Europe: Officials try to stem virus panic, keep borders open

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Italian Army soldiers and police check transit to and from the cordoned areas near Turano Lodigiano, Northern Italy, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. Civil protection officials on Tuesday reported a large jump of cases in Italy, from 222 to 283. Seven people have died, all of them elderly people suffering other pathologies. (Claudio Furlan/Lapresse via AP)

BRUSSELS – At first glance, the response to the new virus outbreak in Europe appears to be all over the place.

A thousand tourists kept at their hotel on a Spanish island after a vacationing Italian couple tested positive. Buses halted in France to screen passengers at risk of falling ill. Major European soccer matches postponed. Fashion shows and other cultural events under a cloud.

As the coronavirus cases clustered in northern Italy kept climbing and European countries reported new ones with Italian travel ties Tuesday, authorities across the continent tried to strike a balance between taking prudent public health measures and preventing panic.

A big fear — at least on the economic front — is that the open borders of more than two dozen countries that allow passport-free travel in much of Europe might be closed.

Authorities in Italy reported Tuesday night that the number of people infected in the country grew to 322, or 45% in 24 hours, and deaths of patients with the virus rose to 11. Austria, Croatia and Switzerland reported their first cases, while Spain and France recorded new ones, involving people who had been to northern Italy.

Health ministers from seven European nations met in Rome to discuss a coordinated response. French Health Minister Olivier Veran told broadcaster BFMTV that the officials signed a text laying out the "common principles" that include communicating daily to share epidemiological information and advising against the closing of borders.

The ministers agreed that as a prevention strategy, border closures are "not judicious,... not proportional and it wouldn't be effective," Veran said. They also agreed there wasn't a need to cancel all large cultural and sporting events but instead to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis, he said.

In an illustration of such an approach, French soccer club Lyon said its sold-out Champions League home game against Juventus, from northern Italy, will go ahead as planned on Wednesday. Up to 3,000 Juventus fans are expected.