Europe Reopens After Lockdown to the Familiar and Alien

Europe is emerging from a monthslong lockdown. But the universe in which Europeans are resurfacing is neither the reality they knew, nor an entirely new one.

Cafe chairs are back on the sidewalks, but the baristas are wearing masks. The chefs have returned to the kitchens, but the diners are divided by plexiglass. At the airports, the terminals are still empty, the tourists nowhere in sight.

Laetitia Vancon, a photojournalist for The New York Times, spent two weeks in late May and early June photographing this peculiar and fleeting moment in European history, working alongside me, a Times reporter. We drove through six European countries, trying to capture a world that teetered on the lip of normality but often toppled into the surreal.

At a deserted hotel in Prague, we found a forgotten chess board, its pieces abandoned mid-game. It felt much as Europe itself did — paused in time, bereft of people and purpose.

In a parking lot that night, we watched something that edged toward normalcy, but fell just short: A group of actors prepared a stage set — but then performed to an audience of cars.

It was only a simulacrum of reality, an approximation hovering “between what we had before,” one theatergoer mused, “and what we have to come.”

Live theater was back, but the theatergoers were cocooned behind their windshields.

There were no tourists in Prague’s medieval core. The bars were closed. By law, everyone had to wear masks.

Yet the next morning, the world stirred. Overnight, the mask rule had been relaxed. Businesses started to reopen.

The chess pieces were beginning to move again.

In Amsterdam, the lockdown was as revealing as an ebbing tide — rushing out to sea to leave behind a beach covered in flotsam.

In the city’s main red-light district, the lockdown had emptied the area, revealing the contours and nuances of streets that would usually be crammed with tourists.

Stranded on the sand were the sex workers themselves, in many cases now destitute.

“No photos of sex workers,” said the signs on the brothels. “Fine: 95 euros.”

But apart from Ms. Vancon, there was no one with a camera.

It was almost startling to find people drinking outside.

The lights were still on in the red-light district, but the doors were mostly locked.

In Germany, restaurants had just reopened, and the waiters worried whether the diners would see their smiles. A sommelier wondered how he would smell the wine.

An orchestra was back up and running, but performing to only one listener at a time.

And pursuits that once were banal — enjoying a coffee in the sun, or a dinner with friends — were now joyous, surprising and even tinged with danger.

“Now you can sit outside again?” marveled a Polish tour guide in disbelief, sipping coffee with a friend for the first time in months.

“So strange to see,” his companion said.

In Schüttorf, a small German town near the Dutch border, a nightclub hosted guests. But the clubbers had to stay in their cars.

They were allowed outside only to visit the bathroom.

Unlike in other parts of Europe, almost no one wore masks in Denmark. Dancers embraced each other by the side of a canal, as if the pandemic had never happened.

But beneath this veneer, some routines were still restricted.

In an industrial wasteland in northern Copenhagen, a family of churchgoers said their prayers from the comfort of their car, as their pastor preached to them in a parking lot. As in Prague and Schüttorf, communities were coming together again, but still divided by their windshields.

Yet what seemed strange earlier in our journey now seemed almost predictable. This was a world in which the familiar sometimes felt unexpected — while something as unexpected as a drive-in church was now beginning to feel familiar.

On a beach in eastern Copenhagen, it felt surreal to find something as normal as a sunbather.

Or, in a western suburb, to stumble across two sparring boxers.

In Geneva, the wealthy were back at the bistros and bars, but the lives of the poorest had been immeasurably damaged.

After losing their jobs during the lockdown, thousands were lining up for hours for a food handout — in one of the world’s richest cities.

Yet if this reality felt new and strange, in many ways it wasn’t.

The pandemic had simply made visible an underclass that had always existed beneath the surface.

Migrant workers have long lived in the housing projects on the city’s periphery. But many residents had previously chosen to ignore them.

Before the pandemic, these migrants often worked as cleaners and maids. Now they were jobless, relying on bags of donated food to survive.

But elsewhere in the city, residents rediscovered the joys of a Friday night.

The longer we traveled, the faster Europe seemed to accelerate.

Cars were back jamming the streets.

Chatter was returning to the classrooms.

  • Updated June 5, 2020

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

Protesters were reclaiming the squares.

And families were beginning to meet again.

In a village near the Danish-German border, we found a family reunited in celebration of a grandparent’s 88th birthday.

Borders were easing. Sophia Breuer returned by ferry to Germany, after visiting her mother in Denmark for the first time in months.

In Berlin, friends met again beside the Spree river.

In Belgium, an old distillery smelled as it must have done at its founding two centuries ago. The stench of alcohol floated down the street outside, an early hint of the gin being distilled within.

But even here, initial impressions deceived.

On this day, the distillery was actually turning the alcohol into hand sanitizer. In fact, every week the company now makes more disinfectant than gin — clinging onto its pre-pandemic identity, while adapting to the post-lockdown reality.

A nearby hotel also tried to bridge the old world with the new. It welcomed guests again, but only if they kept themselves to themselves. The dining room was closed, so this couple dined in isolation outside their room.

On a bridge connecting Belgium with Germany, cross-border traffic was picking up.

At a supermarket in northern Belgium, the cashiers found an alternative to the face mask.

Across the continent, Europeans were gradually adapting to the new reality.

Proximity felt less novel. Travel felt more predictable.

The normal felt almost normal again.

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