BERLIN — Germany plans to let smaller shops reopen next week after a weeks-long coronavirus shutdown and to start reopening schools in early May, but Europe’s biggest economy is keeping strict social distancing rules in place for now.
After much-anticipated talks Wednesday with Germany’s 16 state governors, Chancellor Angela Merkel set out a plan for the first steps of a cautious restart of public life — following neighboring Austria and Denmark and other countries in launching a slow loosening of restrictions.
New infections in Germany have slowed in recent weeks, but Merkel cautioned that the country has achieved only “a fragile intermediate success” so far and doesn’t have “much room for maneuver.”
She said a ban on gatherings of more than two people in public and an obligation to keep at a 1.5-meter (five-foot) distance from others, which has been in place since March 23, will remain in place beyond Sunday when it was previously set to expire.
Nonessential shops, which have also have been closed for nearly four weeks, will be allowed to start reopening, with hygiene precautions, if they are up to 800 square meters (8,600 square feet) in area. So will auto showrooms, bike shops and bookshops, irrespective of their size.
Merkel said the decisions apply to the period from Monday though May 3, and officials will review the situation again on April 30.
She said authorities also will recommend that people wear face masks on public transport and when shopping, but are stopping short of making their use obligatory for now.
Schools have been closed since mid-March. Merkel said preparations will be made for them to reopen step by step from May 4, with the oldest students returning first. Hairdressing salons also should prepare to reopen starting May 4, officials said.
State governors and Germany’s interior minister will hold talks this week with religious communities on what to do about religious gatherings, which haven’t been allowed in recent weeks, Merkel said.
It remains unclear when bars, cafes and restaurants — which also are closed, apart from for takeouts — will be allowed to reopen.
“We are moving forward in small steps and must see what effect they have,” Merkel said.
Major gatherings won’t be allowed through Aug. 31.
Germany’s federal structure gives individual states significant leeway to make decisions, and some may diverge slightly on details of how to restart public life.
Germany has confirmed more than 130,000 coronavirus infections, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. It has recorded over 3,500 deaths, but that is a lower number than in countries with comparable case figures and Germany’s health system hasn’t been overwhelmed.
The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness.