Paris (CNSNews.com) – Governments of European countries hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic are moving towards easing unprecedented restrictions placed on their societies, but doing so in small and cautious ways.
In France, where a lockdown was put in place on March 17, President Emmanuel Macron in a speech this week set May 11 as the date for its end. But the reopening will be gradual.
From that day, nurseries, schools, high schools and colleges may reopen “gradually.” Universities will remain closed until September at the earliest.
Bars, restaurants, cafes, hotels, museums, cinemas, and most stores will stay closed until further notice. France’s borders will remain closed until further notice.
Macron said the wearing of protective masks may become mandatory in some situations, such as when using public transport. COVID-19 testing will continue, and confirmed cases will be quarantined.
Even after May 11, he said, vulnerable people – the elderly and those with chronic diseases or severe disabilities – should remain at home. He did not specify what constitutes elderly.
As of Wednesday France was reporting 131,365 confirmed cases and 17,167 deaths.
Meanwhile Spain, the country with the third-highest death toll after the United States and Italy, is gradually reopening now, beginning with construction and manufacturing businesses (where employees are unable to telework). Police and volunteers are handing out masks at train and subway stations.
General confinement at home continues, however, and bars, public places and shops are to remain closed until April 26, the earliest date for a possible lifting of a state of emergency declared on March 14.
Spain’s moves have stoked debate. Since April 1, the number of deaths has risen from 9,387 to 18,579, an average of more than 650 a day. As of Wednesday, Spain was reporting 177,633 cases.
In Italy, the beginning of the lifting of the lockdown is scheduled for May 4, one week before France, although some stores were allowed to start reopening this week, with strict social distancing and mandatory mask wearing in place.
Bars, restaurants and hairdressers will stay closed until further notice.
With 21,645 deaths as of Wednesday, Italy is the second worst-affected country.
In France, some of Macron’s proposals brought strong criticism.
Francette Popineau, the head of the main primary schools union, said there appeared to be a “total contradiction” in allowing schools to reopen while other public places had to remain closed.
“It is anything but serious to reopen schools on May 11 because we are told that all public places are closed – cinemas, performance halls – but not schools, when we know they are places of high transmission, high contamination,” she told the AFP news agency.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, head of the leftist Rebellious France movement, said his advice was that people continue to confine themselves at home, describing Macron’s proposals as dangerous.
On the right, National Rally lawmaker in the European Parliament Nicolas Bay expressed doubt that the government was taking sufficient measures to help businesses. Macron has announced financial aid to small- and medium-sized companies.
As some European governments look to start reopening, from the World Health Organization came a word of caution.
“Now is the time for vigilance, now is the time to double down. Now is the time to be very, very careful,” director of WHO’s emergencies program, Michael Ryan, said at a briefing on Monday.
“That does not mean that countries cannot begin to create an exit strategy,” he said. “There are things that need to be done. You cannot replace lockdown with nothing. You must replace lockdown with a very deeply educated, committed, empowered and engaged community.”
“We are going to have to change our behaviors for the foreseeable future,” Ryan said, and went on to discuss the importance of personal hygiene and physical distancing, as well as ongoing testing, contact tracing, and quarantining.