Coronavirus around Europe: An inside look at how countries are trying to return to normal

Coronavirus around Europe: An inside look at how countries are trying to return to normal
A hairdresser in Lausanne (Switzerland) wearing a protective face mask, shield and plastic gloves. Photos: AFP
As countries around Europe take tentative but significant steps out of strict lockdowns, The Local's journalists and contributors describe the situation where they are, how it feels and the problems that lie ahead.

'It's not exactly business as usual in Denmark…', Emma Firth, Copenhagen, Denmark

Cycling along Copenhagen’s colourful streets, especially during the warm days of last weekend, almost felt like life pre-lockdown. People were sauntering along the pavements, looking at the small businesses that had reopened, others were enjoying the sun with a barbecue in the park.

But then out came the fines. 2,500 kroner (€335, almost £300) for those who let their guard down and gathered in groups of more than ten. Hotspots were declared across 38 locations in the country to stop people from sitting in those popular places.

Two weeks into Denmark’s reopening after lockdown, there is a noticeable difference in social activity. But look a little closer and it’s not exactly business as usual.

There are more people wearing face masks, especially since they are now required by the professions that involve close customer contact.

There is no morning rush hour, despite all primary schools and day care institutions being open. Instead there are staggered drop offs and pick ups, many done by bike or foot as public transport is still very quiet. Some parks have become classrooms and many people are still working from home.

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Those in schools, nurseries and kindergartens are getting used to their new routine of playing and learning in small groups, washing hands every two hours and spending much of the day outside.

A head teacher told me that teachers and pupils have settled well into the new way of life, creatively finding new ways to play and learn at a distance. But he said they were also doing video tours of the new school set up, to send to parents who were still very anxious about their children returning.

For the youngest children, many can’t go back to their nurseries or kindergartens because new floor space requirements mean there isn’t enough space for everyone. My children’s day care institution is still only accepting half the children back.

They are waiting to see if guidelines for the second phase of reopening, due to start on May 10th, can change this.

So far Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has called the first stage of reopening a success, as the spread of infection remains under control. 

According to Denmark's infectious diseases agency SSI, the infection rate of the coronavirus has increased from 0.6 to 0.9 – which is still under the crucial figure of 1 – preventing infections from escalating.

But it’s still very much a tightrope walk, and the second phase of reopening will be an even trickier balancing act.

 

'Telling people to stay apart on Spanish beaches in the summer just won't happen', Graham Keeley, Barcelona, Spain

So, life after lockdown at last becomes a possibility. 

After the Spanish government announced a complicated, four-phased de-escalation of the state of emergency, we were left contemplating how we will adjust to what prime minister Pedro Sánchez called the 'new normality'. 

Adults will be allowed out on their own from next week to practice sport. Until now we have only been permitted to leave the house if we were buying food, seeking medical help or heading to work in selected industries. 

Restaurants will re-open, but only for takeaways. I will be allowed to get that badly-needed haircut. 

If all goes to plan and there is not a new surge in infections, the country will progress to the next stage – confusingly called phase one – in which restaurants with terraces will be allowed to re-open up to 30% of their capacity and hotels can take bookings as long as they keep communal areas shut and observe social distancing rules. 

I think many people are wondering who is going head out for a meal at these rather empty, soulless restaurants? Who would want to book into a hotel? Hoteliers and restaurateurs have condemned these plans as unrealistic. 

Masks will be recommended but not compulsory. Why not compulsory? Already when I head out for our allotted one hour a day with the children, hardly anyone is wearing the masks. It seems a worrying sign. 

The government has said Spain should return to normal by the end of June if all goes to plan. Although working at home will still be advised, businesses can slowly re-open. 

However, schools will not re-open until September. So, who will look after millions of children if the parents are back at work? Does this mean extended families -or most often grandparents here in Spain – must be called upon to help? Surely, this raises the possibility of more social contact and a greater probability of a new spate of infections. 

The beaches will be opened again by June if the plan goes well. But at present, the idea is this will only be possible if people observe social distancing and local police may have to stop crowds building up.

I may be a cynic but trying to tell people to keep away from each other on Spain's crowded beaches at the height of summer seems a little like the apocryphal story of King Canute trying to stop the sea coming in; it just cannot happen. 

Strangely, after nearly seven weeks in lockdown, some seem a little reluctant to leave the secure confines of their homes to risk their health in the outside world. 

Despite the encouraging signs that the infection rate is falling and daily fatalities are descending, the epidemic is not over. 

