While the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage regions in Europe and the United States, some governments have started to contemplate a calibrated easing of the restrictions put in place in recent weeks.
Deaths, hospitalisations, and new infections are levelling off in places such as Italy and Spain. The state of New York, the current epicentre in the US, has seen encouraging signs that the infection rate there, which has been on the rise, could soon do the same.
This week, China’s Wuhan province, where the virus first appeared, lifted its 76-day lockdown.
However, health officials, experts, and some politicians warn the crisis is far from over and, with no vaccine or reliable treatment yet approved, a catastrophic second wave could hit if countries let down their guard too soon.
In the US, in a first small step towards reopening the country, the Trump administration issued new guidelines on Wednesday to make it easier for essential workers who have been exposed to the coronavirus to get back to work if they do not have symptoms.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said essential employees – including healthcare and food supply workers, who have been within 1.8 metres (six feet) of a confirmed or suspected case of the virus – can return to work if symptom-free.
Under the new guidelines, CDC recommends that employees who may have been exposed take their temperatures before their shifts, wear face masks, and practice social distancing at work. They are also advised to stay home if they are ill, not share headsets or other objects used near the face, and refrain from congregating in crowded break rooms.
The updated guidelines were issued despite warnings on Monday by the World Health Organization’s Dr Maria Van Kerkhove that individuals can infect others three days before symptoms show. It remains unclear what role such presymptomatic individuals as well as asymptomatic cases – those who never display symptoms – may play in spreading the virus.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday said while he knows workers are “going stir crazy” at home, he cannot predict when the threat from the virus will wane.
“I can’t tell you in terms of the date,” Trump told reporters during a news conference, adding that cases could go down and then again “start going up if we’re not careful”.
In Europe, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is expected to soon announce how long the country’s lockdown will remain in place amid expectations some restrictions could be eased.
Discussions are focused first on opening more of the country’s industries.
Proposals being floated in Italy include the issuing of immunity certificates, which would require antibody blood tests, and allowing younger workers to return first, as they are less vulnerable to the
Italy on Wednesday recorded its smallest one-day increase in deaths in 26 days. More than 17,600 people have died in the country from COVID-19 to date.
In Spain, which has reported more than 15,000 deaths amid the most recorded infections of any country in Europe, Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero said Spaniards will progressively regain their “normal life” from April 26 onwards, but warned the “de-escalation” of the lockdown will be “very orderly to avoid a return to the contagion”.
The government has been tight-lipped about what measures could be in place once the confinement is relaxed, stressing they will be dictated by experts.
French authorities have likewise begun to speak openly of planning the end of the country’s confinement period, which was set to expire on April 15 but will be extended, according to the president’s office. The virus has claimed more than 10,800 lives in France.
Earlier this week, Austria and the Czech Republic jumped out ahead of other European countries and announced plans to relax some restrictions.
Starting on Thursday, Czech stores selling construction materials, hobby supplies, and bicycles will be allowed to reopen. Only grocery stores, pharmacies, and garden stores are up and running. The reopened businesses will have to offer customers disinfectant and disposable gloves and enforce social distancing.
Austria will begin reopening small shops, hardware stores, and garden centres next week, and shopping malls and hair salons could follow two weeks later. People will have to wear face masks.
Denmark and Norway have also suggested they will begin easing restrictions starting on April 12 and April 20, respectively.