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Friday February 26th, 2021 5:04PM

'Difficult winter': Europe divided on lockdowns; cases soar

By The Associated Press
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BRUSSELS (AP) — The World Health Organization’s Europe director expressed deep concern on Thursday after the region again recorded the highest-ever weekly incidence of cases, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned of a “difficult winter” as residents in France braced for life under a new month-long lockdown and Spain's parliament voted to extend the country's state of emergency.

During a meeting with European health ministers, WHO’s European regional director Dr. Hans Kluge said “hospitalizations have risen to levels unseen since the spring” and deaths have sharply risen by more than 30%. He noted that Europe has now reported more than 10 million coronavirus cases and "is at the epicenter of this pandemic once again.”

“At the risk of sounding alarmist, I must express our very real concern," Kluge said.

Speaking to Germany's parliament ahead of a virtual summit of EU leaders on Thursday evening aimed at better coordinating Europe's response to the disease, Merkel said her country faces “a dramatic situation at the beginning of the cold season.”

Germany’s disease control agency said local authorities reported 16,774 new positive tests for COVID-19 in the past day, pushing the country’s total close to the half million-mark. The death toll stood at 10,272.

“The winter will be difficult, four long, difficult months. But it will end,” Merkel told lawmakers.

Under new restrictions going into effect Monday, German restaurants, bars, sports and cultural venues will be shut for four weeks. Gatherings are limited to 10 people from a maximum of two households and all non-essential journeys will be discouraged. Schools, kindergartens, stores and places of worship will remain open — albeit with safety precautions.

Merkel said authorities had no choice but to drastically reduce social contacts as three-quarters of infections in Germany now are no longer traceable.

“If we wait until the ICUs are full, then it will be too late,” she said.

Opposition leader Alexander Gauland of the far-right Alternative for Germany party accused Merkel's government of “wartime propaganda” and likened the pandemic to traffic, arguing that society accepts a certain number of car deaths each year but doesn't ban driving.

Berlin announced a new 10 billion-euro ($11.7 billion) fund for businesses affected by the additional measures.

Europe's biggest economy has been able to mobilize massive financial aid to dampen the impact of the pandemic. Still, the measures have sparked anger, particularly from restaurant owners who had set up heated outdoor seating areas and made other preparations to follow health regulations only to be told they aren't allowed to serve customers for a month.

While France announced a second, full nationwide lockdown Wednesday, many countries have hesitated to take such drastic measures for the second time in a year, wary of the economic pain they cause.

Some French doctors expressed relief and business owners despaired as the country prepared to shut down again for a month. The new lockdown is gentler than what France saw in the spring, but still a shock to restaurants and other non-essential businesses ordered to close their doors.

The British government has resisted calls for a national lockdown, despite having significantly higher 14-day infection rates than Germany and a virus death toll four times larger.

Britain’s Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, said that the virus is “very concentrated in some places,” and that it's best to target restrictions to those areas with the worst outbreaks.

In Spain, authorities have been imposing incremental restrictions on free movement, nightlife and social gatherings, but they have refrained from a strict stay-at-home order like the one that curbed the first wave of infections but scarred the economy.

But with officials predicting that current levels of infection will produce a serious shortage of intensive care beds in November, some experts are already calling for a full lockdown.

Spanish regions like Catalonia and La Rioja have already closed bars and restaurants, while most of the rest have imposed curfews limiting nightlife. But extra subsidies have not accompanied the restrictions, prompting loud protests in Barcelona this week by business owners who banged pots, waved cocktail shakers and chanted “We want to work!”

Spain’s parliament, meanwhile, voted by a majority to keep the country’s newly declared state of emergency in place until May to try to rein in the resurging pandemic, despite objections by some opposition parties. A vote to lift the measure could be held in March should things improve.

Spain has officially recorded more than 1.1 million COVID-19 cases, although authorities say the true figure could be at least three times higher. Its virus death toll is at least 35,000.

As EU leaders met, officials in Brussels urged them to approve rapid virus tests, which are less reliable than standard kits but far quicker to provide results, and to prepare the vast amounts of cold storage that will be needed to keep large stocks of any virus vaccine once it becomes available.

With Belgium, France and Spain warning that their intensive care units could be overwhelmed within two weeks, the officials say it's vital that EU countries agree to share information about ICU capacity so patients can be treated across borders if necessary.

Russia, meanwhile, said that it has no plans to impose a nationwide lockdown.

“Despite a difficult epidemiological situation, right now we’re much better prepared for working during an epidemic,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said. Russia has recorded more than 1.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases, the highest number in Europe and the fourth largest tally worldwide.

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Parra reported from Madrid and Jordans reported from Berlin. AP reporters across Europe contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coronavirus pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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