Martin Schoeller / AUGUST

A Blessing and a Curse Tempers Flare Over German Mask Requirement

Face masks have become the symbol of the crisis triggered by the coronavirus. There were doubts about their effectiveness in the beginning, but most scientists now believe thay are a vital tool for stopping the pandemic. The question is how long we will have to wear them.

It’s another one of those nights that feels unique to Berlin: Around 50 people are dancing in the dark on a field, having spontaneously arranged the event with their smartphones. Some, though, are just random passersby, here in Hasenheide, the park in Berlin where people go to party now that all the nightclubs are closed.

At some point, the police turn up and the light of their flashlights shines brightly into the crowd. Warnings are issued, but nothing more. The group breaks up and the police move on to the next field and the next party - a cat-and-mouse game that continues throughout the night during this coronavirus summer in Berlin.

A DJ who calls himself UME is standing next to a speaker. He’s been DJing in the parks since the lockdown and says he wants to share "other vibes” with people. He says it’s going well, too. Everybody is dancing, sometimes with a fair amount of physical contact, and no one seems to be wearing a mask. The DJ isn’t either. He says he has a strong immune system and that COVID-19 isn’t all that dangerous. What could possibly happen?

Indeed. What could happen?

Masks have been compulsory in all German states since the end of April in shops and on public transport like buses and trains. It has been, in other words, around 100 days since the government began requiring people to wear masks temporarily in certain circumstances. It also recommends that people wear masks in places where they can’t maintain proper social distancing from others.

Street art in Berlin, a couple kissing with their masks on in Frankfurt and a vending machine selling masks: Mask wearing has become a political statement in the times of the coronavirus, a symbol of solidarity. But the less dangerous the virus appears to be, the more careless people are becoming about wearing masks.

Street art in Berlin, a couple kissing with their masks on in Frankfurt and a vending machine selling masks: Mask wearing has become a political statement in the times of the coronavirus, a symbol of solidarity. But the less dangerous the virus appears to be, the more careless people are becoming about wearing masks.

Foto: Oliver Wolff / Agentur Focus; mauritius images; Michael Probst / AP

It’s a relic of the spring lockdown, when the country came to a virtual standstill out of deep concern over the spread of the coronavirus and the dead it has left in its wake. With the lockdown, the country succeeded in decreasing the number of new infections and flattening the curve. Gradually, politicians lifted the restrictions on public life, allowing shops and restaurants to open and for people to visit each other and travel again. One of the few rules still in place, though, is the mask requirement.

A Political Statement

This piece of fabric has become a symbol of the crisis - a lifesaver, but an everyday plague at the same time, a blessing and a curse. Now, masks have become the focus of debate again: Because the number of new infections has begun rising again, with sometimes more than a thousand cases reported each day, as was the case last week. Because children and young people are returning to school and politicians are now discussing a possible mask requirement in classes. Because of recent outbreaks. And because the question is no longer whether there will be a second wave, but how many waves there will be, how dramatic they will be and how people can best protect themselves.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 34/2020 (August 14, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

But masks have also become a political statement. Those who don’t wear them or even join protests against them, those who doubt their efficacy and thus question scientific consensus: They accept the risk of infection - and the risk of infecting others. The mask is a symbol of solidarity. Not wearing one is an expression of individual freedom or just plain selfishness. Families have been divided by the debate over the masks and friendships have been strained.

Add human weaknesses to that mix and things could get dangerous. Who hasn’t forgotten their mask at times when getting on a train or in an elevator? Who hasn’t hugged another person without remembering to put a mask on? And who hasn’t just skipped wearing one out of vanity or laziness? As the virus began to look less threatening in recent weeks, many became more careless about wearing masks, often in the hope that we would soon be able to renounce them altogether.

But the bitter truth is that as long as the infection rates remain high, we will have to continue wearing masks, possibly even in more places in the future. The news from Russia that the country has approved the first vaccine against the virus won’t change that.

A New Part of Everyday Life

Politicians have now moved to introduce stricter penalties for violating mask requirements and calls are growing for it to be extended to parties and other gatherings. It’s possible that mask will continue to be a part of our everyday lives even after corona, as a protection against other viruses or as a kind of urban accessory, as it was in Asia even before the pandemic.

