Europe is in a new phase of reopening, but it's hardly a return to normal

NEWS 05.05.2020 12:55
Source: Marko Dimic/PIXSELL

Millions of people across Europe were returning to some semblance of their former lives Monday as more countries across the continent began to reopen after weeks or months of coronavirus-related lockdowns. But not everyone is happy with how the "new normal" looks.

Italian businesses are wondering how they'll survive as restrictions are eased but not fully lifted. Students are heading back to socially-distanced schools in Germany, where newly reopened barber shops are facing huge demand to right the wrongs of weeks of home haircuts. Belgians can once again use public transport, but face coverings are mandatory, while small shops are reopening in Greece and Portugal.

“Phase 2” of Italy's plan to ease restrictions began Monday, with more than 4 million people expected to return to work, some public transport services restored, and many businesses set to reopen, Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced on Facebook. “Like never before, the future of the country will be in our hands.”

Although industries such as textiles and manufacturing are restarting, many non-essential stores remain closed. While bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen from Monday, they can only offer takeaway.

The Italian government said that to fully reopen stores, bars and restaurants it must slow the reproduction rate of the coronavirus to 0.5, meaning that each infected Italian is infecting less than one other person (an “R0 value” of 1, for instance, means that every infected person is infecting one other person). To reopen theaters, conventions and stadiums, Italy wants the number to be as close as possible to 0. Currently the figure is around 0.6-0.7 nationally.

Restaurant, bar and store owners around Italy were last week “handing over their keys” to local mayors in protest over the slow reopening, and Conte apologized on Friday for a delay to financial aid payments to businesses impacted by the pandemic.

A joint letter from 13 of the 20 Italian regions last Wednesday asked the government “to guarantee the possibility of reopening activities to all those who respect the measures already provided” by the lockdown decree. “It's clear that health is the first essential objective, but it can't be the only one,” the letter added.

There were frustrations in other countries, too. German hairdressers opened Monday after weeks of shutdown, but customers are not able to walk in – they now need an appointment and in Berlin have to fill out a questionnaire.

Other European countries are gradually relaxing restrictions. Spain allowed people outside for solo exercise this weekend for the first time in seven weeks. Portugal opens small stores Monday, and people in Belgium may travel on public transport but must wear a masks, AFP reports.

Traffic increased on Greek streets on Monday as small stores including hair salons, flower shops and bookstores reopened and lines formed outside electrical appliance retailers, Reuters reported. Greece, which has been praised for its coronavirus response, is planning to welcome tourists again this summer.

The UK, meanwhile, has not relaxed restrictions yet but is also making plans for returning to work. A draft government plan is looking at staggered starts, maximizing work from home and hygiene measures such as two-meter distancing and physical screens, according to British media reports.

UK transport minister Grant Shapps said more public transport would be running soon, although he suggested people would be encouraged to walk or ride to work when they return. The suggestion was met with concern by Britain's three main rail unions, who said in a letter to the Prime Minister on Monday that now was not the time to run more trains because there was no agreement on how to protect workers and passengers.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said at the Downing Street briefing on Sunday that “the worst thing to do” would be to prematurely relax measures and risk a second spike in the disease. He said the UK should proceed with caution, raising serious questions over what the long-term financial impact could be.

As Europe reopens, the big question is how the once vibrant continent will look as we move into a different future to the one we all expected. It has certainly changed forever.