Shrieks of joy rang out Sunday in the streets of Spain as children were allowed to leave their homes for the first time in six weeks, while residents of Italy and France were eager to hear their leaders' plans on easing some of the world's strictest coronavirus lockdowns.
The sound of children shouting and the rattle of bikes on the pavement after the 44-day seclusion of Spain's youngest citizens offered a first taste of a gradual return to normal life in the country that has the second-highest number of confirmed infections, behind the United States.
“This is wonderful! I can’t believe it has been six weeks,” Susana Sabaté, a mother of 3-year-old twin boys, said in Barcelona. “My boys are very active. Today when they saw the front door and we gave them their scooters, they were thrilled.”
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Wary of igniting new infection flare-ups, nations around the world have been taking divergent paths on when to reopen their economies after weeks at a standstill under coronavirus lockdowns.
The number of deaths officially attributed to the new coronavirus has topped 200,000 globally and at least 2.9 million people have been infected, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Those figures are widely believed to understate the true toll of the pandemic, due to limited testing, problems in counting the dead and some governments' moves to underplay their outbreaks.
Two weeks after he was discharged from a London hospital, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — the only major world leader so far to fall ill with COVID-19 — will return to work on Monday, his office said.
Spain, Italy and France, which have Europe's highest death tolls from the virus, all imposed tough lockdown rules in March. All have reported significant progress in bringing down infection rates and are ready — warily — to start giving their citizens more freedom.
“Maximum caution will be our guideline for the rollback,” Spanish Prime Minister Sánchez said Saturday evening as he announced that Spaniards will be allowed to leave their homes for short walks and exercise starting May 2. “We must be very prudent because there is no manual, no road map to follow.”
So far, Spanish adults were allowed out only for essential shopping or to go to work that can't be done from home. Children under 14 have been in complete seclusion, but as of Sunday morning they were allowed to take walks with one parent for up an hour.
Those weren't the only restrictions. Spanish youngsters must be within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of their homes, take only one toy with them and are not allowed to play with other kids. Authorities recommend that both parents and children wash their hands before and after outings.
In Barcelona, Sabaté’s sons wore child-size face masks as they went out. “Now we will see how long they stay on!” she said.
Sánchez will present a detailed plan Tuesday for the “de-escalation” of the lockdown for the coming weeks.
In France, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he will unveil the “national deconfinement strategy” on Tuesday. That follows weeks of work by experts on how to find a balance between restarting the eurozone’s second-largest economy and preventing a second wave of infections that could overwhelm intensive care units.
French President Emmanuel Macron had already announced that France’s lockdown would start to be lifted beginning May 11. Philippe's speech will flesh out the details, covering health, schooling, work, shops, transport and gatherings. The lockdown has been raising tensions in France's poorest areas.
Italy's Premier Giuseppe Conte is expected to announce more details easing the lockdown in the coming days for the first European country to see a large-scale coronavirus outbreak.
Britain, which has joined the Italy, Spain and France in recording over 20,000 virus-related deaths, imposed a less harsh shutdown in March. Johnson returns to work amid calls by opposition politicians for more clarity on when his government will ease the lockdown now set to run until at least May 7. The British government is also facing criticism over limited testing and a lack of protective gear for medical workers.
Several countries in Europe are already further along in easing lockdowns. Germany started allowing nonessential shops and other facilities to open last week and Denmark has reopened schools for children up to fifth grade.
Germany's restaurants and tourism industry are among those still awaiting word on a way forward in Europe's largest economy, but Chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated that more major decisions won’t come before May 6.
Germany's top diplomat said Europe must move “as quickly as possible, but as responsibly as necessary” to restore freedom to travel.
“A European race to be the first to allow tourist trips again would lead to unacceptable risks,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “We have already seen what a cluster of infections in a popular holiday area can do in the tourists' home countries. That must not be repeated.”
That was an apparent reference to ski resorts such as Ischgl in Austria, where dozens of tourists were infected and carried the virus as far away as Iceland and Norway.
The U.S. has the world's highest officially confirmed infections and deaths, with more than 50,000 fatalities and around 940,000 infections reported so far in the Johns Hopkins tally, but it has wide regional variations.
While some U.S. states are easing restrictions, Hawaii extended its stay-at-home order until the end of May.
“Thanks to our residents, we are flattening the curve, saving lives and avoiding a resurgence of this virus by not reopening prematurely,” said Hawaii Gov. David Ige.
New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, is keeping restrictions until May 15 but Georgia and Oklahoma have allowed salons, spas and barbershops to reopen.. Alaska cleared the way for restaurants to resume dine-in service and retail shops and other businesses to open, all with limitations.
In Asia, India allowed neighborhood stores to reopen this weekend, though not in the places that have been hit hardest.
The Chinese city of of Wuhan, where the pandemic began, said all major construction projects have resumed in a push to restart factory production and other economic activity after a 2 1/2 month lockdown. The outbreak has largely subsided in China.
South Korea, which recently relaxed some social distancing rules, saw a ninth straight day with fewer than 20 new cases but the city-state of Singapore reported 931 new cases as it battles an outbreak among foreign workers living in crowded dormitories.
Geir Moulson reported from Berlin. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
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