The city of Jena in eastern Germany has decided to make people wear face masks when shopping or travelling by public transport, stepping up efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus and becoming the first city in the country to introduce the measure.

For the last two weeks, states around Germany have closed schools, restaurants, bars and banned public gatherings as they try to tackle the outbreak but the number of cases and deaths is still rising fast. Jena, which has 119 cases of the coronavirus and an overall population of about 110,000, decided to follow Austria which on Monday said it was requiring shoppers to wear basic face masks in supermarkets.

"In a week's time, wearing mouth and nose protection in shops in Jena, on public transport and buildings with public traffic will be compulsory," Jena town hall said in a statement. Given shortages of face masks, the town in the state of Thuringia said towels or scarves wrapped over peoples' mouths and noses would be acceptable and it encouraged individuals to sew their own.

German companies have switched to producing protective face masks

Coronavirus
SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 Wikimedia Commons

As medical staff around the world clamour for personal protective equipment, many German companies, especially textiles firms, have switched to producing protective face masks. The president of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases said the discussion about face masks was relevant because they help slow the spread of droplets. German officials have stressed now is not the time to loosen social distancing measures introduced earlier this month but politicians, fearful of the impact on Europe's biggest economy, are already debating how best to unwind the lockdown measures.

A health ministry spokesman said on Monday an obligation for the general public to wear masks may have a role to play later. Another option for later is to launch a smartphone app to help trace coronavirus infections, an approach pioneered by Singapore which German officials think could work without invading people's privacy.

Number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Germany has risen to 61,913

With the council of economic advisors warning the virus could cause a 5.4 percent contraction in the German economy this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has announced a stimulus package worth more than 750 billion euros to cushion the blow. The Ifo institute said keeping firms closed for more than two months due to the coronavirus outbreak could cost the German state of Bavaria, Germany's worst hit state, up to 94 billion euros ($104 billion).

The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Germany has risen to 61,913 and 583 people have died of the disease, RKI statistics showed. RKI President Wieler said he was optimistic the measures Germany had taken were working and the situation would become clearer after Easter. He also said, however, that he expected the mortality rate of 0.8 percent in Germany to rise, in part because more older people were getting infected. In a particularly shocking case, at least 15 people have died in one nursing home in Wolfsburg.