Walking the Tightrope: Some European Countries Start Lifting Coronavirus Restrictions


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Some European countries, including Denmark, Austria and the Czech Republic, are starting to lift the tight restrictions they imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The countries say their quick actions in locking down earlier than their neighbors give them the opportunity to relax their rules.

With the number of confirmed cases and deaths decreasing, Spain on Monday allowed some nonessential workers to return to their jobs but is keeping much of its lockdown. Workers in industry and construction will be allowed to return after a two-week shutdown, which closed all sectors apart from health care and food.

The tentative relaxation comes as the country, one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus, reported its lowest daily growth in confirmed infections in three weeks. Health officials say 517 new deaths were recorded on Monday, falling from 619 on Sunday.

Those who return to work are being told to maintain social distancing, said Maria Jose Sierra, deputy head of health emergencies.

"If there is a person who shows the slightest symptom, they should contact the health system and remain in self-isolation," she added.

Other countries remain cautious, warning that any loosening of restrictions is still weeks away.

The different approaches reflect the struggle all countries are having - and not just in Europe - deciding between nation wealth and public health.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said his government must balance its response to the pandemic which "threatens to destroy lives and at the same time destroy the economic and social fabric of our country."

As Denmark prepares to lift its lockdown, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen acknowledged that the decision is "a bit like walking the tightrope."

"If we stand still along the way, we could fall. And if we go too fast, it can go wrong. Therefore, we must take one cautious step at a time," she said.

The 46-year-old politician credits Denmark's prompt lockdown for the gradual reopening of the country but says the number of infections must remain stable.

The Danish government will reopen day care centers and elementary schools on Wednesday, but bars, restaurants, hair salons and shopping malls will remain shuttered until at least May 10. Bans on large gatherings will remain until August.

There has been criticism from some Danish parents about the reopening of elementary schools and kindergartens. More than 35,000 have joined a Facebook group, saying their children will be serving as guinea pigs. Some are refusing to send their children to school.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also credited his decision to impose early tough restrictions for "the opportunity to get out of this crisis faster." He has warned Austrians to continue to minimize personal contact.

On Tuesday, small shops and businesses in Austria will be allowed to reopen.   Department stores and shopping malls will join them in May. Restaurants and hotels can start working again in mid-May.

"We will very closely monitor the number of new infections and immediately pull the emergency brake if need be," Kurz said in a news conference.

Much of the drive to begin a cautious unlocking rests with rising alarm about the economic impact of the shutdowns. Governments are coming under mounting pressure from businesses to loosen up.

In some countries, desperation is sparking official concerns about a social revolt.

News of supermarket looting and customer refusal to pay for food at checkout counters have been reported in Italy's south. Impatience with the lockdown is greater in Mezzogiorno, the underdeveloped southern part of Italy that has long trailed behind the country's wealthy north.

"In the south the concern is greater, because this crisis is combined with a fragility of the economic and social fabric. In the south, the wounds of the earlier crisis of 2008 to 2009 have not yet healed," Giuseppe Provenzano, Italy's minister for the south, warned recently.

The Italian government explored the possibility of loosening restrictions, but a full lockdown will remain in place at least until May 3 to stem the tide of new infections, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced Friday.

"If we gave up now, we would put all the positive results achieved so far at stake and restart with a new rise in the death toll," he said.

On Friday, Italy's Civil Protection Department announced that deaths rose by 570 within 24 hours to 18,849 - an increase of 3.1% and the lowest daily growth since the lockdown went into effect a month ago.

The numbers of people being treated in intensive care units has also fallen, from 4,068 people a week ago to 3,497.

The rising economic damage will also figure into a review of the lockdown by German officials Wednesday when Chancellor Angela Merkel will try to plot a path out of the shutdown with leaders of the country's 16 partly sovereign states.

Germany's influential Academy of Sciences Leopoldina favors following Denmark's route with a gradual reopening of schools - high schools first - where pupils can be trusted more to wear face masks.

Another research group, the German Institute for Economic Research, says the government should identify industries with the highest economic value - telecommunications and carmakers - and start reopening them. Regions with low infection rates could also start a gradual reopening, the institute has recommended in a report.

On Wednesday, the British government will review exit strategies from the lockdown. The COVID-19 death toll passed 10,000 Sunday, and British disease modelers and epidemiologists have warned that the country will not hit the peak of infections for another week at least.

Polling data being gathered by the government suggests Britons want a tight lockdown to continue, fearful that any easing could worsen the health crisis, officials say.