Europe Begins to Ease Lockdowns Before the Holidays

Europe Begins to Ease Lockdowns Before the Holidays 1
Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

As Americans spent a holiday torn between hope and heartbreak — with the promise of coronavirus vaccines competing with the reality of empty seats around the Thanksgiving table — European nations planned to emerge from lockdowns while still containing the virus in the weeks before Christmas.

It has been a month since most countries in Europe tightened restrictions to try to get a resurgent virus under control, and while the economic and emotional costs are high, the logic of lockdowns is simple: The tighter the restrictions, the more success in stopping new infections. Caseloads have fallen in Britain, France, Spain and other European countries.

“We must learn from the summer and not repeat the same mistakes,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, told lawmakers in Brussels this week. “Relaxing too fast and too much is a risk for a third wave after Christmas.”

No country has figured out the perfect balance, and even nations that won praise for their handling of the virus have struggled to contain a second wave.

Germany passed one million total infections on Friday, and the country’s daily death toll climbed above 400 for the first time this week.

Rather than ease measures, as some neighboring countries are doing, Germany is tightening the reins.

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France imposed stringent restrictions at the end of October and the number of new cases plummeted.

“The peak of the second wave of the epidemic has passed,” President Emmanuel Macron of France said this week. He outlined a three-step plan to ease restrictions, starting on Saturday, when small businesses would be allowed to reopen and places of worship permitted to hold services for up to 30 people.

In two weeks, if new cases remain low, museums, cinemas and theaters in France will be allowed to reopen, and people will be permitted to travel to spend Christmas with family.

“But I call upon your sense of responsibility: This will certainly not be a Christmas like the others,” Mr. Macron said.

Under the French plan, restaurants, bars and gyms will be the last to reopen, on Jan. 20.

Britain has opted for a “tiered system,” with different regions facing different restrictions.

But even before the country’s lawmakers vote on the measures next week, the government faced criticism that the “tiers” were really just another word for lockdowns.

More than 23 million people in England will be placed under the tightest restrictions. Another 32 million will fall under the second of the three tiers, and just 1 percent of the population will fall under the least restrictive tier.

The situation in the United States, which has had one of the world’s highest per capita caseloads in the past week, offered an object lesson in the terrible toll of decisions delayed or not taken.

Every day for more than two weeks, the United States has set records for the number of people in the hospital, with the latest figure surging past 90,000 for the first time on Thursday.

And public health experts worried that even with the daily death toll already soaring, the nation could expect harder days to come.

“I worry that the Thanksgiving Day surge will then just add into what will become the Christmas surge,” Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told CNN. “Which will then make this one seem as if it wasn’t so bad.”

Kindergarten students at a school in Tennessee. The youngest students are regarded as the worst suited for remote learning.
Credit…Brett Carlsen for The New York Times

Kindergarten enrollment in American schools has plummeted during the pandemic, potentially setting back educational and social development for children at a critical age and impacting public school budgets for years to come.

Most states don’t require kindergarten attendance. As a result, the drop in enrollment at that age has been steeper than at other levels — down 14 percent in Arizona, for example, compared to 5 percent across all grades. Nicole Swartz, an Arizona parent who did not enroll her son this fall, told AZfamily.com, “I just really disagreed with just the mental well-being of what would happen with a 6-year-old sitting at a laptop all day.”

Parents made similar decisions across the country. Pre-K and kindergarten enrollment fell 18 percent in Massachusetts, compared to declines of almost 4 percent for other grades. In Ohio, kindergarten enrollment declined in nearly every local school district.

The youngest students, many experts agree, are worst suited for remote learning. They’re squirmy. They can’t figure out how to work computers without help. And much of their learning is social, emotional and motor skill-based.

But younger students might also be best positioned to return to schools safely, at least for now. Growing evidence suggests that they are less likely to transmit the coronavirus to adults or to suffer severe symptoms.

Some parents have turned to parochial and private schools, which could have a significant impact on public schools in states that use enrollment to allocate funding. That has already happened in South Dakota’s largest district, Sioux Falls, where 300 fewer students may mean a loss of $2.5 million in state financial aid.

In Georgia, where kindergarten enrollment dropped 11 percent this fall, public schools could lose $100 million in funding.

“If you lose five students in a classroom, you can’t turn down the heat by five students,” Stephen Owens, a senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, told WABE. “You can’t fire one-twentieth of a teacher.”

A colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (green) heavily infected with coronavirus particles (purple).
Credit…NIAID

With the emergence of what seem so far to be safe and effective coronavirus vaccine candidates, it appears that humanity may be the winner once again in the unending evolutionary competition between viruses and people.

