The Italian government on Sunday revealed plans to lift the national lockdown, a slow process that will start on May 4 in the European country hit first and hardest by the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.
Italy made the tentative steps as it announced the fewest new fatalities in a day – 260 – since March 14 and the lowest increase in new COVID-19 cases since March 9, when the Italian quarantine was put in place after the disease exploded in northern Italy, overwhelming hospitals and nursing homes. The 2,324 new cases on Sunday were just less than 1.2 per cent of the 197,675 total confirmed cases.
In spite of the slowing rate of new fatalities and new cases, Italy’s official COVID-19 death toll, at 26,644, remains the second highest in the world, after the United States. Spain is third, with 23,190 deaths, though its caseload is now considerably higher than Italy’s. Spain’s 288 new deaths on Sunday marked the smallest increase in more than a month.
On Sunday, Spanish children younger than 14 were allowed to play outside for the first time since March 14, when the country’s lockdown, one of the most severe in Europe, began. They had to be accompanied by one adult and return home within an hour.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Roberto Speranza, the Health Minister, urged caution and discipline among Italians, who will get no respite from the physical distancing and face mask rules that have been enforced since the quarantine started. “Even in this opening phase, a sense of responsibility for everyone is the real key to winning this challenge,“ Mr. Speranza said.
Mr. Conte made it clear that a rise in coronavirus cases would trigger a fresh round of restrictions.
From May 4, manufacturers, construction companies and wholesalers can get back to work. Parks will reopen and exercise, such as biking and running beyond immediate neighbourhoods, will be allowed. Restaurants can open, but only for takeout. Funerals will be allowed, limited to 15 family members.
On May 18, when the second reopening phase kicks in, retail stores can reopen their doors, as long as customers wear masks and respect physical-distancing rules. Museums and libraries can also resume operations. On June 1, restaurants, cafés, hairdressers and other small shops will reopen.
But Italians next month will still not be able to leave their home region and the government gave no indication when nationwide travel would be restored. Schools will stay closed until September and Mr. Conte revealed no new information on mass testing for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, contact tracing or the tracking app that would tell smartphone users if they had been near someone who tests positive for the disease.
To prevent price gouging, mask prices will be capped at €0.50 (76 cents) apiece and purchases will be exempt from the value-added tax.
The Spanish and French governments will reveal plans to unwind their lockdowns, including the timing of school reopenings, in the next few days. Britain’s reopening strategy has yet to be revealed in any detail.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to return to work on Monday after recovering from a COVID-19 illness that had put him in intensive care for three days. Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist who is a member of the scientific team advising the government on the coronavirus outbreak, said in an interview with UnHerd on Saturday that deaths in Britain could reach 100,000 this year, even if 80 per cent of the population most vulnerable to the virus were isolated.
Britain’s death count on Sunday was 20,732, the fourth highest in Europe.
European governments are under pressure from business lobby groups to reopen economies as the virus crisis pushes companies to the brink of bankruptcy. European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde has said that the European Union’s gross domestic product could fall 15 per cent this year – far worse than it did during the 2008-09 financial crisis.
In a letter sent to employees on Friday, Airbus boss Guillaume Faury said the passenger jet maker faced an existential crisis. According to Bloomberg, the letter said, “We’re bleeding cash at an unprecedented speed, which may threaten the very existence of our company.”
France, Spain and Italy have been putting pressure on Germany and the other wealthy euro zone countries to approve the sale of inexpensive common bonds, known informally as coronabonds, that would be used to fight the virus and rebuild economies.
But Germany and the Netherlands have resisted the idea. Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s commissioner of economic and financial affairs, has called for a €1.5-trillion recovery fund that would deliver both grants and cheap loans to struggling EU economies.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.