ROME—Some of the hardest-hit countries in Europe will start opening up their economies in the coming days after several long months of very tight pandemic lockdowns. But they are doing it in conjunction with scientific guidance that marries widespread testing and aggressive contract tracing—and no crowded beaches. And, under the understanding that if anything goes wrong, everybody goes back inside.
The Trump administration appears to be doing the exact opposite, pushing to kickstart stagnant economies before the pandemic has even reached its peak in some states, going for a “rip off the Band-Aid very quickly” approach, while here in Europe, countries are lifting it corner by corner, slowly, to make sure everything is fully healed.
In Italy, factories and construction sites will spring back to life on May 4, and restaurants finally will be able to offer takeout service, sending more than 4.5 million people who couldn’t work from home back to their jobs. People can visit their family and significant others, but dinner parties among friends, even in private homes, are still not allowed.
Two weeks later—if there is no spike in new cases—retail shops will join the fold under very strict guidelines, including sanitizing clothing and shoes between customers. Two weeks after that, on June 1—again, only if new cases don’t increase—restaurants can seat people outdoors and hairdressers and massage parlors can get back to work by appointment. Gyms, swimming pools and even Italy’s considerable beaches are not even on the agenda yet.
In France, May 11 marks the beginning of the brave new post-pandemic world, but it will not be an automatic fait accompli. Like Italy, France will reopen in phases, each contingent on the stats and the science, backed by aggressive testing with an aim of 700,000 tests a week by May 11 (in the U.S., with a population almost five times as big, testing hovers around 200,000 a day).
Hairdressers and barbers will open in France, but everyone will be masked and gloved. Public transportation will be rejiggered to accommodate safe social distancing, and some schools will open on a voluntary basis with no more than 15 pupils per classroom. Different parts of the country will be color-coded red or green, based on the extent of contagion and the preparedness of the area health-care facilities should infections take off again. But there will be no free movement between regions for quite some time and the government will tighten things up again if things get worse.
Spain is also partially opening on May 4, with a four-part plan that includes the opening of hairdressers and other businesses that can function by appointment only. They will also start allowing takeout and other delivery services that have until now been prohibited. On May 11, bars will open their outdoor terraces, but can only serve one-third of their normal capacity. Spain will also measure the success of the gradual reopening with aggressive testing to determine if a second wave is on the way, and citizens have all been warned that they could go back to a full lockdown without notice if cases start to climb.
In the United States, bowling alleys and pizza joints are full in a number of states, with people rubbing shoulders as if the global pandemic is a movie or someone else’s nightmare. The only European nation that even compares to the U.S. is Sweden, which didn’t officially lock down—though the Swedes mostly self distanced on their own accord— and which is now grappling with a higher infection rate than any of the other Nordic countries, according to statistics gathered by Worldometer.
Unlike in the U.S., where even Vice President Mike Pence refused to wear protective face covering inside a hospital, most of Europe will require the use of masks or other face coverings on public transportation and inside any venue with more than one person. Across Europe, masks are already available for sale in grocery stores and pharmacies where there are mandatory price caps to prevent gouging. Many European governments have agreed to subsidize masks and offer them for free in many communities to ensure that everyone stays safe.
European news outlets have featured mocking photos this week of people eating barbecue in Georgia and running along crowded beaches in Florida, but there are plenty of wistful Europeans here complaining that their countries are moving too slowly in returning to normal. The most vocal tend to be those who have been working from home just fine, but who desperately need their roots touched up and are sick of cooking. Traditional restaurants in Italy have been resistant to sacrifice quaint table service for takeout boxes even as the public demands it, so the feeling is mixed about how much sympathy those entities which won’t adapt in these extreme times really deserve.
Despite the fact that next week across Europe millions of people whose jobs did not allow them to work from home, from construction to fashion production, will start earning once more, there are still other sectors, like tourism, that have no viable end in sight to this nightmare. Greece’s department of tourism said on Wednesday it hoped to welcome tourists by July, but only if they’ve had a COVID-19 swab.
Yet in Europe, life seems to mean more than the bottom line and even those in the tourism industry are worried about opening too soon, and what liabilities will come with mass tourism and international travel if it kicks off another wave and a return to the darkest circles of hell.
Perhaps the worst part of the global reaction to this new pandemic is that no one yet knows who is doing it right between reopening too soon, like in the U.S., not closing at all, as in Sweden, or slowly awaking from the dead, like much of Europe.