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Germany to start easing COVID-19 lockdown next week, draft says

BERLIN — Germany will start easing some coronavirus restrictions from next week, according to draft plans to be discussed by national and regional leaders on Wednesday, amid mounting public frustration over lockdowns and pressure to revive the economy.

Death rates and numbers of patients in intensive care have been declining since January, but the easing will be tentative as new daily cases have begun creeping up again in recent days and the pace of vaccination has been sluggish.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is in favor of a slight opening, she told a meeting of her Christian Democrats (CDU) on Tuesday according to party sources. Merkel is due to debate easing options with the 16 state government heads on Wednesday.

The draft document, seen by Reuters, states that starting from March 8 a maximum of five people from two households, excluding children younger than 14, will be allowed to meet, up from a maximum of two people under current rules.

Flower shops and book stores, garden centers, tattoo and nail parlors as well as massage salons will also be allowed to reopen on March 8, according to the draft. Hairdressers and some schools have reopened in recent days.

However, Merkel told her party she wants to build an emergency handbrake into the plan in case infections start to rise again sharply, noting that about half of new cases are currently caused by more infectious variants, the sources said.

“This is the opposite of an opening strategy,” said Guido Zoellick, president of the Dehoga association representing the hotel and catering industry, calling for a clear plan for when the next steps to relax the restrictions will be possible.

Armin Laschet, premier of Germany’s largest state and CDU leader, said it should be possible to ease the rules based on a strategy of more testing for COVID-19 and faster vaccinations.

“Test, test, test is the message for the coming months,” Laschet said.

Germany already plans to use tests in schools and is also considering making companies offer them to office staff, according to a proposal up for consideration on Wednesday.

The health ministry wants to offer all citizens two free coronavirus tests per week by the end of June, according to a draft proposal obtained by Reuters.

The number of confirmed cases rose by 3,943 to 2,451,011 on Tuesday, while the reported death toll rose by 358 to 70,463. The number of cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days fell slightly to 65.7 from 65.8 the previous day.

With the Easter holidays nearing, the draft agreement appeals to Germans to avoid domestic and foreign travel although limited visits to relatives will be allowed.

Restaurants, bars and entertainment venues in Germany have been shut since early November, while non-essential shops, services and schools closed in mid-December.

German retail sales tumbled more than expected in January as the lockdown and the withdrawal of a temporary cut in sales tax hit consumer spending, data showed on Tuesday. ( Writing by Joseph Nasr and Emma Thomasson Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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