Stuttgart, Germany –
Rebecca Thomas, an Australian married to an American employed by the United States Department of Defense, sits in her home in a village outside Stuttgart, Germany, where there are several military bases housing hundreds of families like hers.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, weekends were full of activity. Now, however, the German government restricts shopping to necessities, imposes nightly curfews, and limits social gatherings to members of a household plus one other person to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Thomas feels the weight of the restrictions.
“The strict lockdowns mean we are still unable to socialize with friends, travel, go shopping, or out to restaurants,” she said. “Being unable to socialize has taken its toll on all of us mentally. Over a year into the pandemic and we’re still having these strict lockdowns, it feels like it’s never ending.”
American military families in Germany struggle with ongoing restrictions on daily life and travel even as family and friends back home move slowly towards normalcy.
Germany was successful in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, leading to limited European travel during the summer. However, the country has been closed to most travelers from outside the European Union and Schengen Zone for a year.
The European Union site, Reopen Europa, tracks member nations’ COVID-19 restrictions. According to the site, U.S. citizens who are not either permanent residents or covered under the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. military and Germany are not allowed to enter the country.
COVID-19 infections and deaths continue to climb in Germany despite the efforts of the government to slow the spread of the disease. According to Worldometers.com, Germany had 84,285 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, which is a 3% fatality rate.
The Centers for Disease Control reports 574,679 deaths in the United States and a fatality rate of 1.78%.
The Robert Koch Institute, which tracks COVID-19 infections and deaths for the German government, reported a nationwide incidence rate of 162.3 per 100,000 people on April 18, 2021. This is above the “emergency brake” level of and average of 100 infections per 100,000 people established in March 2021.
Baden-Wurttenberg, the state in which Stuttgart is located, had a rate of 170.5 per 100,000 on April 18, 2021.
As they cope with strict lockdown regulations that prohibit shopping and meeting with friends, many in the Stuttgart military community are unable to get vaccinations from the United States or German government, making them wonder when life in Europe will improve.
“The vaccine rollout in Germany is extremely slow and this is the reason we are continually in and out of lockdowns and curfews,” Thomas said. “Once the numbers of vaccinated residents rises life may return to somewhat normal, whatever normal will mean now.”
The lockdowns have been difficult for younger members of the Stuttgart military community as well.
Schools have transitioned between in-person and distance learning multiple times. Most high school students are 14 years old or older, which places them in the “adult” category for social gatherings, limiting their ability to see friends outside of school.
George Svoboda, a junior at Stuttgart High School, said the lockdowns have made it difficult to socialize with his friends.
“This year has been hard because of the inability to see my friends or go out like we normally would,” Svoboda said. “We haven’t been able to have a get together since September of 2020 because of the stricter lockdown rules.”
He is unsure how regulations will impact the spring semester at the high school.
“I don’t see how they could hold prom or graduation because of the German lockdown and gathering rules,” said Svoboda. “On top of that, only teachers and the other staff are vaccinated, so it’s a health risk for high schoolers.”
Despite the difficulties created by the restrictions, Thomas said people are finding positive aspects of the imposed slower lifestyle.
“We got to spend more time together as a family. We have saved money by staying at home and not being able to travel or dine out,” said Thomas.
Svoboda also found ways to enjoy himself during lockdowns.
“I finally learned to skateboard. Sometimes I can even skate with a friend as long as we keep our distance,” he said.