Lockdown Back in German Town After Slaughterhouse Outbreak

North Rhine-Westphalia became the first state in Germany to restore a lockdown by imposing strict restrictions on daily life in a municipality that’s seen an outbreak of coronavirus at a large meat factory.

The measure, announced Tuesday by state premier Armin Laschet, will initially remain in force until the end of June. A total of 1,553 workers have so far tested positive at the plant near the city of Guetersloh that is operated by Toennies GmbH.

The infections in Guetersloh, along with outbreaks at apartment blocks in Berlin and Goettingen, are raising concerns that the easing of restrictions in recent weeks may backfire. Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute, said Tuesday that he’s optimistic Germany can prevent a second wave of infections, but warned against complacency.

“We must continue to be vigilant -- the virus is still in our country,” Wieler said at a press briefing. “If we give it the chance to spread, it will take that chance -- we can see that in the current development of outbreaks.”

Guetersloh is the first case of a regional lockdown following isolated outbreaks in recent weeks. In accordance with German law, it has been mostly state governments who have regulated measures to combat the pandemic. Many have come under intense pressure to accelerate a return to normality, and Berlin on Tuesday scrapped limitations on social contact while maintaining distancing rules.

The government of North-Rhine Westphalia said later on Tuesday it would impose a partial lockdown for a week in Guetersloh’s neighboring municipality of Warendorf, hitting schools and public venues.

The virus doesn’t respect local borders, said the state’s Employment, Health and Social Minister Karl-Josef Laumann. Guetersloh, historic home of the Bertelsmann publishing empire, and Warendorf together have more than half a million inhabitants.

Separately, a further outbreak of the virus was reported at a turkey processing plant owned by Wiesenhof GmbH in the state of Lower Saxony. Some 23 out of 50 workers tested were positive, news agency DPA reported.

New coronavirus cases in the country as a whole have mostly stayed well below 1,000 a day during the past month, compared with almost 7,000 at the peak of the pandemic in late March. However, the infection rate remains well above the government’s target, highlighting the risk of outbreaks.

Germany’s so-called reproduction factor fell for a second day Tuesday, to 2.02 from 2.76, according to the latest estimate from the Robert Koch Institute, or RKI. The estimate remains well above the government’s target of 1.0 and means that out of 100 people who get infected, a further 202 people are likely to contract the virus.

Since case numbers in Germany are generally low, local outbreaks have a relatively strong influence on the value, according to the institute.

If the infection rate can’t be capped and a return to normality ensured, a prolonged period of economic weakness is likely, according to the latest report by the Council of Economic Experts.

Additional Measures

Sven-Georg Adenauer, the Guetersloh district administrator, said Tuesday that additional measures are needed to control the disease after it spread to the families of some Toennies employees.

“We’ve always said we’d need to take action if the numbers continued to rise,” Adenauer, a grandson of former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, said in an interview with ARD television Tuesday. Guetersloh is represented in the lower house of parliament by Ralph Brinkhaus, the head of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU caucus.

Meat companies have been able to circumvent stricter rules on working conditions by using subcontractors, Labor Minister Hubertus Heil told ARD Monday. Heil said he would like new legislation due to take effect in January 2021 to be brought forward, but that the government needs to make sure it’s legally watertight.

Toennies announced Tuesday that it will stop using subcontractors and will take steps to improve working conditions, such as providing higher standards of accommodation. Rival meat producer Westfleisch also plans to hire employees directly rather than via subcontractors, Lebensmittel Zeitung reported.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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