Coronavirus: Tentative easing of lockdowns underway in some countries
WHO chief says lifting restrictions isn't end of outbreak but 'beginning of the next phase'
Tattoo parlours and hair salons in Denmark. Beaches in Australia. Bookstores in Germany. Nations around the world took advantage Monday of their flattening coronavirus infection curves to tentatively ease lockdowns, edging toward a new yet unknown state of normal amid a devastating pandemic.
China, where the virus started its relentless march around the globe late last year, has already been reopening from a strict lockdown for a few weeks. But the nations testing out the waters Monday were democracies, not a hierarchical communist system, and the sheer variety of choices each made offers plenty of options for U.S. lawmakers and communities to ponder.
The game plan is to open up but maintain enough physical distancing to prevent new flare-ups of the virus that has infected 2.4 million people worldwide, killed more than 165,000 and sent the global economy into a tailspin.
Easing lockdowns "is not the end of the epidemic in any country. It's just the beginning of the next phase," the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told G20 health ministers in an online meeting.
He sternly warned governments not to rush to return to the old normal, saying: "It is critical that these measures are a phased process."
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The debate over easing lockdowns is growing ever more heated in the United States, where President Donald Trump and his administration say parts of the nation are ready to begin a gradual return to normalcy.
Yet many governors counter that woefully inadequate federal actions, like a lack of testing supplies, is hindering their response to the pandemic. They say their hard-won successes over the past weeks of battling the virus will be for nought if they reopen their economies too soon and get hit by a second wave of infections.
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"We showed that we can control the beast and when you close down, you can actually slow that infection rate, but this is only halftime," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters. "We still have to make sure that we keep that beast under control, we keep that infection rate down."
The death toll in the U.S., the worst-hit country by far, was more than 41,000 with almost 776,000 confirmed infections, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University of government reports. The true figures are likely significantly higher since mild infections can be missed, testing is limited and there are plenty of problems in counting the dead amid a crisis.
Isabel Pennekamp, shopping in the German city of Cologne, was grateful that parts of the country reopened small stores.
"Well, I think it's good, because now people can get out a bit more and normality is a bit more possible again," she said.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the gradual easing "is a step-by-step process where, after time, we will evaluate what consequences it has had for the infection."
Cars will again begin rolling off some production lines in Germany, Sweden and Slovakia. In Australia, the production of the country's longest-running soap opera, Neighbours, planned to restart by having separate crews for each key filming site. One city council in Sydney reopened beaches, but stressed they were only for exercise like swimming, running and surfing, and not for sunbathing.
"Living along the coast, I know how important our beaches are to the mental and physical health of so many," said Danny Said, mayor of Randwick. Sydney's iconic Bondi Beach remained closed.
Tensions in Italy
Hair salons, dentists, physiotherapists and even tattoo parlours were allowed to reopen in Denmark but it was not business as usual. Christel Lerche sprayed customers' chairs with alcohol at her salon in suburban Copenhagen and provided hand sanitizer and plastic coat hangers — to be cleaned after each use — to clients keen to get their hair trimmed or styled for the first time since restrictions began on March 11. No magazines were left for customers to share, either.
India eased the world's largest lockdown to allow some manufacturing and agricultural activity to resume — if employers can meet physical distancing and hygiene standards. The move came as India recorded its biggest single-day spike in infections.
Iran began opening intercity highways and major shopping centres Monday to stimulate its sanctions-choked economy, despite major questions about the country's official virus infection and death toll figures.
Slovakia — which has some of the strictest lockdown measures in Europe — plans to reopen small shops, outdoor sports grounds, outdoor market places and restaurants for takeaway meals by Wednesday. They're joining neighbours Austria and the Czech Republic, both of which have already announced they are similarly relaxing restrictions.
But not every government was ready to take its foot off the brake just yet.
In Italy, tensions have been growing between northern regions, which are pushing to reopen industry despite being hardest hit by the coronavirus, and the south, which fears contagion if the lockdown is eased. Premier Giuseppe Conte is expected to outline what a "Phase 2" can look like this week, with the nationwide lockdown set to be lifted on May 4.
Still, Gucci on Monday restarted some workshops for leather accessories and footwear, agreeing with unions to provide "maximum security for workers." The luxury fashion industry is a major driver of growth in Italy and deadlines are looming to produce fall collections.
In Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson is still recovering from a bout of COVID-19 that saw him hospitalized in intensive care, a lockdown imposed March 23 is due to last at least until May 7, and ministers have cautioned that measures are unlikely to be significantly loosened in the short term. Hungary is in a similar situation, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban planning to begin relaxing their lockdown on May 3 or 4.
France also is still under a tight lockdown, although starting Monday, authorities allowed families, under strict conditions, to visit relatives in nursing homes once again.
In some places, lockdown fatigue was on the rise. Dutch police broke up two illegal gambling events and fined dozens of people for breaching local rules.
Governments are caught between keeping their citizens healthy and making sure they still have a roof over their heads or even enough to eat. Worries about the length of lockdowns have a strong basis: the International Monetary Fund expects the global economy to contract three per cent this year. Tens of millions of workers have lost their jobs and millions more fear they'll be next.
In Japan, authorities emphasized that the time was not yet right to loosen restrictions by mowing down tens of thousands of tulips in full bloom near Tokyo. The festival celebrating them was cancelled but people still were coming to admire the flowers.
"This situation is now about human life," said city official Takahiro Kogo. "It was a heart-wrenching decision, but we had to do it."