Top flight German soccer kicked off again on Saturday as the French returned to the beach and Italy announced a resumption of European tourism, providing much-needed relief against the relentless drumbeat of death and economic devastation wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic.
In the US, officials cautiously eased more restrictions Saturday on eateries, shops and outdoor venues as they tried to restart economies without triggering a surge in new coronavirus infections. But the reopenings came with new rules designed to curb the spread of the disease — another indication that the familiar ways of dining out or watching sporting events are gone for now.
Public health experts warn that the pandemic, which has killed more than 88,000 people in the US and 310,000 worldwide, could pick up again if precautions are not taken or officials move too quickly to get people back to work.
As governments sought to restart economic activity while treading cautiously amid the lingering — though in many cases waning — pandemic, Germany’s Bundesliga became the first major European soccer league to resume.
Italy, for a long stretch the world’s worst-hit country, announced that European Union tourists would be allowed to visit from June 3 and a 14-day mandatory quarantine would be scrapped.
“We’re facing a calculated risk in the knowledge that the contagion curve may rise again,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said during a televised address, announcing gyms and cinemas would soon be able to reopen.
“We have to accept it otherwise we will never be able to start up again.”
But as governments lift restrictions to boost stagnant economies, there have been widespread fears of a second wave of infections that could necessitate renewed lockdowns.
Such fears have delayed the return of team sport, and on Saturday all eyes were on the Bundesliga’s opening games, which were played to vacant, echoing stadiums.
“It’s sad that matches are played in empty stadiums, but it’s better than nothing,” said 45-year-old Borussia Dortmund fan Marco Perz, beer in hand, as he prepared to watch the game on TV.
Dortmund’s prolific striker Erling Braut Haaland was the first goalscorer after the two-month shutdown, helping his team thrash rivals Schalke 4-0.
He celebrated by dancing alone — making no contact with his applauding teammates — in keeping with the strict hygiene guidelines which allowed the league to return.
“The whole world will be looking at Germany, to see how we get it done,” said Hansi Flick, the boss of league-leaders Bayern Munich.
Russia has announced its football league will return next month and plans to lift restrictions despite recording its highest daily death toll on Saturday, at 119.
Israel’s soccer league is also set to begin play at the end of the month, also without fans, as the spread of the virus has appeared to stall. The country recorded two new deaths but only 19 new cases on Saturday.
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the government would seek to extend the country’s state of emergency for “about a month,” until the transition out of lockdown is completed.
France also expressed caution, calling for a coordinated European effort on opening. At the same time, officials could make decisions “that protect the French” regarding countries “where the virus is still active,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Saturday.
As hundreds of beaches reopened, Castaner warned that the government would not hesitate to close them again if rules are not respected.
In the Riviera city of Nice, keen swimmers jumped into the surf at daybreak.
“We were impatient because we swim here all year round,” said retiree Gilles, who declined to give his full name.
Local authorities were charged with deciding which beaches would reopen as part of a staggered plan to end a strict two-month lockdown that began March 17. Under the rules, beachgoers can take a dip but may not sunbathe or picnic. Social distancing must be maintained, and groups must be limited to 10 people.
“The virus is still there,” Castaner said. “It moves around with our movements.”
Racing to reopen
Forty-eight of the 50 US states have now eased lockdown rules to some extent. Still, amid irregular virus trends, some areas are resisting. New York City has extended lockdown measures until May 28.
Nonetheless, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Saturday that horse racing tracks and the Watkins Glen International auto track can reopen with “no crowds, no fans.” He also said he could envision a return of Major League Baseball in New York, the epicenter of the US outbreak, also without spectators.
“If it works economically, that would be great,” he said.
The governor has let large parts of upstate New York start reopening by allowing certain businesses such as construction to operate under safety guidelines. But most residents — particularly in hard-hit areas closer to New York City — remain under tight restrictions as communities try to reduce infection rates and amass enough testing and tracing to reopen in coming weeks or months.
Cuomo also announced that residents of suburban Westchester and Suffolk counties, two of the nation’s early hot spots, will again be eligible for elective surgeries and ambulatory care. New York’s ban on all nonessential gatherings is still in effect.
New Orleans took its first steps to loosen restrictions that have been in place for two months, one day after the rest of Louisiana did the same.
The city is restricting buildings to 25% of capacity, like the rest of the state, but also requires restaurants, nail salons and other businesses to take customers by reservation. The city has capped the number of people allowed in houses of worship and movie theaters at fewer than 100.
Malls and retail stores can reopen, but casinos, video poker, live entertainment and bars are still closed.
Some restaurateurs decided to try reopening. Others planned to stick to takeout or stay closed all together.
