Berlin — Borders opened up across Europe on Monday after three months of coronavirus closures that began chaotically in March. But many restrictions persist, it’s unclear how keen Europeans will be to travel this summer and the continent is still closed to Americans, Asians and other international tourists.
Border checks for most Europeans were dropped overnight in Germany, France and elsewhere, nearly two weeks after Italy opened its frontiers. The European Union’s 27 nations, as well as those in the Schengen passport-free travel area, which also includes a few non-EU nations such as Switzerland, aren’t expected to start opening to visitors from outside the continent until at least the beginning of next month, and possibly later.
Announcing Monday’s reopening of borders and Paris restaurants, French President Emmanuel Macron said it’s time “to turn the page of the first act of the crisis” and “rediscover our taste for freedom.”
But he warned: “This doesn’t mean the virus has disappeared and we can totally let down our guard. … The summer of 2020 will be a summer unlike any other.”
That caution is widespread after more than 182,000 virus-linked deaths in Europe. The region has had more than 2 million of the world’s 7.9 million confirmed infections, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
“We have got the pandemic under control, (but) the reopening of our frontiers is a critical moment,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said as he announced he was bringing forward Spain’s opening to European travelers by 10 days to June 21. “The threat is still real. The virus is still out there.”
“People have missed this”
Even so, social distancing was in short supply as London’s Oxford Street shops reopened and Paris bistros like Café Des Anges welcomed back regular customers. Crowds jammed the entrance to London’s Niketown store despite efforts by employees to have an orderly line.
“It’s very hard to get people who are sitting at the bar to respect social distancing,” said cafe manager Virgile Grunberg. “People have missed this, because they come in every morning before work, have a little coffee and a discussion, so of course it’s part of Paris.”
The need to get Europe’s tourism industry up and running again is urgent, especially for Mediterranean nations like Spain, Italy and Greece as the economic fallout of the crisis mushrooms.
“A lot will depend on whether people feel comfortable to travel and whether we can project Greece as a safe destination,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis acknowledged.
On Monday, Greece welcomed the first international flights whose passengers didn’t face compulsory COVID-19 tests to Athens and Thessaloniki. Direct international flights to regional Greek airports, including on its sun-kissed islands, will begin on July 1. Visitors will be subject to random virus testing.
In a trial run, Spain on Monday allowed the first of thousands of Germans to fly to its Balearic Islands – waiving its 14-day quarantine. The idea is to test out best practices in the coronavirus era.
“This pilot program will help us learn a lot for what lies ahead,” Sánchez said. “We want our country, which is already known as a world-class tourist destination, to be recognized as also a secure destination.”
Martin Hofman was delighted as he boarded the first flight from Duesseldorf to the island of Mallorca – a destination that mainland Spaniards can’t even visit yet.
His holiday couldn’t be postponed “and to stay in Germany was not an option for us,” he said. “We are totally happy that we can get out.”
Patchwork of different rules
Europe’s reopening isn’t a repeat of the chaotic free-for-all in March, when panicked, uncoordinated border closures caused traffic jams that stretched for miles.
Still, it’s a complicated, shifting patchwork of different rules, and not everyone is equally free to travel everywhere. Norway and Denmark, for example, are keeping their borders closed with Sweden, whose virus strategy avoided a lockdown but produced a relatively high per capita death rate. Other nations also have travel restrictions for Swedes.
In an interview with state broadcaster SVT, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven rejected that idea that Sweden’s strategy had failed, citing a continuing decline in hospitalizations and fatalities. While the rate of new infections has increased, officials say that reflects a long-delayed increase in testing.
German drivers queued up in long lines Monday to cross into Denmark, which is letting in German visitors but only those who booked accommodations for at least six nights.
Britain, which left the EU in January but remains closely aligned with the bloc until the end of this year, only last week imposed a 14-day quarantine requirement for most arrivals, horrifying its tourism and aviation industries. As a result, France is asking people from Britain to self-quarantine for two weeks and several other nations are not letting British tourists in during the first wave of reopenings.
“Virus is still among us”
With flights only gradually picking up, nervousness about new outbreaks abroad, uncertainty about social distancing at tourist venues and millions facing record unemployment or pay cuts, many Europeans may choose to vacation at home.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz are both planning to vacation in their homelands this year.
The Dutch government said its citizens can now visit 16 European nations, but urged caution.
“You can go abroad for your holiday again,” Foreign Minister Stef Blok said. “But it won’t be as carefree as before the corona crisis. The virus is still among us and the situation remains uncertain.”