Some politicians in Germany seem to have foreseen what was coming and yet they’ve been ridiculed for it. The mayor of Jena, for example, a university city in the eastern state of Thuringia.

Christian Gerlitz had been the city’s mayor for just over a year when the coronavirus arrived. At the time, Gerlitz recalls, the first findings had just been released that airborne aerosols could be the main point of infection and that even people who didn’t show any symptoms could be contagious. The crisis team he was a member of concluded that if locals wore masks, it could decrease the number of infections. The idea was a simple as it was logical. On April 6, the city decreed that masks had to be worn when shopping or when riding public transportation.

Gerlitz says that elsewhere in Germany, the measures introduced by Jena weren’t taken seriously, that people considered the city to be overly cautious and ambitious. After all, the Robert Koch Institute, the national authority on virus protection, didn't think much of healthy people wearing masks until the end of March. The official line had been that there was insufficient evidence to indicate that the wearing of masks could significantly reduce the risk of infection.

Furthermore, the German Health Ministry and the Chancellery had no plans to make masks compulsory at the time, possibly because of the lack of mask supplies  at the beginning of the outbreak.

But little by little, other cities contacted the crisis management team to inquire whether the policy had helped or not, the mayor explains. Jena soon became a model to be followed across the country, and the mask requirement applied in every state before long. "Our feeling is that we made an important contribution to the nationwide discussion and acceptance of face masks,” says Gerlitz.

The number of infections has fallen massively in Jena since the introduction of the compulsory masks policy. In recent months, around two dozen cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the city of 110,000 residents. For a long time, there were none at all. As of last Wednesday, two new cases were reported, one of whom was returning from a trip.

Science Underpins the Experience

That’s the practical experience of this eastern city, and there is also now science that underpins this experience with data. A number of studies have since shown that simple, disposable masks or fabric masks can actually help contain the spread of the virus.

In Hong Kong, researchers had patients infected with a relatively harmless coronavirus cough and exhale for a half an hour, time in which they measured how many viruses they emitted. They found virus particles in 30 percent of all droplets and 40 percent of all aerosol samples. When patients put on simple surgical masks and repeated the experiment, no viruses appeared in the samples. Experiments on golden hamsters delivered similar results: A curtain made out of surgical masks reduced the number of airborne SARS-CoV-2 infections.

But mask wearing isn't just altruistic. It also provides some protection to the person wearing it. A team led by Holger Schünemann, an epidemiologist at McMaster University in Canada, reviewed 44 comparative studies on SARS-CoV-2. The data examined were of moderate quality, but they did provide a clear picture. "Face masks are associated with protection,” the researchers wrote in an article recently published in The Lancet, a respected British health journal.

Indeed, no serious scientists still have any doubts as to whether face masks reduce the risk of coronavirus infection. Where researchers do disagree, though, is on precisely how effective masks really are.

In Sweden, for example, the government’s epidemiologist doesn’t consider it necessary to wear masks and is instead depending on people in the country to practice social distancing. By contrast, 10 renowned virologists in Germany and Switzerland recently issued a joint appeal for the "the consistent use of everyday masks in all school grades, even during classes.”

The Robert Koch Institute corrected its rejection of face masks back in early April. In a statement issued at the time, the institute said: "Currently, there is growing evidence that some people infected with SARS-CoV-2 can emit the virus before symptoms appear.” The German government shared that view and Chancellor Angela Merkel explained in detail at a press conference on April 6 how to disinfect fabric masks in a microwave oven.

It all raises a question that it’s probably too late to answer: Could Germany have been spared the lockdown if politicians had pushed for compulsory masks sooner? Would fewer jobs have been lost and fewer lives destroyed?

If you ask Germans how they feel about the obligation to wear masks, a large majority say they are in favor. In a survey conducted by the pollster Politbarometer for public broadcaster ZDF and the Berlin daily newspaper Tagesspiegel in July, 73 percent said they were convinced it made sense to wear a mask, with 87 percent saying they believed masks should be worn when shopping. Another recent survey by pollster Infratest-dimap found that 79 percent have now become accustomed to wearing masks.

Rowdy Refuseniks

But polls are one thing and actual behavior is another. It appears that the number of people who aren’t taking the mask requirement seriously is growing. That’s the view of a manager of a McDonald’s restaurant at Berlin’s central train station, who asked that her name be withheld from publication.

