GENEVA – Governments across Europe are ratcheting up restrictions to try to beat back a resurgence of the coronavirus that has sent new confirmed infections on the continent to their highest weekly level since the start of the pandemic.
The World Health Organization said Tuesday there were more than 700,000 new COVID-19 cases reported in Europe last week, a jump of 34% from the previous week. Britain, France, Russia and Spain accounted for more than half of the new infections.
The increasing caseload is partly the result of more testing, but the U.N. health agency noted that deaths were also up 16% last week from the week before. Doctors are warning that while many of the new cases are in younger people, who tend to have milder symptoms, the virus could again start spreading widely among older people, resulting in more serious illnesses.
Italy and France are restricting parties and putting limits on restaurants and bars. The Netherlands went further and ordered the closing of all bars and restaurants, And to discourage partying at home, it banned the sale of alcohol after 8 p.m.
The Czech Republic is closing all schools until Nov. 2, while Latvia is ordering teenagers to switch to distance learning for a week. And Britain unveiled a three-tiered system for deciding what restrictions to impose, based on how severe the outbreak is in certain areas.
Those moves reflect a new approach to containing the virus among governments wary of hurting already fragile economies. Officials are eager to avoid the total lockdowns they imposed in the spring that resulted in heavy job losses. Instead, they are relying on a patchwork of regional or targeted restrictions that have sometimes caused confusion and frustration by those affected.
The U.N. health agency appeared to support the new approach, with WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic saying lockdowns should be a “last resort.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a European Union advisory body Tuesday that she is watching the rising infection figures “with great concern.”
“We must not squander now what we achieved through restrictions in recent months,” Merkel said in a video address.
“None of us found it easy to impose those restrictions,” she added. “Many people lost their lives, and so it is all the more important that we ensure now that a further lockdown won’t be necessary, that our health system isn’t overstrained again.”
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte ordered bars and restaurants to close at midnight and banned pickup sports games among friends and parties in enclosed spaces. Private gatherings at homes with more than six people who don’t live together are also discouraged.
“Our objective is clear: We must prevent our country from plunging back into a generalized lockdown," Conte said.
Italy reported more than 5,900 people tested positive over the past day and 41 people died, bringing the country's official COVID-19 death toll to more than 36,200, the second-highest in Europe after Britain.
The outbreak has spread to the annual Giro d’Italia, which was thrown into chaos after several top riders withdrew from the cycling race following positive tests for the coronavirus.
Italy made masks mandatory outdoors last week, a requirement already in place in Spain, Turkey, India and a few other Asian countries. Elsewhere in Europe, such mandates are in effect in many places in Poland and hot spot cities like Paris and Brussels, and are being introduced in several German cities.
In France, which has seen a rapid increase in infections, Paris, Marseille and seven other large cities have been placed under maximum alert, resulting in the closing of bars, gyms and swimming pools. Public parties are banned, and restaurants have to maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) between tables, with groups of diners limited to six people.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki urged the country’s citizens to observe social distancing and wear masks as he himself went into quarantine following contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19. He said in a video message that his government was working as usual and that he had no symptoms.
Poland, a nation of about 38 million, has seen a sharp spike in newly recorded infections, with close to 5,100 cases and 63 deaths reported Tuesday. Over the summer, new daily cases were around 600.
Some doctors are warning that Poland's chronically underfunded health care system may collapse if the current rate of new cases continues.
In Britain, which has suffered the deadliest outbreak in Europe, with a toll of more than 43,000, officials defended their new system as striking the right balance. Under the plan unveiled this week, Liverpool is in the highest-risk category, and its pubs, gyms and betting shops have been shut.
"The prime minister has to balance protecting people’s lives and the NHS (National Health Service) from the virus while also prioritizing things that matter to us as a society, like education and keeping as many people in employment as possible,” Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick told the BBC.
Britain’s number of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases has more than tripled in the last three weeks, with infection rates rising across all age groups and regions.
In an effort to keep people and goods moving throughout the European Union, member countries approved a color-coded system Tuesday.
The countries agreed to not restrict people traveling between green areas — where infection numbers are low — but EU governments will continue to set their own restrictions, such as quarantines or mandatory testing upon arrival, for people coming from orange or red zones.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten reported this story in Geneva and AP writer Frank Jordans reported from Berlin. AP writers around Europe contributed to this report.