'Taste of freedom' for Germans amid controversial reopening

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Beer lovers and fitness fanatics braved sleet and snow to return to restaurants and gyms Tuesday as the small German state of Saarland began a controversial easing of coronavirus restrictions.

In a move criticised by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the region on the French and Luxembourg frontiers became the first of Germany's 16 states to loosen its partial lockdown, allowing those with an up-to-date negative test to return to day-to-day activities.

"It's the first day we can taste freedom again," 27-year-old Jonas told AFP, grinning from ear to ear as he sipped a beer on a restaurant terrace in the state capital Saarbruecken.

Even amid a snow shower, he and his friend Frank, 35, were determined to enjoy their newfound liberty.

"We were the first ones at the test centre this morning," said Jonas.

As well as outdoor dining, concert halls, gyms and theatres have also reopened in Saarland, while gatherings of up to 10 people in public are now allowed.

The disputed move comes as Germany struggles with a third wave of the pandemic amid rising infection rates and a sluggish vaccination campaign.

In a recent interview, Merkel said it was "not the right time" for Saarland to ease measures, and even in Saarbruecken, some business owners remained sceptical.

Across the square from Jonas and Frank, a restaurant named "Die Kartoffel" ("The Potato") is one of many where the terrace chairs remain stacked on top of each other.

"How can I tell if every customer has really had a recent test or not?" said owner Mirsad Purzic, who has decided not to reopen for sitting customers.

Most of the new freedoms depend on a negative test result from the previous 24 hours, as well as continued mask use and contact tracing.

Test centres are stepping up operations, while restrictions could be tightened again if infection rates rise.

Gym manager Aron Wilke admitted his fitness studio "Day Night Sports" may soon have to close its doors again as case numbers increase.

For the time being, he said, "people are just happy to be able to work out again".

- 'Milder measures' -

Though it is still faring better than most other German regions, infection rates have been rising in Saarland, which borders the hard-hit French region of Moselle.

Yet despite widespread criticism, the regional government has defended its alternative model.

"We are aiming to fight the pandemic just as effectively with milder measures as we can with a full lockdown," state premier Tobias Hans told Bild newspaper on Tuesday, saying the testing scheme would be decisive.

Yet the model is still in stark contrast with the rest of the country.

Merkel and the 16 state leaders agreed last month to prolong existing measures deep into April, and could discuss further restrictions at their next round of talks next Monday.

Under Germany's federal system, regional states have significant decision-making powers and can stray from the government line.

Yet most regions are currently looking to tighten rather than loosen their lockdowns.

In Berlin, new rules in force from Tuesday include further restrictions on private gatherings and an effective ban on home visits after 9pm.

Germany recorded almost 7,000 new infections nationwide and a seven-day incidence rate of 123 on Tuesday, though the Robert Koch Institute health agency warned the real number could be higher as not all local authorities reported figures over the four-day Easter weekend.


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