Coronavirus, travel: Are Europe's holidaymakers to blame for driving up virus numbers?

ROME - For a fleeting period this summer, Europe nearly resembled its old borderless self, with people zipping across the continent, unburdened by restrictions or mandatory quarantines, as they vacationed along the French Riviera or on the Greek islands.

But Europe's travel free-for-all lasted just a matter of weeks.

With coronavirus cases rising after an early-summer ebb, governments across the continent are abruptly rethinking the wisdom of an open Europe, while reinstituting quarantines and other border controls.

The changes reflect a sense that travel - and the attempt to reboot the Mediterranean's tourism economy - has undercut Europe's fight to control the virus.

Vacation-popular Greece and Croatia, which largely missed Europe's first wave, have seen cases surge in some of their most visited regions and are now dealing with their largest outbreaks to date.

Meanwhile, countries that had gotten their outbreaks under control are partly blaming travel for an uptick in cases. Italy reports that 30 per cent of its new cases come from people who were infected abroad; Germany puts its figure at nearly 40 per cent. In a reference to the risk of returning holidaymakers, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that "the virus is coming to Austria by car."

European governments have agreed that it's OK to curtail free movement - a fundamental principle of the European Union - from places that have higher rates of transmission. But the newly imposed restrictions can be complicated to follow.

In some cases, they apply to everyone travelling - or returning - from a specific country. In other cases, they are limited to certain "high risk" areas. People travelling from Barcelona to Belgium must observe a mandatory 14-day quarantine. For those who have been in Madrid, a quarantine is merely recommended.

In Germany, negative tests can get people out of having to self-isolate upon arrival. Some other countries offer no option but to hunker down for two weeks.

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Britain, which is negotiating its post-Brexit relationship with the European Union, has been steadily removing European countries from its safe list. First Spain and Luxembourg in late July. Then Belgium, France, Malta and the Netherlands. Croatia and Austria came off on Friday - a decision that forced tens of thousands vacationers to either race home or be subject to quarantine.

There was similar chaos when European leaders shut down borders to control the coronavirus in March. But by mid-June, with cases steadily declining, they agreed to remove most restrictions between themselves.

A surprisingly robust pandemic vacation season followed, even with travellers banned from the United States. That was an especially welcome relief for the Mediterranean countries that are heavily reliant on tourism. Croatia, for example, reported earlier this month that it was hosting more than 800,000 tourists, 70 per cent of the total from a year ago.

But just as Europe's travel season is reaching its peak, officials in country after country have started worrying about a second wave. Spain, in particular, has seen case numbers spike. France and Germany are now contending with their highest infection rates since April.

"I think we are basically relapsing to the initial stages of the pandemic," when border-free travel was halted, said Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. "Countries exporting tourists are particularly worried about returnees, and finding a collective approach is impossible. Primarily, the virus is driving the member states apart."

Lehne this week was visiting his summer home in the Italian hilltop town of Orvieto. When he drove back to his native Austria, he expected to wait several hours at the border.

"There are stringent controls," he said.

Northern Europe has been attuned to the plight of hard-hit southern economies, as demonstrated in a massive EU recovery package approved last month that will primarily aid Italy and Spain. But when it comes to keeping the virus at bay, Lehne said, countries are watching out for themselves, and "they don't pay much attention to what [new restrictions] might mean for tourism in Greece or employment in Croatia."

Travel is far from the only factor in the virus's resurgence in Europe. In Greece, which is now experiencing its highest daily case numbers of the pandemic, a civil protection official said this week that 83 per cent of positive cases are coming from local transmission, not incoming travellers.

But Gkikas Magiorkinis, an epidemiologist who is part of a Greek government coronavirus task force, said it is hard to "disentangle" tourism from other changes that help spread the virus. When tourists arrive, businesses open. People in vacation mode let down their guard.

"We see an increase of transmission in popular touristic destinations, but it is not dramatic," Magiorkinis said.

Throughout the summer, Greek officials have instituted random testing of incoming visitors, with the hopes of swabbing 15% per cent to 20 per cent of those who arrive. The government has found 615 who tested positive. Magiorkinis said several thousand others may have entered the country carrying the virus undetected.

He said Greece had opened up for tourism in a "relatively safe" manner. But this week, it tightened some restrictions on daily life on the holiday island of Mykonos and in Halkidiki, a northern resort region, due to an increase in cases linked to those areas. No more than four people can sit to a table at restaurants, and masks are mandatory both indoors and out. Earlier this month, Greece mandated that bars and restaurants in some tourist hot spots shutter at midnight.

Italy, which was shunned by the world when it became the centre of the pandemic in March, at this point has one of the lowest infection rates in Europe. But travellers may now be reimporting the virus.

Officials noted that a portion of recent cases stemmed from Italian citizens or residents who went to other countries and tested positive upon return. This week, the news agency ANSA published a list of 28 Italian hot spots or clusters across the country; 11 were related to travel abroad, primarily to other countries in Europe. The country's national health institute found that 30 per cent of people who'd recently tested positive had contracted the virus abroad.

Italy last week announced that it would require tests for people coming from four countries - Malta, Greece, Croatia and Spain. All are seeing cases on a per capita basis several times higher than Italy.

"We must continue the line of caution to defend the results achieved in recent months," Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said.

"At the moment," said Walter Ricciardi, the World Health Organization's Italian government adviser, "the freedom of people to get around Europe should be limited according to the number of cases."

The Washington Post

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