Germany reopens some shops as parts of Europe ease virus curbs

Woman wearing face masks disinfect their hands as they enter a fabrics store in Ludwigsburg, southern Germany, on April 20, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. THOMAS KIENZLE / AFP
  • Agence France-Presse
  • April 20, 2020 8:23 AM

Berlin, Germany | AFP | Parts of Europe hit hard by the deadly coronavirus pandemic took tentative steps towards resuming normal lives on Monday, with Germany allowing some shops to reopen and Norway restarting nurseries.

Governments across the world are debating how and when to ease the lockdowns that have kept more than half of humanity -- 4.5 billion people -- confined to their homes and crippled the global economy.

After emerging in the industrial central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, the respiratory virus has claimed roughly 165,000 lives, with nearly two thirds of the victims in Europe.

But there were encouraging signs over the weekend in Europe with daily death tolls dropping in Italy, Spain, France and Britain.

In Germany, which been among the most successful in Europe to contain the disease and where authorities have declared it "under control", smaller shops in some regions were to re-open on Monday.

Larger shops and those in major German cities will open later as part of an attempted phased return to a more normal existence that will also see some students go back to school from May 4.

Adding another flicker of hope in Europe, Norway allowed children to go back to nurseries on Monday, although some parents expressed reservations over the decision.

Hard-hit Spain, where a nationwide lockdown has been extended, also said it would ease restrictions to allow children time outside.

Spain registered 410 new fatalities on Sunday, the lowest daily count in almost a month, and a figure that health ministry emergencies coordinator Fernando Simon said "gives us hope".

Authorities are even starting to shut some makeshift facilities set up to relieve the overburdened health system, including a morgue at a Madrid ice rink.

France also said a nationwide lockdown in force for a month was beginning to bear fruit.

"We are scoring points against the epidemic," said French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

In the United States -- the country with the highest number of deaths and infections -- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the outbreak was "on the descent".

Cuomo cautioned that it was "no time to get cocky", although the warmer weather lured New Yorkers out of their homes and into parks over the weekend. 

"I feel a little guilty being here, at the same time for my own mental sanity this is probably what I need," said real estate agent Taylor Henderson at Prospect Park in Brooklyn. 

Across the other side of the world, New Zealand announced Monday that it will ease a nationwide lockdown next week, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying: "We have stopped a wave of devastation."

Iran, which has the Middle East's deadliest outbreak, also allowed some "low-risk" businesses to reopen Saturday.

- Bleak Ramadan -

But after Christians around the world marked Easter with subdued ceremonies, Muslims in the Middle East and beyond are preparing for a bleak Ramadan -- the holiest month in the Islamic calendar -- which begins later this week.

Mosque prayers have been suspended and Iftar feasts cancelled in many countries.

Several countries' religious authorities, including Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, have ruled that prayers during Ramadan and Eid be performed at home.

Mosque prayers have been suspended and Iftar feasts cancelled in many countries.

"Our hearts are crying," said Ali Mullah, the prayer leader at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

"We are used to seeing the holy mosque crowded with people during the day, night, all the time... I feel pain deep inside."

- Anti-lockdown protests -

In the United States, which has the more than 759,000 confirmed infections and nearly 41,000 deaths, some are increasingly chafing under stay-at-home orders and are taking to the streets to protest.

Anti-lockdown demonstrations over the weekend drew hundreds of people in states including Colorado, Texas, Maryland, New Hampshire and Ohio.

Many waved American flags, and some carried weapons. But others stayed in their cars or wore protective masks. 

President Donald Trump fuelled another bout of fury over the weekend by lending support to the protests against the lockdown restrictions -- which medical experts say save countless lives.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro -- who has repeatedly claimed the virus threat is overblown -- joined hundreds of protesters in Brasilia who objected to state governors' stay-home orders.

Brazil has the most infections in Latin America, a region where an AFP tally on Sunday showed total cases had surpassed 100,000 with nearly 5,000 deaths.

"Count on your president to do what is necessary so that we can guarantee democracy and what is most dear to us, our freedom," Bolsonaro told the protesters in an address that was interspersed with fits of coughing.


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