France and Germany lock down as second coronavirus wave grows

By Matina Stevis-Gridneff

France announced a second nationwide lockdown, and Germany moved to the very edge of one Wednesday, testing their pandemic-weary populations as they tried to stop a mounting new wave of coronavirus infections from swamping hospitals and undoing hopes of economic recovery.

The measures followed on the heels of severe new restrictions in other European countries, from Belgium to Italy to the Czech Republic. While they mostly fell short of the total lockdowns of the spring — a ‘‘lockdown lite,’’ the Germans called it — they raised the specter of a dark winter of relative confinement, leaving leaders in Paris and Berlin pleading with their frustrated publics to follow the new rules.

“I know the weariness and this feeling of a day with no end that is overcoming all of us,” President Emmanuel Macron of France said Wednesday in a national address. “We must stick together and remain united, and not give in to the poison of division. This period is hard precisely because it is testing our resilience and our unity.’’

Underscoring the need for urgent action, he and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany drew on hard lessons learned over the last eight months, attempting to keep open the parts of the economy and everyday life deemed necessary or less risky, while shutting almost everything else. Any tougher course risked sparking popular rebellion.

The pandemic surge and new lockdowns battered stock markets in Europe, as in the United States, with major indexes down about 3% Wednesday.

Starting Friday, France will go into a nationwide lockdown with just schools and essential businesses staying open until Dec. 1. In Germany, the new measures will close restaurants, bars, gyms and cultural spaces like theaters for one month, but exempt schools and shops.

When Italy became the first European country to impose a nationwide lockdown in March, the curbs to freedom stunned Europeans who hadn’t experienced anything like it since World War II. But curfews and confinements have since become a regular, if sporadic, feature of life in Europe, which used them to beat back the virus before the summer, then relaxed them, initiating the second wave of infections.

The rising toll of the virus made clear that the course available to Europe’s governments was fast narrowing, and that they could no longer delay reimposing some of the strictest measures, particularly if they wanted to salvage any part of the winter holiday season.

Spain went back into a state of emergency last week, while on Sunday the government in Italy moved to shut restaurants by 6 p.m. In Belgium, which currently has the continent’s highest infection rate, restaurants were shuttered this month, followed by museums and gyms over the weekend.

This second wave differs from the first in significant ways. Unlike springtime lockdowns, the new raft of measures will not be open-ended. Most of the recent restrictions announced in European countries have been put in place for about one month, which scientists and policymakers believe can act as a “circuit breaker.”

And while hospitals are filling at an alarming rate, the mortality rate of this wave is significantly lower than the first, owing to the lower average age of patients and better treatment protocols for those who are hospitalized.

Still, many Europeans are exhausted, emotionally and financially, by the new curbs to their freedoms after getting a taste of unhindered movement over the summer.

“We’re dealing with two enemies: We’re dealing with coronavirus itself and corona fatigue,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as she unveiled new plans to fight the virus in the European Union. “People are getting fed up with the measures,” she added.

The epidemiological situation on the continent is dire. Europe’s rate of new infections has tripled in the past month, topping 200,000 a day.

France, Spain, Italy and Britain are all among the European countries reporting spikes in new cases — and their highest death tolls in months. France this week reported its highest daily death toll since April, while Italy and the U.K. reported their highest since May.

In France, where the toughest measures were announced Wednesday, 288 new virus-related deaths were reported in hospitals on Tuesday and 235 deaths in nursing homes over the previous four days.

France’s intensive-care unit beds were half-full, and modeling of the virus’s spread indicated that the country’s health care system was two weeks away from reaching the same number of hospitalizations as the peak of the first wave. Macron stressed that much of Europe faced a similar situation, “overwhelmed by a second wave that we now know will probably be harder and more deadly than the first.”

Most nonessential businesses in France will close — including bars and restaurants — and movement outside one’s home will be strictly limited. Private and public gatherings will be banned. But schools will remain open. Some economic activity — public services, factories, farms and construction sites — will continue, and restrictions on retirement home visits and burials will not be as strict as in the spring.

In Germany, restaurants and bars will close for a month starting Monday, professional sports teams will play to empty stadiums, while theaters, gyms and nail salons and spas will be shuttered. But supermarkets, shops, schools and day care centers will remain open, Merkel said Wednesday.

Merkel, who has overseen a broad set of stimulus measures to support struggling businesses and workers, said the government will compensate small- and medium-sized businesses affected by closures for up to 75% of losses.

The measures aim to ease the strain on the country’s hospitals, where the number of patients has doubled in just 10 days, and halt the rapid spread of the virus before the coming holidays, without bringing the economy to a complete standstill.

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