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Lifting lockdowns, European nations go their own way

Marko Langer
April 28, 2020

In Sweden, people are relaxing on cafe terraces. Meanwhile in Spain, citizens can barely leave their homes. As European governments try to contain COVID-19, they're taking differing approaches to lifting restrictions.

Members of the European Council are seen on the screen of a video conference call
Image: Getty Images/AFP/I. Langsdon

FRANCE: It all depends on infection rate

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has presented plans to unwind a nationwide lockdown starting May 11, but only if the rate of infections stays below 3,000 per day. The plan, which is yet to be confirmed by the parliament, would see non-essential shops reopen. Schools would also gradually reopen — starting with primary schools and kindergartens, with high schools to follow from May 18. Face masks would be obligatory on public transport, and recommended while shopping. The Paris metro would be operating at around 70% capacity, but people would be encouraged to continue working from home. "We will have to learn to live with the virus," stressed Philippe. France is also set to extend its testing capacity to 700,000 per week.

ITALY: Conte outlines phased plan

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has decided that reopening society will come gradually in Italy, also hit hard by the pandemic. A series of restrictions will be lifted on May 4, allowing the country's population of 60 million to once again be able to exercise outdoors and move around their own regions. More restrictions will be lifted on May 18 and June 1, in an attempt to gradually get the economy running again. The announcement that bars and restaurants would only be allowed to reopen on June 1 triggered disappointment in the sector, with the lobbying group FIPE, which represents 300,000 small businesses, saying "enough is enough!" The Catholic Church has also expressed dismay that no mention had been made of easing restrictions on religious services. Schools will remain closed until after the summer holidays, reopening in September.

Read more: Coronavirus: Doctors in Italy cry foul over protection

SPAIN: Children are now allowed out, but not for long

For the first time in six weeks of complete lockdown, children were once again heard laughing on the streets of Spain on Sunday. However, strict rules are still in place for citizens in one of Europe's worst-hit countries. They can only leave the house for a maximum of one hour between the hours of 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., and must remain within a 1-kilometer (about half a mile) radius of home. A maximum of three children per household are allowed out at one time, with only one parent. The government has announced that if the number of COVID-19 cases remains stable, from May 2 citizens will be able to go out with others from the same household. Jogging will also be allowed.

Spain reopens some industries

PORTUGAL: Government promising more masks

The Portuguese government extended its lockdown measures to May 2 in mid-April, promising to provide more personal protective equipment. It said that stores and businesses would gradually be able to reopen if there was a slowdown in the spread of the virus.

A pregnant women and her daughter seen walking in Paris
In France, outdoor movements have been severely restricted for weeksImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Taamallah

UNITED KINGDOM: Johnson back at work

Returning to Downing Street on Monday for the first time since recovering from COVID-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson thanked British citizens for giving up their basic freedoms during the lockdown imposed on the country at the end of March. He said the country was starting to "turn the tide" on the outbreak, but made no mention of when restrictions would be lifted. With the country's economy facing a massive recession and debt of historical proportions, the prime minister called on businesses to "contain [their] impatience." Johnson's government has been accused of reacting too slowly to the pandemic, by not introducing more tests and not providing enough protective gear for medical workers. Nevertheless, the calls for easing the restrictions are becoming louder

BELGIUM: Home office to become the norm

In Belgium, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes has submitted a plan for a progressive lockdown that is similar to Italy's strategy. During the first phase (starting May 4), an increased number of public transport vehicles will be in use. Wearing a face mask, however, will be mandatory on buses and trains for passengers aged 12 and older, Wilmes said. Every citizen will receive a mask made of cloth free of charge. Shops will be closed initially, except those of a business-to-business nature (meaning they don't have private individuals as customers). Provided they maintain the required distance, Belgians will be allowed from May 4 to engage in sports activities with two other people who do not belong to the same household. Working from home should remain the norm, and people should still leave their homes only on an exceptional basis, for example for the purposes of shopping, going to work or seeing a doctor, Wilmes said. During the next stage, starting  May 11, all shops will be allowed to reopen while adhering to strict guidelines. Hairdressers will follow on May 18, which is also the date from which school education will progressively return back to normal.

