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Restrictions tighten as COVID-19 weighs on daily life, worship

Associated Press • Mar 15, 2020 at 10:54 AM

BARCELONA, Spain — New travel restrictions and border closures reverberated across Europe and beyond Sunday as daily life increasingly ground to a halt amid efforts to keep people apart and slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Americans returning home faced chaos at the airports as overwhelmed border agents tried to screen out the sick.

Spain awoke to the first day of a nationwide quarantine. In the Philippines, soldiers and police sealed off the densely populated capital of Manila from most domestic travelers, snarling traffic to check commuters for fever. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced plans to limit people’s movements nationwide, shortly after the country’s Tyrol province followed Italy and Spain in barring residents from leaving their homes except for essential errands or work.

With new infections dwindling in Asia, Europe has become the main front line of the fight against COVID-19. The virus has infected 156,000 people and killed over 5,800, but nearly 74,000 people have already recovered from it.

People should go out “only alone or with the people who live in their apartment,” said Kurz, whose country has 800 infections.

Across the ocean, those comments were echoed by one of America’s top infectious disease experts.

“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,’’ Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told NBC’s ”Meet the Press.’’

Travellers scrambling to return to the U.S. after the Trump administration imposed a wide-ranging ban on people entering from Europe faced hours-long waits for required medical screenings. Videos and photos on social media showed packed halls and winding lines.

The crowds prompted Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to tweet angrily at President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, demanding that they take action to address the crowds.

“This is unacceptable, counterproductive and exactly the opposite of what we need to do to prevent #COVID19,” Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth tweeted.

The U.S. has seen 60 deaths and more than 2,100 infections. In hard-hit Washington state, officials said the disease is straining the supply of protective gear available to medical providers despite shipments from the federal government.

Trump himself has tested negative for the new virus, his physician said.

Italy, the worst-hit European country with more than 21,000 infections and 1,400 deaths, ratcheted its nearly week-old lockdown even tighter. The transport ministry banned passengers from taking ferries to the island of Sardinia and banned overnight train trips — which many in the north had been taking to reach homes and families in the south. Overwhelmed hospitals struggled to cope with the sick.

“It’s not a wave. It’s a tsunami,” said Dr. Roberto Rona, in charge of intensive care at the Monza hospital.

Spain joined Italy on lockdown after the government declared a two-week state of emergency.

“From now we enter into a new phase,” Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, whose wife has tested positive for the virus. “We won’t hesitate in doing what we need must to beat the virus. We are putting health first.”

In Barcelona, people who ventured out on quiet streets to buy bread at a bakery formed long lines with a meter (about three feet) between each person to reduce the risk of contagion. Police patrolled parks and told people who were not taking their dog on a quick walk to go home.

The state of emergency “is necessary to unify our efforts so we can all go in the same direction,” Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau said. “If we show solidarity and think about one another we can get through this.”

Turkey, meanwhile, put aside quarantine beds for more than 10,000 people returning from pilgrimages to Islam’s holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

In China, where the virus was first detected in December, those arriving on overseas flights were routed to a converted exhibition center for initial checks before being shuttled off to their homes or other quarantine locations.

China, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Spain have the world’s most infections. For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Even as social life largely halted — the German capital of Berlin closed bars, cinemas and other facilities on Saturday evening — some attempts at keeping up public life persisted.

France, which has 4,500 infections and 91 deaths, went ahead Sunday with nationwide elections to choose mayors and other local leaders despite a crackdown on gatherings. The French government ordered unprecedented sanitary measures at polling stations. Organizers had to keep a 1-meter (three-foot) gap between people in lines and provide soap or hydro-alcoholic gel and disinfectant wipes for voting machines. Voters were told to bring their own pens.

The state of Bavaria in neighboring Germany, which had reported nearly 3,800 cases and eight deaths nationwide, also went ahead with municipal elections. Local officials said more people filed postal ballots than five years earlier, and election workers wore protective gloves.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis for the second Sunday delivered his noon remarks and spoken blessing from inside the Apostolic Library instead of from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square. He praised people who might risk contagion to help the poor and homeless.

But the Vatican later said that all Holy Week ceremonies will take place without the “physical presence of the faithful.” It said until April 12, when Easter Sunday is celebrated this year, all the general audiences on Wednesday as well as Francis’s weekly Sunday noon prayer will be streamed by the Vatican.

Among popular Holy Week ceremonies is the Good Friday Way of the Cross torchlit procession at Rome’s Colosseum. Holy Week ceremonies usually draw tens of thousands of people to Rome but, with Italy being the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, tourism in the country has vanished.

Britain, which has taken a different approach and hasn’t yet restricted everyday activities, said it plans to set out emergency powers this week, including potentially requiring people over 70 to self-isolate for up to four months and banning mass gatherings.

“We will do the right thing at the right time,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC. “We will publish the bill this week coming.”

In the Middle East, Muslim authorities announced that Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, would be closed indefinitely due to concerns about the outbreak, with prayers continuing to be held on the sprawling esplanade outside.

Dalia Samhouri, a regional official with the World Health Organization, said both Iran and Egypt, two of the most populous countries in the Mideast, were likely under-reporting cases because infected people can still show no visible symptoms. Iran says it has 12,729 virus cases and 611 deaths, while Egypt has reported 110 cases, including two fatalities.

“We can easily say that the current figures are an underestimation of the actual figures,” she said.

And just across the Hudson River from New York City, the New Jersey city of Hoboken, which has a main street lined with bars and restaurants, decided to imposed a 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew on residents amid the virus outbreak.

Geir Moulson reported from Berlin. Frances D’Emilio in Rome, Iain Sullivan in Madrid, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Yanan Wang in Beijing, Andrew Taylor in Washington, and Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.

Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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