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European nations ease coronavirus lockdown restrictions; death toll nears 250,000

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May 4 (UPI) — A slew of European countries, including hard-hit Spain and Italy, took steps Monday to gradually ease lockdown restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the deadly and infectious coronavirus.

Italy on Monday entered Phase Two of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s plan to ease the country out from the world’s longest lockdown that began nearly 80 days ago.

Currently third in the world for cases with 210,717 but second in deaths to the virus with 28,884, Italy was placed under stringent restrictions as clusters of COVID-19 exponentially grew and deaths mounted in late January.

However, following declining infections and deaths that peaked in mid-March, travel restrictions will be eased from Monday allowing people to visit family within their immediate region and employees to travel outside their area for work. Parks, gardens and public villas will be open to visitors who maintain a 3-feet distance from others. And restaurants will be open for home delivery and take-away services, Italy’s Ministry of Health said.

Manufacturing, construction and real estate work may also resume, the ministry added.

In Spain, the second worst-hit country with 217,466 cases, some businesses will be allowed to open from Monday, including restaurant take-out services, and book and hardware stores as well as garages will resume serving customers by appointment.

Also from Monday, masks will be required to ride public transportation, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez detailed Saturday when adults were allowed for the first time in 48 days to exercise outside, extending a measure that was offered to children under 14 a week earlier.

“These are small comforts that are coming in doses, and may appear insufficient but are important,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Saturday in a televised address.

Portugal was also set on Monday to lift some restrictions including opening small shops and businesses, such as hairdressers and car dealerships. Senior schools will be allowed to reopen on May 18 as will museums, bars and restaurants.

Globally, the virus has infected more than 3.5 million people, including 1.45 million in Europe alone. The continent has also recorded more than half of the nearly 250,000 deaths to the disease, according to health data tracked by worldometers.info.

In Asia, the first epicenter of the virus, Japan on Monday was preparing to extend its nationwide state of emergency another month, public broadcaster NHK reported.

The current state of emergency was to expire on Wednesday but is expected to be extended until May 31 to keep current restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Japan, which has nearly 15,000 cases of the virus resulting in 487 deaths, declared the monthlong state of emergency on April 7 for the capital Tokyo and six other prefectures before extending it nationwide.

Meanwhile, China on Monday reported a seventh consecutive day without a death to COVID-19, capping off the first three days of its five-day May Day holiday that saw domestic tourism surge.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism reported 85 million domestic tourist trips over the first three days of the holiday that began May 1, equalling about $4.97 billion, Xinhua reported.

In Hubei Province, ground zero of the pandemic and China’s worst-hit region to the virus, 22 major tourist attractions reopened for the first time since going under lockdown in late January, receiving some 520,400 visitors, the provincial cultural tourism bureau said, state-owned China News Service reported.

In Wuhan city, where the virus emerged late last year, around 178,000 people visited on Saturday when it lowered its emergency response level from its highest to second-highest warning.

The tourism surge for the city, however, represented a 71 percent revenue plunge from the year prior and a 58 percent drop in visitors to 21 tourist sites, it said.

Beijing health officials on Monday reported three new cases of infection, all of which were imported, increasing its total number of cases to 83,964. Ten countries have more cases than China, with the United States’ 1.1 million cases more than any other nation.

While the original epicenter of the virus, Asia accounts for fewer than 600,000 infections resulting in 19,619 deaths, according to the health data tracker.

Meanwhile, Oceania has the fewest number of cases at 8,411 and 115 deaths, according to health data.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced zero new cases of the coronavirus for the first time since implementing staunch lockdown restrictions in late March.

The country moved down to Alert Level 3 on its four-alert system last week with plans next week for the cabinet in Wellington to decide if the country will drop to Alert Level 2 and what that will look like.

“We need every day between now and next Monday to know for sure that we succeeded in locking in the gains of Level 4, recovered effectively in our waiting room of Level 3 and are in a position to move down again and give New Zealanders back greater freedom,” she said during a press conference.

She also said she’d be joining Australia’s Cabinet meeting Tuesday over discussions on creating “a trans-Tasman travel bubble,” that would allow for residents from the two countries to travel between them without requiring a two-week quarantine upon arrival.

“Both our countries’ strong record on fighting the virus has placed us in the enviable position of being able to plan the next stage in our economic rebuild,” she said.

New Zealand has fewer than 1,500 cases resulting in 20 deaths.

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