Read more: How Belgium's breweries are adapting to lockdown

NETHERLANDS: School starts next week

In the Netherlands, daycare centers and elementary schools will re-open on May 11. The Netherlands' National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) believes the relaxation is justified as health hazards for children are very limited, they don't have to maintain a distance of 1.5 meters between each other and maintain that distance from an adult only if this is possible. Secondary schools are to follow on June 1. Initially, children are to be given lessons in small groups only. Children and adolescents are again allowed to engage in sports activity in clubs. All other bans, however, were extended by at least three weeks. Large events such as festivals and sports competitions – including professional soccer – will continue to be banned until September 1.

AUSTRIA: In reverse since Easter

Austria had introduced protective measures at an early stage; however, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had also instigated a return to some kind of normality early on. The countries sees itself as a trailblazer internationally. Meanwhile, a large number of shops have reopened. The next stage will follow at the beginning of May; mid-May is to see the reopening of restaurants, cafes and bars, with limited business hours. Daycare centers and schools have been permanently open for those children who cannot be looked after otherwise. Health Minister Rudolf Anschober confirmed that gatherings of up to 10 people will be allowed as of May, but with social distancing rules remaining in place.

HUNGARY: Mandatory mask-wearing in Budapest

The Hungarian capital – which is governed by an opposition alliance – has made mask-wearing in several public places compulsory from April 27. People who visit shops, shopping malls, markets and those who use public transport and taxis must cover their mouths and nose with a mask or a similar piece of cloth. In all of Hungary, restrictions of movement have been in place for a month. People should leave their homes only for a good reason. In public places, they have to maintain a distance of 1.5 meters between each other. At the end of March, Hungary's parliament had passed a bill that gives right-wing, conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban comprehensive powers for an unlimited period of time to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Read more: Hungary: Law to fight coronavirus creates 'uncertainty' for journalists

POLAND: Focus on border situation

Warsaw, too, sees comparatively little dissent with the measures adopted by the government. In Poland, the situation at the country's borders is of particular interest. In mid-March, the national-conservative government led by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had closed the borders for all foreigners in a bid to curb the coronavirus pandemic. Commuters who return to Poland have to spend two weeks in isolation at home.

All of Poland's daycare centers, schools and universities will remain closed until May 24. According to Education Minister Dariusz Piontkowski, a reopening was not yet possible under current epidemiological conditions.

GREECE: Concern (not only) about refugees

Greece has extended its curfews during the coronavirus crisis until May 4. That is also why the relocation of hundreds of elderly and ill refugees from overcrowded camps on the Aegean islands to the mainland will be delayed, according to a government spokesman. Shortly, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will inform the nation about relaxations of the current curfew that had been imposed on March 22. The country's return to normality would take place in a slow and gradual manner during May and June and be reviewed on a weekly basis, the spokesman added. In Greece, only few businesses are still open, including banks, supermarkets and restaurants offering a delivery service. In addition, people must inform the authorities when they leave their homes for an important reason.

CROATIA: Visits to museums possible

In Croatia, by contrast, most shops, libraries and museums are open again, as of this week. Shopping malls and very large shops, however, must remain closed for the time being, as announced by Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic. In addition, public transport is operating again.

Read more: Czechs float 'corona corridor' lifeline for Croatian tourism

SWEDEN: A controversial COVID-19 strategy

Virologists and politicians in all of Europe have been keeping a watchful eye on the situation in Sweden in particular. Authorities did not impose comprehensive restrictions. Cafes, bars and restaurants, however, are required to leave a space of one to two meters between tables. There are no restrictions on movement in force; shops and most of the schools are still open. Sweden's strategy, however, has sparked controversy in the country, and there is criticism from abroad as well. Images of, for example, crowded street cafes and of people queuing up in front of night clubs at a time when the virus spreads in every region of the world caused quite a stir internationally.

