Europe heads back to normal as Germany joins end of COVID-19 restrictions

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Europe looks to be leaving the pandemic behind with Germany poised to join other countries in unwinding restrictions that have disrupted life in the region for two years.

Most of Germany’s Covid curbs will be rolled back in three stages by March 20, according to a proposal prepared by Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s office for a meeting with regional leaders on Wednesday.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

Austria and Switzerland are planning similar steps, and the Netherlands announced late Tuesday that it will lift controls on people and businesses starting on Friday.

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Once the global epicenter of the crisis, Europe is looking to return to something close to normal. The shift is being helped by relatively high vaccination rates and milder symptoms caused by the omicron variant, even if infection rates remain near peak levels in some countries.

France, which moved faster on unwinding restrictions than stragglers like Germany, could go a step further by loosening requirements on masks and showing proof of vaccination starting in mid-March, Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Wednesday.

“If the trend continues, the wave could be over in about two weeks,” he said on France Info radio. “We could get back to a quasi-normal situation.”

Germany’s outbreak has started to recede in recent days and the improving outlook prompted calls from across the political spectrum for Europe’s largest economy to follow countries like the UK, Ireland and Denmark in easing restrictions.

German officials though remain cautious. The government’s proposal calls for mask wearing and social distancing to remain mandatory in indoor public spaces and on public transport.

The chancellery draft warns of the danger of a fresh wave caused by new variants “at the latest by the fall.” Officials also repeat their urgent appeal to the millions of vaccine holdouts in Germany to get their Covid shots and boosters.

“We have to remain vigilant,” Hendrik Wuest, premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said on public broadcaster ARD ahead of the meeting. “We can’t just throw everything overboard that has proved its worth in recent months.”

In Switzerland, the government is widely expected as of Thursday to drop most public-health measures put in place to stem Covid’s spread. However, masks may still be required on public transport.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer is discussing additional easing options with regional leaders on Wednesday. The Dutch government on Tuesday presented a road map toward a full reopening as infections start to fall from record levels.

“Everything will open, not in one go, but in steps,” Dutch Health Minister Ernst Kuipers said on Tuesday in the Hague.

Germany’s plan

In Germany, a requirement for people to be vaccinated or recovered to enter non-essential stores and limits on private gatherings will be lifted immediately, according to the chancellery proposal.

A second step would take effect March 4. Access to restaurants and hotels will be allowed for those who are vaccinated, recovered or have a valid negative test, and major events can be attended by more people. Nightclubs can reopen for people who have had a booster shot or provide a negative test.

In the third and final phase, “all of the more comprehensive protection measures can expire as long as the state of the health system allows,” the paper says. Employers would no longer be required to allow employees to work from home.

Federal and regional officials will also reiterate their backing for a general vaccine mandate. Lawmakers in the Bundestag have yet to begin debating the measure due to a lack of consensus between political parties and legal complexities.

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