Merkel tells Germans: let's get through coronavirus quickly
By Riham Alkousaa and Michael Nienaber
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany announced unprecedented plans on Monday to close most shops, limit restaurants' opening hours and ban religious services to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The decision took Germany a step closer to a total lockdown similar to those implemented in Italy and Spain, where most people have been confined to their homes.
Announcing the measures - particularly sensitive in a country that defends its civil liberties assiduously due to its memories of totalitarian rule under the Nazis and, in East Germany, the Communists - Chancellor Angela Merkel asked for citizens' cooperation.
"The better everyone sticks to these rules, the faster we'll get through this phase," she told a news conference. "And I think we all want to get through this as quickly as possible."
The virus has infected some 6,700 people and killed 14 in Germany so far. It is also taking its toll on the economy, Europe's biggest, ending hopes of a first-quarter upswing and weighing heavily on the outlook till at least the third quarter.
Under guidelines agreed by the federal government and state governments, bars, clubs, theatres, zoos and brothels must close. Gatherings in churches, mosques or other religious establishments, and in sports and social clubs must also cease.
Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and delivery services can remain open, the government said, but restaurants may open only between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Schools have already been closed.
Merkel said it was crucial to slow the spread of the virus so that the number of acute cases at one time never exceeded the capacity of Germany's healthcare system to treat them.
"There is no sense in closing a school and then have the same gathering of children move to the playground instead," she said. "We want to avoid having these areas of close contact."
The government expects the economy to shrink this year due to the impact of coronavirus, two senior officials said.
Germany will counter the social and economic impact of the epidemic "with full force", Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told lawmakers in a letter on Monday, without putting a figure on the promised fiscal push.
Germany plans numerous measures to strengthen the healthcare system, shield companies and secure jobs and this will impact the federal government's budget plans from 2021-24, according to the letter seen by Reuters.
Even in a best-case scenario, where the severed supply chains that link Germany's export-dependent economy to the world are quickly repaired, stabilisation would come in the third quarter at the earliest.
AIR TRAVEL ALL BUT FROZEN
But with disruption being felt across the economy, it is not certain that will happen, even with the help of aid programmes unveiled by federal and state leaders.
Flagship carrier Lufthansa said it would scrap 90% of long-haul flights and run only a fifth of flights initially planned within Europe. Holiday operator TUI said it would scrap most operations and apply for state aid after demand fell.
The federal government has advised citizens against non-essential trips abroad. Lufthansa is planning further flights to repatriate thousands of stranded Germans.
Baden-Wuerttemberg, the southwestern state that is home to carmaker Daimler, is closing Stuttgart and Karlsruhe airports to try to contain the virus.
Germany temporarily reintroduced border controls at the weekend with Austria, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Denmark. Borders are normally open in the European Union's Schengen passport-free travel zone.
The federal government has also loosened insolvency rules that risked forcing companies into declaring bankruptcy while they waited for state aid to arrive.
Bavaria, the wealthy southern state where some of Germany's biggest companies are based, including carmaker BMW and engineering giant Siemens, has launched a 10-billion-euro ($11.13 billion) fund to let the regional government buy stakes in struggling companies.
($1 = 0.8981 euros)
(Writing by Thomas Escritt, Editing by Mark Heinrich, Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)