New clusters pop up; Europe debates summer tourist season

Published 11:05 am Wednesday, May 13, 2020

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Associated Press
BRUSSELS (AP) — New coronavirus clusters have popped up as nations struggle to balance reopening economies with preventing a second wave of infections and deaths, while in Europe, a debate erupted Wednesday over the summer travel season.
Authorities in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pandemic first began late last year, reportedly were pressing ahead Wednesday to test all 11 million residents for the virus within 10 days after a handful of new infections were found.
In Lebanon, authorities reinstated a nationwide lockdown for four days beginning Wednesday night after a spike in reported infections and complaints from officials that social distancing rules were being ignored.
Despite the risks that loosening restrictions could lead to infection spikes, European nations have been seeking to restart cross-border travel, particularly as the summer holiday season looms for countries whose economies rely on tourists flocking to their beaches, museums and historical sites.
The European Union unveiled a plan to help citizens across its 27 nations salvage their summer vacations after months of coronavirus lockdown and resurrect Europe’s badly battered tourism industry. The pandemic has prompted border closures across Europe and shut down the lifeline of cheap local flights.
The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, laid out its advice for lifting ID checks on hastily closed borders, helping to get airlines, ferries and buses running while ensuring the safety of passengers and crew, and preparing health measures for hotels to reassure clients.
It’s not clear whether EU nations will follow that advice, since they, not Brussels, have the final say over health and security matters.
Some European countries have sought bilateral agreements with their neighbors.
Austria said its border with Germany would reopen fully on June 15, and that border checks would be reduced starting Friday. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Austria was aiming for similar agreements with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and its eastern neighbors “as long as the infection figures allow.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said his country will lift a blanket warning against foreign travel for European destinations before other places, but didn’t specify when. Germany’s warning against all non-essential tourist travel abroad runs until at least June 14.
“It will certainly be possible to lift the travel warning earlier for Europe than for other destinations – so long as the current positive trend in many countries solidifies,” Maas said. “Freedom to travel is part of the foundation of the European project, but in times of corona, Europe must ensure more: the freedom to travel safely.”
The border shutdowns have hit the travel industry hard. The Germany-based tour and hotel operator TUI said Wednesday it expects to cut thousands of jobs due to the pandemic.
TUI said it was “prepared for a resumption” and its first hotels on the German coast would reopen in the coming days. It also sees the possibility of offering holidays in Spain’s Balearic islands and in Greece starting in July, the German news agency dpa reported.
As long as new infections remain relatively low, there is “no reason why one shouldn’t be able to travel there,” TUI CEO Fritz Joussen said – but local companies and hotels need to be open.
Norway said Wednesday it was opening its borders to citizens from EU countries who have a residence there or have family they want to visit, seasonal workers and people from the U.K., Iceland and Liechtenstein.
The tension in balancing people’s safety from the virus against the severe economic fallout is playing out across the world. Italy partially lifted lockdown restrictions last week only to see a big jump in confirmed coronavirus cases in its hardest-hit region. Pakistan reported 2,000 new infections in a single day after crowds of people crammed into local markets as restrictions were eased.
The United States’ top infectious disease expert issued a blunt warning that cities and states could see more COVID-19 deaths and economic damage at the same time if they lift stay-at-home orders too quickly.
“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday after more than two dozen U.S. states began to lift lockdowns.
His comments were a sharp pushback to President Donald Trump, who is pushing to right a free-falling economy that has seen 33 million Americans lose their jobs. The U.S. has the largest coronavirus outbreak in the world by far: 1.37 million infections and over 82,000 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts say understates the true toll of the pandemic.
In his Senate testimony, Fauci said more infections and deaths are inevitable as people start gathering, but how prepared communities are to stamp out those outbreaks will determine how bad the rebound is.
Fauci expressed optimism that vaccines will arrive eventually, along with more tailored treatments for COVID-19 patients. But he said it would be “a bridge too far” to expect them in time for the fall, when most schools and universities hope to reopen.
China, the first nation to put a large number of citizens under lockdown and the first to ease those restrictions, has been strictly guarding against any resurgence. In January, it put the entire city of Wuhan and the surrounding region, home to more than 50 million people, under a strict lockdown. A cluster of six new cases recently emerged, the first local infections in Wuhan since before the lockdown was eased in early April.
Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 4.2 million people and killed some 292,000, according to the Johns Hopkins tally. Experts say the actual numbers are likely far higher.
Some countries have shown real progress against the virus: New Zealand reported no new cases Wednesday for the second consecutive day.
Thailand’s health authorities also reported no new confirmed cases of COVID-19 for the first time in more than two months, and no new deaths. Thai authorities have been gradually easing lockdown restrictions with restaurants in Bangkok allowed to reopen last week under social distancing rules.
South Korea said Wednesday there were no immediate plans to revive strict social distancing rules despite a spike in infections linked to Seoul nightclubs, which it has ordered to reclose.

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