BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – The world celebrated Easter at a distance on Sunday, with most churches closed and family gatherings canceled amid wide-ranging coronavirus shutdowns. Huge uncertainties loomed about not just the next few weeks but the months ahead as a top European Union official suggested people hold off on making any summer vacation plans.
Southern Europe and the United States, whose death toll of over 20,600 is now the world’s highest, have been the recent focal points of the pandemic. But coronavirus hot spots have been shifting constantly and new concerns are rising in Japan, Turkey, the U.S. Midwest and Britain, where the death toll on Sunday was expected to surpass 10,000.
St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, where tens of thousands would normally gather to hear Pope Francis deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” speech and blessing “to the city and the world,” was empty of crowds and flowers Sunday, ringed by police barricades. Pope Francis celebrated Easter Mass inside the largely empty basilica, with the faithful watching on TV at home.
Similar scenes played out around the world. Some South Korean churches held Easter services online while Catholic bishops in New Zealand wrote a special pastoral letter to worshippers stuck at home.
In Europe, countries used roadblocks, fines and other tactics to keep people from travelling over an Easter weekend with beautiful spring weather. As hard-hit countries like Italy and Spain see reduced daily infections with and deaths from the virus, economic pressures are mounting to loosen the tight restrictions on daily life put in to fight off the pandemic.
Germany’s president told his compatriots in a rare televised address: “Every one of you has changed his life radically; every one of you has saved human lives in doing so and is saving more every day.”
When and how weeks-old restrictions are loosened is something that “all of us have … in our hands, with our patience and our discipline,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.
Some European nations are starting tentative moves to ease their shutdowns. Spain, which on Sunday reported its lowest daily growth in infections in three weeks, will allow workers in some nonessential industries to return Monday to factories and construction sites.
But much uncertainty remains. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in an open letter to Austrians that the virus will “be with us for months yet.”
And asked by Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper whether people should book summer holidays now, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen replied: “I would advise waiting with such plans.”
“No one can make reliable forecasts for July and August at the moment,” she said.
Restaurants and bars already are missing out on holiday business.
“Sales are zero and we have a series of expenses: rent, stock, and we have even had to increase spending with security personnel to prevent robberies,” said Pablo Gonzalo, a bar manager in the southern Spanish city of Malaga.
In his Easter address, the pope called for solidarity across Europe and the world to confront the “epochal challenge” posed by the pandemic. Pope Francis urged political leaders in particular to give hope and opportunity to those laid-off by the millions.
“This is not a time for self-centeredness, because the challenge we are facing is shared by all, without distinguishing between persons,” he said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older people and the infirm, it can cause severe symptoms and lead to death.
More than 1.78 million infections have been reported and 109,000 people have died worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has the highest numbers, with over 530,000 confirmed cases. The figures certainly understate the true size and toll of the pandemic, due to limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and some governments’ desire to downplay the extent of outbreaks.
While some nations think about a pandemic exit strategy, others were dealing with alarming rises in infections or deaths.
Turkey took many by surprise in imposing a partial weekend lockdown after previously taking a more relaxed approach than others. A sudden Friday evening announcement of a 48-hour curfew in 31 cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, prompted crowds to rush to grocery stores for panic buys.
The country had previously imposed a curfew on those under 20 and over 65, exempting most of the workforce as Turkey sought to keep its beleaguered economy on track.
In Japan, emergency medical groups warned that Japanese health care facilities are getting stretched thin and masks and surgical gowns were running short amid a surge in coronavirus patients.
The Israeli government approved a tight quarantine of several areas of Jerusalem, including the historic Old City, to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the city’s most susceptible neighborhoods.
Britain’s virus death toll neared the 10,000 mark. Reported deaths surged by 980 on Friday – exceeding even the peaks seen in Italy and Spain – and were still high at 917 on Saturday, although the number of hospital admissions is leveling off.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the first major world leader to have COVID-19, gave an emotional tribute to the National Health Service workers who treated him.
“I can’t thank them enough. I owe them my life,” Johnson, 55, said in his first public statement since he was moved out of intensive care Thursday evening at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, where he is now recovering in a regular ward.
In the United States, about half the deaths are in the New York metropolitan area, but hospitalizations are slowing in the state and other indicators suggest that lockdowns and social distancing are “flattening the curve” of infections.
New York state reported 783 more deaths, for a total of over 8,600. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the daily number of deaths is stabilizing, “but stabilizing at a horrific rate.”
“What do we do now? We stay the course,” said Cuomo, who like other leaders has warned that relaxing restrictions too soon could enable the virus to come back with a vengeance.
In the Midwest, pockets of contagion have alarmed state and city leaders and led to stricter enforcement.
Nearly 300 inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago have tested positive for the virus, and two have died. Cook County has set up a temporary morgue that can take more than 2,000 bodies.
In Wisconsin, health officials expect to see an increase in virus cases after thousands of people went to the polls Tuesday to vote in the state’s presidential primary.
Twenty-four residents of an Indiana nursing home hit by COVID-19 have died, while a nursing home in Iowa saw 14 deaths.
The U.S. government has not released a count of coronavirus deaths in nursing homes, but an AP tally indicates at least 2,500 people linked to the virus have died in U.S. nursing homes and long-term care facilities.