SJAELLANDS ODDE, Denmark — Aboard a ferry heading to Denmark’s second-largest city Friday, Allan Hjorth stood out. He was one of just a few passengers to wear a mask, while hundreds of others left their faces uncovered, enjoying the end of COVID-19 restrictions announced a few days earlier.
“The mere fact of wearing a mask makes people feel that something is wrong,” Hjorth said. He took his own off after a few seconds and added, “And we, in Denmark, want to believe that we are going back to normal.”
Nearly two years into the pandemic, “normal” looks like this in one of the world’s most prosperous nations: 5.8 million people live free of COVID restrictions, even though nearly 1% of them tested positive for the coronavirus in a single day last week. The country is reporting one of the world’s highest COVID-19 cases per capita, and hospitalizations have reached an all-time high.
But the government declared that as of Feb. 1, it would no longer consider COVID a “socially critical disease” and dropped all restrictions, including a mask mandate in closed spaces and on public transportation.
With the current surge of infections, it may seem counterintuitive to lift restrictions, but the country’s authorities say that deaths and hospitalizations are rising much more slowly than COVID cases and that the number of patients in intensive care units is at its lowest level in months.
Magnus Heunicke, Denmark’s health minister, said the country was not moving past the pandemic. But he said it was the right moment to benefit from omicron’s seeming mildness and the country’s high vaccination rate; 81% of the entire population has been fully vaccinated, and 62% have received an additional shot.
“We promised people that as soon as we could, we would open up,” Heunicke said in an interview. “But if there’s a new variant, if we learn that vaccines aren’t as effective, we will not hesitate to do what’s necessary. That’s the contract.”
While many European nations have slowly walked away from coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions, Nordic countries are generally moving faster. Norway also dropped nearly all restrictions this month, including mandatory remote working, limits on serving alcohol and a ban on amateur sports. Sweden is expected to follow Wednesday.
“Everyone knows that there will be new waves of coronavirus infections next fall or in the winter,” said Espen Nakstad, assistant director of Norway’s Directorate of Health. “But it does not help to worry ahead.”
The end of restrictions in Denmark, welcomed by the country’s top health experts and praised by the population, could help herald a future in which rich countries can afford “living with the virus,” as long as they have high vaccination rates, huge testing capacities and strong health data infrastructure.
There is no guarantee that the next variant of concern might be as mild as omicron for most, virus experts say, warning that Denmark’s reopening could soon backfire.
On Saturday, thousands flocked to Copenhagen’s nightclubs, which reopened last week for the first time in nearly two months. Teenagers on their way to a motorcycle racing show gathering 7,000 people indoors in central Denmark said they risked little because they had COVID over the Christmas holidays.
And on the ferry to Aarhus, Hjorth, 70, said he would not wear a mask at the party he was headed to later in the evening.
In Denmark, the coronavirus is everywhere, yet streets, cafes and shops are full. Tens of thousands have to isolate because they tested positive, but employees are back in offices, and bars and restaurants are no longer required to close at 11 p.m. anymore or ask for proof of vaccination.
Troels Lillebaek, director of the Copenhagen-based Statens Serum Institute, said the reopening would most likely lead to a peak of infections in mid-February but that authorities were mostly focusing on the number of hospitalizations, not cases.
Some have called the strategy risky. Stephen Griffin, an associate professor in virology at the University of Leeds in England, said that although the links between infections and severe outcomes were weakened in Denmark, deaths and ICU capacity should not be the only factors to be considered.
“Just because there are enough beds for sick patients,” Griffin said, “surely the aim must be to stop them being ill in the first place?”
Dr. Jens Lundgren, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Copenhagen, said that to control the current surge of infections, Denmark would have had to impose enormous restrictions that would not have been proportionate to the health threat. “So we essentially let the omicron epidemic roll.”
Denmark was among the first countries in Europe to impose a lockdown in 2020, even as it was not among the most affected by the pandemic. It has moved in and out of restrictions, adopting a flexible approach praised by the population.
Although some controversies have affected the government’s popularity, including the killing of 17 million minks because of fears of a mutation in the virus, trust in authorities has remained high.
“We didn’t even need to consider mandatory vaccinations,” said Heunicke, the health minister. “It’s a really good place to be in, I know that.”
At a nightclub packed with hundreds of partygoers Saturday, Sara Vang, 20, said many young people had embraced living with the virus. She said she had a high fever and at times struggled to breathe when she got infected earlier this year, even after receiving three doses of a vaccine. But she added, “Having COVID with bad symptoms feels part of what is now normal too, unfortunately.”
Others, like Hjorth on the ferry, argued that authorities could have kept mask mandates on public transportation or that a slower reopening approach would have reassured them.
“They have left it to us to get infected,” said Ingrid Fensteen, an 82-year-old Copenhagen resident.
A record number of people have been hospitalized in recent weeks — 1,294 as of Monday. Denmark, which still has among the lowest COVID death rates in Europe, is now registering more COVID deaths than in the first weeks of the pandemic, on par with figures registered in February last year.
But 31 people are in intensive care units, the lowest level since November. Lillebaek noted that those hospitalized with the coronavirus were being discharged more quickly than during the previous waves of infections.
Michael Bang Petersen, a professor of political science at Aarhus University who conducts an interdisciplinary study on the public perception of the pandemic, said the Danes were perceiving the lowest level of threat since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Omicron has turned the epidemiological situation into a Rorschach test where you can see what you want to see in it,” he said.
Heunicke said that large sections of the country’s population now had some immunity and that the goal was to avoid any new lockdown by next winter. But he said that the current strategy may not be sustainable, as it relies on costly testing capacities that even Denmark may not be able to afford in the long term.
Griffin, the professor of virology in Leeds, said Denmark had been in a better position than Britain or the United States to ease restrictions. Still, he said, “I hope that they don’t pay a price for not holding their nerve for a few more weeks.”