Monday, October 26, 2020

Europe takes first baby steps toward a post-lockdown normal

May 04. 2020
Travelers stand around social distancing floor markers while looking at train departure information screens on the concourse of Gare du Nord railway station in Paris on May 4, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Nathan Laine.
Travelers stand around social distancing floor markers while looking at train departure information screens on the concourse of Gare du Nord railway station in Paris on May 4, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Nathan Laine.
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By Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Flavia Rotondi, Boris Groendahl, Stefan Nicola · WORLD, EUROPE 

Europe is gingerly trying to get back to business, with restrictions loosening across the continent as the spread of the coronavirus slows.

The German Spy Museum in Berlin opened its doors for the first time in weeks, bars in central Rome began offering takeaway services, and shaggy-haired Austrians flocked to barbers' shops in Vienna.

With Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Germany all relaxing some of their restrictions on Monday, Europe is settling down to a new normal as it returns to public life. It's slower and less dynamic than before, and some restrictions will remain in place for weeks or even months, with face masks -- ranging from clinical coverings to brightly colored homemade varieties -- a ubiquitous reminder of the changes.

While the moves will ease pressure on economies, the partial reopening means it's still far from business as usual. Under a "mild" scenario published by the European Central Bank on Friday, the euro-area economy will shrink 5% this year. More severe potential outcomes point to contractions of 8% and 12%, and output may not reach pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2022.

"We will be lucky if we earn a quarter of what we used to," Stefano Capuzzi said during a short break from serving customers at the Trastevere Bar near the banks of the River Tiber in Rome. Having a coffee means enjoying a quick chat, "not running away with a hot plastic cup," said the 42-year-old bartender, who nevertheless had sold more than 100 espressos and dozens of pastries in the early morning rush.

After more than 120,000 deaths in Europe, leaders are being careful in opening the economy amid concerns that a new spike in infections will make the crisis longer and deeper.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told Swiss daily newspaper Blick that a second wave is "a realistic scenario" and that the key question is "whether infections can be kept in check regionally and isolate patients quickly."

For now, the data is increasingly reassuring. Germany reported the lowest number of new infections and deaths since at least March 30, and Spain's daily fatalities and new cases hovered at lows last seen before restrictions were introduced in early March.

In Portugal, citizens are finally getting their hair cut as well, with barbers allowed to reopen along with small shops, bookstores and car dealerships. Malls and the largest stores will have to wait until June 1, while restaurants can start serving again on May 18 with capacity limited to 50%. The use of masks is required on public transport and in shops.

In central Athens, Hamosternas -- one of the city's main thoroughfares -- showed signs of a gradual return to normality with more traffic than weeks of lockdown. Customers at hair salons waited on the street rather than on sofas inside, while supermarkets and pharmacies became stricter about social-distancing measures as more people ventured out.

With outbreaks varying by severity and the paces of the openings also differing, the economic impact will be uneven. Germany's gross domestic product is expected to fall 5.5% this year, according to Bloomberg Economics. In Italy, the shock may lead to a 13% contraction.

Several museums in the German capital are working out how they can minimize the health risks when opening up again. State-run museums including the Neues Museum, home to the famed Nefertiti ancient Egyptian bust, remain closed for now, but a Dali exhibit near Potsdamer Platz and the East Germany-themed DDR Museum near Alexanderplatz opened Monday for the first time since mid-March.

The Spy Museum was handing out free pens to attendees -- not for taking notes on the artifacts of Cold War espionage like lipstick cameras and decoding machines -- but to reduce the risk of spreading germs when operating touchscreens. Alongside time-slot tickets and glass barriers in front of ticketing personnel, the measures were some of the numerous ways, large and small, in which the pandemic is changing European life.

In Spain, which has been hit hard by the lockdown's impact on tourism, traffic was sparse in the neighborhood around Real Madrid's soccer stadium, with its normally bustling shops and restaurants. As "phase zero" of the government's easing plan gets under way, some businesses worry about holding on.

At Zapataria Martos, a traditional cobbler in Madrid, Eduardo Martos is fatalistic about his prospects. Business has been in decline because fewer people wear leather shoes, and the crisis may finish off the shop that's been in his family for 40 years.

"I'm going to give it until 2021 to see if things pick up," said Martos. "If not, I'll have to shut up shop and try something else like being an Uber driver."

 

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