"We regularly have guests who refuse to wear a mask in the restaurant, and sometimes it’s difficult to calm them down,” she says. "The discussions have intensified.” She says a growing number of guests are producing notes from doctors absolving them from the mask requirement. The manager says that some are unwilling to accept the fact that even with a note attesting to breathing problems, they still aren’t allowed to enter the restaurant without a mask.

Her restaurant isn't the only one facing the problem. A company spokesperson said that even though only very few guests are flouting the rules, McDonald's employees are forced to have the discussion over and over again.

At the Central Station location, McDonald’s has a plexiglas visor that it lends to those customers, which allows them to breathe easily. But the visors are unable to filter out aerosols.

Visitors to an illegal party in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood, cookies with masks, mask-wearing school children in Schleswig-Holstein: Politicians in Germany are currently debating whether children should be required to wear masks during their lessons. So far, though, the governors of the country's 16 states have been unable to agree on a standard policy.

Visitors to an illegal party in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood, cookies with masks, mask-wearing school children in Schleswig-Holstein: Politicians in Germany are currently debating whether children should be required to wear masks during their lessons. So far, though, the governors of the country's 16 states have been unable to agree on a standard policy.

Foto: Christoph Soeder / picture alliance / dpa; Gregor Fischer / dpa; Bäckerei Kreher, Eppertshausen

The manager says there was another escalation recently, with two employees unable to calm down an angry woman who refused to wear protection. Eventually, she stormed out of the restaurant in a huff. The restaurant manager is now using role-playing games to train her staff in how to deal with rebellious customers who refuse to wear masks. It’s also an effort to prevent what happened at a McDonald’s in Bad Honnef, a town in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where three men at the end of July allegedly attacked an employee who had told them they had to wear masks. They reportedly punched him in the face and made racist remarks. The attacker had fled by the time the police arrived on the scene. Two days later, a similar incident happened at a McDonald’s in the city of Bremen, where five men punched two employees.

Similar incidents have been reported at supermarkets, on buses and at amusement parks. In May, two men and a woman attacked two police officers at a Kaufland supermarket near Bonn in North Rhine-Westphalia after they had been called in to help during a dispute over masks. One officer wound up in the hospital with a facial fracture and his co-worker suffered severe bruising. The attackers likely deliberately provoked the conflict and even filmed it from several angles. "For a massive attack to be theatrically staged like that is an entirely new dimension,” says one of the investigators in the case.

At the beginning of June, a drunken 18-year-old boarded a bus near the airport in Stuttgart without wearing a mask. When an employee with the public transportation company confronted him, the man hit him in the face with a steel chain. Frustration over the compulsory mask requirement due to the coronavirus even struck a small theme park aimed at families with small children at the popular vacation destination of Rügen recently, where three guests attacked several employees for kicking them out of the park for not wearing masks.

Protests Around the Country

At the protests against the measures taken to contain the coronavirus, which have now become weekly events somewhere in Germany, anti-maskers meet up with like-minded individuals to vent their outrage.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a face mask, a high-speed German train with a graffiti face mask, mask production in Germany: Politicians in the country are considering a widening of the mask requirement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a face mask, a high-speed German train with a graffiti face mask, mask production in Germany: Politicians in the country are considering a widening of the mask requirement.

Foto: Francisco Seco / REUTERS; Deutsche Bahn; Andreas Gebert / Getty Images

A week ago Saturday, former pastor and East German civil rights activist Christoph Wonneberger drove his car at walking pace through the city center of Halle an der Saale. Music by German pop star Xavier Naidoo and Bob Marley played out of speakers strapped to the roof and protesters walking next to the car carried signs with slogans like "No Compulsory Vaccinations” or "Don’t Give Gates a Chance.”

There have also been counter-demonstrations - mostly men dressed in black who conduct sit-ins to block the cars and are later carried away by the police. "The antifa," says Wonneberger, "our enemy."

None of the main protesters wear masks, but all of the counter-protesters do. On this particular day, mask have become a badge of belonging.

A speaker takes to the stage. "Dear friends, the corona regime is planning to make masks mandatory for our children during school hours," she cries. The gathered protesters blow whistles and beat drums. "This is bodily injury and mental torture!” the speaker yells into the microphone. Wonneberger applauds.

