As governments sought to stop the rapidly rising tide of coronavirus cases that are beginning to fill European hospitals, Germany and France were bracing for new lockdowns on Wednesday.
French markets opened up lower expectations that during a televised evening address to the nation, President Emmanuel Macron will announce tough measures.
Doctors in France are calling on the government to impose a new nationwide lockdown, noting that COVID-19 patients are now occupied by more than half of the country's intensive care units and medical personnel is under increasing strain.
On a map representing COVID cases from the European Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, most parts of France were colored deep red, signifying more than 240 cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks. The nation had a large spike in the number of daily deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday alone, recording an additional 523 deaths and another 33,417 new infections.
Similarly, high infection rates are observed in Belgium, the Netherlands, most of Spain, and the Czech Republic, while Germany was still colored in orange, indicating that the average number of new cases over the last 14 days is still below 120 per 100,000.
Nevertheless, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the governors of the 16 states of the country to agree quickly to a partial lockdown on Wednesday, which could include further restrictions on public meetings and the closure of bars and restaurants.
The plan caused anguish in the hospitality industry in Germany, with thousands of venue owners staging a protest at the landmark Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Wednesday to demand further government financial support.
Although Germany has fared better during the pandemic than many of its neighboring European countries, officials warn that it, too, is starting to lose control of the situation.
In order to avoid dealing with a second serious blow to companies, economists said further restrictions need to be carefully calibrated.
"As we have seen, a national lockdown ravages the economy and would add significant complications to the ongoing economic recovery," said Fiona Cincotta, an analyst at GAIN Capital, an online trading company.
But Thomas Gitzel, chief economist of the VP Bank Group of Liechtenstein, said that a temporary lockdown could be less harmful than a prolonged slump in consumer spending because the level of infection remains stubbornly high.
"One doesn't need to be a virologist to conclude that the number of new daily infections is likely to increase without further restrictions," said Gitzel, adding that a short, strict lockdown could be effective. "The strict containment measures laid the ground for an economically successful summer in March and April."
With a 17-day lockdown in which people can not even drive to England from their region, Wales has opted for that short, sharp approach.
Officials in Germany reported that the authorities in the neighboring Czech Republic had failed to maintain their springtime anti-virus achievements, saying that they had opened up too widely in the summer.
The Czech Ministry of Health said the daily case increase in the country hit a new record high of 15,663 on Tuesday, as much as Germany, which has eight times the population.
The Czech government has tightened its laws further, imposing a national curfew between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. It began on Wednesday. It has previously restricted free movement, closed shops, schools, and restaurants, made it compulsory to wear face masks indoors and outdoors, and banned sports competitions, but the number of infections has continued to increase.
In the capital of Prague, several demonstrations against virus restrictions were scheduled for Wednesday.
Even Sweden, which has avoided a national lockdown and has generally imposed far lighter measures than other European countries, is now urging people to avoid shopping malls and stores and to stay away from public transport.
The World Health Organization said that last week, more than 2 million confirmed cases of coronavirus were reported, the shortest time ever for such an exponential rise.
It stated that the European region accounted for the largest proportion of new cases for the second consecutive week, with more than 1.3 million cases, or about 46 percent of the worldwide total. In Europe, deaths were also on the rise, the UN Health Agency said, with an increase of about 35 percent from the previous week. Overall, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, Europe has seen more than 250,000 virus-related deaths.
The WHO also noted that hospitalizations and ICU occupancy have increased in 21 countries throughout Europe due to COVID-19.