Western Europe relaxes virus measures, Russia numbers spike


People exercise on a seafront promenade in this photo taken with a telephoto lens in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, May 2, 2020. (Photo: AP)

Spaniards filled the streets Saturday to exercise outside in gorgeous spring weather for the first time in seven weeks, while German children rushed to playgrounds as countries in Western Europe moved ahead with the gradual relaxation of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Russia and Pakistan, however, reported their biggest one-day spikes in new infections, in a sign the pandemic is far from over.

Concern was growing in Moscow that hospitals might become overwhelmed after Russia recorded a new one-day high of 9,633 new infections, a 20% increase over Friday’s count, which itself was a new daily record.

Russia has now reported 124,054 total cases, with 15,013 recoveries and 1,222 fatalities. True numbers are believed to be higher because not everyone is tested and Russian tests are reported to be only 70% to 80% accurate.

Moscow’s mayor said this week that officials are considering establishing temporary hospitals at sports complexes and shopping malls to deal with the influx of patients. Infection cases have reached the highest levels of government, with both the prime minister and the construction minister contracting the virus.

In Russia’s far northeast, officials said 3,000 of 10,000 workers at a vast natural gas field had tested positive, Russian news agencies reported. Employees of one of the contractors at the field reportedly held a protest this week claiming insufficient measures were being taken against the virus’ spread.

At the same time, Spain, one of the worst-hit countries in the world with 25,100 deaths and more than 216,500 cases of COVID-19, was rolling back some emergency measures that helped bring the outbreak under control and save hospitals from collapse. A huge field hospital at a Madrid convention center was closed Friday, and the capital has already closed a makeshift morgue at an ice rink in a shopping mall.

Since Spain’s lockdown started March 14, only adults have been able to leave home, for shopping for food, medicine and other essential goods, and to walk dogs close to home. The lockdown is credited with succeeding in reducing daily increases of infections from more than 20% to less than 1%.

As restrictions were relaxed Saturday, people ran, walked, or rode bicycles under a brilliant sunny sky in Barcelona, where many flocked to the maritime promenade to get as close as possible to the still-off-limits beach.

“I feel good but tired. You sure notice that it has been a month and I am not in shape,” 36-year-old Cristina Palomeque said in Barcelona. “Some people think it may be too early, as I do, but it is also important to do exercise for health reasons.”

The government has set up time slots for age groups and activities, and social distancing measures requiring people to stay 6 feet apart. On Monday, face masks will be required for people riding public transit but many of those out and about on Saturday weren’t wearing them. Until now, the government had only highly recommended the masks in trains, metros and buses in addition to social distancing rules.

Spain has detailed a complex rollback plan that will vary by province. Those with the fewest cases and with health care resources in place to handle a rebound of the virus will be the first to enjoy further loosening of the measures.

“We must take it with caution and responsibility,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez wrote on Twitter. “The virus is still with us. We need to respect the rules as well as the guidelines for hygiene and social distancing.”

The virus has killed more than 238,000 people worldwide, including more than 65,000 in the United States and more than 20,000 each in Italy, Britain, and France, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. Health experts warn the second wave of infections could hit unless testing is expanded dramatically.

The US President Donald Trump said Friday he hopes the total number of US deaths will be below 100,000, which he acknowledged is a “horrible number.”

As the crisis stabilizes in some European countries and American states, governments are easing the shutdown of businesses that plunged the global economy into its deepest slump since the 1930′s and wiped out millions of jobs.

Trump, who is running for reelection in the midst of a US economic slump that has wiped out more than 10 million jobs, is pressing state governors to lift controls despite warnings by some health experts that might lead to a spike in infections.

In Italy, which has seen the most deaths in Europe with more than 28,000, people looked enviously at Spain as they awaited their own relaxation of restrictions now that the number of new cases has leveled out.

Italy’s special commissioner for combating the coronavirus, Domenico Arcuri, said that the gradual loosening of the two-month lockdown, starting Monday, signals a new challenge, “which by now is clear to everyone; we don’t know how long it will last.”

More masks will be distributed for people riding public transportation, whose numbers are expected to climb as the manufacturing and construction sectors emerge from the lockdown. Stores, restaurants, bars and cultural sites like museums remain closed until May 18.

Germany, which has registered more than 164,000 cases but seen only about 6,700 deaths, has strict social-distancing guidelines but never restricted people going outside for exercise. Smaller shops have already opened and this is the first weekend in which playgrounds, museums and zoos are permitted to open as well.

Elsewhere, China, where the pandemic began in December, reported a single new infection Saturday, extending a steady decline in confirmed cases. South Korea reported six new cases on Saturday, none of them in the hard-hit city of Daegu in the southeast. Both countries are easing anti-virus controls and reviving economic activity.

But Pakistan on Saturday announced 1,297 new cases, raising the total in the country of 220 million people to 18,114.

The increase coincides with increased testing. The government said more than 9,000 tests were conducted in the previous 24 hours. Prime Minister Imran Khan has set a goal of 20,000 per day.

Photos in newspapers showed large numbers of the faithful at Pakistani mosques and only some following social distancing rules. Khan’s government said it might ease controls, but doctors have pleaded for stricter lockdowns, warning an explosion of infections would overwhelm hospitals that have only 3,000 intensive care beds nationwide.

Africa now has more than 40,000 reported cases, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There have also been more than 1,600 deaths across the continent from the virus, which has been reported in every country except for tiny and mountainous Lesotho.