France and Spain on Monday cautiously joined the ranks of European nations loosening coronavirus restrictions, while the fear of a second-wave outbreak is hanging over.
The easing came a little shy of two months after the two governments imposed nationwide lockdown to curb the coronavirus pandemic, which has so far claimed 26,643 lives in France and 26,744 in Spain, according to the latest official tallies.
The relaxation also came as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the global coronavirus caseload had passed the 4 million mark.
"I FEEL I'M REBORN"
People in France can now move more freely. More important for them, meetings with family and friends are allowed if the gathering draws no more than 10 people.
Business can resume, factories can kickstart long-stalled assembly lines, and pupils can return to schools -- if safety precautions are in place.
"I'm so excited. It's so good to go back to work after a long period of confinement. I feel that I'm reborn," said Josephine, a florist in Paris.
In the French capital, one million stickers on the ground in train and metro stations and seats marked social distancing. Commuters had to wear masks and need to fill in a document to use public transport in rush hours. Any offender risks a fine of 135 euros (145.95 U.S. dollars).
Under the new rules, citizens can only travel up to 100 km unless for professional and urgent reasons, while restaurants, cafes and cinemas are still banned from receiving customers.
France's first-day post-lockdown "is going as it should," said Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, minister of state for transport, expressing "satisfaction to see that the wearing of the mask is well respected."
In Spain, 51 percent of the population were allowed to progress to Phase One on Monday, while regions of Madrid, Catalonia, among others, remained at Phase Zero after failing to meet certain criteria.
The regions that have moved into Phase One will see a gradual reopening of commerce, with bars, shops, libraries, and museums allowed to open under reduced capacity and strict hygiene rules.
Meetings of up to 10 people are allowed. Members of the same family can travel in the same car or sit next to each other on public transport, although they have to respect social distancing, and everyone taking public transport has to wear a face mask.
The Phase One will last at least two weeks before some regions are allowed to progress to Phase Two, which will see further easing of restrictions.
"SAVE LIVES, STAY CAUTIOUS"
Both governments have opted for a gradual approach to lifting the confinement measures, aiming to perk up their ravaged economies without prompting a second wave of outbreaks.
In a Twitter message to citizens, French President Emmanuel Macron said: "Thanks to you, the virus has slowed. But it is still there. Save lives, stay cautious."
Currently, a single positive case in France can infect less than one person, with the reproduction rate (commonly referred to as R0) slightly over 0.6, Health Minister Olivier Veran said.
"We know that when we gradually lift the confinement, there will be the R0 rise. What we want is to maintain the rate below one, so that the epidemic declines," the minister said.
"De-confinement is not a return to the life as before," he stressed, adding that a lockdown may be reimposed if the virus spreads rapidly.
To Pascal Crepey, a French epidemiologist, the risk of the virus resurgence remains high and depends on the success of the first phase of the de-confinement.
"The risk of an epidemic resurgence exists as long as there is no vaccine neither treatment," Crepey told Xinhua. "All measures that aim to slow the epidemic spread are good, including barrier gestures, mask. If they are respected, surely, they will help to make the virus situation under control."
FURTHER STEPS ACROSS EUROPE
In other parts of Europe, Monday saw governments take further steps to return to normalcy.
Belgium entered phase 1B of the de-confinement, with businesses throughout the country allowed to reopen under strict conditions.
The reopening came one day after the expansion of social contacts, which allows people to receive up to four guests, family members or close friends in each home visit.
Cyprus made another big step back to normality by calling final year students back to classes to have a normal school year conclusion. Last week, Cyprus kick-started its economy by allowing 25,000 retail shops and the construction sector to resume operation.
In Greece, students in the final year of high school also returned to their classrooms on Monday. They will be followed by other high school and middle school pupils on May 18.
Greece started easing on May 4 the full lockdown, which was imposed on March 23. After hair salons, bookstores and other shops opened a week ago, now about a third of employees and businesses that were suspended have returned to work, government spokesperson Stelios Petsas noted on Monday during a regular press briefing. Enditem