Germany starts 'wave-breaker' shutdown as Europe locks down

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Teo man with face maskes cross the desrted Pariser Platz in front of the Brandenburg Gate, a tourist highlight, in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. New measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus come into force today in Germany. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

BERLIN – Several European countries are tightening restrictions this week, starting with a partial shutdown Monday in Germany, as authorities across the continent scramble to slow a rapid rise in coronavirus infections that threatens to overwhelm their health care systems.

Britain and Austria will follow suit later in the week, closing restaurants, bars and many leisure activities. Italy, Greece and Kosovo also announced new measures. In some places, the new rules — which vary in strictness — are prompting violent protests by people frustrated at once again having to forgo freedoms.

But in many, experts are saying they should have come weeks ago — a reflection of the increasingly difficult balance many countries are struggling to strike between controlling the virus and boosting already damaged economies.

“We are aware of the frustration, the sense of loss, the tiredness of citizens, also of the anger which is being manifested in these days, by citizens who find themselves living with new limits to their personal freedom,’’ said Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, as he defended his government's decision to order new measures.

Restrictions have been slowly ramping up for weeks in many European countries, but virus cases have continued to rise. There was a sign of hope from hard-hit Belgium, however, where a leading virologist said that “the high-speed train is somewhat easing up.”

Overall, Europe has seen more than 270,000 confirmed virus-related deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts say case and death figures understate the true toll of the pandemic due to missed cases, limited testing and other reasons.

In Germany, restaurants, bars, theaters, cinemas, gyms and other leisure facilities closed in a four-week “wave-breaker” shutdown that seeks to force daily new infections back down to manageable levels. Germans have been asked not to travel, and hotels are barred from accommodating tourists.

In a worrying sign for a country long praised for its testing and tracing abilities, German officials say they can't track the source of three-quarters of new coronavirus cases. Health Minister Jens Spahn, who himself caught the virus, says he doesn't know where he was infected.