor write a sick note by telephone until at least May 18.
• Schools will reopen in phases and emergency care services for children will be extended in all states from May 11. Federal states will decide when schools and childcare facilities will fully reopen before the summer. However, most universities will continue with distance learning.
• Seniors in care homes in some states will be allowed to receive visitors provided there is no active COVID-19 case in the facility, and in some cases, only if the visitors are older than 16.
• Outdoor sports for children and non-professional leagues would also be allowed to take place.
• The reopening of cinemas, theaters and restaurants remains unclear, each state is reviewing rules for restarting these parts of the economy.
• In most states, religious services will resume.
• Germany's soccer league, the Bundesliga, will be allowed to resume games in the second half of May, as long as games are played behind closed doors. The decision now passes to the German Football League (DFL) as to when to restart play.
On May 11, Germany's 16 states rolled back further COVID-19 restrictions. Each state has defined news rules individually resulting in a landscape of different rules across Germany. For example, restaurants have reopened for locals in the western states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia, albeit under strict rules that separate guests by at least 1.5 meters on May 11. Museums and art galleries were also allowed to open their doors again in Hamburg, Berlin, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Lower Saxony. In Bavaria, outdoor seating areas of restaurants are allowed to open only on May 18 while indoor seating in restaurants is permitted to open again starting on May 25 and hotels can welcome guests again on May 30.
In general, restaurants may gradually reopen. The distances between the individual tables and hygiene concepts must be strictly observed. The federal states are responsible for deciding how to organize the opening, resulting in differences in the reopening of restaurants. In most federal states, restaurants are allowed to receive guests between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, the northwestern state of Schleswig-Holstein, the northeastern state of Brandenburg and the southern state of Bavaria, residents are now once again allowed to meet in public with people from a different household. People in Bavaria can also meet with family members who do not live in their home provided they are directly related (i.e. children, parents, siblings). In Berlin and the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, massage studios, nail parlors and tattoo studios as well as other "physically-close services" can now reopen under strict regulations. In Saxony-Anhalt, visitors are once again permitted in retirement homes and senior care facilities. Residents are permitted an hour-long visit with one visitor per day, as long as that person wears a mask.
The federal states are responsible for determining the scope for smaller public or private events or celebrations, as well as non-festive events. E.g. in Berlin, for example, up to 20 people can come together - provided there is a compelling reason for this. This includes, for example, looking after people in need of help, accompanying people who are dying, attending a funeral service or a baptism or wedding ceremony. Hygiene and distance rules must always be met. Large events such as folk festivals, larger sporting events with spectators, larger concerts and festivals continue to be prohibited until at least August 31.
On May 26, the head of the federal chancellery and the heads of the federal states agreed that contact restrictions will be extended until 29 June. Part of the agreement is that federal states may allow public gatherings of up to 10 people which belong to two households. People in public must continue to maintain a minimum distance of 1.5 metres. This measure is being supplemented by an obligation to wear a mask in certain public areas. Distancing and hygiene measures should also be implemented in private gatherings at home in closed spaces. The number of persons permitted depends on the space available and thus the possibility to adhere to the rule on distancing. What is more, adequate ventilation must be ensured. The number of persons should be restricted accordingly. Wherever possible, private gatherings should be held outside where there is a considerably lower risk of infection. The identities of the participants should be known. The measures are slightly different in Thuringia (see above), Hesse and Lower Saxony. For the time being, Hesse will retain the restriction that individuals can go outside either on their own or together with one other person of another household or with members of their own household. Lower Saxony reserves the right to uphold its regulation limiting contact to two households.
On June 9, the state government of Thuringia announced as the first of the 16 German federal states to lift contact restrictions as of June 13. The state cabinet agreed on a new basic regulation that recommends citizens to meet with only one household or with a maximum of ten people. However, minimum distances should be kept wherever possible and wearing mouth-nose protection will remain compulsory in public transport and shops. The new regulation also allows swimming pools, cinemas, saunas, thermal baths to reopen their doors, provided that their hygiene concepts are approved.
On June 17, the heads of the federal states and the head of the chancellor agree that large events remain banned until the end of October. The ban was previously in place until August 31. Exceptions can be made if contact tracing and compliance with hygiene regulations is ensured at certain events. Further, they decided that schools and kindergartens will take up regular operation after the summer holidays, if possible.
Local outbreaks and lockdown measures
On June 23, in response to an outbreak in a meat processing plant in the district of Guetersloh and the neighbouring district of Warendorf (both North Rhine-Westphalia), where more than 1500 employees have been tested positive for COVID-19, a local lockdown has been implemented to contain the spread. Many of the measures that were implemented nationwide during the initial lockdown will be brought back, including:
• Contact restrictions now only allow for families or people living in the same household to meet. In public spaces, only people from the same household or two people from different households may meet,
• Museums, theatres, cinemas and gyms will close. The same applies to bars, venues and swimming pools. Outdoor barbecues will also be prohibited again. Concerts and other events are not allowed,
• A quarantine for employees and contractors of the meat processing plant will be enforced. Mobile teams will be accompanied by interpreters for Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian and by the police,
• Shops and restaurants can remain open under certain restrictions,
• Already since June 18, all schools and day-care centres in the district have been closed.