'France has taken a first step, for sure, but this is a long road and may not be a straightforward one,' Emma Pearson, Paris, France

France now has its detailed plan for ending the lockdown, although nothing actually changes until May 11th.

Although it's pretty exciting to contemplate the heady freedom of walking to the supermarket without needing a permission form, it has quickly become apparent that there will still be lots of restrictions in place after May 11th.
 
In fact there will even be some new rules, such as masks becoming compulsory on public transport.
 
And of course, this being France, the rules are very complicated, vary from area to area and some of them require paperwork, so we have spent most of the week trying to figure out what will be allowed and what won't.
 
But while daily life for a lot of us won't actually change all that much after May 11th – bars and cafés will stay shut, those of us who can work at home will keep on doing so and all non-essential travel is still discouraged – it still feels good to have taken the first step on the road to lifting lockdown.
 
French authorities are keen to stress, however, that all this depends on the health situation and the plan can be halted or reversed if cases spike again.
 
 
A lot of friends and relatives in the UK are asking if I think the UK will follow France in easing restrictions, but I think there are two big differences here.
 
Firstly the death rate in the UK is still high – with deaths per day regularly exceeding 700. When France was recording those sort of numbers there was no talk of lifting lockdown and ministers were very clear that it wouldn't happen until there had been a substantial fall in deaths.
 
The second thing is that lockdown in France is much stricter than the UK's version, in fact in many aspects our life after May 11th will become similar to what the UK has now.
 
France has taken a first step, for sure, but this is a long road and may not be a straightforward one.
 
There are still issues to resolve around testing and tracing and the simple fact is that no-one really knows what will happen once people start moving more freely again.
 
We can only hope that numbers stay low and France's cautious, step-by-step approach will pay off so that by autumn our lives can return to something like normal.
 
But there are no guarantees.
 
'Many of us feel uncomfortable in this new environment — like we have landed on a strange new planet,” Helena Bachmann, Lake Geneva, Switzerland
 
This week, as some of the restrictions imposed in Switzerland on March 16th have been lifted, we have rediscovered the simple pleasures of having a haircut or a massage, or buying plants and flowers for our gardens and balconies.
 
But while these particular activities may seem trivial in the larger scheme of things, some are more consequential: tens of thousands of people across Switzerland who have patiently — and often painfully — waited to have non-urgent but nevertheless important medical treatments, can now finally undergo these procedures.
 
That’s a huge relief for people like my neighbour, whose planned hip replacement surgery was cancelled during the Covid-19 pandemic, and who has been immobile and in pain all these weeks of confinement.
 
But even as hospitals are resuming outpatient services and other businesses are re-opening too, it doesn’t feel like the ‘normal’ life we used to have before the crisis struck.
 
 
Every activity and service that has re-opened on April 27th is strictly regulated to ensure social distancing and hygiene measures.
 
Workers in hair and nail salons, for example, wear masks and face shields, shops allow only a limited number of
customers to come inside at one time, and plexiglass barriers around cash registers have become a commonplace sight.
 
Many of us feel uncomfortable in this new environment — like we have landed on a strange new planet where the rules of conduct are totally different.
 
And yet, it is interesting to see how quickly people adapt to these new circumstances — they have mastered the art of keeping a two-metre distance from others, and walking around in masks has almost become a fashion statement.
 
It is, after all, our ‘new normal’, so we might as well get used to it.
 
But even as we try to enjoy what little freedom we now have, many concerns still abound. The major one among them is the uncertainty over what lies ahead in the next weeks and months.
 
There’s talk about the possibility — and some even say probability — of a second wave of infections. Whether or not it will happen, when, and to what extent, depends on how well we continue to comply with the measures set out by the government.
 
So we are not out of the woods yet. The road ahead is long and, no doubt, quite bumpy.
 
'Anyone daring to go outside without a mask here gets a telling-off from every Italian signora they pass,' Clare Speak, Bari, Italy
 
We're days away from beginning “phase two” of Italy's lockdown – which has gone on for nearly two months now – although it sounds more like phase one-and-a-half.

After so much speculation, the long-awaited announcement of the new rules on Sunday felt like an anticlimax. Life won't really change that much for most of us in May. Shops and businesses will be gradually allowed to reopen over the coming weeks, and you can visit relatives in your own region – if you have any. For those of us with family in another country, and no idea when we'll be allowed to travel again, this isn't much comfort. Other restrictions on movement remain in place.

For me, the most exciting development is that we'll be allowed to go to the park (probably, depending on each region's local rules). Some regional governments are pushing ahead with relaxing the rules further, against the government's advice to take baby steps and stern warnings that reopening things too quickly could trigger a new outbreak.

