Italy eases long lockdown, leaders push vaccine effort

ROME (AP) — Millions of people were allowed to return to work in Italy Monday as Europe’s longest lockdown started…

ROME (AP) — Millions of people were allowed to return to work in Italy Monday as Europe’s longest lockdown started to ease, while countries from Iceland to India took a patchwork of steps to loosen coronavirus restrictions. Businesses, including hairdressers in Greece and restaurants in Lebanon, were opening their doors under new conditions.

With pressure growing in many countries for more measures to restart the economy, politicians also were trying to boost funding for research into a vaccine for COVID-19. There are hopes that one could be available in months, but warnings that it could take much longer.

Italy, the first European country hit by the pandemic and a nation with one of the world’s highest death tolls, started stirring after its two-month shutdown. In all, 4.4 million Italians were able to return to work, and restrictions on movement eased.

Traffic in downtown Rome picked up, construction sites and manufacturing operations resumed, parks reopened and flower vendors returned to the Campo dei Fiori market for the first time since March 11.

“It’s something that brings happiness and joy, and people have been missing that these days,” vendor Stefano Fulvi said. He doesn’t expect to break even anytime soon, “but you have to take the risk at some point.”

But Europeans’ new-found freedoms are limited as officials are wary of setting off a second wave of infections.

In Italy, mourners were able to attend funerals, but services were limited to 15 people and there was still no word on when Masses will resume. Restaurants scrubbed their floors in preparation for take-out service, but sit-down service was several weeks away.

Southern Italy braced for the return of students and workers who were trapped in the hard-hit north when the lockdown took effect. Some regional governors said they would require anyone arriving home to go into quarantine for two weeks.

“It’s a new page that we must write together, with trust and responsibility,” Premier Giuseppe Conte said in a message to Italians.

Belgium allowed some companies to open offices to employees, though remote work was still encouraged. Like Italians, Greeks, Spaniards and many others in Europe, Belgians were told to wear masks on public transport.

Italians still have to carry certifications explaining why they are out. Greece, which began lifting its seven-week lockdown Monday, dropped a similar requirement for people to send a text message or carry a self-written permit justifying being outdoors.

Greek hair salons and some stores such as those selling books and sports goods reopened, with strict hygiene and distancing measures.

Athens hairdresser Konstantina Harisiadi had installed plastic glass barriers at reception and at manicure stations. A new sign, “Silence is security,” was meant to discourage chit-chat and limit the potential for virus transmission. On her first day open, all her clients were wearing masks.

Harisiadi was booked through the end of the month but, forced to operate with far fewer clients than usual, making ends meet will be a struggle.

“We’re going to try for the best,” she said, adding she doesn’t want to resort to firing any staff. “As the owner of a small business that has the nature of a family, I’m going to avoid it. And along with my co-workers I’m going to look for solutions to manage.”

But she also lamented the way the atmosphere will inevitably change.

“Things are different. There’s no spontaneity — we can’t greet each other, speak, laugh. We’re entering a new era,” she said.

People in hard-hit Spain ventured out for the first time for haircuts or food take-outs, but many small shops were still closed as owners worked on meeting strict health and hygiene guidelines. Neighboring Portugal also eased its confinement measures and allowed small stores to open.

On Europe’s western edge, Iceland also reopened hair salons — along with high schools, dentists and other businesses — after the country tamed its virus outbreak.

In the Middle East, Lebanon was allowing restaurants to open at 30% capacity during the day starting Monday. But many business owners said they won’t reopen because they would be losing more money if they operate under such restrictions in a faltering economy. Cafes, clubs and bars have been ordered to stay shut through June.

India allowed some economic activities to resume after a five-week halt, even as the pace of infections has slightly accelerated. The lockdown has achieved a slowdown in the spread of the virus but has caused immense hardship for India’s poor.

An estimated 1.5 million South Africans returned to work after a five-week lockdown. The mining, manufacturing and select retail sectors began reopening with up to 30% of their workforce. Trains, buses and private minibus taxis resumed…

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