On a weekend when many pandemic-weary people emerged from weeks of lockdown, leaders in the U.S. and Europe weighed the risks and rewards of lifting COVID-19 restrictions knowing that a vaccine could take years to develop.
In separate stark warnings, two major European leaders bluntly told their citizens that the world needs to adapt to living with the coronavirus and cannot wait to be saved by a vaccine.
“We are confronting this risk, and we need to accept it, otherwise we would never be able to relaunch,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, heeding a push by regional leaders to allow restaurants, bars and beach facilities to open Monday, weeks ahead of an earlier timetable.
In the U.S., images of crowded bars, beaches and boardwalks suggested some weren’t heeding warnings to safely enjoy reopened spaces while limiting the risks of spreading infection.
A member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, wouldn’t second-guess state and local officials as they decide whether to let restaurants and other businesses reopen. He said the lockdown measures also carry “serious health consequences,” including the risk of suicide, delayed cardiac procedures and cancer screenings.
“I think in any individual instance you’re going to see people doing things that are irresponsible,” Azar told CNN on Sunday. “That’s part of the freedom we have here in America.”
The warnings by Italy’s Conte and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson came as governments worldwide and many U.S. states struggled with restarting economies blindsided by the pandemic. With 36 million newly unemployed in the U.S. alone, economic pressures are building even as authorities acknowledge that reopening risks setting off new waves of infections and deaths.
”We are facing a calculated risk, in the awareness … that the epidemiological curve could go back up,” Conte said, adding that Italy could “not afford” to wait until a vaccine was developed. Health experts say the world could be months, if not years, away from having a vaccine available to everyone despite the scientific gold rush now on to create one.
Britain’s Johnson, who was hospitalized last month with a serious bout of COVID-19, speculated Sunday that a vaccine may not be developed at all, despite the huge global effort to produce one.
“I said we would throw everything we could at finding a vaccine,” Johnson wrote in the Mail on Sunday newspaper. “There remains a very long way to go, and I must be frank that a vaccine might not come to fruition.”
Coronavirus has infected over 4.6 million people and killed more than 312,000 worldwide, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts say under counts the true toll of the pandemic. The U.S. has reported over 88,000 dead and Europe has seen at least 160,000 deaths.
Some experts noted reports of recent case surges in Texas, including a 1,800-case jump Saturday, with Amarillo identified as a growing hot spot. Texas officials said increased testing was playing a big role — the more you look for something, the more you find it. Many are watching hospitalizations and death rates in the weeks ahead to see exactly what the new Texas numbers really mean.
But Texas was one of the earliest states to allow stores and restaurants to reopen and some experts worry it is a sign of the kind of outbreak re-ignition that might occur when social distancing and other prevention measures are loosened or ignored.
“It’s likely that we’re going to see more of this” kind of increase, said Dr. Boris Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
Dr. Michael Saag at the University of Alabama at Birmingham called Texas “a warning shot” for states to closely watch any surges in cases and have plans to swiftly take steps to stop them.
“No one knows for sure exactly the right way forward, and what I think we’re witnessing is a giant national experiment,” said Saag, an infectious diseases researcher.
In the U.S., many states have lifted stay-at home-orders and other restrictions, allowing some types of businesses to reopen.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, told CNN on Sunday that he was concerned to see images of a crowded bar in Columbus, Ohio, on the first day that outdoor dining establishments were allowed to reopen.
“All of this is a work in progress,” he said. “We made the decision to start opening up Ohio, and about 90 percent of our economy is back open, because we thought it was a huge risk not to open. But we also know it’s a huge risk in opening.”
Houses of worship are beginning to look ahead to resumption of in-person services, with some eyeing that shift this month. But the challenges of reopening the doors to worship are steeper in states with ongoing public health restrictions.
In Elgin, Ill., Northwest Bible Baptist Church had sought to welcome back worshipers on Sunday, preparing to scan people’s temperatures and purchasing protective equipment. But the church postponed that after local authorities raised questions and is now in talks about parameters for holding future services.
The church’s preparations to reopen were “more than what they’d had to do if they were at Home Depot or Lowe’s or Walmart,” said Jeremy Dys, a counsel at First Liberty Institute, the legal nonprofit representing Northwest Bible Baptist. “Somehow people going to church are incapable, it’s insinuated, of safely gathering.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested that early predictions were overblown, as he attempts to lure residents back to public life and help rebuild the state’s battered economy. On Monday, Florida restaurants will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity, as can retail shops, museums and libraries. Gyms can also begin reopening.
Paula Walborsky, a 74-year-old retired attorney in Tallahassee, Florida, has resisted the temptation to get her hair done and turned down dinner invitations from close friends. But when one of her city’s public swimming pools reopened by appointment, she decided to test the waters. She wore a mask that she removed when she waded into the pool. Just a handful of other swimmers shared the water as she swam laps and did water aerobics.
“I was so excited to be back in the water, and it just felt wonderful,” Walborsky said.
Professional soccer matches in Germany resumed over the weekend, a move keenly watched by the rest of the soccer world as well as Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and the NHL in the U.S., which all face major changes to their operations amid the pandemic.
“The whole world is watching Germany to see how we do it,” Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick said. “It can act as an example for all leagues.”