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“Lockdown Lite” in Europe

European nations try to stem rising COVID-19 cases while weighing the costs

“Lockdown Lite” in Europe

Women wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus sit at the Tuileries garden in Paris, Friday, Nov. 6. (AP Photos/Michel Euler)

Mike and Sharon Page’s church in Gauting, Germany, is open, but a new wave of COVID-19 has altered Sunday services once again. No singing indoors: The congregation heads outdoors to sing in the fresh air. When it rains, they stay inside and only worship leaders sing. 

The fact that churches are open despite another COVID-19 wave shows how the current lockdown is different from the one in the spring. “We’re still allowed to meet one other family a day,” Sharon Page said. “So it’s not quite as restrictive as the last time, when it was literally nobody else. They’re trying to keep people happier.” 

Germany calls this round of restrictions “lockdown lite.” All shops besides pubs and restaurants are open, and in contrast to the first lockdown, residents don’t need official letters to leave their homes. 

Like other European countries, Germany is weighing the social and economic costs of lockdowns against the toll of mounting coronavirus cases as it seeks to find the best path forward. As a result, Europe’s second wave of lockdowns gives citizens more freedom than those put in place earlier this year. 

The biggest difference now: Schools remain open across the continent. “We cannot and will not allow our children and young people’s futures to be another victim of this disease,” Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said in a national address. “They need their education.” 

Most schools require masks, and teachers have carefully placed desks several feet apart. France now has one of the lowest age requirements for masks: Students older than 6 must wear them. Previously, students ages 11 and up had to wear masks. Officials in many countries have told high schools to be ready for a return to online school should the need arise.

Though cross-border travel has slowed, the European Union wants to keep internal borders open. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people commute to work in another country. Under the spring restrictions, those commutes became more complicated, and the sectors employing those workers—largely the manufacturing or service industries—suffered. 

France’s lockdown is one of the more restrictive ones. French citizens can only exercise outside one hour per day, remaining within 1 kilometer of their homes. But parks and forest trails that closed from March to May are staying open, and the list of essential businesses has expanded: Physical therapists and medical specialists can continue to provide care, and garages, computer repair shops, funeral parlors, and opticians remain open. Police checks enforcing the rules have been noticeably absent this time around.

But other “nonessential” business owners say another full shutdown will put them out of business for good. A group of 50 mayors across France issued edicts in defiance of the lockdown orders, reopening businesses like hair salons and bookshops until judges ruled against them. “There is no other solution,” said French Prime Minister Jean Castex. “The virus is accelerating. We must also accelerate.” 

Churches in France were allowed to hold services for All Saints’ Day—widely observed in France—but had to close after that. The following week a group of French bishops and archbishops petitioned the government to allow in-person services, saying that since French churches implemented safety protocols, no services have become super-spreader events. The group published an open letter to the government in Le Figaro: “This new confinement, necessary to protect ourselves from the virus, is for many a particularly difficult and fearful time. Worship services make up one of the rare moments where the faithful can find the strength and courage to endure it.” The government denied the petition, and churches returned to online services.

AP Photo/Antonio Calanni

Signs indicating where to get a rapid COVID-19 test are seen in both Italian and German as people line up at a testing facility in Bozen, northern Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Switzerland seemed to deal effectively with the spring wave, but in recent weeks the country saw caseloads skyrocket to over 1,000 per 100,000 persons. The federal government only imposed a nationwide mask rule for indoor public areas on Oct. 18. Otherwise, each of the 26 cantons manages its COVID-19 restrictions separately. Some people say that approach isn’t working in the small country and has created a patchwork of rules and attitudes. Dr. Nicolas Blondel posted a video to Facebook on Nov. 2 describing an overwhelmed staff at the Hospital of Fribourg and pleading for people to postpone the traditional Bénichon gatherings—much like Thanksgiving—that were causing rapid spread through the area. 

Across the English Channel, Great Britain last month implemented a three-tiered system, defining restrictions based on each county’s infection rate. For a while that meant that shops were open, but restaurants and pubs had to close. Colleen Catterall lives outside of Sheffield, in the north of England. She wasn’t supposed to leave Sheffield County, which created some sticky situations: Her nearest butcher shop is 10 minutes away but in the next county, so she can’t travel there. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has since called for a complete lockdown for one month. Catterall says figuring out what she can and can’t do is frustrating, but most people are doing their best to follow the often confusing rules. She also sees the weariness among her elderly neighbors: “They say, ‘Can you please come in and have a cup of tea with me?’” It’s hard to decline, but she’s trying to stay sensitive and be present. “People are realizing we don’t know when this is going to end,” she said. “And so we need to be reasonable and thoughtful about what we’re going to do.” 

Husband and wife team Manuel Zamudio and Paola Terrazas own a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Valencia, Spain. Though their business suffered in the spring, over the summer sales were almost back to normal. Now coronavirus cases are rising and sales are slowing. “The last three weeks have been the lowest since we reopened,” said Zamudio. “We’re concerned because we had to assume a significant financial blow over the first hit. Now we need to be ready to avoid being more damaged by a second wave.”  

The Spanish government provided help to cover employees’ salaries and social security during the first lockdowns, but Zamudio and Terrazas had to agree not to lay off anyone for six months. They want to avoid layoffs, but with uncertainty about new lockdowns looming, they feel like their hands are tied. 

For now, the Spanish government is trying to protect the economy without shutting down completely. Spain has restricted travel between different regions, as has Italy. Both countries now have night-time curfews. 

Despite the lockdowns and uncertainty, Zamudio and Terrazas have found a way to live out their faith and help others. They’ve found charity partners to take to local food banks perishable food from their restaurants that would otherwise go to waste. This kind of partnership is not yet common in Spain, but because of the pandemic, authorities approved the program more easily. “We were able to become the first franchisee in the country to have 100 percent of our restaurants donating food because of this pandemic,” said Zamudio. 

He is also partnering with his pastor to put on an entrepreneurial workshop to help those who’ve lost their jobs in the economic downturn. In a church with 170 members, 50 have already signed up for the class, according to Zamudio: “The church is taking the charge in saying, can you help us help others to start their own small business so they can become self-sufficient, even in the middle of this crisis.”

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny is a correspondent for WORLD Radio and WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and Smith College graduate. She is the author of the novel Mountains of Manhattan and resides in Porrentruy, Switzerland, with her family. Follow her on Twitter @jlindschmitt.