Jennifer Weishaupt, chief executive of the Ruby Slipper Cafe, said the company reopened in New Orleans, Metairie and Baton Rouge. Business was not as busy as anticipated, possibly because of bad weather.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” she said. “We’ve had a steady stream of customers, and we’ve seen a lot of regulars and it’s been nice to reconnect with them.”
In California, more parks and hiking trails welcomed visitors again in a second phase of reopening in which businesses deemed lower risk are allowed to operate with retailers offering curbside pickup.
Australians went out to eat for the first time in weeks Saturday, but the reopening of restaurants, pubs and cafes came with distancing and capacity rules and a warning: Don’t overdo it.
“The message is, yes, appreciate all the efforts, appreciate the opportunity to release some of those measures, but let’s not have a party, let’s not go to town,” said Tony Bartone, president of the Australian Medical Association.
In New Zealand, even Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her fiance, Clarke Gayford, were initially turned away for brunch by a restaurant in the capital, Wellington, because it was too full under coronavirus guidelines.
There was a happy ending: A spot freed up, and staff chased down the street to call the couple back.
In Asia, malls reopened in the Philippines’ capital Manila but few shoppers showed up, while in Vietnam, hundreds queued to visit the newly reopened UNESCO heritage site of Ha Long Bay.
The virus is still surging in Latin America, and Chile’s capital Santiago spent Saturday under its first total lockdown following a 60 percent leap in confirmed cases.
Here comes the sun
With the Northern Hemisphere’s summer approaching, governments are moving to help tourism industries salvage something from the wreckage.
Parasols and sunloungers have popped up on coastlines in Italy and Greece, which opened its beaches on Saturday.
Pedri Alatras, who works at the Kavouri beach near Athens, said disinfecting lounge chairs after each customer was a burden, especially in temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit); “it’s exhausting but we have to respect the measures,” he said.
Italy’s tourism industry is focused firmly on June 3, when both regional and international borders reopen, allowing the first prospect of tourists since Europe’s first lockdown went into place in early March. In tourist-reliant Venice, occupancy of the city’s 50,000 hotel beds has hovered around zero ever since.
“Venice lives on tourism, period,’’ said Claudio Scarpa, head of the city’s hotel association. ’’All the economic structures that operate in the city, including the port, are tied to tourism.”
In Milan, Italy’s financial capital, 3,400 restaurants planned to open Monday, along with 4,800 bars, 2,900 hairdressers, 2,200 clothing stores and 700 shoe shops.
“After a long period at home, we will all want to go out and have a good coffee in a bar, eat a pizza in a pizzeria, buy a pair of jeans or go to the hairdressers,” Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala said Saturday in a Facebook video.
Many restaurant owners complained that the rules for reopening were unclear and that the entire sector — including suppliers and food producers — was suffering. Dozens protested outside Milan’s main train station and called for an abolition of taxes and more help.
In England, officials and tourism boards discouraged people from visiting popular spots like beaches or parks on the first weekend since the lockdown was eased. Stricter rules remain place in other parts of the U., and English daytrippers have been warned against crossing into Scotland or Wales.
‘We want a return to normality’
Germany, under pressure to follow Italy by allowing in EU visitors, instead reopened its border with tiny Luxembourg.
Germany also saw the latest in a growing wave of anti-lockdown protests, with thousands gathering Saturday in major cities for rallies.
“We want a return to normality and to not have any impediment on our public freedom,” said a protester in Dortmund who gave her name only as Sabine, 50.
France, Switzerland and Poland also saw protests.
Perhaps the best chance of ending the pandemic is a vaccine, and US President Donald Trump voiced hope late Friday that one would be available by late 2020, “maybe before” — a timeline deemed unrealistic by many experts.
But amid an enormous push for medical and scientific tools to fight the virus, the US on Saturday approved a home-based kit for coronavirus tests, adding a simple option for a country eager to expand its COVID-19 testing.
Since emerging in China late last year, the coronavirus has whipped up a catastrophic economic storm.
After Europe’s powerhouse Germany tipped into recession this week, the government on Saturday announced a 57 billion euro ($62 million) aid package to help local authorities weather the onslaught.
Air Canada became the latest firm to slash staff due to the pandemic, saying it made the “very painful decision” to furlough half its workforce.
In the US, retail sales have plummeted with no certainty when they might recover.
But in another attempt to inject a taste of normality into a highly abnormal situation, former president Barack Obama made online remarks to college graduates facing a gutted economy and job market.
In remarks to students at historically black colleges and universities, he took a swipe at the federal response to the pandemic, saying that many of America’s leaders today “aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
“I hope you are bold,” he added.