Wonneberger took to the streets as a pastor for other causes at the end of the 1980s. He organized prayers for peace in Leipzig’s Nikolai Church, which gave birth to the Monday demonstrations that eventually helped to usher out the East German communist regime in 1989. He sees parallels between that time and the coronavirus now. "You get the feeling that everyone is in cahoots - the media, politicians, the police,” he says. He also doesn’t believe that masks do anything and that many scientists would agree with him. "But unfortunately, they aren’t being taken seriously." Despite his reluctance, he still has a mask because he needs it for shopping. It is emblazoned with the words: "Shut up.”

The people Wonneberger is referring to have joined together in interest groups. One initiative formed by three doctors from Hamburg, Ärzte für Aufklärung (Doctors for Enlightenment), is seeking, among other things, to promote alternative methods for cancer treatment. The website of one activist within the scene, which has several hundred supporters, claims that the corona crisis "is a criminal, international orchestration." Among them are many practitioners of alternative medicine.

One of them is Fritz Düker, a dentist based in Offenburg in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. Those entering his practice can decide for themselves whether they want to wear a mask when talking to the doctor. Düker himself advises against it. "I wouldn't advise anyone to wear a mask in everyday life," he says. "It’s humid and warm behind the masks. Bacteria, fungi and viruses feel at home there and can multiply."

If you are opposed to wearing a mask in any situation, the dentist will issue medical permission on request. He then writes "oral mask phobia” as the reason on the doctor’s note. "Shortness of breath” or "inflammation of the skin and mucous membranes” are also popular diagnoses.

The dentist doesn’t see any danger of the spread of the coronavirus if people don’t wear masks. After all, he explains, the virus already disappeared in Germany long ago. "There are no more contagious corona patients,” he claims. The dentist offers an astonishing explanation for the infection figures that have been reported: He claims the tests are faulty.

The dispute over masks is not a new one. During the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, there were protests against the cancellation of boxing matches and against rules requiring people to wear masks. Around 2,000 people joined together in San Francisco as part of the Anti-Mask League, despite fines of between 5 and 50 dollars for people caught not wearing a mask. Hundreds were jailed.

A Fierce Debate

To this day, more women wear masks than men. And to this day, the debate on the issue is fierce.

"I just had such a huge falling out with my family. They called me crazy for not believing all this madness,” a person named Tatjana wrote on Facebook. The madness she was referring to is the daily reporting on the coronavirus. More than 300 people commented on her post, also reporting fights, split-ups and hurt feelings, in addition to disturbing conversations with parents, siblings, partners or friends.

The gulf between the pro-mask and anti-maks factions runs through many a family and friendship and between social groups and workforces: It's easy enough to read about it in social media.

The phenomenon is reminiscent of the societal polarization five years ago in the debate surrounding Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees and her slogan, "We can do this.” Then as now, the political dispute extended deep into the private sphere.

"I don't try to convince people like that anymore or speak out against it. They’re so stuck in their fear bubble. Let them run around with a mask for the rest of their lives,” one of the responses to Tatjana’s posting reads. Another reads: "Stay strong, we are many and we are growing!”

A leaflet shared within the social media group also included arguments against wearing masks. "I consider the mask requirement to be a deliberate effort to maintain the atmosphere of fear,” it states. "Everyone is supposed to have the feeling that there is a constant danger, even if it doesn’t exist in reality.”

One place where these two worlds occasionally meet is on the train, where there is a strict mask policy, no matter how long the journey takes and no matter if the air-conditioning is working or not.

In Berlin, the rate of mask wearers in buses and trains is around 90 percent, according to the city’s public transportation authority. Since April, ticket controllers have approached 45,000 people who weren’t wearing masks. The authority claims that 450 refused to comply and that 270 were fined 50 euros. Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national railway, claims that the vast majority of passengers comply with the regulations.

But it’s not only the mask refuseniks that are a problem - there are also people who wear their masks incorrectly, and they don’t appear in the statistics. A train conductor from northern Germany, who asked that his name not be used, estimates that, "only around a third of the people wear their masks correctly. The others only cover their mouths (and not their noses). And seven or eight people per train don’t wear any at all.” She says that passengers have responded aggressively when she has approached them and that she’s been called every name in the book.

