As virus surges in Europe, resistance to new restrictions also grows

By Marc Santora and Isabella Kwai

France has placed cities on “maximum alert” and ordered many to close all bars, gyms and sports centers Saturday. Italy and Poland have made masks compulsory in public. The Czech Republic has declared a state of emergency, and German officials fear new outbreaks could soon grow beyond the control of their vaunted testing and tracing.

Across Europe and beyond, COVID-19 has come roaring back, and, as happened last spring, officials are invoking restrictions to try and suppress it. But this time is different.

Still reeling from the economic, emotional and physical toll of nationwide lockdowns that brought the Continent to a virtual standstill, government officials are finding that the public might not be so compliant the second time around.

In some places new restrictions are accepted, albeit grudgingly, because the alternative — new nationwide lockdowns — would only be worse. But there is widening skepticism that publics would even go along with such a drastic step.

Instead, as exhaustion and frustration with pandemic restrictions sets in, governments are trying to thread a narrowing course between keeping the virus in check and what their publics and economies will tolerate. That is especially so in democracies, where governments are ultimately answerable to the voters.

“It is going to be a lot more difficult this time,” said Cornelia Betsch, Heisenberg-Professor of Health Communication at Erfurt University, in Germany, citing “pandemic fatigue.”

As the crisis deepens, the once-solid consensus in many countries to join in sacrifices to combat the virus is showing signs of fracturing. New rules are challenged in courts. National and local leaders are sparring.

In Spain, the government Friday decreed a state of emergency in the Madrid area. The step was taken over the heads of the highest regional court and objecting local politicians, and within hours the nation’s main opposition leader called on the prime minister to appear in Parliament to justify it.

The intense feuding in Spain reflects a broader political resistance confronting national leaders worldwide.

Business groups are issuing dire warnings that whole industries could collapse if restrictions go too far. Sporadic protests, usually though not always, limited to a political fringe, have broken out. Public skepticism is fueled in many countries by the failure of governments to fulfill grand promises on measures like contact tracing, testing and other measures.

In perhaps the most telling indication that people are either confused or done listening to guidance, cases continue to explode, including in places where new measures have already been promulgated.

Portugal ordered new restrictions last month, but Thursday recorded more than 1,000 daily infections for the first time since April. In the northern England, where new rules have come and gone and come again, the most tangible result has been sowing confusion, not slowing contagion. Officials are now warning that hospitals could face a greater flood of patients than at the height of the pandemic in April.

The World Health Organization on Thursday announced a record one-day increase in global coronavirus cases. Europe, as a region, is now reporting more cases than India, Brazil or the United States.

The pitfall of imposing stricter new measures has already been witnessed in Israel, the only country to order a second nationwide lockdown. It has led to chaos and rampant protests.

“People view the decisions as political, and not health-based,” said Ishay Hadas, a protest organizer in Israel, arguing that masked outdoor gatherings carried minimal risk. “The main problem is the lack of public trust.”

While issues around mask wearing and other prudent measures remain far less politicized in Europe, especially compared to America, the prospect of a winter under tight restrictions or even lockdowns is stirring new frustration and dividing political parties.

With Britain expected to announce even more sweeping measures Monday, many focused on curbs to drinking and carousing, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, has challenged the government to produce any scientific evidence showing that the early pub closings help slow transmission.

Even people responsible for advising the British government cannot keep up and are at a loss to explain some of the measures.

“People are very confused,” said Robert West, a professor of health psychology at University of College London. West is a subcommittee member of SAGE, a scientific body advising the government on policy.

“I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say I know what the rules are,” he said.

In Spain, restaurants in Madrid were ordered to stop serving after 10 p.m., and to close by 11 p.m. — when many people are just considering sitting down to eat.

“Everybody knows that we dine in Spain much later than in other countries, so not being able to stay open until midnight is pure economic nonsense,” said Florentino Pérez del Barsa, a Madrid restaurateur.

While public attention often focuses on those who shout the loudest — like the thousands who protested recently outside the Reichstag in Berlin and in London’s Trafalgar Square, calling the pandemic a hoax and a government-driven plot — they represent only about 10% of the public, according to a study from Germany.

About 20% of people are against regulations, presumably for personal, emotional and financial reasons.

But Betsch, who has been working with the WHO research group, said the larger concern is roughly half the population — the “fence-sitters.”

They are open to regulations but need to be listened to and educated, she said, and new government policies that are fragmented only compound the frustration.

The choices facing national governments are onerous.

The French government, watching anxiously as hospital beds fill up, extended its maximum-alert “red zone” to many major metropolitan areas including Lyon, Grenoble, Lille and Saint-Etienne in addition to Paris, Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. Residents of Toulouse protested Friday, fearing their city would be included.

It is important to follow rules like mask-wearing and hand washing, said June Nossin, 32, a Belgian-born therapist sitting at the terrace of a Parisian cafe. But there was a limit to what people could take.

“If everything is banned,” she said, “people are going to go crazy.”

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