German states plan to relax virus rules for Christmas

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s 16 federal states plan to allow gatherings of up to 10 people over Christmas and New Year, offering some relaxation of coronavirus restrictions to let families and friends celebrate together, a draft proposal showed on Tuesday.

Leaders have also agreed to dramatically boost capacity on state-owned railway Deutsche Bahn through the winter months, effectively making carriages window-seat only to reduce the chance of passengers infecting each other.

The premiers of the states are due to agree plans with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday. Berlin mayor Michael Mueller told ARD television he was confident the measures, agreed by the leaders late on Monday, would be adopted.

The premiers agreed to extend a national “lockdown light”, introduced on Nov. 2, until Dec. 20 to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This will keep bars, restaurants and entertainment venues shut while schools and shops stay open.

They also agreed to reduce the number of people allowed to meet to five from Dec. 1.

Germany, which kept infections and deaths low compared to many of its neighbours in the first phase of the crisis, has stopped an exponential rise in new coronavirus cases but the overall numbers are still far too high, say officials.

Keen to preserve public acceptance, the premiers want to offer relief over Christmas, saying from Dec. 23 to Jan. 1, a maximum of 10 people should be allowed to meet.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

“Christmas and other end-of-year festivities should be possible as celebrations with family and friends even in this unusual year, albeit on a smaller scale,” the draft said.

They also stopped short of recommending a blanket ban on fireworks at New Year’s Eve, but said none would be allowed in public areas to avoid large numbers of people gathering.

Under their plans, aid would be extended for firms hit by November’s restrictions. The government expects November aid to cost 10-15 billion euros and sources estimate additional costs for December, possibly of some 15-20 billion euros.

Europe’s biggest economy grew by a record 8.5% in the third quarter following a 9.8% plunge in the spring. However, German business morale fell for the second month in November, pointing to a contraction in the fourth quarter, Ifo said.

Germany saw the number of coronavirus cases rise by 13,554 in the latest 24-hour period to a total of 942,687 on Tuesday. The reported overall death toll was 14,361.

Additional reporting by Caroline Copley and Christian Kraemer; Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Thomas Seythal, Kevin Liffey, Alexandra Hudson and Alison Williams