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German state governor faces criticism over virus outbreak

DUESSELDORF – Authorities in Germany’s most populous state faced criticism Wednesday over their handling of a major coronavirus outbreak at a slaughterhouse that triggered a regional lockdown and saw residents barred from visiting other parts of the country.

North Rhine-Westphalia's state government on Tuesday announced it was reimposing many lockdown measures in Guetersloh, home to the Toennies slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck, and neighboring Warendorf, where many of its workers live. Between them, the two counties have 670,000 inhabitants.

Almost 1,300 infections have been linked to the Toennies slaughterhouse. State governor Armin Laschet said Tuesday that restrictions were being imposed for a week to “calm the situation,” expand testing and establish whether the virus has spread beyond employees.

Political opponents and other critics argue that he should have acted sooner. Laschet, who is also a contender for the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party — and possibly to succeed Merkel as Germany’s leader — has been a vocal advocate since April of easing coronavirus restricions.

“Today, Rheda-Wiedenbrueck is the biggest hot spot in the whole of Europe,” center-left opposition leader Thomas Kutschaty told the state parliament in Duesseldorf. “The state could have used a government that intervened quickly and decisively, and didn’t wait a week to prevent a second wave of infections rolling over all of Germany and Europe.”

“Now we can only hope that it is not already too late,” Kutschaty said.

Laschet strongly defended his stance. Speaking before Kutschaty on Wednesday, he noted that his state has now become the first to significantly reverse the easing of restrictions.

The 199-member state legislature was meeting at full strength for the first time since the pandemic hit Germany, with three-sided acrylic cabins set up around the seats to separate lawmakers. In recent weeks, only a third of lawmakers had been able to attend because of distancing rules.

The federal government, which agreed last month to relax lockdown rules provided local authorities swiftly clamp down on fresh outbreaks, showed little interest in intervening Wednesday.

“All efforts must be made to ensure the outbreak doesn't spread to the general population,” government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said.

Asked whether Merkel planned to summon regional officials for talks, Demmer told reporters that federal and state authorities were “in constant” communication, but she couldn’t confirm any planned meeting.

Sven-Georg Adenauer, the head of the regional administration in Guetersloh, said a first set of tests on residents who didn't work at the slaughterhouse had produced encouraging results. He said that around 600 tests were conducted Wednesday; of the 230 results already received, 229 were negative and in the remaining case the result was unclear.

“I think this is a small glimmer of hope that the virus hasn’t passed into the population,” he said, though he cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the small figure.

Experts say workers in the meat industry are particularly at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Many of those working at Toennies are migrants from Eastern Europe employed by subcontractors who house them in communal apartments.

Conditions inside the slaughterhouses, where cool, moist air is circulated inside closed rooms, can also increase the spread of the virus, said Martin Exner, director of the Institute for Hygiene and Public Health at the University of Bonn.

Exner said outbreaks at meat plants in Germany, the United States, Britain and France showed the need to reconsider how such factories are set up.

“I think this will have a lot of consequences for the meat processing and poultry processing industry,” he said.

The outbreak in Guetersloh has also affected workers from other companies who live in some of the same apartment buildings as the Toennies staff and now find themselves trapped there.

Alex, a 30-year-old man from Romania who spoke on condition his surname wouldn't be used, said living behind steel fences hastily erected around his apartment bloc made him feel like" a pig in a hole."

His usual daily run in the park is now impossible, and traveling back to Romania would entail a 14-day quarantine there, he said.

Meanwhile, residents of Guetersloh who had hoped to vacation elsewhere in Germany have found their bookings canceled in recent days, as regional authorities in Bavaria and coastal states barred hotels from hosting people from the affected counties unless they could prove they weren't infected.

Some flocked to testing stations in the hope of getting a negative result that would allow them to travel.

“Children went back to school, holidays were booked, and then there’s a setback like this," said Ekaterina Jansen, a Guetersloh resident. “Everybody is very angry.”

Adenauer, the head of the Guetersloh regional administration, criticized officials elsewhere in Germany for singling out people from his region.

He cited a decree that people from Guetersloh and Warendorf have to wear face masks in public when visiting neighboring Muenster, a measure he said was almost impossible to enforce.

“You might call it satire if it weren’t so sad," Adenauer said.

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Frank Jordans reported from Berlin. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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