Saturday 8 August, 2020

Restart or re-stop? Countries reopen amid second-wave fears

People visit a market after the government relaxed the weeks-long lockdown that was enforced to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, May 11, 2020. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudhry)

People visit a market after the government relaxed the weeks-long lockdown that was enforced to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, May 11, 2020. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudhry)

Plastic spacing barriers and millions of masks appeared Monday on the streets of Europe's newly reopened cities, as France and Belgium emerged from lockdowns, the Netherlands sent children back to school and Spain let people eat outdoors.

All faced the delicate balance of trying to restart their battered economies without causing a second wave of coronavirus infections.

Fears of infection spikes have been borne out over the past few days in Germany, where new clusters were linked to three slaughterhouses; in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus started; and in South Korea, where a single nightclub customer was linked to 85 new cases.

With Monday's partial reopening,  the French did not have to carry forms allowing them to leave their homes. Crowds formed at some metro stations in Paris, one of France's viral hot spots, but the city's notorious traffic jams were absent and only about half the stores on the Champs-Elysees were open.

Hairdressers in the city planned to charge a fee for the disposable protective gear they will have to give to customers. Walk-ins will be a thing of the past, said Brigitte L'Hoste, manager of the Hair de Beauté salon.

"The face of beauty will change, meaning clients won't come here to relax. Clients will come because they need to," said Aurelie Bollini, a beautician at the salon. "They will come and aim at getting the maximum done in the shortest time possible."

In Greece, Smaragda Petridou was out buying beauty products.

"Look, I'm not afraid to go in when the protection measures are being adhered to," she said. "We'll shop. What can we do? So the shops can survive, too."

In Germany, gyms reopened in the most populous state, but authorities there and in France have warned that a rise in the daily number of infections could lead to new restrictions.

In South Korea, the government pushed back hard against new infections, halting the school reopenings that had been planned for this week and reimposing restrictions on nightclubs and bars. It is trying to track down 5,500 people who had visited a popular Seoul entertainment district by checking credit-card transactions, cellphone records and security camera footage.

In China, Shanghai Disneyland reopened to visitors but let in only limited numbers and demanded that they wear face masks and have their temperatures checked.

Roughly half of Spain's 47 million people shifted into a softer version of the country's strict confinement, beginning to socialize, shop in small stores and enjoy outdoor seating in restaurants and bars. Its biggest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, remained under lockdown as the country reported the lowest numbers of coronavirus-related deaths and infections since March 17.

Spanish hotels were allowed to open as long as they don't let guests mix in public areas. But with people not allowed to travel outside their provinces and few flights from overseas, the prospects were bleak.

"Unfortunately this year's business is lost already. It's going to be catastrophic," said Manuel Domínguez, manager at Seville's Doña María Hotel.

Alfonso Polo, owner of four restaurants in a central square of the coastal city of Tarragona, Spain, opened 40 of his 90 outdoor seats. He said he expects to lose money for the next two or three weeks.

"At first it's going to be very difficult, but we hope that slowly we'll be able to recover. People are very eager to go out. That's very clear," he said,

In Belgium, Brussels' City2 shopping mall reopened, and "everyone was impatient to open their shops, see their customers, so it is a relief despite the tremendous work they did to adapt their shops, to create paths with entries and exits for customers," said manager Jurgen De Gelas.

Nearby, Omar Marrakchi bought a television.

"When I enter a shop, I thank every shop owner," he said. "I thank them and I wish them good luck because we all have to be united and just a small 'thank you,' a small 'good luck,' is not much, but if everybody does it and follows the rules, we should be all right."

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a modest easing of the country's lockdown but urged citizens not to squander the progress made. Some people, however, were confused as the government shifted its slogan from "Stay at Home" to "Stay Alert." Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland stuck with the old motto.

People in jobs that cannot be done at home "should be actively encouraged to go to work" this week, Johnson said. He also set a goal of June 1 to begin reopening schools and shops if Britain can control new infections. Johnson himself is the only world leader to suffer a serious bout of COVID-19.

"We will be driven not by mere hope or economic necessity," he promised. "We're going to be driven by the science."

At London's Waterloo train station, not everyone was convinced.

"I am nervous about going back, because I have a family and they have been isolating since the start. I feel like I am now putting them at risk," said Peter Osu, 45, who was returning to work at a construction site.

In the US, Trump administration officials spoke optimistically about a relatively quick rebound from the pandemic — but then announced that Vice President Mike Pence is "self-isolating" after an aide tested positive. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin predicted the American economy will rebound in the second half of this year from unemployment rates unseen since the Great Depression.

The US has seen 1.3 million confirmed infections and about 80,000 deaths, the most in the world by far, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, 4 million people have been reported infected and more than 280,000 have died, over 150,000 of them in Europe. Health experts believe all those numbers understate the true toll of the outbreak.

Dr Christopher Murray, director of the University of Washington institute that has created a widely cited model projecting the course of the outbreak, said that moves by states to reopen businesses "will translate into more cases and deaths in 10 days from now." Infections and deaths are going up more than expected in Illinois, Arizona, Florida and California, he said.

India reported its biggest daily increase in coronavirus cases Monday as it prepared to resume train service to ease a lockdown that has hit migrant workers and their hungry families especially hard.

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