Germany’s Smart, Simple Formula for Fighting Its Coronavirus Spike

German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks at the Bundestag in Berlin on Thursday
Chancellor of my heart, Angela Merkel. Maja Hitij/Getty Images

When it’s come to fighting the coronavirus crisis, Germany has been a model among Western nations. Under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership, the country’s swift and organized initial response to the pandemic kept deaths low and quickly pushed case rates down to a controllable level. Its successes have in many ways stood as the starkest contrast to America’s scattered, disastrous response—proof that a large democracy with a federal form of government could, in fact, get a handle on the disease.

But like much of Europe, Germany is now experiencing a serious second COVID wave, seemingly brought on by a combination of pandemic fatigue and colder weather that’s pushing activities back indoors. At 152 per 100,000 residents, the country’s rate of new infections is lower than those of neighbors such as France, Italy, Spain, or the United Kingdom.* (And yes, it’s lower than in the United States too.) But it is still higher than ever.

And so this week, Germany announced a new, one-month partial shutdown. The country will close bars, restaurants, gyms, music venues, and other establishments where patrons huddle close together, maskless, indoors (apparently brothels are also on the list). It will offer businesses money to cover much of their losses. And it will let retail shops and schools stay open. “Ms. Merkel has said repeatedly that keeping schools and day-care centers open was the government’s priority in considering ways to combat the virus from spreading further,” the Wall Street Journal explains.

By paying bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and other high-risk indoor gathering places to close in order to limit community spread, and thus make it safer to keep schools open, Germany is pursuing what has long appeared to be a commonsense strategy for managing the pandemic while retaining some semblance of normal life. Shutting down and bailing out bars and restaurants in particular has seemed like a “no-brainer,” as Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health has put it, since they’re basically the perfect breeding grounds for the virus.*

Jha told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes last month, “You’re indoors. You’re not wearing a mask. And let’s be honest—after a pint or two, people let down their guard, and start getting close, and start speaking more loudly and singing and doing all the things that basically make it almost a sure fact that you’re going to spread the virus in that environment.”

While Germany has decided to shut down its beloved beer halls to keep schools open, the United States is essentially pursuing the exact opposite strategy. Even in fairly cautious cities like New York and D.C., bars and restaurants are allowed to serve customers indoors. Meanwhile, school districts around the country have struggled with bringing students back for in-person instruction, frequently canceling classes and moving to remote learning. As a result, many students are being shortchanged on crucial years of their education, and forcing parents to make career sacrifices. In the New York Times, Evercore ISI economist Ernie Tedeschi estimates that school closures have knocked 1.6 million mothers out of the workforce.

It’s not a mystery how we ended up in this absurd situation, though it is a bit mystifying. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias points out, there has been intense pressure on local governments to let businesses like bars and restaurants stay open: Owners want to make money, workers want their jobs, and politicians want the tax revenue. But at the same time, teachers want to avoid getting sick, and so their unions have lobbied against sending kids back to class. What makes sense when it comes to interest group politics does not make much sense for public health.

This all largely represents a failure of Congress’ coronavirus relief effort. The CARES Act, passed in March, only gave small businesses a couple of months of help through the Paycheck Protection Program. It only increased unemployment benefits through July. And it didn’t provide states with flexible aid to deal with their budget problems, or money to reopen schools safely. In theory, these shortcomings could have been addressed in a follow-up package, but the various factions in Washington have been unable to agree on one.

Perhaps that will change if Democrats take control of Washington. If they do, Germany is pointing the way to a sane pandemic response. Shut down and bail out the bars.

Correction, Oct. 30, 2020: This article originally misspelled Ashish Jha’s first name.

Correction, Nov. 3, 2020: This article originally misstated the rate of new infections in Germany. It was 152 per 100,000 as of Oct. 29, not 152 per 1 million.