Germany's Cabinet on Wednesday approved a package of pandemic restrictions set to come into force on October 1 should it clear parliament in the coming weeks.
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach and Justice Minister Marco Buschmann discussed the measures at a press conference in Berlin on Wednesday.
Lauterbach is a physician and member of the Social Democrats (SPD), and has tended to be among the voices urging maximum caution on the coronavirus in German politics.
"We want to be considerably better prepared in the coming autumn for the pandemic than was the case in the past," Lauterbach said, adding that he is expecting a large wave of cases later in the year, but also saying he believes that the country is better prepared for it.
Buschmann is from the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), the party within Germany's ruling coalition that is most hesitant about restrictions in workplaces, schools and other spaces.
He called the package a "good, moderate and restrained concept," saying that, while it is Lauterbach's task to focus on the health issues when forming these rules, it was Buschmann's job to make sure the "process, proportionality and legality" of the measures was assured.
The concept approved by Cabinet is unchanged from the concept first put forward by Lauterbach and Buschmann early in August, just as Lauterbach himself experienced his latest bout with COVID-19.
FFP2 masks mandatory nationwide on long-distance travel, planes
Much of the package rests on the principle of leaving more-restrictive decisions up to individual states, which are given a series of measures that they're permitted to impose if they see the need, based on local caseloads or other factors.
But some measures are to apply nationwide, as well, particularly pertaining to public transport and visits to hospitals and care facilities for older people.
Masks will be required for visitors at hospitals and care homes, as will a negative COVID-19 test from the previous 24 hours.
On planes and long-distance public transport across Germany, FFP2 masks will be required from October 1. Staff and children aged 6-14 will be permitted to wear medical masks instead, while children under 6 are exempt.
These rules drew considerable attention among followers of German politics on Wednesday for a different reason. After Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his deputy Robert Habeck's trip to Canada, masks were not worn by CEOs, journalists and politicians on the return flight to Germany. This prompted criticism that the government was sending the message that rules in place for ordinary travelers did not apply to those at the very top.
The government responded to the criticism by saying that the flight was operated by the Bundeswehr military, which does not require its passengers wear masks.
The German federation for commercial air travel (BDL) called the FFP2 mask requirement disproportional, saying: "The European authorities also see no need for this." Germany's largest airline, Lufthansa, said the rules were liable to generate conflict on flights that staff would have to handle.
Step-by-step plan for states to implement, based on situation
Some of the heavier restrictions — for instance, for high-street commerce, short-distance public transport and other public indoor spaces — will be left up to the discretion of state governments.
From October 1 through April 7, state governments will be empowered to impose restrictions based on their local needs.
These restrictions could include mandatory masks on local public transport or in supermarkets and stores and public indoor spaces. They can also require proof of vaccination or a recent negative test to gain entry.
"The goal of these measures is to avoid deaths, serious cases of long COVID, serious cases, but also the overburdening of infrastructure and clinics," Lauterbach said, adding that factors such as these should motivate states to act if they arise.
Lauterbach said states that required people to wear masks indoors would also be able to make exceptions if people could demonstrate either that they were vaccinated or had recovered in the past three months, or if they could provide an up-to-date negative test. But he said this was to be an optional additional step for states, not one they were obliged to offer.
The health minister specifically stressed that the Cabinet had agreed that it was not planning either on another general national lockdown, or on school closures — two of the more unpopular measures from the early days of the pandemic.