Restrictions reimposed around world as nations scramble to curb new outbreaks
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Restrictions reimposed around world as nations scramble to curb new outbreaks

Renewed virus rules take effect in Hong Kong; Melbourne residents are warned of possible lockdown; South Korea says contact tracing increasingly hard as more people go out

Visitors wearing face masks to help protect against the spread of the new coronavirus take a walk at a park in Seoul, South Korea, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Visitors wearing face masks to help protect against the spread of the new coronavirus take a walk at a park in Seoul, South Korea, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

CANBERRA, Australia — Virus restrictions once lifted are being reimposed, shutting businesses and curbing social lives as communities try to curb a disease resurgence before it spins out of control.

Residents of Australia’s second-largest city were warned on Wednesday to comply with lockdown regulations or face tougher restrictions. Melbourne’s 5 million people and part of the city’s semi-rural surrounds are a week into a new, six-week lockdown to contain a new outbreak there.

“The time for warnings, the time for cutting people slack is over,” Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said. “Where we are is in a very serious and deadly position.”

Victoria reported 238 new cases, which authorities say may indicate a stabilizing trend underway in Melbourne’s outbreak.

Medical staff facilitate a COVID-19 coronavirus testing station in Picton, some 80 kilometres south-west of Sydney on July 15, 2020. (SAEED KHAN / AFP)

Renewed restrictions took effect in Hong Kong on Wednesday, with public gatherings limited to four people, restaurants limited to takeout after 6 p.m., and a one-week closure for gyms, karaoke bars, and selected other businesses. Masks also are being mandated on public transit for the first time, with the non-compliant being fined.

Sammi Li, the owner of the Mibrows salon, said small businesses such as hers are at the mercy of such mandatory closures as there is little they can do to prepare. She expects the cycle of reopening and closing to continue until a vaccine is found.

“We’ll just try to work as much as we can when we are open, to prepare for another closure,” she said.

Of the nearly two dozen possible COVID-19 vaccines in progress, candidates from the US, China and Britain are entering final testing stages. The first one tested in the US revved up people’s immune systems just the way scientists had hoped, researchers reported Tuesday as the shots are poised to begin key final testing.

During the last round of closures, Li received a $3,870 government subsidy that covered costs such as rent and utilities, but not income lost. It’s unclear whether there will be subsidies this time.

“It is frustrating because the government is not offering subsidies to cover the loss of no business for one week,” she said.

In the US, places like Washington state are delaying timetables for reopening their economies. Gov. Jay Inslee said counties will remain at their current stage of economic reopening at least until July 28.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a news conference next to a video display showing a chart of the “reproductive number” of each case of the coronavirus in both eastern and western Washington state, June 23, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia, Washington (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Inslee warned there was a “significant risk” that parts of the economy may have to be closed again if coronavirus activity continues to climb.

The United States is the worst-hit country, with 3.4 million cases, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. More than 13.3 million people have been infected worldwide, and 578,000 have died.

Israel has also started to bring back restrictions after recent weeks have seen the reversal of many of the gains made in the fight against the coronavirus. The country had been placed on a nationwide lockdown for several weeks at the start of the outbreak in mid-March, but removed most of its restrictions by May to reopen the economy.

To contain the surge in new cases, the government has reimposed some restrictions on gatherings and economic activity, although the closure order for gyms and swimming pools was later overturned, as well as localized lockdowns.

Officials have warned repeatedly that a full lockdown may be reimposed, but the government has yet to agree on such a move.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein has reportedly warned that the government could reimpose a nationwide lockdown if the number of daily virus infections climbs to 2,000.

On Tuesday, over 1,700 new cases were reported, a new high.

Border Police officers at a roadblock as ultra-Orthodox Jews gather for a protest against a lockdown in their neighborhood due to a coronavirus outbreak, in Jerusalem, on July 13, 2020 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

New Zealand has been a success story in the pandemic by pursuing the ambitious target of eradication of the virus. Some in near-neighbor Australia are arguing more loudly that the Australian government should have also pursued eradication rather than suppression.

New Zealand has not recorded a locally spread case in 75 days, and all 27 of its active cases are people quarantined after foreign travel.

If it has a future community outbreak, a system of local or regional lockdowns would be used and a second national lockdown would be a last resort, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. Local lockdowns might involve buildings, suburbs or a city.

“Our priority will be to control any cases with the least intrusive measures and over the smallest area we can,” Ardern said. “No one wants to go backwards but the reality is our fight against the virus is not over and we must have a plan at the ready to protect our current position if it comes back.”

Some countries including South Korea have weathered the pandemic without severe economic lockdowns, although officials shut schools until May and temporarily closed leisure facilities in some major cities when infections rose. The country’s professional baseball league, which returned to action in May without spectators, is now preparing to bring back fans in the stands.

A woman wearing a face mask to help protect against the spread of the new coronavirus crosses a stream in Seoul, South Korea, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Instead of placing stringent social restrictions, the country is attempting to contain its outbreak by mobilizing technological tools to trace contacts and enforce quarantines. Smartphone tracking apps monitor tens of thousands of individuals quarantined at home.

But health authorities in recent weeks have said they are finding it increasingly difficult to trace contacts and predict infection routes as people increasingly venture out in the public.

Business shutdowns were not enforced during Japan’s state of emergency that ended in late May, but many stores and restaurants closed on their own. Recent spikes in Tokyo and other major cities have prompted local governments to take action.

About 100 infections on US military bases on the southern island of Okinawa prompted Gov. Denny Tamaki to demand the US military to seal off the affected bases. The US military said the affected bases have been placed under a lockdown. Defense Minister Taro Kono said “a number of problems” have been found in the US military’s coronavirus handling.

The southern prefecture of Kagoshima issued a 14-week closure request for dancing halls, bars and other nightclubs after one venue was connected to about 100 infections.

In Tokyo, Gov. Yuriko Koike and central government officials have largely identified nighttime entertainment districts as hotbeds of the recent rises in COVID-19 cases and said shutdown requests were possible.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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