PARIS — Slowly, unevenly, Europe is coming back to life.
While some major countries, including France and Britain, are still bracing for the worst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, some countries on the continent are dialing back restrictions on social and economic life.
Denmark, for example, is tentatively easing restrictions in its mostly locked-down country and will open elementary schools and daycare centers on Wednesday. Germany, the EU’s biggest economy, is poised to release its national blueprint Wednesday for economic revival, after receiving widespread praise for its program to track and contain the virus and keep the death rate low.
Italy, Spain and Austria have announced plans for partial returns to work as countries across Europe reported further falls in new COVID-19 cases, according to an Associated Press survey.
Among the establishments reopening soon are factories and construction sites in Spain, bookshops and laundromats in Italy, and public parks and hardware stores in Austria. The moves are tentative, and come amid warnings that moving too fast to loosen the reins could spark another deadly round of infection.
“This will probably be like walking a tightrope,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said last week after announcing the lifting of some lockdown measures.
“If we stand still on it, we could fall. And if we go too fast, it could go wrong. It will have to be one careful step at a time.”
Across Europe, which saw 1,873,265 cases and 79,252 deaths since the outbreak began earlier this year, countries that are seeing their coronavirus caseload peaking are adjusting their controls even as other countries such as France and the UK extending their shutdowns. The patchwork pattern illustrates how European countries are still at different stages of fighting the novel coronavirus outbreak while becoming impatient to restart their economies.
In Denmark, which had looser restrictions than its neighbors to the south – Danes were allowed to go out in public as long as they observed social distancing practices — officials say they will slowly open businesses and schools in stages. The country was the second in Europe to close down just over a month ago, doing so before the country had even reported a single virus-related death.
Over the past few weeks, Denmark has seen a steady decline in the rate of new cases, leading to the loosening of restrictions. On April 7, it reported 390 new infections. On Monday, it reported 144. Also, the number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations continues to fall, Mr. Frederiksen said Tuesday.
Even so, Denmark plans to keep social distancing rules and its bans on gatherings of more than 10.
Still, some Danes felt it was too soon.
“My jaw dropped [when I heard it],” said Sandra Andersen, mother of two girls, ages five and nine. She created a Facebook group called “My child shouldn’t have to be a [guinea pig] for COVID-19” that attracted 21,000 parents in 24 hours, reported Danish daily, Politiken. “It is crazy to send the little ones out first, when they cannot understand the guidelines,” she said.
Austria, meanwhile, also locked down early in March and avoided the mass outbreak seen by many of its European neighbors. On Tuesday, Austria reopened stores of less than 400 square yards, as well as hardware stores and gardening centers. Owners are to make sure that social distancing is practiced within the stores at all times and face masks are mandatory.
If new infections don’t surge, the plan is for all other stores to reopen May 2, followed by restaurants, bars and hotels in mid-May. Large events are banned until July.
“The experience of countries that have handled the pandemic well taught us that we have to move slowly,” said Austrian Economic Minister Margarete Schrambock.
Austria saw its daily increase in infections flatten to 3 percent. It has seen 384 deaths in a population of about 9 million since the pandemic first broke out, along with some 7,600 recovered patients.
By contrast, Spain and Italy were the hardest hit in Europe with 18,056 and 20,465 deaths respectively as of Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins tracker. Italy was the first in Europe to implement a partial shutdown before moving to a complete lockdown on March 9. Spain followed less than a week later. The two countries had the strictest shutdown rules in Europe.
In Italy, small shops such as bookstores were allowed to open in some regions of the country as long as they maintain social distancing. Lombardy and other areas in the hard-hit north remain on a much stricter lockdown policy.
Spain, meanwhile, allowed some workers unable to work from home such as those in the construction and manufacturing industries to return to work. Other restrictions will be lifted slowly over in the next few months.
Spanish officials said they would distribute millions of masks and maintain guidelines on social distancing.
“The climb has been difficult. The descent will also be,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told parliament.
Still, some union and regional leaders such as Quim Torra, head of Catalonia, said allowing people to return to work was “reckless.”
Even though Spain has managed to get its new infection rate to flatten, say health officials, both Spain and Italy still see more than 500 deaths a day.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and the European Union warned that these countries risk a resurgence of infections by easing their lockdowns.
