Coronavirus Outbreak: Hope and worry mingle as several countries relax weeks-long COVID-19 lockdown provisions

Rome: Wearing a Plexiglas visor, large white mask and blue rubber gloves, Catia Gabrielli looked ready for whatever could come her way on Monday as Italy tentatively loosened some of its strictest lockdown provisions against the coronavirus.

“I see a lot more movement,” Gabrielli, a bookstore owner, said in the historic centre of Rome as she worried about the people around her, out taking walks without masks. “It’s a lot of people.”

That same wariness mixed with hope was expressed throughout Europe and beyond on Monday as at least a dozen countries — including Germany, Spain, Greece, Belgium, Lithuania, France, Nigeria and Lebanon — began to ease weeks of restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of the contagion.

But in many places, the much-anticipated relaxation of restrictions looked a lot like a real-time experiment in figuring out how to live with the virus. And while the easing varied country to country, many leaders made clear that things could be shut down again — if citizens grew suddenly too incautious.

In most countries, not all stores and industry were allowed to resume business. School openings were selective, carried out in reconfigured classrooms, or put off until the fall. Social distancing rules were still in force. Masks were often required. Bars, cafes and restaurants largely remained shuttered.

Italian authorities warned that any loosening of restrictions could be short lived if citizens didn’t adhere to social distancing measures. And if infections shot up again and overwhelmed health systems just coming up for air, they would lock society back down.

“We will intervene and close the tap,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy has said, warning Italians of the dangers of bringing up the curve of infections that the country had worked so hard to suppress. In Italy, the virus has claimed more than 28,000 lives.

The problem with relaxing restrictions is that officials will not have a reliable sign of the consequences for at least two weeks — the incubation period of the virus. So there remains the risk that in the blind gap, the virus stealthily surges, setting off another wave of infections, as bad or worse than the first.

Public health experts, while recognising the need to strike a balance between saving lives and livelihoods, have long warned that opening up shops and releasing citizens from their homes could be more difficult and dangerous than shutting them in.

Representational image. ANI

Even so, India allowed businesses, local transportation and activities like weddings to resume in areas with few or no known infections. Lebanon reopened bars and restaurants.

Nigeria relaxed lockdowns in its capital, Abuja, and its biggest city, Lagos, with markets, stores, malls and construction companies opening.

In Germany, which has reported 163,100 infections and 6,692 deaths, according to the Robert Koch Institute, zoos, museums, hairdressers and barbershops opened on Monday for the first time since mid-March.

On Sunday, 122 prescreened worshippers convened in Cologne Cathedral, wearing masks and sitting apart in pews, to celebrate Mass. Other churches will begin services, under similar restrictions, later this week.

Some playgrounds opened over the weekend.

“It is a huge relief,” said Katherin Bravo, who guided her nearly 2-year-old daughter down a Berlin slide. “You can’t explain to little children why they can’t play here. We would walk by every day and she would say, ‘slide, slide,’ but we had to keep going.”

In Spain, where more than 25,000 people have died, small businesses reopened on Monday.

The government hopes to return the country to a “new normalcy” by late June, letting some areas with less contagion and hospital saturation open up earlier than more infected parts.

Cristina Cros, who owns a small salon in Barcelona, said she was happy to return to work after seven weeks of lockdown, but was also finding the new rules “pretty chaotic.”

For example, all clients must stay at least 2 meters, or roughly 6 feet, apart while in the salon. The hairdresser must thoroughly clean the premises after each client, and also mop the floor two or three times a day, Cros explained.

“I have been doing as much cleaning as cutting so far,” Cros said, wearing a mask and gloves, just like her customer.

After 42 days of confinement, Greeks on Monday were free to leave their homes without an authorized reason, and hair salons, book stores, clothes shops and other small retailers reopened. Transportation authorities cordoned off every other seat in buses and metro cars.

But even though the country had limited infections to about 2,626 cases of infection and around 150 deaths, restaurants and bars were expected to remain closed until June.

