Photo: The ‘Lennon Wall’ with a face mask attached in Prague
Austria, Denmark and the Czech Republic announced plans to start cautiously easing the lockdowns that have crippled their economies next week as the Covid-19 curves begin to flatten in several of the smaller European countries that took early and aggressive steps to slow the spread of the virus last month.
But with Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain still battling the coronavirus that has claimed 45,958 lives in five of Europe’s largest countries, the plans to allow small shops in Austria and schools in Denmark to open after the Easter weekend as a prelude to more widespread openings are being closely scrutinised – and viewed as either bold or a reckless gamble.
Despite clamouring in some other European countries to relax the tight restrictions on movements and mandatory closings of non-essential shops, restaurants, cafes, theatres, gyms, hotels and bans on groups of more than a handful of people, Germany and the larger countries have resisted the economic and social pressures to start lifting some of the constraints and stay-home rules that have idled businesses and caused tremendous disruption across the continent.
“In Austria we reacted more quickly and more restrictively than in other countries so that’s why we now have the chance to come out of this crisis faster,” Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told journalists in Vienna, speaking after removing a surgical face mask he wore into the meeting and then standing behind a protective glass barrier. “But if necessary we can pull the emergency brake on all this at any time.”
As the number of coronavirus infections soared in neighbouring Italy in late February, Austria was faster than most other European countries to clamp down hard. In what seemed like a draconian measure at the time, Kurz issued a lockdown order on March 11 even though only 200 people had tested positive by then and none had died. Austria also quickly closed its border to Italy – allowing in only non-stop transit traffic to Germany or returning Austrian citizens.
Austria was also the first European country to issue orders requiring everyone to wear face masks in supermarkets last week, an unusual directive in Europe where face masks are not as prevalent as in Asia that will be widely expanded in the Alpine Republic after Easter.
Even though unemployment in Austria surged 4.8 percentage points to over 12 per cent to post World War II highs in March, the numbers of Covid-19 infections and deaths in Austria with its 8.6 million inhabitants remained under control and the country’s hospitals faced none of the heart-wrenching overcrowding as in neighbouring Italy. So far 12,297 Austrians have been infected and 220 have died.
“It’s an ambitious plan that will lead to a new normalcy,” said Kurz in announcing that all shops of up to 4,300 sq ft will be allowed to open from April 14. Malls and larger shops would be allowed to reopen at the start of May and then restaurants and hotels from mid-May, he said in announcing the measures on Monday.
In Denmark, which also moved quickly and forcefully to shut down its economy and public activity on March 11, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced that the country would also start tentatively reopening for business after Easter. Denmark was also aggressive in quickly shutting its borders to foreigners in marked contrast to its southern neighbour Germany, which long kept its European Union borders open long afterwards.
Denmark’s first step would be to reopen kindergartens and primary schools on April 15. That would be followed by government officials starting talks with business leaders on gradually allowing employees to return to their jobs. It will keep its borders closed, travel restrictions will remain in place and gatherings larger than 10 people are still banned.
“This will probably be a bit like walking the tightrope,” Frederiksen said, referring to the effort to balance the need to keep the 5.6 million Danes safe while trying to stave off a deep recession. “If we stand still along the way, we could fall and if we go too fast it can go wrong. So we have to take one cautious step at a time.”
Echoing Kurz’s comments, Frederiksen said that Denmark’s early action to shut the country down made it possible to start reopening sooner. Denmark has 4,875 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 187 deaths. She also warned the restrictions would immediately be reinstituted if the coronavirus numbers start to pick up again.
“We’ve managed to avoid the misfortune that has befallen a number of other countries,” she said.
In Prague, Czech government officials said they were considering relaxing some of the strict lockdown imposed in conjunction with a state of emergency declared on March 12 when it banned travellers from many other EU countries. Health Minister Adam Vojtech said that a levelling off of the numbers of new cases was encouraging and if that continued more shops would be allowed to open Thursday as well as open-air sports activities – such as tennis.
He warned the relaxation in restrictions would come in small steps over a period of weeks.
“We are clearly saying now that we are able to manage the pandemic relatively well here – the pandemic is not managing us,” he said. There are 4,882 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 78 deaths in the Czech Republic, a country with a population of 10 million.