ROME—Just when Europeans were trading masks for bikinis, COVID-19 seems to be rearing its ugly head. In Spain, Germany and Italy, new hot spots of the virus are causing concern that the virus is on its way back.
What makes the resurgence even worse is that Europe has been rightfully gloating about how well they have handled the pandemic so far. Strict lockdowns in hard-hit countries like Italy and Spain led to a flattened curve, albeit at an astronomical cost to the local economies. But for the most part, socially distanced Europeans who are now going back to work and kickstarting the economies, felt the sacrifice was mostly worth it as they look across the pond at the careless mask-free Americans at their bars, restaurants, and beaches as the contagion rate soars.
Europe should have known better than to brag too soon. China gloated too when they were past the worst only to be hit with second waves that have caused new lockdowns in parts of Beijing, which largely missed the worst during the first wave. In March, a Chinese official scolded the regional health director of hard-hit Lombardy for not making masks mandatory everywhere or risk never crawling out of the pandemic tunnel.
A few months later, many Europeans are saying the same thing to the U.S. even as numbers start to creep up.
On Thursday, Italy banned entry to people from 13 nations they say risk bringing the virus back in. Despite allowing visitors from the 14 nations the European Union approved from July 1—that does not include the U.S.A.— Italy has now taken the extra measure to close its borders to flights from Armenia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brazil, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Kuwait, North Macedonia, Moldova, Oman, Panama, Peru and Dominican Republic—even for work travel.
Italy's health minister Roberto Sparenza cited “maximum prudence” for the harsh move, adding that Italy dared not let its guard—or masks— down lest they “nullify” the effects of the Draconian lockdown that ended May 18.
The U.S. remains off any EU welcome list but Croatia's which has taken great risks to suck up U.S. tourism dollars by allowing Americans in for tourism with no quarantine. Italy, which is traditionally popular among American travelers, has strongly refused to bend its America ban, stopping five Americans who were among a dozen multinational travelers flying by private jet to Sardinia from Colorado. After 14 hours of futile negotiations, the Americans had no right to stay and were sent on their way to the U.K. where they are now under quarantine. They are now fighting to get a refund on their holiday villa they had booked for three weeks.
The new extended ban comes after 36 people on a flight of 274 passengers from Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, to Rome that arrived on Monday tested positive for COVID-19. A further 160 people from that flight are awaiting test results under forced quarantine. The regional health minister Alessio D’Amato called the discovery due to random testing, a “veritable viral bomb that we’ve diffused.”
Rome officials then tested people within the Banglaeshi community in the city and found another pocket of cases, presumably tied to those who had previously returned to the city for work after the lockdown was lifted.
The next day, Rome’s main airport in Fiumicino blocked a flight of 135 people coming in from Qatar that had originated in Dhaka. Only non-Bangladeshi passengers were allowed to disembark and were all tested for the virus.
“We cannot allow positive and unmonitored people to come in from foreign countries,” Italy's prime minister Giuseppe Conte insisted when he instituted the new ban, pointing out that countries like Bangladesh do not conduct checks on outgoing passengers.
The regional governor of the Veneto region, which was hit hard early on, has instituted a €1,000 fine for anyone breaking quarantine required on arrival from any but EU countries—whether they have tested positive or not— after an Italian caused a new outbreak in his village after coming back from a business trip to Serbia.
Spain, which surpassed Italy as Europe's pandemic epicenter before the wave moved to the Americas, is also seeing new trouble.
Last week, the Spanish region of Catalonia locked down 210,000 residents after a new hot spot emerged there, likely tied to the opening of European external borders on July 1. People from all over Europe flocked to Spain for the summer sun, but none had to quarantine. Catalan President Quim Torra shut the tourist season down once again, decreeing that no one can enter or leave the district of Segrià west of Barcelona until further notice. On Sunday the region of Galicia reimposed its lockdown, convincing 70,000 people to their homes.
In the United Kingdom, where the government was slow to react and quick to reopen, the death rate jumped by 148 in a 24-hour period over the weekend as officials there weighed whether opening pubs was really such a good idea. Scotland has threatened to start border checks to keep themselves safe and to keep Brits out.
The rise in cases comes just two weeks after Europe opened its external borders and while it still won't let in tourists from hot spots like Brazil or the United States, people from those countries could come for work or other essential travel, including in some cases owning summer homes. Each EU country can decide whether or not to enforce quarantines, but since there are no longer controls between the Schengen countries, someone from a hot zone with a valid reason to travel could fly into one country that does not require quarantine from international arrivals and easily drive to a country that does and skirt the rules and, potentially spark a new wave.
Even some of Europe's greatest success stories are seemingly letting their guard down. Greece managed to escape the brunt of the pandemic's wrath by vigorous testing and a harsh lockdown. Even when the rest of Europe started opening its internal borders, the Greeks tested every single person who landed from any other country.
In mid-June, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told reporters that his priority was to make Greece the safest tourist destination in Europe. “You can come to Greece, you will have a fantastic experience, you can sit on a veranda with this wonderful view, have your nice Assyrtiko wine, enjoy the beach,” Mitsotakis said. “But we don’t want you crowded in a beach bar… There are a few things that we won’t allow this summer.” One month later, mandatory testing is no longer required at airports and the beach bars are packed.
Germany and France have already also seen clusters of new disease since lockdown restrictions have been lifted, but at least in France, the government promises that there will be no new lockdown even if a second wave is as bad as the first. “But we’re not going to impose a lockdown like the one we did last March,” Prime Minister Jean Castex said in an interview this week. “Because we’ve learned that the economic and human consequences from a total lockdown are disastrous.”
Whether they are worse than the toll on Europe's health-care systems will surely be a matter of debate when—not if—the second wave arrives.