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Germany is tightening its restrictions on people who haven't gotten a COVID vaccine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Germany's government has approved new COVID rules for the country's millions of unvaccinated citizens. The new guidelines include plans for legislation that would make vaccination mandatory for almost all Germans next year. NPR Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz joins us now. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How dramatic a change in policy are these new restrictions for Germany?

SCHMITZ: It's a pretty big change. Today outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel met with incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Germany's 16 state leaders, and they all agreed that the pandemic has reached a critical point in Germany. Infections, deaths and hospitalizations have risen sharply this past month, and the situation just seems to be getting worse. So they came up with some of the tightest restrictions Germany has seen thus far since the pandemic began. Here's outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel announcing the new rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, Ari, she's saying here that from now on, all cultural and recreational events throughout Germany, regardless of the incidence rate, will only be open to the vaccinated and the recovered. And it doesn't stop there. She said all shops in the retail sector will also be limited only to the vaccinated and the recovered and that additional tests for the vaccinated may even be required for entrance. The exception here is for what are known as essential shops. This would include grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations.

Other restrictions announced today dictate that bars and clubs can only operate if the incidence rate is below 350 per 100,000 people in a region. Most of Germany is well above that rate. And another restriction for the unvaccinated states that they can only meet with a maximum of two people from another household.

SHAPIRO: How are the German people responding to these new rules?

SCHMITZ: Well, it's interesting. You know, ever since German states began to announce similar restrictions two weeks ago, we've seen a sharp spike in vaccination rates in Germany. We've also seen people waiting in line for hours to get vaccinated. So it's clear that despite millions of Germans exhibiting vaccine hesitancy, many people are taking a pragmatic approach and getting vaccinated so that they can continue to live somewhat normal lives. Now, of course, there are still millions of Germans who refuse to get vaccinated, and we'll likely see more demonstrations here in Berlin from that group. But by and large, most Germans agree these new restrictions are long overdue.

SHAPIRO: I mentioned these plans to make vaccinations mandatory next year. How is that going to work?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, it's going to be interesting. Merkel said an ethics committee will be asked to draft legislation to make vaccination compulsory and that Germany's parliament will likely vote on this early in the new year. This makes Germany the second country in this region to announce mandatory vaccinations. Austria did so last month, requiring its citizens to be vaccinated by February.

Germany's leaders have been a little reluctant to go this route because of the country's history, and that's part of the reason Merkel wants an ethics committee to look at this. Government mandates are obviously a sensitive topic in Germany due to its experience in World War II and under Soviet rule. But Olaf Scholz, who is expected to be announced as the country's new chancellor next week, said this is an emergency and getting vaccinated is the only way that Germany can get out of it.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned that these policies are in part a reaction to spiking deaths, infections, hospitalizations. How bad is it right now?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. For the past few weeks, we've seen between 50 and 75,000 infections per day in Germany. Hospitals in the hardest-hit states of Saxony and Bavaria are filled with COVID patients. ICUs don't have any more space. And doctors there are already being forced to make horribly difficult triage decisions about who to keep on respirators. Health authorities say up to 6,000 people could be in intensive care units by Christmas. And this is happening because we still have 20 million Germans who are not vaccinated.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz. Thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.