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Business Maverick

France Set to Ease Lockdown to Relieve Coronavirus Pain

A commuter uses an escalator at Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris, France, on Monday, May 4, 2020. The controversial app that France is developing to trace those who could be infected with the coronavirus, known as StopCovid, could be ready by the end of May or early June, government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye told France Inter Sunday. Photographer: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

France will start rolling back lockdown measures, joining Germany, Italy and the Netherlands in easing restrictions as Europe’s economic pain from the fallout of the coronavirus intensifies.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the country was ready for a nationwide plan to relax curbs on public life, though strict controls will remain on public transport in Paris, where infection rates are too high. Looser restrictions on businesses and stores will start coming into effect on Monday in a gradual process designed to avoid a second wave of infections.

“We are always looking for a balance between the indispensable return to normal life and the indispensable respect of all measures that will prevent the epidemic from restarting,” Philippe said on Thursday, adding that restrictions could be reimposed if infections rise. “The target of all the French people is that we can live with this virus” until a cure is found.

Despite more than 140,000 deaths on the continent, European leaders are feeling the heat to accelerate a return to normality and are trying to walk a fine line between reactivating the economy and avoiding a renewed outbreak. France on Thursday reported the fewest new virus-linked deaths in four days and the lowest number of intensive-care patients in six weeks.

Paris Commuters as Europe's Wary Reopening Begins
Social distancing floor markers on the concourse of Gare du Nord station in Paris, on May 4.

The economic damage is becoming increasingly evident, with a 9.2% decline in March industrial production in Germany and a 16.2% drop in France. The crippling impact on Europe’s two biggest economies from just half a month of factory closures sets up even grimmer figures for April, when millions of people were all but confined to their homes across the continent.

Read more: Paris Metro to Enforce Social Distancing With 2,000 Police Officers

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose approval rating has declined after an initial bump during the virus crisis, is among European leaders whose political standing is increasingly on the line as governments end lockdowns. France has Europe’s second-highest number of confirmed cases after Spain.

France’s plan will be progressive and differentiated. Local situations will be constantly monitored, with remote work remaining a priority. Some schools could remain closed until fall due to difficulties in implementing social distancing and sanitary measures, and restaurants, bars and cafes will remain closed until at least early June.

With face masks mandatory on public transportation, travel of less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) will be allowed. Border restrictions with European countries will remain in force at least until June 15 and most travelers from non-European countries remain barred until further notice.

“The French economy must restart,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said. “We lost a lot of growth and jobs, and we therefore must restart economic activity within the most secure conditions.”

The U.K. is set to ease parts of its nationwide lockdown Monday, with more freedom for people to leave their homes, but companies warned continued social distancing will hurt any economic recovery. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he wants to start relaxing some measures next week “if we possibly can,” and will make a full statement on his plans on Sunday.

Bloomberg Economics: A G-20 Index That Tracks Lockdown Stringency

Germany declared the first stage of the fight against the pandemic over and is preparing to open restaurants, hotels and all shops as well as to restart professional soccer games.

Although many lockdown measures are being gradually phased out, social-distancing rules were extended until at least June 5. To contain hot spots, a threshold on local infection rates was set up and restrictions will be reinstated if an area records more than 50 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants in a week.

Germany’s main concern is travel ramping up again, which could make the spread difficult to control, according to Helge Braun, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff.

Rail Transport as Germany Vows To Do ‘Whatever It Takes’ to Tackle Virus
A passenger walks alongside a Regio regional passenger train at Berlin Central Station.

“We are not living after the pandemic but in the middle of a pandemic,” Braun said Thursday on Deutschlandfunk radio. “We hope that we can keep the numbers very low, even if we’re returning to a somewhat more normal life.”

Just as Germany paves the way for a broad economic restart, the number of new coronavirus cases rose by the most in six days, and fatalities increased the most since April 18. On the positive side, a measure of the contagion rate, known as the reproduction factor, declined to 0.65 from 0.71 the previous day.

‘Better Than Regret’

Italy reported a decline in new infections and its daily death toll on Thursday, as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte battles tensions within his coalition over a new stimulus package for the country’s paralyzed economy. The government may allow shops to reopen before a planned date of May 18, and bars and restaurants may open on June 1 under current government plans.

Spain’s parliament backed Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s request to extend a state of emergency through May 23. As the political consensus backing Sanchez’s lockdown course shows signs of crumbling, Spain recorded a drop in its daily coronavirus death toll and a small increase in the number of new cases.

Ireland, which plans to relax its lockdown on May 18, reported the fewest new infections since March 22. “We have achieved our goal of suppressing the spread of the disease,” Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan said in a statement.

Denmark plans to reopen all retail stores on Monday. Norway, where the central bank cut its key rate to zero this week, will reopen middle and high schools on Monday and restart soccer games on June 16, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said.

Europe's Coronavirus Frontline Workers
Mossos d’Esquadra police officers patrol near the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, in April.

The Netherlands will accelerate its plan to reopen more of the economy by at least a week, allowing hairdressers, nail salons and beauty parlors to start work again on Monday.

Restaurants, bars and movie theaters will be allowed to reopen beginning on June 1, with restrictions to comply with the “1.5 meter society” which will remain in place for the foreseeable future, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, referring to the social-distancing standard, equivalent to about 5 feet.

“We’re doing this as quickly as possible, but not quicker than responsible,” Rutte said. “Caution now is better than regret afterward.”


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