Europe eases virus restrictions while cases elsewhere rise


Germany and several other European countries where the coronavirus spread has slowed began to relax border restrictions Friday, while flare-ups in Mexico and elsewhere served as a reminder the pandemic is far from over.

Slovenia, which has been easing strict lockdown measures gradually, declared that the spread of the virus is now under control and that European Union residents could now enter from Austria, Italy and Hungary.

With dropping numbers, Turkey has also begun to ease restrictions placed on daily life. On Monday, Ankara lifted travel restrictions from nine more provinces, leaving only 15 of the 31 initial provinces under travel lockdown.

Turkey has not imposed a stringent nationwide lockdown since reporting its first positive case on March 11, resorting instead to weekend curfews in 31 provinces and cities. It also limited travel between those cities.

Last week, it announced a number of new steps toward normalization, including the reopening of some businesses and lifting travel restrictions between some cities. Barbershops, hairdressers and shopping malls reopened on Monday but with specific measures to protect against the coronavirus.

Germany, in the meantime, was preparing to open its border entirely with Luxembourg at midnight and increase the number of crossings open from France, Switzerland and Austria. Travelers will still need to demonstrate a valid reason to enter Germany, and there will be spot checks but the goal is to restore free travel by June 15.

Germany’s states have also agreed to drop a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers entering from the EU and several other European countries, including Britain, said Armin Laschet, the governor of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

“Germany will only overcome the corona crisis if European freedom of movement for people, goods and services is fully restored,” Laschet said.

Germany has seen more than 170,000 COVID-19 infections and nearly 8,000 deaths, but more than 150,000 people have recovered and the country has been seeing fewer than 1,000 new cases per day.

Austria and Switzerland also eased some border restrictions, and Austria reopened all cafes and restaurants.

“I have been having breakfast at this cafe for about 100 years,” said Helmut Gollner, a former literature professor who was one of the first guests Friday morning at Vienna’s Cafe Sperl. “My wife always made great breakfast, but it’s a different atmosphere here with the newspapers and so on.”

Restaurants reopened in more German states Friday, and the country will resume professional soccer Saturday after a two-month hiatus.

The Czech Republic announced on Friday it would allow gatherings of up to 300 people later this month as coronavirus infections remained among the lowest in Europe.

Gatherings including sports events will be allowed as of May 25, when businesses including restaurants and pubs will also be allowed to open, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said.

Shopping centres, cinemas, barbers and restaurant terraces opened on Monday after nearly two months under lockdown.

The Bundesliga plans five games with no fans present and other precautions, including the Ruhr derby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke.

In Sydney, many cafes and restaurants reopened Friday as New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, granted permission for them, as well as places of worship, to reopen with up to 10 people as long as distancing rules are in place.

Many Catholic churches across the state opened for private prayer, confession and small-scale Masses.

“The celebration of Mass is the highest form of Catholic worship and to not be able to physically gather these past two months has been very difficult,” Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher said in a statement.

In Japan, some schools, restaurants and other businesses started to reopen after the country lifted its national coronavirus emergency while keeping in place restrictions in limited urban areas like Tokyo where risks remain.

As countries move ahead with relaxing restrictions, the head of the World Health Organization’s Europe office, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that distancing guidance and other protective measures were more important than ever.

“It’s very important to remind everyone that as long as there is no vaccine and effective treatment, there is no return to normal,” he said on French radio Europe-1.

“This virus won’t simply disappear, so the personal behavior of each of us will determine the behavior of the virus. Governments have done a lot, and now the responsibility is on the people.”

Worldwide, there have been more than 4.4 million coronavirus infections reported and 300,000 deaths, while nearly 1.6 million people have recovered according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.

A first case was confirmed among the 1 million refugees from Myanmar living in dire, overcrowded conditions in southern Bangladesh. A local person living in the Cox’s Bazaar district also tested positive, refugee commissioner Mahbub Alam Takukder said.

Aid workers have been warning of the potential for a serious outbreak if the virus reaches the camps, and teams were activated to treat patients and trace, quarantine and test people they may have encountered.

Ahead of Mexico’s plan to partially reopen key industries such as mining, construction and auto plants on May 18, authorities sounded a note of concern as the country reported its largest one-day rise in coronavirus case numbers.

There were 2,409 new COVID-19 test confirmations Thursday, the first time that number has exceeded 2,000 in one day.

“We are at the moment of the fastest growth in new cases,” said Assistant Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell. “This is the most difficult moment.”

Deaths have neared 4,500 and there were signs that hospital capacity was nearing its limit in Mexico City, the hardest-hit area. The Health Department reported that 73% percent of the city’s general-care hospital beds were full; the percentage was lower for intensive-care beds, but that was partly because of the expansion of improvised ICU units at hospitals and other venues.

In Brazil, news website G1 reported that 900 people in Rio de Janeiro were waiting for an intensive-care bed in one of the state’s overwhelmed units. President Jair Bolsonaro warned of looming “chaos” as he once again lambasted governors and mayors who introduced lockdowns in cities to limit the spread of the new virus.

“I’m sorry, many will die, but even more will if the economy continues to be destroyed by these measures,” Bolsonaro told journalists in Brasilia on Thursday. “These lockdowns, closing everything, is the path to failure. It will break Brazil.”

Colombian President Ivan Duque has ordered all residents of the Amazonas Department, near the border with Brazil, to stay indoors except to buy food or get medical care. Local hospitals are overwhelmed as cases increase in a vulnerable part of the Amazon, home to many indigenous groups.

In the U.S., the Grand Canyon National Park was reopening Friday to allow visitors in for day trips but not for overnight ones.

As a number of regions in New York were to reopen, Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged local governments to keep a close eye on key metrics and that people and businesses were complying with distancing rules.

Amid those and other reopenings, protests and debate persisted over how quickly to end shutdowns.

With more than 1.4 million infections and nearly 85,000 deaths, the U.S. has the largest outbreak in the world by far.

Two weeks into a reopening in Texas, where stay-at-home orders expired May 1, single-day highs of 58 deaths and 1,458 new cases were reported on Thursday. With more restrictions due to end on Monday, including reopening of gyms, confrontations were brewing between big cities trying to keep some precautions in place and state officials who want to push ahead.

In Virginia, two cities asked Gov. Ralph Northam to delay a reopening planned for Friday, saying it’s too early. Kansas’ Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly tapped the brakes on reopening her state’s economy, ordering bars and bowling alleys to stay closed until June instead of reopening Monday. She is also keeping some coronavirus-induced restrictions in place until late June.