Flare-up in coronavirus cases sets back Germany's efforts to reopen

The numbers of cases are now challenging an approach that had made Germany a model for European states looking to return to normal life. PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (NYTIMES) - A spike of more than 1,500 coronavirus infections within days has dealt a sudden blow to Germany's efforts to reopen the country, calling into question the durability of what had been widely considered a success story in managing the contagion in Europe.

The new clusters have been concentrated in slaughterhouses and crowded, low-income apartment blocks, which have been quarantined, but they are generating increasing concern that the infections could break out and spread among the broader public.

This week, those concerns spurred the authorities in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to impose lockdowns in two counties - the first since the country's broader reopening in May - after hundreds of workers at the Tonnies meatpacking plant in Gutersloh county tested positive for the virus. Neighbouring Warendorf county, where many plant workers live, was the second county locked down.

The outbreak at the Tonnies slaughterhouse now stands as one the most severe in Europe, outside of Sweden, according to figures gathered by the European Union. Since then, several hundred workers from two other slaughterhouses have been isolated as well.

Hundreds of police and health workers have fanned out over the region during the past week in an effort to find and test all of the Tonnies plant's 7,000 workers - many of them seasonal labourers from Eastern Europe who were not properly registered with the authorities, raising fears that it might be difficult to contain the outbreaks with a targeted approach.

But the rise in cases is not limited to that area. Nationwide, health authorities registered 630 new infections on Thursday (June 25) - hundreds more than the daily total just 10 days ago. The Robert Koch Institute, said the number of new cases increased by more than a quarter in much of the country over the past week, spreading rapidly in states that had experienced an outbreak.

"What we are seeing is that the virus is still there," Germany's health minister Jens Spahn told RTL television late Wednesday. "Where people make it easy for the virus, where they are careless and don't respect social distancing and hygiene regulations, it is spreading again very quickly."

The numbers of cases and the tenacity of the virus are now challenging an approach that had made Germany a model for European states looking to return to a semblance of normal life.

When the virus first began spreading rapidly in early March, Chancellor Angela Merkel overcame the obstacles of Germany's decentralised federal system, forging consensus among the governors of the country's 16 states to impose one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe.

But several weeks later, with numbers of new infections dropping and a populace itching to get out and enjoy the nice weather, the country's governors grew restless, too. Political pressures resumed to allow states to monitor their own populations and set their own guidelines on how much and how quickly to reopen.

With the virus seemingly in check, the chancellor agreed that the country could "afford a little audacity", by lifting restrictions. But she warned states not to move too quickly and to remain cautious, and insisted that they reimpose restrictions if more than 50 cases cropped up per 100,000 residents.

Dr Merkel was adamant that the reproduction rate of the virus, known as the R number, needed to remain below 1 - meaning that each infected person infected only one other - to ensure public safety. Last weekend the rate countrywide hit a high of more than 2, before rolling back to 1.11 this week.

That number will be closely watched in the coming days, even as states have moved to reopen cafes, restaurants, hotels and cultural institutions in time for Germans to take their summer holidays, with an eye to getting people back to work and increasing spending.

Social distancing and aggressive efforts at contact tracing - including the unveiling of a smartphone app last week that has been downloaded by 12 million people - have remained in place as part of efforts to ensure safety.

But the country's opening has nonetheless been accompanied by a rise in cases - so far manageable but increasingly concerning. Overall, Germany has reported 192,079 cases of coronavirus, with 8,927 fatalities.

"The numbers are going up in almost all German states," Dr Karl Lauterbach, a lawmaker for the Social Democrats who is also a doctor, wrote on Twitter. "North Rhine-Westphalia, Berlin and Lower Saxony determine the R number, but unfortunately the trend is almost the same everywhere. It may be that we have already gone too far with the easing" of restrictions.

Last week the authorities ordered the quarantine of 700 residents of an apartment building in the central city of Gottingen, in the state of Lower Saxony, after more than 120 of them tested positive for the virus.

But they stopped short of ordering a regional lockdown, because the number of new cases remained below the 50 per 100,000 people. In a similar move, an apartment building in the Neukolln district of Berlin was also ordered quarantined.

On Tuesday, Mr Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, announced the lockdown for Gutersloh and Warendorf counties.

By that time hundreds of workers at the slaughterhouse had tested positive, and the country's reproduction number, or R, had jumped, peaking at 2.88 over the weekend.

On Wednesday, outbreaks of the virus were reported in two other meatpacking plants, in Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. Local authorities ordered several hundred workers into quarantine, amid debates over better working conditions for the meatpacking industry.

Many workers at the affected meatpacking plants come from Eastern Europe on seasonal contracts to help provide cheap pork chops, burgers and bratwursts to fill German barbecues throughout the summer months. They often live several to a room in poorly ventilated housing, which makes it difficult for them to maintain the necessary 6-foot distancing rule.

In the slaughterhouse, they also stand side-by-side in cool temperatures that some experts have credited with accelerating the spread the virus.

Authorities last week ordered the workers at the Tonnies plant to remain isolated in their homes in the hope of slowing the spread of the disease.

Schools and day care centers were ordered shut June 17, but only on Tuesday did Mr Laschet reinstate a regional lockdown. That included a ban on public gatherings of more than two people who don't live together. Recently reopened cafes, bars and sports facilities were closed again and widespread testing began among the 640,000 people in the affected counties.

In Gutersloh on Thursday, people arrived before dawn for a free coronavirus test, in the hope of salvaging their summer vacations booked in the mountains of southern Germany or along the northern seacoast. Summer break in North Rhine-Westphalia begins on Saturday, but with the lockdown now imposed on the two counties through the end of the month, several other German states have said residents of those counties are welcome only if they provide proof they are not infected.

Testing was voluntary, despite the large turnout, and health official said only one of the 2,000 people tested registered a positive result. Five new testing centres opened on Thursday, and officials said they hoped to be able to conduct 10,000 free tests a day.

The states of Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemberg. Lower Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have all imposed restrictions on travellers from North Rhine-Westphalia, arguing they need to protect other visitors and the economies of their tourist destinations.

"Imagine that on an island in the North Sea there is a severe outbreak of coronavirus," Mr Bernd Althusmann, the economy minister for Lower Saxony, on Germany's northern coast, told NDR Info radio. "Then the whole tourist industry would have to be shut down. To prevent that from happening requires precautionary measures."

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