Millions of people were allowed to return to work in Italy Monday as Europe’s longest lockdown started to ease, while countries from Iceland to India took a patchwork of steps to loosen coronavirus restrictions. Businesses including hairdressers in Greece and restaurants in Lebanon were opening their doors under new conditions.
With pressure growing in many countries for more measures to restart the economy, politicians also were trying to boost funding for research into a vaccine for COVID-19. There are hopes that one could be available in months, but warnings that it could take much longer.
Italy, the first European country to be hit by the pandemic and a nation with one of the world’s highest death tolls, started stirring after its two-month shutdown. In all, 4.4 million Italians were able to return to work, and restrictions on movement eased.
Traffic in downtown Rome picked up, construction sites and manufacturing operations resumed, and flower vendors returned to the Campo dei Fiori market for the first time since March 11.
“It’s something that brings happiness and joy, and people have been missing that these days,” vendor Stefano Fulvi said. Like many entrepreneurs, Fulvi had to calculate when it was worth returning to work, given the limited demand with clients stuck at home and the short lifespan of his merchandise. He doesn’t expect to break even anytime soon, “but you have to take the risk at some point.”
As infection rates have fallen in large parts of Europe, tentative efforts to restart public life are gathering pace. But Europeans’ new-found freedoms are limited as officials are wary of setting off a second wave of infections.
In Italy, mourners were able to attend funerals — but services were limited to 15 people and there was still no word on when Masses would resume. Restaurants scrubbed their floors in preparation for take-out service, but sit-down service is still several weeks away.
“It’s a new page that we must write together, with trust and responsibility,” Premier Giuseppe Conte said in a message to Italians.
Belgium allowed some companies to open their offices to employees, though remote work is still encouraged. Like Italians, Greeks and many others in Europe, Belgians are being told to wear masks on public transport.
Italians still have to carry certifications explaining why they are out. The list of acceptable reasons has now been expanded to include visits to family and lovers, but just who falls into that category is still unclear.
Greece, which gradually began lifting its seven-week lockdown Monday, dropped a similar requirement for people to send an SMS or carry a self-written permit justifying being outdoors.
Hair salons and some stores such as those selling books and sports goods reopened in Greece, albeit with strict hygiene and social distancing measures.
Athens haidresser Konstantina Harisiadi had installed plexiglass barriers at reception and at manicure stations. Magazines were no longer available for waiting clients, and a new sign, “Silence is security,” was meant to discourage chit-chat and limit the potential for virus transmission. On her first day open, all her clients were wearing masks.
Harisiadi was booked through the end of the month. But with her business forced to operate with far fewer clients than usual, making ends meet will be a struggle.
“We’re going to try for the best,” she said, adding she doesn’t want to resort to firing any staff. “As the owner of a small business that has the nature of a family, I’m going to avoid it. And along with my co-workers I’m going to look for solutions to manage.”
But she also lamented the way the atmosphere will inevitably change.
“Things are different. There’s no spontaneity — we can’t greet each other, speak, laugh. We’re entering a new era,” she said.
On Europe’s western edge, Iceland also reopened hair salons — along with high schools, dentists and other businesses — after six weeks in which the country has tamed its virus outbreak.
In the Middle East, Lebanon is allowing restaurants to open at 30% capacity during the day starting Monday. But many business owners say they won’t reopen because they would be losing more money if they operate under such restrictions during a faltering economy, and cafes, clubs and bars have been ordered to stay shut through June.
India allowed some economic activities to resume after a five-week halt, even as the pace of infections has slightly accelerated. The lockdown has achieved a slowdown in the spread of the virus but has caused immense hardship for India’s legions of poor people.
Governments around the world have reported 3.5 million infections and more than 247,000 deaths, including more than 67,000 dead in the United States, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University. Deliberately concealed outbreaks, low testing rates and the severe strain the disease has placed on health care systems mean the true scale of the pandemic is undoubtedly much greater.
Developing a vaccine will be the key to returning to less restricted everyday life. On Monday, an alliance of world leaders was holding a virtual summit hoping to drum up around 4 billion euros ($4.37 billion) for vaccine research, some 2 billion euros for treatments and 1.5 billion ($1.64 billion) for testing. Officials say that amount is just the start.
In a statement, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Norway and top European Union officials said that the money raised will be channeled mostly through recognized global health organizations. The EU’s executive Commission had hoped that the United States would take part, but it remained unclear what role, if any, Washington might play in the donor conference.
Germany’s health minister said there are “promising” developments but warned that developing vaccines is one of the biggest challenges in medecine.
“I would be glad if we succeeded in a few months, but I think we must remain realistic,” Jens Spahn told ARD television on Sunday. “It can also take years, because of course there can be setbacks — we have seen that with other vaccines.”
Moulson reported from Berlin. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.