Regional and political fractures are emerging in many nations over how fast to lift the lid on coronavirus-imposed lockdowns, as worries about economic devastation collide with fears of a second wave of deaths.
French mayors are resisting the government’s call to reopen schools, but Italian governors want Rome to ease lockdown measures faster. As the British government looks to reopen the economy, Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has warned that acting too fast could let the virus wreak havoc again.
Sturgeon cautioned that “for the moment we do need to stick with the current lockdown restrictions.”
Britain — the European country hit hardest by the pandemic — is expected to extend its nationwide lockdown on Thursday, but hopes cautiously to ease some restrictions on economic and social activity next week.
Restrictions allowing people to leave home only for essential errands, shopping and exercise were imposed in the U.K. on March 23. They are expected to remain in place at least until Sunday, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to set out a roadmap for “phase two” of the outbreak.
The U.K. government has said gradual loosening measures will include more road space to walk and cycle while maintaining social distancing, and encouragement for sectors including construction to get back to work.
The U.K.’s official COVID-19 death toll stands at 30,076, second only to the United States. Johnson’s government is facing intense criticism for its about-face on coronavirus testing and contact tracing — abandoned in March but now a priority — and failure to ensure a steady supply of personal protective equipment to medics.
In France, more than 300 mayors in the Paris region have urged President Emmanuel Macron to delay the reopening of schools scheduled for Monday. Many mayors around the country have already refused to reopen schools, and many parents will keep their children at home even where they are functioning again.
The mayors called the timing “untenable and unrealistic,” saying they were put on a “forced march” to get schools ready without enough staff or equipment, and complained that the government guidelines were too vague and slow in coming.
But governments are also under pressure to reopen faster and kick-start economies that have been plunged into hibernation.
Italian regional governors are pressing to open shops and restaurants, just days after the country began easing its two-month lockdown, allowing 4.5 million people to return to work in offices and factories.
Governors are seeking to be allowed to present their own plans for reopening, tailored to the rate of infection and economic needs of their regions.
In Germany, whose 16 state governments are responsible for imposing and loosening lockdowns, some governors have been more impatient than others to open up businesses such as restaurants and hotels.
At a meeting Wednesday with Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was agreed that state leaders would have wide leeway to decide when to open more sectors of the economy. They also will have to reimpose restrictions locally if coronavirus infections rebound.
In Russia, where the number of new infections is growing fast, President Vladimir Putin delegated the enforcement of lockdowns and other restrictions to regional governments, leading to wide variations across the country.
Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the St. Petersburg Politics think tank, told the Vedomosti newspaper that the Moscow government was sending mixed messages that governors find hard to decipher — wanting a victory over the virus, while also encouraging easing of the lockdown.
Fractures are also evident in the U.S., where about half of the 50 states are easing their shutdowns, to the alarm of public health officials.
Many states have not put in place the robust testing and contact tracing that experts believe is necessary to detect and contain new outbreaks. And many governors have pressed ahead with reopening before their states have met one of the key benchmarks in the administration’s guidelines for reopening — a 14-day downward trajectory in new infections.
“If we relax these measures without having the proper public health safeguards in place, we can expect many more cases and, unfortunately, more deaths,” said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy with the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington.
Researchers recently doubled their projection of deaths in the U.S. to about 134,000 through early August. So far the U.S. has recorded over 70,000 deaths and 1.2 million confirmed infections.
Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 3.6 million people and killed over a quarter-million, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, which experts agree understates the dimensions of the pandemic because of limited testing, differences in counting the dead and concealment by some governments.
Europe and North America are looking nervously to Asian nations that are well on the way to reopening.
China, where the virus emerged late last year, reported just two new cases on Thursday, both from overseas, and said the whole country now is at low risk of further infections after confirming no new deaths from COVID-19 in more than three weeks.
China also fired back against claims by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that there is “enormous evidence” that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying accused Pompeo of “making up lies and covering up a lie by fabricating more lies.”
Strict social distancing also appears to have vanquished the outbreak in the remote island nation of New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern outlined plans for further relaxing lockdown rules, with a decision coming perhaps next week.
New Zealand would keep its borders shut, restrict gatherings to 100 people or fewer and hold professional sports events without spectators. Masks and other precautions would be required as restaurants and schools reopen, she said. But Ardern called for vigilance.
“We think of ourselves as halfway down Everest,” Ardern said. “I think it’s clear that no one wants to hike back up that peak.”
Charlton reported from Paris and Kurtenbach reported from Bangkok. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
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