BERLIN - Chancellor Angela Merkel's government agreed Wednesday to continue a partial lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic until at least March 7, even as Germans grow increasingly weary of the tough restrictions.
Following crunch talks with the leaders of Germany's 16 states, Merkel said that the number of new Covid-19 infections in Europe's top economy was dropping after more than two months of shuttered schools and shops.
"When we look at this development we can be quite satisfied," she told reporters.
But she called on Germans to be patient as fears grow over more contagious virus variants first detected in Britain and South Africa.
"We want to do everything in our power so that we don't end up riding an up-and-down wave of openings and closures," Merkel said, calling the period until mid-March "existential" for Germany's management of the pandemic.
The new strains "are spreading especially quickly and require significant additional efforts", the government said in conclusions agreed at the meeting.
Under Germany's federal system, regional states have significant decision-making powers and some have strayed from the government line in the past to loosen some restrictions.
The text stresses that schools and daycare centers should be "the first to gradually reopen", but that it is for individual states to decide how and when.
After the announcement, Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller said the capital would begin partially reopening schools from February 22, with other regions expected to follow suit.
The conclusions call on Health Minister Jens Spahn to review whether nursery workers and teachers can be given higher priority in vaccinations.
Hairdressers may reopen on March 1 if they take the necessary hygiene precautions.
The conclusions also raise the prospect of museums, galleries and some services restarting once the virus incidence rate falls to 35 new cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period.
The government had earlier set an incidence target of 50 but revised it downward due to the threat of what Merkel called "exponential growth" posed by the more contagious virus mutations.
With an eye to an outbreak of the South African variant in the Austrian region of Tyrol bordering Germany's Bavaria state, Merkel said she had conveyed her "concern" to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Wednesday.
Germany closed restaurants, hotels, culture and leisure centers in November, followed by schools and non-essential shops in December. The measures were later extended until February 14.
Since then, new Covid-19 cases have dropped considerably and the seven-day incidence rate has fallen below 75 for the first time since November.
The figure is currently at 68, down from 111 at the last such meeting on January 28, Merkel said.
But Covid-19 deaths remain troublingly high, and hospitals say they are still close to capacity.
Germany on Wednesday added another 8,072 coronavirus cases to the official figures, bringing the total to just under 2.3 million.
Almost 63,000 people have died of the virus, according to the Robert Koch Institute for disease control.
Although a majority of Germans still back Merkel's science-based management of the crisis, fatigue is setting in after three long months of restrictions and amid a sluggish vaccine rollout.
A YouGov poll this week showed that just half of Germans want the current measures to be maintained or tightened, down from 65 percent in early January.
Merkel said she and state leaders would convene again on March 3 to fine-tune the restrictions based on the latest data.
© Agence France-Presse