LONDON — Europe’s internal borders, closed three months ago in a frenzy of panicked uncertainty, are opening again. The uncertainty remains even if the sense of panic has eased.
In the delicate global stutter-step to restart stalled economies and save whole industries from financial ruin, the return of free movement of people across the continent is a significant moment — one fraught with risk as new coronavirus infections surge around the world.
France, Germany and Switzerland were among the nations that lifted restrictions on Monday for all arrivals from nations in the European Union or the border-free Schengen zone. They joined Italy, Belgium and other countries in trying to move to a new phase in the struggle to balance public health imperatives, economic realities and shifting public attitudes.
To help people navigate rules that vary from nation to nation, the European Commission launched “Re-open EU,” a site dedicated to information on travel to and within European countries, including quarantine requirements and tourist facilities.
For Europe, lifting internal border restrictions has important financial implications and deep symbolic resonance. Open borders — free from checkpoints and armed soldiers checking papers — have long been at the heart of the European project to build a continent that is unified, free and at peace.
It took decades of diplomacy and the end of the Cold War to achieve. But by the time the pandemic hit, frictionless travel had been a reality for so long — almost 25 years — that it was easy to take for granted.
Then, almost overnight, borders were closed tight. They are opening now even as the virus remains deeply embedded in Europe.
Of the roughly 8 million known infections and over 430,000 confirmed Covid-19 deaths worldwide, some 2 million cases and more than 170,000 deaths have been in Europe.
In March, the authorities across the continent shut down most travel and public life, cutting off human contact and dramatically slowing the spread of the virus. Most of the places hit hardest have seen significant declines in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Now they are lifting those restrictions as new cases surge in Latin America, India and Pakistan, and nearly two dozen states in the United States report spikes in cases. Public health officials have warned that new waves of infections are likely as public life returns.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, speaking to the nation on Sunday, declared a “first victory” against the virus and said all business could resume this week.
The cafes in Paris are open again, and people across France will be able to dine inside restaurants, not just on outdoor terraces. But Mr. Macron cautioned that it would not be business as usual.
“The summer of 2020 will be a summer unlike any other,” he said. “We will need to watch the evolution of the epidemic to be prepared in case it comes back with renewed strength.”
“We didn’t have the time to prepare everything,” said Laurent Blouard, 51, the owner of Café Benjamin near Châtelet, in central Paris, citing the need to bring employees back from state-paid furloughs and to rearrange tables for social distancing. “We shut down overnight and we reopened overnight.”
At Café de la Comédie, in the touristic heart of Paris, near the Louvre museum, there was no one inside. The theater across the street was still closed — spaces like cinemas and concert halls aren’t scheduled to reopen until June 22.
“I’m relieved, but clients are missing,” said Yohan Legendre, a 45-year-old waiter at the cafe.
The steady decline in infections in Belgium has led some people to feel comfortable enough to say hello with “la bise” — a kiss on the cheek.
“Most of our regular customers are back, and they want to say hello by giving me ‘la bise,’” said Silvia Mihaylova, the manager of Addict Bar in Brussels. “It seems like people really don’t care anymore.”
As governments try to guard public health while staving off economic collapse, they are confronting populations tired and frustrated after months of isolation and fear.
Britain was among the last countries in Europe to close down commerce. It has also been one of the last to tentatively allow shops to reopen — with caveats.
On Monday, the clothing stores opened, but the fitting rooms remain closed. Bookstores allow browsing, but any item touched and not bought must be put in “quarantine” to ensure no virus lives on its surface. Dealers in higher-end jewelry are using ultraviolet boxes to decontaminate diamond bracelets and gold necklaces.
For the first time, all people using public transportation in England were required on Monday to wear face coverings.
Restaurants, pubs and gyms all remain closed. While Britain never closed its borders, it requires a 14-day quarantine of anyone entering the country, except those arriving from Ireland.
But many Londoners seem to have cast aside social distancing. Even before the opening of stores on Monday, people packed into parks and streets outside pubs selling beer from their storefronts — much like the scenes of carefree crowds in New York City over the weekend, which led Gov. Andrew Cuomo to warn that lockdowns could be reinstated if rules continued to be flouted.
In Berlin, it has been a more orderly return to public life. Electric scooters again dodge through cars and bicycles along the city’s main thoroughfare, called Street of June 17, near the Brandenburg Gate. People are once again sunning themselves — with and without clothes — in the Tiergarten park, which was largely left to the foxes, rabbits and geese during the lockdown.
With the number of new infections steadily declining and outbreaks largely isolated, daily life in Berlin looks pretty normal, save for the masks worn by wait staff in restaurants and anyone in stores, busses and trains.
For Europe’s prime summer travel destinations, a race to lure back tourists has picked up speed. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece traveled to Santorini over the weekend to make a personal plea.
“We are opening up to visitors, but we are doing it with your safety as our utmost priority,” he told reporters as the sun set over the island’s famed but eerily empty beaches.
Spanish officials have watched anxiously as Greece pushed ahead with plans to reopen, and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced this weekend that Spain would lift its quarantine order for visitors on June 21, the same day it will reopen the border with France. The border with Portugal will reopen on July 1.
Since Spain eased its lockdown, there have been a few small, local spikes in infections, often traced back to specific events, including a celebratory luncheon organized within one of Madrid’s main hospitals.
The rules remain tighter in Madrid and Barcelona than in other parts of the country, and the real test will come as they are eased.
Many people, however, are not waiting for official permission. The beaches of Barcelona were recently as packed as if it were a normal summer — until the authorities clamped down again.
“Everybody is fed up with the lockdown and wants to return to normal life as quickly as possible,” said José Martínez, a cafe owner in the southern city of Seville, as he wiped down outdoor tables with disinfectant. “But you can certainly bet that nobody will take responsibility if the result is another wave.”
Reporting was contributed by Melissa Eddy in Berlin, Raphael Minder in Seville, Aurelien Breeden and Théophile Larcher in Paris, Niki Kitsantonis in Athens, Monika Pronczuk and Julia Echikson in Brussels, and Elisabetta Povoledo in Rome.