Europe Adopts Tougher Virus Restrictions as Infections Surge

September 22, 2020 Updated: September 22, 2020

LONDON—As the U.S. closed in on 200,000 coronavirus deaths on Sept. 21, the situation deteriorated across Europe, with Britain working to draw up new restrictions, Spain clamping down again in Madrid, and the Czech Republic replacing its health minister with an epidemiologist because of a surge of infections.

The growing push to reimpose tough new measures in Europe to beat back a scourge that was seemingly under control in the spring also contributed to a sharp drop on Wall Street.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson later this week is expected to announce a round of restrictions designed to act as a “circuit breaker” to slow the spread of the disease. British Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned that cases are doubling every seven days, and the experience in other countries shows that will soon lead to a rise in deaths.

“We have, in a very bad sense, literally turned a corner,” after weeks of rising infections, Whitty said.

In France, where infections reached a record high over the weekend, with more than 13,000 new cases in 24 hours, health authorities opened new testing centers in the Paris region to reduce lines and delays.

And the Norwegian capital of Oslo banned crowds of more than 10 people in private homes after a spike in cases and strongly urged people to wear face masks when traveling on public transportation amid a strike by bus drivers that forced many commuters to take the tram instead.

“The situation in Oslo is serious. This development must be stopped, and we have to do it now,” Mayor Raymond Johansen said.

The rise in infection rates in Britain comes as lawmakers across the political spectrum criticize the government’s testing program amid widespread reports of people having to travel hundreds of miles and tests being discarded because it is taking labs too long to process them. France, likewise, has been plagued by long wait times for results.

Madrid Begins Lock Down

Police in the Spanish capital of Madrid and its surrounding towns began stopping people going in and out of working-class neighborhoods that have been partially locked down to combat Europe’s fastest coronavirus spread.

Authorities said that starting on Sept. 23, some 860,000 residents must be able to show that their trips out of their neighborhoods are justified for work, study, or medical reasons or face fines. Parks are closed and shops and restaurants in the affected zones are limited to 50 percent occupancy.

The targeted locations have some of the highest transmission rates in Europe. The measure has been met with protests from people who think the restrictions are stigmatizing the poor.

Madrid has become the epicenter of contagion, with an average rate of infection—746 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in two weeks—nearly three times the national average of 280. Europewide, that number last week was 76.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a Socialist, met on Sept. 21 with Isabel Díaz Ayuso, of the conservative opposition Popular Party, agreeing for central and regional officials to hold bi-weekly technical and weekly political meetings to coordinate a stronger response to the outbreaks.

The central government is going to contribute by providing more health resources and military help, Sánchez said without elaborating.

“Madrid requires a special plan,” the prime minister said. “We should be ready to contemplate other scenarios if it were necessary.”

Some people online shared photos of crammed rush-hour subway trains, complaining that the problem was not in the suburbs but due to the lack of sufficient public transport.

In the hard-hit Vallecas district, Raul Hernández said that his coffee shop expected less business.

“Yesterday afternoon, the change started to be seen and today, we are not doing anything,” he said. “People are accepting it well, they understand it but they are afraid.”

The German city of Munich, with one of the highest infection rates in Germany, will allow only up to five people or members of two households to meet and will restrict private indoor gatherings such as birthday parties, weddings, or funerals to no more than 25 people.

The Czech Republic also faces the possibility of new restrictions after the government-appointed epidemiologist Roman Prymula as health minister.

In the spring, the country recorded a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases and deaths compared with hard-hit Western European countries such as Italy, Spain, and Britain.

But after the government lifted most of its restrictions over the summer, confirmed cases began making a comeback and reached a record high last week. On Sept. 17, the day-to-day increase of new cases was higher than 3,000, almost the same number it was in the entire month of March.

Prymula said over the weekend that the loosening of restrictions was done too quickly.

By Danica Kirka & Sylvie Corbet