Face masks have become compulsory in more than 100 Paris streets and tourist areas, Greece is “formally” in a second wave and new outbreaks are causing alarm in Italy and Spain as coronavirus infection continues to pick up again across Europe.
Dr Mike Ryan, the head of the World Health Organization’s emergencies programme, said the virus had shown no seasonal pattern and that governments in western Europe needed to react fast to new flare-ups to prevent it bouncing back.
The Paris order applies to everyone aged 11 and over and covers places where physical distancing is difficult, including open-air markets, shopping streets and areas with large numbers of cafés and bars such as Rue Oberkampf and parts of the Marais.
The city’s busiest boulevards and the pedestrianised banks of the Seine and the Canal St Martin, which are popular evening and weekend gathering places, are also included, as is Montmartre with its warren of narrow streets. More open areas such as the zone around the Eiffel Tower and Champs Élysées are not included.
“The targets are basically places with a lot of people where it’s hard to keep more than a metre apart, and areas where people go to to relax, where distancing measures are being forgotten,” said Nicolas Nordman, a city hall safety official.
He said people not wearing masks would be warned for the first few days, but that police would soon start handing out fines of €135 (£120). The zones where masks are obligatory will be evaluated regularly and could be expanded, he added.
Several other French cities, including Lille, Nice and Biarritz, have adopted similar measures in recent days as the spread of Covid-19 has accelerated in several parts of France. France reported 2,288 infections in 24 hours on Friday and another 785 on Monday, bringing its weekly total of new cases to 10,800.
Several European countries are experiencing a sharp increase in infections after easing strict lockdowns. In most, numbers remains significantly lower than during March and April, but Greece recorded 203 infections tests on Sunday, its highest figure since the start of the pandemic.
Gkikas Magiorkinis, an assistant professor of hygiene and epidemiology at Athens University and one of the country’s top infectious disease experts, said Greece had reached a critical juncture in its ability to contain the further spread of the virus.
“We can say that Greece has formally entered a second wave of the epidemic. This is the point that we could win or lose the battle,” he said, adding that cases could surge to 350 a day if the “dramatic increase” continued unabated.
“Unless there is a change in the trend that we are seeing we are likely to propose more measures along the lines we have seen in Poros,” he said, referring to the island where a surge in cases late last week prompted authorities to announce an unprecedented crackdown including the closures of clubs, bars and restaurants from 11pm.
The Greek health minister, Vassilis Kikilias, said transmission of the virus was “growing dangerously and hinted that further containment measures were likely to be announced.
The country’s main concern was “the degree to which this epidemic can stretch any health system”, he said. “No health system, anywhere in the world, can cope effectively with a full epidemic resurgence.”
While tourism was partly to blame, Magiorkinis attributed the recent Greek resurgence mostly to lax observance of hygiene protocols by Greeks, particularly younger generations who have flooded bars and beaches in recent weeks.
Young holidaymakers returning from such places such as Ibiza, Malta, Croatia and Corfu have been cited as one of the reasons infections are on the rise again in Italy, where new cases jumped to 552 on Friday, a 38% increase on the previous day, before falling to 463 on Sunday and 259 on Monday.
The median age of an infected person within the last 30 days has fallen to 38, the Corriere della Sera paper reported, with a sharp increase in cases among those under 18. “Not being worried would be reckless,” the health minister, Roberto Speranza, told the paper. “The average age among those infected has dramatically fallen below 40.”
There are currently 15 clusters of infections across Italy, including 14 friars in the Umbrian town of Assisi who recently arrived from overseas. The biggest outbreak, involving 257 people, has been among residents and staff at a migrant reception centre in Treviso, Veneto.
Fresh outbreaks in north-east Spain continue to cause concern. Catalonia reported 863 new infections and five deaths in the past 24 hours and neighbouring Aragón recorded 633.
New outbreaks have also been reported in Marbella and elsewhere on the Costa del Sol, and the Atlético de Madrid football team, who are due to travel to Lisbon for their Uefa Champions League quarter-final against RB Leipzig, also reported two cases.
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Despite the recent increase in infections in Spain, the WHO’s director of public health and environment, Maria Neira, said a new national lockdown would only be justified by a “very alarming” epidemiological scenario which she said “simply doesn’t exist”.
Education authorities across Germany, meanwhile, where pupils in the states of Berlin, Brandenburg and Schleswig-Holstein returned to class on Monday, are divided over whether students should be required to wear masks during lessons.
In four states, pupils and staff are required to wear masks only in corridors, common rooms, stairwells and canteens, while others – including Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, where secondary schools go back on Wednesday – have made masks compulsory everywhere on school grounds, including classrooms.
Teachers’ unions have criticised the rules. “Starting schools with full classrooms can only be something other than a risky experiment if we are prepared to replace safety distances with other effective hygiene measures at schools,” said Heinz-Peter Meidinger, the head of the German Association of Teachers.