PRAGUE – Dark splotches that indicate zones of high coronavirus contagion are staining maps of Europe blood red as governments scramble to prevent another round of total lockdowns, even by taking unpopular decisions to close schools, bars and gyms.
The Czech Republic, Belgium, and Netherlands have joined Spain as Europe’s current hot spots during the resurgence of COVID-19. Russia and many other countries are following the same unnerving trend. France has declared a curfew in Paris and other regions and will restore a state of health emergency, making it easier to apply more controls if needed.
Medical centers are generally better prepared than during the first wave of the pandemic. But many medical workers are demoralized by what they see the ineffective leadership of authorities who have tried to protect public health as well as ailing economies.
European countries, and even regions inside countries, are applying drastically contrasting strategies. In one area bars are considered breeding grounds of outbreaks, while across the border or city limits, schools are deemed viral cauldrons. Here's a look at key virus topics in Europe:
A SCRAMBLE AS SCHOOLS CLOSE IN CZECH REPUBLIC, NORTHERN IRELAND
The Czech Republic opted to close schools Wednesday to lower an accumulated rate of 521 virus cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days, the highest national level in Europe.
“I apologize to school directors. I apologize to parents for the permanent uncertainty. But it’s necessary to do it and to do it fast,” Czech Education Minister Robert Plaga said.
The unpopular measure was necessary to prevent the health system from collapsing, Health Minister Roman Prymula said in Tuesday's televised address, which was watched by almost a third of the nation.
Prymula said the number of infected teachers and education employees have skyrocketed since September, reaching 4,500, more than the number of health personnel who are ill from the virus. Students represent 16% of infections, more than any other group, he said.
Patients in Czech hospital beds have doubled in two weeks and Interior Minister Jan Hamacek warned that hospitals might reach their limits by the end of October.
Northern Ireland also focused on education by introducing the tightest COVID-19 restrictions in the U.K. on Wednesday, closing schools for two weeks and pubs and restaurants for a month.
In the Spanish region of Granada, authorities ordered all university classes to go 100% online while leaving nightlight untouched.
“I am deeply saddened that bars are more important that a university education,” Pilar Aranda, the dean of the University of Granada, told El País newspaper. “They leave bars open and close classrooms, seminaries, laboratories, and libraries.”
EARLY NIGHTS IN FRANCE
French President Emmanuel Macron announced Wednesday evening that millions of French citizens will have to respect a 9pm curfew from this Saturday until Dec. 1. The curfew will apply to the Paris region and to eight others: Grenoble, Lille, Lyon, Aix-Marseille, Toulouse, Montpellier, Saint-Etienne.
“We won’t go to restaurants after 9pm, we won’t see friends, we won’t party, because that’s how to pass on the virus,” Macron said.
Macron’s office also said the government will restore a state of health emergency that expired in July. There are no additional measures that come into force with this move, but it will allow the government to enforce stricter measures in the future.
A RUSH TO GET THE LAST PINTS IN NORTHERN ENGLAND
In England, the northern city of Liverpool on Wednesday became the first city put under the government’s toughest restrictions in a new three-tier system that forces pubs and bars that don’t serve meals to close.
The looming restrictions led to some unruly partying in Liverpool on Tuesday night, when pubgoers poured into the streets to dance and taunt police as pubs closed. Images of the gatherings popped up on social media, including one video of a crowd of partiers banging on a police car as it inched through the crowd.
“These pictures shame our city, attacking our brave police officers is unacceptable,” Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson wrote on Twitter. “Our health service is creaking, 300 in hospital and 30 people dead in week. Ignoring these facts is why we are in Tier 3 measures.”
In addition, indoor social gatherings with people from other homes are banned and residents are advised not to travel outside the area. The measures will be reviewed regularly but could last as long as six months.
Paul Brant of the Liverpool City Council told the BBC that about 90% of the city’s critical care and intensive care beds are already filled.
BELGIUM WORRIED ABOUT ICU CAPACITY
Belgium’s intensive care units will reach capacity by mid-November if contagion is not checked, according to health authorities.
Belgium is the second-worst European country with 429 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days. All virus indicators have deteriorated in recent weeks, as hospital admissions and virus deaths are on the rise.
Last week Belgium introduced local curfews and closed bars in Brussels for at least a month.
RUSSIA HITS DAILY RECORD OF NEW INFECTIONS
Russia, which has the world’s fourth-largest coronavirus caseload of more than 1.3 million people, has been reporting over 10,000 new cases for 11 straight days. The 14,231 new infections reported Wednesday is the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic.
Most of the virus restrictions in Russia were lifted over the summer. Despite the worsening situation, Russian authorities have dismissed suggestions of a second lockdown and haven’t introduced any major restrictions.
Moscow officials have urged the elderly to self-isolate and have extended school holidays by one week. Students in the capital from 6th to 11th grades will now move their studies online for two weeks.
“Older school students are more susceptible to the risk of contracting the coronavirus,” said Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said. “They account for two-thirds of infected children.”
INFECTIONS SPIKING IN SPAIN, GERMANY, SWITZERLAND; POPE STAYS DISTANT
Spain on Wednesday became the first European Union country to surpass 900,00 cases. Germany passed 5,000 new daily cases for the first time since mid-April, while Switzerland reported a new daily record in confirmed coronavirus cases, with young adults the most affected.
Pope Francis apologized to the faithful Wednesday for not being able to greet them and shake their hands following a spike in infections in Italy and the tiny Vatican City State that prompted new restrictions.
At 83 and with part of a lung missing, the pope would be at high-risk for COVID-19 complications.
Still, he has been reluctant to wear a face mask and appeared without one again Wednesday, even though many of his entourage and all of the Swiss Guards were using them.
He told the crowd: “I would like to come down as usual and get close to you to greet you, but with new prescriptions, we would better keep our distances.”
Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain. AP journalists around Europe contributed to this report..