Germany makes plans to reopen borders, as Europeans eye summer travel

Police monitor a checkpoint near Neuhaus am Inn, Germany, along the border with Austria. (Sven Hoppe/AP)

BERLIN — Germany on Wednesday detailed plans to reopen its borders next month, as European countries explore how to loosen coronavirus-related travel restrictions ahead of the crucial summer tourism season.

German officials will begin by opening their border with Luxembourg after Friday and aim to return to restriction-free travel with all its neighbors by June 15, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said at a news conference.

But vacations for Americans to Berlin remain unlikely anytime soon. Seehofer indicated that next month could bring a loosening of restrictions on international flights, currently limited to essential travelers. Yet while he recommended that Germany’s states move now to lift a 14-day quarantine requirement for visitors from within the European Union, he said the measure should remain in place for the time being for countries outside the E.U., including the United States.

European nations are having to weigh the prospect of losing summer tourist cash against the threat of travelers spreading a second wave of coronavirus infections. The tourism sector accounts for about 10 percent of the E.U. economy and an even bigger chunk in countries such as Greece and Italy.

But just as border controls were thrown up haphazardly across Europe two months ago, there remains no consensus on when they should come down.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania this week are starting to allow their residents to move freely in a “bubble” within their collective territory.

Austria, meanwhile, has announced plans to reopen its borders with Germany, the Czech Republic and Switzerland — but not harder-hit Italy.

In Greece, politicians have discussed plans to test new arrivals for coronavirus, hoping to welcome a limited number of European tourists in July. The island of Santorini has already prepared with socially distanced sun beds and Plexiglass barriers.

In an attempt to forge a common standard, E.U. leaders in Brussels released recommendations Wednesday on how to gradually return to border-free travel — which under non-pandemic circumstances allowed people to move from Lisbon to Helsinki without having to flash a passport.

The European Commission suggested that until countries are comfortable opening their borders to everyone, they should allow travel to and from countries where the pandemic is similarly under control.

“Handled correctly, safely and in a coordinated manner, the months to come could offer Europeans the chance to get some well-needed rest, relaxation and fresh air, and to catch up with friends and family, in their own member states or across borders,” the report said.

But the E.U. officials also suggested that countries should make sure they have enough medical capacity to handle both residents and visitors before opening up fully to tourism.

“Deconfinement and tourism will not be risk-free as long as the virus circulates among us,” said Stella Kyriakides, the top E.U. official charged with health. “We need to maintain vigilance, physical distancing and rigorous health precautions across the whole tourism and transport ecosystem to prevent further outbreaks as much as possible.”

“Freedom of travel is one of the foundations of the European project,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. “In corona times, however, Europe has to guarantee more: the freedom to travel safely.”

He cautioned that European countries should not feel that they have to “race against each other” and described the European guidelines as a way that “we can avoid stepping on each other's toes.”

Seehofer said Germany’s plans to reopen are dependent on infection numbers staying low.

“But if we have a worsening of the situation, then we’ll have to take different measures,” he said.
Germany, which has been held up as a model of how to deal with the pandemic through thorough testing and contact tracing, has reported 7,840 coronavirus deaths — less than a third of the fatalities recorded in the United Kingdom, France and Spain.

German health officials have indicated that they are not overly concerned about a rise in the rate of new infections in the country in recent days, with the total number of new cases remaining under 1,000 a day. The new outbreaks are largely confined to specific nursing homes and a meatpacking factory, they have said.

Germany has faced pressure to lift border restrictions. Leaders in Luxembourg — the birthplace of Europe’s free-travel agreement and a country heavily dependent on cross-border commuters — lobbied hard. So did some of Germany’s state leaders.

Seehofer said border restrictions with Austria, Switzerland and France will also begin to ease this week, with systematic controls replaced by random checks. He also suggested that the Danish border will fully open soon.

While residents of Germany will still require a reason to travel between now and mid-June, the permitted justifications will be expanded to include family and personal reasons.

Any semblance of normal travel in Europe, though, is a long way off.

“It’s going to be a very different summer,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told CNN earlier this month.
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