Germany extends lockdown amid fear of coronavirus variants
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FILE PHOTO: A general view shows an almost empty Friedrichstrasse boulevard, one of the city's best known shopping zones, during lockdown amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Berlin, Germany, February 5, 2021. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
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By Sabine Siebold and Andreas Rinke
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany will extend restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus until March 7, though schools and hair salons may open sooner, Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of the 16 federal states agreed on Wednesday.
The number of new daily infections in Germany has been falling, prompting some regional leaders to push for a timetable to ease the lockdown, which has been in place since mid-December. But concerns are growing about the impact of more infectious variants of the virus on case numbers.
"There is a lot of uncertainty around the mutants, and it is clear, they will gain the upper hand.... That is why we have to get the case numbers down, down, down," Merkel told journalists in a news conference.
Under Wednesday's agreement, hair salons will be allowed to reopen from March 1. The threshold for a gradual re-opening of the rest of the economy has been tightened, targeting an infection rate of no more than 35 new cases per 100,000 people over seven days, down from 50 previously.
On Wednesday, that number was 68, having fallen from a high near 200 in late December. It was last below 50 in October.
At the level of 35 cases per 100,000, non-essential stores, museums, services like beauty parlours will be allowed to re-open.
Some exceptions will be made. Individual states can decide on how to re-start school classes.
Merkel, who has adopted a cautious approach throughout the pandemic, has said nurseries and primary schools take priority.
She said on Wednesday that the government was considering moving teachers and daycare staff up the list of priorities for vaccinations because they are not able to maintain social distance at work.
It remained unclear when culture and entertainment, sports offerings, restaurants and hotels will be back in business.
Some business and industry associations have pushed for an easing of the restrictions as soon as possible, citing the damage inflicted on Europe's biggest economy, which shrank by 5% last year.
"The situation is serious," the BDI industry and BDA employers groups said. "We urgently call for an easing plan."
However, the Ifo economic think-tank said a lockdown extension until mid-March was bearable and that a swifter easing that triggered a surge in cases could create greater damage.
Germany reported 8,072 new cases on Wednesday and a further 813 deaths, bringing the total death toll to 62,969.
(Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan, Gareth Jones and Toby Chopra)
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