How European countries are trying to safely end lockdowns

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While everyone wants their national coronavirus lockdown to be over, figuring out how to phase it out safely is a task fraught with problems. In Europe, Austria and Denmark are two of the first to tackle it.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters
Brigitte Fiala, owner of the shoe store Shu, serves a customer in Vienna, Austria, on April 14, 2020 after the Austrian government loosened its lockdown restrictions during the coronavirus outbreak.

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Even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to paralyze much of Europe, some countries – primarily the smaller ones that responded quickly to the outbreak – are beginning to try to relaunch society in the hopes that they have turned a corner. Austria and Denmark in particular are leading the way in restarting businesses and reopening schools.

But plenty of concern remains, not just among business owners and customers, teachers and parents. Experts warn that reopening too quickly could set off a second wave of infections – meaning those nations will have to tread a careful path.

“The countries looking at easing restrictions are ones that can see that the death toll is now falling,” says Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Of course, the unanswered question is whether this will continue as they do ease up, but only time will tell. Other countries will be watching closely.”

Claudia Pulfer was excited to be back at work in the Fellner Gardening and Florist shop in the Florisdorf district of Vienna Tuesday, as Austria began to roll back its anti-coronavirus lockdown.

It clearly wasn’t business as usual. Staff are on reduced work hours, and supply chains have been disrupted. The Dutch tulips are missing, but at least the orchids and roses are in. And while spring is in the air, the streets largely remain quiet.

“People are timid and still worried,” she said. “But we’re selling a lot of flowers for people’s balconies, a lot of spring plants that need to be planted in people’s gardens now, and I can tell some were looking forward to finally buy them.”

Even as the pandemic continues to paralyze much of Europe, some countries – primarily the smaller ones that responded quickly to the outbreak – are beginning to try to relaunch society in the hopes that they have turned a corner. Austria and Denmark in particular are leading the way in restarting businesses and reopening schools.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

But plenty of concern remains, not just among business owners and customers, teachers and parents. Experts warn that reopening too quickly could set off a second wave of infections – meaning those nations will have to tread a careful path.

“The countries looking at easing restrictions are ones that can see that the death toll is now falling,” says Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Of course, the unanswered question is whether this will continue as they do ease up, but only time will tell. Other countries will be watching closely.”

Finding a path back

Countering the spread of the coronavirus has meant strict lockdowns within European nations and the reimposition of long-abandoned borders between them. The pandemic has claimed more than 136,000 lives across the aging continent and, in many cases, has taken a devastating toll on health systems and the economy.

But many countries are starting to consider how to bring an end to their respective lockdowns. While France and Belgium are holding back, Italy and Spain, the two worst hit, are inching forward. Italy, which suffered the highest fatalities in the pandemic, is allowing some shops to reopen, but some regions have boycotted that decision. Construction workers have gotten the green light to resume their activities in Spain, but the state of emergency there has been extended. Germany, which has managed to keep its per capita death toll relatively low, has also announced plans to begin allowing small businesses to reopen next week under tight restrictions.

But reopening holds risks, even for those countries who have so far contained the coronavirus. Singapore, which was widely praised for its handling of the pandemic, is now fighting to flatten the curve again. The European Union on Wednesday warned its 27 members to tread carefully as they craft their national exit strategies.

“A lack of coordination in lifting restrictive measures risks having negative effects for all member states and creating political friction,” noted a roadmap document cited by The Associated Press.

Austria was one of the first European countries after Italy to impose strict lockdown measures, including the closure of restaurants, bars, theaters, schools, and nonessential businesses. Now the Alpine nation, which has so far reported about 14,300 cases and nearly 400 deaths, has allowed garden centers, DIY stores, and small shops to reopen as part of its first step toward normalcy.

Vienna’s largest shopping street, Mariahilfer Strasse, was quiet Tuesday morning, with just a few pedestrians roaming the streets and venturing in to shops. Most shoppers and customers sported surgical masks, which are widely available at pharmacies and grocery stores. Others donned homemade fabric ones with checkered or polka dot designs.