But vaccines do not stop the process of evolution. David A. Kennedy and Andrew F. Read of The Pennsylvania State University, specialists in viral resistance to vaccines, wrote in PLoS Biology recently that there is always the chance that any virus can evolve resistance to a vaccine. As vaccines are tested and come into use during the pandemic, they urge monitoring of how the coronavirus responds, just in case.

“Nothing that we’re saying is suggesting that we slow down development of vaccines,” Dr. Kennedy said. And resistance evolves over time, after vaccines come into use, so the authors are not raising any concerns about the safety or efficacy of any current vaccine candidates.

A concern about resistance caused Denmark to call for a cull of all its farmed mink because a mutation in infected mink that had been passed on to people seemed worrisome, although these worries have eased.

One mutation found so far seems to help the virus spread, but does not make it resistant to vaccines or make people sicker.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh discovered another mutation in the virus of a kind that hadn’t been seen in coronaviruses before that suggests that the coronavirus may have the potential to develop vaccine resistance. They are currently studying that mutation to learn more. That study was posted online but has not yet appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.

Members of the National Guard at the Texas Division of Emergency Management’s warehouse in San Antonio. The military has worked behind the scenes to bring a virus vaccine to the public.
Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press

When President Trump talks about efforts to deliver the coronavirus vaccine to millions of Americans eager to return to their normal lives, he often says he is “counting on the military” to get it done.

Mr. Trump has given the impression that troops would be packing up vials, transporting them from factories to pharmacies and perhaps even administering shots. And, at times, military officers working on the sprawling interagency program to move those vaccine doses from drug companies into doctors’ offices have indicated the same thing.

In reality, the role of the military has been less public and more pervasive than this characterization suggests.

When companies have lacked the physical spaces needed to conduct their drug trials, the Defense Department has acquired trailers and permits to create pop-up medical sites in parking lots. When a required piece of plastic or glass was in short supply, the military leveraged a law passed during the Korean War to force manufacturers to move them to the front of the line. Should a hurricane hit somewhere, blocking trucks, the military has transportation ready.

But the distribution of vaccines will be left largely to their producers and commercial transportation companies. Black Hawk helicopters will not be landing next to neighborhood drugstore to drop off doses.

Scores of Defense Department employees are laced through the government offices involved in the effort, making up a large portion of the federal personnel devoted to the effort. Those numbers have led some current and former officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to privately grumble that the military’s role in Operation Warp Speed was too large for a task that is, at its core, a public health campaign.

“Frankly, it has been breathtaking to watch,” said Paul Ostrowski, a retired Army lieutenant general and the director of supply, production and distribution for Operation Warp Speed.

Hurtigruten’s Nordnorge ship in Trondheim, Norway, last February. The cruise line is booking trips into 2022 at deep discounts.
Credit…Ntb Scanpix/via Reuters

Black Friday deals in the travel industry are bigger, better and longer this year, as operators seek to kick-start travel planning in the wake of promising coronavirus vaccine news. Most sale terms acknowledge the inevitable disruptions wrought by the pandemic with flexible cancellation policies and some even throw in travel insurance that will cover your treatment if you are diagnosed with Covid-19 while traveling.

Experts advise holding off on any deals in the next few months, because discounts may get even better as hotel stays, cruises and airline bookings remain depressed. But deals on the far horizon, when vaccines may be widely available, are a more enticing gamble.

“If you can get those reservations with full flexibility, that might be a free option you want because I would expect a big uptick in demand,” said Christopher Anderson, a professor of operations management in Cornell University’s hotel school.

Early on, sales seem to be trending to far horizons. Hurtigruten, the Norway-based expedition cruise line, said half of its Black Friday sales, running until Wednesday, were for itineraries in 2022. G Adventures, a small group tour company with Black Friday deals through Nov. 30, said most of its sale bookings are for June through October of next year.

Many sales are yet to start, including up to 70 percent off more than 1,000 tours worldwide at TourRadar, an online agency.

“We’re a little nervous about how it will do, but hopefully the vaccine news drums up some interest for tours later in 2021,” said Cameron Papp, a spokesman for TourRadar.

In Melbourne, Australia, this week. The state of Victoria announced on Friday that it had eliminated the virus.
Credit…Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

After 28 days without any new cases or deaths from the coronavirus, the state of Victoria in Australia, which endured one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in recent months, announced on Friday that it had eliminated the virus.

“Today, we mark the 28th day of zero cases across our state,” Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, told reporters on Friday. “That is something that all Victorians should be fundamentally proud of.” On Dec. 6, Mr. Andrews is scheduled to announce a further easing of restrictions before Christmas.

In July, after a breach in Melbourne’s hotel quarantine system caused an outbreak of the virus, the Victoria state authorities clamped down by enforcing a strict lockdown that included travel regulations and mask rules. Restrictions have largely eased, but people in Victoria are still required to wear masks while indoors, and there are limitations on both indoor and outdoor gatherings.

