Italy Vows to Reopen as Europe Takes Steps to Ease Virus Curbs

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Italy will present a plan this week to ease its rigid lockdown, joining Germany, France and Austria in pursuing a gradual return to normality as coronavirus infection rates fall and pressure mounts to reopen businesses.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte aims to roll out a detailed restart program beginning on May 4, indicating that the process will take time to mitigate risks of re-igniting the spread of the disease.

“I would like to be able to say: we will open everything. Immediately. Tomorrow morning,” Conte said in a post onFacebook. “But a decision like that would be irresponsible” and could “jeopardize all the efforts we’ve made until now.”

25,240 in U.S.Most new cases today

-17% Change in MSCI World Index of global stocks since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

-1.​167 Change in U.S. treasury bond yield since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23 -0.​5% Global GDP Tracker (annualized), March

Italy’s commitment to ease restrictions is an important marker in Europe’s battle with the pandemic. The original center of the continent’s outbreak suffered the most deaths after the U.S. and has the third-most cases in the world.

The current containment measures, in force across Italy since mid-March, currently shutter all non-essential businesses, ban movements within the country, and all but confine people to their homes except for buying food, going to work and seeking medical help.

Conte is juggling caution from scientific and public-health advisers, who insist the decline in new cases is still slow and relaxed restrictions could trigger a new outbreak, with demands from businesses and regional governors to restart the economy.

Similar pressures are playing out in capitals across Europe.

Austria’s economy may take as long as three years to recover, according to a group of leading economists. Unemployment and state-wage support have skyrocketed, with almostevery third worker receiving some form of subsidy due to the pandemic. The alpine country was one of the first European nations to ease restrictions alongside Denmark and Norway.

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Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday warned that “discussion orgies” about easing restrictions risked undoing the progress made to contain the virus. Europe’s largest economy, which had thesmallest rise in new cases this month in the 24 hours through Tuesday morning, started to allow small stores and some other retailers to reopen on Monday.

Because of contagion risks, Munich canceled its famed Oktoberfest this fall, in the latest sign that disruptions will linger for months to come. The move deals a $1.3 billion blow to the local economy.

France will unveil plans within two weeks to progressively lift restrictions.Falling numbers of patients in hospitals and in intensive care are signs lockdown measures are working, according to the country’s public-health officials.

Conte said that his cabinet is working with various experts to coordinate the so-called “phase 2,” when Italians will have to adapt to the lingering threat of the virus, such as maintaining social-distancing guidelines and wearing masks in public.

The plan could include a full reopening of stores on May 11 or more likely May 18, La Repubblica reported. Full movement for citizens would only come after that, the newspaper said.

The lockdown is crippling an already fragile and debt-ridden economy. In an attempt to obtain some relief, Conte will make another push for so-called coronabonds, or joint debt issuance, at a virtual gathering ofEuropean Union leaders on Thursday.

Italy’s easing plan will be laid out at the national level but will take into account regional differences, said Conte, who will speak to both houses of parliament later on Tuesday.

“We cannot abandon the line of maximum caution, also on a restart,” Conte said in his post. “We cannot make impromptu decisions just to follow part of public opinion or to satisfy the requests of some production sectors, individual companies or specific regions.”

— With assistance by Andrew Blackman, and Jerrold Colten

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