ROME — Customers in the Rome bookstore paid no attention to the circular stickers on the floor instructing them to stamp out COVID by maintaining “a distance of at least 1 meter.”
“These are things from the past,” said Silvia Giuliano, 45, who wore no mask as she browsed paperbacks. She described the red signs, with their crossed-out, spiky coronavirus spheres, as artifacts “like bricks of the Berlin Wall.”
All across Europe, faded stickers, signs and billboards stand as ghostly remnants of past struggles against COVID. But while the vestiges of the pandemic’s deadliest days are everywhere, so is the virus.
A common refrain heard throughout Europe is that everyone has COVID as the BA.5 omicron subvariant fuels an explosion of cases across the continent. Governments, however, are not cracking down, including in the previously strictest nations, in large part because they are not seeing a significant uptick in severe cases, nor crowded intensive care units, nor waves of death. And Europeans have clearly concluded they have to live with the virus.
Seats bearing faded blue social-distancing signs urging Paris Metro riders to keep this spot free are almost always taken. Droves of unmasked Germans pass by tattered signs in stores and restaurants reading “Maskenpflicht,” or mask requirement. In a construction materials store north of Madrid, the cashier walks the aisles without a mask before sitting behind a window of Plexiglas. On a recent day in Caffè Sicilia in Noto, Sicily, the feet of three different people stood in a single “Keep Safe Distance” circle as they clamored over cannoli.
And many people are traveling again, both within Europe and from outside its borders, bringing much-needed tourist money to nations desperate to bolster their economies.
“This is the way it is,” said Andrea Crisanti, a professor of microbiology who served as a top consultant to Italian leaders during the coronavirus emergency. One silver lining, he said, was that summer infections would create more immunity for the traditionally more difficult winter months. But letting the virus circulate at such enormous levels, he said, also created a “moral duty” on the part of governments to protect the elderly and otherwise vulnerable who remained at risk of serious disease despite vaccination.
“We need to change our paradigm. I don’t think the measures aimed at reducing transmission have any future,” he said, listing reasons including social exhaustion with restrictions, greater acceptance of risk, and the biology of a virus had become so infectious that “there is nothing that can stop it.”
That seems the case everywhere in Europe, where officials take solace in the apparently low incidence of serious disease and death, even as some experts worry about the toll on the vulnerable, the possibility that routine infection could lead to long COVID and the increased potential for mutations leading to more dangerous versions of the virus. The “element of randomness” that generated the new mutations was “concerning,” said Christophe Fraser, a public health researcher at the University of Oxford. Across Britain, COVID cases have tripled or more since late May, according to a survey run by the country’s Office of National Statistics.
“Infections are showing no signs of decreasing, with rates approaching levels last seen in March this year at the peak of the omicron BA.2 wave,” said Sarah Crofts, who heads the analytical team for the statistics office. Hospitalizations have more than quadrupled since May, according to government data. But deaths caused by the virus, while on the rise, were not approaching the levels recorded at the start of the year.
“Overall, from a public health perspective, we need to remain vigilant, but this isn’t a cause to reverse course,” said Neil Ferguson, a public health researcher at Imperial College London.
Some shifts have taken place. In April, Europe’s drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency, gave advice that second booster shots would only be needed for those older than 80, at least until there was “a resurgence of infections.” On July 11, it decided that moment had arrived, recommending second booster shots for everyone older than 60 and all vulnerable people.
“This is how we protect ourselves, our loved ones and our vulnerable populations,” the European commissioner for health and food safety, Stella Kyriakides, said in a statement. “There is no time to lose.”
Across Europe, authorities are trying to strike a balance between reassurance and complacency. In Germany, the Robert Koch Institute, the federal organization responsible for tracking the virus, has said “there is no evidence” that the BA.5 iteration of the virus is more lethal, but the country’s health minister, Karl Lauterbach, has shared tweets posted by a hospital doctor in the German city of Darmstadt saying that his clinic’s COVID ward was fully occupied with severely symptomatic patients.
Germany’s vaccine board has yet to update its advice on a fourth shot, which recommends a second booster only for those older than 70 and at-risk patients.
In France, where an average of 83,000 cases a day have been reported in the last week, about one-third more than a month ago, the health minister, François Braun, has steered away from new restrictions. He told RTL radio last week that “we have decided to bet on the responsibility of the French” as he recommended wearing masks in crowded places and encouraged a second vaccine booster dose for the most vulnerable people.
He has seemed confident that France, where nearly 80% of people are fully vaccinated, and its hospitals, could weather the new wave of infections and has focused more on collecting data to track the virus. “Minimal but necessary measures” were the right approach, Braun recently told the law commission of France’s Parliament. Last week, a proposal to give the government continued powers to require proof of vaccination or of a negative coronavirus test when entering France failed to pass the parliament.
In Spain, where the vaccination rate is above 85% and more than half the eligible population have received a booster, the pandemic has felt like an afterthought as Spaniards reverted to their usual beach holidays and eagerly welcomed tourists. Officials, encouraged by the low occupancy of intensive care wards, said monitoring the situation would suffice.
Not everyone was satisfied.
“We’ve forgotten practically everything,” said Rafael Vilasanjuan, director of Policy and Global Development at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, a research body.
But other parts of Europe were even more hands-off. In the Czech Republic, where there are no restrictions at all, including in hospitals, the virus is running rampant, and officials openly predict an increasing spike in cases. “The current wave copies trends in other European countries that are a few weeks ahead of us, and they have not seen any major impact on their health system,” said a deputy health minister, Josef Pavlovic.
Bars and restaurants and movie theaters were full in Denmark, where cases are up 11% in the last two weeks, including hundreds of people at a music festival this month. “The figures are positive; no more people are getting seriously ill from the new variant,” Soren Brostrom, director-general of the Danish Health Authority, said in a statement.
The Danish Health Authority expects a spread of infections in the fall and plans to offer booster shots then.
In Italy, the first Western country to face the full force of the virus, reports of new cases have climbed steadily since mid-June, although they fell in the past week. The average daily number of deaths more than doubled over the past month, but hospitals have not been overwhelmed. The health minister, Roberto Speranza, announced that the country would follow the European regulator’s recommendation to offer a second COVID-19 booster shot to everyone older than 60 — not only those older than 80 and vulnerable patients.
“In the present situation, you need to implement an integrated policy to protect the vulnerable people who, in spite of the vaccination, still are at risk of developing severe, severe disease,” said Crisanti, the former consultant to Italian leaders on the virus, who lamented what he said was a still enormous number of deaths every day from an infectious disease.
He predicted that over time, as vulnerable older people died, deaths caused by the virus would fall, and the virus would become increasingly endemic. He said the immune systems of people who age into the 70- to 90-year-old age bracket in the future would have memories of and protection against the virus.
At that point, the tattered signs of Europe’s struggle with COVID would truly belong to another era. In the meantime, though, another woman in the Roman bookstore, this one in an N95 mask, worried that the stickers under her feet would become relevant again.
“Reality,” she said, “goes faster than laws.”