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Coronavirus Restrictions Are Eased in Europe - The New York Times

BERLIN — Slowly, tentatively, a handful of European countries began lifting constraints on daily life this week for the first time since the start of the coronavirus crisis, providing an early litmus test of whether Western democracies can gingerly restart their economies and restore basic freedoms without reviving the spread of the disease.

On Tuesday, Italy, the epicenter of Europe’s crisis, reopened some bookshops and children’s clothing stores. Spain allowed workers to return to factories and construction sites, despite a daily death toll that remains over 500. Austria allowed thousands of hardware and home improvement stores to reopen, as long as workers and customers wore masks.

In Denmark, elementary schoolteachers readied classrooms so young children could return to school on Wednesday, while in the Czech Republic, a restless public relished the reopening of sports centers and some shops.

When Lukas Zachoval, a sales manager in the Czech Republic, lost a tennis match to his father this week — in a 6-4, 6-3 drubbing — defeat had seldom tasted sweeter. After all, it was his first match since the Czech government began lifting sweeping restrictions on society, including a ban on communal sports, that had been in place for nearly a month.

“I cannot live without sports,” Mr. Zachoval explained.

The easing of the lockdowns was watched with interest and trepidation across Europe and beyond, and posed profound and knotty questions.

“How much are we willing to pay in order to save people’s lives?” asked Jana Puglierin, director of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, an independent research group. “And when do we do more damage — when we keep the lockdown in place, or when we open it up early?”

The fledgling, country-by-country loosening, enacted without any coordination between nations, underscored the absence of any common agreement, or even understanding, about the challenge of keeping economies alive while stemming the disease. The International Monetary Fund has warned that the global economy is headed for its worst performance since the Great Depression.

A similar debate over how to reopen society is taking place in the United States, where President Trump has insisted that he “calls the shots” on the matter, prompting objections from the leaders of several states. Mr. Trump, himself under fire and his poll numbers falling as the dispute intensified, said Tuesday that he would halt funding to the World Health Organization, which he accused of making mistakes that allowed the virus to spread.

As the slow, piecemeal approach in Europe suggests, restrictions on daily life will probably not end in one clean break. Instead, people can expect a series of staggered interventions and loosening, probably over a period of weeks or months, if not considerably longer.

“At the start of the crisis, many people had the feeling that we could shut down Denmark for two to three weeks and then we could reopen, free of the virus,” said Peter Munk Christiansen, head of political science at Aarhus University in Denmark.

“But there’s been a gradual realization that that won’t happen,” he said. “People accept we have to have a gradual opening, and also that this won’t have gone away by the summer. It will stay here perhaps for years.”

On a continent where the supply chains are closely interconnected, economic gains may be slowed by the asymmetric approaches taken by European governments.

Relieved as Mr. Zachoval was by the easing of some measures in the Czech Republic, his income remains stymied by restrictions still in force elsewhere.

Like many Czech companies, Mr. Zachoval’s saw factory depends heavily on buyers in Western Europe. But most countries there have kept their borders shut, even as the Czech Republic partly opens its own, or their sales rooms closed, even as Mr. Zachoval hopes to step up production.

On Tuesday, Mr. Zachoval fielded a few orders from his home country, but nothing from his main markets in Germany, France and Italy.

“A lot of other states are not working fully,” Mr. Zachoval said in a telephone interview. “And we’re an exporter, so we don’t feel the change too much.”

If it continues, he said, “in a few weeks I think we’ll have to stop production, because orders are just not coming.”

At a summit meeting in late March, the 27 heads of states in the European Union acknowledged the need for their countries to emerge from their respective lockdowns in a coordinated exit strategy, and called on the bloc’s leadership to create a joint plan.

But so far, such a plan has yet to be agreed upon. Last week, the president of the bloc’s administrative arm, Ursula von der Leyen, postponed a news conference at which she had been expected to announce it.

The absence of a united approach has long-term implications for Europe’s economic revival, said Derek Beach, an academic who researches European integration at Aarhus University.

If Germany, for example, takes a different approach to constraining the virus than its neighbors, the government might not risk fully reopening its borders for fear of undermining its public health efforts. Yet without open borders, the Continent’s economy will not properly function.

“The lack of coordination here is such a big issue,” Professor Beach said. “Unless you have a common strategy, you have to keep the borders closed. But if the borders are closed, then do the supply chains still work over an extended time period?”

Even within individual countries, the easing of restrictions has lacked a cohesive approach.

In Spain, workers could nominally return to factories, but many were not needed because of a lack of demand. And those who did return were sometimes fearful for their health.

“I don’t agree with it, but what else can you do?” said a 52-year-old electrician in Barcelona, who asked to be identified only by his first name, José. “If my bosses call me, and I say no, they won’t call me again.”

In Italy, booksellers cited a lack of clarity about whether people could now travel from neighboring towns to visit their shops, or only from the surrounding district.

Mauro Marrani, who works at his wife’s bookstore in Florence, said he had written to the president of his region for an answer. Mr. Marrani was also confused by a requirement that the bookshop provide customers with disposable gloves — which are almost impossible to find.

Amid this uncertainty, he said, he had made only one sale in five hours.

“It’s all very vague,” Mr. Marrani said. “If it remains this way, I think we’re better off closing altogether, and waiting until all stores reopen.”

Among economists, there were also questions on Tuesday about whether they wield the right tools to assess Europe’s post-lockdown economy.

“It’s a new world,” said Carl-Johan Dalgaard, one of four Danish economics professors who form the presidency of the Danish Economic Councils, known informally as the “Wise Men.”

Denmark’s decision to reopen some schools and kindergartens makes sense, said Professor Dalgaard, who teaches at the University of Copenhagen, since it should allow parents to be more professionally productive.

But in general, the relationship between how the economy functions and how the coronavirus spreads is not yet fully understood, he said.

“There will need to be a conversation between epidemiologists and economists to understand this two-way street between the epidemiology and the economics,” said Professor Dalgaard. “These tools are not yet available.”

Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome, Raphael Minder from Madrid, and Elian Peltier from Barcelona.



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