By The Washington Post · Loveday Morris, James McAuley · WORLD, HEALTH, ASIA-PACIFIC, HEALTH-NEWS
Bars, restaurants and theaters will close for a four-week period starting Monday, while schools and places of worship will remain open. Leaders of Germany's 16 federal states also agreed to new restrictions on social contacts, limiting public gatherings to a maximum of two households, with a limit of 10 people.
Similar measures were expected to be announced across the border in France, with President Emmanuel Macron scheduled to make an evening address. Switzerland also imposed new restrictions on Wednesday.
As she outlined the measures in a news conference in Berlin, Merkel noted that the number of patients in the country's intensive care units had doubled in the past 10 days.
"If the tempo of infections stays the same, we will reach the capacity of our health care system within weeks," she said. "That's why it's completely clear that we need to act, and act now."
Germany has witnessed a rapid deterioration of its virus response, after being praised in the first wave of the pandemic. Germany's contact tracing program - paired with mandatory quarantines - had been held up as a model of how to contain outbreaks. Now, German health authorities are unable to identify where 75% of new infections come from.
"We no longer have control of the spread of the virus," Merkel said.
Countries across Europe have sought to avoid a return of national lockdowns - but countries are finding that more targeted, piecemeal measures may not be sufficient. Appeals to Germans to reduce contacts in recent weeks failed to slow the growth in new cases.
While Germany has greater ICU capacity than most countries in Europe and fewer daily cases than France, Spain and Britain, infections have been growing exponentially. Germany recorded 14,964 new cases on Wednesday, doubling from just a week earlier.
Parties and gatherings in public and private spaces were "unacceptable," Merkel said. Social sacrifices must be made to ensure that schools and kindergartens can remain open, she said.
Industry groups said a new lockdown would be a "death blow." As Merkel and state leaders hashed out new measures over a video call, thousands of restaurant and bar owners marched to the Chancellery. A van pulled a coffin on a trailer with the words "Entertainment Sector" on the side. Merkel said closed businesses would receive financial assistance.
The closures were a "very hard decision," Health Minister Jens Spahn, who himself came down with coronavirus last week, told German radio. But it was necessary, he said.
"If we wait until the intensive care units are full, it will be too late," he said.
In France, Macron is also expected to announce a new national lockdown of four weeks, according to French media.
The French government imposed one of Europe's strictest lockdowns in the spring, but has struggled to curb a rising second wave that reached a record level of more than 50,000 new confirmed cases in a 24-hour period over the weekend.
On Tuesday, France recorded 33,417 new cases, according to figures released by Santé Publique France.
Those higher case numbers have also been accompanied by a steep rise in hospitalizations. On Monday, for instance, French hospitals tracked more than 1,300 new patients, the highest one-day total since early April, in the peak of the first wave.
"We had predicted there would be this second wave, but we ourselves are surprised by the brutality of what's been happening over the past ten days," Jean-François Delfraissy, an immunologist and the chair of the French government's scientific advisory covid response board, told France's RTL radio on Monday.