Fighting Covid-19 on the Local Level

Lea Bosch and Philip Nedelcu, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

Relevance of the Practice

When the SARS-CoV-2 virus broke out in Wuhan, China, in December 2019/January 2020 and the entire Hubei province was sealed off with strict curfews on January 23, 2020, Europe still considered itself safe. On March 12, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic.[1] Almost all countries are affected by the exponential increase of infections since February/March 2020. Lockdowns, curfews and travel bans have been implemented in most of them. German Chancellor Angela Merkel described Covid-19 as the most severe crisis Germany is facing since the Second World War.[2] Nonetheless, the German Basic Law (BL) does not contain constitutional instruments to deal with a health-related crisis. The announcement of a state of emergency is confined to attacks by foreign states (Article 115(a) BL).[3] The BL does however empower the federal legislature to enact laws to deal with infectious diseases.[4] On this basis, the legislature had (already in the year 2000) enacted a federal law called infection protection law (Infektionsschutzgesetz, hereinafter: IfSG) that plays a central role in the German way of handling Covid-19. As the implementation of federal laws is generally the task of the Länder (Article 83 BL), the IfSG empowers the Länder and municipalities to enact (precautionary) measures against infectious diseases to prevent infection and to protect the people’s health and public health system.[5] Therefore, the municipal authorities play a crucial role in the combat against Covid-19. This entry will lay out in more detail the allocation of responsibilities by looking at measures enacted in reaction to Covid-19 in Bavaria.

Description of the Practice

The general clause of paragraph 28(1) IfSG obliges the responsible authorities to implement the necessary measures, especially those mentioned in the following paragraphs. Paragraphs 29 to 31 IfSG regulate special measures like observation, quarantine and the prohibition of professional activity. The authorities enjoy discretion in the selection of the specific measures, given that the envisaged measures are suitable and necessary to prevent spreading of communicable diseases.[6] The current measures, in particular wide-ranging curfews, are not explicitly foreseen by the IfSG. Whether they are nonetheless covered by paragraph 28(1) IfSG (which has been invoked as a legal basis by the authorities) has triggered a heated academic debate.[7]

As is the case in various federal laws, the IfSG grants the Länder the authority to designate the competent authorities within the Land (paragraph 54 IfSG). In Bavaria, the allocation of competences foreseen in paragraph 54 IfSG is regulated in paragraphs 65ff. of the Bavarian regulation of competence (Zuständigkeitsverordnungen, hereinafter: ZustV). Thereunder, the counties’ administration authorities (Kreisverwaltungsbehörden)[8] as second-tier local governments are responsible for the implementation and enforcement of measures. Hence, the enforcement occurs on the level of local governments, with rural local governments (RLGs) and urban local governments (ULGs) being subject to the same legal conditions[9]. Since each LG decides independently, this can however lead to very different regulations. The following example of the municipal Mitterteich in the County of Tirschenreuth shows this clearly.[10]

As Mitterteich is a small-town in Upper Palatinate, not an independent town or city, the decision about precautionary measures for Mitterteich remained with the county office of Tirschenreuth. The county office was the first in Germany to prescribe a curfew specifically for and limited to the municipal of Mitterteich, as this municipality showed a significantly higher number of Covid-19 cases in comparison with other municipals in the state. The curfew began March 18, 2020 and ended April 02, 2020. Local citizens have been informed by applications on smartphones, newspapers, notes in every mailbox and announcements by firefighters driving the streets. Police reports show acceptance of the measures and few offences.[11] While such a lockdown might be more acceptable to the population in RLGs, as less people live in (crammed) small flats, the enforcement in RLGs is made more difficult by the lack of enforcement officers and the more spread-out territorial structure of RLG areas.

In addition to these competences on municipal level, paragraph 65 of the Bavarian ZustV (in conjunction with the IfSG) also allows the Bavarian State Government to enforce precautionary measures for the whole state. When infection rates in Bavaria further increased, the Bavarian State Ministry of Health and Care decided to make use of this competence. Hence, state-wide (partial) curfews (Ausgangsbeschränkungen) and other precautionary measures have been prescribed by a decree (Rechtsverordnung) issued by the ministry (Bayerische Infektionsschutzmaßnahmenverordnung). The decree entered into force on 31 March and was at first due to expire on 19 April 2020. Since then, the precautionary measures have been prolonged or adapted to the ongoing development based on the government’s assessment of the situation. Under the decree, (public) institutions and companies are obliged to ensure compliance with hygiene standards and physical distances on their premises. The possibility to immediately comply with (and effectively monitor) these rules of social distancing may vary from case to case, but cannot be generalized for urban or rural areas. The other Länder have not enforced similarly strict measures such as curfews, but have implemented (partial) shutdowns of severely affected regions[12] and general no-contact rules, also called mandatory social distancing rules (Kontaktverbote)[13]. Besides these general rules, the local health authorities (Gesundheitsämter) also issue quarantine orders to individuals tested positive for Covid-19, persons that have been in close contact with these individuals, and returning travelers.[14]

