SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — As Mediterranean beaches and Las Vegas casinos laid out plans to welcome tourists again, South Korea announced a spike in new infections Wednesday and considered reimposing social distancing restrictions, revealing the setbacks ahead for others on the road to reopening.
The European Union was unveiling a huge stimulus package for the bloc’s ailing economies, as European nations scrambled to emulate South Korea’s widely praised strategy of tracing, testing and treating coronavirus victims, which tamed its outbreak and made it a model for the world.
The EU’s economics commissioner, Paulo Gentiloni, called the 750 billion-euro (US$825 billion) recovery fund “a European turning point to face an unprecedented crisis.”
Across the Atlantic, the pandemic was claiming new victims as the confirmed US death toll approached 100,000 — the highest by far in the world — and nations from Mexico to Chile to Brazil struggled with surging cases and overwhelmed hospitals.
In South Korea, 40 newly confirmed cases — the biggest daily jump in nearly 50 days — raised alarms as millions of children returned to school Wednesday.
All but four of the new cases were in the densely populated Seoul region, where officials are scrambling to stop transmissions linked to nightclubs, karaoke rooms and a massive e-commerce warehouse. All were reopened last month when social distancing measures were relaxed.
The country’s top infectious disease expert said South Korea may need to reimpose social distancing restrictions because it’s becoming increasingly difficult for health workers to track the spread of COVID-19 amid warmer weather and eased attitudes on distancing.
“We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures, but there’s a limit to such efforts,” said Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Young people have a very broad range of activity, so at the point of diagnosis, there’s already a lot of exposure […] the number of people or locations we have to trace are increasing geometrically,” he added.
Seoul and nearby cities in recent weeks have re-closed thousands of bars, karaoke rooms and other entertainment venues to slow the spread of the virus.
Britain, which has recorded more deaths than any other European country — over 37,000 — was announcing the details of its own “test and trace” plans, which will send out 25,000 workers to find the contacts of those who test positive. Germany said it would extend pandemic-related restrictions on personal contacts until June 29 as it cautiously lifts lockdown measures.
Poland is lifting limits on the number of customers in shops, restaurants and hairdressers on Saturday, allowing any number to attend church services and authorizing open-air gatherings of up to 150 people.
As many countries in Asia and Europe make progress in containing the pandemic, reversing its devastating economic fallout becomes a top priority.
Even as the 27-nation EU unveiled its recovery plan, the bloc remained deeply divided over what strings should be attached to the funds, with frugal members such as Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden pushing for loans rather than grants to form the backbone of the package.
Cyprus announced Wednesday that tourists would be welcomed back on June 9. To make them feel safe, Cyprus said would cover all costs — lodging, food, drink and medication — for anyone testing positive for the coronavirus and their family while on vacation in the east Mediterranean island nation.
But tourism was far from the concerns of some other nations.
India saw another record single-day jump, reporting 6,387 new cases on Wednesday as the government prepared new guidelines for the next phase of a two-month-old national lockdown that ends Sunday.
Mexico’s health department reported 501 deaths from the coronavirus — a new one-day high.
A US travel ban took effect for foreigners coming from Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has raged against state and local leaders who are enforcing stay-at-home measures. Brazil has about 375,000 coronavirus infections — second only to the 1.6 million cases in the US — and has counted over 23,000 deaths, but many fear its true toll is much higher.
Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 5.6 million people and killed over 350,000, including about 170,000 in Europe, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University of government reports, which experts say does not show the entire scope of the pandemic.
Flags were flying at half-mast Wednesday on more than 14,000 public buildings as Spain held the first of 10 days of national mourning for coronavirus victims.
In the US, President Donald Trump several months ago likened the coronavirus to the flu and dismissed worries that it could lead to so many deaths. The administration’s leading scientists have since warned that as many as 240,000 Americans could die in the country’s outbreak.
The White House said the president was committed to holding a Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s capital even as local officials warned that the region — one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus — will not be ready to hold a major event so soon.
US officials are pushing hard to reopen even as more than a dozen states are still seeing increasing new cases.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Tuesday night that casinos can reopen after a 10-week shutdown on June 4, welcoming tourists to the gambling mecca of Las Vegas. Sisolak had planned to make the announcement at a news conference but scrapped the live event after he learned he was potentially exposed to the virus at a workplace visit.
Around the globe, an eagerness to get back to normal is being offset by nervousness about what might come next.
Greece, which has seen only 173 coronavirus deaths, will let international tourists return to its sun-dappled islands beginning June 15. While many island residents depend on tourism for their livelihoods, they have also taken comfort in their isolation during the pandemic and worry about opening up to outsiders.
“So far things have gone well,” said Katerina Vikeli on the island of Milos. “Now with the people who will come, what will happen?”
In New Zealand, which is still banning foreign arrivals, the Ministry of Health said there were now no COVID-19 patients in the country’s hospitals.
Kurtenbach reported from Bangkok and Lawless from London. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Image: Workers spray disinfectant in front of the MADE, a major club in the international tourist district of Itaewon, in Seoul, South Korea, on May 12, 2020. (Lim Hun-jung/Yonhap via AP)