People enjoy warm and spring-like weather with high temperatures on a cafe terrace
Sweden's relaxed pandemic response has been controversialImage: AFP/TT/A. Wiklund

DENMARK and NORWAY: School pupils in Norway are back

Denmark had introduced very early and very stringent measures against the pandemic. For example, restaurants, pubs and cafes, have been closed for 1.5 months, and Danes are continuously reminded to maintain distance from one another. Outdoor activities are still allowed; there is, however, a ban in force against gatherings of more than 10 people – provisionally until May 10.

In Norway, schoolchildren aged 6 to 10 are back in their classrooms. After 1.5 months, the Scandinavian country reopened educational facilities for younger children on Monday. According to broadcaster NRK, this affects 250,000 children in total. Distance-keeping guidelines are now in force. In many places, classes were reduced in size. Those children who belong to a risk group continue to receive online education. Nursery schools in Norway have already been open for a week. The government's declared aim is to have all schoolchildren back in their classes in a suitable way until summer.

SLOVENIA: Random testing

Slovenia has started to ease restrictions. Hardware stores, shops selling technical goods and furniture are now open again, as well as dry cleaners, garages and repair shops. Outdoor painters, roof tilers, gardening shops and drive-through eateries are allowed to operate again. Hair salons, beauty parlors and shops with a selling space of less than 400 square meters, however, will only be allowed to reopen in two weeks. In order to get a better insight into the scope of the pandemic, the government in Ljubljana is looking to neighbor country Austria and will conduct random coronavirus testing of a representative sample of the population.

SLOVAKIA: The wrath of the elderly

In Slovakia, pensioners and representatives of the opposition have already protested against limited shopping opportunities for the elderly due to increased coronavirus restrictions: people aged 65 or over are only allowed to enter grocery stores and other shops on weekdays between 9.00 and 11.00 a.m. (on weekends, they are not allowed in at all). There are two exceptions, pharmacies and gas stations. For the economy, the government has drawn up a "four-phase plan" which gives details about which shops and public institutions may reopen successively.

Are restrictions being lifted too early?

CZECH REPUBLIC: EU commuters welcome again

The situation in the Czech Republic is of interest mainly because the country has started to allow EU business travelers to enter. Their stay, however, is limited to 72 hours. In addition, they must submit a certificate confirming a negative SARS-CoV-2 test that is not older than four days. The Czech Republic's approach is also special insofar as the government has never imposed a nationwide shutdown of nursery schools (as opposed to primary and secondary schools); there was only a recommendation. Some are offering an emergency service, most of them are closed, though.

Read more: COVID-19 restrictions eased in the Czech Republic: 'Long live freedom!'

LITHUANIA/LATVIA/ESTONIA: Triple state of emergency

In the coronavirus crisis, the Baltic states have fared rather well, compared to other European countries – infection rates are relatively low. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had responded very early and with strict measures to the first confirmed cases of infection. All three countries declared a state of emergency and closed their borders. Lithuania is gradually easing its restrictions. All shops are now open again. Starting April 27, open-air restaurants, museums and hair salons are allowed to operate again. However, only a limited number of customers may enter their premises simultaneously. In addition, face masks are mandatory in public. Nursery schools, schools and universities continue to be closed, and large gatherings of people are still banned.

TURKEY: Cities and provinces under lockdown

After an extensive curfew imposed on the metropolis Istanbul and 30 other cities and provinces in Turkey which lasted four days, people are now allowed to leave their homes again. The curfew expired Sunday night. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, there is a ban on fast-breaking in groups. For three weeks running, authorities have been imposing extensive weekend curfews on 31 cities and provinces. In addition, there's a curfew in force under which people over 65 and – with exceptions – under the age of 20 have to stay at home.

Read more: Domestic violence rises in Turkey during COVID-19 pandemic

SWITZERLAND: Hair salons and hardware stores open again

Starting April 27, hair salons, beauty parlors, hardware stores, and gardening shops in Switzerland are allowed to receive customers again. Doctors and physiotherapists may open their premises for less urgent appointments also, hospitals may carry out operations which had been postponed since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. Mask-wearing is not mandatory in Switzerland; shops, however, are required to adhere to stepped-up hygienic standards and make sure that customers maintain distance from one another. Schools and other shops are to reopen in two weeks. If the number of infections does not increase significantly, vocational schools, universities, museums, libraries and zoos will be open again from June 8.

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