Spain, France ease coronavirus restrictions

Spain and France both took steps Monday to loosen the tight restrictions that the countries imposed to try to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Both countries have seen more than 26,000 deaths related to COVID-19

A waiter serves customers at a café in Palma de Mallorca Monday as Spain moved towards easing its strict lockdown in certain regions. (Jaime Reina/AFP/Getty Images)

Spain and France both took steps Monday to loosen the tight restrictions that the countries imposed to try to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Seville, Spain, waiters in face masks served coffees and "bocadillo" sandwiches at café terraces as parts of the country eased restrictions while the number of new fatalities dropped to a near two-month low.

"I'm very happy, I really wanted to work. We've been shut for two months now," Marta Contreras, a waitress in central Seville, said.

About half of Spain's 47 million people progressed to the so-called Phase 1 of a four-step plan to relax one of Europe's strictest lockdowns on Monday after the government decided that the regions in which they live met the necessary criteria.

Still, cities such as Madrid and Barcelona, which have been particularly hard hit by the epidemic, have been left behind for now and cafés remained shuttered in the normally packed Puerta del Sol square in the capital.

Health ministry data showed the daily death toll dropping to 123 on Monday from Sunday's 143, bringing the total number of fatalities from the pandemic to 26,744 in one of the world's worst-affected countries. The daily number, a seven week-low, has come down from a record of 950 in early April.

Church services resumed with limited capacity and chairs, rather than pews, were spaced out inside for the faithful to preserve a two-metre distance.

People attend a mass in Seville cathedral on Monday. Some parts of Spain have entered the so-called Phase 1 transition from its coronavirus lockdown, allowing many shops to reopen as well as restaurants that serve customers outdoors. (Marcelo del Pozo/Getty Images)

Under the lockdown relaxation, up to 10 people can gather together and people are allowed to move freely around their province.

Businesses were happy to resume work after the long paralysis, but many said they were still piling up losses.

"We are only able to open thanks to the owner of the premises who reduced our rent significantly and to the support of our staff who have renounced part of their wages in order to begin working," said Jose Manuel, owner of a café in Seville.

In regions that qualify, including most of Andalusia — Spain's most populous — as well as the Canary and Balearic islands, bars, restaurants, shops, museums, gyms and hotels were allowed to open, most at reduced capacity.

But Madrid, Barcelona and other cities including Valencia, Malaga and Granada will remain in Phase 0, much to the annoyance of regional governments struggling with the economic implications of a prolonged lockdown.

French schools, businesses to resume

Meanwhile, France began allowing non-essential shops, factories and other businesses to reopen for the first time in eight weeks as the risks of a second wave of infections loomed large.

With the world's fifth-highest official death toll, France is also reopening schools in phases and its 67 million people can now leave home without government paperwork, although documentation is still needed for rush-hour travel around Paris.

A woman gets her hair washed at a hairdressing salon in Sevres, outside Paris, on Monday. The French began leaving their homes and apartments for the first time in two months without permission slips as the country cautiously lifted its lockdown. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

Theatres, restaurants, bars and beaches will remain closed until at least June, as the scramble in South Korea to contain a cluster of cases linked to nightclubs highlighted the peril of new outbreaks emerging.

"Everyone's a little bit nervous. Wow! We don't know where we're headed but we're off," said Marc Mauny, a hair stylist who opened his salon in western France at the stroke of midnight.

Traffic flowed along the Champs-Élysées in central Paris as workers cleaned the windows of shop-fronts ahead of opening for the first time in eight weeks. The capital's La Défense business district was largely deserted as many finance workers continued working from home.

Passengers had to wear masks on the capital's buses and metros traversing Paris, and stickers on seats marked out social distancing.

President Emmanuel Macron's government lifted the lockdown after the rate of infection slowed and the number of patients in intensive care fell to less than half the peak seen in April. The virus has claimed 26,380 lives in France.

Manufacturing plants can reopen providing they put safety measures in place, which for some means not running at full capacity. People can only travel up to 100 kilometres unless for professional reasons, funerals or caring for the sick.

Trade unions and opposition parties have highlighted the risks that COVID-19 infections will pick up again, particularly in places where distancing is difficult such as schools.

Health Minister Oliver Veran said France was ready to conduct 700,000 tests per week for COVID-19 to contain its spread. A "StopCovid" contact-tracing app, however, has not yet been rolled out.

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