Austria has become the first European country to outline plans for easing its coronavirus lockdown, providing a potential blueprint for how other nations might start to allow aspects of daily life to resume once they have brought the pandemic largely under control.
“The aim is that from April 14 ... smaller shops up to a size of 400 square meters, as well as hardware and garden stores, can open again, under strict security conditions of course,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced at a news conference on Monday.
They would be followed by all shops, shopping malls and hairdressers on May 1. However, only one shopper per 20 square meters of shop space ― almost the size of a 15-foot square ― will be allowed.
Restaurants and hotels will not open until mid-May at the earliest, and no public events will be held until at least late June, Kurz said.
“We reacted faster and more restrictively than in other countries and could therefore avoid the worst,” Kurz said. “But this fast and restrictive reaction now also gives us the possibility to come out of this crisis more quickly.”
Kurz and members of his cabinet arrived at the news conference wearing masks, and the chancellor spoke from behind a clear protective screen.
Austria broadly shut down three weeks ago, with schools, bars, restaurants, theatres, nonessential shops and other gathering places closed. The public has been told to stay at home and work from there if possible.
The lockdown has helped reduce the daily increase in infections to 1.6%, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said. The number of people in hospitals has stabilised. As of Monday, there have been 12,206 cases and 220 deaths in Austria.
Kurz cautioned that his plan depended on developments over the coming days, and he urged the public to continue following the overall lockdown restrictions. If infection rates start to worsen, he said, the government could reintroduce limits.
“Easter week will be a decisive one for us. It is one that will determine whether the resurrection after Easter that we all hope for can happen as such,” Kurz said.
Other countries are starting to consider relaxing restrictions as well.
In Denmark, one of the first countries in Europe to shut down, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said on Monday that the country would begin “a gradual, quiet and controlled opening of our society again, at the other side of Easter,” if the number of coronavirus cases and deaths remained stable.
Day care centres and primary schools for children in first to fifth grade will reopen on April 15, which will allow parents to return to a normal workday.
All remaining restrictions, including a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, will stay in place until at least May 10, while a ban on larger gatherings will remain in place until August.
In an interview with Denmark’s state broadcaster DR on Sunday, Frederiksen emphasised that even as restrictions are lifted, life could not simply return to normal.
“We are going to change a lot in our ordinary lives,” Frederiksen said, according to The Local. “We will not return to Denmark as it was before March 6.”
Frederiksen said that adjustments would need to be made to how people work, go to school, and socialise with each other.
“We are … not going to be able to squeeze up close together in trains, buses and subways in the way we have become accustomed to,” Frederiksen said. “Or stand very close together with a whole lot of other people and have a good party together.”
She added: “We will have to work in a more staggered way than we are used to, meeting at different times. In the short run, I can’t see how all children will be able to attend school, or all young people can start education at the same time.”
Like Kurz in Austria, Frederiksen warned that restrictions could be reimposed if the virus surges back.
“The house of cards could fall. And it could fall faster than we imagine,” she said.
In Germany, a government document seen by Reuters maps out a phased return to normal life after the lockdown ends, with measures that would include mandatory mask-wearing in public, limits on gatherings and the rapid tracing of infection chains.
The draft action plan would make it possible to track more than 80% of people with whom an infected person had contact within 24 hours of diagnosis. Infected people and those they had contact with would be quarantined, either at home or in hotels.
The document assumes the pandemic will last until 2021.
In return, shops would be allowed to reopen, as well as schools in select regions, though strict social distancing measures would still be in place.
Border controls would be relaxed, but large events and private parties would remain forbidden, the document said.
As soon as enough protective masks are available, the government would require wearing them on trains and in buses, as well as in factories and public buildings, it said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday that it was too early to talk about relaxing the lockdown, and that restrictions on free movement and business closures, in effect in Germany since March 22, would remain in place until at least April 19.
Italy’s national lockdown officially lasts until at least April 13, but it is widely expected to be extended. As the number of coronavirus infections begins to decline, however, public officials there are also starting to look ahead to “phase two,” when restrictions could begin to be lifted.
According to Health Minister Roberto Speranza, this second phase would involve continued social distancing, with wider use of individual protection devices such as face masks. Local health systems would be strengthened, to allow a faster and more efficient treatment of suspected Covid-19 cases. Testing and contact tracing would be extended, including with the use of smartphone apps and other forms of digital technology, and a network of hospitals dedicated solely to treating Covid-19 patients would be set up.
However, the health minister acknowledged that some restrictions would likely need to remain in place until a vaccine is available.
“There are difficult months ahead. Our task is to create the conditions to live with the virus,” at least until a vaccine is developed, Speranza told the daily La Repubblica newspaper.
In the United Kingdom, as well, public officials said that it was “too soon to tell” whether the coronavirus lockdown has been successful in reducing the spread of the illness.
“It is working, but the big question is: Is the virus spread slowing down enough to make hospital admissions stabilise and then even fall?” the U.K. deputy chief scientific adviser Angela McLean said on Monday.
Chris Whitty, the country’s chief medical adviser, also said it “would be a mistake” to start talking about the next phase of the pandemic.
“The key thing is to get to the point where we are confident we have reached the peak,” Whitty said.
In France, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe last week raised the possibility of a gradual reopening of society. But a number of politicians criticised such talk, saying it sends the wrong signals to the public at a time when people need to stay home.
Marie Lebec, a member of the national assembly and a close ally of President Emmanuel Macron, denounced “this political race for the ‘next world’ when the war is still far from won.”
“Of course we are working on what comes after, on the issues of sovereignty, ecology, etc. But it’s not advisable to speak publicly on this issue while the crisis is still ongoing. It is a rule of decency that we set,” another member of parliament from Macron’s party told HuffPost France.
Health care workers similarly say it is difficult to contemplate returning to normal at a time when they are still being confronted with the devastating effects of the epidemic on a daily basis.
“I don’t understand why we are talking about the end of confinement, but it happens all the time,” a nurse from the Paris region told AFP over the weekend.
“We are exhausted,” another nurse at a hospital in Paris told HuffPost France. “The lockdown is barely paying off,” and medical staff “will not be able to hold on” if restrictions are relaxed too early, she said.
Any talk of ending the restrictions and restarting normal life is premature, she stressed. It’s “far too early,” she said, for the question of “after.”
With reporting from HuffPost France, HuffPost UK, HuffPost Italy, and Reuters.