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‘Difficult winter’: Europe divided on lockdowns; cases soar

BRUSSELS (AP) — The World Health Organization’s Europe director expressed deep concern on Thursday after the region again recorded the highest-ever weekly incidence of cases, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned of a “difficult winter” as residents in France braced for life under a new month-long lockdown and Spain’s parliament voted to extend the country’s state of emergency.

During a meeting with European health ministers, WHO’s European regional director Dr. Hans Kluge said “hospitalizations have risen to levels unseen since the spring” and deaths have sharply risen by more than 30%. He noted that Europe has now reported more than 10 million coronavirus cases and “is at the epicenter of this pandemic once again.”

“At the risk of sounding alarmist, I must express our very real concern,” Kluge said.

Speaking to Germany’s parliament ahead of a virtual summit of EU leaders on Thursday evening aimed at better coordinating Europe’s response to the disease, Merkel said her country faces “a dramatic situation at the beginning of the cold season.”

Germany’s disease control agency said local authorities reported 16,774 new positive tests for COVID-19 in the past day, pushing the country’s total close to the half million-mark. The death toll stood at 10,272.

“The winter will be difficult, four long, difficult months. But it will end,” Merkel told lawmakers.

Under new restrictions going into effect Monday, German restaurants, bars, sports and cultural venues will be shut for four weeks. Gatherings are limited to 10 people from a maximum of two households and all non-essential journeys will be discouraged. Schools, kindergartens, stores and places of worship will remain open — albeit with safety precautions.

Merkel said authorities had no choice but to drastically reduce social contacts as three-quarters of infections in Germany now are no longer traceable.

“If we wait until the ICUs are full, then it will be too late,” she said.

Opposition leader Alexander Gauland of the far-right Alternative for Germany party accused Merkel’s government of “wartime propaganda” and likened the pandemic to traffic, arguing that society accepts a certain number of car deaths each year but doesn’t ban driving.

Berlin announced a new 10 billion-euro ($11.7 billion) fund for businesses affected by the additional measures.

Europe’s biggest economy has been able to mobilize massive financial aid to dampen the impact of the pandemic. Still, the measures have sparked anger, particularly from restaurant owners who had set up heated outdoor seating areas and made other preparations to follow health regulations only to be told they aren’t allowed to serve customers for a month.

While France announced a second, full nationwide lockdown Wednesday, many countries have hesitated to take such drastic measures for the second time in a year, wary of the economic pain they cause.

Some French doctors expressed relief and business owners despaired as the country prepared to shut down again for a month. The new lockdown is gentler than what France saw in the spring, but still a shock to restaurants and other non-essential businesses ordered to close their doors.

The British government has resisted calls for a national lockdown, despite having significantly higher 14-day infection rates than Germany and a virus death toll four times larger.

Britain’s Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, said that the virus is “very concentrated in some places,” and that it’s best to target restrictions to those areas with the worst outbreaks.

In Spain, authorities have been imposing incremental restrictions on free movement, nightlife and social gatherings, but they have refrained from a strict stay-at-home order like the one that curbed the first wave of infections but scarred the economy.

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