Much of Europe is now on lockdown. But can authorities actually enforce those rules?
By JAMES MCAULEY | The Washington Post | Published: March 21, 2020
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PARIS — For many in France, Friday is market day. And in many outdoor markets across the country, this particular Friday was no exception, even though it was three days into a government-enforced lockdown designed to halt the spread of coronavirus.
In a time when Europeans and Americans have been told to practice "social distancing" and to remain at home, people were still out and about in France and across Europe, shopping in close proximity at bustling market stalls, running in large numbers down public promenades and, in some cases, scoffing at various government restrictions designed to keep them safe.
Over the past week, a number of European governments have urged their citizens to take coronavirus seriously by imposing strict limits on movement outside the home. The question now is how governments can actually enforce those rules, with so many people seemingly willing to break them.
Different European governments have devised different answers to that question, with no solution proven to be entirely effective.
Italy - with more deaths caused by covid-19 than anywhere in the world, including 627 on Friday - has been struggling to enforce its lockdown with police checks and has already called in military forces in two regions: Campania and Sicily. On Friday, Italy's Interior Ministry reported that it still cited a record total of 9,600 people on Thursday for violating the terms of the lockdown.
Lockdown rules appeared to mean even less in France, where the government relies on fines to enforce its terms. But the threat of a 135 euro ($160) fine didn't prevent French police from having to stop 70,000 people and fining 4,095 in the first 24 hours of lockdown, according to a statement by France's Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner. He called those who ignored the government's rules "imbeciles."
As they struggle to enforce their own rules, European governments have mostly turned to imposing stricter measures. But it remains unclear whether citizens will respond to further limitations, either.
In France, where President Emmanuel Macron announced a nationwide lockdown that started Tuesday at noon - an extendible period of 15 days during which only essential businesses were to remain open - local authorities have begun to take matters into their own hands.
On Friday, Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice on France's Mediterranean coast, closed the city's famous Promenade des Anglais, a scenic waterfront walkway and running path where crowds of people were gathering to do their daily exercise in groups that could still facilitate the transmission of the coronavirus. Estrosi also imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on all city residents.
"From 8 p.m., once the shops and pharmacies are closed, no one has any reason to go out," he told France's Journal du Dimanche newspaper. "So we don't go out, except the staff specifically authorized by this decree - medical staff or those who make home visits to vulnerable people."
Similar measures were taken in Paris, where Mayor Anne Hidalgo and police chief Didier Lallement expressed their exasperation that people were simply not listening to the government's orders. "Certain areas of the capital remain overly frequented by walkers and joggers," they wrote in a joint statement Thursday, noting in particular the banks of the Seine River, the Champ de Mars park by the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides Esplanade.
Police essentially banned running and exercising along the banks of the Seine by Friday, and France's Ministry of Sports also clarified that once-daily walks or runs "to stretch legs" should be brief, and should happen within immediate vicinity of one's home address. "You have to chose between going shopping and going for a run," the ministry said.
But there are significant loopholes in enforcing that rule. France requires all those who leave their homes to carry a government-issued "attestation" form certifying the essential nature of their daily visit outside. But the forms have no time-stamp, and police officers who ask to see them have no way of knowing how many times a person has been out, or how far he or she may have wandered.
Germany, meanwhile, has threatened to impose a mandatory curfew if people don't take social distancing seriously after many crowded parks during spring sunshine last week.
Health authorities are now using anonymous cellphone data to track whether measures to stop people gathering are working, and have said this weekend will be a key test. A forecast drop in temperatures may also help encourage people to stay home.
With 16 federal states, each of which have their own health authorities, distancing measures have been uneven across the country - but all have agreed to close bars and nightclubs, nonessential shops, and restaurants are also closed in the evening.
However, some social distancing measures have been harder to enforce than others, with a ban on children's playgrounds receiving particular pushback.
Red tape around playgrounds in Berlin was torn down last week, and some were filled with families even after the restrictions came into place. On Friday, German media reported that the local authorities in one town in North Rhine-Westphalia, the worst hit German state, had started dismantling swing sets and benches after orders to leave the playgrounds were ignored.
"The playgrounds in the city area were still full," Dorsten's Mayor Tobias Stockhoff was quoted as saying by Germany's Bild newspaper. "We decided today to dismantle what can be dismantled. We are sending a clear signal."
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Friday the closure of all pubs, restaurants, bars, gyms and nightclubs starting Saturday. During his announcement, he also appealed to those considering going out one last time before the closure came into effect.
"Please don't," Johnson said. "You may think you are invincible, but there is no guarantee you will get mild symptoms, and you can still be a carrier of the disease and pass it on to others."
Many listened to his advice, but many did not. Even after the order to close, pubs across England were filled with drinkers getting in last rounds on Friday night.
The Metropolitan Police in London and constabularies around Britain are on standby, prepared to enforce the close-down order if necessary, officials said.
Pubs in Cornwall and Devon were giving away free beer Friday night after Johnson ordered the establishments shuttered.
Mike Newton, control room supervisor for the local police, told the DevonLive news site: "Tonight was going to go one of two ways. Sadly it's been stupidly busy."
The Washington Post's Stefano Pitrelli in Rome, Loveday Morris in Berlin and William Booth in London contributed to this report.