Italy to Relax Lockdown in Key Step for Europe’s Virus Fight

(Bloomberg) --

Italy will present a plan this week to ease its rigid lockdown, joining Germany, France and Austria in pursuing a gradual return to normality as coronavirus infection rates fall and pressure mounts to reopen businesses.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte aims to roll out a detailed restart program beginning on May 4, saying in a post on Facebook that the process will take time in order to mitigate risks of re-igniting the spread of the disease. On Tuesday, the nation reported an almost equal number of virus recoveries and infections for the first time.

“Now, we must loosen restrictions,” Conte later told lawmakers in Italy’s Senate. “We must do everything possible to preserve the industrial sector. The country’s engines must restart.”

Italy to Relax Lockdown in Key Step for Europe’s Virus Fight

Italy’s commitment to relax containment measures is an important marker in Europe’s battle with the pandemic. The original center of the continent’s outbreak suffered the most deaths after the U.S. and has the third-most cases in the world.

With more than 100,000 fatalities in the region, Europe’s leaders are seeking to strike a balance between saving lives and securing jobs. The first steps to loosen curbs in Austria, Denmark and Norway are putting pressure on others to follow suit, despite the lack of treatments or a cure.

Italy recorded 2,729 new cases of the disease, compared with 2,256 a day earlier, the first increase in five days, according to the civil protection agency on Tuesday. Against that, the number of recovered patients hit 2,723 over the past 24 hours, a daily record.

Italy’s current restrictions -- in force since mid-March -- shutter all non-essential businesses, ban movements within the country, and all but confine people to their homes except for buying food, going to work and seeking medical help.

Conte is juggling caution from scientific and public-health advisers, who insist the decline in new cases is still slow and relaxed restrictions could trigger a new outbreak, with demands from businesses and regional governors to restart the economy.

Similar pressures are playing out in capitals across Europe, and leaders are pleading for patience.

Because of contagion risks, Munich canceled its famed Oktoberfest for the first time since World War II, and Spain won’t hold the traditional running-of-the-bulls festival in Pamplona in July, the latest signs that disruptions will linger for months to come.

“We agreed that the risk is simply too great” to hold the traditional beer and folk festival in Munich, Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder said. “We are living in different times, and living with corona means living carefully.” The move deals a $1.3 billion blow to the local economy, according to the city’s mayor.

Germany, which had the smallest rise in new cases this month in the 24 hours through Tuesday morning, started to allow small stores and some other retailers to reopen on Monday and will weigh next steps on April 30. France will unveil plans within two weeks to progressively lift restrictions amid falling numbers of patients in hospitals and in intensive care, and Spain plans to loosen rules for children.

The European Union cautioned against complacency. Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said containment efforts that end too quickly and aren’t coordinated across the bloc could threaten the sacrifices made by citizens and medical staff.

As part of efforts to develop a vaccine, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will host an online event on May 4 to generate funding pledges and mobilize investment necessary for research into effective treatments, she told the European Parliament’s health committee.

The pressures facing policy makers are evident in Austria. Despite being one of the first European nations to ease restrictions, the economy may take as long as three years to recover, according to a group of leading economists. Unemployment and state-wage support have skyrocketed, with almost every third worker receiving some form of subsidy due to the pandemic.

After allowing small shops and hardware stores to open from April 14, Austria will let all other retailers resume operations in May and will begin to reopen schools, restaurants and places of worship May 15.

Italy to Relax Lockdown in Key Step for Europe’s Virus Fight

Conte said that his cabinet is working with various experts to coordinate the so-called “phase 2,” when Italians will have to adapt to the lingering threat of the virus, such as maintaining social-distancing guidelines and wearing masks in public.

The plan could include a full reopening of stores on May 11 or more likely May 18, La Repubblica reported. Full movement for citizens would only come after that, the newspaper said.

Italy to Relax Lockdown in Key Step for Europe’s Virus Fight

The lockdown is crippling an already fragile and debt-ridden economy. In an attempt to obtain some relief, Conte will make another push for so-called coronabonds, or joint debt issuance, at a virtual gathering of European Union leaders on Thursday.

Italy’s easing plan will be laid out at the national level but will take into account regional differences, according to the country’s leader.

“I would like to be able to say: we will open everything. Immediately. Tomorrow morning,” Conte said in a post on Facebook. “But a decision like that would be irresponsible” and could “jeopardize all the efforts we’ve made until now.”

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