Assessment of the Practice

During the still lasting Covid-19 crisis, it is not possible to assess the practice fully. Measures in Germany vary to some extent as the measures are implemented and enforced independently by the Länder and on the LG level.[15] Nonetheless, the Federal Ministry of Health as well as the Chancellor work very closely with the state authorities to standardize precautionary measures throughout the whole territory of Germany by agreeing on certain common rules.[16] Calls for a reform of federalism are becoming louder, but should be postponed carefully until after the crisis.[17]

When assessing the Bavarian measures, one encounters a factual problem between ULGs and RLGs relating to the curfews: Even though walks, sports and excursions in the fresh air with people of the same household are not forbidden, RLGs and even the State Government of Bavaria ask citizens of urban regions not to leave the ULG-area to visit local recreation areas.[18] However, a closer look at the population figures shows that the mandatory distance of at least 1.5 m from others on streets and green spaces cannot be met in urban areas, especially the City of Munich, if many city residents go outside (especially to public parks) at the same time. The almost unlimited public green space available in the nearby rural areas could provide a solution thereto. The current RLG strategy of preventing visitors from further away[19] is however in line with the general isolationist character of most measures taken in the fight against Covid-19.

As an ending of the pandemic is not yet in sight, LGs will be challenged continuously. Both the on-going enforcement and the (constitutionally mandated[20]) continuous evaluation and adaption of the above-mentioned measures to the current local circumstances will take up significant resources.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Bales S, Baumann HG, Schnitzler N, Infektionsschutzgesetz: Kommentar und        Vorschriftensammlung (2nd edn, Kohlhammer 2003)

Erdle H, Infektionsschutzgesetz: Kommentar (7th edn, ecomed Medizin 2020)

Giesberts L, Gayger M and Weyand P, ‘Covid-19 – Hoheitliche Befugnisse, Rechte Betroffener und staatliche Hilfen‘ (2020) Neue Zeitschrift für Verwaltungsrecht 417

Klafki A and Kießling A, ‘Fighting Covid 19 – Legal Powers and Risks: Germany’ (Verfassungsblog, 20 March 2020) <https://verfassungsblog.de/fighting-covid-19-legal-powers-and-risks-germany/> Rixen S, ‘Gesundheitsschutz in der Coronavirus-Krise – Die (Neu-)Regelungen des Infektionsschutzgesetzes‘ (2020) Neue Juristische Wochenschrift 1097


[1] ‘WHO announces Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic’ (WHO Regional Office for Europe, 12 March 2020) <http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-emergencies/coronavirus-covid-19/news/news/2020/3/who-announces-covid-19-outbreak-a-pandemic> accessed 2 April 2020.

[2] The Chancellor’s speech with English subtitles can be found here:        <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLxrxyk_wYo> accessed 15 April 2020.

[3] Furthermore, there is Art 35 (especially para 3) BL, which however has very limited legal consequences, therefor see Pierre Thielbörger and Benedikt Behlert, ‘Covid-19 und das Grundgesetz’ (Verfassungsblog, 19 March 2020) <https://verfassungsblog.de/covid-19-und-das-grundgesetz/> accessed 9 April 2020.

[4] Art 74(1)(19) BL.

[5] The IfSG foresees three different groups of measures: monitoring measures (paras 6ff IfSG); preventative measures (paras 16ff IfSG) and measures combating infectious diseases (paras 24ff IfSG). For Covid-19, i.e. a disease already spreading, the last group of measures is the most relevant.

[6] Georg Erbs, Max Kohlhaas and Peter Häberle (eds), ‘Strafrechtliche Nebengesetze‘ in Beck’sche Kurz-Kommentare (231 EL, July 2020) 228. EL Januar 2020, IfSG para 28 Rn. 1; BVerwGE 142, 205.

[7] See for a critical perspective e.g. Thorsten Kingreen, ‘Vom Schutz der Gesundheit’ (Verfassungsblog, 20 March 2020) <https://verfassungsblog.de/whatever-it-takes/> or Anika Klafki, ‘Corona-Pandemie: Ausgangssperre bald auch in Deutschland?‘ (Junge Wissenschaft im Öffentlichen Recht, 18 March 2020) <https://www.juwiss.de/27-2020/>; advocating in favor of the possibility to enact these measures under para 28 IfSG: Johannes Bethge, ‘Ausgangssperre’ (Verfassungsblog, 24 March 2020) <https://verfassungsblog.de/ausgangssperre/> all accessed 15 March 2020.

