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A cautious reopening, but gatherings still off the cards: How Europe is lifting its lockdown

A cautious reopening, but gatherings still off the cards: How Europe is lifting its lockdown
Across Europe, leaders have made tentative steps toward easing their countries’ coronavirus lockdowns. However, a return to total normality has been all but written off for the year.

The Austrian government announced on Tuesday that the spread of the coronavirus has slowed to a point where restrictions can now be lifted. Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said that Austrians may freely leave their homes from May 1, with public gatherings to follow in the near future. Though social distancing rules will still apply, businesses like hairdressers will reopen, followed two weeks later by cafes and restaurants, and at the end of the month by hotels.

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While the thought of retreating to an Alpine hotel to drink and feast may sound like a welcome reprieve for lockdown-weary Austrians, some limitations will remain in force. Holidays will be allowed, but only within the country’s borders. Restaurants will only seat four diners to a table. Mask-wearing will remain mandatory, and gatherings will be capped at ten people.

The beer hall, therefore, is still off limits.

Across Europe, the story is the same. Though Austria has emerged as a champion in curbing the coronavirus – the country has reported just 78 new cases since Monday – other, harder-hit nations are also peeling back some restrictions.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe offered his citizens some cautious optimism on Tuesday, announcing that the nationwide lockdown – which has seen citizens fined for leaving home without a valid excuse –  will be lifted from May 11. The rollback, however, is a trial run. Philippe warned that any uptick in infections will see the quarantine measures reapplied and liberties once again suspended.

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As in Austria, masks will remain mandatory, and gatherings of more than ten people will be banned. Regional borders will stay closed, however, meaning wannabe holidaymakers will have to stay close to home. To enforce this, French authorities will ask anyone venturing more than 100km from home to carry a letter explaining the purpose of their travel.

Europeans have long cherished their continent’s open borders. For many Dutch and German citizens, for example, the yearly caravan trip to the warmer climes of Italy, Spain, and France is a pilgrimage. However, these borders look set to remain closed for the foreseeable future, with French President Emmanuel Macron suggesting earlier this month that this may be the case until September.

Even internally, holidaymakers’ plans remain on ice. Italy plans on relaxing some restrictions from May 4, and while Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte recently told Italians to “go on vacation in Italy,” these citizens won’t be allowed to cross regional borders to do so, at least not under present plans. In Spain, where the government will gradually lift its lockdown during the second half of next month, Labor Minister Yolanda Díaz cautioned earlier this month that tourism and leisure activities likely won’t restart until the end of this year.

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Spain and Italy, and to a lesser extent France, depend on tourism. The sector accounts for around 15 percent of the Spanish and Italian economies, considerably more than the 9.5 percent EU average. However, all three countries are among the four worst hit worldwide, with a combined death toll of 75,000 and nearly 600,000 cases between them. Given these figures, the reluctance of their leaders to return to normal is perhaps understandable.

But they are not the exception. Germany has cancelled Munich’s Oktoberfest this year, even though the beer extravaganza isn’t set to take place until September, and even though active cases of coronavirus have been declining in Germany since the beginning of this month. The Netherlands, meanwhile, has extended a ban on all public gatherings until September, and the Irish government on Tuesday banned all gatherings of more than 5,000 people until September too – effectively nixing the country’s busy summer festival season.

As of next month, life across Europe will return to some semblance of normality, but it won’t be the normal that came before. Instead, to paraphrase nearly every world leader grappling with the pandemic, it’ll be a “new normal” – one where terms like “social distancing,” “non-essential activities,” and “self-isolation” remain part of everyone’s daily vocabulary.

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