Friends around the country report seeing more people in the streets and more traffic on the roads already in the past few days, as people seem to be preparing – at least mentally – for an end to their confinement.

Here in Bari nothing has changed, though I expect as usual we'll see changes a few days after the rest of Italy. For now, anyone daring to go outside without a mask here gets a telling-off from every Italian signora they pass – usually monitoring the situation closely from their balconies.

Most people I know in Italy are still being very cautious. Many say they feel torn between impatience with the lockdown, and a lingering reluctance to go outside.

People desperately want to get back to work, see friends, get a much-needed haircut – yet we're well aware of the thousands of new infections and hundreds of deaths still being reported here every day. This is a long way from being over yet.

 
'Sweden’s model of fewer restrictions may be useful to study for countries when they prepare to come out of lockdown,' Emma Löfgren, Stockholm, Sweden

“I think there’s a perception out there that Sweden has not put in place control measures and has just allowed the disease to spread.

Nothing could be further from the truth: Sweden has put in place a very strong public health policy around physical distancing, around caring for and protecting people in long term facilities and many other things,” said Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organisation’s health emergencies programme, in response to a question from a journalist at Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet this week.

 

 

It was a sharp rebuke of a widespread narrative that has emerged regarding the Swedish strategy – a relatively softer version of lockdowns seen in many other countries – and casts doubts on critics who have assumed that Swedish health authorities do not enjoy the support of the WHO. 

And with the international attention Sweden has been getting in recent weeks, of course it immediately grabbed headlines. But I was surprised to see not a small number of articles interpreting his comments as confirmation that Sweden had chosen The One Right Path. His comments felt more neutral to me – all countries have something to teach each other. 

We are often quick to find proof that reinforces what we want to believe. But you can’t talk about Sweden’s high level of trust and support without acknowledging the anger many are feeling; you can’t talk about those who flout social distancing rules without acknowledging those who don’t; you can’t talk about the number of deaths falling without remembering the lives we have lost.

So far, Stockholm has been the epicentre of the outbreak in Sweden, with immigrant communities in city suburbs and elderly people in care homes hit very hard. The virus is now showing signs of spreading faster elsewhere in Sweden, and many people are asking themselves: How can we stop it from getting as bad in our region… and what if we can’t?

There are lessons to be learned. It is essential for other parts of Sweden to learn from what worked and what didn’t work in Stockholm (honestly, it may even be worth learning from the town of Lund, who this week resorted to using chicken manure to enforce social distancing). 

Similarly, it will be necessary for Sweden to study its neighbouring countries who have so far managed to keep their death toll far below that of Sweden; just as Sweden’s model of fewer restrictions may be useful to study for countries when they prepare to come out of lockdown. I think the point the WHO’s Ryan was making was that we should try to learn from each other’s successes and failures without competing. Only by working together can we really fight this.

 
'Many are questioning if Germany was too quick to strip away regulations,' Rachel Stern, Berlin, Germany

A popular playground around the corner from my Berlin flat was sealed off mid-March, yet by early this week I could again hear the chatter of children on the swings and in the sand.

Play areas weren’t officially allowed to open up until this Thursday in several districts of the German capital, yet the anticipation for “normal life” could be felt (and seen) days in advance.

At the weekend, queues formed for the ice cream stands which were newly permitted to reopen, and shop signs announced to customers that they are back in business.

Germany is slowly taking steps to emerge from what many dub a partial-lockdown. Unlike some other European countries, most of the 16 states in the Federal Republic have permitted residents to be outside with one other person not of the same household or family – a measure which Thursday was extended until May 10th.

But at the same time, many restrictions around the country are slowly being loosened – from schools reopening next month to religious institutions officially welcoming worshippers again. The government is even discussing if restaurants and hotels can be opened by mid-May under strict social distancing guidelines. 

Amid the return to regularity, several virologists and politicians are questioning if the Bundesrepublik is too quick to strip away regulations. Statistics from Germany’s top health institute on Tuesday showed that the coronavirus reproduction rate had grown just days after the country boasted that it was declining.

Taking this into account, Germany is trying to strike a tricky balance, cautiously taking measures that balance business, educational and health interests together. 

It announced this week that it’s massively increasing coronavirus testing, and as of this week made face masks mandatory in supermarkets and public transport. It also officially extended a warning on international travel until mid-June

As of Thursday afternoon, the country had reported over 162,000 coronavirus cases and 6,467 deaths. It remains to be seen how, and if, German residents can “live normally”, or if they will simply have to accept a new normal.


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