Düsseldorf/Berlin City officials and medical professionals warn of a fourth wave, saying that lifting the restrictions is “playing with fire”. The SPD and Greens demand more consideration for those who have not been vaccinated, such as children and adolescents.
The extensive relaxation of the corona rules in North Rhine-Westphalia is largely being met with scepticism. “As expected, the extent of the relaxations in NRW will continue to increase, also against the background of the election campaign. But this is playing with fire,” the chairman of the North Rhine Association of General Practitioners, Oliver Funken, told our editorial team. For anyone who has not yet been vaccinated or is still hesitating, the relaxations mean a significantly increased risk. Funken warned that “the AHA rules must be followed at all costs.” At the same time, he urged for faster vaccinations, saying, “we now have to accelerate the vaccination programme. It is good that the number of vaccines released per doctor is no longer restricted. Wherever vaccinations are administered, the required quantities must be delivered quickly.”
The day before, NRW Health Minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) had announced far-reaching relaxations that will take effect immediately. The prerequisite is a stable incidence rate of 10 or less in independent cities or districts. For example, contact restrictions in private are to be dropped, and the distancing rules are to be understood as a recommendation only. Folk and street festivals can also be held again, sooner than previously planned. Discos are also allowed to reopen if, in addition, the national incidence rate is 10 or below. The new Corona Protection Ordinance is in force until 5 August.
Nightclubs not yet prepared
Many nightclub operators are not yet prepared for the relaxations. Heike Schätze, honorary chairwoman at Liveinitiative-NRW, a group for the event industry, expects that less than 50 per cent of clubs will be able to open in July. Many are suffering from shortages in service and security staff, she said. Operators also have to present hygiene concepts and ensure that vaccination passes and test results are checked. “Giving us the opportunity to open up within three days is difficult, but I appreciate the prospect,” the representative told WDR.
The German Hotel and Restaurant Association in North Rhine-Westphalia (Dehoga) does not see the relaxations as only positive. “We welcome the relaxations, they give us a bit of normality back again. At the same time, we are aware of our responsibility towards our guests and employees, because nobody knows what will happen in the autumn and winter,” said a spokesperson for the Association, adding: “The prospect of staying open long-term therefore remains just as important to us as reasonable, short-term relaxations.” Under the new corona regulations, service staff will be allowed to decide whether to test themselves or to wear a mask. The Dehoga said, “with the relaxations, our restaurateurs will think of their guests. Nothing is gained if the mask requirement for service staff is lifted, but the guest feels uncomfortable.”
Kutschaty says extent of relaxations is premature
The municipalities also expressed their views. Thomas Kufen, deputy chairman of the NRW Association of Cities and Towns and CDU Mayor of Essen, urged caution to our editorial team. In view of the currently low infection rates in NRW, there is more leeway than previously thought, he said. “We in the cities can therefore understand the state government’s steps towards more normality. However, we must continue to clearly state that unfortunately, the pandemic is not over and done with yet.” The danger of a fourth wave has not yet been averted, he said. "We must not all lull ourselves into a sense of security too soon. The new relaxations will be dropped if the infection rates rise above the threshold of 10 again,” said Kufen. He believes it is right that the obligation to wear masks in shops and on public transport continues to apply. “Not enough people have been vaccinated yet to call the mask wearing into question here”.
The opposition in state parliament was even more outspoken. “Against the background of the rising R-rate, I view the far-reaching relaxations from the NRW state government with great scepticism,” Verena Schäffer, co-faction leader of the Green Party, told our editorial office. Adults should now show solidarity with the younger generation, she said. “Children and young people need to be a priority now, which means making the necessary provisions now, so that face-to-face teaching can take place safely after the holidays.”
SPD opposition leader Thomas Kutschaty agrees with the CDU and FDP that many of the restrictions on freedom can no longer be justified. But he added: “Nevertheless, I think the scope of the relaxations to this extent is still premature. We can't really assess the effects of the Delta variant yet.” In addition, the relaxations which have now been decided could also be counter-productive for the vaccination campaign, he said. “Especially now, when a kind of vaccination fatigue seems to be spreading, this is not the right signal at the moment.”
Norbert Walter-Borjans, the federal chairman of the SPD, said from Berlin, “what Armin Laschet is doing now is not guided by reason, but is fair-weather politics with an eye on the Bundestag elections.” The SPD leader stressed to our editorial team that the relaxations in NRW have come too soon. “We need a higher vaccination rate first. That’s a matter of only a few weeks now.” Party colleague Malu Dreyer, Minister President of Rhineland-Palatinate, did not want to comment on the situation in NRW, but told our editorial team, “we also have an obligation to our citizens to lift restrictions when there is currently no risk of the health system collapsing.”
(Original text: Kirsten Bialdiga, Hagen Strauß and Jana Wolf, Translation: Caroline Kusch)