ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Europe reopened more widely on Monday, allowing people into the Acropolis in Athens, shops in Italy, markets and museums in Belgium, garden stores in Ireland and beer gardens in Bavaria while its leaders discussed how to salvage Europe’s hallowed summer vacations.
As nations carved out a new normal amid the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization was holding its main annual meeting — conducted online this year. Chinese President Xi Jinping was among a handful of world leaders expected to address the two-day online gathering that comes amid high tensions between his nation, where the pandemic began, and the United States, the country hardest hit by the coronavirus.
President Donald Trump, who has withdrawn funding to WHO because he claims they are too favorable to China, was not expected to address the meeting. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was to represent the U.S.
New infections and deaths have slowed considerably in Europe, where some countries started easing lockdowns a month ago and even the harshest shutdowns — such as those in Italy and Spain — have loosened significantly. Many nations are now preparing to open their borders next month, trying to sketch out the parameters for a highly unusual summer tourist season.
Germany’s foreign minister, who was discussing the options Monday with colleagues from 10 largely southern European countries, cautioned that this year’s holidays will be like no other.
“Even if a summer vacation will be possible elsewhere in Europe, which I hope, one has to say that this vacation this year won’t be like the ones we know from the past,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told ZDF television. “The pandemic is still there and we must at least have safety precautions for the worst case that the figures get worse again.”
More than 4.7 million people worldwide have tested positive for the coronavirus, which emerged in China late last year, and over 315,000 deaths have been reported, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Those figures are believed to understate the true dimensions of the pandemic because of limited testing, differences in counting the dead and concealment by some governments.
The U.S. has reported almost 90,000 deaths and Europe has seen at least 160,000 dead.
Greece reopened the Acropolis in Athens and other ancient sites, along with high schools, shopping malls and mainland travel. Tourists were local, for the country still has a 14-day quarantine for arrivals, and travel to the Greek islands remains broadly restricted. Paving stickers were used as markers to keep visitors apart outside the Acropolis.
Authorities are keen to reopen the vital tourism sector, following a warning by the EU Commission that Greece is likely to suffer the worst recession in the 27-nation European Union this year.
Greece’s public beaches reopened over the weekend amid a heatwave with strict social distancing rules, but buses from Athens to the nearby coast were crowded.
In Belgium, more students returned to school, hairdressers began clipping locks again and museums and zoos opened their doors, all with strict reservation systems to avoid overcrowding. Hoping to make the most of the sunny weather, open-air markets started selling their plentiful spring fruits and vegetables.
Some stores reopened in Ireland but Health Minister Simon Harris said he’s still nervous because the virus hasn’t gone away. He hoped that social distancing and other measures will make more normalcy possible.
If Ireland can get the next three weeks right, “we as a country will find a way to live safely alongside the virus,” Harris told RTE radio.
Churches in Italy and at the Vatican resumed public Masses. Guards in hazmat suits took the temperatures of the faithful entering St. Peter’s Basilica, where Pope Francis celebrated an early morning Mass in a side chapel to commemorate the centenary of the birth of St. John Paul II.
Across town, the Rev. Jose Maria Galvan snapped on a latex glove and a face mask before distributing Communion to the dozen parishioners attending Mass at his Sant’Eugenio parish.
“Before I became a priest I was a surgeon, so for me gloves are normal,” he joked later.
The virtual meeting of the U.N. health agency’s World Health Assembly comes as the WHO has been drawn into a blame game between the U.S. and China over the spread of the virus. Trump claims China mishandled the outbreak early on but China has defended its record, saying it has worked closely with the WHO to respond to the pandemic.
The EU and other countries have called for an independent evaluation of the WHO’s response to the pandemic “to review experience gained and lessons learned.” The resolution has the support of more than half of WHO’s member countries.
China reported just seven new cases on Monday but kept tighter social distancing rules in parts of the northeastern province of Jilin after a cluster of cases of unknown origin turned up. But many people in Beijing, where no cases have been reported in weeks, have stopped wearing masks outdoors, although masks are required in most indoor areas and on public transportation.
Moscow health officials said 77 people died of the virus in the Russian capital in the past 24 hours, the highest daily number so far. With over 290,000 infections, Russia is second only to the U.S. in the number of cases but health officials suspect many more people with the virus have died than Russia’s official death toll of 2,722.
In some Indian states, people trickled outdoors and thin traffic returned to the roads Monday, a day after the government extended a nationwide lockdown to May 31 but eased many restrictions to restore economic activity. Small shops and other businesses reopened in several states, including the capital, New Delhi.
At the same time, India recorded its biggest single-day coronavirus surge with 5,242 new cases, along with 157 deaths.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro greeted hundreds of supporters — and joined some in performing push-ups — who gathered before the presidential offices to back his open-the-economy drive. Bolsonaro has played down the impact of the virus even as it has swept through Latin America’s most populous country, leaving over 16,000 people dead.