Only a handful of small businesses opened their doors on day one.

“People are still very scared. But I think very slowly they’ll get accustomed to this new reality and they’ll start going out and shopping again – at least that’s my hope,” says Adrian Alfaro, owner of the INTI ethnic clothes and jewelry store by the Westbahnhof train station. He had five employees before the lockdown started March 16. He kept three on shortened work hours and let go of the other two but hopes to rehire them once business goes back to normal.

“Honestly, I had very mixed feelings about opening again,” says Mr. Alfaro, who wears a light blue surgical mask and makes a point of regularly washing his hands and maintaining social distance. “I was looking forward to get back to work, after a month at home. But I knew it’s not going to be easy. … The economic loss is very, very big.”

At Fellner’s flower shop, Ms. Pulfer turns away an elderly woman who walks in without a mask, for her own safety.

“I’m not afraid of getting sick. I swap the gloves I’m wearing and I have several face masks,” says Ms. Pulfer. “I’m just happy to be here, back at work, and that the company I work for still exists. That’s important for me, that this company won’t go, that it will survive this crisis.”

“Usually we trust in the authorities”

Denmark, another frontrunner in reopening, is taking a different approach. The government decided to reopen kindergartens and schools for the youngest children. It proved a controversial decision that has left many parents and educators worried. Their concerns have been aired on a Facebook group, and an online petition urging authorities to allow parents to keep their children home has garnered nearly 18,000 signatures.

Steen Hansen, a cereal grower and cattle farmer living near the third-largest Danish city of Odense, considers it an outright terrible idea. After five weeks of staying put on the farm with his family and shifting all the shopping online, he wants to be sure that sending his little ones back to school is safe.

“We are shocked that the government wants to restart society this way, with the most innocent citizens, the ones who have a hard time to understand all the precautions that are necessary,” says Mr. Hansen. “It is hard to explain to the youngest children to stay apart from other kids and other grown-ups, to wash and disinfect your hands all the time, and not to play in bigger groups. … It is not their own choice but they will bring the disease to their parents and not all parents are young.”

Courtesy of the Hansen family
Danish farmer Steen Hansen stands in a field holding one of his children. On account of the coronavirus pandemic, he is reluctant to send his children back to school as classes resume in Denmark.

He and his wife decided not to send three of their kids back to school for fear of contracting or spreading the disease. Taking care of a large family and juggling the farm requires optimal health, especially since grandparents cannot be leaned on at this time. It is unclear what that decision might cost them. School absences are typically penalized and could eventually put child subsidies at risk.

“The consequences will all be financial, and that is bad enough, but it is nothing compared to the well-being of our children and the well-being of our family,” says Mr. Hansen. “Many parents in Denmark don’t like this situation, but most of them will do it because they have to start their jobs and the government wants it. Usually we believe and trust in the authorities here in Denmark, but in this case it makes no sense. They can restart the society in many other ways.”

Some Danish schools have delayed their reopening to Monday to have more time to prepare and be able to adhere to government guidelines on hygiene and conduct. These include marking pathways to and from classrooms, seating children two yards apart, washing hands every hour, and playing in smaller groups.

“It is of course quite difficult to follow this guideline considering the group of age,” says Dorte Lange, vice president of The Danish Union of Teachers. “But the authorities say that they have calculated the risk.”

Given the different epidemiological dynamics across and within the nations of Europe, Professor McKee sees a unified exit strategy as unlikely. While methods will differ, the shared goal is to reduce transmission. The pandemic will “fizzle out” when “every person who is infected is transmitting it to fewer than one other person.” 

“It will be absolutely essential for any country thinking of lifting restrictions to have in place a robust system of testing and contact tracing,” he says. “There will inevitably be further outbreaks but it is crucial that they are nipped in the bud.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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