After more than a year of lockdowns and grim statistics, Europe is champing at the bit to reopen. From unrestricted travel by Americans visiting Europe to fans in football stadiums for the beloved UEFA championships, the continent seems determined to recapture a sense of normalcy and freedom.
But even as London’s Wembley Stadium hosted fans for qualifying matches and prepares for the finals of UEFA’s Euro 2020-21 championship, more than 10,000 new Covid-19 infections were registered in the UK on a single day, signalling a third UK wave in the pandemic.
At the same time, the 27 nations that comprise the European Union are preparing to throw open their gates to American tourists, those vaccinated and those not, as they attempt to rescue the summer season following one lost to the virus last year.
But in its keenness to open up, could Europe prolong the Covid-19 pandemic by actually encouraging its spread?
Dr Hans Kluge, World Health Organisation regional director for Europe, told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that he understands “no one wants to give up another summer, but we should not pay for it with another relocked winter”.
The virus might be relentless, but leaders and organisers in Europe are proving themselves to be determined as well. Preparations for the UEFA tournament — which is titled for this year and the one lost last year — show an impressive level of organisation and thought. It is the biggest sporting event globally since the pandemic began in early 2020.
The tournament has various forms of coronavirus precautions in place across the 11 cities that are hosting 51 games in Euro 2020-21 from June 11 to July 11.
Only Budapest is allowing a full stadium. Baku and St Petersburg aim for 50 per cent capacity, while Copenhagen adjusted its projected attendance upward from 32 to 45 per cent at the end of May. The seven other cities are targeting stadium occupancy rates between 20 and 32 per cent.
And adjustments in fan behaviour are equally elaborate. Each ticketholder is allocated a 30-minute window to enter the stadium before the match and masks are compulsory. A minimum distance of a metre and a half must be maintained and only the seat indicated on a ticket may be used.
Handwashing is recommended, so disinfectant is available throughout stadiums. Handshakes, hugs, high fives, and close contact with other spectators are banned. Everyone is expected to remain in their seats during halftime and limit movement as much as possible — none of this the normal rowdy behaviour of football fans.
UEFA is now in talks with the British government about allowing foreign soccer fans to fly into London for games in the latter stages of the championship to avoid moving them from Wembley.
The competition’s organisers have a contingency plan that involves taking the semifinals and final to Budapest if an agreement cannot be reached with authorities in London about exempting fans and dignitaries from quarantine.
The semifinals and final are currently scheduled to be played at Wembley Stadium from July 6-11.
Is it all worth it? Judging from television viewership and cheers rising up from bars, it appears perhaps so. In football-mad Europe, the tournament, together with the easing of restrictions, offers a fresh breeze of freedom following lockdowns that were unprecedented in most people’s lifetimes.
Preparing for tourists this summer is a new world as well. The EU says it has a real-time certification programme in place for those vaccinated so a QR code can be scanned, allowing free passage through the 26-country Schengen Treaty area. However, individual countries might have different regulations in place, leading to a situation where tourists could have to pass checks at every border in theory.
But that sector is determined as well. Responsible for 4 per cent of Europe’s GDP – in some countries upwards of 10 per cent — and more than 5 per cent of its labour force, tourist operations are so determined they could be termed desperate as they cling to survival.
In cafes from the Champs-Élysées in Paris to those near the Duomo in Milan and at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, aproned waiters are eager for the return of the crucial tourist. But like ominous music playing in the background, concerns are growing about a highly transmissible Covid-19 variant nicknamed delta that could bring a resurgence of the virus.
“The fact that there’s a fast spread of the delta variant means that the virus still has the upper hand,” said the WHO’s Kluge. “So we have to be very careful about large, mass gathering events, particularly if it’s with people without masks, which remains a hazard.”
Though the situation in Europe has improved, with numbers of new infections, hospitalisations and deaths falling, “we’re not out of the woods”, Kluge stressed.
Variants of concern are considered more dangerous than the original form of the virus first seen in China in late 2019. Still, there is also evidence that after two doses, vaccines retain significant effectiveness against variants.
About lifting restrictions, Kluge said doing it in an uncontrolled manner was never a good approach. Instead, he recommends a gradual and cautious opening up of economic and social activities while putting in place effective public health measures to prevent another resurgence of the virus.
“Safe travel advisory measures remain very, very important, particularly at the main points of entry. It doesn’t mean people cannot travel but travel safely. We know what helps, what needs to be done. What we need is for the vaccines to spread faster than the mutants are spreading.”
Like a patient first emerging from prolonged recovery, Europe is taking some bold, if unsteady, steps back to becoming more like its former self. No doubt, it was changed by the dramatic and dreadful experience of the past year, but it has now set a course to move forward. That tale and others like it around the world is surely of the great stories of the pandemic: the resilience of the human spirit.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan
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