No Means of Defending Themselves

Some railway employees have been subjected to more than just verbal aggression. A passenger punched a train conductor on one route between Essen and Wanne-Eickel in North Rhine-Westphalia. He then trampled the conductor with his feet after knocking her to the ground. The altercation happened after she told him to wear a mask.

Train conductors, bus drivers and other public transport workers have no means of defending themselves with sanctions or penalties. The only thing they can do is call the police, which leads to delays and yet more anger among passengers.

Each state also has its own regulations and its own patchwork of fines. For example, if a person is on a train from Munich to Berlin, if they get caught not wearing a mask on the train in the Saxony, they won’t get a fine because there are none in that state. The route also goes through Thuringia, where the fine is 50 euros, Bavaria, where the fine is 150 euros and Berlin, where it can go as high as 500 euros. But that’s also only in the unlikely event that police officers happen to check that train.

Christian Deckert, a train conductor with the national railway and a member of the main executive board of the railway union GDL, wants the rules to be changed so that the railway itself can impose the penalties. Currently, conductors have to call the police to have people who refuse to wear a mask removed. They aren’t allowed to take down any personal information themselves. "Ultimately, nothing happens,” Deckert says. "The passenger just gets back on the next train."

Do politicians need to take greater action to ensure that the mask requirement is enforced and regulate it better?  "We are observing current developments very closely," says Tobias Hans, the governor of the state of Saarland. "If the numbers keep rising, then we will have to conduct closer checks on restaurants and bars and we may need to introduce steeper fines.” The politician, a member of the conservative Christian Democrats, says that the mask requirement still "makes sense.”

Bärbel Bas, a health expert with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the deputy head of the party’s group in parliament, says people need to do a better job of educating people about the advantages of wearing masks. "Many people don’t understand why they have to wear a mask in a beer garden until they reach their table. We need more knowledge, more studies."

She says the fact that the rules are different in each state only adds to the confusion. In Bavaria, every person attending driving lessons has to wear a mask, but they don’t in Hesse. If you go to a medical facility in North Rhine-Westphalia, you are required to wear a mask when waiting in line at all times. But in Thuringia, you don’t have to. In Lower Saxony, you have to wear masks if you’re taking a city tour or a boat excursion. In Rhineland-Palatinate, you have to wear them at zoos and farmer’s markets.

Visitors to church services, a statue that has been decorated with masks and a woman wearing a mask in Berlin: The mask requirement is both a curse and a blessing. In some retail sectors, sales are already above their pre-corona levels. But people are primarily buying things for everyday consumption and aren't going on shopping sprees.

Visitors to church services, a statue that has been decorated with masks and a woman wearing a mask in Berlin: The mask requirement is both a curse and a blessing. In some retail sectors, sales are already above their pre-corona levels. But people are primarily buying things for everyday consumption and aren't going on shopping sprees.

Foto: Espen Eichhöfer; Anja Lehmann; Jens Jeske

Calls for More Checks

Karl Lauterbach , the SPD’s leading health expert, has demanded "consistent checks” on the mask requirement and has argued that existing policies need to be further tightened. "There needs to be a mask requirement in the most vulnerable places, where there are frequent gatherings of young people with lots of alcohol. I am referring to places like Hasenheide in Berlin or Brüsseler Platz (a square in Cologne). The danger of infection is particularly high there,” says Lauterbach.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn says he sees no reason to intervene in the confusion surrounding the differing mask requirements. In a federalist system, he says, it’s a matter for the states. Spahn’s focus has been on the voluntary use of masks as well as a 10-million euro Health Ministry public awareness campaign with ads emphasizing social distancing, hand-washing and other hygienic measures and the wearing of masks everyday.” The campaign has been running at 370 gas stations around the country on on close to 60,000 monitors in electronics stores, hair salons and restaurants. No one can say for sure whether it is having an impact.

