Merkel calls on Germans to avoid virus-hit areas like US

Arne Delfs and Raymond Colitt

Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Germans to refrain from non-essential travel to areas with severe coronavirus outbreaks, including the U.S.

Merkel’s warning to people in Europe’s biggest economy reflects growing concern among European leaders faced with a summer surge of Covid-19. Paris is expanding its mask-wearing mandate to public spaces citywide, Spain reported the most new infections since late April and Italy had the most since early May.

People from Germany who visit high-risk places without a valid reason risk losing income if they’re forced to miss work due to quarantine, which can run as long as 14 days, Merkel said in Berlin on Thursday. The chancellor will address the crisis and other issues at her annual summer press conference on Friday.

Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to the media at the Federal Press Conference during her traditional summer press conference on current domestic and foreign policy issues in Berlin, Germany, Friday, Aug. 28, 2020.

“The federal and state governments urge all those returning from travel to comply with the quarantine obligations and thus also your responsibility toward fellow citizens,” she said after talks to coordinate with German state leaders. “We call on people to avoid traveling to risk areas wherever possible.”

Germany’s list of more than 100 countries also includes most of Spain and parts of France and Croatia, according to the Robert Koch Institute, a national health agency.

Europe’s leaders are wary of sweeping measures that could hobble recovering economies. There’s little appetite for harsh lockdowns, as latest data indicate the outbreak is becoming less deadly – at least for now.

France is ready to institute a new national lockdown, but only as a last resort to avoid measures that clobbered the economy in the second quarter, France’s Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday.

“The epidemic is gaining ground, and we need to intervene now,” Castex said, rejecting the need for broad restrictions. “This doesn’t mean the situation is as serious as it was” earlier this year.

Even so, there’s concern that returning travelers may spread the disease at schools and workplaces as the summer draws to a close. That could lead to tighter restrictions, including limits on family gatherings.

“I think we’ll continue with this issue in the winter months,” Merkel said. “When things move to tighter living spaces, it may be we have to come back to this. I don’t wish it.”

France reported 6,111 new Covid-19 cases, the most since late March. The Paris mayor’s office announced that face coverings are now compulsory in public spaces throughout the capital. The mandate previously applied only to certain busy streets.

President Emmanuel Macron will likely address the pandemic when he speaks with reporters on Friday.

Tipping Point

Germany’s daily coronavirus infections rose and stayed close to a four-month high. There were 1,561 new cases in the 24 hours through Friday morning, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. That’s close to Saturday’s increase of 1,737, the highest since late April, but still far below daily gains of almost 7,000 at the peak of the pandemic in the spring.

The reproduction factor – the average number of people infected by one person with the virus – declined to 0.83 on Thursday from 0.85 the previous day, according to the latest estimate from RKI, which said the increase in infections is “mainly due to people returning home from vacations abroad, but also to transmission at family and other private events.”

“What’s worrying is the dynamic,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said in an interview with Friday’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. “If the numbers surge exponentially again, there could be a tipping point,” he added. “Unfortunately, we will only know what this critical point is in retrospect, when it’s too late.”

Italy reported 1,411 new cases, the most since May 6, with an average age of 29, according to the national health institute. Authorities have stepped up Covid-19 tests to a record pace – more than 94,000 were conducted in the latest 24-hour period – as residents return from vacations abroad or at Italian destinations. Five more deaths were reported nationwide.

Spain reported 3,781 new cases, the most since April 23. Yet only 5% of patients are hospitalized, compared with 55% at the peak of the pandemic in Spain, Fernando Simon, the government’s chief epidemiologist, said at a news briefing.

Merkel said that further easing steps in Germany wouldn’t be justified at the current level of contagion rates. Instead, the country plans to step up enforcement of hygiene and distancing rules. Authorities across Germany agreed to impose fines of at least 50 euros ($59) on people who don’t abide by face-mask rules.

The meeting was contentious and dragged on longer than expected. Some regional leaders point to low infection rates locally and want looser rules.

“We’ve only managed to agree on these common criteria because states have very different opinions that couldn’t be brought together today,” Merkel said.