[8] Counties’ administrative authorities in Bavaria are the 71 county offices (Landratsämter) as lower state administrative authorities (RLG) and the 25 independent towns and cities (ULG), as far as they fulfil state tasks in the transferred sphere of activity, which are otherwise to be performed by the county office as the lower state administrative authority (see also General Introduction to the System of Local Government in Germany).

[9] As the measures are allocated to the second-tier LGs, small municipalities themselves do not play a role in this field (big municipalities like independent towns and cities may however issue measures as described in FN 8).

[10] Elisabeth Kargermeier, ‘Erst die Ausgangssperre, dann die Schuldzuweisungen‘ (Zeit Online, 19 March 2020)         <https://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2020-03/mitterteich-ausgangssperre-coronavirus-quarantaene-ansteckungsgefahr-deutschland> accessed 2 April 2020.

[11] Johann Osel, ‘“Mitterteich, wir halten zam“‘ (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 19 March 2020)      <https://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/coronavirus-mitterteich-wunsiedel-ausgangssperre-1.4850942> accessed 2 April 2020.

[12] e.g. in the County of Heinsberg, ‘Quarantäne im Kreis Heinsberg teils beendet‘ (tagesschau.de, 1 March 2020) <https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/coronavirus-heinsberg-101.html> accessed 16 April 2020.

[13] These rules have been agreed upon (therefore working as a kind of minimum standard) by the federal government and the Länder: ‘Besprechung der Bundeskanzlerin mit den Regierungschefinnen und Regierungschefs der Länder‘ (Die Bundesregierung, 22 March 2020)       <https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/themen/coronavirus/besprechung-der-bundeskanzlerin-mit-den-regierungschefinnen-und-regierungschefs-der-laender-1733248> accessed 16 April 2020.

[14] Such orders are based on para 30 IfSG. The main issue the health authorities are facing in this regard is the enforcement of the quarantine orders, as they are not able to surveil every single quarantined individual. Enforcement is however made more effective by the possibility to work together with the police, under the so-called administrative assistance mechanism (Amtshilfe).

[15] Gigi Deppe, ‘Wie sich die Länder unterscheiden‘ (tagesschau.de, 24 March 2020)           <https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/corona-bundeslaender-101.html> accessed 9 April 2020.

[16] Presse- und Informationsamt der Bunesregierung, ‘Vereinbarung zwischen der Bundesregierung und den Regierungschefinnen und Regierungschefs der Bundesländer angesichts der Corona-Epidemie in Deutschland‘ (Die Bundesregierung, 16 March 2020)  <https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/themen/buerokratieabbau/vereinbarung-zwischen-der-bundesregierung-und-den-regierungschefinnen-und-regierungschefs-der-bundeslaender-angesichts-der-corona-epidemie-in-deutschland-1730934?fbclid=IwAR23kpzeWMfpgKHdpsJzNL-i2p9KVtB89TcvYf7ssvgXiPe6TWoZB1CNLEA> accessed 9 April 2020.

[17] Nonetheless, the federal legislature already acted upon the crisis and amended the IfSG to enable the federal government to announce a national epidemic emergency (Epidemische Lage von nationaler Tragweite), this would enable the federal government (especially the Federal Minister of Health) to enact and implement more measures on the federal level. See for comments thereto: Andrea Kießling, ‘Rechtssicherheit und Rechtsklarheit bei Ausgangssperren & Co? Zur geplanten minimalinvasiven Änderung des § 28 I IfSG‘ (Junge Wissenschaft im Öffentlichen Recht, 24 March 2020) <https://www.juwiss.de/33-2020/> and Anika Klafki, ‘Neue Rechts­grundlagen im Kampf gegen Covid-19‘ (Verfassungsblog, 25 March 2020) <https://verfassungsblog.de/neue-rechtsgrundlagen-im-kampf-gegen-covid-19/> both accessed 15 April 2020.

[18] ‘Informationen zum Coronavirus’ (Bayerisches Staatsministerium des Innern, für Sport und Integration) <https://www.corona-katastrophenschutz.bayern.de/faq/> accessed 2 April 2020.

[19] dpa, ‘Bürgermeister am Tegernsee: Striktere Ausgangsbeschränkung‘ (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 23 March 2020) <https://www.sueddeutsche.de/gesundheit/gesundheit-tegernsee-buergermeister-am-tegernsee-striktere-ausgangsbeschraenkung-dpa.urn-newsml-dpa-com-20090101-200323-99-439863> accessed 2 April.

[20] As has been emphasized by the Federal Constitutional Court, see BVerfG, Beschluss der 2. Kammer des Ersten Senats vom 10. April 2020 – 1 BvQ 31/20 -, Rn. 16.

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