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EU Locks Down Borders As France, Germany Tighten Restrictions To Control Coronavirus

Check-in lines are empty at Frankfurt Airport as airlines are affected by travel bans related to the spread of the coronavirus on Monday.
Thomas Lohnes
Getty Images
Check-in lines are empty at Frankfurt Airport as airlines are affected by travel bans related to the spread of the coronavirus on Monday.

Updated at 5:52 p.m. ET

The European Union is locking down its borders, imposing a 30-day entry ban on nonessential travel for non-EU citizens to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the measure Tuesday night, saying people in the member nations can still move freely between those countries.

The ban went into effect immediately.

While the primary goal is to contain the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus in both directions, officials also said it is aimed at reducing pressure on health systems.

There are to the ban a handful of exceptions, which include, citizens of Norway, Switzerland, Great Britain, and Andorra, as well as third-country nationals with long term residence rights in an EU country.

The move is the most draconian taken so far by the 27 EU nations in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the epicenter of which is now in Europe, according to the World Health Organization.

There are more than 76,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 inside Europe, with more than 3,000 people dead. Worldwide, the number of cases has pushed past 190,000 and the death toll is nearing 8,000.

EU leaders have also promised all available aid to the European economy. In a separate meeting with Turkish officials, Chancellor Merkel agreed to increase funds for the care of refugees in Turkey.

Germany and France, among the hardest-hit countries in the region, had already imposed new restrictions on their citizens aimed at increasing social distancing.

The EU's extraordinary measure reverses an earlier reluctance in European capitals and follow the example of the United States, where President Trump last week ordered a ban on entry of non-U.S. citizens from nearly all EU countries. Days later, Trump added Ireland and the United Kingdom to the travel-ban list.

Meanwhile, in China — the original epicenter of the epidemic which peaked there less than five weeks ago with a whopping 14,000 new infections reported in a single day — marked a milestone in its efforts to contain the virus, saying Tuesday that it had just one new case.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed the ban on unnecessary travel into the bloc on Tuesday. The EC is also asking the four non-EU member states which are part of the Schengen free-travel zone to participate.

"The less travel, the more we can contain the virus," she said.

In a national television address on Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron said the move meant that all trips between EU and non-EU countries "will be suspended."

Macron said the earlier closing of schools, cafes and non-essential shops had not been properly heeded by the French people. He said the tougher measures in France, which has seen more than 6,600 cornavirus infections and nearly 150 deaths in recent weeks, was unprecedented in peacetime, declaring, "We are in a health war."

"Even while medics were warning about the gravity of the situation, we saw people get together in the parks, busy markets and restaurants and bars that did not respect the order to close," he said.

He outlined stricter enforcement, warning that those who failed to comply would be punished with a fine up to 135 euros ($150). The tougher measures would be in place for at least 15 days, he said. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said 100,000 police would be charged with enforcing the crackdown.

"I know what I am asking of you is unprecedented but circumstances demand it," Macron said. "We're not up against another army or another nation. But the enemy is right there: invisible, elusive, but it is making progress."

The French president said the government would introduce a measure in parliament to guarantee 300 billion euros in loans to prop up businesses hurt by the pandemic. He said rent and utility bills owed by small businesses would be suspended.

"No French company, whatever its size, will be exposed to the risk of collapse," Macron said.

Germany, which reported 1,000 new infections in a 24-hour period, bringing the total to more than 7,000, with 17 deaths, announced Monday the closure of its borders with neighbors France, Austria, Luxembourg, Denmark and Switzerland.

Schools had already been shut down, but Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday ordered a ban on religious services and the closing of most shops other than grocery stores. She told Germans to cancel their travel plans.

"The better everyone sticks to these rules, the faster we'll get through this phase," Merkel said at a news conference in Berlin, according to the BBC.

Government spokesperson Ulrike Demmer told reporters: "We have a window of time at the moment to slow the spread of the virus."

In a further indication of the new and unprecedented nature of the global coronavirus pandemic, Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte appeared in a televised address to the nation, the first premier to do so since 1973.

"There is no easy or quick way out of this extremely difficult situation," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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