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Europe relaxes virus restrictions but cases flare elsewhere

Passengers arrive at the Barcelona airport, Spain, on Friday, May 15, 2020.

EMILIO MORENATTI/AP

By DAVID RISING, ELAINE KURTENBACH AND DAVID BILLER | Associated Press | Published: May 15, 2020

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BERLIN — Several European countries where coronavirus infections have slowed moved ahead Friday with relaxing border restrictions, while the U.S. reported a record drop in retail sales that threatened stores and weighed down the sinking economy. Infection flare-ups in Mexico and elsewhere served as a reminder the pandemic is far from over.

Slovenia, which has been gradually easing strict lockdown measures, declared that the spread of the virus is now under control and that European Union residents could now enter from Austria, Italy and Hungary.

Germany prepared to open its border with Luxembourg at midnight and to increase the number of crossings open from France, Switzerland and Austria. Travelers will still need to demonstrate a "valid reason" to enter Germany, and there will be spot checks, but the goal is to restore free travel by June 15.

In the U.S., retail sales tumbled by a record 16.4% from March to April as business shutdowns caused by the coronavirus kept shoppers away from stores. The Commerce Department's report Friday on retail purchases showed a sector that has collapsed so quickly that sales over the past 12 months are down a crippling 21.6%.

The sharpest drops from March to April were at clothiers, electronics stores, furniture stores and restaurants. A long-standing migration of consumers toward online purchases is accelerating.

Elsewhere in the U.S., the Grand Canyon National Park was scheduled to reopen Friday to allow visitors in for day trips but not overnight. Some regions in New York were also expected to reopen.

Back in Germany, states agreed to drop a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers entering from the EU and several other European countries, including Britain, said Armin Laschet, the governor of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

"Germany will only overcome the corona crisis if European freedom of movement for people, goods and services is fully restored," Laschet said.

Germany has seen more than 170,000 COVID-19 infections and nearly 8,000 deaths, but more than 150,000 people have recovered, and the country has been seeing fewer than 1,000 new cases per day.

In northern Europe, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania removed travel restrictions between the Baltic nations, which Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas called "another step toward normal life."

Austria and Switzerland also moved ahead with easing some border restrictions, and Austria reopened all cafes and restaurants.

"I have been having breakfast at this café for about 100 years," said Helmut Gollner, a former literature professor who was one of the first guests Friday at Vienna's Cafe Sperl. "My wife always made great breakfast, but it's a different atmosphere here with the newspapers and so on."

Restaurants were reopening in more German states as well, and the country was to resume professional soccer on Saturday after a two-month hiatus.

In Australia, many Sydney cafes and restaurants opened again as New South Wales, the country's most populous state, granted permission for them, as well as places of worship, to reopen with up to 10 people so long as distancing rules are in place.

Many Catholic churches across the state opened for private prayer, confession and small-scale Masses.

"The celebration of Mass is the highest form of Catholic worship and to not be able to physically gather these past two months has been very difficult," Sydney's Archbishop Anthony Fisher said in a statement.

In Japan, some schools, restaurants and other businesses started to reopen after the country lifted its national coronavirus emergency, while keeping in place restrictions in limited urban areas like Tokyo where risks remain.

The head of the World Health Organization's Europe office, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that distancing guidance and other protective measures were more important than ever.

"It's very important to remind everyone that as long as there is no vaccine and effective treatment, there is no return to normal," he said on French radio Europe-1.

"This virus won't simply disappear, so the personal behavior of each of us will determine the behavior of the virus. Governments have done a lot, and now the responsibility is on the people."

Worldwide, there have been more than 4.4 million coronavirus infections reported and 300,000 deaths, while nearly 1.6 million people have recovered according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.

Ahead of Mexico's plan to partially reopen key industries such as mining, construction and auto plants on May 18, authorities sounded a note of concern as the country reported its largest one-day rise in coronavirus case numbers.

There were 2,409 new COVID-19 test confirmations Thursday, the first time that number has exceeded 2,000 in one day.

"We are at the moment of the fastest growth in new cases," said Assistant Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell. "This is the most difficult moment."

Deaths have neared 4,500, and there were signs that hospital capacity was nearing its limit in Mexico City, the hardest-hit area. The Health Department reported that 73% percent of the city's general-care hospital beds were full. The percentage was lower for intensive-care beds, but that was partly because of the expansion of improvised ICU units at hospitals and other venues.

In Brazil, news website G1 reported that 900 people in Rio de Janeiro were waiting for an intensive-care bed in one of the state's overwhelmed units. President Jair Bolsonaro warned of looming "chaos" as he once again lambasted governors and mayors who introduced lockdowns in cities to limit spread of the new virus.

"I'm sorry, many will die, but even more will if the economy continues to be destroyed by these measures," Bolsonaro told journalists in Brasilia on Thursday. "These lockdowns, closing everything, is the path to failure. It will break Brazil."

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Kurtenbach reported from Beijing; Biller from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Press journalists from around the world contributed to this report.
 

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