Public health experts said the state’s success was proof that when the public adhered to strict regulations, the virus could successfully be eliminated.

Many Victorians celebrated the news online. “In the depth of that grim, grim winter I didn’t dare hope this was possible,” Miki Perkins, a local reporter, wrote on Twitter.

Richard Denniss, a prominent Australian economist, also said on Twitter that the state’s stamping out of the virus proved that trusting in public health experts worked, and was also good for Australia’s economy. “Wow! Just wow!” he wrote. “Science works.”

A closed cafe in London this month on the first day of England’s lockdown restrictions. Bars and restaurants in the city will be allowed to reopen next week, although they will remain closed in other parts of the country.
Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Under fire from critics over the economic and social cost of his coronavirus restrictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will bring a grueling, second, national lockdown in England to an end next week.

But under a new set of rules announced on Thursday, which divide England into three tiers of restrictions, the access to bars and restaurants will differ drastically from place to place depending on the government’s assessment of the local threat posed by the virus.

And that means the more than 23 million people who live in the most restricted tier still face a ban on one of the nation’s favored activities: a visit to the pub.

With the holiday season arriving, Mr. Johnson has a difficult balance to strike in trying to tweak the exit from the lockdown in a way that is neither so stringent that many fail to comply, nor so lax that it allows the virus to get out of control.

Opinion polls generally show that Britons support tough measures and prefer to prioritize health over the economy. And the risk to health remains real.

But the political backlash against the new pub rules was swift as Graham Brady, who chairs an influential committee of Conservative backbench lawmakers, told the BBC that he would vote against the three-tier plan when it goes to Parliament for approval next week.

“I have severe reservations on so many different levels,” Mr. Brady said. “I do think that the policies have been far too authoritarian. I think they have interfered in people’s private and personal lives in a way which is unacceptable.”

In Thursday’s closely watched announcement of post-lockdown rules, the government said it plans to allow areas in the second of the three tiers, including London and Liverpool, to permit bars to serve alcohol to customers who order food.

But throughout huge swathes of the country, including most of its other big cities like Manchester and Birmingham, the government wants tougher restrictions to be in place, with pub and restaurant doors kept firmly shuttered when the national lockdown ends on Dec. 2.

Lamar Jackson, the quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens. The team has shut down its facility because of the outbreak.
Credit…Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

Lamar Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback and the National Football League’s reigning Most Valuable Player, on Thursday became the highest-profile player to test positive for the coronavirus as an outbreak of cases spread to more than a dozen players on the team, according to several media outlets.

The cluster of new cases threatened to upend the team’s next game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which the league had already moved to Sunday afternoon from Thanksgiving night.

The league said on Thursday night that the game would still be played Sunday. But if not, it could create a cascade effect for the league’s schedule makers, who had already shifted more than a dozen games so far this season because of the virus and appear to have little wiggle room in the 16-game schedule for further postponements.

The N.F.L. Network reported that Jackson, 23, whom the team selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, had tested positive for the virus.

The team did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday night. On Wednesday, the team announced that it had disciplined a staff member for “conduct surrounding” the cases that had affected the players and team employees. The Ravens did not identify the staff member or elaborate on the nature of the misconduct.

In contrast to some of the other major North American professional sports leagues, the N.F.L. opted not to use a so-called bubble model with teams playing games in isolation at one or two locations this season. So far, dozens of players and team employees across the league have tested positive for the virus.

A crowded market in Mumbai, India, before the Hindu festival of Diwali this month.
Credit…Rajanish Kakade/Associated Press

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India this week asked regional governments to start setting up coronavirus vaccine distribution systems, a step toward tackling the logistical hurdles in vaccinating the country’s more than one billion people.

The first phase of India’s vaccine rollout plan, in which 250 million Indians will be vaccinated, could cost more than $10 billion, according to the Drugs Controller General of India. Mr. Modi said that he was not certain when the rollout would start and cautioned that the vaccine could cause side effects.

There are five vaccines in clinical trials in India, including a late-stage trial of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, is conducting. Serum’s chief executive, Adar Poonawalla, said this week his company would prioritize vaccine supply to Indians over other countries, and that Serum would likely begin marketing vaccines in the first three months of next year.

While India’s new case numbers have dropped in recent weeks, the capital, New Delhi, is experiencing a sharp rise.

The Indian economy has shrunk faster than any other major nation’s, with unemployment already at a four-decade high. Fatigued by lockdown measures, people have flouted virus restrictions, causing the number of cases to climb.

After this month’s Hindu festival of Diwali, officials in New Delhi anticipate a surge in cases in early December and have threatened to shut down markets and limit the number of guests at weddings.

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