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Merkel Wants to Limit Party Guests to Two to Stem Virus Spread

Arne Delfs, Daniel Schaefer and Raymond Colitt
·4 min read

(Bloomberg) -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants further restrictions on public and private gatherings as the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly despite a partial lockdown since early November.

People from one household should be allowed to meet with a maximum of two people from another home, down from a previous limit of 10 people from two households, according to draft proposals obtained by Bloomberg.

Tougher rules on socializing -- part of a new round of measures under discussion -- are the latest signs of Europe’s struggle to regain control over the pandemic. Even with tentative signs that the wave is cresting, the outbreak is still worse than the initial phase and that’s unsettling businesses and consumers.

The German economy could stagnate or even shrink in the final three months of the year, the Bundesbank said on Monday. While current curbs on movement are less stringent than a national lockdown in the spring, exports are suffering from a resurgence of the virus across Europe.

“It remains a challenge to calibrate the measures in a way that the pandemic is effectively kept in check while limiting public life and therefore the economy as little as possible,” according to the Bundesbank.

After declining significantly through July, the number of coronavirus cases began ticking up again across Europe in early August, spread by travelers returning from vacation and failure to observe distancing and hygiene rules. Germany has far fewer cases and deaths than nations like the U.K., France and Italy, but the government has warned that rapidly-filling hospitals are threatening to overload the health system.

The proposals, which Merkel will present to Germany’s 16 regional premiers later on Monday, include making face masks mandatory in all schools and for all age groups. People over 65 and at-risk individuals would get 15 FFP2 face masks to give them extra protection during the winter. The government also plans to get immunization centers ready to operate at short notice from Dec. 15.

Some of the measures are controversial, and Merkel may be forced to back down. Making masks obligatory for all school children is particularly sensitive, and some state leaders want to first consider other methods such as staggered school times, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Merkel and the state leaders plan to meet again Nov. 23 to reassess the country’s efforts to contain the disease, according to the draft proposals for Monday’s meeting.

Merkel last week opened the door to extending the monthlong, partial lockdown into December, and at the weekend again warned the nation about difficult winter months ahead. Economy Minister Peter Altmaier predicted that Germany will have to live with “considerable restrictions” for at least the next four to five months.

Infections have surged by about 50% since the end of October to more than 800,000, compared with almost 2 million in France. The number of German Covid-19 patients in intensive care has shot up by 70%, surpassing the peak in the spring.

Bavaria Premier Markus Soeder said Monday that the current shutdown -- designed to limit social contact by closing bars and restaurants, while keeping most businesses operating -- is showing “first signs of success.” However, he said the spread of the disease at schools needs to be addressed and it’s vital to further reduce social contact.

“It makes sense to keep going until we see a real effect and implement the measures that are successful,” Soeder said in an interview with ZDF television. If the restrictions are extended into December, more financial aid will have to be provided to sectors affected by the measures, he said.

Support for businesses affected by the November curbs will the German government “a few billion” euros more than the originally estimated 10 billion euros, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said last week.

For the time being, Germany’s strategy to contain the virus is less severe than in countries like Austria, where the government will shut schools, most stores, and services such as hairdressers starting Tuesday.

Merkel has repeatedly urged Germans to abide by hygiene and distancing rules so that health-care services don’t collapse, calling the crisis the biggest test since World War II.

The number of patients being treated for the virus in intensive care facilities is at a record 3,394, according to the DIVI register of German ICU capacity. At the beginning of October, there were less than 400 Covid-19 cases in German ICUs.

(Updates with Bundesbank report)

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