Daily life near a standstill as nations try to halt pandemic

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People look at an empty terrasse in Paris, Sunday, March 15, 2020. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced that France is shutting down all restaurants, cafes, cinemas and non-essential retail shops, starting Sunday, to combat the accelerated spread of the virus in the country. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

BARCELONA – Meeting with friends, dining out, worshiping and other daily routines have nearly halted as nations take drastic steps to try to stop the coronavirus pandemic.

Religious leaders gave sermons to empty pews or to the faithful watching online Sunday after public worship was curtailed in many places. The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City was being closed indefinitely, and the Vatican closed off next month's Holy Week services to the public. Still, the 83-year-old Pope Francis ventured out of the Vatican to visit two churches in Rome to pray for the sick.

In the United States, health officials recommended a limit to groups of 50 or more people and a government expert said a 14-day national shutdown may be needed. Americans returning from abroad encountered chaotic airport health screenings and closed-down communities.

In a sign of how much the pandemic has grown, China now accounts for less than half of the world's 168,000 cases, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

The country where the virus was first detected in December had long been the epicenter of the COVID-19 illness, but a shutdown of public gatherings and a quarantine of the hardest-hit central region has steadied its caseload as the virus spreads rapidly elsewhere. Most of the world's 77,000 recovered patients are in China.

Though China still has the most infections, a dozen other countries have more than 1,000 cases, mostly in Europe.

On the first day of Spain's quarantine, long lines formed for food as police patrolled. Soldiers and police sealed off the Philippines' densely populated capital, Manila, from most domestic travelers. Austria planned to limit movement, and Lebanon was put on lockdown, closing down Beirut's famed seaside corniche.

Ireland ordered all pubs and bars to close for two weeks — including on Tuesday, St. Patrick's Day — and urged people not even to hold house parties. Two pub industry groups had warned of the “real difficulty” in keeping people apart in the country's famous watering holes.