Europe Reels as it Sets Virus Records, Slaps on New Rules

BERLIN (AP) -
Medical staff takes a COVID-19 test at a coronavirus test center in Cologne, Germany. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Fears rose Thursday that Europe is running out of time to control a resurgence of the coronavirus, as infections hit record daily highs in Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland. France slapped a 9 p.m. curfew on many of its biggest cities and Londoners faced new travel restrictions as governments imposed increasingly tough measures.

Europe’s financial markets fell sharply Thursday on concerns that the new restrictions on swaths of the region’s economy are already ending the nascent recovery from its sharpest recession in modern history. Major stock indexes were well over 2% lower in Europe.

While Germany, the European Union’s most populous nation, is still in comparatively good shape, alarm bells are ringing there too. On Thursday, the national disease control center reported over 6,600 cases over 24 hours — exceeding the previous record of nearly 6,300 set in late March, although testing has expanded greatly since then.

This week has seen the Netherlands close bars and restaurants, and the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland shut down schools. The Czech Health Ministry confirmed more than 9,500 new virus cases on Wednesday, over 900 more than the days-old previous record. The government announced Thursday that the military will set up a virus hospital at Prague’s exhibition center.

In France, which reported over 22,000 new infections Wednesday, President Emmanuel Macron put 18 million residents in nine regions, including Paris, under a 9 p.m. curfew starting Saturday.

France will deploy 12,000 police officers to enforce the curfew and will spend an additional 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) to help businesses hit by the new restrictions.

“Our compatriots thought this health crisis was behind us,” Prime Minister Jean Castex said. “But we can’t live normally again as long as the virus is here.”

Just as Macron’s government tackles the resurgence of infections, French police on Thursday searched the homes of a former prime minister, the current and former health ministers and other top officials in an investigation into the government’s pandemic response. It was triggered by dozens of complaints over recent months, particularly over shortages of masks and other equipment.

Aurelien Rousseau, director of the Paris region’s public health agency, said nearly half of its intensive care beds are now occupied by coronavirus patients, with other hospital beds filling rapidly too.

The British government on Thursday moved London and a half-dozen other areas into the country’s second-highest virus risk level, meaning that millions will be barred from meeting people outside their households and will be asked to minimize travel.

Italy on Wednesday recorded its biggest single-day jump in infections since the start of the pandemic. It added over 7,300 cases amid a resurgence that is straining the country’s contact-tracing system.

Poland registered a record of nearly 9,000 new cases on Thursday. Masks have been required outdoors since Saturday and strict limits have been imposed on the size of gatherings. Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia also announced record daily case numbers.

Portugal moved to restrict social gatherings to a maximum of five people, while preparing to make masks mandatory outdoors and to impose fines on those disregarding the rules. Even Sweden, which has chosen a much-debated approach of keeping large parts of society open, raised the prospect of tougher restrictions.

“Too many don’t follow the rules,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said. “If there is no correction here, we must take sharper measures.”