France, Belgium ease virus curbs as US decision boosts travel hopes

France and Belgium further relaxed their Covid-19 restrictions Wednesday, allowing restaurants and cafes to serve indoors, while the United States eased travel warnings for dozens of countries as vaccinations boost hopes of a return to normal life.

With the global death toll at more than 3.7 million, many countries are still struggling to contain outbreaks. Still, rapid vaccine rollouts in wealthier parts of the world, including Europe, is allowing the return of activities unthinkable just a few months ago.

In France, that included sipping a drink inside a cafe, allowed on Wednesday for the first time in months. 

“It’s a pleasure to have a coffee inside. Normal life is gradually resuming,” said transport employee Hammou Mraoui, enjoying a coffee in a Parisian bar.

With the easing of the curfew in France, venues are not only opening up inside, they’re open later outdoors too — an extra two hours to 11 pm. 

The new measures also saw gyms open their doors to the relief of eager fitness buffs like Stephanie Moscoso.

“I put on the alarm clock this morning, it was super early, I saw the sun, I said to myself: this is the beginning of a new life!” said the 35-year-old, who hit her local gym in Paris at 8 am.

If all goes to plan, French authorities will drop the overnight curfew entirely on June 30. 

Belgium also relaxed restrictions, allowing cafes and restaurants to serve indoors from Wednesday, while mask-wearing rules were also eased in Brussels.

The easing of lockdown measures across Europe comes after the bloc’s once-struggling vaccination campaign continues to gather pace.

Almost half of all adults in the EU have received at least one shot, with almost 26 percent fully vaccinated.

– ‘Situation remains difficult’ –

Hope and optimism in Europe and America, however, are still tempered by the outlook for billions of the world’s poor still with no sign of a vaccine in sight.

While India is showing some signs of turning the tide against its brutal epidemic, that’s come at a cost to smaller neighbours in South Asia and the rest of the region. They’re now turning to Russia and Beijing for help with vaccine supplies.

Nepal, where barely two percent of the population are fully vaccinated, resumed its inoculation programme on Tuesday after a million more Sinopharm doses arrived from China, the only country that has so far responded to its appeals for help.

Sri Lanka meanwhile has been aggressively rolling out China’s Sinopharm jab after receiving two million doses in the past week, opening its programme to pregnant women on Wednesday.

In a further sign that the fight against the pandemic is far from over, Russia on Wednesday warned of a spike in new cases that would force it to reopen mothballed field hospitals.

“The situation remains difficult. We’re seeing a surge in infections day after day,” Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said.

Saint Petersburg has also recorded a spike in cases. Russia’s second-city is due to host several games of the postponed Euro 2020 football competition this month. 

Spain and Sweden were two countries whose football teams’ preparations for Europe’s top international competition were thrown into turmoil by positive tests for players.

On the bright side, the relaxed curfew in France means crowds are now able to watch late evening French Open matches, no longer marched from Roland Garros before 9 pm.

And in another upbeat note, Tokyo’s Olympic Games preparations received a welcome boost from Washington.

– The return of gigs – 

The US on Tuesday eased its warnings against travel to dozens of countries, including Japan, with the State Department asking Americans to reconsider travel but ending blanket advice to not go at all.

The US has had one of the most successful vaccine rollouts in the world, and President Joe Biden has set a goal of giving at least one shot to 70 percent of American adults by July 4 — the current figure stands at 63.7 percent.

As vaccine drives have gathered pace, the US has seen dramatic easing of curbs in many parts, including New York City where concerts and shows are set to return.

Bruce Springsteen’s hit Broadway show will return on June 26, in front of vaccinated audiences.

And on June 20, Madison Square Garden will host thousands of vaccinated Foo Fighters fans at the first capacity concert at a New York arena since the virus struck last year.

“We’ve been waiting for this day for over a year,” said frontman Dave Grohl.

“And Madison Square Garden is going to feel that HARD.”


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