And if the compulsory mask requirement were to be expanded into other areas of public life, it would also result in the need for more supplies. Currently, there is an abundance of masks, and all are imported. Spahn had actually planned back in April to boost domestic production in order to avoid the threat of the kind of shortfall in mask supplies seen in the spring. Some 46 vendors were expected to supply the ministry’s inventory with 10 million high-quality FFP2 masks and 40 million simple surgical masks a week. The first delivery date was August 8. But Germany’s independent supplies of masks are a pure illusion. So far, only 1.7 million masks have been delivered, according to the ministry. Few of the selected manufacturers appear to be in a position to actually produce the quantities that have been promised.

Back To School

And this at a moment that could be decisive in Germany’s efforts to fight COVID-19. Summer vacation is coming to an end, students are returning to a relatively normal school life after months of school closures and online lessons. It raises the question of how students and teachers can best be protected. The kind of pressure officials are under is obvious from their decisions.

Initially, Yvonne Gebauer, North Rhine-Westphalia’s education minister, showed little interest in compulsory masks during classes, but one week before school started, she surprised parents, teachers and students alike by implementing the rule. In doing so, she pointed to the numbers of infections. And, indeed, the highest numbers of new cases have been in that state.

So far, though, the education ministers of the 16 German states have been unable to find a consensus on a common mask policy. In Berlin, masks are required outside of classrooms in closed spaces. In Hamburg, they are required on entire campuses, including schoolyards. In Baden-Württemberg, pupils in the fifth grade and up are required to wear masks; but in Lower Saxony and Bavaria, primary school students are also obligated to wear them. Schleswig-Holstein strongly recommends masks but does not require students to wear them. In Saxony, schools are allowed to set their own policy.

A Vast Experiment

Last Wednesday, on the first day back to school after the summer vacation, a parade of children wearing masks with everything from checkered to skulls to flower patterns could be seen at 7:50 a.m. at the Janusz Korczak Comprehensive School in Gütersloh.

The pupils also wore their masks inside their classrooms. "Welcome!" a teacher said in greeting at the entrance, his own face half covered with a mask. He held a small box in his hand with fabric masks that had been sewn by school parents that he could distribute to children arriving without their own.

"I was even allowed to take the mask off in court,” says Lydia Wiesbrock, a mother and lawyer, who was taking her daughter to school on Wednesday. "I think the requirement to wear masks in class is terrible. The kids are supposed to sit in class for hours at a time in this hot weather.” Wiesbrock feels bad for both the students and the teachers. Educators will now have to explain the new coronavirus containment measures, promote understanding and perhaps even admonish students who flout the rules. The first lessons will be devoted to the subject.

"What worries me,” says school principle Heidrun Elbracht, "is that we basically have a laboratory situation here at school. No matter how much care we take to ensure that the children here wear their masks and that different classes don’t mix, it’s an illusion to expect them to adhere to the rules once they have left the campus. They will hang out with their buddies, which isn’t forbidden right now."

Gütersloh has already been hit twice as it is. As with all schools in Germany, those in Gütersloh were closed in mid-March, with classes initially moving online. At the end of April, students were able to partly return to their classrooms, but the schools in Gütersloh, including the Janusz Korczak Comprehensive School, had to shutter again on June 18 following a major coronavirus outbreak at a local meat processing plant .

Lawsuits Against Mask Requirement

The mask requirement is also a source of agitation beyond North Rhine-Westphalia -- also for educators. "I’m glad different rules apply in Hamburg," says Mirjam Kaune, a teacher at the Alter Teichweg primary and district school. "I use facial expressions a lot in class. If I have to wear a mask all the time, I can't even laugh with the kids anymore."

Heinz-Peter Meidinger, president of the German Teachers' Association and the long-time head of a Bavarian high school, on the other hand, maintains a tougher stance on the mask requirement. He feels the entire country should be following North Rhine-Westphalia’s example. "Masks in the classroom might not be ideal for a lively teaching experience,” Meidinger told the news agency DPA, "but it’s a sacrifice that has to be made if we are going to have full instruction again.” For Stefan Belau, the state chair of the Educators’ Association (VBE) in North Rhine-Westphalia, compulsory masks are the price that has to be paid for large classes to be held in small rooms.

In Hamburg, one plaintiff even sued to have the mask requirement lifted - but unsuccessfully so far. A local court ruled in August against lifting the mask requirement, arguing that the state authorities "have considerable scope for the assessment, evaluation and design of efforts to fulfill their duty to protect.” The ruling came the same day that schools reopened in the city-state after summer vacation. In Hamburg, classes take place in fixed groups that, if possible, are not supposed to mix with others – an approach that other states are also following.

