Ready or Not, Europe Pries Open Great Lockdown

Europeans are being asked to accept a new normal that includes wearing masks in public, keeping distance and avoiding large gatherings and nonessential travel.

People buy fruit and vegetables at a shop in Naples, Italy, on Monday. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(CN) – Europe’s great lockdown to stop the coronavirus pandemic is coming to an end bit by bit and day by day.

On Monday, builders returned to work on resurrecting the Notre Dame Cathedral, the iconic Paris cathedral ravaged by fire a year ago. Restoration of the cathedral was halted by the pandemic.

The return to work on Notre Dame was an illustrative moment for a Europe seeking to pick up where it left off before the pandemic struck in late February. As a sign of the times, the workers’ first task was making the site compliant with new social distancing guidelines.

In a week’s time, an even more momentous occasion will arrive when Italy – the first country in the world to impose a nationwide lockdown – eases its drastic restrictions. A gradual lifting will begin next Monday, May 4, when Italy enters what it’s calling “phase two.”

Ready or not, Europe is going back to work and back into public even as it continues to report thousands of new cases of infection each day and hundreds of more deaths.

“Good evening everyone, phase two begins,” Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, said in a televised speech on Sunday evening. “Now, the phase begins where everyone must live with this virus.”

Next Monday, it will be once again legal to go on a bicycle ride, run in a park, shop at a wide variety of stores, visit family members and hold funerals. However, restrictions on travel will remain in effect.

He praised Italians for their sacrifices in staying home to contain the pandemic but warned that the virus could surge in Italy again unless people are careful. He said a second wave could do irreversible damage to Italy’s already battered economy. Like the rest of Europe, Italy’s economy is expected to suffer a big drop this year.

As elsewhere, Italy is not reopening everything at once. Restaurants, for example, were given a June 1 opening date. But tables will have be kept far apart and thoroughly cleaned with each new customer after they open. Hairdressers and barbers will have to wait until May 18 before they can accept customers again. Church masses and other large gatherings, meanwhile, will be off-limits for even longer.

Across Europe, citizens are being asked to accept a new normal: The wearing of masks in public; keeping 3 feet away from others; fastidious hygiene and repeated disinfection; no large gatherings and only essential travel.

The easing of lockdowns carries with it enormous risks because the virus may spread at faster rates and force countries to reimpose lockdowns, scientists and health experts warn. Workers, too, are demanding better protection and it’s far from clear that countries will do an effective job of tracking the spread of the virus.

For now, the World Health Organization says the only sure way of containing this new deadly coronavirus is through worldwide vaccination, but a vaccine is months away from being developed.

Passengers ride on a subway train in Milan, Italy, on Monday. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

Experts say populations can naturally build up immunity to the virus and even stop its spread when a majority of people get the infection. This is called herd immunity and it is a controversial strategy practiced, with dubious success, in Sweden. Unlike the rest of Europe, Sweden has not imposed a lockdown but told people to regularly wash their hands and take other measures, such as keeping a physical distance.

While Sweden has reported many more infections and deaths than its Nordic neighbors, it has not been hit nearly as hard as other European countries. By Monday, Sweden had reported 2,274 deaths and nearly 19,000 confirmed cases. By comparison, about 630 people have died from the virus in Denmark, Norway and Finland, which combined have about 6 million more people than Sweden. About 24,000 cases have been found in those three countries too. Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom, however, have all surpassed 20,000 deaths.

Over the weekend, Sweden’s ambassador to the United States said citizens in Stockholm, the capital, could reach herd immunity by May.

“We could reach herd immunity in the capital as early as next month,” Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter told National Public Radio.

But the WHO has warned that it remains uncertain if people who get infected and develop antibodies against the virus are protected from getting reinfected or for how long they be immune from infection. Scientists are studying cases in South Korea where more than 200 people detected with the virus who fell ill later tested positive with the virus again.

“Ultimately we will need a vaccine to control this virus,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, during a news briefing on Monday.

How to reopen societies in the absence of a vaccine then is the big question facing Europe and the rest of the world.

“The challenge now is how to unlock, how to have an exit strategy that doesn’t allow the disease to bounce back,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies.

Ryan said lockdowns have been effective at containing outbreaks and preventing the virus from finding new victims. But as countries ease lockdowns, he said there are many unknowns and each country will do what it thinks is best depending on their own circumstances. He said countries will need to find a balance between protecting health and protecting economies.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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