At the current time, “90 percent of [new] cases are coming from Europe and the United States of America,” said WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris Tuesday. “So we are certainly not seeing the peak yet.”
WHO issued guidance with six preconditions necessary for countries to begin easing restrictions, she added. “And the most important one is: ‘Is your transmission controlled?”
Europeans planning to ease restrictions say they are keeping those warnings in mind.
“If we open Denmark too quickly again, we risk that infections rise too sharply and then we have to close down again,” said Mr. Frederiksen.
French President Emmanuel Macron is not taking any chances in spite of the national rate of daily new cases hovering around 3 percent most of the past week. He told the nation Monday evening that the lockdown, which began March 17 and was set to end this week, would be extended to May 11.
“The lifting of the lockdown is only going to be possible if we continue to be good citizens, responsible and respect the rules, and if the spread of the virus has indeed continued to slow,” he said in a televised address. “We are living in a difficult moment, but thanks to our joint effort, we are making progress…but it isn’t yet under control.”
He said France plans to reopen schools and daycare centers on May 11 and some workers will be allowed to go back to work. There was no date given for the reopening of stores, universities or restaurants and bars. French officials also plan to keep borders to non-European countries closed for up to seven months.
On Monday, France’s death rate increased by 20 to 335 deaths in a 24-hour period. The country has the third highest amount of infections in Europe, 144,000 as of Tuesday, and has seen almost 16,000 people die in the pandemic, along with more than 28,000 who have recovered.
In spite of the strict lockdown regime, more and more restaurants have opened over the past week to serve takeout. Streets were busier with cars and pedestrians than in the first three weeks of the lockdown.
“It’s beautiful weather and it’s hard to stay inside,” said Marie, 54, a Parisian in the northern part of the city who explained that she was officially shopping for groceries, but taking a detour to get a walk in.
“After a month, people are getting restless,” she said. “Besides, it’s safer for me out here taking a walk than inside those crowded supermarkets where almost no one does social distancing or is wearing a mask.”
Meanwhile, the UK, which has seen 12,125 deaths as of Tuesday and a new infection rate of about 7 percent for the past week, is expected to announce Thursday that lockdown measures will remain until at least May 7, the Times newspaper reported Tuesday. British officials estimate that the peak is still one to two weeks away.
Opening up in the east
In Eastern Europe, Poland is set to start opening stores and lifting other restrictions on April 19. Officials in the Czech Republic said they are planning to allow small stores to open on April 20, larger ones on May 11, beer gardens on May 25 and restaurants, theaters and malls on June 8. Larger events, however, remain cancelled. Schools won’t reopen until September.
Many will be watching Germany Wednesday as Chancellor Angela Merkel and the country’s federal governors weigh recommendations on how and how fast to loosen the restrictions on the German economy.
“I would very much welcome it if the [governors] and the chancellor could agree tomorrow on a uniform solution for the gradual easing of restrictions,” said Health Minister Jens Spahn Tuesday. “It will be a cautious first step back into a new normal. It is about finding the right balance between health concerns and the social and economic consequences.”
Still, Maria, a freelance German language teacher in Berlin, says she thinks things will return to normal much more quickly than is maybe good for the country.
“I am sure things get back to normal very quickly because people tend to forget very easily,” she said. “Shops will be crammed and I am afraid everything will start all over again.”
“Even though I am struggling a bit financially I hope language schools remain closed,” she added. “Having many people in tiny classrooms would be irresponsible.”
Meanwhile, Filip Bochenski and Anastasia Schock-Bochenski of the Fabelei cocktail bar in Berlin — who only opened their doors 18 months ago — say they can’t hold on much longer. The country needs to restart now, they added.
“We had to quickly rethink what we could do to stay afloat so within three days (of the lockdown), we created a new system with a cocktail delivery service,” said Ms. Schock-Bochenski. “The demand is not high enough to cover our regular costs but it does take some weight off.”
“We definitely hope to reopen soon,” she added, “as we — like many other businesses — can only keep this up for a certain amount of time without regular income.”
⦁ Eros Banaj reported from Berlin.