European countries Saturday sought to keep people from traveling in sunny Easter weather and grappled with how and when to start loosening the weeks-long shutdowns of much of public life. The United States’ death toll from the coronavirus closed in on Italy’s, the highest in the world.
In Asia, South Korea announced plans to strap tracking wristbands on people who defy quarantine orders. The Japanese government appealed to the public nationwide to avoid bars, clubs and restaurants, broadening a measure announced earlier for seven urban areas, including Tokyo.
In Europe, beautiful weather across much of the continent provided an extra test of people’s discipline over the long Easter weekend.
Italian authorities stepped up checks, particularly around the northern Lombardy region, which has borne the brunt of the COVID-19 outbreak. Roadblocks were set up on main thoroughfares in and out of Milan and along highway exits to discourage people from going on holiday trips.
’”Don’t do silly things,” said Domenico Arcuri, Italy’s special commissioner for the virus emergency. “Don’t go out, continue to behave responsibly as you have done until today, use your head and your sense of responsibility.”
He added: “The virus has not been defeated, but we are on the right path. We see the indicators but not the end of the tunnel. In fact, the end of the tunnel is still far away.”
In Spain, which recorded its smallest day-to-day increase in deaths in nearly three weeks, or 510, police set up thousands of roadblocks around the country.
In Britain, police were urged to keep a close watch on gatherings in parks and at the seaside on what was set to be the hottest day of the year. Police seized a motorcycle from a rider making a nonessential journey in central England.
The pandemic’s epicenter has long since shifted to Europe and the United States, which now has by far the largest number of confirmed cases, with more than half a million. As of Saturday morning, the U.S. death toll was just short of Italy’s, which stood at about 18,850.
“I understand intellectually why it’s happening,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, where deaths rose Friday by 777, to more than 7,800. “It doesn’t make it any easier to accept.”
Still, New York officials said the number of people in intensive care dropped for the first time since mid-March and hospitalizations were slowing: 290 new patients in a single day, compared with daily increases of more than 1,000 last week. Cuomo said if that trend holds, New York might not need the overflow field hospitals that officials have been scrambling to build.
President Donald Trump said he will not lift U.S. restrictions until conditions are safe but announced an Opening Our Country task force and said, “I want to get it open as soon as possible.”
The Easter holidays coincide with mounting hope in Europe of the beginning of a slow return to normal as rates of infection slow in many cases. At the same time, politicians and public health officials are warning that they must act cautiously or else the virus may flare up all over again.
Some countries are already planning small first steps out of the shutdown. Austria aims to reopen small shops on Tuesday.
Spain, with more than 16,300 dead, is preparing to start rolling back the strictest of its measures Monday, when authorities will allow workers in some nonessential industries to return to factories and construction sites after a nearly complete two-week stoppage.
Health Minister Salvador Illa said the government will distribute reusable masks at subway stations and other public transportation hubs.
“We think that with these measures we will prevent a jump in infections,” Illa said.
Italy continued to include all nonessential manufacturing in an extension of its national lockdown until May 3. But Premier Giuseppe Conte held out hope that some industry could re-open earlier if conditions permit.
Arcuri said that the exit from the lockdown will include increased virus testing, the deployment of a voluntary contact-tracing app and mandatory blood tests as Italy seeks to set up a system of ‘’immunity passports.’’
German officials are set to consider on Wednesday how to proceed after several weeks of restrictions on public life. Officials have sounded a cautious note, pointing to the risk of undoing the gains the country has made.
“A second shutdown would be hard to cope with, economically and socially,” Winfried Kretschmann, the governor of Baden-Wuerttemberg state, told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
India extended its lockdown of the nation of 1.3 billion people by two more weeks.
But Iran reopened government offices and businesses outside the capital after a brief nationwide lockdown to help contain the worst outbreak in the Middle East. Businesses in Tehran will be allowed to reopen next weekend.
Meanwhile, in Africa, where infections are on the rise, there is fear that the poor health care system and a lack of help from developed nations facing their own crisis could lead the virus to spread unchecked.
In Congo, corruption has left the the population largely impoverished despite mineral wealth, and mistrust of authority is so entrenched that health workers have been killed during an Ebola outbreak that has not yet been fully defeated.
Worldwide, confirmed infections rose above 1.7 million, with over 100,000 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Close to 400,000 people have recovered.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia.
Britain on Saturday reported 917 more deaths, down from the peak of 980 recorded a day earlier. The country’s overall death toll neared 10,000. At the same time, data suggest that the number of hospital admissions in Britain is leveling off.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the first major world leader confirmed to have COVID-19, continued to recover at a London hospital, where he was able to take short walks between periods of rest, according to his office.
In China, where the pandemic began in December, the number of new daily cases has declined dramatically, allowing the ruling Communist Party to reopen factories and stores.
China also is the biggest producer of surgical masks and other medical products and has increased output following the outbreak, but there have been complaints that shoddy or substandard goods are being sold abroad. Chinese regulators said that ventilators, masks and other supplies will now be subject to quality inspections.
McDonald reported from Beijing. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.