Germany adopted a new plan Wednesday for a gradual relaxation of the country’s long-running coronavirus lockdown.

Chancellor Angela Merkel made the announcement after a nine-hour-long videoconference with the premiers of the country’s 16 federal states.

Merkel said the government will speed up the vaccine rollout, increase the availability of rapid antigen tests and improve contact tracing in the coming days to make further reopening steps possible without jeopardizing achievements against the pandemic.

According to the decisions taken during the meeting, retail stores and museums will be allowed to reopen from March 8 if the infection rate drops to 50 cases per 100,000 people in a seven-day period.

As the next reopening step, beginning from March 22, cafes and restaurants will be allowed to serve customers in outdoor areas if the infection rate is at 50 or below in this period.

Merkel said they agreed that the incidence rate of 100 cases per 100,000 people will serve as an “emergency break,” and if infections increase to this level again, strict restrictive measures would be reimposed.

Germany managed to reduce coronavirus infections in February, and currently the country’s seven-day incidence rate is 64 cases per 100,000 people.

With the recent decrease in new coronavirus infections, most German states allowed elementary schools to reopen last week.

Hairdressers were allowed to reopen Monday under strict hygiene requirements and provided that customers make an appointment in advance. Bookstores and flower shops will reopen next week.

Germany had been under a hard lockdown since November, and Merkel’s government came under growing pressure from the public to ease the restrictions.

The country currently has the fifth-highest tally of infections in Western Europe behind the UK, France, Spain and Italy.

Strict lockdown measures helped the government bring the daily case count below 12,000 in the past two weeks, but the death toll remains high, according to the latest figures released by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI).

On Wednesday, the institute reported 9,019 new infections and 418 deaths, showing that the pandemic is far from over.

Researchers at RKI estimate that the more contagious UK variant of the virus accounts for more than 46% of new infections in the country.

Copyright 2022 Anadolu Agency. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.