Slowly Lifting Lockdowns, Europe Grasps at Normalcy

France became the latest European nation on Wednesday to ease its national lockdown, with museums, cinemas and terraces for outdoor eating and drinking finally reopening.

Lyon is abuzz on Wednesday as cafe and restaurant terraces reopened across France from a six-month coronavirus shutdown. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

(CN) — At long last, French are again bantering on cafe terraces, wandering the Louvre museum and heading back into the inviting darkness of cinema halls.

Their country on Wednesday became the latest European nation to partially lift its national lockdown and allow the old patterns of life to return, albeit with restrictions and a nationwide 9 p.m. curfew still in place. Outdoor eating and drinking is now allowed, along with cinemas, museums and most nonessential businesses reopening across France.

The month of May is seeing most parts of Europe reawaken from lockdowns imposed across the continent to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has been linked to 1.1 million deaths on the continent, including about 700,000 in the 27 nations that make up the European Union.

As Europe’s vaccination drive gains momentum and the virus retreats, travel is resuming and a livelier pace is picking up in Europe’s coronavirus-dormant cities, towns and villages.

A resumption of economic activity is a big relief, but there are concerns about how the toll of the pandemic will be felt in new harsh ways as lockdowns are lifted and government support wanes. European capitals have kept economies and citizens afloat through furlough schemes, bans on layoffs and forced bankruptcies, state-backed subsidies, and inexpensive loans. But this economic support system is slowly being eased, too, as economies show signs of a rebound.

For now, the continent is awash with relief and joy.

“Freedom! We’ve been waiting so long to be able to settle down like this!” Victor Henriques, a 46-year-old compliance inspector, exclaimed to the Le Monde newspaper Wednesday morning. He was sitting with a cigarette and coffee on a cafe terrace in Bourg-des-Comptes, a town near Rennes.

People toast with beers at a café terrace Wednesday in Strasbourg, eastern France. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

Across France, people savored their new freedoms, just as Spaniards did at the start of last week when a state of emergency was lifted at midnight May 9, a Sunday, and crowds went out onto the streets to dance, sing, drink and party.

In Paris, movie lovers filed back into cinemas for the first time in about six months. Among them was Bernard Velay, a 66-year-old retiree in Paris, who told Le Monde that he had been waiting for the reopening of cinemas, his “second home,” like a child waiting for Santa Claus. At 8:30 a.m., when the UGC mega-cinema in Paris opened its doors, he was the first in line. He showed up early to make sure he got a seat because cinemas can only fill their halls to 35% capacity. Similar crowd restrictions are in place for cafes and restaurants.

The UGC, France’s largest cinema complex, was offering an array of genres and films for the big reopening — “a rich, eclectic, exciting, inspiring program” to celebrate the first day back, as the company said on its website.

The staff at the Louvre museum, the world’s largest arts museum and home to the “Mona Lisa” painting among many other masterpieces, welcomed the first visitors with applause. Restrictions apply at the museum, too, of course. Anyone over the age of 11 must wear a mask; tour guides can only bring groups of up to 25; the museum’s restaurants and cafes are closed; and all visitors must book a time slot.

“We must remain cautious and collectively succeed in continuing to control the epidemic,” French President Emmanuel Macron urged his fellow citizens on Wednesday.

To mark the occasion of France’s reopening, Macron sat down with Prime Minister Jean Castex for a coffee on a cafe terrace near the Elysee Palace, the presidential residence.

Macron said France needs to keep up the pace of vaccination and gradually come out of its lockdown to avoid needing to reimpose restrictions if the virus is allowed to spread out of control again. About 38.5% of France’s population has received at least one vaccine shot, which is close to the EU average, according to data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

People stroll in the Louvre museum in Paris on Wednesday. Museums must restrict entries so there is 86 square feet per visitor. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

France’s easing of restrictions is symbolic because it has struggled more than most other EU countries to control the virus.

In all, it has recorded about 108,040 deaths and 5.7 million confirmed cases, the most number of infections in the EU and the second-most deaths after Italy’s 124,497, according to data tracked by Worldometer. Outside the EU, the United Kingdom and Russia are the two other countries with extremely high death tolls — the U.K. has reported 127,691 deaths and Russia 116,575 fatalities.

On average, France is reporting about 14,000 new infections a day, far fewer than in early April when about 40,000 new daily cases were recorded. Across the European region, infections and deaths are dropping quickly. The World Health Organization’s most recent figures show new infections dropped by about 26% in the past week and deaths by 16%.

All of these positive trends are giving Europe hope that it will be a near-normal summer where people can go without masks and enjoy tourism, beaches dotted by people, parties, and even concerts and nightclubs. For now, music venues and nightclubs are mostly closed in much of Europe.

Tourism is a vital source of income for Europe, especially for the Mediterranean hot spots of Greece, Italy, France, Croatia and Spain.

To ease travel both within a country’s borders and between EU nations, vaccination certificates are being issued, and vaccinated travelers can expect few obstacles and no need to quarantine. Travelers who test negative prior to their trips are also being allowed to move about the EU.

The EU is preparing to allow more international tourists too by adding more countries onto its list of places deemed safe because they have the virus under control. The United States is expected to be added to this so-called “green list,” which currently includes Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Rwanda, Israel and Thailand.

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

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