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Germany locks down before Christmas as coronavirus deaths rise

Germany earned widespread recognition for its success in halting the spread of the virus in the spring through an aggressive approach carried out through contact tracing, early and aggressive testing and coordinated nationwide restrictions.

The Pariser Platz square in front of the German landmark Brandenburg Gate is deserted in Berlin, Germany, on March 30, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

BERLIN — Germans will be forced into a strict lockdown over Christmas, after weeks of milder restrictions on public life failed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, leading to record numbers of new infections and deaths, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Sunday.

Starting Wednesday, nonessential stores, schools and hairdressers will be required to close, and companies will be encouraged to offer employees an extended holiday break or allow them to work from home. The number of people allowed to meet privately will also be further tightened. New Year’s celebrations outdoors will be all but prohibited, with the sale of fireworks and public gatherings banned.

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“All of this will impact the holidays, we know that, but we have been forced to take action and that is what we are doing now,” Merkel said at a news conference announcing the measures, which are to remain in place through Jan. 10.

Germany earned widespread recognition for its success in halting the spread of the virus in the spring through an aggressive approach carried out through contact tracing, early and aggressive testing and coordinated nationwide restrictions. But since then, the country has stumbled, allowing a false sense of complacency to set in. Leaders of Germany’s 16 states have also been resistant to following calls from the chancellor and medical experts for another lockdown this fall.

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In September, Merkel warned that if Germany did not take more radical action, the numbers of new infections could rise to 19,000 per day. Roughly one month later, the chancellor’s warning came to pass as the country experienced more than 21,500 new infections within a 24-hour period.

Instead of falling in line with other European countries that imposed hard restrictions as their numbers rose this fall, Germany’s governors squabbled over how far regulations should be allowed to go. The result was a raft of more flexible, softer measures nationwide — named “lockdown light” by the German news media — that closed bars, restaurants, theaters and cinemas but allowed small groups of people to meet and left nonessential stores, schools and hotels open.

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The aim had been to reduce social contacts by 75%, Merkel said when they were announced in October. But with more people venturing out for Christmas shopping, a reduction of only 40% was achieved, Merkel said Sunday.

“The ‘lockdown light’ had an effect, but it was not enough,” said Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria.

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