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Europe Begins to Ease Lockdowns Before the Holidays

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France, parts of Britain and other nations are relaxing virus restrictions. Health experts worry the U.S. will pay a price in the coming weeks for Thanksgiving gatherings. The virus will continue to evolve even after a vaccine arrives.

As Americans spent a holiday torn between hope and heartbreak — with the promise of coronavirus vaccines competing with the reality of empty seats around the Thanksgiving table — European nations planned to emerge from lockdowns while still struggling to contain the virus in the weeks before Christmas.

It has been a month since most countries in Europe tightened restrictions to try to get a resurgent virus under control, and while the economic and emotional costs are high, the logic of lockdowns is simple: The tighter the restrictions, the more success in stopping new infections. Caseloads have fallen in Britain, France, Spain and other European countries.

“We must learn from the summer and not repeat the same mistakes,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, told lawmakers in Brussels this week. “Relaxing too fast and too much is a risk for a third wave after Christmas.”

No country has figured out the perfect balance, and even nations that won praise for their handling of the virus have struggled to contain a second wave.

Germany passed one million total infections on Friday, and the country’s daily death toll climbed above 400 for the first time this week.

Rather than ease measures, as some neighboring countries are doing, Germany is tightening the reins.

France imposed stringent restrictions at the end of October and the number of new cases plummeted.

“The peak of the second wave of the epidemic has passed,” President Emmanuel Macron of France said this week. He outlined a three-step plan to ease restrictions, starting on Saturday, when small businesses would be allowed to reopen and places of worship permitted to hold services for up to 30 people.

In two weeks, if new cases remain low, museums, cinemas and theaters in France will be allowed to reopen, and people will be permitted to travel to spend Christmas with family.

“But I call upon your sense of responsibility: This will certainly not be a Christmas like the others,” Mr. Macron said.

Under the French plan, restaurants, bars and gyms will be the last to reopen, on Jan. 20.

Britain has opted for a “tiered system,” with different regions facing different restrictions.

But even before the country’s lawmakers vote on the measures next week, the government faced criticism that the “tiers” were really just another word for lockdowns.

More than 23 million people in England will be placed under the tightest restrictions. Another 32 million will fall under the second of the three tiers, and just 1 percent of the population will fall under the least restrictive tier.

The situation in the United States, which has had one of the world’s highest per capita caseloads in the past week, offered an object lesson in the terrible toll of decisions delayed or not taken.

Every day for more than two weeks, the United States has set records for the number of people in the hospital, with the latest figure surging past 90,000 for the first time on Thursday.

And public health experts worried that even with the daily death toll already soaring, the nation could expect harder days to come.

“I worry that the Thanksgiving Day surge will then just add into what will become the Christmas surge,” Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told CNN. “Which will then make this one seem as if it wasn’t so bad.”

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