BERLIN (Reuters) - German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier on Tuesday dashed hopes of business lobby groups for a quick reopening of the economy, saying the country should not rush to ease coronavirus restrictions as this could risk another wave of infections.
"Business can't flourish if we get a third wave of infections," Altmaier told German television before a virtual meeting with representatives of 40 industry associations.
The minister said he recognised that lots of businesses were desperate for a prospect of an end to the current lockdown, but added that Germany was proceeding with caution for fear of new coronavirus variants in neighbouring countries.
Altmaier told reporters after the meeting he would work closely together with businesses associations in the coming days on a proposal to set out which sectors should be allowed to re-open and under what conditions.
The proposals would be presented ahead of the next meeting of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the 16 state premiers when a decision is also expected on how to proceed with the current lockdown which had been extended until March 7.
Altmaier also said large companies from now on should be allowed to apply for coronavirus emergency grants, adding the government had decided to lift a cap which has excluded firms with annual sales of more than 750,000 euros.
Separately, government sources said a coronavirus hardship fund for artists and other freelancers mainly in the entertainment industry is to total some 2 billion euros.
One government official said the federal government would shoulder at least 1 billion euros. Talks were still under way with state governments, which would co-finance the fund.
Merkel and state premiers agreed last week that hairdressers should be allowed to open from March 1 while other services and retailers must wait at least until March 7. Factories, offices and supermarkets have remained open during the lockdown.
Merkel and state premiers also agreed to tighten the threshold for a gradual re-opening of the economy, targeting an infection rate of under 35 new cases per 100,000 people over seven days, down from 50 previously.
The number of new daily infections in Germany has been falling in recent weeks, down to 3,856 on Tuesday, or a national incidence of 59 cases per 100,000.
(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, Michael Nienaber and Holger Hansen; editing by Kirsti Knolle, Madeline Chambers, William Maclean)