Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s 16 state governors agreed Wednesday night to tighten mask-wearing rules, make bars close early and limit the number of people who can gather in areas where coronavirus infection rates are high. Merkel, who stressed the importance of keeping contact-tracing efforts on track, said “we must stop this exponential rise, the quicker the better.”
Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s national disease control center, said “we can still repress the spread, the exponential growth” of the virus. But officials made clear that more efforts may be necessary.
“Yesterday’s decisions are an important step, but they probably won’t be enough,” Merkel’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, told ARD television. “So now it is up to the population that we don’t just look at ‘what am I allowed to do now,’ but basically we must do more and be more cautious than what the governors decided yesterday.”
Merkel noted that neighboring countries are having to take “very drastic measures.”
This week has seen the Netherlands close bars and restaurants and the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland close down schools. The Czech Health Ministry said the country, with a population of over 10 million, confirmed 9,544 new cases on Wednesday — over 900 more than the previous record, set less than a week ago.
The government says hospitals could reach full capacity by the end of October, and announced Thursday that the military will set up a hospital at Prague’s exhibition center to treat COVID-19 patients.
“We have to build extra capacity as soon as possible,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said. “We have no time. The prognosis is not good.”
In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced on Wednesday night that 18 million residents in nine regions, including Paris, will have a 9 p.m. curfew starting Saturday until Dec. 1.
Aurelien Rousseau, director of the Paris region’s public health agency, said that nearly half of intensive care beds are now occupied by coronavirus patients, with other hospital beds filling rapidly too.
“It’s a kind of spring tide that affects everybody simultaneously,” Rousseau said. “We had a blind spot in our tracking policies. It was the private sphere, festive events.”
Paris restaurant, cinema and theater owners are fuming at the new curfew rules. Tighter local restrictions in northern England and Northern Ireland have prompted the same emotions from business owners there. London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he expects the British government to announce Thursday that the capital is moving to a higher level of restrictions.
Health authorities across Europe are urging people to obey the new restrictions.
The head of the World Health Organization’s Europe office, Dr. Hans Kluge, urged countries to be “uncompromising” in attempts to control the virus and said most of the spread is happening in homes, indoor spaces and communities not complying with protection measures.
“These measures are meant to keep us all ahead of the curve and to flatten its course,” Kluge said. “It is therefore up to us to accept them while they are still relatively easy to follow instead of following the path of severity.”
Just as Macron’s government tackles the resurgence of infections, French police on Thursday searched the homes of the former prime minister, the current and former health ministers and other top officials in an investigation into the government’s pandemic response. It was triggered by dozens of complaints over recent months, particularly over shortages of masks and other equipment.
One of Belgium’s main universities said it is moving to online education whenever possible. Ghent University said the measure will begin Oct. 26 and the Dutch-speaking Free University of Brussels said it already prepared its staff and facilities to do likewise if necessary.
Italy, which so far has been spared the worst of the second wave, on Wednesday also recorded its biggest single-day jump in infections since the start of the pandemic. It added another 7,332 cases amid a resurgence that is straining the country’s contact-tracing system.
Poland registered a record of nearly 9,000 new cases on Thursday. Masks have been required outdoors since Saturday and strict limits imposed on the size of gatherings.
Slovakia and Croatia also announced record daily case numbers. Slovakia was imposing new restrictions Thursday, once again making it mandatory to wear masks outdoors and shutting fitness centers, public swimming pools, theaters and cinemas.
Associated Press writers around Europe contributed to this report.
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