By JAN M. OLSEN, NICOLE WINFIELD and MIKE CORDER Associated Press
COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — The first tentative steps in lifting the economically crippling coronavirus restrictions in Europe and China are running into resistance, with shoppers and other customers staying away from the reopened businesses and workers afraid the newly restored freedoms could put their health at risk.
Amazon threatened on Wednesday to halt all its activities in France, a day after a court ordered the online retail giant to stop selling, receiving or delivering nonessential goods for the next month to protect its employees from the virus.
The European Union’s executive commission echoed the concerns even as it published a 16-page road map plotting a united course out of the crisis that has plunged the world into unprecedented lockdowns and killed over 127,000 people, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
In another measure of the heavy economic toll, U.S. retail sales plummeted a record 8.7% in March as the outbreak closed down stores and shoppers stayed home. Sales fell sharply across many categories: Auto sales dropped by one-quarter, while clothing store sales collapsed, sliding more than 50%.
And in China, which is cautiously beginning to get back to business, millions are still wary of spending much or even going out. Some cities have resorted to handing out shopping vouchers and trying to reassure consumers by showing officials in state media eating in restaurants.
“I put off plans to change cars and spend almost nothing on eating out or entertainment,” said Zhang Hu, a truck salesman in Zhengzhou who has gone back to work but has seen his income plummet because few people are looking to buy 20-ton rigs. “I have no idea when the situation will turn better.”
The World Health Organization was on the hot seat after President Donald Trump announced a halt to U.S. payments to the group pending a review of its warnings about the coronavirus and China. Trump, whose own response to the virus has been called into question, criticized the U.N. health agency for not sounding the alarm over the coronavirus sooner.
An investigation by The Associated Press found that six days of delays by China i n alerting the public to the growing dangers of the virus in mid-January set the stage for the pandemic that has upended the lives of billions and crippled the global economy.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the 27-nation group regrets Trump’s decision, saying the WHO is now “needed more than ever” to combat the outbreak.
“Only by joining forces can we overcome this crisis that knows no borders,” he said.
The U.S. has by far been the hardest-hit country, with more than 26,000 deaths and over 600,000 confirmed infections, according to Johns Hopkins. Still, nightmare scenarios projecting a far greater number of deaths and hospitalizations have not come to pass, raising hopes from coast to coast.
Worldwide, infections have reached about 2 million, by Johns Hopkins’ count. The figures understate the true size of the crisis, in part because of limited testing and concealment by some governments.
Italy, Spain and France have more than 55,000 virus-linked deaths between them, according to Johns Hopkins.
The EU roadmap warned that “any level of gradual relaxation of the confinement will unavoidably lead to a corresponding increase in new cases.”
That fear appeared to be preying on the minds of people in Austria and Italy, where an easing of restrictions this week allowed some stores to reopen.
Marie Froehlich, who owns a clothing store in downtown Vienna, said her staff was happy to get back to work after weeks of being cooped up at home. But with her business dependent largely on tourism, which has dried up amid the travel restrictions, she expects it will take months to return to normal.
“Until then, we are in crisis mode,” she said.
The scene was similar in hard-hit Italy, where Camilla Cocchi owns two baby clothing stores. Wearing a mask and gloves, she reopened on Tuesday, but the streets of Rome were still largely deserted amid the country’s lockdown.
Elsewhere in Europe, another slight rollback of restrictions led to joy among Danish children.
Denmark let preschoolers and students up to fifth grade return to classrooms. Older students, including those at college, still must study online from home.
“I’m very impressed. The children are very happy to see their buddies again,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told TV2 as she attended the first school day in Valby, a Copenhagen suburb.
“Many children feel just like cows going to grass. They feel like jumping and dancing and being with their pals, but there are some safety rules,” said Claus Hjortdal, head of Denmark’s school principals association.
Signe Wilms Raun, whose son Hugo returned to preschool in Hvidovre, hoped that the school day was going to be more than washing hands and social distancing.
“Can they play football in the schoolyard or will it all be about keeping their distances?” Wilms Raun asked.
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged teachers to keep schools open for the sake of children and their parents. His message came as Victoria state schools resumed after a break and other states considered how to reopen amid.
But Meredith Peace, a union education official in Victoria, said that most of the students and staff are staying home amid fears that teachers can’t maintain social distancing in classrooms.
While some European countries plot exit strategies amid signs of that their outbreaks are easing, the plight of the elderly in nursing homes is still a central concern.
Police in Milan are investigating the 1,000-bed Pio Albergho Trivulzio nursing home, where 143 people are said to have died in the past month. The probe began after staff members complained that management prohibited doctors and nurses from wearing masks for fear of alarming residents. The nursing home has insisted it followed all security protocols.
Across the Channel, Caroline Abrahams, director of the charity Age U.K., said the British government’s daily coronavirus death toll updates “are airbrushing older people out like they don’t matter.”
Pope Francis dwelled on the plight of the elderly at his morning Mass.
“We pray today for the elderly, especially for those who are isolated in elderly homes,” he said. “They are afraid, afraid of dying alone. … They are our roots, our history. They gave us faith, traditions, a sense of belonging to a nation.”
In South Korea, a parliamentary election on Wednesday gave a glimpse of a possible post-lockdown future as voters cast ballots under the watchful eyes of masked poll workers armed with thermometers and sanitizing spray.
“I was worried about the coronavirus,” Seoul resident Chung Eun-young said. “They checked my temperature and handed me gloves, but it wasn’t as bothersome as I thought it would be.”