Italy and Germany on Wednesday prolonged rigid lockdown measures until after Easter as Spain reported its deadliest day yet in a grim reminder of the ongoing struggle to bring the coronavirus under control.
Even though infection rates in some countries are showing signs of receding, governments on the continent worry that easing restrictions too soon could backfire. There were 864 new fatalities in Spain on Wednesday, and the number of confirmed cases increased to more than 102,000. Spain, which has been in almost-complete lockdown since March 14, and Italy are the epicenters of the outbreak in Europe.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said late Wednesday that a nationwide lockdown will last until April 13. Restaurants, bars and all public venues are closed, all non essential economic activity has stopped and movement within the country is restricted. Earlier in the day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- who has been self-quarantined at her home since last week -- extended a nationwide shutdown until April 19. Merkel said the increase in the infection rate had eased slightly, but cautioned it’s too early to relax strict rules on public interaction.
“We’re seeing some effect from the measures, but we’re far away from being able to say that we can change the contact restrictions,” Merkel told reporters on an audio conference. She urged Germans to avoid visiting relatives during the Easter vacation. “I know that it’s hard, but it save lives,” she said.
Both Germany and Italy have also expanded backstops to protect their economies. In Portugal, the government is extending a state of emergency initially declared on March 18 for another two weeks.
“If we make a big effort in these next few weeks, we’ll start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel sooner,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in Lisbon.
Merkel reiterated a plea for patience to give the measures time to show a lasting impact. Germany has the third-largest outbreak in Europe with 71,808 infections. The disease has caused 775 deaths in the country, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Romania’s death toll continued to rise much faster than in any other country in central and eastern Europe, reaching 85 fatalities on Wednesday. A growing number of doctors and medical workers are getting infected with the new virus, raising concerns about hospital outbreaks that could endanger entire cities, including the capital Bucharest.
Alongside protecting public health, concerns about the economic fallout of shutting down large parts of the economy weighed on European leaders. Spanish bankers and lawyers are bracing for a steep surge in insolvencies, as some business leaders say aspects of the government’s 117 billion-euro ($128 billion) crisis response risk making things worse.
Germany plugged a gap in its 750 billion-euro rescue package by pledging to help startups with short-term financial assistance worth around 2 billion euros. “For these young, innovative companies, classic credit instruments are often not suitable,” Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said.
In Austria -- where unemployment jumped to the highest level since the end of World War II in March -- the government plans to impose a three-month repayment moratorium on about 162 billion euros of consumer loans to ease the impact of lockdown measures. Still under discussion is how many corporate loans the moratorium would cover.
Conte is working on a decree to guarantee liquidity to businesses hit by the nationwide lockdown. Urgent measures to provide cash to companies will be followed by a decree later in April to help families, according to a government official.
Italian health authorities reported 727 new fatalities in the last 24 hours -- the lowest number in six days. New cases rose by 4,782 to a total in the country of 110,574.
“It would be an unforgivable mistake to see this first result as a definitive defeat of the virus,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said. “The battle is still very long.”
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