Easter amid coronavirus leaves churches empty as Christians celebrate at a distance

BARCELONA, Spain — Christians around the world celebrated Easter at a distance on Sunday, with most churches closed and family gatherings canceled amid wide-ranging coronavirus shutdowns. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the first major world leader to test positive for the virus, was released from the hospital after a week but is not immediately returning to work.

Southern Europe and the United States, whose death toll of over 20,600 is now the world’s highest, have been the recent focal points of the pandemic. But coronavirus hot spots have been shifting constantly and new concerns are rising in Japan, Turkey and Britain, where the death toll surpassed 10,000.

Uncertainties loomed about the months ahead, with a top European Union official suggesting people hold off on making any summer vacation plans.

St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, where tens of thousands would normally gather to hear Pope Francis deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” speech and blessing “to the city and the world,” was empty of crowds, ringed by police barricades. Francis celebrated Easter Mass inside the largely vacant basilica, with the faithful watching on TV at home.

Similar scenes played out around the world. With houses of worship shut by the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, celebrated an Easter service from his kitchen in London for his flock of 85 milliion worldwide.

In Europe, countries used roadblocks, fines and other tactics to keep people from traveling over an Easter weekend with beautiful spring weather. As hard-hit countries like Italy and Spain see reduced daily virus infections and deaths, economic pressures are mounting to loosen the tight restrictions on daily life to fight off the pandemic.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told his compatriots in a rare televised address: “Every one of you has changed his life radically; every one of you has saved human lives in doing so and is saving more every day.”

When and how the restrictions are loosened is something that “all of us have … in our hands, with our patience and our discipline,” he said.

Some European nations are starting tentative moves to ease their shutdowns. Spain, which on Sunday reported its lowest daily growth in infections in three weeks, will allow workers in some nonessential industries to return to factories and construction sites Monday.

But much uncertainty remains. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in an open letter to Austrians that the virus will “be with us for months yet.”

And asked by Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper whether people should book summer holidays, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen replied: “I would advise waiting with such plans.”

“No one can make reliable forecasts for July and August at the moment,” she said.

Restaurants and bars have already missed out on holiday business.

“Sales are zero and we have a series of expenses: rent, stock, and we have even had to increase spending with security personnel to prevent robberies,” said Pablo Gonzalo, a bar manager in the southern Spanish city of Malaga.

In his Easter address, the pope called for global solidarity to confront the “epochal challenge” of the pandemic. Francis urged political leaders to give hope and opportunity to the millions laid off work.

“This is not a time for self-centeredness, because the challenge we are facing is shared by all, without distinguishing between persons,” he said.

In Spain, churches rang their bells at noon to echo the pope’s message of comfort to the victims of the pandemic and to offer hope.

In Italy, Premier Giuseppe Conte thanked people for their sacrifices in fighting the virus, and acknowledged that many families are suffering the loss of loved ones as they celebrate Easter with empty places at the table.

“Together, we will make it,” Conte said in a Facebook post.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older people and the infirm, it can cause severe symptoms and lead to death.

More than 1.79 million infections have been reported and 110,000 people have died worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has the highest numbers, with over 530,000 confirmed cases. The figures certainly understate the true size and toll of the pandemic, due to limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and some governments’ desire to play down the extent of outbreaks.

While some nations think about a pandemic exit strategy, others are dealing with alarming rises in infections or deaths.

Turkey took many by surprise in imposing a partial weekend lockdown after previously taking a more relaxed approach. A sudden Friday evening announcement of a 48-hour curfew in 31 cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, prompted crowds to rush to grocery stores.

The country had previously imposed a curfew on those under 20 and over 65, exempting most of the workforce to keep its beleaguered economy on track.

In Japan, emergency medical groups warned that health care facilities are getting stretched thin, and masks and surgical gowns were running short amid a surge in patients.

The Israeli government approved a tight quarantine of several areas of Jerusalem, including the historic Old City, to slow the spread of the virus in its most susceptible neighborhoods.

Britain’s virus death toll passed the 10,000 mark, the fourth European country to do so, after steep rises in recent days.

Ahead of his release Sunday from St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, Johnson paid an emotional tribute to the National Health Service workers who treated him. He spent a week in the hospital, including three nights in the intensive care unit.

“I can’t thank them enough. I owe them my life,” said Johnson, 55, said in his first public statement since he was moved out of intensive care Thursday evening.

His office said he will continue his recovery at Chequers, the prime minister’s country home.

In the United States, about half the deaths are in the New York metropolitan area, but hospitalizations are slowing in the state and other indicators suggest that lockdowns and social distancing are “flattening the curve” of infections.

New York state reported 783 more deaths, for a total of over 8,600. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the daily number of deaths is stabilizing, “but stabilizing at a horrific rate.”

“What do we do now? We stay the course,” said Cuomo, who like other leaders has warned that relaxing restrictions too soon could enable the virus to come back with a vengeance.

In the Midwest, pockets of contagion have alarmed local leaders and led to stricter enforcement.

Nearly 300 inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago have tested positive for the virus, and two have died. The county has set up a temporary morgue that can take more than 2,000 bodies.

Wisconsin health officials expect to see an increase in virus cases after thousands went to the polls Tuesday to vote in the state’s primary election.

Twenty-four residents of an Indiana nursing home hit by COVID-19 have died, while a nursing home in Iowa saw 14 deaths.

The U.S. government has not released a count of coronavirus deaths in nursing homes, but an Associated Press tally indicates at least 2,500 people linked to the virus have died in U.S. nursing homes and long-term care facilities.


Moulson reported from Berlin. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed.


Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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