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European nations unveiled highly anticipated plans this week to begin relaxing their coronavirus lockdowns, providing the clearest picture yet of what life may look like for the foreseeable future.
“We are starting to glimpse an outcome that will be a reward for the huge collective effort made over the past weeks,” Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez said on Tuesday.
Spain has recorded more than 200,000 cases of the coronavirus – the most in the world after the United States – but the rates of new infections and deaths have fallen steeply in recent weeks. Now, the government plans to gradually lift lockdown restrictions in four stages over the next two months.
“By the end of June, as a country we will be in the new normality, if the evolution of the epidemic is under control in all territories,” Sánchez said.
Other countries, including hard-hit Italy and France, have also outlined the steps they will take to reopen their societies and restart their economies. Officials in many parts of the United States are similarly contemplating when and how they might reopen stores, restaurants, factories, beaches and other venues.
Without a vaccine, authorities acknowledge that we will need to enter into an uneasy coexistence with the virus – a situation that will require adjustments to almost every aspect of daily life.
“This disease isn’t going away,” California governor Gavin Newsom said on Thursday as he announced the closure of beaches in Orange County.
And the plans in Europe make it clear that the “new normal” in many parts of the world will be far different from what came before.
In Spain, as in other countries, the reopening will be tentative. Initially, hairdressers will be able to take appointments – and be required to wear masks and gloves – while restaurants can offer takeaway only. Individuals will be allowed to go outside to exercise, but only during specific hours of the day.
If the infection rate remains low, museums, cafes and places of worship will be allowed to open, but only at 30% capacity. Small groups of people will be able to socialise, and non-contact sports such as tennis will be permitted.
From there, cinemas, theatres and auditoriums will open, also at 30% capacity, and with assigned seating. Restaurants will be allowed to seat diners inside, but capacity will be capped at a third. Outdoor events such as concerts will be held with a maximum of 400 seated attendees.
Bars, nightclubs and beaches will be among the last to reopen, with limited capacity and strict safety protocols in place. People will gradually be allowed to travel and congregate more freely.
To Spaniards who have been confined to their homes for two months under one of the most restrictive lockdowns in Europe, any moves toward reopening society may be cause for celebration. Yet the government’s plan hardly represents a return to life before the coronavirus pandemic, full of bustling shops and restaurants, packed nightclubs and concert halls, and large gatherings with friends and family.
Indeed, it is clear that certain restrictions and safety protocols will remain in place for months – perhaps indefinitely.
Social distancing will remain the norm. Only a certain number of customers will be allowed into shops at any one time, and limits may be placed on the number of passengers on buses and trains. People will be encouraged to use face masks when outside their homes, particularly on public transportation.
Anyone who can work from home will be encouraged to do so, while protocols will be established for businesses that require employees to be on-site, including staggered commutes and the use of personal protective equipment.
Restaurants will be required to space out tables so customers can sit a safe distance from each other, and people will need to stand at least 5ft apart from each other at bars. Public venues – theatres, auditoriums, churches and sports arenas – will all need to limit attendance. Gyms will be allowed to open, but locker rooms will remain closed.
The Spanish government, however, has provided little clarity as to how many people will actually be allowed to socialise together, either at restaurants or at home.
“There are no indicators with the exact number of friends who can sit down together, or the number of people who can visit family,” Fernando Simón, Spain’s health emergency chief, said on Wednesday. “All this is being defined as we go. Please understand that we are trying to accomplish in hours or days what would normally take months or years.”
Schools in Spain will remain closed at least until September.
Other countries have outlined similar plans to exit their lockdowns. In France, prime minister Edouard Philippe detailed the country’s exit strategy in a speech to the national assembly on Tuesday, saying that the reopening would be “careful” and “progressive”.
Shops in France will be able to reopen starting on May 11, but the number of customers allowed inside will be curtailed, and social distancing must be maintained. Masks will be required on public transportation, and gatherings will be limited to a maximum of 10 people.
Bars and restaurants, along with large museums, theatres and concert halls, will remain closed until June at least. Events that bring together more than 5,000 people – such as festivals, trade fairs and major sporting events – will not return before September. People will be encouraged to continue working from home.
“We must follow a fine line: too carefree and the epidemic restarts; too cautious and the entire country sinks,” Philippe said. “We must protect French people without immobilising France to the point of collapse.”
In Italy, bars, restaurants and non-essential businesses will gradually reopen starting this month, but schools will remain closed until September. Social distancing will continue to be standard practice.
“If you love Italy, keep your distance,” prime minister Giuseppe Conte told Italians on Sunday.
While the details of each country’s exit strategy differ to varying degrees, together they suggest that certain measures – masks, social distancing, working from home and limited engagement with other people – will become a standard part of life for the foreseeable future.
“The fact is we will not go back to how we were in early March – there will be new norms that will inevitably come off the way in which social distancing is dominating our lives and has affected society,” home secretary Priti Patel told the Home Affairs Committee this week.
“We would expect social distancing in every single work area, whether it’s an office or a construction site, and on public transport going forward.”
On Thursday, Boris Johnson announced the government would reveal its “road map” for easing lockdown restrictions next week – although he stressed that no timetable had been set yet, and that restrictions would not be lifted until the outbreak was under control.
“The dates and times of each individual measure will be very much driven by where we are in the epidemic – what the data is really saying,” Johnson said.
Officials have signalled that certain restrictions and safety protocols will remain necessary, even after the country enters the next phase of its response to the coronavirus.
Johnson hinted that the public may be encouraged to wear face masks, and chief medical adviser Chris Whitty said last week that some degree of social distancing and other restrictions would likely be required for another year, given the lack of a vaccine or treatment for Covid-19.
“If people are hoping that it’s suddenly going to move from where we are now, in lockdown, suddenly into ‘everything’s gone,’ that is a wholly unrealistic expectation,” Whitty said.
“We’re going to have to do a lot of things for really quite a long period of time.”
Sainsbury’s chief exec Mike Coupe said this week that the measures the company has implemented to protect customers and staff are likely to remain in place for months.
“It’s pretty certain that the social distancing, plastic screens, dividers on checkouts will remain for the foreseeable future,” he told the BBC.
As eager as people might be to resume normal life, relaxing restrictions too much or too quickly could be catastrophic.
Germany, which in many ways has served as a model for other countries seeking a path out of lockdown, began to allow shops and schools to reopen last week. This week, however, the rate of coronavirus infections rose slightly, increasing fears about a second wave.
That finding reinforces the need to maintain certain safety protocols, according to Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute.
“Let us continue to stay at home as much as possible, keep observing the restrictions and keep a distance of 1.5 metres from one another,” Wieler said.
As other countries around the world begin to relax their lockdown measures, that general guidance will likely apply to them as well.
With reporting from HuffPost Spain, HuffPost France and HuffPost Italy.