Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Austria is first in Europe to announce easing of coronavirus lockdown

Apr 06. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Michael Birnbaum · HEALTH 

BRUSSELS - Austria on Monday became the first European country to announce a concrete plan to reopen its society after a coronavirus lockdown, as nations here feel increasingly hopeful that they may have weathered the worst of the first wave of the pandemic.

Denmark, Belgium, France, Spain and others are similarly examining how they will loosen some of the restrictions on public life. But European leaders are cautious, since some countries that have sought to return to normal, such as Singapore and Japan, have seen waves of new infections.

The Austrian plan is to lift restrictions in stages: Small shops could reopen April 13, with larger stores to follow on May 1. Restaurants, hotels and schools may be able to reopen in mid-May - though that decision will be assessed at the end of April. Strict rules about masks, social distancing and the number of people allowed into a store at any one time will remain in place for now, but public events may resume in July. 

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz credited Austria's early response - it imposed a national lockdown on March 16, earlier than some of its neighbors.

"We reacted faster and more restrictively in Austria than in other countries and were therefore able to prevent the worst from happening so far," Kurz said. "The quick and restrictive reaction now also gives us the opportunity to get out of this crisis faster."

Austria has seen three consecutive days in which the number of coronavirus recoveries have exceeded the number of new cases. On Monday, Austrian authorities reported 241 new infections over previous 24 hours, but 465 recoveries. The easing numbers has given the medical system more breathing room. 

Kurz asked Austrians to hold firm to restrictions for now - an effort that has been made more challenging by a wave of beautiful weather that has settled on Europe during what normally would be a vacation week. 

Actions this week "will determine whether the post-Easter resurrection that we are all hoping for can take place," Kurz said, apparently deliberately invoking the religious imagery.

Other countries that are considering easing their restrictions have been careful to temper their citizens' expectations about a return to ordinary life. In France, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said last week that lifting of rules would be "frighteningly complex," saying the country would not have a "general deconfinement, all at once, everywhere and for everyone."

And in Denmark, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said Sunday that her country would try to start reopening next Monday, though she offered no specifics.

"We will not return to Denmark as it was," she told a Danish broadcaster. "We are not going to be able to get together in trains, buses and subways as we have become accustomed to. Or stand very close to a lot of people and have a nice party together."

Asian countries that have eased restrictions have struggled with waves of new infections, giving Europeans serious pause. Singapore on Monday became the latest to reverse course and impose a lockdown after winning initial praise for its aggressive coronavirus response. The country had avoided drastic restrictions after widespread testing and contact tracing. But on Sunday the country posted its highest-ever daily infection count, and starting Tuesday, schools and businesses will close in the same ways they have elsewhere in the world.

Japan has also experienced a spike in infections after social distancing restrictions eased last month, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that he planned to declare a state of emergency covering Tokyo, Osaka and other hard-hit regions.



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