In Thuringia, on the other hand, one plaintiff did prevail in a lawsuit aimed at lifting the mask requirement in class. The state Education Ministry had only planned to require students to wear masks in common areas of the schools, but the city of Jena wanted a stricter policy and decided to apply a mask requirement for lessons as well. "It’s nonsensical, unreasonable and inhumane,” says Peter Häuser, the director of a local Waldorf School who sued over the decision. "Teachers can’t do lessons with a mask – they’re just cooping kids up in the classroom,” Häuser says.

How normal will life be again in the next few weeks, how restricted, and are the masks really helping with anything? For the retail trade, the mask has been a curse and a blessing.

Gloom Is Prevailing

In addition to Germans’ general reluctance to spend, many consider the mask requirement to be the greatest obstacle to getting things going again. The latest figures from Hystreet, a company that measures pedestrian frequencies in retail areas, downtowns and high streets have nearly recovered to pre-corona levels. And in some segments of the retail industry, revenues are already surpassing pre-corona levels. But the data also shows that it’s everyday necessities that people are stocking up on – they aren’t going on big shopping sprees. Despite the reopening of stores as part of a loosening of the lockdown, fashion retailers still showed revenues that were 16 percent lower than the previous year in June.

"The masks have been a stroke of fortune for the textiles industry,” says Martin Fassnacht, a professor of marketing at the Otto Beisheim School of Management in Düsseldorf. He says the industry was already performing badly prior to the coronavirus, and the crisis sparked by it has merely exacerbated the situation. Sales of masks have at least provided some relief. "Masks are becoming a fashion accessory,” says Fassnacht. He says they could even become a source of revenues for the industry more important than even ties.

Overall, though, the gloom is tending to prevail in the industry. The mask requirement "inhibits people’s desire to go on shopping sprees or make spontaneous purchases. Customers tend to go in and out of shops faster,” says Stefan Genth, the head of the German Retail Association (HDE).

Genth has a quandary on his hands: On the one, there’s the concern about sales leading up to the holiday season. On the other, though, he can’t push too loudly for the lifting of the mask requirement because then he would run the danger of frightening away the "other half of customers” for whom the risk in the shops would be too high without protection.

Instead, "a broad societal consensus is needed to determine the right time to end the compulsory mask requirement,” says Genth. He says he really can’t say when that time will come, but nobody can, really.

 "More Complex and Strenuous”

A research team at the University of Bamberg wanted to find out how the wearing of masks alters a society, especially when it comes to education. One of their findings is that emotions like joy, disgust or sadness are less often recognized when people wear masks. At the same time, gestures play a greater role, making communication "more complex and strenuous,” says Rolf van Dick, the head of the social psychology department at Frankfurt’s Goethe University. Nonetheless, he says, "I'm surprised how quickly wearing the mask has become accepted."

Before the coronavirus, masks primarily created distance. But now they are helping us to reduce those distances. "If you wear a mask, you can get closer rather than having to keep your distance,” says van Dick. "It opens us up to each other again by concealing a part of us."

It’s still too early to tell if masks will become the symbol of success in a fight against a pandemic we have been working on as a society.

Van Dick is certain that masks will still be a part of our lives, even once the coronavirus is defeated. Even then, smart people with cold symptoms will wear masks when they take public transportation to the office to protect other passengers and colleagues. He says the ways in which we communicate will also change. "We will develop forms for showing joy, sadness or compassion, even if we can’t see the other person’s nose and mouth,” says van Dick.

There are millions of people in Germany who are part of the coronavirus risk group because they are elderly or have underlying conditions. In fact, a large part of the population is in need of special protection.

Laura Gehlhaar is one example. The 37-year-old blogger and writer has a muscle disease. If the virus attacked her lungs, it’s unlikely she would recover.

This led her to stay inside her apartment for the duration of the lockdown. For weeks, her boyfriend did all the shopping because she was too afraid of getting infected. In June, she finally got out of her apartment for some fresh air after a very long time.

She says the mask means freedom for her and that every loosening of the restrictions creates new risks. Gehlhaar is pleased that everyone in her circle of friends understands this. Also that they wear masks. 

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