Europe’s rush to abandon pandemic precautions plunged ahead on Wednesday, with leaders in Germany announcing that most of the country’s remaining restrictions would be lifted by March 20.
Officials in Austria, Switzerland and Slovakia, as well as several regions of Spain, said they too would drop all or most of their remaining restrictions in the near future.
Germany, the most populous nation in the European Union, has been slower than most others to ease coronavirus rules. But on Wednesday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Germany’s state governors agreed on a three-step plan to drop most of them.
“This is a very special day of the pandemic,” said Mr. Scholz at a news conference after agreeing with 16 state governors on a schedule to drop most restrictions.
“Unless some other variant of the virus comes around the corner, we will now actually experience a spring and a summer in which most of the restrictions we have will no longer affect our daily lives.”
The first step, which could be put into effect swiftly, will allow people to gather privately in groups if they are fully vaccinated or have recovered recently from the virus, and will drop the requirement to show proof of vaccination or recent recovery when entering shops. Many states had already dropped that rule.
The second step, which would take effect March 4, will drop the vaccination-or-recovery rule for bars, restaurants and hotels. Outdoor events of up to 25,000 people will also be allowed again. During that phase, nightclubs would be allowed to reopen for people who can show proof of vaccination or recovery.
The third step, which would take effect on the first day of spring if hospitalizations remain low enough, would end most remaining restrictions, except for mask requirements.
According to the agreement, steps 2 and 3 will only go into effect if hospitalizations remain low.
Germany has seen two severe coronavirus waves recently, one just before the Omicron variant became dominant and then another much worse one, driven by Omicron. To fight those waves, the country imposed strict limits on unvaccinated people, barring them from many aspects of life, including retail stores other than those selling essentials like food or medicine. About 75 percent of the population has received at least two vaccine doses, and nearly 56 percent have received three or more.
Daily reports of new cases remain very high in Germany, though the latest surge may be peaking overall. The country reported nearly 220,000 new cases on Tuesday, and 247 deaths. An independent council of expert advisers warned the government on Monday that cases among people over 60 were continuing to increase.
Plans to relax pandemic policies were announced in other European nations as well:
Switzerland said that most restrictions, other
than mask mandates on public transportation and in nursing homes, would end on Thursday. “We hope that this will be the final phase out of the crisis,” said Vice President Alain Berset, who also serves as the country’s health minister.
Chancellor Karl Nehammer of Austria, which recently enacted a universal vaccine mandate, said most restrictions in the country would be lifted by March 5, beginning next week with rules barring unvaccinated people from bars, restaurant and winter sports. The country’s health minister, Wolfgang Mückstein, called the plan “a dignified spring awakening from an entrenched crisis mode.”
Three regions of Spain have acted this week to drop their remaining restrictions. Murcia, in the southeast, lifted its capacity limits on restaurants and other public spaces on Wednesday; Andalusia, the largest region, said on Tuesday that people would no longer have to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter restaurants, theaters and other public venues; and the Basque region in the north lifted all its remaining restrictions on Monday. Nationally, Spain dropped its outdoor mask mandate last week.
The prime minister of Slovakia, Eduard Heger, said on Wednesday that his country would lift most restrictions on who can enter most businesses and public venues by the end of February, The Associated Press reported, and that crowd size limits and most other rules would be lifted by the end of March.
Raphael Minder contributed reporting.