The measures are first in place to determine how widespread the outbreak is, and will be valid until June 30. There is currently no ban on leaving the districts. Testing will be expanded and be available also for people without symptoms within the district of Guetersloh.
On June 29, the authorities announced that the lockdown on the community of Warendorf will be lifted, but that it is extended in Guetersloh for an adiitional week. A recent mass testing of nearly 40,000 people in the two districts showed that the spread had taken place in Gütersloh with some 112 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants within the past seven days. while the rate of contagion was much slower in Warendorf.
Regional roadmaps for further easing restriction measures
On June 30, the federal states agreed on a roadmap forward for easing some remaining COVID-19 restrictions. The plans differ a bit between states, but reflect the understanding that local outbreaks like the ones seen in Guetersloh, Goettingen and specific apartment complexes in Berlin require local or regional measures. In Saxony, for example, a new plan has been developed to deal with local outbreaks. An early warning system will be triggered in the state if 20 new infections per 100,000 residents are recorded within seven days. The first restrictions would come into place if the cases topped 35 per 100,000 residents and would cancel events and reimplement some distancing measures. If the number reaches 50 cases per 100,000 then limitations on freedom of movement and contact restrictions will be triggered. Mandatory testing would then apply for certain professions and population groups. In Bremen, events of up to 250 people will be permitted indoors from July 1, along with up to 400 people in open air settings. Keeping distances of 1.5 meters from others is still required, and event organizers must collect the names of participants. In Saxony-Anhalt, bans on contacts will be dropped and recommendations that no more than ten people should meet will come into effect on July 2. Some bans on smaller events will also be relaxed on that day, with private celebrations allowed to have 50 instead of 20 participants and going up to 500 on August 29. The state government plans to evaluate the effectiveness of these relaxations on a month-to-month basis. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, restrictions on contact in public spaces will be lifted on July 10. Restaurants will also be able to have longer hours, flea markets will return and sporting events can welcome attendees once more. A requirement for distance between people not from the same family will remain in place, and an official recommendation to cover noses and mouths at meetings will also stay in place. Finally, the total people permitted to meet indoors will go from 100 to 200 as long proper hygienic accommodations are taken, and outdoor events will go from 300 to 500.
On July 16, the heads of the federal states and the head of Federal Chancellery agreed to a plan to apply targeted, local measures when new outbreaks occur and not have to shut down entire districts. The restrictions such as bans on entry and leaving an area should be targeted at the location of the outbreak. This solution came after several state government leaders said they wouldn’t lock down entire districts based on local outbreaks and any local travel restrictions or further measures on group gatherings would be imposed only if new cases continue to rise. In the event of a local outbreak, federal and state authorities should furthermore provide support for additional testing and contact tracing to keep any potential restrictions as short as possible.
Stricter measures to curb coronavirus in late summer
On August 27, agreements were reached in several areas after a virtual meeting between the Federal Chancellor and the heads of the 16 states:
• A violation of the obligation to wear either a mask or something that covers the mouth and nose in shops and on public transport will incur a fine of at least EUR 50 nationwide. The exception to this is the state of Saxony-Anhalt, which did not want to introduce the policy because of low numbers of cases. On regional trains, the state transport ministers are to further examine how noncompliant passengers are to be dealt with.
• The free testing that has been available for travelers returning to Germany from abroad will be made available to only those coming back from designated risk areas starting on September 16 (see also section 1.5 Transition measures: testing).
• Furthermore, the federal and state governments want to ensure that no compensation for loss of income will be paid to people who have to quarantine if they willingly chose to travel to a risk area which was already designated as such before their departure.
• Major events where contact tracking and compliance with hygiene regulations is not possible should not take place until at least the end of December 2020
• Digitalisation in schools is to be promoted. The federal government wants to support the states with an immediate program of an additional EUR 500 million
• Child health benefit: This year, legally insured persons entitled to child health benefits will be granted five additional days to care for a sick child. Single parents are to receive ten additional days (see also Section 6.1)
• On the topic of private gatherings, the states were unable to agree on an upper limit for participants. Instead, Germans are asked to "critically weigh" in each individual case whether private celebrations are "necessary" and "justifiable." Currently, in the states of Saxony and Baden-Wuerttemberg up to 100 people are allowed to meet at family celebrations in a restaurant or a rented room. In Schleswig-Holstein, on the other hand, only up to 50 people are allowed at private parties. In Hamburg the maximum is 25.
Stricter measures to curb coronavirus in autumn and winter
After a virtual conference between the Federal Chancellor and state leaders on September 29, new policies concerning the containment of COVID-19 were announced. First, if a district has more than 35 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants within seven days, gatherings in public or rented rooms will be limited to a maximum of 50 participants in public or rented spaces. For celebration in private rooms, a maximum number of 25 people is strongly recommended, but it is not part of the formal regulation. If there are more than 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants in a district within seven days, the number of participants in public or rented spaces goes down to 25. Exceptions here could be made for registered celebrations with hygiene plans approved by public health officials. For private celebrations it is recommended to limit participants to 10 people. Furthermore, citizens who give false information about themselves in restaurants or bars will face a fine of EUR 50, with the states being responsible to implement this policy. Two letters will be added to the “AHA formula” (which stands for distance, hygiene, masks [Abstand halten, Hygiene and Alltagsmaske]) by “C” and “L”, which stand for Corona Warn App and Lüften (ventilation).