“What I really miss is a coffee in the sun, but that will have to wait,” said Anthoula Paraskeva, 48, as she waited her turn outside an Athens hair salon, wearing a mask and latex gloves.

“This is a priority though,” she said, laughing and pointing to an inch of brown roots to her blond hair.

But in Greece, too, the opening came with admonishments from the government. “If we are to continue to see this virus in a downward trajectory, we must all be doubly cautious,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said.

Poland, which began its lockdown on 14 March, reopened its hotels, shopping malls and sports areas as well as some museums and art galleries.

The country’s kindergartens and nurseries could also open later this week, though strict new sanitary guidelines and isolation spaces for suspected cases will probably lead many reopenings to be delayed.

Estonia and Lithuania began lifting restrictions, as did Belgium, where construction started up again, and companies from nonessential sectors — including shops selling fabric — were allowed to resume activity.

President Emmanuel Macron of France on Monday called for “calm” and “pragmatism” as the country prepared to slowly lift lockdown restrictions starting on 11 May, but he warned that “this isn’t a return to normal, it is a new step.”

“It is necessary to live with the virus,” Macron said, arguing confinement could not continue forever because it would cause vast economic and social harm. Still, he said, “the ice is very thin.”

In Italy, the success of the opening seemed to depend on how relative the meaning of the word “relative” is.

In preparing Italians for the easing of restrictions last month, Conte, not known for his plain speaking, said Italians could visit their congiunti, a word that could be translated as relatives, but also relations.

The government defined accessible relatives as those “within the sixth grade” of kinship, a definition that bewildered many Italians. Things got muddier when Conte said congiunti also included a person of “stable affection.”

A national semantics debate ensued and this weekend, hours before the lockdown lifted, the government tried to settle the issue.

Friends just didn’t cut it. Spouses, partners in civil unions and people who had moved in together — but found themselves separated by the lockdown — could see one another again. But so could people with a “stable affectionate connection.”

But Italian privacy laws meant that police could not force anyone to reveal the identity of the object, or destination, of their affection as the congiunti travelled for conjugal visits and family reunions.

The long anguished-over reopening of Italy suddenly seemed to play out between the definition of “like” and “like like.”

“We have only been together for two months, and we don’t live together,” Danilo Ferrera, 25, said Monday morning as he held hands with his girlfriend in front of Milan’s trademark Cathedral. “I don’t think it’s considered a stable affection.”

He confided he had used the excuse of a medical checkup to visit her.

Police instead fined him for not wearing a mask, as his hard-hit Lombardy region required people to wear masks even outside. He said he didn’t know masks were obligatory, because there had been so many confusing official decrees that “I didn’t understand anything.”

It Italy, about 4.5 million people were expected to return to factories and construction sites on Monday. Joggers and cyclists can now legally go farther than 200 meters from their homes. And travel for work or essential shopping or health needs can take place more broadly within each region, though travel between regions is still tightly restricted.

Masks are required on public transportation and in stores, and in other closed spaces open to the public.

Already, there were signs that some Italians were slipping back into their pre-virus habits.

In Rome’s Villa Doria Pamphili park on Monday, teenagers in groups of six and 12 wore no masks as they squeezed together on benches or caught up, closely, with their sweethearts. Families rode by on bikes. And Giulia Quadri, a professional dog walker, took some dogs out on a “test run.”

She said she had lost most of her business during the lockdown, when dog walking was an acceptable reason for people to leave their apartments.

“I need to understand if I can go pick up my clients’ dogs with the car and bring them here,” she said, unclear whether that was legal or not.

As Italians tried to figure out what was allowed and what was not, the big worry was that they would push the limits too far.

Walter Ricciardi, a top consultant to Italy’s health ministry, warned that if the infection rate showed an increase in two weeks, “We will have to shut down once again.”

Jason Horowitz c.2020 The New York Times Company

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