(CN) —With churches, parks, country lanes and boulevards eerily empty of people, Europeans are experiencing an Easter weekend unlike any before as their hard-hit continent struggles to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Europe entered a long Easter weekend on Friday with leaders in most countries planning to extend weeks-long lockdowns as the wave of death caused by the novel coronavirus shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. On Friday, Italy extended its restrictions until May 3, leaving Italians stuck indoors for the next big holiday on the calendar, May Day.
Instead of religious celebrations and overflowing churches, family meals in the countryside and squares bustling with tourists from around the world, Easter this year is defined by police roadblocks and even surveillance drones, ambulances carrying Covid-19 patients to hospitals, families stuck indoors and church ministers and priests, even Pope Francis, celebrating Christianity’s most important day on the calendar in empty churches and sending out their messages to followers at home on computers.
Friday was another grim day for Europe, where the United Kingdom has become the epicenter of the pandemic as Italy and Spain see their devastating outbreaks slowly wane.
The U.K. reported its worst single-day death toll with 980 deaths, bringing its total number of fatalities to 8,958. This number, like others reported in Europe, is partial because it does not include people not tested for the coronavirus who died at home and in nursing homes. On Friday, Italy reported 570 more deaths and Spain 605.
Europe is the hardest-hit region in the world, although the United States is quickly catching up. Across Europe, more than 67,000 people have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. Worldwide, over 100,000 people have died and more than 1.6 million have been infected, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Although the outbreak in Europe is far from over, the spread of the virus is decreasing. In Italy, officials on Friday said about 1,400 new people tested positive, a clear sign that a month-long lockdown is working.
“In the past week, we have seen a welcome slowing in the hardest-hit countries in Europe,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, during a news conference in Geneva.
But the WHO also is warning against countries lifting restrictions prematurely without rigorous protocols in place to find new infections. Now that the virus is found in almost every country in the world, it will be easy for it to find its way back into countries where its spread has been contained. This is now the battle China and other Asian countries that experienced the first wave of outbreaks are engaged in as the virus is brought by people coming from elsewhere.
Parts of Europe are preparing to partially reopen after the Easter holiday, among them Austria and Denmark, where the virus seems to be under control.
For now, European officials are anxious about suffering setbacks in progress to contain the virus if people, eager to get outside and meet others after weeks of lockdown, ignore orders to stay home and try to enjoy the Easter break.
Authorities are concerned that if people are left untrammeled they will worsen the outbreak by spreading the virus. Warm temperatures and sunny weather in much of Europe is an added temptation for people to go outside and violate lockdowns.
The message across Europe is the same: Stay home.
“However warm the weather, however tempting your local beach or park, we need everyone to stay at home,” said Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, at a news briefing Friday.
To enforce the stay-at-home message, police are being deployed in great numbers to keep people from straying outside and gathering in groups.
In the United Kingdom, police are patrolling parks and telling people to not loiter on benches. On Friday, there were reports police told a family to not to let their children play in a home garden and police were patrolling supermarket aisles and telling people to only buy essential foods. These reports prompted the British government to tell police officers to not be so strict.
David Lewis, a deputy chief constable with the Dorset Police in England, told Sky News that his officers had found people heading to second homes and meeting up for parties.
“What we’re telling them is your journey is not essential,” he said.
In some places, drones and even helicopters are being deployed to keep an eye on country roads, parks and other out-of-the way places where people may think they can go during the weekend.
One such place is Bergamo, a northern Italian city devastated by the coronavirus outbreak.
“These are holidays,” Enrico Ricci, the area’s police prefect, told L’Eco di Bergamo, a local newspaper. “It will be very difficult for people to justify their movements by saying they are going to work or have an emergency.”
Police in Europe have issued an extraordinary amount of fines against people for allegedly breaking lockdown rules.
In Italy in the past month, police say they have conducted about 5 million checks and issued more than 176,000 fines against people accused of violating the lockdown. They’ve included a stunning array of offenses: a nurse cleaning her vehicle at a car wash that wasn’t in a municipality where she lived; people jogging and walking on beaches; amateur cyclists out on rides; people not covering their mouths; shoppers found going to stores not close to their homes; lovers making out in cars and, in one town, a man sunbathing on a sidewalk of a central Italian sea town.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.