By Sabine Siebold and Andreas Rinke
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany will impose an emergency month-long lockdown that includes the closure of restaurants, gyms and theatres to reverse a spike in coronavirus cases that risks overwhelming hospitals, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday.
"We need to take action now," she said, adding that the recent steep rise in infections had generated sufficient political and public support for new tough measures to reduce social contacts and suppress outbreaks.
Effective Nov. 2, private gatherings will be limited to 10 people from a maximum of two households. Restaurants, bars, theatres, cinemas, pools and gyms will be shut and concerts cancelled.
Professional sports events will be allowed to be held only without spectators. People will be asked not to travel for private, non-essential reasons, and overnight stays in hotels will be available only for necessary business trips.
The Dehoga hotel and restaurant association called the decisions "bitter". "Many businesses are standing with their backs to the wall, desperation is growing," said Dehoga Chief Executive Ingrid Hartges.
Under the new measures, schools and daycare centres will remain open, as will shops, so long as they stick to social distancing and hygiene rules. The nationwide rules replace a confusing patchwork of regional measures.
To make the measures more palatable especially for smaller companies, Germany will offer financial aid to those hurt by the new restrictions.
Under a new 10-billion-euro ($11.82 billion) aid package, companies with up to 50 employees will receive 75% of their year-earlier revenues for the month of November.
In addition, self-employed workers such as artists and stage hands will receive access to emergency loans, and the government will expand an existing liquidity programme to give small firms with less than 10 employees access to very cheap loans.
Germany, with Europe's largest economy, was widely praised for keeping infection and death rates below those of many of its neighbours in the first phase of the crisis but is now in the midst of a second wave, like much of the rest of Europe.
Cases rose by 14,964 to 464,239 in the last 24 hours, Germany's infectious diseases agency, the Robert Koch Institute, said on Wednesday. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/3mxsgbX)
Deaths jumped by 85 to 10,183, heightening fears for the health system after Merkel warned it could hit a breaking point if infections continue to spiral.
"Our health system can still cope with this challenge today, but at this speed of infections it will reach the limits of its capacity within weeks," the conservative chancellor said.
Merkel added that health authorities were no longer able to trace the origin of around 75% of infections, which made it difficult to say which measures exactly would have the most effective impact.
Germany is now counting on a four-week, partial shutdown to help flatten the curve of infections.
"Our hope is that if we manage to do this for four weeks, that we then have a chance to halt this dramatic development, that we have a chance to regain a bit of security," Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller said.
Merkel and Germany's 16 state government leaders will reconvene two weeks into the partial lockdown to assess the effectiveness of the measures.
($1 = 0.8461 euros)
(Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Andreas Rinke; Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber, Holger Hansen and Michelle Adair; Writing by Madeline Chambers and Maria Sheahan; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Nick Macfie and Lisa Shumaker)