Virus restrictions tighten, disrupting daily life, worship around the world

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A view of the nearly-empty Vittorio Emanuele shopping arcade
A view of the nearly-empty Vittorio Emanuele shopping arcade in downtown Milan, Italy, on Sunday.
Claudio Furlan | LaPresse via AP

New travel restrictions and border closures reverberated Sunday across Europe and beyond as daily life increasingly ground to a halt to try to keep people apart and slow the spread of the coronavirus. Americans returning home faced chaos at airports as overwhelmed border agents tried to screen arriving passengers.

Public worship was curtailed as Muslim authorities announced that the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City would be closed indefinitely, and the Vatican said next month's Holy Week services would not be open to the public.

The number of new coronavirus cases surged in hard-hit Italy to nearly 25,000 and it recorded 368 more deaths to bring its overall toll to 1,809. With the country under a nearly week-old lockdown, Pope Francis ventured out of the Vatican to visit two churches in Rome to pray for the sick, a spokesman said.

Spain awoke to the first day of a nationwide quarantine. In the Philippines, soldiers and police sealed off the densely populated capital of Manila from most domestic travelers. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced plans to limit movement nationwide following Italy and Spain in barring people from leaving their homes except for essential errands or work.

With new infections dwindling in Asia, Europe has become the main front line of the fight against COVID-19. The virus has infected 156,000 people and killed over 5,800, but nearly 74,000 people have already recovered from it.

China, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Spain have the most infections. For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

People should go out “only alone or with the people who live in their apartment," said Austria's Kurz, whose country has 800 infections.

A highway leading to Barcelona is seen empty of cars
A highway leading to Barcelona is seen empty of cars on Sunday.
Emilio Morenatti | AP

Those comments were echoed by one of America's top infectious disease experts.

“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing," Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told NBC’s ”Meet the Press."

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he's considering a statewide curfew to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said a lockdown in the nation's largest city couldn't be ruled out. “Every option is on the table in a crisis," the Democrat said on CNN.

Travelers returning to the U.S. after the Trump administration imposed a wide-ranging ban on people entering from Europe faced hours-long waits for required medical screenings. Videos and photos on social media showed packed arrival halls and winding lines.

The crowds prompted Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to tweet angrily at President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, demanding that they take action to address the crowds.

“This is unacceptable, counterproductive and exactly the opposite of what we need to do to prevent #COVID19," Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth tweeted.

The U.S. has seen 61 deaths and more than 2,900 infections. In hard-hit Washington state, officials said the disease is straining the supply of protective gear available to medical providers.

Italy, the worst-hit European country, reported its biggest day-to-day increase in infections — 3,590 more cases in a 24-hour period — for a total of almost 24,747.

“It’s not a wave. It’s a tsunami,” said Dr. Roberto Rona, in charge of intensive care at the Monza hospital.

The transport ministry banned passengers from taking ferries to the island of Sardinia and halted overnight train trips, which many in the north had used to reach homes and families in the south. Hospitals were overwhelmed with the sick.

Even as authorities pleaded for people to stay home, Pope Francis visited St. Mary Major Basilica, near Rome’s central train station, to pray for the sick, said Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.

The pontiff then walked to another church which has a crucifix that in 1522 was carried in a procession during a plague afflicting Rome. In his prayer, Francis "invoked the end of the pandemia that has stricken Italy and the world, implored healing for the many sick, recalled the many victims of these days,” and asked for consolation for their family and friends.

For the second Sunday in a row, Francis delivered his noon remarks and blessing from inside the Apostolic Library instead of a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

The Vatican also said it would close all Holy Week ceremonies to the public with the start of Palm Sunday on April 5. It said that until April 12, when Easter Sunday is celebrated this year, all the general audiences on Wednesday and Francis' Sunday noon prayer will be streamed.

Holy Week services usually draw tens of thousands to Rome but, with Italy at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, tourism has vanished.

Spain joined Italy on lockdown after the government declared a two-week state of emergency.

“From now, we enter into a new phase,” said Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, whose wife has tested positive. “We won’t hesitate in doing what we need must to beat the virus. We are putting health first.”

In Barcelona, people who ventured out formed long lines to buy bread. Police patrolled parks and told people who were not walking their dogs to go home. The Las Ramblas promenade, the heart of the city and a tourist magnet, was eerily empty.

The state of emergency “is necessary to unify our efforts so we can all go in the same direction,” Mayor Ada Colau said. “If we show solidarity and think about one another, we can get through this.”

For now, the number of cases is still rising steeply. Spain's Health Ministry said the country has recorded 288 deaths, up from 136 on Saturday. The number of infections rose to 7,753 from 5,700.

The Netherlands ordered all schools, day-care centers, restaurants and bars to shut down until April 6. The new restrictions cover the country’s famed marijuana-selling “coffee shops” and sex clubs. Health officials said eight more people died of the coronavirus, bringing the Dutch death toll to 20.

Elsewhere, Morocco suspended all international flights and Turkey set aside quarantine beds for more than 10,000 people returning from Islam's holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

In China, where the virus was first detected in December, those arriving on overseas flights were routed to an exposition center for initial checks before being shuttled to their homes or other quarantine locations.

Even as social life largely halted — the German capital of Berlin closed bars, cinemas and other facilities Saturday evening — some attempts at keeping up public life persisted.

France, which has 4,500 infections and 91 deaths, went ahead Sunday with nationwide elections to choose mayors and other local leaders despite a crackdown on gatherings. The government ordered unprecedented sanitary measures, with election organizers having to keep a 3-foot gap between people and provide soap or hydro-alcoholic gel and disinfectant wipes for voting machines. Voters were told to bring their own pens.

In Germany, which had reported nearly 3,800 cases and eight deaths nationwide, the state of Bavaria also held municipal elections, with poll workers wearing protective gloves.

Britain, which has not yet restricted everyday activities, said it plans to set out emergency powers this week, including potentially requiring people over 70 to self-isolate for up to four months and banning mass gatherings.

“We will do the right thing at the right time,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC. “We will publish the bill this week coming."

In the Middle East, Muslim authorities announced that Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site, would be closed indefinitely due to concerns about the outbreak, with prayers continuing to be held on the sprawling esplanade outside.

Dalia Samhouri, a regional official with the World Health Organization, said both Iran and Egypt, two of the most populous countries in the Mideast, were likely under-reporting cases because infected people can still show no visible symptoms. Iran says it has nearly 14,000 virus cases and 724 deaths, while Egypt has reported 110 cases, including two fatalities.

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