Europe eases coronavirus curbs and hopes it won't have to retreat

Italy will soon permit people to leave their homes for the first time in weeks. PHOTO: EPA-EFE/ANSA

ROME (BLOOMBERG) - Spain and France, two of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, are set to spell out plans to ease lockdowns as Europe moves to loosen restrictions despite concerns that such steps could backfire.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has said he expects to announce loosening measures after Tuesday's weekly Cabinet meeting.

France is preparing to ease its confinement after May 11, and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will present the government's blueprint to the National Assembly on Tuesday afternoon.

Italy - the original epicentre of the continent's outbreak - will soon permit people to leave their homes for the first time in weeks, joining countries including Germany, Austria and the Netherlands in relaxing restrictions.

Switzerland on Monday allowed an array of retailers as well as tattoo studios to open their doors, and the Swiss flocked to gardening stores to catch up on spring planting.

European leaders are eager to restart economies after lockdown measures shuttered factories, halted travel and kept millions of people largely confined to their homes. The fallout is spurring talk of reconstruction efforts on the scale of the post-World War II recovery.

But after more than 110,000 deaths on the continent, policy makers are wary of decisions that could see them risking lives for the sake of securing jobs.

The steps come as new cases trended lower.

Infections in Spain rose by less than 2,000 for the second straight day on Monday, and Germany reached that mark for the third consecutive day. New cases rose in France, but Italy reported 1,739 infections, its lowest daily number in seven weeks.

"The general trend indicates a reduction in the virus spread," said Silvio Brusaferro, the head of Italy's public health institute at a press conference in Rome. "Data gives us an indication of the success of the containment measures taken but also suggests that when we start easing the lockdown we must carefully monitor the number of new cases and all other indicators."

While other European countries are only starting their easing now, Austria was among the first out of the gate, reopening smaller shops and hardware stores two weeks ago. That hasn't led to an uptick in new infections, which have been below 100 for nine days straight.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the restart of the economy would go on but reminded Austrians the danger wasn't yet gone.

Austria has already disbursed more than 14 billion euros ($15.2 billion), including by subsidizing the wages for about 1.1 million jobs, or about a fourth of the workforce.

"We have to continue to contain the spread of the coronavirus and at the same time restart the economy," he said in a televised speech 75 years after Austria was refounded after World War II.

"Even as our situation looks good today, we can't rule out a second wave of infections along the way."

Portugal is preparing to reopen some activities, but people who use public transport or attend school will be required to use masks, while restaurants will have to lower their seating capacity, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said.

Face masks are becoming a totem of the fight against the disease. It gives people a sense of comfort, while also acting as a visual reminder to remain cautious.

The "biggest danger" is people who think the worst is over, according to German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier.

"We have a very pleasing decline in infection numbers, but the easing that's taken place in the last few days hasn't had any impact yet," Altmaier said on Deutschlandfunk radio.

"Therefore, I recommend that we proceed very, very cautiously so that we don't take back any easing."

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