‘Corona chaos’ as Germans baffled by virus rules

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C), Bavaria’s State Premier Markus Soeder (R) and Berlin’s mayor Michael Mueller give a press conference after a meeting of states’ leaders on the coronavirus situation in Berlin. on October 14, 2020. (Photo by STEFANIE LOOS / POOL / AFP)

Agence France Presse

BERLIN, Germany (AFP) — When Covid-19 first struck Europe earlier this year, Germany’s federal system was credited with taking early and targeted measures that helped contain the virus better than many other countries.

But as the second wave gathers momentum in Europe’s biggest economy, cracks in the federal system are starting to show.

With different states implementing different travel restrictions, quarantine rules and test strategies, a confusing patchwork of regulations is leading to what the weekly Focus magazine has described as “corona chaos” during the country’s autumn school holiday season.

Germany, like other countries in Europe, is battling an upsurge in cases, announcing 6,638 new infections on Thursday, the highest daily number since the beginning of the pandemic.

The leaders of Germany’s federal states have met regularly with Chancellor Angela Merkel to agree rules and regulations, but ultimately each state has the right to decide whether to impose them or not.

One measure that has left Germans scratching their heads is a travel ban agreed last week that theoretically prevents people from risk areas within Germany from booking overnight accommodation in another state.

People wearing protective face masks walk in the pedestrian area in the city of Dortmund, western Germany, on October 14, 2020, amid the ongoing novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. – In Dortmund, wearing a mask is mandatory in the pedestrian zone since October 13 as a measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The German Chancellor wants measures toughened up to fight a surge in coronavirus infections, including requiring masks in more places and limiting numbers of people gathering for private events, according to a draft policy paper seen by AFP. The proposals to be discussed with premiers from Germany’s 16 states later on October 14 would see the restrictions kick in once an area records 35 new infections per 100,000 people over seven days. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

But many of Germany’s states have refused to comply with the ban or tweaked it to suit their own needs.

Someone living in the capital Berlin, considered a risk zone as new infections numbers have crossed a threshold, can travel to surrounding state Brandenburg for a day trip or to go shopping, but cannot stay overnight.

If they want to travel north to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, they must produce a negative test and undergo 14 days of quarantine — but if they want to travel further to Bremen, there are no such restrictions.

In a fraught meeting with Merkel on Wednesday, many of the state premiers demanded that the ban be overturned — but all they got was a promise that it will be reviewed after the autumn holidays on November 8.

– ‘None of this makes sense’ –
Merkel said she was “not entirely satisfied” with that decision and admitted that implementing the ban is “indeed not easy”.

“That is why, during the course of the autumn holidays, we will by and large stick to the existing rules — there must be some predictability for people,” she said, calling on the public to urgently avoid unnecessary travel.

But just hours later, eastern state Saxony declared it was opting out of the ban while a court in south-western state Baden-Wuerttemberg overturned the prohibition as it found the encroachment on individual freedoms disproportionate.

Critics of the travel rules also include Berlin mayor Michael Mueller, who branded them nonsensical in an interview with the ZDF broadcaster.

“We have hundreds of thousands of commuters every day, they meet in shops, on local transport, at work — and then a Berliner is not allowed to stay overnight in the Spreewald (forest) for two days. None of this makes sense.”

Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, acknowledged ahead of the Wednesday meeting that things were getting increasingly confusing.

“People have the right to clear, binding rules that everyone can understand,” he told the Bild daily.

“If the rules are generally understandable, they will also find broad acceptance among the population,” he said. “If rules cause confusion, acceptance suffers.”

– Reams of exceptions –
The rules are equally baffling when it comes to foreign travel. The government on Wednesday agreed guidelines on testing and quarantine for people returning to Germany from international risk zones.

From November 8, anyone returning from a risk area must in principle enter a 10-day quarantine period.

But there are reams of exceptions to this rule, including for commuters, people passing through a risk country for less than 24 hours, and even people visiting family if they stay less than three days.

Travellers can also release themselves from the 10-day quarantine if they are able to produce a negative test result not older than 48 hours carried out before they travel, or if they get tested after they return.

But even with a negative test, the minimum quarantine period will still be five days.

And if that wasn’t complicated enough, it is once again up to the individual states to implement these rules as they see fit.

The German Tourism Federation (DTV) has called for a more unified approach as soon as possible to prevent travel disappointment and needless pressure on the economy.

“The chaos at the beginning of the autumn holidays shows once again that co-ordinated action between the states and the federal government is more necessary than ever,” it said in a statement.

© Agence France-Presse